The Penance of the Lambs

In the classes I teach on story structure I often point to Clarice Starling (Jody Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs as a great example of a Success/Bad story in which the goal (save the senator’s daughter from Buffalo Bill) is achieved, but the personal angst of not being able to save that spring lamb remains, as evidenced by Lecter’s final conversation with Starling over the phone in which he asks, “Are the lambs still screaming?” Starling’s silence in response plus the somber soundtrack music (even though this is her graduation from the academy) indicate she is still holding on to that angst.

We usually leave it there, having served our purpose of illustrating what Success/Bad means. Sometimes we go on to say that the reason she is trying to save all these people today – the reason she got into law enforcement (besides the fact her father was a sheriff) was because she can’t let go of that one lamb she couldn’t save and keeps trying to make up for it.

But now I’m thinking that while that may be true in an objective sense, nobody would carry that weight in their heart and act out that way for those reasons alone. You’d see it, you’d understand it and move on.

Rather, I think the reason she does what she does is not to make up for that lamb but to avoid having to carry another similar sense of loss in the future. So every extraordinary effort – even to the extent of putting herself at risk of death – is to keep from adding one more victim to the pain or failure she already carries.

It would seem, then, counter-intuitive to put oneself in a profession where the risk of failure in the exact same subject matter area as your angst. But consider – most of us need to pay penance when we feel we have screwed up. The risk of hurting herself emotionally even more by her choice of profession, therefore, is part of her penance for the first lamb she lost, while the extra-human effort she puts into each case is the attempt to avoid adding another instance to the pain she already carries.

Pretty screwed up, really, but in actuality the only way a mind, a heart, can make up for failing another in a way that can’t be fixed is to try to help others in a similar way.  Yet then the risk of failure is omnipresent, so we give up a life of our own to excel enough to avoid another failure.

It is a never ending cycle of emotional self-flagellation: trying to make up for the failure by putting oneself in the situation most likely to create a repeat, then devoting one’s life to trying to avoid the failure and thereby punishing oneself for the original failure.

Of course, the only way out of this vicious circle is to accept the original failure, call it a clean slate, and move on. But who can easily do that, and how?

Those are the questions for which readers and audience yearn for answers.  They hope that the author possesses some special insight based on personal experience or extensive observation.  Stories work at a passionate level because, even in the most outlandish sci-fi situations, the human heart beats along side our own.  And the more you draw your characters from the issues we face every day (“We envy what we see every day” – Hannibal Lecter to Clarice Starling), the more your readers or audience will embrace them and make the passion of your story their own.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Something I made for writers:

Posted in Characters | Comments Off on The Penance of the Lambs

Your Influence Character is the Heart of Your Story

What is an Influence Character?  It is the one who has an opposite philosophy, morality, or personal code to that of the Main Character.  Over the course of a story, the Influence Character continually pressures the Main Character’s core beliefs, eventually bringing them to a point they must confront the possibility that their beliefs may be wrong.

Ultimately, the Main Character either changes his or her view to adopt the Influence Character’s outlook or holds steadfast in his or her view, believing that is the only way to resolve their personal problems.  This war over opposing moralities is the heart of your story’s message and the arguments and interactions between the Main Character and the Influence Character provide the spine to your story’s heart line.

To get a better feel for the Influence Character, let’s look at how they are employed in some well-known stories.

Example 1

In A Christmas Carol, the ghosts (collectively) carry the message of that moral philosophy opposite to that of Scrooge.  Like runners in a relay race, Marley’s ghost, followed by Past, Present, and Future, advance the argument that scrooge must change.  By the end of the story, he is convinced and his very nature is altered.

Without the ghosts the story would just be about Scrooge learning on his own that maybe there’s a better way, but much of the passion of the story and the power of the message would be lost.

Message in A Christmas Carol:

Have compassion and generosity for the less fortunate.

Example 2

In the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV), the Influence Character is Obi Wan who pressures Luke to reach his potential and eventually brings Luke to a point of change and trust in his new-found abilities with the force.

Obi Wan’s Influence is very subtle and gradual and culminates with his disembodied voice saying to Luke just before Luke turns off the targeting computer, “Use the force, Luke.  Let go.”  And Luke is able to destroy the death star only because he turns off the targeting computer and relies on his new Jedi skills.

Message in Star Wars (Episode IV):

Trust in yourself.

Example 3

In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is the Influence Character who forces Clarice Starling to confront her personal demons (the slaughtering of the spring lambs) that led her to try and save others with a job in law enforcement – “Tell me, Clarice, are the lambs still screaming?”  Clarice does not change for she cannot let go of her pain –  “You know I can’t do that doctor Lecter” and so she remains steadfast in her belief system.

Lecter is the Influence Character but the Antagonist is Jamie Gumm – the man who kidnaps the women including the senator’s daughter whom Clarice is trying to save.   And so, we can see that the philosophic argument is independent of the effort to achieve the story’s goal.

Message in The Silence of the Lambs: Let it go, or be forever driven by pain.

Example 4

In The Fugitive with Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones (Federal Marshall Gerard) is the Influence Character, and does not care if his target is guilty or innocent: Kimble: “I didn’t kill my wife!”  Gerard: “I don’t care!”  But Kimble does care.  In fact, he endangers himself and risks his freedom to help others whenever the opportunity presents itself.

In the end, it is Kimble’s steadfastness that convinces Gerard that Kimble is innocent.  And in the process, Gerard (the Influence Character) is changed.  This is a great example that in the war of belief systems between the Main Character and the Influence character, one will ultimately change to adopt the view of the other.  If the Main Character changes, it is because the Influence Character remained steadfast, and if the Influence Character changes, it is because the Main Character remained steadfast.  Which way the Main Character goes, and how it turns out for them is the essence of the story’s message.

Message in The Fugitive: No matter what the risk, continue to help others.

So, as you can see, without an Influence Character there will be no story-long passionate argument regarding which way of seeing the world is the better way, and therefore there is no clear message to the reader or audience.

As we have seen with Hannibal Lecter, the Influence Character is not necessarily the Antagonist.  The Antagonist is trying to prevent the Protagonist from achieving his or her goal.  The Influence Character is trying to convince the Main Character to change his or her world view, belief system, or outlook.

Similarly, the Protagonist is not necessarily the Main Character.  The Protagonist is trying to achieve the goal.  The Main Character is trying to grapple with a personal issue, and is also the character through whose eyes the reader or audience sees the story – in short, we identify with him or her.

Often, the Main Character is the same “person” in a story who is also the Protagonist.  In this case, we create a stereotypical hero in which the reader/audience position is with the same character who is leading the charge to achieve the goal.

There is nothing wrong with that combination, but it is like always making the story about the quarterback in a game of football but never telling the story of one of the linemen or the water boy or the coach or the quarterback’s wife.  So, if you want a typical hero, make your Protagonist also your Main Character.  But if you want to tell a story where the Main Character is allowing us to look at the Protagonist from the outside and to observe him, then you enable a story such as To Kill A Mockingbird in which Atticus is the Protagonist  who is trying to defend the black man wrongly accused of rape in a 1930s town in the South but the Main Character is his young daughter Scout, who gives us a child’s-eye view of prejudice.

If you have a hero who is both Protagonist and Main Character, it can be dangerous to have your Antagonist be the Influence Character because then both the philosophic argument and the struggle over the goal is between the same two characters, mixing the conflicts together and muddying the message for your readers or audience.

In addition, as an author, you can get so wrapped up in the combined passionate lines between these two characters that you don’t fully connect the story points of either argument, leaving gaps that will be seen (or at least felt) by your readers or audience as holes in your story.  If those gaps aren’t filled, you essentially have a melodrama in which you don’t make either argument completely yet profess your message at the end as if you did.

Often, authors avoid this problem by creating a dramatic triangle in which one of those two stereotypes (hero and villain) is split into the two parts and the other one remains combined.

For example, in the movie, Witness, with Harrison Ford, he plays the Protagonist – a cop trying to protect the only witness to a murder: the young son of an Amish Woman, played by Kelly McGillis, who is the Main Character.

So here, the Protagonist and the Main Character are two different people.  Ford (as Protagonist) strives to protect the boy against the crooked cop who wants the boy killed (the Antagonist).  That’s the Goal.

McGillis (as Main Character) shows us the story through her eyes – the most passionate view – as she grapples with a personal decision to remain with her people (the Amish) or to move away with her son for a new life out “among the English” in the big city.  That’s the message argument.

Initially, McGillis is determined to stay, but as Ford remains in her community, showing his human side and participating in activities such as barn raising, she begins to fall in love with him and is tempted to change her mind and make a life with him on the outside.  Ford, therefore, is the Influence character as well as the Protagonist, as it is his influence that  draws her to a point of decision about leaving.

And so, a dramatic triangle is created by making Ford both Protagonist and Influence Character with the other two points of the triangle being the Main Character of Kelly McGillis, and the Antagonist who is trying to kill the boy.

Both the plot line toward the goal and the heart line toward the message are separate and easily followed, yet both hinge on Ford, making him the most central character, even though he isn’t the Main Character.

And so the message is made:

Sometimes it is better to stay in the safety of your extended family than to leave to explore the larger world, no matter how tempting it is.

In summary, without an influence character your story will lose the entire passionate argument leading up to the point of choice in which your story’s message should be made.  Without an argument, any perspective you are trying to convey will come across as moralizing that is tagged on rather than integral to the growth of your Main Character.

So how do you add an Influence character and message to your story?  Here are a few quick steps:

1. Write down a single sentence that describes the moral or message you want your story to convey.

2.  Describe the two sides of that issue such as “Greed vs. Generosity” or “Campassion vs. Self-Interest.”

3.  Outline how your Main Character is locked into a viewpoint on one side of that issue.

4.  If you already have an Influence character, outline how it is locked into the opposing viewpoint.

5.  If you don’t yet have an Influence character but have other characters in mind, briefly describe the core belief system of each.

6.  If one of your characters is in direct philosophic opposition to your Main Character, select it as your Influence Character.

7.  If none of your existing characters fits the bill, you’ll either need to choose one who can be reworked to represent the opposing point of view to that of the Main Character or you will need to develop a new character specifically for that job.

8. Once you have your Influence Character, Find as many places in your plot as you can to smoothly bring your Main and Influence Characters into conflict over their opposed philosophies, whether it be as advice from one to the other, as an argument, or just by example – having the Main Character see the Influence Character act in a different manner than he or she would in that situation.

9.  Over the course of your story, bring your Main Character to a point where he or she must choose either to stick by their guns and hold to their original outlook, believing that their troubles will be resolved if they just remain steadfast long enough,  or choose the Influence Character’s alternative view, believing that it holds a better chance to resolve the Main Character’s personal issue.

10.  In the end, your Main Character may grow in their resolve to remain steadfast or grow to a point of change.  But regardless of how they go, their choice may be right or wrong for resolving their personal issue.  This provides you with many ways to prove your message:
Change is good, Change is bad, Steadfast is Good, Steadfast is Bad.  Any of these are legitimate; it just depends on the flavor of the message you are trying to send.

11.  Don’t forget that if your Main Character Changes, your Influence Character will remain Steadfast, and vice versa.  The idea is that one philosophy will trump the other so that both character will, in the end, share the same philosophy.  And then you show your readers or audience if that’s was the right choice by showing how it all turns out at a personal level.

12.  Keep in mind that whether or not the goal is achieved in a story has no bearing on whether of not the Main Character resolves his or her personal issue.  So, you can have a happy ending in which success is matched with happiness, a tragedy in which failure is matched with personal anguish, or a bitter-sweet ending in which success is achieved but with personal anguish or failure is the result of the effort to achieve the goal but with the Main Character finding peace or joy in the end.

Now you know the nuts and bolts of the role and function of the Influence Character, but what does that feel like in a actual stories?  To provide some insight into how it all plays out, here’s a video clip to illustrate the nature of Influence Character and its relationship to the Main Character in regard to the message issue:

You And I Are Both Alike

I hope you have found this article useful and, if so, that you might try the StoryWeaver story development software I created or the Dramatica story structuring software I co-created.  Try them risk-free.

Posted in Characters | Comments Off on Your Influence Character is the Heart of Your Story

Characters: Cogs in the Machine?

From a structural standpoint, characters are just cogs in the machine.  They have a job to do in the story as a protagonist, antagonist or any one of the functional roles that must be filled for the story to make sense and move forward.

But characters are much more than that! They also need to be real people with their own lives, fears and desires or the readers or audience won’t be able to identify with them. So characters have two jobs to do in every story – one professional and the other personal.

To illustrate characters’ professional lives,  first imagine that you stepped back from your story far enough that you could no longer identify your characters by their personalities, but just by the dramatic role they are playing in the structure of the story.

Like a general on a hill watching a battle, you could only see each character by its function in the battle:  There’s the guy leading the charge – that’s the Protagonist. His opponent is the Antagonist. There’s the strategist, working out the battle plan – he’s the Reason archetype. One soldier is shouting mindlessly at the pathos and carnage – he’s the Emotion archetype.

The structure of stories deals with this big picture in which characters are no more than cogs in the machine of story.  But at that level of appreciation, your readers or audience can’t invest emotionally in your characters, nor can they identify with them.

To overcome this, each character must be fully developed as a complete human being in their personal lives.  When developing characters at this level, you need to stand in their shoes, see what they see, think what they think, feel what they feel.  You need to make them real, and express them passionately through each of their individual personal points of view.

Taken together these two jobs create the complex juxtaposition of dramatics that make stories so appealing and provide an appreciation of characters that matches what we all experience in real life.  We are a part of a company at work, or of a club or a class.  But we are also individuals with a unique combination of likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, dreams and goals.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Like my article?

Here’s something else I made for writers…

Posted in Characters | Comments Off on Characters: Cogs in the Machine?

SECRETS of the Protagonist…

The Protagonist is one of the most misunderstood characters in a story’s structure.  It is often assumed that this character is a typical “Hero” who is a good guy, the central character in the story, and the Main Character (the one through with whom the reader identifies).

In fact, the Protagonist is not any of these things, though all of these attributes may be added to what the Protagonist really is.  By definition, the Protagonist is nothing more than the Prime Mover or Driver of the effort to achieve the goal.  That’s it.  He or she is just the archetypal character who keeps pushing for the goal – that and nothing more.

So, sometimes the Protagonist is not a story’s Central character (the most memorable or charismatic character in the story).  Being the Central character simply means he or is is the most prominent to the reader.  For example, Fagin in “Oliver Twist” is perhaps the most prominent, but he is certainly not the Protagonist.  And Darth Maul is an extremely charismatic character in Star Wars, but was not at all the Protagonist.  Clearly, the actual Protagonist may in fact be less interesting than than the Central character, and may even be almost a background character if achieving the goal is not really the focus of the story but just the reason for the chase.

Similarly, the Protagonist is often not the Main Character of the story either.  The Main character is the one the reader identifies with – the character we are most connected to emotionally – the one whom the passionate outcome of the story revolves around.  It is the Main character who grapples with some personal issue they will ultimately try to overcome by the end of the story by making a choice in a leap of faith.

For an example of a story in which the Protagonist is NOT the Main character consider To Kill A Mockingbird, in which we experience the story through young Scout’s eyes, and yet, it is her father (lawyer, Atticus Finch) who is the protagonist, trying to defend a  young black man wrongly accused of rape.

As you can see, while there are many attributes often given to the character who is the Protagonist, these don’t really have to be bundled together unless you are trying to create a stereotypical hero.

Just as in our own lives, we are the Main Character, but may not be the Protagonist on every single project or job in which we are involved, nor are we always the most prominent member of our team, department, or social group.

While it is fun to read books and go to movies in which we identify with heroes, stories that recognize all of those traits don’t have to be given to just one character help us to learn how to be heroic in our own lives.

So in developing your Protagonist, give the guy a break and see if you can’t distribute some of those other jobs to other characters to make them more interesting and your Protagonist more reflective of real life.

This tip was excerpted from StoryWeaver

Posted in Characters | Comments Off on SECRETS of the Protagonist…

Protagonist & Antagonist – Who ARE These Guys?

The protagonist and antagonist may not be who you think they are.  For one thing, a protagonist is not necessarily the hero of a story.  Structurally speaking, the protagonist is the one who shakes up the status quo – that’s the “pro” part, while the antagonist is the one who tries to stop that effort or put it back the way it was.

In a James Bond film, for example, it is often the bad guy who begins an evil process that James Bond is called upon to thwart.  This makes the bad guy the protagonist even though he is the villain, and James the antagonist even though he is the hero.

In practice, a true hero is a protagonist who is also the main character (we identify with him) and is also a good guy.  A villain is an antagonist who is also the influence character (he has an opposing life philosophy or morality to that of the main character) and is also a bad guy.

But these traits can be mixed and matched between the two characters creating, for example, anti heroes and sympathetic villains.

The main point here is to stop thinking of protagonist and antagonist as hero and villain but as structural functions – to begin a quest or to try and stop a quest.  Then, you can have some fun as an author determining which of these is the good guy and bad guy and with which one you wish your readers or audience to identify.

Posted in Characters | Comments Off on Protagonist & Antagonist – Who ARE These Guys?

Change is Good (or maybe bad)

At the core of a story’s message is a very simple issue – whether the author is telling us it is better to be like the main character or not.  This is usually thought of as the moral of the story and is proven to the readers or audience by how the main character fares after making a choice or taking a leap of faith at the climax.

For characters like Scrooge in  A Christmas Carol, the message is that it is better to change one’s attitude toward others and adopt a new way of thinking.  If you do, things will work out better.  But for other characters, such as in Field of Dreams or Rocky, the message is to stick by your beliefs because that’s the only way to solve your problems.

Sometimes change is good, as with Scrooge.  But imagine if Ray had given up on building the ball field or Rocky Balboa had determined there was no way to win and he shouldn’t continue to try.

Stories can be written about characters who change or about characters who don’t.  That’s the first part of the message.  The second part is what happens to the character in the end as a result of their choice to change or not.

This results in four possibilities:

  1. The main character changes and things work out for the better.
  2. The main character changes and things work out for the worse.
  3. The main character remains steadfast and things work out for the better.
  4. The main character remains steadfast and things work out for the worse.

Each of the four combinations provides a different kind of message about changing or sticking to your beliefs.  So far, so good.  But now you need to get that message across to your readers or audience.

The first part of conveying your message is to be clear about the nature of the human quality or thought pattern that your moral is about.  That aspect of your main character that defines him, just as Scrooge’s lack of concern for his fellow man is the issue at the heart of him.  How you do this can be subtle or straight out, but by the time the moment of choice is upon your main character, your audience or reader needs to absolutely and with total clarity know what that issue is or your message will be unclear.

The second part of conveying your message is to show that as a result of his or her choice, your main character is better off or worse off than they were.  This element of your message has two components:

  1. Did they achieve the goal?
  2. Are they in an emotionally better place than they were.

For example, suppose you have a story in which a character changes his beliefs, achieves the goal, and is elated.  That’s fine, and the message is that whatever his issue was, it was good he changed his point of view.  But change is not always good, so in another story a character might change his beliefs, still achieve the goal, but be miserable in the end because he hadn’t resolved his anguish or he had to take on an emotional burden to accomplish his quest.  For example, in Avengers: Infinity War, the villain Thanos has to kill the person he loves the most to accomplish his goal, and this leaves him logistically satisfied yet emotionally devastated.

On the opposite side, a character might remain steadfast in his beliefs, fail in the goal but find personal salvation or true happiness in the end.  Or a character might remain steadfast, succeed in the goal but be left personally raw.  An example of this last combination can be seen in Silence of the Lambs in which Clarice Starling is successful in saving the senator’s daughter, but could not let go of the screaming lambs in her memory, as pointed out in the end by Hannibal Lecter (“Tell me, Clarice,” are the lambs still screaming?”)  This is why the ending music over her graduation ceremony is so somber – she achieved the goal but could not let go of her angst.

And, of course, you can have the quintessential tragedy in which a change or a steadfast character fails and the goal and is miserable in the end, such as in Hamelt, or the penultimate feel good story in which a change or steadfast character both succeeds in the goal and find (or holds onto) great happiness, true love, etc., as in the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV)

The point here is that change, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad until you see the results of that change.  And also, a character does not have to change to grow, but can grow in his or her resolve.

And finally, the ramifications don’t have to be cut and dried: all good or all bad.  Rather, by treating the goal and the emotional outcome separately, you have the opportunity to temper your message with bitter sweet and sweet bitter endings as well, thereby creating a more complex message for your readers or viewers.

Also from the author of this article…

Posted in Story Development Tips | Comments Off on Change is Good (or maybe bad)

Use a Log Line to Clarify Your Story Before You Write

Having a core concept for your story before you write will provide you with a creative beacon – a lighthouse by which to guide your creative efforts so they stay on course to your ultimate purpose: a completed novel.

While this seems fairly simple, it can be a lot harder than it looks. It is the rare writer who has a focused concise story concept right from the beginning. Many discover the essence of their novel during the development process or even as they write.

At the beginning of the story development process, many writers find themselves with a collection of story elements they’d like to include but no overarching concept.

Without a core concept, the first inclination is to try to pull all the good ideas into a single all-encompassing story. Problem is, people think in topics more easily than they think in narratives. And while all the material may belong to the same subject matter category, more often than not it doesn’t really belong in the same story.

Still, no one likes to abandon a good idea – after all, those aren’t that easy to come by. And so, writers stop coming up with new ideas as their attention turns more and more toward figuring out how to connect together everything they already have.

This can create an every growing spiral of structural complexity in the attempt to fit every notion and concept into a single unifying whole. And before you know it, your inspiration and enthusiasm have both run dry to be replaced by creative frustration with a candy coating of intellectual effort that is not unlike trying to build a single meaningful picture from the pieces of several different puzzles.

To determine the central vision for your novel try these techniques. First, shift your focus from what your story needs, and ask yourself what you need. More precisely, consider why you want to write this story in the first place. What is it that excites you most about this subject matter? Is it a character, a plot line, a thematic message or topic, or just a genre or setting or timeframe or…?

Create a list of all the elements you have been pondering to possibly include in your story – put it on paper so you can easily see them all at once. Next, considering your own personal interests, prioritize that list,putting the items you most want to include at the top and those less compelling ones at the bottom.

(Tip: sometimes it is hard to pick the most interesting and it is easier to start at the bottom of the list with the least interesting and work up!)

Now, block the bottom half of the list to see only the top items. These are the aspects of your story that are most inspiring to you and represent the heart of your story. Think about them as a group and see if you can perceive a common thread.

This common thread is called a log line. Log lines are like the short descriptions of a program you see in cable or satellite television listings. As examples, here are the log lines for two stories of my own:

Snow Sharks (Don’t Eat Red Snow) – A group of rich teenage ski-bums are terrorized by escaped sharks that have been genetically altered by the U.S. government to act as mobile land mines in potential arctic wars.

House of W.A.C.S. – In 1942, this cross between Animal House and The Dirty Dozen follows one of the first groups of young women in the newly created Women’s Army Corps as they learn to work together as a team to thwart a Nazi fifth column and protect a crucial war factory.

The top two examples are plot-oriented, but many novels may be much more concerned with character growth or a thematic message or even both.

For example, the log line for “A Christmas Carol” might be:

An unhappy and miserly man has isolated himself from an emotional connection with the suffering of humanity as a shield against his own childhood pain, but through the intervention of three ghosts who force him to confront his past, present and future, he ultimately see how he has victimized both himself and others, repents, and seeks to make amends.

Naturally, you don’t have to stick to one sentence in your log line – that could be an exercise in futility and put your attention more on form than purpose. The point is simply to boil down the heart of your story to its essence with the least possible number of words.
In this manner your collection of potential story elements begins to take on a unifying identity – a sense your story’s world, who’s in it, what happens to them and what it all means – all at a high-level overview.

If your material is too limited or sketchy to get a grip on it, just describe what excites you about your potential story, rather than what’s in it, such as:

“I’m fascinated with the notion of an archeologist finding a modern device embedded in the ruins of an ancient civilization.”

You really don’t need more than that to center yourself on what you’d like to write about and, so armed, you will much more easily be able to pick and choose which ideas to include and which to exclude from your novel in progress. And, it will also inform your Muse as to where future inspiration should focus.

If, on the other hand, your wealth of story ideas is so wide-ranging or diffuse to easily see the thread, gather these ideas into groups organized by having a common connection and put each on a separate sheet of paper.

Then, try writing writing a separate log line for each group. Each of these sub-log lines will help focus a different part of what you’d like your story to be. So, rather than trying to find the core directly from your original list, try to see the central concept outlined by your collection of log lines – essential a master log line that takes all the sub-lines into account and finds an overarching concept in them as a collection.

By applying some or all of these techniques, you’ll should be able to define the essences of your story sufficiently to pick and choose which inspirations and concepts to include or exclude and to direct your ongoing story development so all the elements work together and generate in the reader a sense of a unified whole.

This technique is one of the first steps in my StoryWeaver software.  Click the ad below to learn more…

Melanie Anne Phillips

Posted in Creative Writing | Comments Off on Use a Log Line to Clarify Your Story Before You Write

Get Into Your Characters’ Heads

One of the most powerful opportunities of the novel format is the ability to describe what a character is thinking. In movies or stage plays (with exceptions) you must show what the character is thinking through action and/or dialog. But in a novel, you can just come out and say it.

For example, in a movie, you might say:

John walks slowly to the window and looks out at the park bench where he last saw Sally. His eyes fill with tears. He bows his head and slowly closes the blinds.

But in a novel you might write:

John walked slowly to the window, letting his gaze drift toward the park bench where he last saw Sally. Why did I let her go, he thought. I wanted so much to ask her to stay. Saddened, he reflected on happier times with her – days of more contentment than he ever imagined he could feel.

The previous paragraph uses two forms of expressing a character’s thoughts. One, is the direct quote of the thought, as if it were dialog spoken internally to oneself. The other is a summary and paraphrase of what was going on in the character’s head.

Most novels are greatly enhanced by stepping away from a purely objective narrative perspective, and drawing the reader into the minds of the character’s themselves.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Posted in Creative Writing | Comments Off on Get Into Your Characters’ Heads

Letting Go of Characters

Over the course of the story, your reader/audience has come to know your characters and to feel for them. The story doesn’t end when your characters and their relationships reach a climax. Rather, the reader/audience will want to know the aftermath – how it turned out for each character and each relationship. In addition, the audience needs a little time to say goodbye – to let the character walk off into the sunset or to mourn for them before the story ends.

This is in effect the conclusion, the wrap-up. After everything has happened to your characters, after the final showdown with their respective demons, what are they like? How have they changed? If a character began the story as a skeptic, does it now have faith? If they began the story full of hatred for a mother that abandoned them, have they now made revelations to the effect that she was forced to do this, and now they no longer hate? This is what you have to tell the audience, how their journeys changed them, have the resolved their problems, or not?

And in the end, this constitutes a large part of your story’s message. It is not enough to know if a story ends in success or failure, but also if the characters are better off emotionally or plagued with even greater demons, regardless of whether or not the goal was achieved.

You can show what happens to your characters directly, through a conversation by others about them, or even in a post-script on each that appears after the story is over or in the ending credits of a movie.

How you do this is limited only by your creative inspiration, but make sure you review each character and each relationship and provide at least a minimal dismissal for each.

Click to write your novel or screenplay step by step with StoryWeaver

Click to predict the perfect structure for your story with Dramatica

Posted in Creative Writing, Story Development | Comments Off on Letting Go of Characters

Excuses, Excuses….

When a child comes up with a false reason for some small transgression, we know he is just making an excuse to avoid punishment or to side-step a negative emotional response. Adults continue to make excuses; they just do it in a far more sophisticated way.  What’s more, we often make excuses to ourselves, convincing ourselves that a particular course of action is best, even though deep down we know it really isn’t.

So how and why do we play these mental games?  How exactly does this work in our own minds, and how should it work in the minds of our characters if their motivations are to come off as those of real people?

The answers to these questions lie in in a mental process called justification.  Justification describes the internal mechanisms we use to shift the truth of a situation in order to create a more favorable interpretation.  This can cover up a mistake, but it can also help us find a way around restrictions that really aren’t absolute.

The tale of the Gordian Knot is a good illustration how justification can uncover a solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem.  In the story, Alexander the Great encounters an intricately tied knot where the ends are worked inside so there is no apparent way to part the two ropes.  Legend foretold that whomever could part the ropes was destined to become the emperor of all Asia.  After examining the knot, Alexander simply drew his sword and cut the knot in half, thereby separating the two ropes, since there were no stated restrictions on exactly how the ropes needed to be parted.

Today, we call this “thinking outside the box,” meaning that we put aside the context normally used to frame an idea and look at it from a whole new perspective.  But how does this work in stories?  This exact same technique was employed in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the assassin comes at Indy with a sword and our hero just pulls his gun and shoots him.

The point here is that while justification can be used to make excuses, it can also open one’s mind to new solutions to previously unsolvable problems.  But not all justifications are just about shifting perspective about a current situation.  These same techniques can be employed when considering how a situation may change in time.

For example, of the three little pigs, the who built his house of brick put in a lot more work than was needed for any current problem, but considered what might be needed for an unknown problem in the future.  Every squirrel that buries nuts for the winter, rather than eating them all now is justifying, and the story of the Grasshopper and the Ant (google it) illustrated the folly of paying attention only to the here and how.

In real life, every retirement fund or medical insurance policy is a justification that actually creates difficulties in the present by limiting resources in expectation of a future need that may never actually materialize.

Of course not all justifications are of such life-changing import.  Imagine, for example, a person, we’ll call him Joe,  who has a friend come to visit for the weekend.  Joe has a great time with the visit but in the morning when he goes to water his plants, he discovers his friend has parked in such a way to block easy access and he must walk around the long way to do the job.

Joe’s first reaction is mild anger at his friend for the inconvenience.  Almost instantly, he regrets feeling that way as he knows his friend was unaware of the issue.  So, he is able to dissipate some of his negative feelings by re-contexualizing the issue spatially with the notion that he would rather have his friend visit and have the problem than have his friend not visit.

But, this only balances the emotional inequity by saying the benefits outweigh the costs.  So, Joe is still left with negative feelings due to the emotional value of his friend’s visit that is now being lessened by deducting the emotional cost of the inconvenience.  Then Joe, while watering, tries a another justification by considering that he is a little out of shape and the extra exertion will do him good in the long run.

This shift in context is based in truth, so Joe now feels good about the extra walk and along with his first justification that salved his feelings, he has finally fully eliminated his negative emotions and now has an overall positive cost-free perspective of both his friend’s visit and of the inconvenience.

But, there’s still a problem of a different sort remaining.  Since the emotional inequity has now been eliminated, so too has the potential for further motivation also been removed.  The end result is that Joe will not now consider buying a new hose to avoid the long walk around, which would have solved the problem once and for all for every visitor he receives in the future.

Bottom line – justification is neither good nor bad, except in context.  It may eliminate emotional negatives, but it can also eliminate motivation.  By understanding the mental mechanisms by which justifications are created, we can provide insight into our characters, furnish them with believable balanced motivations, and offer valuable understanding for our readers/audience through the voice of the Wise Author.

And, by turning this understanding upon ourselves, we can learn to recognize these mental patterns within ourselves as they happen, allowing us to make a conscious decision as to the best context for our purposes, rather than subconsciously falling into habitual patterns  of justification, regardless of their effectiveness in the current situation and circumstances.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Posted in Story Development | Comments Off on Excuses, Excuses….