Showing posts with label #monomyth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #monomyth. Show all posts

Friday, January 22

Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense

Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense


Let’s talk about what suspense is. Sure, yes, we know what it is in a “I know it when I feel it” kind of way, but if we want our stories to create suspense in our readers, it would be helpful to have a definition. 

Lee Goldberg once said that, "Suspense is an escalating sense of apprehension or fear, a building of pressure, heading either towards an uncertain conclusion or a horrifyingly certain one." [1] 

I will look at two ways of creating suspense. First, the author might get a reader to ask a question without immediately answering it. We’re human, and once we have an interesting puzzle we find it difficult to NOT try to solve it. Second--and this is really just a more specific way of creating a question in the reader’s mind--the author might give the reader either more or less information than the hero. Let’s look at each of these techniques in turn. 

Ask a Question but Withhold the Answer

Lee Child holds that suspense boils down to asking a question and making people wait for the answer. He believes that humans are wired to want the answer to a question they don't know the answer to. 

Want viewers to stick around during a commercial break? Ask them a question before the break and answer it when the break is over. This is Child's explanation for his view that “The way to write a thriller is to ask a question at the beginning, and answer it at the end." [2]

Child also talks about his technique in his New York Times article, "A Simple Way to Create Suspense." [3] 

"As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer.... Readers are human, and humans seem programmed to wait for answers to questions they witness being asked."

"Trusting such a simple system feels cheap and meretricious while you’re doing it. But it works. It’s all you need. Of course, attractive and sympathetic characters are nice to have; and elaborate and sinister entanglements are satisfying; and impossible-to-escape pits of despair are great. But they’re all luxuries. The basic narrative fuel is always the slow unveiling of the final answer."

Dramatic Irony and Suspense

In order to understand how to create and build suspense we need to understand dramatic irony. Why? Because dramatic irony can be used to increase the audience's (and in this case our reader is our audience) sense of curiosity and concern for the hero.

An Example

Scenario 1: Imagine a hero inching along a darkened path, oblivious to the deadly monster creeping up behind him, poised to strike.

Scenario 2: Imagine that, as before, our hero inches along a darkened path but now there is no deadly threat stalking him. Instead, he is anticipating a threat just around the bend. He doesn’t know a monster is there, but he thinks one could be. 

The first scenario creates suspense by giving the audience more information than the hero possesses. We see the danger creeping up on him and want to scream: Turn around!

In the second scenario we, the audience, know what the hero knows and, with him, we cringe as he rounds every corner, every bend in the twisty road. 

That was a quick overview. I go over these points again, below.

Some Aspects of Dramatic Irony

Surface meaning versus underlying meaning

Dramatic irony occurs when the surface meaning of an utterance is at variance with its deeper meaning. In other words, dramatic irony depends upon certain people knowing more than others. Some who hear the utterance will be stranded at the surface while others will go deeper.

Let's look at the possibilities.

The audience knows less than one or more of the characters.

Tension can be generated when we see a character's reaction to, for example, the contents of a suitcase even though we never find out what it contained.

This example comes from Pulp Fiction. Vincent Vega looks into the suitcase, its eerie illumination playing over his face. For a moment Vega seems lost in whatever he sees. The viewer doesn't know what's in the suitcase, but Vega and his partner, Jules Winnfield, do. Vega is looking right at it but, damn him, he's not telling! 

The audience knows more than one or more of the characters.

I think this is the far more common scenario. It happens on almost every show I watch, nearly every episode.

A character knows less about something than another character, and they don't know they know less.

For example, a couple of months ago I re-watched the science fiction and horror classic Alien, a movie that has aged remarkably well. At one point one of the characters, Brett, searches for Jones the cat. Everyone on the ship is going back into stasis and that includes Jones, but Brett needs to catch him first. Yes, sure, the alien is on the loose, but in this scene Brett isn't overly worried about meeting the alien since he knows Jones is in the area and, therefore, attributes any weird noises to the spooked feline. 

Brett hears a noise, looks beneath nearby machinery and spots the cat. Brett tries to coax the cat out of his hiding spot but, just as the cat walks toward him, we see a tentacle unfurl behind Brett. Jones sees this, hisses and darts away. Brett is stunned. He thinks the cat hissed at him. Puzzled, he keeps calling Jones, trying to coax the cat out of hiding. While Brett does this we see the alien slowly, silently, unfurl behind him. 

At this point in the movie, if you're anything like me, you grip the cushion you have a stranglehold on even tighter and scream: Turn around!

And, of course, Brett turns around but it's too late. He becomes monster chow.

This is the kind of thing we mean when we say that in dramatic irony the implications of a situation, speech, and so on, are understood by the audience but not by at least one of the characters in the drama. In this scene both the cat and the alien had more information than Brett did and, as so often happens in horror movies, Brett paid for that inequality with his life.

Unwise Behavior

When a passage contains dramatic irony, the character from whom information is being kept usually reacts in a way that is inappropriate and unwise.

In the example from Alien, running away and hiding would have been both appropriate and wise. Standing in front of the alien calling out "kitty, kitty," not so much.

Summary

To summarize, suspense is an escalating sense of apprehension or fear of a certain ending. Part of the reason this is effective is because it asks a question, “Will the hero survive?” and makes you wait for an answer. Lee Child has spoken quite a bit about this way of creating suspense. Dramatic irony is another way of creating suspense and it occurs when there is an incongruity between what the expectations of a situation are and what is really the case. 

Notes

1. For more on this see the Google+ Hangout Libby Hellman hosted, "Secrets To Writing Top Suspense."

2. Lee Child was quoted having said this in an article about Thrillerfest, but I can't find the reference.

3. "A Simple Way to Create Suspense," by Lee Child (2012)

Photo Credit

Indiana Jones and the Mountain of Rocks, by JD Hancock. I altered the image to create a greater contrast with the text. I highly recommend dropping by JD Hancock's website and viewing his many, fascinating creations.

Wednesday, January 20

Writing a Genre Story: Try-Fail Cycles

Writing a genre story: Try-Fail Cycles

Try-fail cycles are the key to writing engaging prose because they structure conflict in such a way that it creates suspense.

Try-Fail Cycles and Conflict

Let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of the try-fail cycle.

For every conflict that comes up, a question can be asked: Will our hero succeed? There are four possible answers:

Yes

Yes, BUT

No

No, AND

Let's look at each of these.

1. Yes

People love it when they get what they want but, let’s face it, hearing about how you won the corner office is probably not a story other people are terribly interested in. I love it when I get what I want, but it makes a boring story. “I wanted a new phone for my birthday and then I got one!” 

Think of it this way, when families get together at Christmas what's the gossip about? Who got divorced, who lost their job, who is drinking too much. It's about the bad things--or at least the sad things--that have happened to your family, friends and neighbours.

Being told that, “Yes, the hero will succeed,” won't generate conflict. It's not interesting. 

An Example

Imagine someone told you the following story:

Bruce woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Bruce promptly got up and took himself over to the nearest waffle house and ate a hot, flaky, buttery, waffle. The End.

Boring.

Even if we give Bruce some motivation, it still doesn't help matters:

Bruce’s wife, Cindy, woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Cindy was seven months pregnant and hadn't had any appetite for the last three days. Her doctor was worried. When Cindy woke up wanting waffles Bruce was overjoyed. "You wait right here," he said, "I'll get you a stack of the fluffiest, most mouth watering waffles you've ever had. Be right back." 

Bruce jumped into his car, got the waffles, and gave them to his wife. She scarfed them down in no time and everyone was happy. The End.

Still boring.

2. Yes, BUT ...

A hero needs setbacks because if what he desires were handed to him that would be dull. Let's give Bruce a few obstacles. 

Bruce jumps into his car but it won't start. He investigates and discovers his battery is dead. Bruce heads over to the neighbor's house hoping he'll help jump start his car but his neighbor isn't home.

Bruce peers through the neighbor's window hoping the man just fell asleep on the couch. Instead of seeing his neighbor--an ancient relic who shuffles about, his underwear sagging dangerously--he sees an attractive young woman he doesn't recognize. She's moving around the living room putting valuables into a sack. 

His neighbor is being robbed!

Bruce tries to call the police on his cell but can't get a signal. He wonders if he should bang on the window or say something to the intruder to scare her off. As Bruce ponders this the woman turns and sees him. She is startled and screams something at him that Bruce can't hear through the thick glass. She pulls a gun from her pocket and points it at him.

Bruce is terrified. How had a simple errand to get waffles turned into a scene out of Die Hard?

And so on.

That's not as boring. I might be able to do something with that. And it's all because we didn't give the hero what he wanted.

By setting up goals and obstacles and making Bruce hop from one to the other, getting in more trouble each time he fails, the story becomes more interesting. Why? Because character is revealed through adversity.

3. No

Answering the question, "Will the hero get what he desires?" with "No" is almost as bad as answering it with, "Yes." We don't want to see our heroes fail. We want to see them triumph over adversity, or at least make some progress toward triumphing. 

Imagine this scenario:

Bruce woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Bruce tried to drive to a waffle house but his car wouldn't start. Dejected and waffle-less, Bruce climbed back into bed. The End.

That’s just terrible!

4. No, AND ...

This is very common. Not only doesn't the protagonist fail to achieve what he set out to do but another complication is thrown in his path. The question is: will Bruce get a jump start from his neighbor? The answer: No, AND he has a gun pointed at him.

Setbacks Create Conflict

Your main character has goals, he wants things. But if he got everything he wanted right away then your story would be as entertaining as watching paint dry. The solution: give your main character setbacks. This can be difficult! It is easy for me to get attached to my characters. I want to let them sleep in and eat ice cream, I do not want to create a fire breathing dragon to roast their behinds as they flee in terror. But no one said writing was easy! 

In Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana goes on a quest to find and bring back the lost Ark of the Covenant. About halfway through the movie Indy and Marion escape from the Well of Souls and Indy decides he and Marion must stowaway on the plane the enemy will be using to fly the ark out of the country. 

Indy fails in the end (the plane blows up) but the sequence of goals and conflicts are memorable. Let's examine the scene.

No, AND

Question: Will Indy sneak onto the plane undetected?
Answer: No. Indy is spotted crawling up the plane toward the pilot
Complication: AND a fight begins.

Yes, BUT

Question: Will Indy win the fight?
Answer: Yes.
Complication: BUT a much bigger man starts a fight with Indy (AND the pilot spots Indy and starts to shoot at him).

Yes, BUT

Question: The pilot starts to take pot shots at Indy. Will Indy escape being hit?
Answer: Yes, Indy dodges the pilot's bullets.
Complication: BUT the pilot keeps shooting. 

No, AND

Question: Indy is fighting a huge bad guy. It looks like Indy has no chance of winning. Will Indy, against all odds, win the fight against the Man-Mountain?
Answer: No.
Complication: AND the pilot is still shooting at him.

Yes, BUT

Question: The pilot takes aim at Indy, from this angle he can't miss. Will Indy survive?
Answer: Yes, Indy survives. Marion hits the pilot over the head and knocks him unconscious.
Complication: BUT as the pilot slumps over in the cockpit he hits some levers and starts the plane rolling forward while Indy, on the ground below, fights the Man-Mountain.

You get the idea. The entire scene is well worth watching.

Steaks Go Up

One more thing. The hero’s stakes gradually escalate throughout the scene. At first Indy just wants to board the plane, then he gets into a fist fight, then there's an impossibly huge man he has to fight, then someone starts shooting at him, then the plane begins to move, then there's a truckload of German soldiers who see him, then Marion explodes gasoline containers, then there's gasoline on the ground running toward the fire. At the very end of the scene a pool of gasoline rushes toward the burning gas canisters while the impossibly huge man continues to beat Indy to a pulp. Then the canisters explode and the whole camp, all the bad guys, rush to investigate. It's quite something.

The stakes go from high to higher to very high to insanely high and, finally, to something truly spectacularly high. 

Try-Fail cycles are present in every story. The next time you read a book or watch one of your favorite TV shows, pick a scene that captured your imagination and write it out. Dissect it to see how it works, how the effect was created. (It’s okay to dissect scenes, they can be put back together again. Just dust them off, give them a bit of milk and they’re fine. ;)

Thanks for reading! I'll have another post up in a few days, I'm trying for at least one a week. I hope to see you then. In the meantime, good writing!

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Monday, January 18

Good Storytelling: Internal and External Stakes (Part Four of Four)

Good Storytelling: Internal and External Stakes (Part Four of Four)

Just as characters have internal and external goals so there are internal and external stakes.

Inner Stakes versus Outer Stakes

As I’ve mentioned previously in this series, in the movie Shrek the protagonist's internal conflict, his challenge, was to risk rejection and let people past his defenses, to let others know how he really felt. Specifically, his internal challenge was to tell Princess Fiona he loved her. Shrek needed to risk rejection so he could make connections with her and find true love.

Shrek's outer challenge was to get the fairytale creatures out of his swamp by rescuing Princess Fiona and bringing her to Lord Farquaad so she could be Farquaad’s bride. If Shrek did that Farquaad promised Shrek to remove the fairytale creatures from his swamp.

Inner Goal versus Outer Goal

Different kinds of stakes accompany different kinds of goals. If Shrek failed to rescue Princess Fiona from the castle, Lord Farquaad would have had Shrek killed. 

If Shrek failed to lower his internal defenses and let people in, he would have lost the love of Princess Fiona and endured a sad and lonely existence in his now vacant swamp which would have made it a pyrrhic victory.

Stakes and Complexity

It's not the size of the stakes that count, it's their complexity. Complex stakes involve not just a character's internal or external goals, but both together. It's not just about saving the world, it's about overcoming one's fears so that one can save the world. 

Escalate the Stakes

Stories contain compcolications. The hero sets out to do one thing, a complication pops up and blocks him, he tries to get around the complication by doing something else but that only makes things worse, and so on. The stakes escalate throughout the story until everything comes to a fever pitch at the end.

Conflicting Goals, Conflicting Stakes

Conflicting goals often mean conflicting stakes.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, there's a terrific scene in the middle where Indy ducks into a tent to hide from the bad guys and comes across Marion tied to a tent pole. Indy begins to untie Marion then realizes that if the Nazis discover her missing they'll know he is in the camp looking for the ark. If he frees Marion he will give himself away and fail in his quest. What does Indy do? He ties Marion back up! She's furious with him. It's a great scene. 

Let's take a look at the stakes at play in this scene. 

Indiana's stakes at the beginning of the scene:

Indiana’s goal: Escape the guard's notice and obtain the ark.

What success would look like: Indiana doesn't get captured and is one step closer to his goal. 

What failure would look like: Indiana is captured, possibly tortured. He fails to obtain the ark.

Marion's stakes at the beginning of the scene:

Marion’s goal: Get untied, sneak out of the Nazi camp, go to America.

What success would look like: Marion gets her freedom.

What failure would look like: Marion's future is unknown. She could be tortured, various nasty things could happen to her.

In the middle of the scene the stakes change when Indy realizes he has to tie Marion up or risk losing the ark.

Indiana's stakes in the middle of the scene:

Indy's goal: To find the ark and for Marion not to hate him.

What success would look like: Marion's forbearance and a possible future together.

What failure would look like: Marion's lasting wrath.

For Indy to succeed in winning Marion's affection--or just to avoid making her furious with him--he must help her escape. But he can't. Not now. If he helps her, then he risks his primary mission. So he fails to achieve this minor goal, accepts Marion's wrath, ties her back up and exits the tent.

The point is that conflicting mini-goals with their own stakes often pop up within a scene. I thought the above scene was especially interesting. It highlights Indy's and Marion's diametrically opposed interests. Marion would much rather just escape and forget all about the ark, but recovering it is Indy's primary goal.

Summary

Characters have goals. Every goal has stakes attached, what it would mean for the hero to achieve, or fail to achieve, the goal. Will their lives go better or worse? This--the space between where the character is and where the character could be--creates various kinds of conflict and conflict is the engine that drives a story forward. 

I hope you have enjoyed this series! If you have any comments or questions, please get in touch. Either leave a comment or reach out to me at karenwoodwardmail (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks! Good writing.

Saturday, January 16

Good Storytelling: Unique Stakes (Part Three)

Good storytelling: unique stakes (part three)



















This is Part Three of a mini-series. This part can be read on its own, but if you would like to read the first two parts they are here: 

Good Storytelling: Give Your Characters Something to Die For (Part One)
Good Storytelling: Goals, Stakes and Consequences (Part Two)

Unique Stakes

Quick review. Each character has a goal. For example, in Star Wars IV, Luke Skywalker wanted to destroy the Death Star. After all, anything called a Death Star probably needs to be destroyed!

What will happen to a character is based on whether she achieves her goal. Those are the stakes. Think of gambling. If I place a bet on my team to win the Big Game then the stakes of the bet are the amount of money I could gain or lose. In Luke Skywalker's case, when he prevented the Death Star from blowing up the rebel's base on Yavin IV the resistance was preserved.

But that was Luke's main goal--that was the story goal--and, as such, he shared that with many other characters such as Princess Lea. Luke had other goals that were unique to him. For example, he wanted to learn how to fly a variety of spacecraft and he wanted to learn how to control the force. 

Sure, Han Solo was an accomplished pilot and Obi-Wan Kenobi was a Jedi skilled in controlling the force, but Luke--while he did have the capacity to be both these things--wasn't there yet. 

And that these (becoming a better pilot, becoming a Jedi) were his goals said something about him, they made him unique. 

That's what I mean by unique stakes.

Character Creation

What does your character want? What drives him? What gets him up in the morning? The answers to these questions show who your character is.

Stakes help reveal your character's personality. 

Here’s a trick I learned:

If you’re not sure what desires drive a character, ask: If this character won an obscene amount of money, what is the first thing she would do with it? Would she rush to the bank to make an investment? Would she fly with 20 of her closest friends to Vegas? Would she buy a house? Would she get married? Would she give it all away to charity?

In Luke Skywalker’s case the answer is easy: he would take care of his aunt and uncle and then go offworld to the Academy and learn how to fly all sorts of aircraft.

What does your character fear? When he was a kid what kind of beasties lived under his bed?

The best character’s fears are a unique blend of the universal and the particular. A few universal fears are shame, boredom, hunger, pain and death, but characters are particular and these universal fears need to manifest themselves in the character’s life in a unique and preferably quirky way. For example, one of the things I loved about Mr. Monk was that he was scared of milk. Milk! That fear was unique and revealed his character.

Sherlock Holmes was not fond of being bored, he required a difficult, interesting puzzle to solve. 

Luke feared letting his aunt and uncle down. He also feared being bored, being trapped on a planet where nothing exciting ever happened.

A character’s wants and fears tie them to their goal

In Raiders of the Lost Ark Indiana Jones is terrified of snakes. And of course snakes are found in any dungeon or ancient temple worth the name.

Luke is scared of turning to the dark side of the force like his father did.

In The Matrix, Neo is scared that Morphius will die because he, mistakenly, believes that Neo is The One. Of course it turns out that Neo IS The One, and Morphius doesn’t die, but that was the fear that motivated Neo to act.

The Reader


A character's wants and fears need to tie into the reader's wants and fears.

It’s good when a character’s wants and fears tie in with their goal--which, for the protagonist is the story goal--but we write for wonderful people, our readers. We want to draw them into our story.

This is another advantage of writing a genre story. For example, if you’re writing a romance story you know what your reader will want to feel. She will want to vicariously fall in love along with the protagonist, have a good cry with her when it doesn’t work out and then have renewed hope at the end when the lovers get back together.

If you’re writing a horror story the reader is going to want to be terrified. 

And so on.

It’s the stakes that tie the reader to the characters--especially the protagonist--and, in so doing, the stakes tie the reader to the story.

Readers Stakes versus Character Stakes

For example, in William Goldman's wonderful story, The Princess Bride, why did Inigo Montoya devote his life to becoming a master swordsman? It was because the six-fingered man (Count Rugen) killed his father and Inigo had sworn to avenge his father's death. 

So yes, sure, Inigo's goal was to kill Count Rugen but I would argue that, generally, he wanted to do right by his father. The love that Inigo had for his father was the glue that kept him focused on his goal. 

What are the stakes for Inigo? When Inigo finally fights Count Rugen it seems as though Inigo is dying, felled by a sneaky, dishonorable blow meted out by Count Rugen. We understand from the very beginning: the stakes of this contest, this battle, are life and death and Count Rugen isn't going to fight fair.

All that is true, but I would argue that for Inigo the stakes that matter to him aren't life and death--his life and death--they are whether he succeeds in avenging his father. If he were to discover that avenging his father would mean his death he wouldn't hesitate. If Inigo doesn't succeed in avenging his father's death, it seems to me that Inigo wouldn't want to live. 

Does the reader think about it that way as well? I don't think so. I think we care much more than Inigo does about his life. Yes, absolutely, we want to see justice done. We want Inigo to complete his quest and kill the dishonorable Count Rugen. But it is also very important to us--much more important than it is to Inigo himself--that he survive.  

So all that has been building up to this: the stakes of the character aren't necessarily our stakes, the reader’s stakes. We sometimes care passionately about something the character themselves doesn’t seem to care a lot about. And that's great! What we want as writers is to get our readers to care passionately about our characters and what happens to them. 

Okay! That's Part Three of this series. There's only going to be one more part. In the final part I'll talk about internal and external stakes. That's it for now! Good writing.
Where you can find me on the web:
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Tuesday, December 29

Good Storytelling: Goals, Stakes and Consequences (Part Two)

Good Storytelling: Goals, Stakes and Consequences (Part Two)

[This is Part Two of a mini-series on good storytelling. This part can be read on its own, but if you would like to read Part One it is here: Good Storytelling: Give Your Characters Something to Die For (Part One)]

This might seem obvious, but in order for a character's stakes to matter the character’s goal must be clear.

Goals

Every main character must want something. This goal, achieving it or failing to achieve it, will define the character’s arc. (And each arc will itself usually have a beginning in the Ordinary World, a middle in the Special World and, in the end, the Return.) 

The protagonist’s arc is also the arc of the story.

External Goals

All characters have external goals. In Raiders of the Lost Ark Indiana Jones's external goal was to obtain the Ark of the Covenant. He didn’t have an internal goal.

An external goal is something concrete, something you could take a picture of, something that exists in the external world independently of your character.

Internal Goals

Shrek, though, had both external and internal goals. His external goal was to get the fairytale creatures out of his swamp. His internal goal or challenge was to allow himself to be connected to others. In addition, there is tension between Shrek’s external and internal goals. He wants the fairytale critters out of his swamp because he is the ultimate loner, but his internal goal/challenge is to become more connected to others. His love for Princess Fiona is the concrete manifestation of that inner challenge.

An internal goal is usually a need or challenge that the character must meet or overcome. Usually it is the internal need or challenge that is met at the end of the B-story and that contributes to the epiphany that gets the character out of the All Hope is Lost moment and helps him formulate a new plan.

I’ll say more about all this later on, but I wanted to begin to introduce the ideas here.

One Goal to Rule Them All

A main character--like the real people they are a fiction of--can, and should, have more than one goal, but it must be clear they want one thing desperately and they must want it more than anything else. The thing that the protagonist passionately wants becomes the story goal. If the protagonist achieves the goal then she's succeeded, if not then she's failed.

For instance, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, if Indiana finds the ark and brings it back with him then he has succeeded. If not, he's failed.

What are the stakes? If Indy achieves his goal then he gets professional kudos and the opportunity to study a fascinating artifact. If he doesn't, then the Nazi war machine will use the ark to help turn the tide of war in its favor. 

Of course, the goal can change along the way. In “The Firm,” Mitch McDeere starts out wanting to be a rich lawyer then, about halfway through the story, his goal changes: he just wants to be free, he doesn't want either the FBI or the mob to own him.

The stakes must matter to the characters

This seems obvious. If the stakes don't matter to a character that's like creating a beautiful car but neglecting to put gas in the engine. 

Tying Stakes to Goals

The other day I was walking through a fairground and one of the hawkers called out to me: 

"Hey! You wanna play this game? I know you do. It's fun and you could win a great prize." 

"Oh?" I said. "What prize?" 

The youth held up a big stuffed pink and green elephant.

No thanks. It would be cheaper--a lot cheaper--for me to go out and buy myself a stuffed elephant! 

Now, if he'd held up the promise of a critique by, say, Stephen King I'd have played. Heck, he wouldn't have been able to get rid of me!

Why? Because the stakes, the possible consequences of a course of action--in this case winning a critique by Stephen King--are connected in the right way to my desire to become a better writer. That is, the stakes would help further my goal.

When the stakes help a character further their goal then the stakes will matter to your character.

Tying Stakes to Emotions

This is basically just another way of saying the same thing I just said, but it takes the topic from another direction. 

This point about the stakes needing to matter to your characters is also about believability. 

When the going gets tough and your character is getting beaten up, whether literally or figuratively, the character needs a believable reason for why they keep on keeping on.

How do you, as a storyteller, make it plausible that your characters will go through hell to achieve their goal? You make the stakes matter to the characters. Okay, but how do you do that? Simple: you tie the stakes into your character's wants and fears.

I think this is one reason why stakes are often life and death. Whether or not a person continues living matters a great deal to them and it doesn't need explanation. If a burglar pulls out a gun and points it at your character, the reader understands the character's panic. 

-- --
Thanks for reading! I'll post Part Three in this series soon. In the meantime, good writing.

Monday, December 28

Good Storytelling: Give Your Characters Something to Die For (Part One)


First, a caveat. In the following I say things about ‘all X,’ for example, ‘all main characters,’ but of course statements like that are generalizations. There are wonderful stories that do not fit into the patterns I describe.[1] 

That said, I think reading about the hero’s journey is valuable even if the stories you are interested in would traditionally have been described as more literary. After all, there are patterns, rhythms, to good storytelling regardless of the story being told. And while I do wholeheartedly agree that there are more ways for a story to express these patterns than are described in the hero’s journey, I do believe that the hero’s journey IS one way to access those patterns.

The Importance of a Good Stake (Punny ;)

I've already discussed the importance of having goals and the inevitable conflict that follows from that (blog post: Storytelling). But the amount of conflict depends on how high the stakes are.

Think of it this way, if you bet the price of a coffee on your sports team winning a particular match you wouldn't care as much about the outcome as if you had bet your entire rent for the month. (Not that I’m recommending that!)

Stakes and Suspense

Goals--especially diametrically opposed goals like the ones I’ll talk about, later--are important because they create conflict, but this conflict means little without high stakes. The stakes control the suspense. Low states, low suspense. High stakes, high suspense.

Stakes are the possible consequences of a course of action. What will happen if the protagonist achieves her goal? What will happen if she doesn't?  

For example, let's say we have a character, Rob. Rob is on a diet, he wants to lose 20 pounds before his brother's wedding. Here are two versions of the story:

Version 1

Possibility A: Rob loses the 20 pounds and doesn’t have to rent a tuxedo.

Possibility B: Rob failed to lose 20 pounds and had to rent a tuxedo.

The story question: Will Rob lose 20 pounds and not have to rent a tuxedo or will he fail and be forced to rent a tuxedo for his brother's wedding?

Either way, so what? Why should we care? I don't know about you, but I don't have strong feelings either way about rented tuxedos!

Let’s increase the stakes.

Version 2

Rob makes a bet with his brother that if he can't fit into his tuxedo in time for the wedding he'll pay for the wedding. But paying for the wedding would wipe out Rob’s savings and he wouldn't be able to fulfill his lifelong dream of climbing Mount Everest. And if he doesn’t fulfill his dream of climbing Mount Everest he will be depressed, stop making friends and develop an unnatural addiction to Cheetos.

Now we have:

Possibility A': Rob loses the 20 pounds and so not only fits into his tuxedo but is able to fulfil his dream of climbing Mount Everest. Afterward, Rob starts a new blog to share his experiences, meets lots of other cool people and lives a meaningful life surrounded by those who care about him.

Possibility B': Rob fails to lose the 20 pounds and so not only has to rent a tuxedo but can’t fulfil his dream of climbing Mount Everest. Rob becomes depressed, never blogs, becomes addicted to Cheetos and dies alone.

Here’s our new story question:

Will Rob be able to lose the 20 pounds before the wedding and fulfil his dream to climb Mount Everest or will he fail, pay for his brother's wedding, become depressed and die alone?

That's a better story question. Obviously the example is tongue in cheek, but hopefully it illustrates the point. 

As soon as Rob has something with emotional weight to lose, we begin to care more about what happens to him.

In order for this to work, though, the possible consequences of a course of action must be clear.

-- --

That's it for now! I'll try and get Part Two of this miniseries up tomorrow or the next day. I'm blogging a draft of my new book on writing, so your input on anything I write would be greatly appreciated! If you think I'm wrong about anything I say, please let me know! I enjoy discussions about writing. Thanks for reading.

Cheers.

Notes:

[1] 
I went looking for examples of stories that I didn’t think easily fit the form of a hero’s journey. For example, Pulp Fiction. Yes, Pulp Fiction is a film, but… See Note 2, below. Anyway, I came across the article, “Not Everything Is A Hero's Journey,” over at NarrativeFirst.com. (I looked for the author’s name, but couldn’t find it. My apologies. If anyone knows the author’s name please tell me and I'll add that information.)

Although I disagreed with some things in the article, I liked this part:

“There can be nothing more destructive to the world of storytelling than this compulsion for spiritual metamorphosis.

“Stories are about solving problems. Sometimes, solving those problems require the centerpiece of a story, the Main Character, to undergo a major transformation in how they see the world. Sometimes they don't. There is nothing inherently better about a story where the Main Character transforms.” 

I really liked the author's style and wit. I would encourage anyone interested in this topic to read the article (I’ve listed it in Further Readings).

But, anyway. The hero can, and often does, fail to achieve his goal. One of the ways the hero can fail to achieve his goal is that he fails to transform. To my mind, though, the hero’s transformation does not guarantee success. That said, I liked the comment that stories are about solving problems. Yes! Agreed.

Also, I liked the comment, “There is nothing inherently better about a story where the Main Character transforms.” Of course, it depends on what one means by better. What is the criterion? Perhaps I’m going too far afield, but is the criterion subjective (I liked this story better than that story), or objective? 

I favor the idea that there is an objective aspect to such a criterion. Let’s say we have two stories. Here’s the question: Could one story help someone live a better life than the other story? For example, if we had two identical populations, and one took the first story as a myth and the second took the second story as a myth and we ran the simulation over 1000 generations, in which population would individuals have lived more meaningful lives? And we could run this entire experiment many hundreds or thousands of times. Would one civilization be much more successful than the other? Of course, such an experiment isn’t possible.

Anyway. I do think that is why we are fascinated with stories. It’s why a character’s goals matter to us, it’s why stakes matter to us, it’s why we care about endings. But I’m open to people disagreeing. I love those sorts of conversations.

[2]
Books versus films. I regard a book as a way of carrying a story around in the world. Similarly, I regard a film strip--or these days a thumb drive containing an electronic file--as another way of carrying a story around in the world. Of course there are differences. In a book bits of ink form letters which form words and when read images unspool in the theater of the mind. In a film images are displayed on a flat surface and they flick by so quickly that our eyes and brains are fooled into seeing motion. Sure, films--flicks--generally don’t require the viewer to bring the same mental equipment to bear to unspool a story as books do but, in terms of the story told, I don’t believe there is an essential difference between the media.

Or, to put it another way, a book or film is a medium/container for a story in something like the way a body is thought to be a medium/container for a mind. It’s the story that is the essential thing, not the specific form in which it exists in the world. Or something like that. At least, that is one way of thinking about it.

Further Reading:

Not Everything Is A Hero's Journey, over at Narrativefirst.com.