Friday, October 31

Six Ways To Begin A Story

Six Ways To Begin A Story

Openings are frustrating. At least for me. So much is riding on them. Often, if you don’t catch your reader’s interest with the first sentence their eye will wander.

It seems to me there are 6 general kinds of openings. I’m sure you could make a case for their being 5 or 7 or some other number, but I’m going to hold firm—for now at least—with 6.

Let’s start with ...


Some stories open by describing the story world. For example:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

That is the first line of, that’s right, “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien. This sentence is about where and who, there isn’t even a trace, a smidgeon, of conflict. 

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

That’s the first line from William Gibson’s “Neuromancer.” Again, no visible conflict.

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

You likely recognize that sentence, it’s the first sentence from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s novel “Paul Clifford.” This sentence is famous, or infamous, for being the epidomy of what one does not want to do when it comes to descriptive openings. I think the sentence begins all right (but then and again I’m a fan of dark and story nights) but then it meanders somewhat drunkenly toward the whimsically unconnected. 

So, having seen the good and the bad, why might we want to open with description? Two reasons.

A. The setting, the world, is why we’re interested in the story.

As Orson Scott Card mentions in his book “Characters & Viewpoint,” some stories are primarily about a milieu while others are primarily about characters, ideas or events. In Milieu stories we’re interested in the world at least as much—perhaps more—than we are the characters. Or, rather, the world is a character and it’s the one we’re the most interested in.

What we’re really interested in is the cultures of that world, the alien biologies, the customs, the inventions, the magic, and so on.

I’ve already mentioned the first line of “The Hobbit” (“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”) That’s information about the world, and it’s interesting information. My response as a child was, “What! Hobbits live in holes in the ground?! How cool is that. And what on earth is a hobbit?” Right from the beginning I was eager to learn about this universe.

Here’s another way of creeping up on the point I’ve been trying to make: If exploring the world is the whole point of the story, then it’s perfectly appropriate to alert people to this from the first sentence.

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that Gibson’s “Neuromancer” was a milieu story—I think it might be more of an idea story—but whatever the case (punny, punny)—the world that Gibson created was certainly creative and different and utterly captivating.

B. To establish a particular mood.

Charlie Jane Anders, author of the article, “How To Create A Killer Opening For Your Science Fiction Short Story,” writes:

“This [scene-setting] can be a workmanlike "Smith yawned and looked around his space capsule" thing. Or it can be a gorgeous literary flourish, that sets the mood and creates a strong image in the reader's mind at the start of the story.”

An example: The beginning of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” I wrote about this recently (On Breaking The Rules) because it breaks one of the canards of writing: Don’t begin a story with a character waking up. But Flynn does! And—as millions of satisfied readers will attest—it works beautifully.

Why? Because those opening paragraphs set the mood of the book. They anchor us within Nick’s psyche. Because they set the stage for what is to come. (And, last but certainly not least, because they were beautiful and powerful.)

That’s it for today! As I mentioned, this post is part of a planned series. Future posts will cover other sorts of openings.

Update: Here are links to the posts in this series:

1. Description (this post)
2. Conflict: What Is It Good For?
3. Puzzle Openings
4. Archetypal Openings
5. Character Driven Openings
6. Humorous Openings

Photo credit: "aussicht vom wilseder berg (169,2m)" by fRedi under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, October 29

On Using Symbols In Your Story

On Using Symbols In Your Story

What Is An Image System?

Before I talk about what an Image System is let’s look at an example of one in use. 

In Pierre Boileau’s novel Celle Qui N’etait Pau (later made into the movie Les Diabolique), Christina—the main character—is married to a sadist, Michel. Christina is rich, Michel is not. Michel has recently taken a mistress (Nicole) but instead of the wife and mistress hating each other they find solace in sharing their misery. Together they come up with a solution: kill Michel. They drown him and hide his body in a never-used swimming pool. 

But there’s a problem: the body disappears. Some time later Michel is seen at various windows and his image appears in the background of a recently taken picture.

The women are near hysterics. What is happening? Did they fail to kill Michel and he is doing this to try and drive them mad? Did someone else find the body and they are behind this? But why? To what purpose?

In the end, Nicole cannot take it any more and moves out, leaving the wife alone in a large empty building. Her heart, never strong, is stressed to the limit and when she sees—or believes she sees—her husband’s dead body floating in her bathtub she suffers a fatal heart attack. Seeing this, the husband hops out of the bath and Nicole pops out of the cabinet she’d been hiding in. They embrace. The end.

Water was the image, the symbol, used in this movie. In his analysis McKee writes:

“The opening titles of Les Diabolique look as if they’re over an abstract painting of grays and blacks. But suddenly, as titles end, a truck tire splashes from bottom to top of the screen and we realize we’ve been looking at the top angle view of a mud puddle. The camera comes up on a rainy landscape. From this first moment on, Image System “water” is continually and subliminally repeated. It’s always drizzly and foggy. condensation on windows runs in little drops to the sills. At dinner they eat fish. Characters drink wine and tea while Christina sips her heart medicine. When the teachers discuss summer vacation, they talk of going to the South of France to “take the waters.” Swimming pool, bathtubs... it’s one of the dampest films ever made.” 

External vs Internal Image Systems

There are, roughly, two kinds of image systems: external and internal. External images/symbols get their meaning from the outside and use them, unaltered. Internal images, on the other hand, get their meaning from the story itself. McKee writes:

“Internal Imagery takes a category that outside the film may or may not have a symbolic meaning attached but brings it into the film to give it an entirely new meaning appropriate to this film and this film alone.”

How To Pick An Image System

Stephen King, in On Writing, writes:

“I most often see chances to add the grace-notes and ornamental touches after my basic storytelling job is done. [...] Once it is, I’m able to kick back, read over what I’ve written, and look for underlying patterns. If I see some (and I almost always do), I can work at bringing them out in a second, more fully realized, draft of the story.”

For example:

“When I read Carrie over prior to starting the second draft, I noticed there was blood at all three crucial points of the story: beginning (Carrie’s paranormal ability is apparently brought on by her first menstrual period), climax (the prank which sets Carrie off at the prom involves a bucket of pig’s blood [...]), and end (Sue Snell, the girl who tries to help Carrie, discovers she is not pregnant as she had half-hoped and half-feared when she gets her own period).”

“[...] the significance of all that blood was hard to miss once I started reading over my beer- and tea-splattered first-draft manuscript. So I started to play with the idea, image, and emotional connotations of blood, trying to think of as many associations as I could. There were lots, most of them pretty heavy. Blood is strongly linked to the idea of sacrifice; for young women it’s associated with reaching physical maturity and the ability to bear children; in the Christian religion [...] it’s symbolic of both sin and salvation. Finally, it is associated with the handing down of family traits and talents. We are said to look like this or behave like that because “it’s in our blood.””

A Warning

Whatever kind of symbolism used it must not be obvious. Symbols work on the unconscious mind in something like the same way music does. McKee writes:

“The use of symbolism follows the same principle as scoring a film. Sound doesn’t need cognition, so music can deeply affect us when we’re unconscious of it. In the same way, symbols touch us and move us—as long as we don’t recognize them as symbolic. Awareness of a symbol turns it into a neutral, intellectual curiosity, powerless and virtually meaningless.”

That’s it! What symbols have you used in your work?

Photo credit: "snow patrol:make this go on forever" by Lali Masriera under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, October 28

What Makes A Story Terrifying?

What Makes A Story Terrifying?

I love Halloween. Always have. Perhaps that’s why I love a good horror story.

The first horror story I heard was a spine-tingling tale of betrayal and dismemberment told around a dying fire. I remember it like it was yesterday. The flames flickered lazily over black husks of logs and faintly illuminated the shadowed faces of my nearest and dearest. But then as I looked at them something happened. In the space between two heartbeats they appeared transformed, hollow, their darker halves exposed.

Then someone laughed uneasily and the spell was broken. The monsters—or at least my recognition of them—melted away, sinking into my unconscious were it remains, the fuel of nightmares. 

Mm-wha-ha-ha. ;-)

What Makes A Scary Story A Horror Story?

What are the essential bits of a scary story, one that makes us imagine horrors under the bed so vividly we dare not dangle our toes over the edge?

I’ve accepted a challenge to write a scary story (ideally under 1,000 words, but in my case that’s SO not happening) and post it this Saturday as part of a special #SaturdayScenes challenge

I’ve thought of a story, but I wondered: is this story scary? Or, to put it another way, even though this story of mine has scary bits, is it really a horror story. So I took my question to Google and came up with an answer courtesy of Stephen King:

“The three types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there …” [1]

The Gross-Out, The Horror, The Terror

Although I’m sure it’s not as simple as this, let’s say that as long as a story has at least one of these three in it—the gross-out, the horror or the terror—that the story can, without undue fear of contradiction, be called a horror story.

Of course a horror story is, above all, a story and so (all things being equal, which they never are) should have a protagonist who wants something desperately. There should also be a force—a person or monster or supernatural entity—that opposes her achieving her goal. And there should be stakes. For more on this see:

What is horror? Terror? What gives rise to those emotions?

Let’s return to discussing the horror story. I’ve been reading Stephen King lately to pick up a few pointers, mostly his tome on terror: Danse Macabre. He writes:

“I believe that we are all ultimately alone and that any deep and lasting human contact is nothing more or less than a necessary illusion [...] the feelings which we think of as “positive” and “constructive” are a reaching-out, an effort to make contact and establish some sort of communication.”

“Horror, terror, fear, panic: these are the emotions which drive wedges between us, split us off from the crowd, and make us alone.”

“The melodies of the horror tale are simple and repetitive, and they are melodies of disestablishment and disintegration... but another paradox is that the ritual outletting of these emotions seems to bring things back to a more stable and constructive state again.”

“The closest I want to come to definition or rationalization is to suggest that the genre exists on three more or less separate levels, each one a little less fine than the one before it. The finest emotion is terror, that emotion which is called up in the tale of [...] “The Monkey’s Paw.” We actually see nothing outright nasty [...] there is the paw, which, dried and mummified, can surely be no worse than those plastic dogturds on sale at any novelty shop. It’s what the mind sees that makes these stories such quintessential tales of terror.”

Terror is psychological. Mental. I’m reminded of a piece of flash fiction posted over at Creepypasta (that site is NOT safe to browse at work). Here’s the story, entitled "Bad Dreams":

‘Daddy, I had a bad dream.’

You blink your eyes and pull up on your elbows. Your clock glows red in the darkness — it’s 3:23. ‘Do you want to climb into bed and tell me about it?’

‘No, Daddy.’

The oddness of the situation wakes you up more fully. You can barely make out your daughter’s pale form in the darkness of your room. ‘Why not, sweetie?’

‘Because in my dream, when I told you about the dream, the thing wearing Mommy’s skin sat up.’

For a moment, you feel paralyzed; you can’t take your eyes off of your daughter. The covers behind you begin to shift. [2]

We don’t see anything horrific, there is no gore. The terror is that someone who we thought we knew well, someone who is intimately entwined with our life, isn’t who we thought they were. We have invited the dangerous outsider into our lives and now nothing is to stop them from doing their worst. 

Or, as in “The Monkey’s Paw,” the terror could be that someone we know and love has been, through no fault of their own, transformed into a dangerous outsider.

King concludes that, at its heart, terror is about “secrets best left untold and things best left unsaid.” And what does the writer of horror do? They “promise to tell us the secret.”

That’s it! I was going to say something about horror and ‘the gross out,’ but I think we’ve probably got a handle on both of those. Remember, good horror, like all good fiction, is about the truth inside the lie.


1. This quotation is attributed to Stephen King and it does read like something he would write. The Writer’s Digest article (The Horror Genre) doesn’t attribute the quotation to a specific work, but elsewhere it is said to come from King’s book “Danse Macabre,” which I can believe. After all, that book is King’s take on Horror, what it is, what it means, and so on. BUT I’ve searched my digital copy of the book and haven’t found it. I thought perhaps the quotation came from an updated version of the book but this morning I read the new forward to the 2010 edition in it’s entirety (courtesy of Google Books since I don’t want to buy the newer version) and didn’t find the quotation. Perhaps I simply missed it, but I thought I would note this minor mystery. If anyone comes upon the quotation in King’s work, I would appreciate it if you would tell me where it’s found. Thanks!

2. Creepypasta, over at

Photo credit: "Evil Min-ja" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, October 25

How To Coax Story Ideas Out Of Hiding

How To Coax Story Ideas Out Of Hiding

Ever been stuck for a plot? You wanted to write something but all your ideas fled, leaving you with what seemed like an infinite white field of nothing? I have! 

Here’s my theory: I think ideas tend to flee when we’re anxious or tense or feeling stressed. So something—anything—that helps us relax and not take our writing quite so seriously can be a gift from the gods. I’ve found idea generators can help me get into a playful mood and fill the idea-void.

NaNoWriMo & Idea Generators

In the early part of last century the only idea generators in existence were plot wheels; these days we click buttons rather than twirl disks, but it’s the same idea. (see: NaNoWriMo, Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason and Plot Wheels)

Personally, I think random idea generators have their place. Though I practically never use their suggestions, idea generators can help coax out our own ideas, ones that have been hiding in our unconscious mind.

The FIG Idea Generator

The FIG Idea Generator is based on William Wallace Cook’s book, Plotto. Published in 1928, Plotto was billed as “The master book of all plots.” (Unfortunately, FIG is only available through the Apple Store, but there is a site, Writing Exercises (, that has basically the same functions.)

FIG: An Example

Let’s take FIG for a twirl and see what kind of story skeleton we can create. FIG’s main screen presents one with a choice between selecting a random Masterplot, Plot, Character, Word, 1st Sentence, Emotion, Item or Location. Let’s go through most of these.


Here’s what I got for the masterplot: “A person influenced by the occult and the mysterious, seeking to demonstrate the powers of love by a test of courage, faces a guilty plotter and defeats a subtle plot.”

I like that! I see many different possibilities. Let’s see what we get for the rest. 


Tense: Present
Narrator: Alternating person
Period: During the Gulf War
Situation: Enemy of kin
Protagonist: A male dance teacher who is languid.
Supporting character: A male geophysicist who is mature.
Their relationship: Broken.

I’m less enthusiastic about these choices. While I’ve always wanted to try writing a short story using the present tense I’m less thrilled about having a dance teacher for a protagonist. Mostly because I know nothing about dance and even less about dance teachers!

I decided to roll until I found something I wanted to work with (after all, the object here is to have fun and get our creative juices flowing).

Here’s what I came up with in the end:

Tense: Present
Narrator: Alternating person
Period: Three days ago.
Situation: Enemy of kin/Disputed inheritance
Protagonist: A glamorous male movie director.
Supporting character: A hostile, male, occupational therapist.
Their relationship: Broken.

We’re not done! Now we move on to character.


I wasn’t sure how this fit into the other categories, or if it was supposed to, but here’s what I came up with:

“An enthusiastic, female, butcher who is Scottish and goes by the name of Kelsey Graham.”

I got this description on about the 5th try and love it! I can see her, my proper Scottish lass with a enormous cleaver in her hand and a bloody apron. She gives me a look that sends a chill through me and says, “Yea? Whad’ya want?”

But, what do do with her? We already have a protagonist and supporting character, so Kelsey could be our protagonist’s nemesis. Not a villain, simply someone working in opposition to the protagonist’s goal.

Which brings us to ...

The Goal

FIG doesn’t have a random goal generator, neither does Writing Exercises, so I went in search of a list of popular goals. I found this one, 100 popular goals, so all we have to do is head over to and pick a number between 1 and 100 (or think of one) and we’re set!

My choice is number 15: To save money.

The Location

What will our setting be? It took a few tries but I liked the idea of a cliff. I take this to mean that one of the significant locations in the story should involve a cliff.

The Item

I chose: A mirror.

Story Summary

So, putting it all together, our story skeleton is as follows:

Write about a glamorous male movie director who is influenced by the occult and who seeks to demonstrate the power of love by a test of courage. As he does so, our brave director will defeat a subtle plot (perhaps one set in motion by his nemesis the Scottish butcher).

 The situation (see above) was that of a disputed inheritance so perhaps the butcher is his sister. They are normally close, but they each want a certain something, the same certain something, from their father’s estate. (Perhaps a mirror?)

Since this is about the occult, let’s say the director thinks this something, this artifact, holds the key to unlocking a mystery that has fascinated him, driven him, his entire life.

His sister, though, is much more pragmatic. She is going through a bad patch financially and wants to sell the mirror. The brother is incensed by this suggestion. “If you would allow me to use the artifact we would be wealthy.”

You can see that the goal has shifted a bit, from saving money to acquiring money, but I think the important thing is to be willing to ignore random choices and make the story one’s own.

That’s it! That was an example, if anyone feels inspired and would like to write this story, please do! I’d love to know how it all turns out. Is the director simply insane or is the mirror a portal to something more? How far will each character go to get what they want?

Photo credit: "Early morning sunshine" by Caroline under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, October 22

NaNoWriMo Is For Everyone, Even Rebels!

NaNoWriMo is almost upon us!

What is NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo (or NaNo for short) is a terrific way to help kickstart a creative project.

During the month of November many people don writing hats (mine is a well-worn dark blue baseball cap), sequester themselves within the lonely depths of their writer’s cave, and attempt to complete the first draft of a 50,000 word novel.

Is NaNo For Writers or Non-Writers?

NaNo is for everyone! 

Granted, many writers pen/type more than 1,600 words per day so NaNo wouldn’t be very much of a challenge for them, but even so I think there’s something to be said for joining thousands of other writers all over the digital world and sharing a common experience. 

And, let’s face it, if you publish your word count every day that’s one more reason to stick with one’s story and do one’s best. When I write, when I’m in the bowels of a project, sometimes I feel isolated, sometimes I feel that no one else cares what I’m doing. When those feelings seep in it’s a lot easier to slack off instead of keeping my nose to the grindstone—metaphorically speaking, of course. That would be a terribly uncomfortable position, like something one might see in the Tower of London!

NaNo Is For Rebels

I’ll talk about the official rules of NaNo in a moment, but I want to stress that NaNo really is for everyone, even if you’re not keen to follow the official rules. 

Instead of writing X number of words a day, would you like to create a picture? If so, you won’t officially be participating in NaNo, but the sites invites you to join with them in November and be a rebel.

NaNo can be used for editing as well as writing 

This November I’m going to be a rebel!

That’s right. Instead of writing 2,000 words a day (my usual NaNo goal) I’m going to edit 14 pages a day. Since I’ve come back from my (marvelous!) vacation it’s been difficult for me to get back into the swing of things and I’m a wee bit behind on my WIP. So! This is an excellent opportunity for me to benefit from some of the glorious momentum that NaNo creates and channel it into something I need (yet dislike) to do.

The Rules of NaNo

* “Write one 50,000-word (or longer!) novel, between November 1 and November 30.

* “Start from scratch. None of your own previously written prose can be included in your NaNoWriMo draft (though outlines, character sketches, and research are all fine, as are citations from other people's works). [NOTE:] While this is no longer a hard-and-fast rule, it is still very strongly recommended, ESPECIALLY for first timers. 

* “Write a novel. We define a novel as a lengthy work of fiction. If you consider the book you're writing a novel, we consider it a novel too!

* “Write more than one word repeated 50,000 times.

* “Upload your novel for word-count validation to our site between November 25 and November 30.”

If you don’t want to upload the first draft of your novel to the official website you won’t be an official winner, but you will still have won. I’ve never uploaded the first draft of any of my novels simply because I hate the thought of anyone being able to see my first draft. (And yes, I know my NaNo account is password protected but I can think of far too many ways that could go wrong.)

I know some people, Stephen King for example, write first drafts (he includes an example in his book, “On Writing”) that are very close to the final draft. I don’t. One of the bloggers I follow once quipped that she didn’t write her first drafts, she vomited them. Yep. That’s me too. Not pretty. Not something I would ever willingly share. 

(Thinking about it now, it might be kind of fun to write a program which randomized the positions of all the words. That is, which kept the number of words in each sentence the same, which even kept the punctuation the same, but which swapped each word with another found elsewhere in the manuscript. Were I to do that the word count would stay the same but the text would be gibberish. Hmmm ...)

NaNo Resources

In the coming days I’m going to write more about how to prepare for NaNo, how to defeat writers block, how to pry oneself free from a dead end, and so on. For now, here are a few articles:

My previous articles on NaNo, what it is and tips on how to prepare:

Photo credit: "Don't drop the Ball..." by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, October 20

On Breaking The Rules of Writing: It’s All On The Table

On Breaking The Rules of Writing: It’s All On The Table

I’m a rebel at heart. I like it when writers break so-called rules and still produce a stunning piece of writing.

The Rule: Never begin a story with a character waking

For example, Gillian Flynn opens “Gone Girl” with a character waking. As I write this I realize someone might protest that “Gone Girl” begins with three paragraphs of Nick Dunne’s musings about his wife’s head, it’s shape and possible contents. But then, after these 185 words, Gillian Flynn writes:

“My eyes flipped open at exactly six A.M. This was no avian fluttering of the lashes, no gentle blink toward consciousness. The awakening was mechanical. A spooky ventriloquist-dummy click of the lids: The world is black and then, showtime! 6-0-0 the clock said—in my face, first thing I saw. 6-0-0. It felt different. I rarely woke at such a rounded time. I was a man of jagged risings: 8:43, 11:51, 9:26. My life was alarmless.”

And then, after this paragraph about Nick Dunne waking up, we get a paragraph about the weather! And you know what? Not only does it work but it is some of the most beautiful, alive, witty prose I’ve read in a long time.

The Rule: Never have your narrator address the reader directly

Another thing we’re told not to do, something that irks many readers enough to fling their books (or eReaders) across the room, is when (Dear Reader) the writer—or, really, the narrator—addresses the reader directly.

I’ve started reading P.G. Wodehouse, perhaps as a reaction to the delicious darkness of “Gone Girl”. I’ve broken into his corpus by way of his Jeeves books (specifically, “Thank You, Jeeves.”)

Here’s an example of what I mean. The narrator is Bertram (Bertie) Wooster.

“I wonder if you would mind just going back a bit and running the mental eye over that part of our conversation which had had to do with the girl. 

“Anything strike you about it?


“Oh, well, to get the full significance, of course, [...]” 

In those short paragraphs Wodehouse speaks directly to the reader. Here’s another example:

“But I had carried on according to plan, and here I was, on the fifth morning of my visit, absolutely in the pink and with no regrets whatsoever. The sun was shining. The sky was blue. And London seemed miles away—which it was, of course. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that a great peace enveloped the soul.”

All that is perfectly standard. It’s funny, and Wodehouse’s distinctive voice shines through the prose, but the author isn’t doing anything outlandish. Then, in the next paragraph, the narrator shakes things up by confessing to the reader that ...

“A thing I never know when I’m telling a story is how much scenery to bung in. I’ve asked one or two scriveners of my acquaintance, and their views differ. A fellow I met at a cocktail party in Bloomsbury said that he was all for describing kitchen sinks and frowsty bedrooms and squalor generally, but the beautifies of Nature, no. Whereas, Freddie Oaker, of the Drones, who does takes of pure love for the weeklies under the pen-name of Alicia Seymour, once told me that he reckoned that flowery meadows in springtime alone were worth at least a hundred quid a year to him.”

I know some readers hate the jarring sensation that can accompany being scooped up from your comfortable armchair (or park bench or bus seat or ...) and plopped into the story. Many (many) people would like to keep their narrators at arms length and not have these little private asides from them. Personally, though, I love the cosy feeling of being involved in the story, of being drawn into it like this, where the characters themselves reach out to you. One gets the feeling: They are talking to me! (If you’re thinking that this is a sign I should get out more, you could be right.)

Writing Rules

I think there are only three rules when it comes to writing:

1. Writers write.
2. Writers read.
3. Take all other rules with a grain of salt.

Yes, there are rules of thumb, advice that can make things easier for a new writer, someone who isn’t as adept as, say, Gillian Flynn. Her writing is artful, her prose is poetic.

The problem (I say that as though there were just one) in beginning a story when a character wakes up is that, generally, waking up isn’t terribly exciting. What’s the conflict? The struggle to stay awake? If so, the story’s in trouble before it really gets going. But, in Gillian Flynn’s able hands, it is interesting. One gets a sense that these opening paragraphs form a kind of parallel, or allegory, for the story itself. Nick is awaking ... to a nightmare. Perhaps one of his own making.

In summary, don’t let any writing rule make you feel you can’t do something you’d like to. Ultimately, we write for ourselves, we write because it’s not only something we must do but because it’s something we (usually) enjoy doing. As Stephen King says in “On Writing”:

“There is absolutely no need to be hidebound and conservative in your work [...] Shit, write upside down if you want to, or do it in Crayola pictographs. But no matter how you do it, there comes a point when you must judge what you’ve written and how well you wrote it. I don’t believe a story or a novel should be allowed outside the door of your study or writing room unless you feel confident that it’s reasonably reader-friendly. You can’t please all of the readers all of the time; you can’t please even some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time. [...] And now that I’ve waved that caution flag [...] let me reiterate that it’s all on the table, all up for grabs. Isn’t that an intoxicating thought? I think it is. Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, “Murder your darlings,” and he was right.”

That says it all.

Saturday, October 18

How To Give Your Character Meaningful Flaws

How To Give Your Character Meaningful Flaws

Let’s talk about blind spots.

We’re often told that protagonists need to be likable but it’s just as important that they have flaws.

I’ve just finished reading “Falling Angel” by William Hjortsberg. In that book the protagonist loses everything, even his identity. Which is a tragedy. He was courageous, resourceful and generally likable. It’s easy for the reader to identify with him, and if this was true for the reader I imagine it was true for the writer as well. But Hjortsberg resisted the impulse to coddle his protagonist and the book was better for it. 

That said, Hjortsberg didn’t give his protagonist, Harry Angel, just any flaws, he gave him flaws that seemed to grow organically from the core of his character. Giving a character blind spots is one way of achieving this.

What are blind spots?

A blind spot is a flaw, a weakness. For example, I have a friend who often complains about not being able to lose five pounds while she’s eating a bag of crunchy, vinegary finger-licking-good potato chips.

What creates a blind spot?

Desires create blind spots. Specifically, desires which fly in the face of strongly held beliefs either about ourselves or the world around us.

In my example, above, the desire being indulged was of the potato-chip-eating variety and the strongly held belief was that my friend was doing everything she could to try and lose weight. 

Taking this to a more serious level, a person might have a strong desire to learn the truth about a particular situation but not be able to get past the strongly held belief that their friend (or sibling, or mother, or father) is a good person and would, therefore, never do certain things.

Denial and unconscious defense mechanisms

I would, of course, never be this bold (or foolhardy!) but were I to call my friend on her chip-eating-duplicity and say, “You’d lose five pounds if you stopped eating potato chips,” what do you think her immediate reaction would be?

Yep, anger. Then she would try to justify her behavior. She would try and explain how her behavior really did, despite appearances to the contrary, fit with her desire to lose weight. 

Most folks, when it’s made clear to them that one or more of their behaviors flies in the face of a real or stated desire will attempt to justify it rather than change. “Oh this package of potato chips is so small and it’s only one bag. It’s not like I have one every day.” Or, “You’re right! This will be my last one, I’ll stop tomorrow.”

How to make bad things happen to good characters

Writers have to be the bad guy. They have to be mean to their characters. (Don’t Flinch)

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, one of the ways we can lead our characters to ruin is by giving them blind spots.

The ones I’ve talked about so far are relatively mild. To show you the kind of blind spots that can make for great literature let’s take another look at “Falling Angel.” Here the protagonist, Harry Angel, has a core belief, one you and I likely share: I know who I am. Harry couldn’t have been more wrong. 

When Harry Angel finally realizes he has been blind, that he has believed a lie, it is far too late for him to save either himself or the girl he has come to love.

Creating Character Flaws: How to Use Your Character’s strengths against them

I’d never thought much about blind spots and how they can be used to create tragedy until I sat in on a workshop Bob Mayer taught at the Surrey International Writing Conference. Mayer gave some wickedly useful examples of how your character’s strengths can suggest desires which can, in turn, be used to create character flaws.

An Example: Loyalty

Loyalty is an excellent trait for a protagonist to have. Since we, as humans, tend to believe that other people are like us—that they have the same desires and strengths and weaknesses we ourselves do—people who are loyal tend to believe that other people, especially those they consider their friends, are loyal as well. (Also at work here is the principle that it’s much easier for a person to believe a statement they want to be true than it is for one they want to be false.)

Underlying need/drive/desire:
- To trust others and to be trusted in return.

To see the world as you would like to see it, not as it actually is. This can lead to (at least) two weaknesses:
- Gullible. The need to trust others can make a hero gullible. They want to trust others even if, deep down, they know they shouldn’t.
- Unreasonable skepticism. Often when a person has trusted someone when they shouldn’t have—and been harmed because of it—they can swing to the other end of the spectrum and not trust anyone, even someone who has proven themselves trustworthy.

Blind Spot:
- Here is the loyal character’s blind spot (or at least one of them): Even though he’s let me down in the past, this time will be different.

Another Example: Competitiveness

Let’s say a character is naturally competitive. That can be a very good thing.

Underlying need/drive/desire:
- To achieve, to conquer.

- To achieve and to conquer no matter the cost, no matter who it destroys in the process.

Blind Spot:
- My drive to achieve isn’t hurting anyone.

In conclusion

If you ever have a chance I highly recommend Bob Mayer’s writing workshops. I haven’t read it (I’m still snailing my way through Robert McKee’s excellent book, “Story”) but his book The Novel Writer’s Toolkit comes highly recommended.

What blind spots have you given your characters?

Photo credit: "Cat's shadow" by Marina del Castell under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, October 15

What’s The Difference Between Mysteries And Thrillers?

What’s The Difference Between Mysteries And Thrillers?

In previous posts I’ve talked about the difference between mysteries and thrillers. In a mystery an event happens toward the beginning of the story—often in the first few pages—that violates one’s sense of justice, that shatters the status quo of the community. Things must be set right, justice must be meted out, the wrongdoer(s) must pay. But, first, they must be discovered. (How to write a murderously good mystery.)


In a mystery the crime, often a murder, grows out of a pre-existing rottenness in the social fabric of the community, a rottenness few (if any) suspected was there. For example, in Agatha Christie’s story “Toward Zero” the murder of Lady Tressilian grew from Nevile Strange’s insane desire to possess the woman he loves (Audrey). Years ago he had committed one murder to secure her love and, now, he decides to commit another. The difference is that Nevil’s goal is not to rekindle their devotion but to frame Audrey for murder, in his mind this is just punishment for rejecting him.

On her way to figuring out whodunit the intrepid Miss Marple must bring to light the concealed injustices of the past, for the murder is generally (at least in books!) not a crime of passion or the fruit of psychotic craving, it has a pedigree, it has roots. These roots are generally long and snarled. The primary work of the sleuth is to discover these roots and, in so doing, unmask the perpetrator of the current crime.

In this sense, much of the work of a mystery is spent delving into and uncovering those past events which gave birth to the catastrophic event (/Inciting Incident) which set the current story into motion.


What’s the difference between a murder mystery and a thriller?

Paul Levine, in his article Mystery Novels vs. Thrillers, puts it like this:

“... the thriller hero must stop the villain’s plan, rather than uncover a crime that has already happened.”

I think that’s it in a nutshell. Though, that said, often the hero of a thriller is tasked with doing both. 

In a mystery-thriller the hero must not only discover the perpetrator of a crime, she must also prevent the antagonist from accomplishing his goal. Further, often the crimes the hero is trying to prevent are on a grand scale: “serial or mass murder, terrorism, assassination, or the overthrow of governments” (Thriller, Wikipedia).

It’s a difference in focus. In a mystery, we look back into the past, back to the murder that became the Inciting Incident.

In a thriller while we do look backward (that’s how the hero uncovers the clues that will allow the protagonist to ultimately outwit the killer), the emphasis, especially at the end of the story, is on the future. Often the hero solves the puzzle and reveals the identity of the antagonist before the climax (though perhaps not long before). The most tense part of a thriller generates that tension through the lives of the characters, characters we have come to care about, being put in danger.

While in a mystery lives are on the line as well they aren’t effected in the same way. In a mystery the characters will not be able to go back to their normal lives (back to the Ordinary World) until the murderer is discovered by the sleuth and revealed to the community. Often one or more characters will be social pariahs, indefinitely under suspicion, if the murderer is not brought to justice.[1] 

Similarities between mysteries and thrillers:

1. Mystery. Thrillers often include a mystery or puzzle. Often this mystery involves some perversion of justice.

2. Suspense. Both mysteries and thrillers are suspenseful, though in a typical murder mystery the life of the sleuth is not put in danger. That said, their reputation and (often) way of life will be on the line.

Differences between mysteries and thrillers:

1. In general, a mystery looks backward while a thriller looks forward. In a mystery, the most horrible perversion of justice lies in the past where, with a thriller, it will occur in the future if the hero does not bring the antagonist to justice.

2. Hero versus Sleuth. The protagonist of a murder mystery is usually some sort of sleuth. They will be either a professional detective (police officer or private detective) or will be recognized as possessing that role by the other characters (for example, Miss Marple). In a thriller, on the other hand, the protagonist’s main goal generally isn’t to solve the mystery, it is to (for example) prevent something from happening in the future or to make sure it does. Yes, solving a mystery is usually crucial to the outcome of the story, but the mystery is not the central event. For example, in the movie “Along Came A Spider” the protagonist’s goal was to return the kidnapped child. In keeping with this, often the protagonist’s of thrillers are neither full-time nor part-time detectives.


It seems to me that the difference between a mystery and a thriller is one of emphasis. In a thriller there is generally a race to the finish line while in a mystery there is a reveal. The sleuth already has all the answers, all that is left is for him to reveal them.[2]


1. Though, that said, Agatha Christie wrote many stories that were clever variations on this theme. For example, in “The King of Clubs” no one was murdered, though there was an unexplained death. Further, if the killer had been exposed this would have brought about an injustice. In another of her stories, “Murder on the Orient Express,” the murder that the sleuth starts off investigating is (on one interpretation) an act of justice.

2. I’m currently reading, “Falling Angel,” by William Hjortsberg, it’s the book on which the 1987 movie “Angel Heart” was based. That book (as well as the movie) is an excellent example of a mystery (the private detective is investigatin g events long past to determine whether Johnny Favorite is alive or dead) but it morphs into something more when many of the people the sleuth talks to end up murdered. It’s one of the best and most daring mysteries I’ve read and provides us with an example of a story that straddles the divide between mystery and thriller.

Photo credit: "the proper order of things is often a mystery to me" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, October 13

Protagonist Checklist

Protagonist Checklist

My mother cleaned our house from top to bottom every year; she cleaned out every drawer, every cupboard, every closet. 

That’s practical industry at its best. Unfortunately it’s also something I’m almost completely devoid of. I feel at my best amidst a friendly snarl of papers and pens.

Yesterday, though, I had the day to myself and had the uncharacteristic urge to go through the drawers in my office and do a bit of tidying. (These days most of my tidying gets done as I listen to an audiobook.)

My office drawers have become receptacles for the revolving miscellany of papers I tack to my walls: bits of writing advice, admonitions, to-do lists and urgent reminders for events long past. 

I sifted through the pages of writing advice and lifted out one or two of my favorites to share with you.

Character Development

After I write a first draft here are some questions I ask about my protagonist (or any character that’s not a walk-on):

1. Main Desire. Every protagonist must want something deeply, desperately. Does she? What is it? Find (at least) one clear expression of it in your novel. Bonus points if you showed rather than told. (Though this is so important you might want to do both.)

2. Motivation. What is your protagonist’s motivation? Why does he have this particular overriding desire? For example, in The Mummy Rick O’Connell’s motivation for leading the expedition to Hamunaptra was to repay Evy for saving his life. His goal, on the other hand, was to get everyone there and back safely. (That, and he liked Evy.)

3. Decisive Action. When (in which scenes) does your protagonist take decisive action to get what he wants (his main desire)? Although a character can do their share of wiffle-waffling, they have to take decisive action at least once.

4. Stakes. What are the stakes? They should be clear and substantial. Further, the stakes should get bigger over time. (The stakes are what the character gets if she achieves her main goal—in other words, fulfills her main desire—and what she loses if she doesn’t.)

5. The Stakes Must Matter. Why do the stakes matter to the other characters? In the case of The Mummy all the characters wanted the treasures concealed within Hamunaptra, though their reasons for wanting them varied.

6. Well Defined Problem. What is the well defined problem that sets the protagonist’s goal? I mentioned The Mummy, above. In that movie the problem was to find the lost city of Hamunaptra and return with its artifacts.

Character Development: Scenes

- Strength. What is your character’s main strength? Find (at least) two scenes where the protagonist depends on that strength to solve a problem.

- Weakness. What is your character’s main weakness? Find (at least) one scene in which the protagonist’s weakness prevents her from solving a problem (/achieving her goal or desire).

- Silly Quirk. What is your character’s silly quirk? Find (at least) two scenes in which the character’s quirk complicates their life. That is, find at least one scene in which their silly quirk threatens to prevent them from achieving their goal. The goal here is that of a scene or a sequence of scenes, not necessarily the final, ultimate, goal. For example, Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes. 

- Contradiction. I’ve blogged about this the last few days. Complex characters are, generally, a mass of contradictions. 

* How does the character’s characterization contradict one or more of her internal traits?
* How do the character’s internal traits (intelligence, charisma, etc.) contradict each other?
* How does the character’s dominant trait change over time?

Find at least four scenes that show your protagonist’s contradiction(s).

- Clever. Most protagonists should be clever and resourceful. List at least two scenes in which the protagonist’s resourcefulness turns a situation around and allows him to achieve his goal.

- B-story. This won’t be the case for all stories, but in some the solution to the B-story provides the hero with the solution she needs to, at the story climax, achieve her main goal. What is your B-Story? In which scene does it begin and which scene contains its climax? In which scene, or scenes, do you tie in the epiphany of the B-story with the final culmination of the A-story?

- Guiding Principle. Often a character will have a guiding principle they live by. Hercule Poirot was fond of saying, “I do not approve of murder.”

General Questions

I try to always keep these questions at the back of my mind:

- What are your protagonist’s positive qualities? Is she strong? Good? Is she principled? Is she brave?

- What can your protagonist do that no one else can?

In Conclusion

I agree with those who hold that a protagonist doesn’t have to be amiable, likable or admirable. As long as your protagonist:

a. Has a special talent
b. Is clever and resourceful
c. Is wounded

then it doesn’t matter if the reader thinks he’s likable. The key thing is that the protagonist must be pursuing justice.

That leads us to our final  question: In your manuscript what one thing embodies the protagonist’s pursuit of justice?

That’s it!

Today’s writing exercise: The significance of the apparently mundane. (William Hjortsberg make the most of this in "Falling Angel," a book which was made into the movie "Angel Heart.")

Photo credit: "Oh happy rainy day!" by Caroline under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, October 11

The Key To Making A Character Multidimensional: Pairs of Opposites

The Key To Making A Character Multidimensional: Pairs of Opposites

I’m not going to recap the content of my previous two posts (it would take too long), but if you’d like to give them a quick look here are the links:

Today I’m going to look at ways of making the story world a crucible for our main characters.

How to show the reader a character’s layers

It’s simple. Or at least simple to explain yet not at all easy to do.

In my first post I talked about how to create a complex character. It is not enough just to give them desires, one must give them conflicting desires.

For example, a character could be both bold and timid. That’s one dimension. But how could we show this? One cannot be both bold and timid at the same time.

Though, as I typed the above, I realized that it’s perfectly possible to, say, both want, and not want, the last slice of cheesecake. Or the last potato chip in the bag. But, in those situations, what the character is experiencing are competing desires (in my case, the desire to lose five pounds and the desire to eat something delicious; one cannot live on rice cakes alone!).  

The sort of traits I’m talking about here are, really, dispositions. In general, one is either timid or bold, brave or cowardly, happy or sad. 

In any case, there are, I believe, three ways to show the reader a character’s contradictory trait.

1. People. Have the protagonist interact with different people. With one person they are bold and outgoing, with another they are shy and retiring.
2. Setting. Have the protagonist interact with different settings.
3. Time. Look at the protagonist at different times. (This is, I think, the most common way of exploring character.)

Let’s take a look at these one by one.

1. Pairs of Opposites: People

It would make the protagonist seem crazy to react one way one second and another way another second. Like Bill Murray in “What About Bob” when the titular character works up his courage to step onto a crowded elevator on the 40th floor but his fear, his terror, makes him turn away at the last moment. And he does this over and over and over and ... If we’re writing a character like Bob (or Mr. Monk) then, okay, but more often we demonstrate the opposites of a character—let’s call this a “character dimension”—by having them interact with different people.

So, for instance, with one character—perhaps a character who doesn’t have much money and is absent-minded (they’re always dropping things and forgetting where they left their glasses, their keys, etc.)—the protagonist is snippy and short. They’re rude. But with another character, perhaps one that is polished and who comes from a wealthy family, the protagonist goes to great lengths to be pleasant. This tells the reader much more than if we just showed him one side of the protagonist or the other.

Anyway, as many great books do, Gillian Flynn uses this technique in “Gone Girl” to create the kind of novel one can’t just read, one must consume it in great greedy gulps. It’s the kind of story I love to lose myself in, only surfacing—and, then, reluctantly—as I turn the last page. I’ll sit on the couch (or curl up like a pretzel on my bed) stunned, and wonder how long it will take her to write another.

Anyway, without giving anything away, “Gone Girl” is about two characters, Nick and Amy. Early on in the book Amy disappears and one wonders whether Nick had any part to play in that. What is Nick really like? What does he feel? One way Gillian Flynn teases out, fleshes out, Nick’s character is through his interactions with other characters, how he sees them. 

But Gillian Flynn doesn’t stop there.

We get both perspectives—Nick’s and Amy’s—from the first person. Nick is the narrator of the book but Amy talks to us through diary entries. To make matters more interesting still, Nick and Amy give us their very different perspectives on the same events. First we see things from Nick’s perspective and hear his gripes, then we peer into Amy’s diary and get her version of events.

In many ways Nick and Amy are opposites, but we don’t just see these characters through the eyes of a dispassionate narrator. We hear their own words, always aware that neither can be a hundred percent correct. We always see our lives through a filter and it’s the same with Nick and Amy. This leaves the reader to try and read between the lines and attempt to separate the truths from the lies. On top of it being a very well written book, “Gone Girl” is tremendous fun.

My point is that the more one layers in conflicting qualities, the more dimensions we create in a character, the more real, and the more interesting, they become.

2. Pairs of Opposites: Setting 

Think of a haunted house. The dark hallways, the creaking floorboards, the mysterious groans as the house settles. You turn a corner and a sticky cobweb stretches across your face and ... what’s that? Something long and thin and hard presses up against your cheek. You scream and fling it off you, not really wanting to know what it was but you can’t help it, you’re curious. You look at it. It’s long and thin, slightly curved, wrapped in silk. It looks just like a severed human finger! (Cue screaming violins.)

What would the normal response be to such a scenario? Like Gus on Psych the average person would scream and run away. At least, that’s what I’d do! But what would Indiana Jones do? He’d look at the finger, wonder who its previous owner was, and move on. Heroes, at least action heroes, tend not to be shaken by stuff like that. But what if, instead of a spider web, we’d dropped a snake on Indy? That would be a different matter. One of the most memorable things about Indiana Jones is his fear of snakes, something which is established early in the first film.

So there we have the opposing responses, fear vs courage—or at least calmness. And this is brought out by varying the setting.

3. Pairs of Opposites: Time

The most common way of a character exhibiting opposite traits is over time. We’re all familiar with this. The protagonist starts his journey as, say, a cringing milquetoast and, over the course of the story, gains confidence in his abilities, in himself. At the climax, he faces his fears and defeats the antagonist.

But, wait! We’re still not done. There’s one more element I’d like to discuss: how to create a supporting cast of characters that will draw out the multiple dimensions of a robust protagonist. I’ll get to that on Monday, stay tuned!

Photo credit: "cold hearted orb" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, October 9

Story World As Crucible

Story World As Crucible

Yesterday we talked about the essence of drama and the key to developing character; namely, developing a story world which will test the main character’s strengths and force him to face, and overcome, his weaknesses. (Or, if it’s a tragedy, to fail and die.)

Everything in the story universe—setting as well as characters—is chosen with the protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses in mind.

It is in this sense that all story is about character. The plot is as it is because the writer believes certain goals will be best at helping reveal character, that they will be best at forcing the protagonist to reach beyond his limits. 


This way of looking at story (we could call it story-as-crucible) makes sense to me but I want to emphasize that not all stories are about a hero realizing his/her potential to the fullest.

Story as crucible is not, I would imagine, the way most writers think about their craft/art. That said, it’s not a bad way of looking at what we’re on about when we write a dramatic story. (Note: many stories aren’t intended to be dramatic stories.)

Thinking about the books I’ve read, the movies I’ve seen, the overwhelming majority of them fit the story-as-crucible idea. The story world and the events that unfolded within it, as well as the characters that enlivened it, can all be seen as tools used to put the main character through trials designed to burn away what is inessential. 

At the end of most dramatic stories, the main character either shatters like a flawed pot or emerges, reborn, with a realistic appraisal of both themselves and their environment. The  protagonist has come into their true strength, they have recognized and, for the most part, overcome their weaknesses. Or at least learnt how to work around them. 

Even action flicks—movies self-consciously plot oriented—bring the hero to a crises point. Think of any of the Indiana Jones movies or Die Hard.

In any case, I wanted to make the point that not all authors self-consciously sit down and decide to design a story universe as a crucible for their protagonist (nor should they). But, even when the author doesn’t, I believe that this story-as-crucible idea can still aid one’s analysis.

How to create a story world as a crucible for your main character

Well, that was a rather long summary of my previous blog post! I really just wanted to set things up for two concepts I wanted to write more about.

Now that we know what we’re on about—constructing a crucible for our main character—let’s talk about how to do this. That is, how to create a story world to serve as a crucible that will test, strengthen and transform your main character.

This is where McKee really shines, he doesn’t just talk about the importance of one’s story world being a crucible for the main character he tells you how to do it.

McKee gives the reader three techniques:

1. McKee discusses how to create a fully realized main character, one with many dimensions.

2. He also talks about how to create a supporting cast of characters, one that will force your main character reveal all his quirks, weaknesses, strengths and foibles.

3. Finally, McKee goes over how to double-check that your story world is a crucible for your protagonist. 

I wrote about (1) and (3) yesterday so tomorrow I’ll dive into how to create a cast of characters designed to put your main character through his paces.

Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "Stars and Sparks" by Zach Dischner under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, October 7

Mind Worms And The Essence of Drama

Mind Worms And The Essence of Drama

Have  you ever watched the movie, The Game? Michael Douglas plays a person with every material advantage who is, nevertheless, precariously close to killing himself. Here’s the setup:

“Nicholas Van Orton (Douglas) is a wealthy investment banker, but his success has come at a cost. He is estranged from both his ex-wife and his only sibling, his younger brother, Conrad (Penn). He remains haunted from having seen his father commit suicide on the latter's 48th birthday. For Nicholas' own 48th birthday, Conrad presents Nicholas with an unusual gift—a voucher for a "game" offered by a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). Conrad promises that it will change his brother's life.” (The Game, Wikipedia)

If you’re wondering what this has to do with anything, hang on just a moment longer.

Mind Worms

In “Story” Robert McKee writes that in the Middle Ages scholars had the notion of a Mind Worm. He writes:

“Suppose a creature had the power to burrow into the brain and come to know an individual completely—dreams, fears, strength, weakness. Suppose that this Mind Worm also had the power to cause events in the world. It could then create a specific happening geared to the unique nature of that person that would trigger a one-of-a-kind adventure, a quest that would force him to use himself to the limit, to live to his deepest and fullest. Whether a tragedy or fulfillment, this quest would reveal his humanity absolutely.”

Consumer Recreation Services, from The Game is basically the modern equivalent of the Mind Worm! (BTW, if you’ve never seen the movie, Roger Ebert’s review of “The Game” was right on target and, as his reviews always were, beautifully written.)

I’ve talked about The Game and Mind Worms to lead up to what McKee says is the essence of dramatic storytelling: fully developed characters placed in a world designed to test their strengths and play on their weaknesses, to force them not only to face themselves as they are but to push past what they thought were their limits and be reborn, a new self. Or fail and die.

That’s dramatic storytelling in a nutshell. The question is: how does one do that? Today I’d like to talk about part of the answer to that question by discussing the difference between what McKee calls characterization and True Character. Let’s dive in.

The events a character experiences must fit the character.

Characters aren’t human. They aren’t persons. They’re better! Why? Because they are intentionally designed to be clear and knowable. It is possible for me to completely understand a character. I’ve never been able to say that of a flesh-and-blood person. Just when I think I have them pegged they will do something that completely bewilders me.

Character Design: Characterization vs True Character

You’ve likely heard this part before, but let's review it since we’ll be building on it in what follows:

1. Characterization

A fictional human’s characterization will include some or all of the following:

- physical appearance
- mannerisms
- style of speech
- gestures
- gender and sexuality
- age
- intelligence
- occupation
- personality
- attitudes
- values
- where he/she lives
- how he/she lives

A character’s characterization is the sum total of the observable qualities. They are what makes that character unique.

2. True Character

As we’ve seen, characterization is about the outer, the observable. True Character is about what is inside.

- Is the character loyal or disloyal?
- Are they honest or dishonest?
- Loving or cruel?
- Courageous or cowardly?
- Generous or selfish?
- Willful or weak?

True Character is expressed through choice necessitated by dilemma

McKee writes:

“How the person chooses to act under pressure is who he is—the greater the pressure, the truer and deeper the choice to character.”

The key to True Character is desire

What does the character want? McKee writes:

“A character comes to life the moment we glimpse a clear understanding of his desire—not only the conscious, but in a complex role, the unconscious as well.”

Which suggests a number of questions:

- What does the character want/desire?
- When do they want it? Now? Soon? Later?
- What is their overall desire, their chief desire?
- Does the character know he/she wants this?

What we mean by a “three-dimensional” character

But having a single, unitary, desire isn’t enough. McKee points out that truly great characters have one particular trait in common: they have contradictory desires.

Kinds of contradiction

This fundamental contradiction can take a couple of forms.

1. Contradiction deep within the character.

The character has contradictory desires. For example, Macbeth was torn between ambition and guilt.

2. Contradiction between characterization and True Character.

Another common kind of contradiction is that between the characterization—the character’s observable qualities, those that make her unique—and her True Character.

For example, a effusively complementary, gorgeous beauty queen might be seething with bitterness and anger.

That’s it! In my next post I’m going to pick up on Robert McKee’s contention that the entire story world is formed—or should be formed—as a kind of fiery forge or crucible to push the character to, and then past, his limits. That’s the heart of drama.
Photo Credit: "Love is in the Air..." by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.