Showing posts with label stakes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label stakes. Show all posts

Thursday, January 28

How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict

How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict


How to Generate Conflict

Conflict results from the clash of two things: a character's goal and the opposition to that goal. It follows that every scene needs two opposing forces, in genre fiction these are usually a viewpoint character who wants something desperately and a force that prevents her from getting it. 

Specific Goals

The protagonist should have a goal so specific you could take a picture of it. A desire for riches isn't a good goal because it's too general, too abstract. Wanting to win next month's million dollar lottery, though, is a fine goal. It even suggests ways to bring it about: buy a lottery ticket! 

Instead of a character wanting to be rich, have them dream of graduating from Harvard Law at the top of their class. Instead of a character wanting love in her life, have her daydream of marrying Ernest Watly, the eccentric librarian who moved to town last year. Instead of a character wanting to travel, have postcards from locations all over the world taped to her walls and give her an abiding desire to see the Nazca Lines in Peru.

Opposition to the Goal

Something must oppose the hero reaching her goal.

What characteristics should the opposing force have? First and foremost, it must have the ability to prevent the hero from achieving his goal. Second, it must give the opposing force the ability to evoke the hero's deepest, darkest fears.

Indiana Jones’ antagonist, his opposing force, was Belloq. He managed to keep track of Indy’s activities and rob him of whatever artifact he sought. Also, when Belloq sealed Indy and Marion in with the Ark when they were in the Well of Souls, there were lots and lots of snakes, the creepy crawlies Indy was terrified of.

Luke Skywalker’s anatangost was his father, a sith, and his darkest fear was being seduced to the dark side of the force.

Stakes

I’ve written quite a lot about stakes in my “Good Storytelling” posts, I’ll leave links to them below. 

Anyway. Stakes. This part is easy: the hero must have something to lose and something to gain.

To create suspense, the stakes of a conflict should be clearly spelled out in advance, before the hero is menaced by danger. If the hero achieves his goal, how will his life change? If he loses, what difference will that make?

In The Matrix Neo would have lost the love of Trinity as well as his life if he had not achieved his goal and become The One.

In Star Wars IV, if the resistance had lost and failed to destroy the Death Star then the resistance would have been snuffed out. Of course, the resistance won, the resistance survived and went on to topple the Empire.

Ticking Clock

To build tension it helps if the hero is racing against a clock, though perhaps not an actual clock. They must be under pressure. This both sets a deadline and gives the character time to plan, to agonize and, finally, to fight. 

I know I’ve talked quite a bit about Star Wars IV but that was a good story. At the end Luke, and the entire resistance, are rushing against a ticking clock. The Death Star is powering up to destroy the planet that the resistance is based on. If the Death Star isn’t destroyed by then the resistance will blink out of existence.

Raise a Question

I’ve also talked about this in Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense.

When we talk about creating suspense we are talking about an emotional state that exists within a reader. We generally try to evoke this emotional state by getting our readers to identify with our characters, especially our hero. We make it clear what the hero needs, as well as what he fears, and then we force the hero to face his darkest fears as he struggles to attain his goal. 

Because the reader has identified with the hero they feel concerned for him and this keeps them turning pages to see whether the hero will succeed.

And it's effective. I've stayed up into the wee hours of the morning more times than I'd like to admit simply because I had to know what happened. 

Well, Lee Child is a proponent of another, easier, way of creating suspense: simply raise a question. He even goes so far as to say that it doesn't especially matter whether your readers care about your characters, there is something about a question being raised that makes readers want to know the answer.

Photo Credit

FRANK IN STEIN by JD Hancock.

(BTW, I also write about this in How to write a genre story: how to create suspense.)


Blog posts you might like:

Tuesday, March 14

How Murder Mysteries Differ from Other Kinds of Stories


How Murder Mysteries Differ from Other Kinds of Stories


I’ve been writing about murder mysteries quite a bit lately. I PROMISE I’ll write about something else for the next post! (If you’d like me to talk about a particular topic please let me know! Leave a comment, tweet me at @woodwardkaren or send an email. I would love to hear from you!)

High Stakes & High Tension


The following is true regardless of genre: Your story should have high stakes and lots of tension/conflict. But exactly how you cash this out in a murder mystery presents it’s own unique challenges.

High Stakes


The stakes need to be high for both the detective and the murderer; they must both stand to either gain and lose a lot. The same with the murderer. Let’s cash this out.

Detective


First, there’s the obvious: The detective’s goal is to identify the murderer just as the murderer’s goal is to evade detection. Notice that if the detective achieves his goal the murderer can’t and vice versa. That’s the structure we’re looking for. If the detective succeeds the murderer will, at the very least, go to jail. If the detective fails, his reputation will be in tatters, perhaps he’ll even lose his job.

But there are less obvious stakes. The detective might own his own business and solve puzzles on the side. Perhaps he has developed a reputation for solving murders that stump the police. How would his business fare if his customers came to see him as incompetent?

Or it could be that some suspicion has been cast on the detective. He must solve the crime to clear his name. If, for instance, the detective owned a bakery and the victim was killed with poison, that would NOT be good for business!

Or it could be that the detective is a lawyer. He needs to exonerate his client (who happens to be his aunt’s favorite nephew) and the only way to do that is by identifying the real murderer. If he fails Aunt Petunia will hate him forever and he’ll lose most of his clients!

There are MANY possibilities.

Murderer


Again, there’s the obvious: The murderer’s goal is to evade detection, to commit, as the saying goes, the perfect murder. If he fails, then he could be killed or spend the rest of his life in prison.

But there are less obvious stakes. Even if the murderer is never sent to prison he could lose everyone and everything he cares about: his job, his wife, his kids, his espresso maker, not to mention the cute Pomeranian that licks his toes in the morning. Life, as he knows it, would be over.

It’s important to mention the stakes for both the protagonist and antagonist at the pinch points, to remind the reader of what the detective is up against, how desperate the murderer is, the lengths to which she will go.

High Tension


As we have seen, the detective has a goal as does the murderer. The detective wants to identify the murderer by way of investigating clues. The murderer wants to remain free!

High stakes help CREATE high tension. How? High stakes drive characters to do things that take them out—way out!—of their comfort range. It is the push and pull between characters, especially between antagonist and protagonist, that drives a story forward.

Every scene, no matter who is in it, has two important characters.[1] These characters are working toward different clearly defined goals that are mutually exclusive. If one character achieves his goal then the other character cannot and vice versa. Sometimes these two characters will be the protagonist and antagonist (or, in our case, the detective and murderer), but not always. In fact, in a murder mystery, a reader won’t be able to tell whether the person in the scene with the detective is the murderer! In that respect, murder mysteries really are quite different from other genres: readers don’t even know who the antagonist is until the very end!

Clear as mud? Let me give you an example. Let’s say our detective wants to get a witness, Mrs. Lawson, to tell him what she saw the night of the murder. The main character in the scene is the detective and the character opposing him is Mrs. Lawson. The detective has to find out WHY Mrs. Lawson doesn’t want to tell him what she saw—is she afraid or is she covering for someone she knows?—and convince her to do something she doesn’t want to do. If he does, he achieves his goal. If not, he loses.

Is Mrs. Lawson the murderer? Probably not but who knows. In an Agatha Christie murder mystery the less suspicious someone is the greater the likelihood they’re the murderer!

It is the reader’s knowledge of what the main characters in any specific scene have to gain and lose that pulls the reader through it. Will the detective (or perhaps the detective’s helper) get the clue they need to solve the next part of the case, the next piece of the puzzle? Ultimately, they will have to face their darkest fears to achieve their goals.

One thing that’s different about mystery stories in general (I’m including thrillers in this category) is that the protagonist—and usually the reader—doesn’t know who the murderer is. Perhaps we have a smattering of scenes where we see the murderer anonymously do a number of bad things, or plan to do a number of bad things, but we don’t know who this person is until the end. So the antagonists we have are going to be the cranky boss, the obnoxious co-worker, even the weather!

For example, the detective and his sidekick must visit someone who is in the hospital, scheduled to have a risky operation, and they need to question her. But there’s a storm brewing. Then it breaks, turns the roads to mud and the sleuth’s car gets stuck. And so on. Each scene must have something who ACTS as an antagonist, something that opposes the goal of the main character in that scene. The antagonist doesn’t have to be a person though. In this example it was the storm. More broadly, the antagonist can be a person, place, thing, idea—it can be the main character themselves! I don’t know about you but I’ve sabotaged myself a time or three.

Reader Involvement


Finally, a murder mystery involves the reader in a unique way. Sure, ANY kind of story involves the reader but in a murder mystery the reader doesn’t know who the antagonist is and is ACTIVELY engaged in trying to guess their identity. In a sense, the writer is playing a guessing game with the reader (for more about books that play games see: How To Write A 'Choose Your Own Adventure' Story.)

UPDATE:

I've received some wonderful feedback regarding the detective's stakes. Adaddinsane mentioned that in many excellent murder mysteries the stakes for the detective are low. For instance, this is true in many of Agatha Christie's mysteries and she is one of the best selling novelists of all time!

I've noticed this tendency toward low stakes as well and wrestled with it. Personally (and this could just be my own preference) I like it when the sleuth has something personal riding on the outcome. It could be something humorous (an ill-advised bet he's made) or it could be something more substantial (the failure of his business). I find this adds more conflict, more tension, and helps pull me through the book.

K.M. Idamari (over on Google+) mentioned that Murder Mysteries have a social dimension. The murder breaks the rules of society. Identifying the murderer is about writing a wrong, it's about justice.

Very true! Yes, this is something I meant to speak about then it slipped my mind. Thank you!!



Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

An Autobiography, by Agatha Christie.

Read about Agatha Christie's life in her own words. From an Amazon reviewer: "Agatha Christie's autobiography will keep the reader interested in knowing a little bit more about her life as wife, mother, and author."



Notes:


1. I say “characters” but these needn’t be people. For instance, a tornado could be an antagonist. However in the case of a murder mystery the antagonist does have to be an agent since they have to try and avoid detection.

Thursday, May 1

Parts of Story: The Preconditions For Suspense

Parts of Story: The Preconditions For Suspense

What follows is the final section of Parts of Story: Plot. (Yes, I'm doing a happy dance!) 

If you've been enjoying these posts, don't worry, there will be many more since I have yet to write the second and third parts in this series: Parts of Story: Setting and Characterization & Parts of Story: Point of View and Theme. That said, I will continue doing a normal blog post every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. All the chapters will be prefaced with "Parts of Story" so if you'd rather not read as I blog my book, those posts are easy to ignore.

For those of you who have signed up for my newsletter, I expect to have Parts of Story: Plot finished by Friday May 9th. At that time I'll send out an email to everyone. It is difficult to put into words how much I appreciate you guys and gals, my readers. As a small thank you I would like to make Parts of Story: Plot free for a week to anyone would requests a copy. I'll explain the logistics of all that in the newsletter. 

Okay! Enough talk. Here is the final chapter:

In order for a tale to be suspenseful, what must be the case?

1. Conflict


What is conflict? How is it generated? 

It's simple. Conflict results from the clash of two things: the character's goal and the opposition to that goal.

The hero seeks something, desires something--freedom, money, love, respect--and he has a goal. This goal is concrete. It's so specific one could film the hero attaining it. 

Something that the hero fears opposes him, something that has the ability to prevent the hero from achieving his goal and, thus, attaining his desire.

If the hero desires freedom then early parole might be his concrete goal, something we could depict by the huge outer doors of a prison opening and the hero walking out into the world, once again in charge of his life.

Perhaps the warden decides to frame the hero for something he didn't do and, in so doing, keep him imprisoned longer. 

If the hero desires money then a concrete goal might be to rob the bank on 1st and 3rd at three o'clock in the afternoon of July 4th, when the guards change shifts. 

But perhaps the bank brings in extra security guards for July 4th and some of them are Navy Seals.

And so on.

2. Stakes


To create suspense, the stakes of the conflict should be clearly spelled out in advance, before the hero is menaced by the danger. 

The general stakes for most horror movies are as follows: 

The hero wins: the hero (and possibly one or more other characters) escape the evil and live.

The hero loses: the hero fails to escape the evil and everyone dies.  

By the way, The Cabin in the Woods gives these stakes an interesting twist. It's a huge spoiler, so skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the movie and want the ending to be a surprise. Ready? Okay ... In The Cabin in the Woods Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard put an ironic twist on the stakes making it the case that if the hero (Marty) wins and escapes the evil then the world will end. On the other hand, if the hero allows himself to be killed then the world will be safe ... and five other people will be brutally murdered every single year the world stays that way. Talk about a no-win situation!

3. A ticking clock


“Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.”

To help build tension it helps if, in some way or other, the hero is racing against a clock, though perhaps not an actual clock. They must be under pressure. This both sets a deadline and gives the character time to plan, to agonize and, finally, to fight; time in which the reader can agonize.

Raise A Question


When we talk about creating suspense we, of course, are talking about an emotional state that exists within a reader/viewer/listener. Generally we try to evoke this emotional state by getting our readers to identify with our characters--especially our hero. We make it clear what the hero needs and then we force the protagonist into danger as he tries to attain his goal.

Yes, certainly, this kind of conflict creates suspense. But I would like to point out that there is another, related, way to create suspense: raise a question.

Lee Child is a great proponent of this method. He even goes so far as to say that it doesn't especially matter whether your readers care about the characters or the subject matter; there is something about a question being raised that makes us want to know the answer.

I agree.

The other day I read a fabulous short story--"In The Cave" by Tessa Hadley--where suspense was generated by a question the storyteller asked: What happened to break the hero's infatuation with her almost-boyfriend? 

Yes, I read on because the writing was enchanting, and because of the conflict generated by the clash of the protagonist's current state of affairs and the state of affairs she desired for herself. But, mostly, I read on because I wanted to know the answer to the question the storyteller had raised in the first paragraph: Why hadn't it worked out between the protagonist and her companion?

In Summary



Suspense is an emotional state within your reader, one most writers wish to evoke, and that emotional state depends upon two things. First, the reader asking the question: what happens next? Second, the reader being interested enough in the characters for the answer to matter.

Sunday, April 27

Stakes: How To Make Goals Matter



I've already discussed conflict and the importance of having goals, but a goal is useless without stakes.

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?  

Stakes generate tension. Conflict. They create suspense.

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

a. Bob lost 20 pounds in time for his brother's wedding.
b. Bob failed to lose 20 pounds.

Either way: So what? Why should we care?

How about this:

c. Bob makes a bet with his brother that if he can't fit into his tux in time for the wedding he'll pay for the wedding. But paying for the wedding would wipe out Bob's savings and he wouldn't be able to take his girlfriend on the dream vacation he has been promising her for the past four years. If Bob doesn't make good on his promise, his girlfriend will leave him. He knows he was an idiot to make the bet but what's done is done. He can't welsh. Will Bob be able to lose the 20 pounds before the wedding or will he fail, pay for his brother's wedding and die alone?

That's better. It's still not a terribly interesting story, but there's potential. As soon as Bob has something to lose and something to gain, we can begin to care about what happens to him.

The possible consequences of a course of action must be clear.


In order for the stakes to be clear, the goal must be clear.

A protagonist wants something. She can want more than one thing, but she must want one thing desperately and more than anything else. The thing that is desperately, passionately, wanted becomes the story goal. If the protagonist achieves the goal then she's succeeded, if not then she's failed.

For instance, in Indiana Jones and 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 their 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


If the stakes don't matter to the characters that's like creating a beautiful car but neglecting to put any gas in the engine. If the stakes don't matter to the characters there's nothing to drive the story. After all, if your characters don't care about achieving the goal, why would readers?

The other day I was walking through a fairground and one of the hawkers called out to me. "Hey! You want to play this game? I know you do. It's fun and you could win a great prize." 

"Oh?" I said. "What prize?" 

The boy-man held up a big stuffed pink and green elephant.

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

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, they need a strong--in other words believable--reason for why they keep on keeping on.

The stakes must tie into your characters' wants and fears.


How do you, as a storyteller, make it plausible that your characters will go through hell to achieve their goal? We've just seen how. You make the stakes matter to the characters. How do you do that? You tie the stakes into your characters 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 and it doesn't need explanation. If a burglar pulls out a gun and points it at your character as they're taking a shortcut through a dark alley, the reader understands their panic. 

A character's wants and fears should be unique. So should the stakes.


What does the character want? What drives him? What gets him up in the morning? If he won an obscene amount of money what would he do with it? 

What does the character fear? When he was a kid what kind of beasties lived under his bed? Everyone fears hunger, pain and death, give your character unique fears. One of the things I loved about Mr. Monk was that he was scared of milk. Milk! Who is scared of milk? Monk, that's who. That says something about a character.

A character's wants should reveal something unique about him.

Why a character's wants and fears are important.


Why, from a storytelling perspective, do a character's wants and fears matter? I've heard different answers to this question. Some say they matter because they tie characters to their goals, other say they matter because they tie characters to the story. And those answers are, I think, good answers. They're both correct. 

But I would also say that the stakes tie the reader to the characters and, in so doing, to the story.

For example, in William Goldman's incomparable 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 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 Rugen. We understand from the very beginning: the stakes of this contest, this battle, are life and death and 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. Inigo doesn't count his life as precious, he lives with one goal in mind: avenge his father's death.

Does the reader/viewer see 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 to watch Inigo 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. We don't necessarily care about the same things the character cares about. 

When, at the end of the story, the stakes of the battle between Inigo and Count Rugen come down to life and death, I care more about Inigo's life than he does. 

Stakes: Internal and External


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

For instance, in the movie Shrek the protagonist's internal conflict, his challenge, was to risk rejection and let people in, to let others know how he really felt (for example, to tell Princess Fiona he loved her). Shrek needed to risk rejection so he could make connections with others and find true love.

Shrek's outer challenge was to rescue Princess Fiona so Lord Farquaad would remove the fairytale creatures from his swamp.

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 defences 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. A pyrrhic victory.

It's not size, it's 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 to save the world. 

Escalate the stakes


Stories contain complications. 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 but that only makes things worse, and so on.

As I discussed in the chapter on Try-Fail Cycles, the stakes escalate throughout the story until everything comes to a fever pitch at the end.

Conflicting goals mean conflicting stakes


For instance, in Indiana Jones and 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 Marion missing they'll know he is in the camp looking for the ark. He can't give himself away.

What does Indy do? He ties Marion back up! She is furious with him. It's a great scene.

Lets take a look at the stakes at play in this scene. At the beginning of the scene Indy is trying to hide from a guard so he ducks inside a tent.

Indiana's stakes:


Goal: Escape the guard's notice and obtain the ark.
Success: Indiana doesn't get captured and is one step closer to his goal. 
Failure: Indiana is captured, possibly tortured. He fails to obtain the ark and the world is taken over by the Nazis.

Marion's stakes:


Goal: Get untied, sneak out of the Nazi camp, go to America.
Success: Marion gets her freedom.
Failure: 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 back up or risk losing the ark.

Indy's Goal: To NOT completely alienate the affections of Miriam.
Success: Marion's love and gratitude.
Failure: Her 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. 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. The scene between Indiana and Marion was especially interesting, I thought, because it highlighted their diametrically opposed interests. Marion would much rather just escape and forget all about the ark, but not Indy.

*  *  *

As we've seen, characters have goals. Depending upon whether they attain these goals different things come about. Good things will happen if they attain the goals, bad things if they don't. This--the space between where the character is and where the character could be; the possible future that awaits them--creates conflict and conflict is the engine that moves a story forward. Simple as that.

Tuesday, March 18

Three Ways To Create Suspense

Three Ways To Create Suspense


What is suspense? That's the question I'll be looking at today. Specifically we'll cover the role of the following in creating suspense:

- Dramatic irony 
- Conflict
- Well-defined stakes 
- A ticking clock

What Is Suspense?


Suspense is an escalating sense of apprehension or fear, a building of pressure, heading either towards an uncertain conclusion or a horrifyingly certain one. You (/the reader/audience) might know there's a giant monster at the end of the tunnel and our heroes are heading toward it. Or it's a ticking clock of what-the-hell's-going-to-happen and we don't know what's coming. Suspense is getting your readers to ask: What's going to happen next? [2]

So we need: 

a) A real danger to the hero and 
b) the possibility that the hero will escape the danger. 
c) A finite amount of time (/a ticking clock)

Further, dramatic irony can be used to increase the audience's sense of curiosity and concern for the hero.

Dramatic Irony & Suspense


Scenario 1: Imagine a hero inching along a darkened path, oblivious to the deathly shadow soundlessly creeping up behind him, poised to suck the lifeforce from his bones.

Scenario 2: Imagine that, as before, our hero inches along a darkened path anticipating a threat just round the bend. He doesn't know whether there's a monster there, but there could be. Unlike before there's no deadly shadow stalking him ... at least, not that we know of.

The first scenario creates suspense, in part, by giving the reader/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 there is no such disparity of knowledge. We know what the hero knows and, with him, we cringe as he rounds every corner, every bend in the twisty road. 

The elements of dramatic irony:


In order for dramatic irony to exist there needs to be a difference in how much two characters, or a character and the audience, know. Generally speaking, there are two possibilities:

1. The audience knows more about the danger than the hero.

This is what was used to generate suspense in Scenario 1, above. You, the reader, know there's a monster lurking around the next bend but the hero doesn't. Perhaps the hero thinks the evil has been neutralized or he thinks it's somewhere else. But it isn't. It's lying in wait for him and as soon as he rounds the next bend it's going to attack.

Or perhaps the villain has set a trap for the hero that the hero is oblivious to. The hero is rushing headlong to help someone in need. We see the villain set a trap for the hero and watch as he runs toward the trap. We want to warn him, to shout out that it's a trap, to stop, to go another way, but the hero keeps running and we are helpless to prevent the outcome.

Or something like that.

2. The audience knows less about the danger than the hero.

There is a scene in the classic movie The Thing where one of the scientists (I believe it was Dr. Blair) looks through a microscope at a sample taken from a mutilated corpse. We don't immediately know what he sees or know what he knows ... but we want to. He has begun to understand the mystery and we want to as well.  

This short period of unknowing, between the audience seeing the character's reaction to the new knowledge and finding out what it is, creates tension. I wanted to take Dr. Blair by the shoulders, shake him, and say something suitably melodramatic like, "What is it?! Tell me!"

3. (No dramatic irony) The characters and the audience/reader have the same amount of information.

A scene can be tense even though it lacks dramatic irony. In this case the tension will be produced by other factors, factors like a ticking clock, a clear statement of the stakes, and conflict. Lets take a closer look at these.

Preconditions For Suspense


In order for a story/yarn/tale to be suspenseful, the following must be in place:

1. Conflict.


What is conflict? How is it generated/produced? 

It's simple.

Conflict = (a character's goal) + (opposition to that goal)

That is, conflict results from the clash of two things: 

(a) What the hero desires or needs. His/her goal.
(b) Something fearful that opposes the hero, something that can prevent him from getting what he wants/needs. [2]

2. Stakes.


In order to create suspense, the stakes of the conflict should be clearly spelled out well in advance. That is, before the hero is actually menaced by the danger. 

The general stakes for most horror movies are as follows: 

The hero wins: the hero (and possibly one or more other characters) escape the evil and live.

The hero loses: the hero fails to escape the evil and they die.  

By the way, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's movie, The Cabin in the Woods, gives these stakes an ironic twist. It's a huge spoiler, so I'll talk about it in a footnote. Don't look if you haven't seen the movie and want the ending to be a surprise. [3]

3. A ticking clock. 


“Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.”

You need to build up pressure/tension which means that, in some way or other, the characters must be racing against a clock. This both sets a deadline and gives the character time to plan, agonize and, finally, fight; time in which the reader can agonize.

Lee Goldberg said:

"[To create suspense one needs] A ticking clock that escalates the conflict either within a person or between two characters, and that's an essential part of suspense, its the kindling that creates suspense, the conflict between two characters and the outside force or the outside pressure that makes that conflict even greater and then--boom!--you have the inevitable scary, frightening, exciting climactic verbal explosion."

An Aside: Another way to create suspense: raise a question


When we talk about creating suspense we (of course) are talking about an emotional state that exists within a reader/viewer/listener. Generally we try to evoke this emotional state by getting our readers to identify with our characters--especially our hero/protagonist. We make it clear what the protagonist wants/needs and then we force the protagonist into danger as he/she tries to attain their goal.

Yes, certainly, this kind of conflict creates suspense. But I would like to point out that there is another way to create suspense: raise a question.

Lee Child is a great proponent of this method. He even goes so far as to say that it doesn't especially matter whether your readers care about the subject matter; there is something about a question being raised that makes us want to know the answer.

And you know what? He's right!

The other day I read a fabulous short story--"In The Cave" by Tessa Hadley--where the suspense was generated by a question the storyteller asked: What happened to break the hero's infatuation with her almost-boyfriend? 

Yes, sure, I read on because the writing was enchanting, and because of the conflict generated by the clash of the protagonist's current state of affairs and the state of affairs she desired for herself. But, mostly, I read on because I wanted to know the answer to the question the storyteller had raised in the first paragraph: Why hadn't it worked out between the protagonist and her companion?

That's it! Here's a writing challenge (I'm challenging myself with this as well): Build some suspense in your writing today. 

References/Footnotes


1. Suspense, Wikipedia.
3. In The Cabin in the Woods Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard put an ironic twist on the stakes making it the case that if the hero (Marty) wins and escapes the evil then the world will end. On the other hand, if the hero allows himself to be killed by the evil then the world will be safe ... and five other people will be brutally murdered every single year the world stays that way.

Links


Google hangout: Secrets to writing top suspense:

Guest post on Lee Goldberg's website about suspense. Post is by Libby Hellmann:

Photo credit: "Bern - Switzerland" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, February 10

How To Create An Entertaining Protagonist: A Story Checklist

How To Create An Entertaining Protagonist: A Story Checklist


What do you have over your writing desk? Mine is littered with pieces of paper on which I've scribbled bits of (what I think is) sage writing advice. I'll let you be the judge. (grin)

By the way, your protagonist doesn't have to have all these characteristics. I like to look at this list every once in a while and double-check that my protagonist has a fair share of them and, also, to make sure I haven't forgotten anything.

1. Protagonist


Your protagonist should:

a. Have a special talent.
b. Have a strength.
c. Be clever and resourceful.
d. Be wounded.
e. Be pursuing justice or at least have a guiding principle.
f. Have a catch phrase.
g. Have likeable qualities.
h. Be quirky.

1a. Give the protagonist a special talent (/unique ability).

Give the protagonist an ability that no one else has. This doesn't have to be something earth shattering. It can be something trivial such as being able to tie a cherry stem with one's tongue.

1b. Give the protagonist a strength.


The following list is from Character Strengths and Virtues by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman.

i. Wisdom allows one to acquire and use knowledge. Creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective and wisdom.

ii. Courage allows one to accomplish goals in the face of opposition. Bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality.

iii. Humanity allows one to befriend others. Love, kindness, social intelligence.

iv. Justice helps build community. Active citizenship, loyalty, fairness, prudence, self control.

v. Temperance protects against excess. Forgiveness & mercy, humility.

vi. Transcendence helps forge connections to others and provides meaning. Appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humor & playfulness, spirituality.

1c. Make the protagonist clever and resourceful.


It seems to me that most good protagonists are both clever and resourceful. They are intelligent and can fix things, both little and big. They can come up with inventive solutions others would never think of. 

Clever characters are quick-witted. They can come up with a blindingly clever retort but without, perhaps, thinking through all the ramifications of what they've just said. (It can, occasionally, be smart not to say something clever.)  

1d. Give the protagonist a wound


Make sure that, in romance writer Terrel Hoffman's words, "In a hero’s character arc, she is missing something so essential that, if she doesn’t find it by story’s end, she’ll fail to achieve her story goal." (For Great Characters it's All About the Wound)

1e. Give the protagonist a guiding principle.


What is your protagonist's guiding principle? What rule do they live by? Turn this into a saying. Almost a tag line for the character.

For example, Poirot's guiding principle is "I do not approve of murder."

1f. Give the protagonist a catch phrase.


For example, two of Poirot's catch phrases are: "My little grey cells," and "I do not approve of murder."

Monk's catch phrase is "It's a gift and a curse."

1g. Give the protagonist likeable qualities.


I've already listed some strengths a character--or, indeed, a person--could have. I think most of these would go toward making a character likable. 

Another thing that works is to show a character being liked by other characters. 

You can also show your character doing something selfless for someone else. Save a cat!

1h. Give the protagonist a quirk


Give your protagonist a reason to be concerned about something, their clothes for instance. Then give your protagonist a reason to continually pay attention to it.

For example, lets say your protagonist, Zoe, buys an expensive dress she can't afford. She plans to wear it once then return it. Her date takes her out for dinner, but at a place that features mud wrestling! Zoe continually worries about staining the dress.

If you can manage it, the silly quirk should contradict the character's strength. For example, Indiana Jones' strength is courage and his silly quirk is fear of snakes.

2. Stakes


Stakes must be clear. What will the protagonist get if she achieves her goal?  What will she lose if she fails to achieve it? 

Also, the stakes must matter to the protagonist.

3. Motivation


The protagonist's motivation must be clear.

Although it seems not everyone draws a distinction between a protagonist's motivation and his desire I find doing this often helps. 

Here's how I look at it: a protagonist's motivation explains why he desires what he does and his goal is a concrete expression of that desire. 

For example, a child might want to win a spelling bee because the school bully taunts him and calls him stupid. In that case, the character's wish to silence the bully would be the protagonist's motivation. His overriding desire, on the other hand, is for people to think he is smart, and the concrete expression of that desire--his goal--is to win the upcoming spelling championship.

4. Goal


The protagonist needs to solve a well defined problem
The protagonist must take decisive action to get what she wants.
The protagonist must want something desperately
Finally, the thing the protagonist wants should be something so concrete that you could take a picture of her doing it.

5. B-Story


The solution to the B-story often provides the protagonist with the solution she needs to finally resolve her dilemma and achieve her goal. (I talk about the b-story a bit in my article on narrative setting.)

6. Antagonist's Goal


The antagonist's goal should be such that if he achieves it the protagonist cannot. For instance, in Lord of the Rings, if Frodo succeeded in destroying the One Ring then Sauron's quest to destroy Middle-earth would fail. On the other hand, if Sauron got the One Ring back then Middle-earth would be destroyed and Frodo would have failed.

The best article on creating an antagonist I've read so far is Jim Butcher's, "How To Build A Villain." If you read that article, don't forget to take a look at JB's comments in the comments section.

Question: What writing advice do you have tacked on the wall above your writing desk? Please share!

Photo credit: "2014-038 this way up" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, July 19

Stakes: 11 Ways To Make Readers Care

Stakes: 11 Ways To Make Readers Care


Chuck Wendig has written another fantastic article about writing, this time on the subject of stakes (NSFW -->): 25 Things To Know About Your Story’s Stakes.

Stakes: Making things matter


1. A story's stakes must be clear


The stakes must be clear. What will the protagonist lose if she fails to achieve her goal? What will she gain if she achieves it? Chuck Wendig writes:
"[W]hat is at stake? Life? Love? Money? A precious plot of land? The loyalty of an old friend? A wish? A curse? The whole world? Galaxy? Universe?"

2. Your protagonist's goal must be clear


Protagonists must want things. They can want more than one thing, but they must want one thing desperately and above all else. This thing that is desperately, passionately, wanted is the story goal. If the protagonist achieves the goal then they've succeeded, if they haven't then they've failed.

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

What are the stakes? If Indie achieves his goal then he gets professional kudos and the opportunity to study a fascinating artifact. If he doesn't achieve his goal then the Nazi war machine will use the ark to help turn the tide of war in their 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 dosen't want either the FBI or the mob to own him.)

3. The stakes must matter to the characters


If the stakes don't matter to the characters ... well, that's like creating a beautiful car but neglecting to put any gas in the engine. If the stakes don't matter to the characters then there's nothing to drive the story.

Chuck Wendig puts it this way: "Why do they care? If they don’t give a damn, why will we?"

4. 'Pinning' the characters to the stakes: making the stakes matter.


A character's wants, needs and fears are what make the stakes matter.

One of my favorite scenes comes from The Princess Bride.  I can't embed it, but here's a link to the (one minute, thirty second) video: Hello My Name Is Inigo Montoya.

Here, Inigo Montoya takes the life of the man (Count Tyrone Rugen) who killed his father in order to avoid paying him for the sword his father created. It is the story of the injustice done to Inigo's father, Inigo's deep love of his father, his thirst for revenge, his fear that his years of sword training to best the six fingered man will have been in vain ... it is all those things, the messy human stuff, that makes the character--and us!--care about the six fingered man's death, that makes us (okay, me) glory in it.

5. Create conflicts of interest


Chuck Wendig's post is about stakes, but we can't talk about stakes without talking about goals. A story gains depth and texture when the goals of at least two characters are mutually exclusive. The goals of the protagonist and antagonist, for example.

In The Princess Bride this was, I thought, especially well done. In the beginning Inigo Montoya's goal--to kill the man in black (/Westley)--conflicts with Westley's goal to save his one true love. Then, later, Inigo and Westley join forces against Count Rugen and Prince Humperdinck, respectively.

In the end, these shifting alliances give the story a depth, an interest, it would otherwise lack.

As Chuck Wendig writes:
"Every character won’t necessarily gain and lose the same things in a story. What’s fascinating is when you pit the stakes of one character against the stakes of another (and one might argue this is exactly what creates the relationship between a protagonist and an antagonist). A gain for one is a loss for the other."

6. Stakes: Internal and External


Back to goals.

Characters have internal and external goals.

For instance, in Shrek the protagonist's internal challenge/conflict was to risk rejection and let people in, to risk rejection and let others know how he really felt (tell Fiona he loved her) so he could make connections, make friends (with Donkey), and find true love.

Shrek's outer challenge was to rescue Princess Fiona so Lord Farquaad would get all the creatures of fairy out of his swamp.

Different kinds of stakes accompany the different kinds of goals. If Shrek failed to get the creatures out of the swamp, Lord Farquaad would have had Shrek killed. If Shrek failed to lower his defenses and let people in, he would have lost the love of the Princess Fiona and had a sad and lonely existence in his now vacant swamp. A pyrrhic victory.

7. It's not size, it's complexity


It's not the size of the stakes that count, it's their complexity. Chuck Wendig writes:
"It’s all well and good to have some manner of super-mega-uh-oh world-ending stakes on the line — “THE ALPACAPOCALYPSE IS UPON US, AND IF WE DON’T ACT LIKE HEROES WE’LL ALL BE DEAD AND BURIED UNDER THE ALPACA’S BLEATING REIGN” — but stakes mean more to us as the audience when the stakes mean more to the character. It’s not just about offering a mix of personal and impersonal stakes — it’s about braiding the personal stakes into the impersonal ones. The Alpacapocalypse matters because the protagonist’s own daughter is at the heart of the Alpaca Invasion Staging Ground and he must descend into the Deadly Alpaca Urban Zone to rescue her. He’s dealing with the larger conflict in order to address his own personal stakes."

8. Escalate the stakes


Often a protagonist/hero will start off a quest to get something they want, something that will make their life better. Then they find out that it they don't get it--this thing, whatever it is--not only will their life not be made better (they won't win the million dollars and be able to quit their crappy 9 to 5 job) but it will be made much worse (they'll lose their home and their grandma will have to stay in a nightmare of a retirement community).

By the end of the story they'd be happy just to get back what they had at the beginning and go to their 9 to 5 job and thank their lucky stars they had food to eat, a place to sleep and people to hang out with. Why? Because by the end of the story their world has been turned upside down and it's impossible for things to go back to the way they were.

Generally there's a setback for the hero at the end, a big setback.

This setback could be anything, but let's say it looks as though our protagonist/hero has lost. She's failed to achieve her goal. Not only that, but the stakes--what happens if she does/doesn't achieve her goal--are heightened. Now, not only will our protagonist lose her job and her home, but so will everyone who has helped her on this quest. This, in turn, causes everyone (well, everyone except her mentor who just died a horrible death for standing up to the evil bully) to desert her.

I'm not saying this happens in every story--it doesn't--but the stakes, whatever they are, will escalate. That's part of how one creates dramatic tension/narrative drive.

9. Escalate, complicate, or both


Chuck Wendig writes:
"We can escalate stakes by complicating them and we have at our disposal many ways to cruelly complicate those stakes. A character can complicate the stakes by making bad choices or by making choices with unexpected outcomes (“Yes, you killed the Evil Lord Thrang, but now there’s a power vacuum in the Court of Supervillains that threatens to destroy the Eastern Seaboard you foolish jackanape.”) Or you can complicate the stakes by forcing stakes to oppose one another — if Captain Shinypants saves his true love, he’ll be sacrificing New York City. But if he saves the millions of New York City, he’ll lose the love of his life, Jacinda Shimmyfeather. Competing complicated stakes for characters to make competing complicated choices."

10. Story stakes and scene stakes


Stakes come in different sizes.

You have big stakes--story goal sized stakes--but you can have smaller, micro-sized, scene sized, stakes as well.

For instance, in Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark, there's a terrific scene in the middle where Indie ducks into a tent to hide from the bad guys and comes across Marion tied up. Indiana is dressed in native garb so, at first Marion doesn't recognize him. Indie (who thought she was dead) begins to untie her then realizes that if the Nazis discover Marion missing they'll know Indie is there looking for the ark. He can't give himself away.

So, what does Indie do? Well, he ties her back up, of course! Marion is furious with him, naturally. It's a great scene.

Lets take a look at the stakes at play. At the beginning of the scene Indie is trying to hide from the guard because he wants the ark.

Indiana's stakes:
Goal: Escape the guards notice and obtain the ark.
- Success: Indiana doesn't get captured and is one step closer to his goal.
- Failure: Indiana is captured, possibly tortured. He fails to obtain the ark and the world is taken over by Nazis.

Marion's stakes:
Goal: Get untied, sneak out of the camp, go to America.
- Success: Freedom.
- Failure: The unknown. She could be tortured, various nasty things could happen to her.

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

Indie's goal: To not completely alienate the affections of Miriam.
- Success: Marion's love and gratitude.
- Failure: Her lasting wrath.

For Indie 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. If he does then he risks his primary mission. So he accepts Marion's wrath, ties her back up, and exits the tent.

The point is that mini-goals with their own stakes can pop up within a scene. The scene between Indiana and Marion was especially interesting, I thought, because it highlighted their diametrically opposed interests. Marion would much rather just escape and forget all about the ark, but not Indie.

Chuck Wendig writes:
"Stakes smaller than those able to prop up subplots — let’s call ‘em “micro-stakes” — can instead be used to support a scene. When entering a scene, you should ask: “What are the stakes here?” The characters in any given scene are here in the scene consciously or unconsciously trying to create a particular outcome for themselves or for the world around them. Something is on the table to be won or lost... The stakes needn’t be resolved by the end of the scene, and may carry forward to other scenes..."

11. Stakes in dialogue


I hadn't thought about it like this before I read Chuck Wendig's article, but dialogue has goals with stakes attached, or at least it probably should. After all, we communicate for reasons, because we want things. He writes:
"Dialogue in a story is purposeful: it’s conversation held captive and put on display for a reason. Dialogue in this way is frequently like a game, a kind of verbal sparring match between two or more participants. Again: things to lose, things to gain. Someone wants information. Or to psyche someone out. Or to convey a threat. Purpose. Intent. Conflict. Goals."
#  #  #

Altogether a fantastic article on writing, another in a long line. I'd encourage you to head on over to Chuck Wendig's site and read it for yourself: 25 Things To Know About Your Story’s Stakes.

An Apology


I intended to post this blog yesterday, but, instead, had to move brown cardboard boxes filled with memories.

I'm undergoing that horror known as 'moving'.

Sounds innocuous, doesn't it? But it means I'm neither here nor there. I live at two addresses--the old and the new--but, really, I'm at home at neither because my life has been parceled up into crates and stacked along walls.

As I creep through unfamiliar hallways staring at the brown corrugated reminders of work to come, the boxes begin to seem vaguely challenging. Perhaps threatening.

I think I need to read a Stephen King novel and write a horror story about moving!

Thanks for being patient with me. :)

Cheers, and good writing.

Photo credit: "Flying Ninja Man" by Zach Dischner under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, January 16

Revising Your Manuscript And Building Suspense: Making Your Character's Stakes Both Clear And High

Revising Your Manuscript And Building Suspense: Making Your Character's Stakes Both Clear And High

I love it when someone gives advice about writing that not only makes sense to me, but that makes me want to stop reading and write.

Often that someone is Steven Pressfield.


Stories Are Lame When The Stakes Are Low


Today SP wrote about stakes, about what your protagonist stands to lose if she doesn't achieve her goal. SP writes:
My own rule of thumb: the stakes for the hero must always be life and death. If possible, they should be life and death for every character in the story.

When I first came out to Tinseltown, I was struggling with a spec script. I just couldn’t make it interesting. I told my friend, the late director Ernie Pintoff. He said, “Have a body hit the floor.”

What he meant was raise the stakes.

Stories are lame when the stakes are low.

(By the way, all quotations from Steven Pressfield have been taken from: Have A Body Hit The Floor.)


Make The Stakes Clear


Make sure the stakes for each of your characters are clear. If they are even a little vague write a scene that makes the stakes clear.

Be concrete. How, exactly, would your character's life change if he didn't achieve his goal?


Do One Draft Just For Stakes


SP advises us to devote an entire draft to examining the stakes of our characters.
This is what I mean by devoting one draft to this topic only. Go over the entire story, asking yourself, “Are the stakes high and clear for all characters from start to finish?”

When the stakes are high and clear, the reader/audience’s emotions become involved.

The Ultimate Stakes


SP focuses on upping the body count in one's story as a way of increasing the stakes. That works and has advantages. It's beautifully concrete and easy for the audience to understand. You don't have to explain why a character doesn't want to die! If they did, that would require explanation.

But there are stakes other than life or death. SP writes:
A final note about “life and death.” The stakes don’t have to be literally mortal. But they must feel like life and death to the specific character. If Faye Dunaway loses her daughter to John Huston’s incestuous depredations in Chinatown, she will not literally die. Her fate will be even worse.

Destruction of the soul. Those are the ultimate stakes.

Don't Flinch


Robert Wiersema talked about stakes at the Surrey International Writers' Conference in 2011. I try and practice this.
Stakes, consequences. You've created a situation with potentially tragic results. There will come a time when you will want to save your character, to protect them. Don't. Don't flinch.

This moment is terrifying. If we were decent people we would protect our characters. You want a happy ending, but you can't cheat to get it.

You've created characters with flaws and turned the monsters loose on them. You have to be brave and unflinching. You have to do horrible things to nice people.

You don't need to beat your reader over the head with gore and lots of ugly details. You can leave these implicit. Readers have great imaginations, they will fill in the details.

If you do it right then it will hurt. It hurts us to hurt our characters, it hurts us to manipulate the reader. One thing you must realize: we also manipulate ourselves. Ultimately, we do all this manipulation because we are building truth.

We must have courage and strength and you must realize that, yes, you are cruel but here's the real truth: truth hurts and it is crucial that you don't flinch. (SiWC 2011 Day One, Part Two: Don't Flinch: Robert Wiersema)

The Stakes: Scene Questions


This is going to be my assignment for the day, to think about my work in progress and, for each scene, as well as every character in that scene, ask:

a) What is this character's goal?

- Is this clear? Is it concrete?
- If this character is a POV character, is her goal in this scene related to her ultimate goal? For instance, if she doesn't achieve her goal in this scene, will that make it less lightly for her to achieve her ultimate goal?

b) What are the stakes?

- What will happen to this character if she doesn't achieve her goal? What will happen if she does?
- Are the stakes obvious? Make it obvious how achieving her goal, or not, will affect your character's life. What does she have to lose? What does she have to gain?
- Are the stakes concrete? "My character will lose faith in mankind" is not concrete. "My character will be shot to death by Johnny" is.

c) Are the stakes high enough? 

- Death and loss of soul, loss of self, that's about as extreme as it gets. Depending on the kind of story you're telling, I don't think the states are going to be this stark, this extreme, for all your characters in every scene. And there are other kinds of loss. Loss of friends, loss of one's position in society, loss of independence, loss of faith.
What is the worst thing you've ever done to a character? Was it worth it? Would you do it again?

Other links you might like:

- The Starburst Method: Summarizing Your Story In One Sentence
- F. Scott Fitzgerald On The Price Of Being A Great Writer
- Using Public Domain Characters In Your Stories

Photo credit: "Tragedy by the Sea" by cliff1066™ under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

This is the description of the photograph (see above) Tragedy by the Sea:
Tragedy by the Sea 1955 Pulitzer Prize, Photography, John L. Gaunt, Los Angeles Times April 2, J 954. Los Angeles Times photographer John Gaunt lounges in his front yard in Hermosa Beach, Calif., enjoying the sun. Suddenly, a neighbor calls out. "There was some excitement on the beach," says Gaunt. "I grabbed a RoIIeiflex camera and ran."

Down by the water, Gaunt finds a distraught young couple by the shoreline. Moments before, their 19-month-old son was playing happily in their yard. Somehow, he wandered down to the beach. He was swept away by the fierce tide.

The little boy is gone. There is nothing anyone can do. Gaunt, who has a daughter about the same age, takes four quick photographs of the grieving couple. "As I made the last exposure, they turned and walked away" he says. The little boys body is later recovered from the surf.