Have you ever read a book for a second, third, even tenth time—just to experience the emotion the story evokes? Clearly the elements of the story aren’t a surprise. You know exactly what to expect. If so, you were benefiting from an author who knew how to evoke reader emotions.
Literary agent Donald Maass says that emotions are most effectively evoked by trickery–when readers aren’t noticing we are manipulating them. He says:
Artful fiction surprises readers with their own feelings.
We writers want to evoke emotion throughout our novels—big, small, expected, and unexpected—so that even when readers know what emotion is being stirred in them, when they see what’s coming, it doesn’t reduce the impact.
The Net of “Surprisingness”
C.S. Lewis said people go back and reread certain stories over and over not to be surprised (because the reader already knows what is going to happen) but for the “surprisingness.” It’s the quality of unexpectedness that delights us, just as it does children who want the same story read over and over. The fact that children know what is about to happen only makes them more excited. Like children, we savor the richness of a story again and again.
Lewis calls the plot of the story “the net whereby to catch something else.” That“something” is what he refers to as “much more than a state or quality.” Real life, he says, is a series of events, but if that is all it is, there is no deeper meaning or feeling of adventure. That net of the story, for a little while, transcends us and entangles us in the wonder and awe of living. That is what Lewis says the best stories will do.
When we can catch readers in a net of emotions—especially unexpected and surprising ones—that’s powerful magic.
Surprise also causes a shift. It forces a change in perspective. Your reader becomes hyper-alert, curious, in the moment, a perfect state for receiving the unexpected emotion.
How to Evoke Reader Emotions That Are Unexpected
When I began to read the chapter in Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain in which Enzo the beloved narrator dog is dying, I just knew what was going to happen to me, what I was about to get into. Most people relate to losing a pet. Most people share that universal affection for sweet animal companions.
While I have met many readers who confessed they wept their heart out reading this joyously sad scene, I imagine some readers weren’t moved at all. But I bet almost everyone who read that book felt something. You don’t bother to read a novel told in “first-person dog POV” if you don’t like dogs. And it says something that this novel was on the NYT’s bestseller list for 156 weeks.
The key to its brilliance lies solely in neither the wonderful writing nor the universal resonance of “it’s so horrible to lose someone (person or animal) you love.” Rather, it’s the masterful execution of the scene as joyously sad. I chose that phrase to make a point: when unexpected emotions are evoked in us, it awes us.
Pay attention to that.
You wouldn’t expect a scene that has you watching a dog die—one that breaks your heart—to make you simultaneously happy even to the point of laughing. That’s what makes that scene so brilliant. The whole time I was crying in anguish, I was also laughing with joy. The scene was absolutely authentic in every way. It was utterly surprising as much as it was totally expected.
Don’t Try to Name Emotions
I can’t put a name to the composite emotion I felt when reading Enzo’s death scene. I could toss around a whole lot of words, but trying to name complex emotions is like trying to catch the wind with chopsticks. The secret lies in Hemingway’s brilliant advice:
Find what gave you the emotion . . . then write it down, making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling as you had.
Think of it this way. You might not know what to name a particular color shade, but if you have a few tubes of paint and play around with the quantities, you just might be able to re-create the color. That’s what you need to do with the words on your palette to create the same emotion you wish readers to experience.
There is something to be said about building intimacy with characters. It might be hard to evoke emotion in readers for a character to whom they have only just been introduced. This is why Garth Stein placed his most powerful emotional scene near the end of the book, when readers are fully committed to Enzo and Denny, so it might pack the biggest emotional punch.
If you haven’t read The Art of Racing in the Rain, I highly recommend it as a way of understanding the power of “surprisingness.” Those of you who have already read the book may want to read this post and pay attention to the incongruous, unexpected emotions you feel as you go through the powerful passage at the Climax of the story. Note the universal feelings the old dog Enzo expresses that make you think, Me too!
Garth Stein does a brilliant job of not only conveying Enzo’s complex emotions, which are both expected and unexpected, but evoking so many emotions in the reader.
Finding a way to surprise your character and your reader adds micro-tension to your pages. This sparks those emotions in your readers that keep them engaged, whether it be something positive like amusement or negative like outrage or fear. Know how you want your readers to feel and lead them there.
Yes, readers love to be surprised. The unexpected surprises us. It might scare us, delight us, or move us profoundly. Yet, often a character’s reaction to a situation is wholly predictable and still it moves us deeply. Consider just about any love story that ends in happily ever after. Predictability really has nothing to do with emotional impact. It’s how the story is shown that matters—how those emotions are conveyed in a way that is believable, masterful, and moving.
Want to learn how to become a masterful wielder of emotion in your fiction? Enroll in C.S. Lakin’s new online video course, Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers, before September 1st, and get half off using this link!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do you hope to evoke reader emotions by the end of your story? Tell us in the comments!
Stories are about change. Sometimes that change is positive, driven by hopeful or even heroic people. But sometimes that change is negative, driven by humanity’s darkest urges and blindnesses. Both stories are necessary, which is why we’re rounding out our two-part series with a beat-by-beat look at the three Negative Arcs—the Disillusionment Arc, the Fall Arc, and the Corruption Arc.
Last week when we looked at the two Heroic Arcs (the Positive-Change Arc and the Flat Arc), I talked about how someone pointed out I didn’t yet have an easily-scannable resource that put the basic structures of all the arcs in one place. This series ended up being too long to put in precisely one place. But as of today, you can at least find the five major arcs all linked from one place!
1%: The Hook:Believes Lie in Comfortable Normal World
The protagonist believes a Lie that has so far proven necessary or functional in the existing Normal World, which is often a comfortable and complacent place.
12%: The Inciting Event: First Hint Lie Is Untrue
The Call to Adventure, when the protagonist first encounters the main conflict, also brings the first subtle hint that the Lie will no longer serve the protagonist as effectively as it has in the past.
25%: The First Plot Point: Full Immersion in Adventure World’s Stark Truth
The protagonist is faced with a consequential choice, in which the comfortable “old ways” of the Lie-ridden First Act show themselves ineffective in the face of the main conflict’s new stakes. The protagonist will pass through a Door of No Return, in which he is forced to enter the Adventure World of the main conflict in the Second Act, where he is confronted by a stark and painful new Truth.
The Second Act (25%-75%)
37%: The First Pinch Point: Punished for Using Lie
The protagonist is “punished” for using the Lie. In the Normal World, he was able to use the Lie to get the Thing He Wants. But in the Adventure World, this is no longer a functional mindset. Throughout the First Half of the First Act, he will try to use his old Lie-based mindsets to reach his goals and will be “punished” by failures until he begins to learn how things really work.
50%: The Midpoint (Second Plot Point): Forced to Face Truth, But Unwilling to Embrace It
The protagonist encounters a Moment of Truth in which he comes face to face with the thematic Truth (often via a simultaneous plot-based revelation about the external conflict). This is the first time the protagonist consciously recognizes the Truth and its power. He is, however, horrified by the implications of this dark new Truth. Although he can no longer deny the Truth, he is unwilling to fully embrace it or to surrender his comparatively wonderful old Lie.
62%: The Second Pinch Point: Growing Frustration With Old Lie and Disillusionment With New Truth
The protagonist is forced to confront consistently-increasing examples of the Lie’s lack of functionality in the real world. He grows more and more frustrated with the Lie’s limitations. He begins to accept the horrible Truth. He is profoundly disillusioned by his new worldview, even as he begins to be “rewarded” for using the Truth to reach for the Thing He Wants.
The Third Act (75%-100%)
75%: The Third Plot Point: Accepts That Comforting Lie Is Now Completely Nonexistent
The protagonist is confronted by an irrefutable “low moment,” in which he can no longer fool himself that the dark Truth is not true. He must not only accept this new Truth, he must also admit that his comforting old Lie is now completely nonexistent.
88%: The Climax: Wields Dark New Truth in Final Confrontation
The protagonist enters the final confrontation with the antagonistic force to decide whether or not he will gain the Thing He Wants. Directly before or during this section, he consciously and explicitly embraces and wields the dark new Truth.
98%: The Climactic Moment: Fully Acknowledges Truth
The protagonist uses the Truth and all it has taught him about himself and the conflict to gain the Thing He Needs. Depending the nature of his Truth, he may also gain the Thing He Wants (only to discover that, in light of his new knowledge, it is worthless), or he may realize he needs to sacrifice it for his own greater good. As a result, he definitively ends the conflict between himself and the antagonistic force.
100%: The Resolution: Disillusioned With New Truth
The protagonist either enters a new Normal World or returns to the original Normal World, but with a jaded eye now that he knows the Truth.
2. The Fall Arc
Character Believes Lie > Clings to Lie > Rejects New Truth > Believes Worse Lie
The protagonist believes a Lie that has so far proven necessary or functional in the existing (often destructive) Normal World.
12%: The Inciting Event: First Hint Lie Will Not Save or Reward
The Call to Adventure, when the protagonist first encounters the main conflict, also brings the first subtle hint that the Lie will no longer effectively protect or reward the protagonist in her current circumstances.
25%: The First Plot Point: Lie Now Completely Ineffective; Makes Move Toward Truth
The protagonist is faced with a consequential choice in which the “old ways” of the Lie-ridden First Act show themselves ineffective in the face of the main conflict’s new stakes. The protagonist is given an early choice between old Lie and new Truth. She passes through a Door of No Return, in which she makes a move toward the Truth and, in so doing, is forced to leave the Normal World of the First Act and enter the Adventure World of the main conflict in the Second Act.
The Second Act (25%-75%)
37%: The First Pinch Point: Halfhearted Attempts at Truth Only Half-Effective
The protagonist tries to wield the Truth as a means of gaining the Thing She Wants, but does so only with limited understanding or enthusiasm. She is stuck in a limbo-land where the old Lie is no longer a functional mindset, but where her halfhearted attempts at the Truth prove likewise only half-effective.
The protagonist encounters a Moment of Truth in which she comes face to face with the thematic Truth (often via a simultaneous plot-based revelation about the external conflict). This is the first time the protagonist consciously sees the full power and opportunity of the Truth. However, she also sees the full sacrifice demanded if she is to follow the Truth. Unwilling to make that sacrifice, she rejects the Truth and chooses instead to embrace a Lie that is worse then the original.
62%: The Second Pinch Point: Lie Is Effective, But Destructive
Uncaring about the consequences, the protagonist wields her Lie well and finds it effective in moving toward the Thing She Wants. However, the closer she gets to her plot goal, the more destructive the Lie becomes both to her and to the world around her.
The Third Act (75%-100%)
75%: The Third Plot Point: Complete Failure to Gain Either Want or Need
The protagonist is confronted by a “low moment,” in which she experiences a complete failure to gain the Thing She Wants. This failure is a direct result of the collective damage wrought by her Lie in the Second Half of the Second Act. The “means” caught up to her before she reached her “end.” However, even when faced by all the evidence of the Lie’s destructive power, the protagonist still refuses to repent or to turn to the Truth.
88%: The Climax: Last-Ditch Attempt to Salvage Want
Upon entering the final confrontation with the antagonistic force, the protagonist doubles down on her Lie in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the Thing She Wants.
98%: The Climactic Moment: Total Destruction
Crippled by the Lie (in both the internal and external conflicts), the protagonist is unable to gain the Thing She Wants (or gains it only to discover it is useless to her). Instead, she succumbs to total personal destruction.
100%: The Resolution: Aftermath
The protagonist must confront the aftermath of her choices. She may finally and futilely accept the inescapable Truth. Or she may be left to cope, blindly, with the consequences of her choices.
3. The Corruption Arc
Character Sees Truth > Rejects Truth > Embraces Lie
The protagonist lives in a Normal World that allows for or even encourages the thematic Truth. As a result, the protagonist starts out with an understanding of the Truth.
12%: The Inciting Event: First Temptation of Lie
The Call to Adventure, when the protagonist first encounters the main conflict, also brings the first subtle temptation that the Lie might be able to serve the protagonist better than the Truth.
25%: The First Plot Point: Enters Beguiling Adventure World of Lie
The protagonist is faced with a consequential choice, in which he is enticed out of the First Act’s safe, Truth-based Normal World into the Second Act’s beguiling, Lie-based Adventure World. Not realizing the danger (or believing he is weighing the consequences), the protagonist is lured through the Door of No Return by the promise of the Thing He Wants.
The Second Act (25%-75%)
37%: The First Pinch Point: Torn Between Truth and Lie
The protagonist is torn between his old Truth and the new Lie. The Lie proves itself effective in moving him nearer the Thing He Wants. But he wages an internal conflict as he recognizes he is moving further and further away from his old convictions and understandings of the world.
50%: The Midpoint (Second Plot Point): Embraces Lie Without Fully Rejecting Truth
The protagonist encounters a Moment of Truth in which he comes face to face with the Lie in all its power. He recognizes he cannot gain the Thing He Wants without the Lie. Although he is not yet willing to fully and consciously reject the Truth, he makes the decision to fully embrace the Lie.
62%: The Second Pinch Point: Resists Sacrifice Demanded by Truth
The protagonist is “rewarded” for using the Lie. Building upon what he learned at the Midpoint, the protagonist will start implementing Lie-based actions in combating the antagonistic force and reaching toward the Thing He Wants. The Truth pulls on him, demanding sacrifices he is not willing to give. He begins resisting the Truth more and more adamantly.
The Third Act (75%-100%)
75%: The Third Plot Point: Fully Embraces Lie
The protagonist utterly rejects the Truth and embraces the Lie. He acts upon this in a way that creates a “low moment” for the world around him (and for him morally, even if he refuses to recognize it). He is now willing to knowingly endure the consequences of rejecting the Truth in exchange for what he sees as the rewards of embracing the Lie.
88%: The Climax: Final Push to Gain Want
The protagonist enters the final confrontation with the antagonistic force to decide whether or not he will gain the Thing He Wants. Unhampered by the Truth, he pushes forward ruthlessly toward his plot goal.
98%: The Climactic Moment: Moral Failure
The protagonist uses the Lie and all it has taught him in an attempt to gain the Thing He Wants. He may gain the Thing He Wants and remain senseless to the evil engendered by his actions. Or he may gain the Thing He Wants only to be devastated when he realizes it wasn’t worth what he sacrificed. Or he may fail to gain the Thing He Wants and be devastated by the realization that his sacrifices to the Lie were fruitless. One way or another, he definitively ends the conflict between himself and the antagonistic force.
100%: The Resolution: Aftermath
The protagonist must confront the aftermath of his choices. He may turn away from the Lie, admitting his mistake and accepting the consequences. Or he may callously forge ahead, intent on continuing to use the Lie to further his own ends.
Needless to say, there are many variations of these five arcs. But if you can identify and master these five, you’re well on your way to writing a powerful evolution that will resonate with all your readers.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What types of character arc have you written? Tell me in the comments!
There are only two or three human stories, but they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.–Willa Cather
The many different approaches to story theory break down the number of “human stories” into different categories. Perhaps there are just two—comedy and tragedy. Perhaps there are Vonnegut’s eight “shapes.” Today, I’m going to argue for five—the five basic types of character arc.
As of now, I’m remedying that with a two-part series that puts the basic principles and types of character arc all in one place. Today, we’re going to start by talking about, first, the basic ingredients necessary in any type of character arc, followed by a detailed but at-a-glance look at the two “truth-based” heroic arcs.
The 6 Foundational Ingredients of All Character Arcs
Let’s get started. All five arcs share several commonalities, beginning with their foundational structure (which I prefer to break into three acts and ten beats, as you’ll see below). Beyond that, they also share the following six foundational ingredients, which can then be mixed to the author’s needs according to whichever arc has been chosen for the story.
1. The Thematic Truth
The theme is your story’s Truth. It is a universal statement about how the world works. In almost all instances (with the arguable exception of the Disillusionment Arc), the Truth will represent an ultimately positive (if sometimes painful) value, which will help the characters interact more fruitfully and less futilely with the world.
The Lie is a misconception about the world that stands in contrast to the Truth. At the beginning of the story, the Lie will be preventing someone (either the protagonist or, in the case of the Flat Arc, supporting characters) from seeing, understanding, and/or accepting a necessary Truth. The entire character arc—and, indeed, the entire story—is about if and how the character(s) will be able to evolve past the Lie into the Truth.
3. & 4. The Thing the Character Wants vs. the Thing the Character Needs
The inner thematic conflict of Truth vs. Lie will manifest in the external plot conflict as the Thing the Character Wants vs. the Thing the Character Needs. Usually, the Need is nothing more or less than the Truth, although it can take a physical form as well. The Want may be something large and abstract (such as “respect”), but it should boil down to a very specific plot goal (“a promotion” or “a college degree”). Your character’s evolving proximity to the Want and the Need will change in direct relation to the specific character arc.
The Ghost (sometimes also referred to as the “wound”) is the motivating catalyst in your protagonist’s backstory. This is the reason the character believes in the Lie and can’t see past it to the Truth. As its name (coined by script doctor extraordinaire John Truby) suggests, the Ghost is something that haunts the character, something that can’t just be moved past. Often, it is a traumatic event, but even something seemingly positive (such as a parent’s pride in a child) can cause a character to believe the damaging Lie.
The Normal World is the initial setting in the story’s First Act, meant to illustrate the character’s life before the story’s main conflict. Depending on the type of arc, the Normal World will symbolically represent either the story’s Truth or the story’s Lie. The Normal World may be a definitive setting, which will change at the beginning of the Second Act, when the character enters the Adventure World of the main conflict. However, it may also be more metaphorical, in which case the setting itself will not switch, but rather the conflict will change the setting around the protagonist (for example changing the atmosphere from friendly to hostile).
The protagonist believes a Lie that has so far proven necessary or functional in the existing Normal World.
12%: The Inciting Event: First Hint Lie Will No Longer Work
The Call to Adventure, when the protagonist first encounters the main conflict, also brings the first subtle hint that the Lie will no longer serve the protagonist as effectively as it has in the past.
25%: The First Plot Point: Lie No Longer Effective
The protagonist is faced with a consequential choice, in which the “old ways” of the Lie-ridden First Act show themselves ineffective in the face of the main conflict’s new stakes. Although the protagonist does not yet recognize the inefficacy of the Lie, he will still pass through a Door of No Return, in which he is forced to leave the Normal World of the First Act and enter the Adventure World of the main conflict in the Second Act.
The Second Act (25%-75%)
37%: The First Pinch Point: Punished for Using Lie
The protagonist is “punished” for using the Lie. In the Normal World, he was able to use the Lie to get the Thing He Wants. But in the Second Act, this is no longer a functional mindset. Throughout the First Half of the Second Act, he will try to use his old Lie-based mindsets to reach his goals and will be “punished” by failures until he begins to learn how things really work.
50%: The Midpoint (Second Plot Point): Sees Truth, But Doesn’t Yet Reject Lie
The protagonist encounters a Moment of Truth in which he comes face to face with the thematic Truth (often via a simultaneous plot-based revelation about the external conflict). This is the first time the protagonist consciously recognizes the Truth and its power. He does not yet, however, recognize the Truth and the Lie as incompatible. He will attempt to use both in the Second Half of the Second Act.
62%: The Second Pinch Point: Rewarded for Effectively Using Truth
The protagonist is “rewarded” for using the Truth. Building upon what he learned at the Midpoint, the protagonist will start implementing Truth-based actions in combating the antagonistic force and reaching toward the Thing He Wants. He will be “rewarded” by successes as he moves nearer and nearer his ultimate plot goal.
The Third Act (75%-100%)
75%: The Third Plot Point: Rejects Lie
The protagonist is confronted by a “low moment” brought about by his continuing refusal to fully reject the Lie. Finally, the protagonist must confront the true stakes of what he stands to lose if he continues to embrace the Lie. Feeling all but defeated, he rejects the Lie. Implicitly, he also fully embraces the Truth.
88%: The Climax: Embraces Truth
The protagonist enters the final confrontation with the antagonistic force to decide whether or not he will gain the Thing He Wants. Directly before or during this section, he consciously and explicitly embraces and wields the Truth.
98%: The Climactic Moment: Uses Truth to Gain Need
The protagonist uses the Truth and all it has taught him about himself and the conflict to gain the Thing He Needs. Depending upon the nature of his Truth, he may also gain the Thing He Wants, or he may realize he needs to sacrifice it for his own greater good. As a result, he definitively ends the conflict between himself and the antagonistic force.
100%: The Resolution: Enters New Truth-Empowered Normal World
The protagonist either enters a new Normal World or returns to the original Normal World, where he can now live as a Truth-empowered individual.
2. The Flat Arc
Character Believes Truth > Maintains Truth > Uses Truth to Overcome World’s Lie
The protagonist believes a Truth that the rest of the Normal World around her rejects. The Normal World and most of its characters are mired in a central Lie which enslaves them in some way.
12%: The Inciting Event: Challenged to Use Truth to Oppose Lie
The Call to Adventure, when the protagonist first encounters the main conflict, presents a direct challenge to her Truth. The question at this point is whether or not she can be convinced to take action in wielding her Truth against the Lie of the world around her.
25%: The First Plot Point: World Tries to Forcibly Impose Lie
The protagonist is faced with a consequential choice, in which the antagonistic force attempts to forcibly impose the Lie upon her or others. In refusing to relinquish her Truth for the Lie, the protagonist passes through a Door of No Return, in which she is forced to leave the Normal World of the First Act and enter the Adventure World of the main conflict in the Second Act.
The Second Act (25%-75%)
37%: The First Pinch Point: Uncertain if Truth Is Capable of Defeating Lie
The protagonist struggles to use her Truth against the strength of the antagonistic force’s Lie. She experiences doubt about whether her Truth is capable of defeating the Lie and, as a result, if it is indeed the Truth.
50%: The Midpoint (Second Plot Point): Proves Power of Truth to World
The protagonist perseveres in following her Truth. She offers a Moment of Truth to the world around her. This is the first time the protagonist will demonstrably exhibit the full power and purity of the Truth. At least one significant supporting character will be impacted (positively or negatively) by this revelation.
62%: The Second Pinch Point: Lie-Driven Characters Fight Back
In response to the protagonist’s powerful demonstration of Truth at the Midpoint, other Lie-driven characters will double down on the Lie and use it to mount a formidable counter-attack upon the protagonist and her Truth.
The Third Act (75%-100%)
75%: The Third Plot Point: Lie Seems to Triumph Externally
The Lie-driven tactics of the antagonistic force hit the protagonist hard, even to the point of the protagonist’s seeming defeat in the external conflict. The protagonist is confronted by a “low moment” brought about by the supporting characters’ continuing refusal to fully reject the Lie. The protagonist must confront the true stakes of what she stands to sacrifice if she continues to embrace the Truth. Even in the face of overwhelming odds, she reaffirms her conviction of the Truth.
88%: The Climax: Final Confrontation Between Truth and Lie
The protagonist enters the final confrontation with the antagonistic force to decide whether or not she will gain the Thing She Wants. She consciously and explicitly embraces and wields the Truth.
98%: The Climactic Moment: Truth Defeats Lie
The protagonist uses the Truth (often with the help of positively-changed supporting characters) to defeat the antagonistic force and gain the Thing She Wants and Needs (which are often the same thing in a Flat Arc, since the protagonist always possesses an understanding of the Truth).
100%: The Resolution: New Truth-Empowered Normal World
The protagonist enters a new Normal World, which is empowered by the Truth thanks to her actions.
Once you’ve mastered these two heroic arcs, you’re well on your way to writing powerful stories of redemption, conviction, and relatable righteousness.
Stay tuned, because next week, we’re going to do a side-by-side comparison of the three Negative-Change Arcs, which offer an equal amount of power in dramatizing all the ways human journeys don’t always turn out the way we might hope.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you written either of these types of character arc in your stories? Tell me in the comments!
Your thematic metaphor is the unifying idea that emerges as the meaning behind your characters’ adventures in their story world. Once you have identified your story’s thematic principle, the real work begins. How will you seamlessly join theme to plot?
Masterful authors create stories that, on their surfaces, may seem to be entirely plot—and yet are deeply thematic. They do this by getting their readers or viewers to feel and think deeply without being obvious about it. The seams with which they connect theme to plot are held together with invisible threads of highly sophisticated metaphor.
The Power of Thematic Metaphor in Storytelling
The metaphor is one of the most utilitarian techniques in a writer’s tool bag. We use it most simply in basic sentence constructions when describing via comparison (I’ve used the technique twice already in this post—in comparing metaphor to binding threads and in referencing a writer’s skill set as a “tool bag”). At its most macro (and indeed meta) level, story itself is nothing more than a large-scale metaphor; authors create made-up people going on made-up adventures as descriptive metaphors for real life.
It’s no surprise that somewhere in between the sentence level and the story level, we find yet another repetition of the pattern. This is where we come upon the powerful technique of molding plot into a visual, external metaphor for the story’s invisible, internal theme.
This interpretation of story can be applied with varying levels of explicitness.
At the other end, fact-based or docudrama stories (such as the The Great Escape or I, Claudius) evoke the metaphorical inference of theme by extrapolating and/or shaping a meaning from actual events.
(Successful stories in this category stand in stark contrast with their unsuccessful brethren, which present factual events but fail to transform plot into story by identifying the thematic metaphor or unifying meaning at the core of those events. Ron Howard’s movie In the Heart of the Sea comes to mind. It’s problematic enough on its own, but especially when compared to the famous epic with which it shares source material—the tremendously metaphoric and thematic Moby Dick.)
In between the two extremes, we find any number of varyingly explicit approaches to story-as-metaphor. Most “tales,” “yarns,” and “fables” (as John Gardner distinguishes them) are immersed in the increasingly deeper waters of non-reality (aka fantasy) and therefore increasingly obvious metaphor.
For example, archetypal fiction—aka, genre fiction—is shaped by time-honored metaphors that preconceive the story’s most basic themes—even as the specific details of the author’s individual handling of the familiar storyforms create nuance, irony, and sometimes even inversion. The Hero’s Journey in action stories and the Happily Ever After at the end of romances both come pre-packaged with a certain amount of inherent thematic metaphor.
What Does a Successful Thematic Metaphor Look Like?
I’ve talked several times before about my admiration for the Japanese movie Wolf Children. This is because it presents one of the best blends of metaphoric theme with an anti-formulaic story.
The story is founded on the high-concept premise of a single mother secretly raising her half-werewolf children. That’s a premise that could have been taken in a dozen directions, including some very genre choices (action-adventure or romance, chief among them). Instead, the story is a leisurely, almost “literary” series of vignettes that vividly show the mother’s struggles to protect, provide for, and prepare her children for their adult lives.
This is a story about this particular mother raising these particular children with their very particular werewolf challenges. It is presented in quasi-realistic fashion with little emphasis on the fantasy elements. In short, it’s a very straightforward story that doesn’t really seem to about anything more than what it’s about.
But by the time the end credits roll, to a poignant “remember-when” slideshow of the children growing up, it becomes clear that what viewers have just watched is a deeply wrought metaphor for parenthood. We realize the whole werewolf thing was just a metaphor for the strangeness and the often seemingly insurmountable challenges all parents face in taking responsibility for rearing their children.
3 Questions to Ask to Find Your Best Thematic Metaphor
Your first inkling about a story might be thematic. When this happens, you have the advantage of shaping the plot to be a metaphor for that theme. But more often, what comes first is plot and character. This is trickier, because it means you can’t so much construct your metaphor as discover it. You must look within the existing/evolving plot to try to identify the emerging theme.
This is a delicate process that should remain as organic as possible. Balancing plot, character, and theme is like juggling: you can handle one ball for only a short time before briefly pushing it away in favor of the next ball—and so on, over and over and over again. (I call this the bob-and-weave technique, used when outlining to hopefully achieve a seamless unity amongst the Big Three of plot, character, and theme.)
You must be careful not to impose theme too heavily upon plot (at the risk of ending up with a heavy-handed morality play) or plot too heavily upon theme (at the risk of a contrived and empty thematic argument). Rather, you must carefully examine, weigh, and feel both plot and theme to discover what each is telling you about the other.
Most plots offer certain inherent themes. It’s your job to discover what metaphor your plot is offering from amidst its characters’ entertaining adventures. All you have to do is ask the right questions.
It’s easy to get mentally buried under all the minutiae of even a brand-new story idea. The characters. The relationships. The action. Individual scenes. Even the character arcs.
All these things are just chips of glittering glass in the overall mosaic of your story. In order to truly see what you’ve got, you have to step way, way back.
Up close, the sinking of the Essex in 1820 seems to be about nothing more than a rogue whale taking out a whaling ship. In the Heart of the Sea certainly couldn’t find any greater meaning than that (or at least not one it was able to cohesively portray). Herman Melville, writing about the same events, stepped back far enough to see something else—which he transformed into a ferociously enduring metaphor about man’s obsessive search for and battle against God, fate, and the meaning of life.
Although great dialogue, interesting characters, and entertaining scenes are important, don’t lose sight of the fact that they’re just the trees in your forest. The forest itself is the story. Only in viewing the entire forest can you identify (and then double-check) what theme is emerging.
2. Does Your Story Have a Shape?
In considering what theme your plot might evoke, try to analyze the many parts of your story for emergent patterns. Stop seeing stars and start seeing constellations.
The more you add to your plot, and the more your characters do in the story, the more you should start seeing patterns. This is where we find the endless variation of theme even in genre stories. Romance stories are always about falling in love. But it’s only from the particular patterns of each book’s characters and their actions that we find the specific metaphors of each book’s themes. Jane Eyreis not Pride & Prejudice and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is not The Fault in Our Stars.
This is true even for different stories within the same series. Whatever the series’ overarching theme may be, each story inevitably offers its own private theme, based on its specific events—as we see in series such as the Marvel movies, each of which is thematically insular (with varying degrees of success).
You can start by looking at your cast of characters. What do they have in common? Don’t just look for areas or traits in which they are similar; look, too, for those in which they are diametrically opposite, since these areas actually have more in common than not.
From there, look at the characters’ relationships with each other. What challenges are cropping up repeatedly, either in comparison or contrast to one another?
Then start looking at your individual scenes and story events. What patterns are emerging? Are you starting to see an overall shape? Are the majority of your story pieces pointing toward a deeper internal meaning?
If not, that’s okay. It could be you either don’t yet have enough stuff happening in your novel for there to be any patterns. Or it could mean you need to do a little careful pruning to eliminate the meaningless and enhance the meaningful.
3. What Does Your Story Look Like When Stripped to Bare Essentials?
This is an extremely important question—but also an extremely tricky one. It’s kind of like asking, “If there was no story, what would the story be about?”
Fortunately, you don’t have to go that far. Rather, the point of the exercise is to strip away window dressing. You’re wanting to remove all your story’s fancy clothing, wigs, makeup until you get down to the flesh. And then you want to see past the flesh itself to nothing but the skeleton.
What does your story’s skeleton look like without any distracting coverings?
Your story’s structure is the best place to start. Consider all the major plot points. What do they tell you about what this story is really about? Do they all align? Are they all pieces of the same whole, all pointing to a consistent answer to the questions, “What is this story about?” and “What does it mean?”
Underneath all the fun fluff of any given story, you will find its archetypal underpinnings. You will (or should) find the universal truths that will make this story resonate. At the deepest level, those truths will be vast. But you will also find, built upon the big truths, some smaller ones. Those are the Truths this story is trying to tell, and those are the Truths the plot must exemplify through the metaphor of its own specific patterns and actions.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How is your plot a thematic metaphor for what your story is really about? Tell me in the comments!
There are two great questions faced by every writer. One is How do I write a great book? And the other is How do I get people to buy it?
Inherent in both answers is a lot of demystification, dedication, discipline, and hard work. Most of the discussions on this site are in answer to the first question. Mostly, that’s because, even after all these years, I still feel more than a little mystified myself by the intricacies of figuring out how to sell books.
When people ask me for marketing advice, I’m usually quick to point them to the experts from whom I have learned and continue to learn. One of those experts also happens to one my favorite people in the writing sphere—all-around cool guy Dave Chesson. Although I’ve not yet had the pleasure of meeting him in person, we’ve chatted online and on Skype, he’s been awesome enough to personally answer a lot of my questions, and he’s guided me on some of my book launches.
He runs the great site Kindlepreneur and offers several excellent marketing courses (including a free primer on Amazon ads). Most importantly to our discussion today, however, he’s the brains (and the brawn?) behind what has become one of my favorite bits of marketing tech—the Publisher Rocket software.
If you’ve gotten far enough along in your book-publishing journey to start researching categories, keywords, and genres on Amazon (much less trying to book together an ad campaign), then you can no doubt join me in groaning in frustration over the sheer tediousness of the endeavor. Groan no more! Or groan more quietly anyway. :p
In preparing to publish Wayfarer, my most recent novel, I gave Publisher Rocket a try—and loved it. It made what is usually my least favorite part of the entire publishing process not only easier, but actually fun. Today, I thought I’d introduce Dave to those of you who don’t know him and get him to share more about why he designed Rocket and how it can help writers market more easily and more effectively. (And please note, I’m not an affiliate for the program—just a fan!)
KMW: Can you tell us a little about you the person, you the writer, and your background and experience in marketing?
Dave Chesson:At my core, I’m the father of three, and a major sci-fi nerd. But I never really thought I’d be an author or had what it takes. I have a form of dyslexia and throughout my life, I believed I was never meant to write. However, that ended up not being the case. In 2013, while serving in the US Navy, I was deployed to Korea for a two year assignment that wouldn’t let me bring my family with me. They call it a geo-bachelor tour. It was at that point that I realized my biggest goal was to find a new career that would allow me to be home with my children and doing something that truly made me feel alive.
Thankfully, Amazon had created Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) which allowed someone like me to start writing and get it out to the world. However, writing still didn’t come easy for me. I wasn’t good enough to just sit down and write anything I wanted and captivate unknown readers. Instead, I started trying to understand Amazon and their shoppers. Why did Amazon choose to show one book over another when I type something into its search bar. More importantly, what things were shoppers looking for and not finding? It was from this information that I formulated my books and starting writing books I knew people wanted. And since that point, my books alone have brought in over $275,000 allowing me to leave the Navy, and fully work from home with my family.
Since then, I started Kindlepreneur.com, an advanced book-marketing website where I strive to teach authors how to market their books better. There are too many great authors out there that have the story and the skills but struggle to get their books above the rest.
KMW: What is Publisher Rocket and how will it help writers? How did you come up with the idea for Publisher Rocket and what made you follow through on creating the program?
DC: Publisher Rocket is the culmination of that which I learned about Amazon’s market. It helps authors find out what Amazon book readers are searching for, what kind of books they want, and helps authors get their books in front of them.
The idea of Rocket came to me when I constantly kept hearing authors ask whether or not there was tool that would do all of the marketing for them. Something to help them find keywords, and categories.
With Publisher Rocket, authors can now see exactly what’s going on in the book market and get vital information on how to get their books discovered by readers. Plus, it was painstakingly designed to be very intuitive and easy to use.
Dave (pictured right) wrote his first book on a South Korean warship, showing you truly can write from anywhere.
KMW: Can you tell us a little about the program’s four major features—Keyword Search, Competition Analyzer, Category Search, and AMS Keyword Search—what they each do, and how people can use them?
DC: Publisher Rocker has four main features.
The Keyword Feature helps authors find the right keywords for their books to rank for, and it does this by telling authors what words shoppers use when shopping, how many shoppers type that into Amazon per month, how much money books are making that rank for that term and how hard would it be to rank for that keyword.
Our Competition Analyzer helps you to get a deep look into your competitors and find out how much money they are making, and what they are doing right. The Category Feature has all 16,000+ Amazon categories inside of it so authors can finally see all the options out there (even the secret ones) and can see how many books they’d need to sell in order to be #1 that day . You can even rank the categories from those in which it’s easiest to be a bestseller and to those that are hardest. With this, authors can easily see the best categories possible to make them an Amazon Bestseller.
Finally, our AMS Keyword Feature helps authors build profitable Amazon Books ads more effectively and efficiently, saving them loads of time and energy.
KMW: How is Publisher Rocket different from similar keyword-research programs?
DC: There are many out there with different pros and cons. But what makes Rocket unique over all of them is that it is a downloadable software you can keep for life. Since I’m an author myself, I’m always working to add to the program. I make every update and upgrade free for current owners. Furthermore, we’re not only being used by Publishing Companies at mass level, we also received accolades from Amazon itself praising the methods taught on keyword discovery and optimization.
KMW: Your excellent blog Kindlepreneur focuses on marketing advice and industry reviews. Can you tell us more about that and some favorite posts you’ve featured lately?
DC: At Kindlepreneur, I love doing articles that are step by step in nature, give reviews of services or software, and or incorporate important book marketing strategies.
Here are some examples of each:
A bit ago, I wrote an article specifically for fiction writers that got major praise from Amazon itself. It teaches authors how to come up with fiction keywords. After publishing it, Amazon not only recognized it, but they promoted it to their readers. They also changed their FAQ on “Make Your Book More Discoverable with Keywords“ under Useful Keyword Types to reflect this information. So, be sure to check that out.
I also love comparing author tools or software and creating side-by-side comparisons like I did when comparing Thinkific to Teachable to decide which course creator would be best. I wanted to focus on this because there is a rise in authors making courses as either another income source or to create an amazing content upgrade for their books.
Sometimes, I love taking a deep dive in an overlooked area like I did with my look at each part of a book. Have you ever stopped to develop an incredible dedication? Or put together an ironclad copyright page? With this breakdown of each part, we also point you to some of the best content on the Internet to help you craft the best parts possible, thus strengthening every part of your book. It’s projects like these that I absolutely love making—something overlooked but so crucial.
KMW: Any big projects you’re currently working on?
DC: Over the past three years that Rocket has been out, my team and I have upgraded to two different versions, made seventy-two updates, and added three major features. Each time, we’ve made Rocket even better for users, since all updates and upgrades are free for users.
So, my major project is always looking for ways to improve and add to Rocket. This year alone, we have some major things we’ll be adding, which include adding each and every international Amazon market. We’re also going to be adding more to our Category feature to include historical values, monthly averages of bestseller status, volatility of categories, and my favorite: telling authors how many shoppers per month go to a specific category to purchase a book. And again, each upgrade will be free for current owners.
On a different note though, I’m channeling my inner child a bit and creating a comic book—something I’ve always wanted to do. Currently it will be titled A Writer’s Life and comprise funny strips about what it’s like to be an author. I’ll be chronicling each step in the project and writing an article for Kindlepreneur showing everything I did to create, publish, and print the comic book. Hopefully, that will be complete this summer.
KMW: Finally, what’s your top bit of marketing advice for fiction writers?
DC: Start your email list as soon as possible. With every book you create, your list will increase. With the increase in your list, your next book marketing push will be easier.
However, here’s another major tip: Do not offer a random short story or book as an email opt-in gift. Instead, write a prelude or side story to the story they just read. People are more likely to invest their email address for a story they’re already invested in, rather than a brand new story.
Yes, that means a content upgrade for every book or series. However, you’ll quickly find that the conversion rate of readers to email subscribers will dramatically increase.
KMW: Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing with us today, Dave! I have a ton of appreciation for you and everything you do in and for the writing community. As complicated as actually writing a good book can be, marketing is no less a difficult subject for most of us. Your know-how and dedication in giving the rest of us a leg up in building our sales platforms is much appreciated!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is your greatest challenge in marketing your fiction? Tell me in the comments!
Why do so many bad books sell on Amazon? This is the question many authors are asking these days. There are far more bad books than good books (which is always true of any entertainment field), but what’s different this time is that low-quality stories often seem to sell better than good stuff.
“Low-quality” isn’t a judgment about taste, reading level, or genre. I mean that books with poor writing, obvious filler, nonexistent characterization, and sometimes entire copy-pasted passages get into the Top 100 of popular categories. As a reader, when I fall for one of these top-charting books, I find myself thinking, This book shouldn’t be anywhere close to the top.
How Can So Many Bad Books Sell on Amazon?
Aren’t there any moderators?
Let’s talk about Amazon, the indie author’s self-serving best friend. Anyone who wants to sell fiction has to sell on Amazon, or else they’re just nibbling around the edges with Kobo, B&N, etc.
Paid advertising is not an option for most authors; it’s a challenge to break even on a $3 product, much less make a profit. Instead, authors have had to rely on Amazon to show their books through also-boughts and category charts.
For a while, this worked well. Amazon would show you books you truly wanted to buy, and those books were often more creative or served niches better than traditionally-published books. But now, Amazon’s recommendations aren’t based on quality or relevance, or even sales performance.
What they show you is mostly based on:
1. How similar something is to books you have already bought.
1. How recently it was published.
Yes, Books “Expire” Now
Amazon actively suppresses the visibility of works more than 90 days old. Even if books sell well and get many good reviews during that period, wham! They fall off the cliff on Day 31, 61, or 91. (This is well covered on kboards. Search for “30 day cliff,” and you’ll find an avalanche of intel.)
Obviously, books don’t suddenly lose quality after a set number of days. Amazon does this because it makes them more money, the same reason they do anything. For an author to stay visible, algorithm-gaming has to happen, and that gaming starts at the product level.
Publish Something New, Every 30 Days (Even if It Stinks)
Currently, the best way to stay visible on Amazon in category fiction, such as YA, mystery, or romance, is to release every 30 days.
This is because Amazon promotes new books as rising superstar or hot new trend. But after 30–90 days, your book is kicked from the showroom to the stockroom, where only people who specifically search for it will ever find it.
Some of the most successful genre names are assembly lines of ghostwriters, editors, and trend-scrapers. The thought process goes like this:
Shark shifters are popular right now, so let’s bang out a shark-shifter romance and call it Deep Blue Billionaire, and stuff the subtitle with keywords. Just copy the plot from last month’s tiger-shifter billionaire romance, make the girl a maid instead of a personal chef, and change the names and city.
A ghostwriter will fill in the outlined plot. It will get a cursory copyedit. A cover designer makes it pretty and clickable at thumbnail-size. And that’s a product. It works… for about 30 days.
I can’t blame these assembly lines for existing. They’re playing the game the best they can. No author can afford to invest their time in quality if they’re actively penalized for it.
The Algorithms Sell You What You’ve Already Bought
The recommendations reward this book-fabrication process. If I buy The French Duke’s Dilemma by bestseller Author A, and they’ll show me The German Prince’s Problem by savvy copycat Author B. The plot points will be exactly the same, perhaps with the covers done by the same designer.
Amazon looks at the newest book that is the closest match to what’s in my purchase history. It’s skin-deep and simple, but it must work because Amazon keeps doing it.
That is, if you get organic also-boughts at all.
Why Have Those Also-Boughts Disappeared?
Aren’t also-boughts what drive sales? Why did Amazon take them away?
I’m speculating here, but I saw an article from 2017 that claimed e-book sales were stagnating.
If true, this is a problem for Amazon, which needs growth to keep corporate people happy. They have to make more money, and if it’s not coming from book-buyers, it has to come from somewhere else.
When did they roll out AMS ads? Was that… 2017, perhaps?
I find it quite possible they removed the organic also-boughts to “encourage” authors to take out in-house ads (Amazon Marketing Services / Amazon Ads). This is the row of sponsored products that often replaces the organic product recommendations. Authors pay for those.
Now, when a book is sold, Amazon can mine 3 different resources:
The Books. Amazon gets a commission.
Readers. Their data and profiles, to sell them more product.
Authors, who must make up for the lack of organic visibility with ads they pay Amazon for. Since authors aren’t generally great marketers, many probably pay more per borrow or sale than they make, but just don’t keep track of it. Cha-ching!
All this encourages lower-quality books to be produced and shown to buyers.
But if the Books Stink, Why Are People Still Buying Them?
People compromise and have poor impulse control—factors marketers exploit regularly. Readers grab junk food over real food because when they’re hungry, they’re hungry now. To make it worse, Amazon’s decreasing delivery times and increasing list of conveniences are training us to be impatient, spoiled children.
So What Can You Do to Compete With All the Junk-Food Books?
Gaining visibility at a low-enough cost to make a profit on sales is the entire game. Here are a few techniques that are working in my sphere, which is dark fantasy and fantasy romance:
1. Serialize Your Fiction
Amazon wants something every 30 days? Fine. Serialize your works. Break them up into 20–30k word installments and publish them every 4 weeks. Is it ideal? Of course not. You’ll get 3-starred by some people for putting out incomplete stories, but that’s better than getting no visibility at all.
To test, you can take an old work that’s not selling and chop it up. Don’t change anything, because you’d be putting out multiple versions of the same book and confusing people. Just re-issue the pieces with some new covers and see what happens. Amazon doesn’t care if what you publish is 2,000 words or 200,000 words, as long as it comes every 30 days.
2. Cross-Promote With Other Authors
Use newsletter swaps and reciprocal Facebook posts. These are becoming more and more important, now that Amazon is not giving books organic traffic. If my niece loved Detective Manny & The Dazzling Diamonds, chances are I’d also buy Super-Sleuth Sammy & The Enchanting Emeralds. Reach out to other authors. They’re all in the same situation. Despite what you may feel, they’re not your competition. They’re your allies.
3. Record Your Own Audiobook
This is not to put on Audible, but as free content for places you can’t otherwise reach. Upload it to iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, YouTube, everywhere you can think of. The purpose is to get more people aware of what you do. You don’t even have to do the whole book, because the function is exposure. You can read novellas, short stories, etc. Just be organized and link back to your book or website.
4. Start a Patreon or Other Subscription Site
There is a lot of info on how to do this already, so I won’t get into it here. Even if you don’t have that many patrons, you will have a Review Army which will give you those necessary 5–10 first reviews to bump your Amazon rank for new releases. Your podcast could integrate with a Patreon easily.
I hope this at least gives you some insight on what’s going on. I don’t think the way Amazon operates is sustainable, but it’s what we have to work with now.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What tactics have you tried to gain visibility with your on-sale books? Tell me in the comments!
If you’re reading this blog because you’re jotting down a story, even if it’s just on a napkin right now, then you get to call yourself a writer.
A writer. An author. A scribbler. A storyteller.
Maybe that’s all you are. Maybe that’s all there is to be.
But maybe not. Maybe there’s more that we, as writers, can aspire to.
A few months ago, I mused on how authors can level up to become “artists.” While that pursuit is one mostly executed from within the trenches of the craft, I think one important aspect is an all-engulfing concept I’ve recently taken to calling “whole-life art.”
Most writers with a true dedication to the craft know being an author is a lot like being an athlete. Weekend warriors don’t cut it. Even showing up at the court or the rink or the track on a regular basis cuts it only if the person in question happens to be unbelievably talented or unbelievably masochistic, or both.
Rather, dedicated athletes work out daily, watch every calorie they put in their mouths, and practice rigorous mental discipline. If someone is truly an athlete, then he or she is never not an athlete.
Authors have exactly the same opportunity. This opportunity isn’t just about taking our art to the next level, although that’s certainly a major benefit. It’s about embracing the beauty and power of our art until it reaches beyond the page to inform every part of our lives.
5 Aspects of Whole-Life Art
I can’t remember a time when stories weren’t intertwined, in some way or another, with every part of my life. When I was young, it was effortless. I breathed stories, lived stories. I romped through them with a delightful lack of control, since I wasn’t yet actually requiring myself to write them. As an emerging adult, I embraced the fierce discipline of the artistic life mostly in a desperate bid to turn those beautiful breathings into stories that were actually readable. When my efforts eventually turned into a vocation, art as a paradigm permeated my life even more.
Now, having graduated from what I suppose might be considered the First Act of my life as a writer, I find that art has become more than just a joyous expression or worthy occupation. It has become my defining template. If I am to continue growing as a person, I see now that I must grow as a writer. And vice versa: if I am to grow as a writer, I must grow as a person.
In thinking about these ideas of late, I’ve also been thinking about the varied aspects of life and how we, as writers, can fully integrate them all in a pursuit of whole-life art.
1. Mental: Never Stop Learning
Most people probably think about writing as primarily a mental exercise. Indeed, writers are often stereotyped as “smart” people, who will read anything they can get their hands on, can ideate on command, and excelled at school (except for math in all its forms and that one mean English teacher who almost crushed our dreams).
If there’s one commandment for writers, it’s never stop learning. However much we may (or may not) naturally enjoy mental pursuits, it’s easy to slip into lazy habits and confine our rigorous thinking only to our stories (and sometimes not even then).
Be disciplined in what and how you learn. A few years ago, I was legitimately depressed to realize that at best I’m only likely to read 3-4,000 more books in my lifetime. That’s not very many when juxtaposed against the massive amount of extant information.
That realization catalyzed my need to triage my reading list. There are so many interesting books—both fiction and non-fiction. Which do I think will be most interesting, influential, and important in my life, both generally and particularly at this moment?
I don’t always choose rightly (the fifteen minutes that just got sucked down the drain of Looper.com could undoubtedly have been better spent on… just about anything). But I want to make a concerted effort to spend my life’s worth of learning credits on the best quality stuff.
2. Physical: Stay Grounded in the Real World
If writers are known for their mental chops, they’re also generally known for being near-sighted klutzes who spend too much time nursing carpal tunnel at the keyboard rather than getting kissed by the sun while sweating their hearts into good shape.
A totally obvious bit of advice that kind of blew my mind was this: your brain is a part of your body.
If you want the mental piece, then you’ve got to support it with sound physical choices.
Cue the “whole-life” part getting a little too real.
Most obviously, this means choosing the scrambled eggs over the hot dogs, as well as the evening walk over the couch and that oh-so-tempting infomercial. More than that, it means staying grounded in our physicality.
Writers live much of our lives in our heads. But if we’re living those imaginary lives at the expense of our real lives something is awry. Not only are we missing out on precious and irreplaceable reality, we’re also risking distancing ourselves and our art from the very truths we’re trying to access.
Balancing the need to live in our heads against the equally vital need to live in the moment is crucial. This is harder than ever in our overwhelmingly teched-out, urban lives. It requires consciousness and intentionality.
One trick I find especially helpful is accessing and appreciating the elemental basics: fire (e.g., lighting a candle), earth (e.g., cultivating plants), air (e.g., walking outside), and water (e.g., taking a shower). I also try to surround myself with fewer artificial substances (plastic) and more natural ones (wooden furniture, woolen or cotton clothing, real books, etc.). I’m continually surprised by how much more grounded and present I feel when I do these things.
3. Emotional: Seeking, Understanding, and Sharing Catharsis
on an archetypal subconscious level (as with most genre formats)
on a conscious personal level (as with any event or person who represents or reminds us of literal experiences in our own lives)
on an empathetic level (as with any story situation that causes us to understand a truth about someone else’s experience)
In short, the emotional catharsis that informs powerful stories only arises out of artistic truthfulness.
Sometimes artists tap into this truth without consciously understanding it. When this happens, the artist always feels it. It may be exhilarating, or it may be extremely painful. Either way, these are usually the feelings that drive us to both create and consume stories.
This is where our art has the ability to truly start informing our lives—and, if we are willing to do the work, where we can further that understanding in our lives so that it returns to inform our art. This only happens when we as authors are willing to self-inspect both our work and ourselves.
Why have these powerful emotions arisen from these stories (whether our own or someone else’s)?
Why are these emotions in our lives?
What are they telling us?
What are they perhaps hiding?
Where are they guiding?
“Self-work” encompasses so much. Above all, it is a discipline of self-reflection and self-honesty. No one is better positioned to accomplished this than a writer—someone who stands poised both on the symbolic cusp of the subconscious and on the stage of articulated self-expression. To some extent, it is work that occurs naturally by the very act of writing. But it is work. We only reap the benefits if we’re willing to grub deep in our inner soil.
4. Social: Seeking the Benefit and Betterment of All
A question I find endlessly interesting is, “Do you write for yourself or for others?” Writers have adamant opinions on both sides of the fence, ranging from “if you’re not writing for yourself, then you’re writing for the wrong reasons” to “if you’re not writing for others, what’s the point?”
Although I personally tend to favor the former response, writing is undeniably an overwhelmingly social pursuit. It is, above all, a form of communication. Although much good can arise simply from the private communication of one’s self with one’s self, you have to wonder if the old adage about “a tree falling in the forest” doesn’t also apply to stories. If no one reads them, do they really matter?
Whole-life art necessarily seeks a balance between the health of the individual (who may gain her primary benefit from writing for herself and who may choose to keep certain writings private for any number of reasons) and the health of the society of which that individual is a part. The two are intertwined. To live whole and healthy lives, people require a purpose. Usually inherent within that is the idea of purposefully and positively impacting society.
Plato empowered writers everywhere (and, if they’re as smart as they think they, scared the pants off them as well) when he blazoned:
He who tells the stories rules the world.
Unless you happen to be that rare writer whose tree falls in a lonely forest, you will impact the world, whether in a small way or a large way. The more you dedicate yourself to whole-life art, the more responsibly you will be able to wield that power.
5. Spiritual: Art as Meditation
There is something about “true art” that stops people in their tracks and, even if just for a moment, takes their breath from them. It can happen with street art or the Venus de Milo, a comic book or War and Peace. These moments of true art are deeply spiritual. They are glimpses of the infinite, a breath of air momentarily too big for our lungs to hold.
True art is unspoken wisdom, unspoken truth. It is a deeply spiritual experience, for both creator and audience. These moments are linked with the kind of emotional catharsis we talked about, above. But the spirituality of art is more as well.
Artists everywhere stumble onto these moments all the time. I used to say I always knew I was onto something good if I experienced the sensation of “my chest collapsing.” Indeed, these moments are often the lodestars that keep us moving through the dark uncertainties of our art.
They don’t, however, always have to be uncertainties we “stumble” over. The discipline of whole-life art can position you to map the night sky and to start recognizing constellations. I venture that art, like life, will always be a mystery, but the greatest adventure of the artistic life is that we get to spend it on a voyage of endless discovery.
…the main work the writer must do for himself is bring about change in the writer’s basic character, helping to make him that “true Poet,” as Milton said, without whom there can be no true Poem.
For writers, the Poem isn’t just on the page. It’s all around us, waiting to be put on the Page, however best we may.
Your writing doesn’t have to—and shouldn’t—stop when your fingers leave the keyboard. Your pursuit of excellence in your craft should inform every aspect of your life—mentally, physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Make conscious choices, and let your pursuit of story guide you to the larger Story all around you.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is currently your greatest challenge to living as a “whole-life artist”? Tell me in the comments!
The old joke about how “the book was better than the movie” is a reflection of several attributes written fiction offers over visual fiction. One of the main ones is the ability to get inside characters’ heads via internal narrative.
Narrative, by its very nature, is narrated by someone. Usually, that someone is the protagonist. The “deeper” or “closer” the POV, the more important it is that narrative choices be crafted to reflect the narrating character’s internal landscape. Even in distant or omniscient POVs, in which the narration doesn’t pretend to issue from the characters’ heads but simply observes and/or reports, readers are still given at least glimpses of the characters’ interiority.
In many ways the subject of internal narrative is also the subject of POV (point of view). And POV, as any student of narrative fiction knows, is often one of the most difficult subjects for writers to understand and execute.
Today, I want to largely divorce internal narrative from the bigger questions of POV (e.g., “when and how is it okay to use different characters’ thoughts in certain POVs?” or “what are the nuances of writing a close versus a distant POV?”). Instead, as part of our ongoing series of “excerpt analyses,” I want to explore some common challenges writers face in trying to write internal narrative that is both functional and engaging.
Learning From Each Other: WIP Excerpt Analysis
Today’s post is the fourth in an ongoing series in which I am analyzing the excerpts you all have shared with me. My approach to these critiques is a little different from those you normally see on writing blogs. Instead of editing each piece, I’m focusing on one particular lesson that can be drawn from each excerpt, so we can deep-dive into the logic and process of various useful techniques.
Today, my thanks to Darrell Ferguson for sharing the following excerpt from his portal fantasy Escape From Paradise. Let’s take a look! (The bolded entries and superscript numbers will correspond with the tips I’ll talk about in subsequent sections.)
Frozen in place, Adam drew a trembling breath.1
“Come on, Adam! You can do it!” Jimmy shouted from the water below.
From atop the waterslide, Adam looked down at the neighborhood pool. “I’m coming!” He sounded braver than he felt. Jimmy had a way of inspiring courage, and Adam was eager to impress his big brother.2
“I just need a second,” he whispered to himself, trying to calm his racing heart. A deep breath, then another. I can do it. All I have to do is … let … GO!
Adam released his death grip on the rails, his stomach pushed up into his chest and he became weightless, falling more than sliding. I don’t want to do this! Too late to change his mind.3 He braced for impact.
Plunging into the muffled depths, his flash of regret gave way to exhilaration. That was so scary … and fun! I’m going again!4
Adam smiled under the water. There was nothing he enjoyed more than going to the pool with his family. Being under water on such a hot day felt good. Adam took a moment to enjoy the cool refreshment before he started swimming toward the surface.
Wow, this pool is deeper than I thought. His arms strained against the water as he pulled himself upward. Why was it taking so long to get up? He swam harder. I need to breathe! His smooth stroke turned to a panicked dogpaddle. He had never been under water this long before. His thinking became cloudy and he could feel his consciousness beginning to slip away.
Finally, he broke the surface with a splash and gulped in the precious air. He was so relieved to have made it that it took several more breaths before he realized, Something’s wrong with this air. It seemed thin—even worse than times when he and his dad had climbed at high altitude. This air wasn’t just thin. It was … empty.
Most of what we’re seeing in these opening paragraphs is internal narrative. We are in the protagonist’s head, seeing and experiencing what he sees and experiences. I’m going to talk about some of the specific ways the internal narrative could be tightened for a stronger effect, but first note how much more immediate and intimate the final paragraph is compared to what comes before. This is because the final paragraph uses almost all the techniques we’ll talk be talking about.
But it can be more than that too. The technique of the deep POV is designed to create the impression that the story is being told by (first-person) or from (third-person) the narrating character. When done well, this technique removes as much distance as possible between the narrating protagonist and the reader, allowing the reader full immersion in the story and encouraging total identification with the narrator. Most genre novels these days are written in deep POVs, of varying degrees.
When writing from a deep POV, it can be useful to think of the entire narrative as internal narrative. In most stories, this won’t mean the character is literally thinking every word shared with readers. But even in dealing with non-thought aspects (feelings, intentions, reactions, observations, etc.), the narrative will be crafted in such a way that readers always feel as if they are seeing everything through the narrator’s eyes. As we’ll get into in a bit, one of the best ways of achieving this effect is by creating a recognizable and consistent voice for your character/narrative.
In our last critique, I talked about common “show, don’t tell” mistakes. I also talked about how the art of “showing” is really the entire art of narrative fiction. What this means, of course, is that much of the art of dramatizing a character’s interiority overlaps considerably with smart “showing” techniques.
Lively narrative voices are those that show readers what the narrator is experiencing, rather than simply reporting it back. If you can master the basics of internal narrative, you’ll have taken a huge step on your way to engaging readers in your story.
Let’s take a look at four important components of skillful internal narrative.
1. Use Your Narrator’s Voice to Influence Every Word Choice
The key to leveraging internal narrative is to use it to both power your narrator’s voice and to infuse that voice into every moment of the story. (This is true even if you’re using a distant narrator who presents the effect of observing the characters’ actions rather than participating in them.)
Optimally, your narrative’s voice must simultaneously and subconsciously signal several things to readers:
1. What person is this story being told in? (Third-person, in the case of our excerpt.)
2. How deep is this POV? (The POV in the excerpt actually feels quite distant and on-the-nose due to all the direct thoughts, but probably was intended to be deep in light of how much time we’re spending explicitly in the character’s head.)
3. Who is this character? (The voice presented in the excerpt, starting with the opening line, creates a feeling of observatory distance from the protagonist, which both prevents the effect of readers seeing events through the character’s eyes and skips the opportunity to immediately introduce the character via a potentially engaging inner voice.)
Until you’ve found your character’s voice, it can be difficult to pull off seamlessly engaging internal narrative. But once you have, the narrative will often write itself.
2. Use Irony and Subtext at Every Opportunity
How can you create a voice that conveys your character’s personality and interiority in every line of your narrative?
One of the single best ways to create and infuse voice into a narrative is to use ironic subtext. Straightforward narratives that spell out everything for readers often comes across as dull, even when trying to convey thrilling action. Mostly, this is because straightforward or on-the-nose narration offers only a single character dimension.
Sarcasm is an easy example of ironic subtext. But even uncomplicated subtext can add layers to a character’s internal narrative. This happens when readers are shown for themselves why something is so, rather than being told, as they are in the excerpt’s third paragraph: “Jimmy had a way of inspiring courage, and Adam was eager to impress his big brother.”
We’re told Adam has a motivating connection with his brother, but because it’s spelled out for us, it lacks emotional resonance. We’re told what to think, rather than being shown by first being drawn deeply into Adam’s interiority.
3. Choose Indirect Thoughts Over Direct Thoughts 99% of the Time
Okay, so I pulled that percentage out of my ear. But you get the idea.
Direct thoughts are distinguished from the rest of the narrative, usually by being presented in first-person and present tense, but also sometimes by being punctuated differently (italicization being the most common and, for my money, most functional approach). We see direct thoughts peppered throughout the excerpt, including the fourth paragraph with the protagonist’s panicked, “I don’t want to do this!”
Indirect thoughts, by contrast, are phrased to flow with the rest of the narrative, usually by being presented in the same person and tense. The excerpt follows up the above-mentioned direct thought with a good example of an indirect thought: “Too late to change his mind.”
The great benefit of direct thoughts is the immediacy they provide. But their great drawback is that, used too often or too inconsistently, they can actually pull readers out of the narrative rather than immersing them more deeply. By contrast, indirect thoughts masquerade as part of the main narrative, which strengthens the effect that the entire story is being filtered through a single narrator’s experience.
4. Show, Don’t Tell
The amazing versatility of internal narrative makes it one your best tools for powerfully showing readers what your narrator is experiencing. However, it can also be easily misused as a shortcut for telling readers what to think and feel about the story.
The excerpt’s sixth paragraph offers two different examples of telling. The first sentence starts with a bit of showing that uses strong verbs, adjectives, and nouns (“plunging into the muffled depths”), but then gives way to telling readers what the character is feeling (“regret gave way to exhilaration”) instead of evoking empathetic feelings. (You may remember from our last critique analysis that you should “never name an emotion.”)
The second sentence in this paragraph offers direct thoughts: “That was so scary … and fun! I’m going again!” In a way, the direct thoughts are “showing,” since they directly dramatize something that’s happening. However, because the content of the thoughts is on the nose, the effect feels more like “telling.”
In essence, readers are being told the slide was scary. This bit of internal narrative is not only unnecessary in light of the “showing” in the previous paragraph (“his stomach pushed up into his chest and he became weightless, falling more than sliding”), but also contributes to a stiff internal voice.
At the end of the day, great internal narrative is simply great narrative. As such, it’s no wonder internal narrative is one of the most complex and challenging techniques for writers to master. So many different tricks and tools come into play, all of which must be mastered to pull off a seamless effect. When you do pull it off, the result is an immediately recognizable “it factor” that will be spotted by any reader browsing your pages.
My thanks to Darrell for sharing his excerpt, and my best wishes for his story’s success. Stay tuned for more analysis posts in the future!
You can find previous excerpt analyses linked below:
Part 22 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel
There’s little in this cosmos that writers want more than our readers’ love and respect. We want them to buy our stories, love our stories, tell their friends about our stories, buy more stories, support us in style for the rest of our lives, and acclaim our words far after.
But when it comes to figuring out how to earn your audience’s loyalty, you’ve likely noticed you’re on the receiving end of much confusing and conflicting advice. Some say you have to write to your audience, with a precision-point awareness of what it is they want. Others say you just have to write a good story, and your audience will follow anywhere you lead. Some say it’s about pacing and full-fledged development of character motivations. Others say it’s about proper setup and payoff of reader expectations.
In an era of pervasively disappointing stories and ever-waning audience attention spans, it can be difficult to find stories that offer solid examples of what it means to earn your audience’s loyalty—much less how to actually do it. One of the major and, at the moment, most obvious exceptions is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As it closes out its expansively ambitious 22-movie mega-arc, it feels only appropriate that we complete our series “The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel” by addressing some of the reasons behind its well-earned success.
Needless to say, there will be SPOILERS.
Saying Goodbye to The Avengers: Endgame
I am so full of feels right now.
Honestly, I’m still trying to unpack it all. Mostly, what I find myself feeling is gratitude. I am full of gratitude that I got to see Endgame in theaters at all (various obstacles—illness, company, weather—prevented me from getting there until literally the very last showing at my local theater). I am full of gratitude for eleven years and twenty-two (mostly) bright spots in what was a tempestuous era in both my own life and the world around us. I am full of gratitude for characters who made me love them, made me relate, and made me think. And I am full of gratitude that the whole experience was given the sendoff it deserved—that, indeed, it had earned.
In thinking about what writing topic I might focus on for Endgame, I realized what I really wanted to do was talk about the entire series—because, as I always say in structure discussions, the end is in the beginning. Endgame works because the series works, and the series works, in the end, because Endgame works.
Almost all of my personal highlights (and a few lowlights) feature later in the article, so let’s just get down to it.
5 Ways Endgame Shows You How to Earn Your Audience’s Loyalty
You know that feeling you get when you open the final book in a series or attend the final movie? It’s a feeling of deep anticipation and excitement—but also a feeling of nervousness. What if they don’t get it right? What if, with all the best intentions, they get it all wrong and forever put a blot on a story experience that has become such an important part of your life?
I’m quite sure I wasn’t the only one feeling that as Marvel’s opening logo unfurled across the dark screen. After eleven years and so much thought, energy, and emotion invested in these characters and their stories, I hoped so much that the finale would at least not screw it up.
About two and half hours later—as the screen filled up with nearly every single character the series has ever introduced—I found myself with tears in my eyes. It wasn’t so much because of what was happening onscreen (those tears came a little later), but because I suddenly had this overwhelming feeling of gratitude for the incredible experience the MCU has been in my life. With all its ups and downs, its handful of great films, its many so-so-but-always-entertaining entries, its few bombs, its incredible casting across the board, and its sheer audacity as one of the most expansive story ventures ever created—I can truly say it has been an unforgettable gift in my life.
It has influenced my own storytelling in many ways. It has contributed its archetypes to my own personal journeys. It has provided me precious memories with dear ones who have sat beside me in dark theaters. And, of course, it’s given me a couple ideas for a blog post here and there…
For me, Endgame was the red ribbon on top of that gift, a thoroughly satisfactory final entry that has solidified the series as an epochal story within my life.
Today, I want to take a look five examples from this climactic installment, demonstrating what Marvel did to earn and keep its fanbase’s appreciation and what you, too, can learn about how to earn your audience’s loyalty.
Truly memorable moments never just happen. Rather, they are the result of a two-part power punch: setup and payoff.
Ultimately, setup is always going to be foreshadowing. If there’s a callback to anything that happened earlier in a story, however mundane it might have been in the beginning, that earlier thing instantly becomes recognizable as foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing is the biggest magic trick in all of fiction. When readers feel the writing was on the wall all along, when they realize that sly dog of an author already gave them everything they needed to make the payoff work, the feeling they get is one of deep satisfaction. Not only does the story make sense, but in that moment the world itself makes sense.
This is why payoffs—both big and small—are always the best moments in any story. Whether or not the payoff directly answers a question readers may have had, the readers will always feel like a question was answered. They feel like they’re participating in the story. They feel like they got the in-joke. And more importantly, they feel like the story works. Instead of the author simply assuming the audience should feel a certain way, the author has earned all these good feelings.
How Endgame Pays It All Off
Endgame is chock full of payoffs. There are big and obvious payoffs, such as using the Infinity Stones to undo Thanos’s dust-up. And there are countless smaller payoffs to earlier character moments throughout the series. These payoffs work solely because of the extensive set-up work that was honored from the previous stories.
For example, would Cap’s wielding of Mjolnir have been anything more than a weapon exchange if it hadn’t been set up in Ultron? Would Tony’s hugging Peter have offered any meaning beyond the relief of the moment if it hadn’t been set up in Homecoming? Would Tony’s final words have packed such deep resonance if they hadn’t symbolized his entire character arc by calling all the way back to the beginning of it all in Iron Man?
Endgame benefits tremendously from the sheer massiveness of the story that preceded it. A simple rule of thumb is that the bigger the buildup, the bigger the payoff. Not only do many of Endgame‘s “small” payoffs pack more punch because of the huge story that preceded them, but the film can afford to pack them in. A shorter series or standalone episode can and should utilize setup/payoff similarly, but only a story of this scope can create tremendous impact out of such objectively small moments.
2. Resonance: When the Artist Is the Audience
Sometimes you’ll hear fans talking about getting the story “we deserve.” To this, I say phooey. The only thing audiences deserve is a good story well-told. They don’t deserve to have all their personal theories or wishes validated. They certainly don’t deserve creative control à la “democratic storytelling,” which as I talked about a few weeks ago only dilutes artistic integrity.
But this is not to say audiences don’t deserve to be wildly satisfied with any story in which they invest themselves.
How can an author be assured of creating this kind of resonance without simply polling the audience for their Christmas wishes?
There are two sides to this answer:
Part 1: The author must be in control of the story, must remain firmly dedicated to the artistic and thematic integrity of that story. The author must be disciplined enough to make only the right choices for the story, regardless whether they necessarily seem to be the most popular choices.
Part 2: The author must be an audience of one. The author must be the story’s single greatest fan. The author must fanatically love and respect the story and the characters more than any other member of the audience.
When the latter happens, the author doesn’t need to poll the audience to know what resonates. The answer is already there, in the author’s own heart. What resonates for the author resonates for the audience and—if the first part of the equation also rings true—usually in a way that is deeply meaningful within the overall story.
How Endgame Connects With Its Fans
Even in my (astonishingly successful) bid to avoid spoilers before seeing the movie, I did run onto a few references to “fan service.” I agree that the film did an incredible job of giving its audience just about every single thing they could have asked for, and a little more to boot. But for my money, these moments can’t be considered fan service when they have been suitably earned over the previous course of the series.
What it felt like to me was a storyline that had been planned and executed by storytellers who, more than anyone, wanted themselves to see appropriate endings for beloved characters. They didn’t provide moments such as Tony’s having a daughter or Thor’s glee when Cap wields Mjolnir or Cap’s dance with Peggy or Tony’s making peace with his dad simply because fans wanted them. They built them into the story because, as fans themselves, they wanted them.
3. Honesty: Staying True to Your Characters
The only stories that matter—the only stories that are ever remembered—are those that are honest. These are the stories that resonate on a level deeper than whatever cotton-candy visuals they’re spinning across the screen in our heads or at the theater. That honesty starts and ends with the characters.
There is no greater slur upon a story than to say its cast is “acting out of character.” What this inevitably means is that the characters are no longer acting with sincerity, but instead mouthing lazy lines of convenience.
Creating and implementing “true” characters is the greatest challenge in all of writing. Few of us pull it off 100% of the time. Mostly this is because staying true to your characters is difficult not just technically, but also personally. It’s hard to understand ourselves well enough to understand the story we’re trying to tell in order to understand the characters who are telling it.
When we do achieve this deep and true understanding, the result is character dynamism. These characters power the story. They are realistic, dimensional. They are sympathetic. The audience comes to love them not in spite of their flaws but even because of them. We come to love them, at a certain point, because they are us.
How Endgame Gave Us True Characters
I won’t say Endgame pulled this one off across the board. Hulk’s transformation in this story didn’t resonate deeply for me, and however authentic the idea behind Thor’s devolution, it was executed abysmally in a way that did not respect the character and his importance in the series.
These two characters have rarely strayed from their initial headings. Both would have been difficult characters to write, both could have been difficult characters to like. But they have always burned true to their deep driving desires, to their strengths, to their weaknesses.
Largely because of these things, their endings feel particularly earned. We are happy both were given the chance for closure, for a normal life, for fulfillment, and even for the end of their struggles.
4. Meaning: As the Climax Goes, So Goes the Story
In any story, the Climactic Moment is the defining moment. Whatever happens in the Climax is what every moment of the preceding story was leading up to. Whether or not the story as a whole succeeds is proven by how well it builds into and explodes out of its Climax.
In structuring your story, you can use your Climactic Moment as the plumb line to align your story’s structural spine. When you isolate your major structural moments, they should line up thematically, all of them pointing in a straight arrow directly at your Climax.
More than that, the Climactic Moment is your story’s reservoir of meaning. When the conflict is finally resolved in the Climax, what must emerge from this final bit of context is the deep subtextual meaning of all that has come before. This, more than any other factor, is why stories are made or broken by their endings. No matter how great the ride up to that point, if the ending fails to make sense of it all, the audience will almost always leave frustrated.
How Endgame Nailed Its Climax
No one was ever in doubt how the overarching conflict with Thanos would end. As per genre conventions, he would be defeated. The horrific consequences of his actions would be overturned. We’d all get our happy ending.
But we could have been given that exact ending in a way that mattered far less. The Climax Endgame gave us was specifically Tony’s climax. This was as it should have been. The ending was in the beginning. When Tony closes his fist and snaps his fingers, he is ending what he, in so many ways, began himself. When he defiantly tells Thanos, “I am Iron Man,” he finally and fully climaxes his own long and desperate attempt to do the right thing, to make the sacrifice, to save the world.
I’m not aware of how thoroughly the events of Endgame were known and planned when Marvel started its ambitious project way back in 2008. I suspect they knew very few of the specifics, but they clearly did know the bones. They knew Thanos was the antagonist. They knew what the conflict would be. They knew how it would end. As a result, the series offers a solid structural integrity, with Thanos being introduced very near the quarter mark (at what might be considered the series’ First Plot Point) and followed up regularly throughout. The Climax proves the structure, and the structure is the reason the Climax works.
These days, many stories avoid finality like the plague. If they can crank out a few more episodes, seasons, movies, books, so much more the money, right? But the stories suffer. Even if the follow-up episodes don’t actually happen, all those little teases the authors included in early installments just in case the story went on (and on and on and on), almost always mess up the story that could have been.
This is why so many TV series are good only for about three seasons. After that, the storytellers start messing with the initial arc in order to expand the story. The result is that the characters start getting messed with as well—and the slide begins. Smart, sympathetic characters who started out making smart, sympathetic choices start being forced to act out of character in order to accommodate a more complicated plot.
A story that offers successful finality is a story that planned and prepared for that finality. It’s a story that used its structural throughline to build into a meaningful Climax. It is not, necessarily, a story that ties off all loose ends. However, even though the characters don’t end (unless they die, of course), the structural throughline of the plot does end. And the audience, however sad they may feel about saying goodbye, will find relief in the closure that comes with closing a story.
How Endgame Offers Closure
There were a handful of things I really wanted to see happen in this movie, but at the top of the list: I wanted Cap and Tony to die.
There, I said it. :p
I didn’t, of course, want them to die because I wanted them gone, goodbye, finito and good riddance. I wanted them to die because I desperately wanted to see their characters closed out. For twenty-two movies (or whatever number they each actually appeared in), they had been scripted with scarcely a misstep. And that’s the way I wanted them to go out. I desperately did not want them to be given open-ended finales in which maybe they’d come back if ever the actors could be tempted.
Of course I’d go see another Captain America movie or another Iron Man movie. But I am ecstatic that I’m not likely to get the chance. I have so much respect for the Marvel team not only for planning and pulling off a huge story arc, but even more so for ending it. Yes, the MCU continues with secondary characters introduced during this initial arc, but they will be continuing with their own story arc (and, frankly, they have their work cut out for them if they want to win my heart in the same way as the originals).
Endgame really was the endgame. That was more than half the reason it took every bit of my self-respect not to sit there in the theater and bawl all the way through the credits. But it was also the reason I was given the gift of such an emotional closing experience.
This will be the final installment in The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel. It’s been an incredibly fun ride, and I’ve enjoyed sharing my love of the series with so many of you. I’ve learned a lot myself in pulling a definitive writing tip out of each movie. But after twenty-two entries, it’s getting harder to find a new technique to discuss in each film. I feel like Endgame is the right place to end it.
Thanks very much for coming on this ride with me, both here on the blog and as MCU fans yourselves. Here’s to all of us continuing to learn from other great storytellers on our way to writing our own amazing adventures.
Maybe you have an immediate answer. Maybe your protagonist wants to save the world, survive, or live happily ever after.
While those are all legit goals that have powered hundreds of good stories, what I’m talking about is what your characters want.
I’m talking about the one thing your characters want more than anything, want unto obsession, want even unto death. They want this thing, whatever it is, so badly they will chase after it in the face of impossible stakes, sometimes against their better judgment, sometimes at great cost to themselves and people they care about, sometimes even at the risk of saving the world/surviving/living happily ever after.
This is a secret of good writing. Why a secret? Because it’s so easy for authors to overlook.
We’d all agree that yeah, yeah, characters need goals. Of course they have goals! Just look at them—they want to save the world, survive, live happily ever after. We might even throw in a couple bonus prizes, just cuz we’re cool like that. Our characters want all kinds of big things. Happiness. Self-actualization. World peace.
Those desires don’t count. Those desires are boring. Even if your characters are actively working toward these goals, these things are just too big, abstract, and pedestrian to drive a story. Everybody on earth wants those things—especially when forced into a story situation in which these things are suddenly and legitimately threatened. When the zombie epidemic hits, you can bet I’m going to have a lot invested in finding a cure. But that hardly makes me a unique character.
A much more interesting scenario would be a character, searching for the cure, who was already infected—and who was dealing with an even more powerful desire for brain salad. Or, even better, she’s a gourmand obsessed with finding a very specific and exotic type of brain. Yum.
A 6-Part Checklist on Your Quest for Better Character Goals
There is a specific kind of character writers dream of writing. This character isn’t someone we create so much as someone we birth, Athena-like, as a fully grown, fully sovereign being. We just turn these characters loose on the page and watch as they take over, effortlessly creating plot through their own dynamic and charismatic actions.
We dream about these characters because actually finding them on the page often seems like ineffable alchemy—it just happens. These characters come to the page with powerfully undeniable desires. They want things so bad—often things they really shouldn’t want—that they tear down kingdoms to get at them.
Sounds like a good story just waiting to happen, doesn’t it?
Let’s take a look at six qualities needed to create the the kind of character desire that will power a blah plot into a potently dimensional story.
1. Better Character Goals Are… Specific
Better character goals are always specific goals. They’re not abstract (love), and they’re not general (falling in love with any ol’ body). In some stories, in which the motive isn’t solidified until late in the First Act or early in the Second Act, the character’s desire may start out abstract and general, but the sooner it gets down to business, the better.
Failing to hammer out specific goals is a surprisingly common problem, particularly in what are frequently called “plot-driven stories.” The hero wants to be heroic; the bad guy wants to do bad stuff. They may even have pretty decent motives for their respective intentions. The problem is that their actions within the plot often seem rote simply because the only thing they seem to want is something much bigger than their own lives. (Can any of us really grasp the concept of world peace?)
This is one reason the foot soldier on the ground often makes a more compelling character than the general up at headquarters. Not only is the soldier actually in the action, but his goals are much more specific. “Win the war” is admirable, but pretty boring; “take the enemy base” is better; and “protect your high-ranking prisoner at all costs” is better still.
In stories that do choose to fall back on heroic heroes with admirable-but-broad goals, we usually see more specific goals showing up as scene goals. That’s good. But you can notch up your whole plot if your scenes are also driven by every single character wanting something specific on his or her own account.
Example: In Saving Private Ryan, the goal isn’t “defeat the Nazis and win World War II.” Rather, the goal is “save just one man and deliver him back to peace.”
2. Better Character Goals Are… Small
Inherent within the idea of specificity is the idea of “small” goals. Specificity necessarily narrows a character’s choices, tightening up abstract generality into shockingly realistic cause and effect.
Writers often think bigger is better when the reverse is almost always true. Huge explosions and massive stakes are only as interesting as the individual person who is affected. Same goes for a character’s ambitions. Even (especially) when the character is caught within a larger drama, the scenes that are most interesting are almost always the small human dramas—a child thieving to feed a wounded spy, that zombie foodie trying to hide her gourmet proclivities, a politician trying to retcon a family secret.
Example: In Star Wars: A New Hope, what Luke wants isn’t to “defeat the Empire.” What he wants isn’t even really “save Princess Leia.” What he wants is “to escape his mundane farmer’s life.” (Wanting to “learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father” starts out as a pretty abstract goal in the first movie, but it plants the seeds for more specific goals in later movies—such as wanting to track down Yoda and convincing him to be his mentor.)
3. Better Character Goals Are… Personal
Although it should be self-evident that your character’s deepest desire is intensely personal, it must still be said since so many stories rely on deeply impersonal goals to move their characters through the story.
Don’t miss the part about these impersonal goals “moving the characters” through the plot—rather than the other way around. A good rule of thumb is that if the goal is bigger than the character, the plot is in control. And vice versa: if the character is bigger than (or at least as big as) the goal, then the character is the one moving the plot.
This is exactly why smart authors use extremely personal goals to ground characters within larger-than-life plots. One of the most-used versions has the protagonist taking on an arch-baddie only after a loved one is murdered or kidnapped.
Gifting characters with inherently personal desires is often more instinctive in smaller dramas, but not always. Too many romances seem to believe the characters’ real goals are “fall in love.” But if the characters’ don’t have passionate personal goals distracting them from and probably directly interfering with their love lives, then what’s keeping these people apart in the first place?
Particularly if you’re writing a story that takes place on a bigger stage—such as epic dramas, political thrillers, and action stories—stop right now and ask yourself if your character has a personal desire other than winning the fight just because winning is a better option than losing.
Example: In The Bourne Identity, Bourne’s goal isn’t “destroy the immoral black ops agency Treadstone.” That he ends up destroying them is almost incidental and only happens because his true desire is “to regain his memory.”
4. Better Character Goals Are… Intrinsic
When giving your character a specific, small, personal desire, you must also make sure the desire is intrinsic to the plot and/or the theme. Action and romance stories often try to supplement their main conflict with a contrasting subplot in which the protagonist also falls in love or also deals with a dangerous situation.
These annexed subplots are rarely as satisfying as more streamlined stories in which the so-called “A Story” and “B-Story” are really two intrinsic sides of the same coin. Trying to shoehorn a contrasting subplot into your story too often creates a precarious scenario in which the story becomes a pitched battle to decide which subplot the audiences will enjoy more (usually, the storyline with the “smaller” goal wins).
When you start your story by first determining your characters’ most personal and specific desires, you’ll often find an entry to the plot that will organically bring all the important elements together into a seamless whole.
For Example: In Brent Weeks’s Black Prism, the protagonist’s suppressed desire for the woman he loves and the reasons he can’t be with her are intrinsic to his larger political gambit and his even larger role in staving off an apocalyptic imbalance in his world. Because his “small” and “large” desires are in constant (and potentially disastrous) tension with each other, they inform each other in every scene.
The most interesting character desires are never straightforward. If they were, they’d find fulfillment in the first chapter. This is why, of all the many ways to use a character’s desires to create conflict, one of the most powerful is choosing a desire that is inherently, or at least potentially, self-destructive.
Not only is this the starting place of all character arcs, it’s also just “good TV” as they say. When a character wants something dangerous—and wants it for good reasons—the audience is hooked.
A simple example is a man wanting to go to war to defend his country. We understand his reasons, but we also know he may just have signed his own death warrant. Another easily recognizable example would falling in love with “the bad boy.” We get the attraction, but we know this is probably going to end in tears.
It’s important to note that if the character is balancing on the razor’s edge of a possibly self-destructive choice, readers must empathize. If they feel the character is just too stupid to make a better choice, they’re not going be sucked into the ensuing drama. Rather, they must understand, at every step, why the character is willing to take such incredible risks in pursuit of this desire.
For Example: In Emily Brontë’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff notoriously rains down misery and destruction on, not just the lives of his enemies, but also his own life and that of his true love Cathy. Although readers are likely often repulsed by Heathcliff’s actions, we always understand the deep pain and loneliness that drives his devastatingly obsessive relationship with his childhood sweetheart.
This presents so many chewy opportunities for plot-pushing goals. Indeed, the reason we love watching a character doggedly pursue potentially self-destructive desires is because these desires always point to pressure points deeper within the character. Those pressure points are the nodes of change. If punched hard enough, transformation erupts. And that is always the stuff of good stories.
When looking for the self-destructive aspects of your characters’ desires, look harder still. What underlying Lie might be fueling your character’s motivation and/or the goal itself? Will the character overcome this Lie—allowing her to either avoid destruction or at least rise from the rubble? Or will he succumb to the latent ruin within his own desires?
Whatever your answer, what’s found within in the grist of great themes.
For Example: In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey comes within seconds of destroying his own life because he believes it is worth less than his insurance policy. This is a direct product of his story-long soul-rotting dissatisfaction with his narrow life in a “crummy little town.”
Now. Quick. Tell me what your characters want.
If their desires and goals fulfill all six parts of this checklist, then congrats! You’re on your way to creating compelling characters in a compelling plot. It’s just as easy—and hard—as that.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Which of the six requirements of better character goals do you think your protagonist’s desires fulfills? Tell me in the comments!