Tag Archives: antagonist

Exploding Plot

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion–that’s Plot.”

–Leigh Brackett

Have you outlined a tidy, well-organized, and logical plot for your story? Are your characters busy being civil, well-educated human beings going about their lives and work, sighing now and then over a lost dream or one of life’s disappointments? Are they angst-ridden mopers propped up on bar stools, feeling sorry for their failures and delivering beer-sodden soliloquies that are your insights to life?

Are you typing and typing and typing, compiling a ever-growing page count while in the back of your mind you worry whether your story is actually going anywhere and how will you end this thing anyway?

And if you have a reader that’s honest with feedback instead of simply an ego-supporter, and that person is quiet after perusing your sample pages and hasn’t much to say in reaction, then it’s time to face reality:

Your work-in-progress could well be a self-indulgent, staid, lackluster, sanitized bore.

As Winnie the Pooh would say, “Oh, bother.”

Where, I ask you, is the fire?

A book, a story, a yarn intended for the commercial market isn’t a collection of words, or character speeches, or passages of description, or self-conscious style, or even a slice-of-life duplication of life’s most mundane moments.

Instead, it should be alive, with vivid characters bursting with emotion. It should be messy, because human beings are squalid, and tender, and ferocious, and petty, and heroic, and gentle, and greedy, and contradictory messes themselves.

Your characters should be in trouble. Not just suffering from a bad day. Not simply afflicted with the choice of whether to purchase a white car or a blue one. Not concerned with how to afford those Starbucks lattes while paying little Jimmy’s private school tuition. When I say trouble, I mean plagued with worry so intense the stress is eating them alive. Blighted with jealousy so white-hot it sears them every time they look at the person they believe is their spouse’s lover. Terrified in mind-numbed paralysis by the stalker that leaves eerie messages and gifts inside their apartment while they sleep. Raging with the grief and frustration of being falsely accused and convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. Horrified by the cruelty of cyber-bullies that have been secretly grinding their once-happy daughter into a withdrawn, bulimic, isolated, social outcast.

At its essential core, a story is what pits one character against another. It’s how those characters clash in struggle against each other, how they grow fiercer in striving to win–or survive–and how they overcome the biggest challenges of all at the end to achieve poetic justice.

You cannot generate a successful, emotionally satisfying plot that comes alive in reader imaginations unless you’re willing as a writer to get your hands dirty. By that, I mean willing to step right into the intense emotional quagmires within your protagonist and antagonist. Until you do that, you will never fully understand their motivations, and of course without motivation the actions a character takes will always seem contrived and artificial.

In other words, you can’t write at a distance from your characters. You can’t remain tidy and detached. You must be willing to crack open a sleek character’s facade and look at what’s seething beneath the mask.

More than that, you must be willing to apply more pressure to a protagonist already in tremendous trouble. This is done by not protecting or safeguarding your lead character. This is done by allowing the antagonist to hit the hero where he or she is most vulnerable–and hit that person hard.

Until we push a character hard enough, how will we–let alone readers–ever know what that story person is really made of?

Until we push a character hard enough, that character will not take action, will not take risks, will not dare to strike at another individual, will continue to hide or stay safe, and will remain dull and boring on the page.

Think about the best mysteries you’ve read. Often–in cozies anyway–the first victim is a sly, wicked, conniving, ruthless, immoral blackguard so rotten every suspect has a solid reason to wish him dead.

Think about your favorite thriller where the protagonist is swept up in the sudden terror of an ordeal so dangerous and horrific the suspense is tightened to an almost unbearable degree. The danger forces the protagonist to flee whatever comfort zone she has always known and attempt the unthinkable in order to survive.

Think about those romances where sparks fly between hero and heroine who stand on opposite sides of an issue yet are pulled together by a physical attraction so potent they are nearly powerless against it.

Think about the fantasy where magic is the only way to save the person the protagonist most cherishes, yet using that magic will extol a terrible price the protagonist fears to pay.

Do you see how, in each of these genre examples, I’ve set up a situation that puts the protagonist inside an emotional or ethical pressure cooker? Yes, some of these examples are stereotypical, and the tropes are well worn, but they work to illustrate my point.

Brackett’s quote says that explosion creates plot. If so, then you need intense emotion, conflict between characters in active opposition to each other, and situations that demand frequent clashes. They are your dry tinder. Additional pressure and/or stress is the spark.

Result?

Conflagration … and a plot that comes alive.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Fighting for Story

There’s a quiet battle waging in the entertainment arena these days.

Classic story design versus minimal story design.

Plot versus character.

Story-driven versus problematic situations.

Good fighting evil versus shades of gray.

Linear plotting versus webbed plotting.

Bold and vivid versus drab and small.

Scene-based conflict versus discussions of problems.

Resolution of story versus open-ended stopping point.

Now, there’s no simple explanation for this situation. Too many factors ranging from the flux of trends in prose fiction, TV, and films to cultural pressures and social agendas are all mixing into what’s currently taking place.

The why, in this context, is less important than the acknowledgement of what is happening. And writers need to be aware of it so they can decide whether they want to stand for one side or the other or whether they simply want to follow the current trends like flotsam riding a river.

Classic story design versus minimal story design

What is this? What does it mean? What’s the difference?

Classic design is the plot structure that’s archetypal — meaning it’s worked universally since the dawn of time. It follows this pattern:  a protagonist pursues a goal despite the active opposition of an antagonist until the conflict escalates to an ultimate showdown and the protagonist prevails or loses.

Minimal story design is where the protagonist is facing a problematic story situation but is reactive to it and may not necessarily be facing a direct foe.

Plot versus character

This debate seems a bit pointless to me because plot derives from character and what a character wants. However, the phrase “plotted story” generally means a story that follows the archetypal pattern of a protagonist in pursuit of a specific goal despite direct opposition.

The “character-oriented story” is sometimes shaped around the circumstances surrounding the protagonist and how that individual responds to or thinks about it. There may be a perception of a desired goal, but little action will be taken toward it.

Story-driven versus problematic situations

Story-driven refers to the protagonist initiating confrontations in scenes in order to accomplish a specific objective. Each confrontation causes a chain reaction or consequences as a result that lead to bigger complications for the protagonist.

Problematic situations are difficulties in the life of the protagonist or problems afflicting someone the protagonist cares about. But there’s no particular human foe behind those difficulties. They are often stemming from adversity such as illness or financial worries or some nebulous sense of unhappiness or misery.

Good fighting evil versus shades of gray

It’s become unfashionable to label fictional characters as the good guy or the bad guy. To consider someone a villain means you must make a judgment. You must gauge this person against your standards, ethics, and principles, and find him or her lacking.

In classic story design, we need villains just as we need heroes in order for the story to take shape. Fiction is art, and art makes order of reality. The story protagonist must become heroic in order to prevail over an opponent who chooses expediency enough to become a villain.

While some mainstream fiction out there seeks to explore the concepts that there is good and evil in every person, classic story design acknowledges this while pushing the characters to move to one side or the other of that line. In other words, will the flawed protagonist change and take risks or overcome inner fears to become heroic and win? Or will the character waffle and wallow in doubt and angst until nothing ultimately is achieved?

Linear plotting versus webbed plotting

Classic design unfolds a story in a logical, cause-and-effect chronology. It begins with the catalytic moment of change in the protagonist’s circumstances that forces him or her to take action. Thereafter, it moves in a linear direction toward the finish where the story’s climax will resolve the protagonist’s problem one way or another.

Webbed plotting involves numerous flashbacks to dramatize past events or character motivations through scene action. It involves several viewpoints, which in turn requires the story to present each viewpoint as directing a subplot. Strict chronology of story events is deemed less important than a character’s feelings or perspective. Although web plotting can generate more depth of characterization, if handled poorly it can result in a split focus in the story and much difficulty in achieving effective story resolution.

Bold and vivid versus drab and small

In classic design, there is no attempt to hide a scene antagonist. Every scene is focused around conflict, which is created by the clash between the protagonist’s goal and the antagonist’s goal.

Classic protagonists are heroic, strong, and admirable. They are presented to readers in ways that make readers like them, sympathize with them, and relate to them. This is not by accident. It is through the writer’s design and intention.

Classic antagonists are devious, ruthless, and driven. They may hide some of these qualities beneath charm or lies, but they are not depicted so that readers will like them.

I’m not saying that good guys won’t have flaws or bad guys won’t have positive qualities, but whatever the character design is … go for bold. Exaggerate that quality. Own it. Flaunt it. Build it bigger. Don’t be timid in writing characters. Make them vivid.

The drab, small, insignificant character that’s designed for realism is a character that comes across as flat, dull, and unimportant.

Writers who fear being considered melodramatic and cheesy tend to constrict their characters into bland, monochromatic, non-achievers.

Scene-based conflict versus discussion of problems

Is there anything more boring than two drab characters sitting in a small, drab room, discussing a small, drab problem without ever getting up to do anything about it?

That’s too realistic for my taste. When I read fiction, I want to follow a viewpoint character through tough problems right into the heart of conflict and see that character meet the challenge or be temporarily flattened by it.

Minimalized plotting reduces the drama, shrinks the scene conflict, seeks subtlety at the expense of story progression, and usually devolves into dull yammering circular dialogue.

Conversely, scene-based conflict focuses a confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, brings an issue out into the open, pits the two characters against each other, and drives one or the other into victory or defeat.

Resolution of story versus open-ended plot

Okay, I get that the current fad is to leave stories hanging in order to entice readers into buying the next volume in a series. I get that in this rough economic climate publishers are desperate for a sure thing and would rather expand a book series than take too many risks seeking new authors or fresh stories that might or might not grab public fancy. I get that TV series are generally now structured like novels from start to finish of the season or all the seasons in their entirety, stopping weekly episodes with cliffhangers like book chapters, to keep viewers tuned in.

I get it and I understand it. However, the danger with too much of it is that readers — and inexperienced writers — lose touch with how stories should be resolved, how questions raised within stories should be answered, and how readers should be taken through a cathartic experience of anticipation, suspense, emotion, and satisfaction at the story’s conclusion.

You can resolve a plotline and settle issues between hero and villain sufficiently to give readers a feeling of completion without losing opportunities to set hooks for the next installment to come.

The habit of leaving every single thing open and hanging eventually creates a perception that this is the norm. This is realistic. This is believable.

No, it’s too much like real life.

Fiction isn’t supposed to be realistic. It’s art, and art focuses on the message its creator wants to convey. Story is contrived by writers to transport readers to a different place and time, to put them vicariously through tremendous challenges and difficulties, and to let them survive, prevail, and grow as individuals.

Last weekend, I settled in to watch ABC’s special presentation of Cecil B. DeMille’s masterful feature film, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. I have been watching that film since childhood. Some years I focus on the costumes or sets. Other years I skip the parts I like less and wander in and out of the living room when the movie reaches the points I enjoy most.

This year, what struck me was the writing and how strong in technique it actually is. The storyline of the two rival princes vying to be Pharaoh’s successor is well written so that each character is powerfully motivated, and every scene — even if it is between a princess and her faithful servant — carries clear, easy-to-follow conflict. Every scene centers on a clear character goal, and every scene ends in a setback for the central character.

I was surprised by my reaction to the technique. Usually I acknowledge it as a matter of course, but this year I found it soothing and reassuring. It was comfortable. It worked. The plot rolled forward, and even the subplots made sense. I felt myself relaxing and truly enjoying the way the story unfolded. I realized how much I’ve been missing that kind of writing in what I view–and often read–these days.

In contrast, I took advantage of commercial breaks to click over to my public station to check out the Henry VIII drama on PBS Masterpiece — WOLF-HALL. Granted, I was watching it in small snippets, but the characters were drab and drawn with such subtlety that I found the drama hard to follow. Few historical events are as dramatic as the battle between King Henry and Cardinal Wolsey, and I’ve seen — and read — several fine fictionalized accounts. But this version was small, realistic, drab, talky, and shaded to the point that I wasn’t sure whom I should be rooting for and whom I should revile. Only my actual historical knowledge of the characters involved helped me understand anything of what was going on.  Scenes faded into each other. There didn’t seem to be any significance to what was depicted. The episode didn’t make me care. If you think I’m being unfair by comparing DeMille and ancient Egypt to a smaller BBC production of Renaissance English politics, then pit WOLF-HALL against the film ANNE OF A THOUSAND DAYS.

 Even so, the two programs I watched Easter Sunday couldn’t illustrate the point of this blog better. One classically designed, clear, easy to follow and compelling. The other modern, realistic, webbed, shaded in drab stripes of gray, no clear-cut hero to cheer for, no clear-cut villain to boo, no reason to keep watching, no point in returning.

Call me old-fashioned if you wish. But muddled technique does not a compelling story make.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Digging Holes Without Shovels

I’m back in the classroom after a long, lovely leave of absence. For the past four weeks, I’ve met with students and sent them–one after another–back to the drawing board when they’ve brought me plot outlines.

I feel like a gardener who’s returned home to find the flowerbeds choked with weeds. Earlier this month, I finally got around to pruning two of my crepe myrtles, shrubs that I’m training into trees. They’d developed numerous side sprouts and were growing into the wrong shapes. As soon as I snipped and shaped, it was perhaps less than a week before new shoots were sprouting where I’d pruned.

My students are exactly like these rebellious sprouts. They’re trying to plot while assiduously ignoring one of the most basic tenets of fiction writing.

A. You need a protagonist.

Not just any character in the cast will do. You need someone to stand up, stand out, take action, and by-golly DO something, right or wrong.

B. You need an antagonist.

Not just a guy with a dark mustache who lives in a remote castle and broods over the townspeople he wants to harm. But an antagonist to the protagonist.

This means an opponent, someone actively thwarting whatever the protagonist is trying to do.

Without this competitor, this obstacle, this individual who’s really in the way, we have no hope of cooking up a viable story.

So why do the inexperienced writers want to dispense with this individual?

Is it because I’ve said the antagonistic character must exist, and a little rebellion is at work?

Is it because newbie writers no longer understand the concept of a villain? How can that be when the world is filled with villains? We see them on the news every day.

Is it because there’s a misunderstanding about the way stories work through opposition?

Ah ha! Perhaps that’s the reason.

You think up a protagonist. You even figure out what the character wants.

Good, so far!

But then, why shouldn’t we want the protagonist to achieve that aim, that desire?

Because it’s dull. There’s no adventure, no excitement, no suspense, no entertainment if Biff the Hero proclaims, “I’m in love with the princess and I want to marry her and live happily ever after.” And the princess’s father says, “Biff, you look like a handsome young man. My blessings on you both.”

End of story in three sentences.

A story needs conflict in order to move from start to finish. It can’t achieve conflict without the antagonist. It’s that simple, that basic.

Are we as a society so entitled, so privileged these days that the concept of having to work toward something, of having to strive for delayed gratification is simply inconceivable?

I don’t know. Story construction–once the veil of mystery is parted–is so simple. You just have to trust it, and if you do, you can write stories.

Without the conflict between two directly opposing characters, there’s no uncertainty of outcome that spins the story across twenty pages … or two-hundred.

“But I’m writing a romance story,” someone might protest. “I don’t have a Snidely Whiplash villain to carry off the girl. There’s just my heroine and the hero, and if they don’t like each other how can they fall in love?”

Well, duh. Let’s consider the construction a moment. Girl meets guy. She likes him. Her inner voice whispers, He’s THE ONE. She smiles at him in encouragement, hoping he’ll show interest in her and ask her out. She may even be bold enough to ask him out to dinner.

Where’s the conflict? Where’s the opposing goal?

From the guy, of course. If she’s thinking, He’s THE ONE, then he should be thinking, Cute girl, but I won’t be caught. I don’t want to be THE ONE to anybody.

There we are. The goals are in direct opposition, and as the story progresses the characters are struggling between that conflict plus a growing attraction despite all the setbacks.

Or it can be the guy who’s smitten and the girl who’s uninterested at first. Think of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, where they both take an instant superficial dislike to each other. Then Mr. Darcy is the first to reconsider. Think of GONE WITH THE WIND, where Scarlett and Rhett are made for each other but so rarely in sync. Think of the Tracy/Hepburn film, ADAM’S RIB, where they’re deeply in love and happily married, until they take opposing sides in a trial.

Now, if we’re writing a mystery, what are we to do? It’s not a thriller, where good guy and bad guy are face-to-face, waving guns and shouting at each other. We don’t even know who the bad guy is!

Well, let’s see. An off-stage villain, a hidden, shadowy character.

This is the perpetrator, the one whodunnit. This individual doesn’t want to be caught, and so this character is concealing evidence, lying, and manipulating.

We have an investigator, the sleuth. This individual wants to catch the perpetrator and make him pay for his crime. This person is sniffing around, asking questions, seeking and searching, circling ever closer to an increasingly desperate villain.

Even in these two genres, the principle of opposition is still in play.

Directly opposing goals and their setup is not rocket science. It’s a basic foundation of plotting.

Ignore it, and you might as well be scratching at the hard ground with your bare hands, thinking you’re going to dig a hole without a shovel. You might achieve a slight depression, but you’ll never gain a well.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Don’t Warm Up

How do you launch your story?

Do you think it begins with the first word you write on page one?

Do you think it begins when the protagonist is thoroughly introduced to readers?

Do you think it begins when trouble appears, cloudlike, on the protagonist’s horizon?

Or, do you just start typing and hope for the best?

Many years ago, when I was a teenager in Driver’s Ed., my driving instructor tried to teach us to merge and turn our vehicles more assertively by saying, “Hit that car! Try to hit that car! Move!”

I don’t think it was an effective way to teach tentative teens. I understood what he was trying to do to us psychologically, but the concept of intentional collision so alarmed me that I tended to freeze up rather than mash down the accelerator.

Now, as I teach my students how to get their stories moving, I experience frustration similar to what my driving instructor must have gone through.

Start the story on page one!

Make your words count. Make your character introduction count. Get something happening that is pertinent to the plot and start advancing it.

Know what your protagonist wants on page one!

Most writers dawdle in the opening when they haven’t a clue of what their main character’s goal is. You can’t arrive if you don’t know where you’re going.

Make sure your protagonist is in trouble on page one!

What are you waiting for? An invitation? Student writers meet with me all the time to justify why nothing is happening, storywise, for the first eleven pages. “There’s all this background the reader needs to understand.”

Readers don’t need to understand anything except what’s happening right now!

In other words, when I pick up a book to read, I don’t care how the protagonist came to be trapped in a dead-end canyon with hostile mutants closing in. I just want to see if the protagonist is going to find a weapon and survive the encounter.

The back story can be explained later. Much later. Opening with an info dump means Wally Writer is infatuated with his little story world but hasn’t gotten around yet to plotting. Readers seldom have patience to wait while Wally pulls his act together.

It’s like asking readers to read a rough draft instead of the polished version.

Bring in an antagonist fast.

“Oh no!” my student writer protests. “I want the reveal to be a surprise later.”

My response is usually, “Why?”

What are readers to do in the meantime, waiting for the big plot twist? Probably they’re going to read someone else like Dick Francis, or John D. MacDonald, or Agatha Christie, or Robert Crais.

I’m not saying that you mustn’t conceal some shadowy villains from being identified, but they need to be present. (Even J.K. Rowling injects Voldemort early on.)

Story trouble and conflict need to come from a source. They don’t just drop from the sky as random bad luck. The quicker an opponent appears–say, no later than page two–the quicker your story will get on track . . . and stay there.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

A Villain By Any Other Name Would Still Be Rotten

The antagonist has good reason to grumble and scheme.  The protagonist gets the star billing, but much of the story’s success depends on the bad guy.

The story role of antagonist brings conflict to the table, and conflict is what helps the story advance and stay interesting.  Conflict, after all, makes the outcome uncertain.

It’s the antagonist’s job, therefore, to oppose the main character.

     Directly.

           Immediately.

               Constantly.

Unless you intend to create a one-dimensional, cartoonish villain, however, you need to figure out why the antagonist is in opposition.  It should be a good, strong reason.

Now, beyond the basic responsibility of the antagonistic story role, we have something else to consider.  Is your bad guy an antagonist or a villain?

Villains may be cruel, wicked, and devious.  Antagonists may be annoying, obstructive, and stubborn.  There’s a whole range of traits to choose from.  Just make sure you design your character with ingenuity, determination, unpredictability, and some degree of ruthlessness.  The degree of badness then depends on your plot and the genre you’re writing in.

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in 1937s THE AWFUL TRUTH, Columbia Pictures

For example, in a romance story the heroine plays the role of protagonist and the hero plays the role of antagonist.  They have directly opposing goals:  I want to marry him for happily ever after and bear his children VERSUS I am so not going to settle down, marry her, or have any kids!  The plot deals with the conflict between the couple as physical attraction clashes with opposing goals.  The hero, although the antagonist, is neither a terrible guy nor a villain.  And once the pair’s goals become the same, the story ends happily for them both.

A thriller, by contrast, requires a villain.  Someone who wants to do grievous harm–whether physically or psychologically–on someone else.  Consider the novel HEART SICK by Chelsea Cain.  The protagonist is a cop trying to catch a female serial killer but is instead captured by her and tortured gruesomely.

Book cover for Chelsea Cains bestselling novel HEARTSICK, Minotaur/St. Martins, 2007

Bad guys are seductive to the writers that create them.  After all, these characters can do or say just about anything.  They don’t necessarily have a conscience to slow them down.  It can prove liberating to write about them if you don’t try to hold them back or tame them too much.

If your antagonist starts to become a bolder, more vivid character than your hero, don’t squelch your villain!  Go back and make a stronger character of your hero.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Story Roles

Another aspect of designing characters has to do with the role each will play in your story.

Joseph Fiennes in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, 1998, Miramax

A Review of the Basics

Primary Roles: the protagonist and antagonist

Secondary Roles: the sidekick, the confidant/mentor, the love interest

Minor Roles: bit players, people in the background, temporary characters, cabbies, messengers, etc.

Role helps define a character because readers bring certain expectations of what this individual will be doing.  That in turn dictates some of the traits or attributes the character will have.  From this framework you can then branch out.

 

 

John Barrymore - named the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation in the 1920s

 

Laurence Olivier in HAMLET, 1948, Denham Studios

Clearly the two primary characters will be the best designed among your cast.  An entire story can be built upon these two people.  They — along with their opposing goals — drive the story from its beginning to the final showdown and conclusion.

The secondary roles add complications and texture.  They can enrich your drama, bring poignancy or comedic relief, and enable you to write scenes that aren’t always focused on the central antagonist.  Both protagonist and antagonist can have their own sets of secondary characters to assist them as necessary.

Remember also that secondary characters can serve multiple functions.  While you can give your protagonist two sidekicks, a mentor, and a love interest, thus creating four secondary characters to fill those roles, you can also combine them as needed.  A single character may serve all three roles.  Other combinations are possible in larger, more complex stories.  For example, in the STAR WARS original trilogy, Darth Vader is Luke’s antagonist.  He’s also the Emperor’s sidekick.  Eventually, his dual roles collide, bringing him into a sacrificial choice at the climax.

The minor roles fill in wherever your story needs people.  They add veracity and make the backdrop to your story events appear more plausible.  They can be a prop or feature in a scene.  It’s all up to what you require them to do for you.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized