Tag Archives: classic story design

Testing Character

As I mentioned in my previous post a few days ago, I’m working now on the ending to my current manuscript. I’m not rushing it because a) my life is filled with distractions/interruptions and I want to get this portion of the story right; and b) I want to make sure I’m testing my protagonist sufficiently and appropriately in these last few pages.

“Test” seems to be an unwelcome word to many of us. It kicks our memories back to schooldays, when teachers put us through the wringer of pop quizzes and frightful exams.

At the time, we suffered through hours of study or wished–too late–that we had cracked our books more than we did. If we were sufficiently prepared, then we felt confident. Otherwise, test days transformed us into bundles of nerves.

But what are tests for?

To enable cruel teachers to torture us? To determine whether we’ve memorized the names of all the county seats in our home state? To make us sweat?

Answer:  They’re a gauge of whether and how much we’ve grown or altered.

To be tested academically means we’re forced or enticed to study and prepare. Doing so  broadens our knowledge, insight, and perception on the selected topic. That preparation forces us to change from having little or no knowledge to possessing increased knowledge.

To be tested physically means we train our bodies to learn tasks and/or skills or to become stronger and more fit. We practice. We stress our muscles. We perform cardio workouts. We gradually improve our body’s state of fitness or we learn to perform certain movements easily, gracefully, and efficiently.

There are other tests, of course, but I needn’t define them all. The point is that tests of any kind are designed to force us to change.

Late Thursday afternoons are when my university’s ROTC units practice marching. This week, I saw cadets in casual student attire standing at attention. By next week, as I leave work, I suppose I’ll see them marching in unison. At some point, they’ll be wearing uniforms while they practice their drills. Every week, I’ll see a more visible change in these young men and women.

So we get it. We don’t like tests, but we recognize their purpose and usefulness. In fiction, a story’s real point is to test your protagonist.

How? And why?

Let’s examine how first:

1. The test for your focal character begins with a problem for him or her to solve. Something has changed in this individual’s life or world. It’s something that directly impinges on your protagonist, something that is immediate and impossible to ignore.

2. As soon as your protagonist attempts to solve this problem or deal with this situation, an antagonist must step in to oppose those efforts. It’s up to you the writer to figure out a plausible motivation for that opposition. Just keep in mind that opposition needs to be strong and direct, and it should grow stronger and more direct as the story progresses.

3. The story problem or situation can be purely a physical one, or it can be a complex one involving emotional or psychological issues within the protagonist.

–If physical, such as wildfires are raging toward the protagonist’s home and community, and she must try to save her family, pets, livestock, and possessions before everything she owns is lost forever, then the plot is purely an external, surface one. There is no deep soul-searching required. How much will she risk? How important is her property to her? How long will she fight to save her house or barn? Etc.

–If internal, such as the protagonist feeling consumed with guilt over having betrayed a friend by sleeping with his wife, then the external plot conflict should move the protagonist toward confronting that guilt, getting the issue out into the open, and solving it once and for all through confession, apology, atonement, or a fight.

As for why we need to test our protagonist:

1. A story about a character that remains static, is never tested, never grows, never changes is not a classically designed story at all, but merely a vignette. A few authors possess the talent and insight to present such a protagonist in an interesting way, but it’s merely a frozen depiction. Is that enough to enthrall today’s jaded and impatient readers the way it did in the mid-twentieth century, the early twentieth century, or even the nineteenth century?

2. We test our protagonist because classic story design is about creating an arc of change within this focal character. We are showing readers an example that change in behavior, or attitude, or knowledge, or situation is possible. Therefore, we are offering hope and optimism to readers held in the webs of an increasingly stressful and complicated world.

In the controversial (for its day) 1950s film, THE YOUNG LIONS, Marlon Brando portrays a young German who believes that Hitler offers him the hope of change and possibility. He feels that with Hitler in charge of his country, he will no longer be forced to work in the same career as his father, or live his life in the same small village where he grew up. He is eager to break the bonds of an almost feudal system, to reach for all the potential he feels he has. The film follows him as he enlists in the army and then becomes gradually disillusioned, horrified, and rebellious through witnessing the atrocities of a Nazi regime. This character is tested again and again by plot events, conflict, and stress into changing his ideas until he is willing not only to disagree with his orders but to defy them.

3. We test our protagonist because without stress or pressure or opposition or intense trouble, it is human nature generally to resist change. We might desire a certain status or item, but if achieving it takes too much effort we aren’t likely to bother. For example, I desire to be slimmer, but that means changing what I eat and sustaining a regular exercise program. Am I willing to give up chocolate milkshakes and cheeseburgers? I am not. Therefore, my weight remains where it is.

People have good intentions all the time, but they are like rivers that follow the path of least resistance. Therefore, we test and pressure our protagonists because a) they aren’t real people and we can force them to undergo whatever we design; and b) we use how they handle conflict to show readers that change is possible.

4. We also test our protagonists to make heroes of them–at least we do in commercial and genre fiction. We are entertaining readers by showing a transformation, and readers participate vicariously in that experience. Thematically, transformation is extremely popular with audiences of all ages. Fairy tales explore transformation of many kinds. Small children tie bath towels around their necks for superhero capes. Fathers take their children to movies in the STAR WARS franchise to show them the mythology surrounding the Force. Little girls grow up planning their weddings, when–at least for a day–they become a princess like Cinderella, conveyed in a limo, wearing a fabulous gown, and destined to dazzle the eyes of Prince Charming waiting at the altar.

5. Finally, we test our protagonist to prove to readers that he or she can take all the hits the story problem is going to dish out, cope with them, and survive. We show readers that the protagonist deserves to achieve the story goal, deserves to solve the story problem, deserves to win, deserves recognition and reward because the protagonist has taken the test and passed it. Giving a character what he or she deserves is meting out poetic justice.

When so much of real life can seem unfair, reading a story where matters work out as they should and heroes are rewarded while villains are punished is very comforting indeed.

And comforting, rewarding, just, optimistic, transformative, fair, and affirmative stories sell.


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Attacking Story

Okay, yeah. I admit I’m old-fashioned. I’m traditional. I’m a writing technician in that I’ve spent my entire career studying how stories and plots are constructed for best dramatic effect. So today I’m going to address a writing issue that has been troubling me for quite a while.

There’s a current trend cycling through commercial fiction that is reflective of a larger societal trend:  call it deconstruction.

I’m not even sure it’s an actual word. I looked up “deconstruct” in my Webster’s Collegiate edition, and it wasn’t there. I didn’t bother to search for it in my unabridged dictionary because I’m beginning to suspect that deconstruct is one of those trendy let’s-use-a-word-contrary-to-its-correct-usage verbal hijinks so popular now. (E.g. the hot fashion for turning nouns into verbs, as in “Let’s movie” or “We summered in Bermuda” or “You have disrespected me” or “I gifted a book to my friend,” or “Chef Daniel intends to deconstruct an omelet and serve it with a fig reduction.”

Dictionary.com says that “to deconstruct” (verb) is a back formation of the noun “deconstruction.”

Aha! A modern corruption of a perfectly good word.

To deconstruct means the opposite of construct or build. Therefore, to deconstruct means to destroy, to tear apart. So why can’t we say destroy these days if that’s what we mean? Methinks the word might be too harsh for politically correct/sensitive ears. But I don’t like wrapping meanings in phony words and euphemisms.

When we deconstruct a recipe, we tear it down, tear it apart, destroy it, alter it into a different form.

When we deconstruct a fairy tale, we’re doing the same thing.

When we deconstruct classic plot structure, we’re destroying it.

Very au courant, as the French would say. So current, so cool, so trendy, so fashionable to take story design and pull it apart as a sadistic child pulls the back legs off a grasshopper. What’s left? A feeble, mutilated creature that can no longer properly function.

Ah, but I’m assured by those who claim to be in the publishing know that linear plot is “out,” and nonlinear storylines are “in.” So what does that mean?

As I said, I’ve been puzzling over it for quite some time–ever since a haughty young editor rejected one of my book manuscripts for being too linear. And while I quickly figured out what she meant, I have been shaking my head ever since as I watch writers and editors scurrying ever farther down the road to plot anarchy.

I’m told that youngsters these days are not linear thinkers. They are web thinkers. That sounded almost impressive at first, until I realized that someone who cannot think logically cannot think well. So when someone grabs a bit of information here and there in no particular order and synthesizes it into a conclusion–or assumption–hey, presto! Isn’t the modern brain so clever?

Well . . . maybe.

However, I believe the cleverness is perhaps bogus and this whole movement of new storytelling is but a rather fiendish mask for the same old phony ineptitude whereby clumsy writers fail to present plot skillfully to an audience.

Let me give you specific examples.

Over the weekend, my local PBS station aired two programs back to back. One was an episode of the popular hit Sherlock, and the other was a historical drama, Victoria.

Sherlock has grabbed and intrigued audiences by deconstructing Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories and spinning bits and pieces of them into a frenetic, wildly over-the-top version that is seldom fully comprehensible. When this series first began, I thought it clever in how it adapted the old storylines to modern-day settings, using text messaging instead of telegrams, etc., but it quickly spun out of control and has pushed the boundaries of plausibility ever since.

This particular evening, the show was as webbish and nonlinear as it’s possible to be. It zigzagged among hallucinations, memories, present, past, future, oops, no that was a dream, and whirled from fragment to fragment like a dervish.

I have come to realize that it’s not really necessary to sit down and watch such programs with my full attention because they aren’t designed for that. Instead, the swirling bits and pieces of nearly random scenes and fragmental character encounters are intended for distracted audiences to grab like catching fluffy bits of cottonwood fuzz floating on the summer breezes.

And ever since I stopped even trying to follow a Sherlock episode closely, stopped suspending disbelief, stopped caring deeply or empathizing with the characters, it has made no significant difference in my comprehension. I find there’s no reward to sitting down and concentrating hard or watching the same episode about three times to finally “get” what it is all about. And I needn’t worry about coming in ten minutes late because I can always gain the gist of it on the fly. (The gist being next to nothing at all.)

Perhaps that is the “genius” of this style of writing, this construction of story montage. Perhaps its anarchy and madness perfectly fit the needs of audiences with scant time or short attention spans.

When Sherlock ended, I then watched a segment of Victoria. I had no high expectations for it, but I intended to garner some meager appreciation of the sets and costumes.

To my astonishment, the episode was linear, logical, plotted along classic, archetypal plot patterns, and dramatically sound. I was surprised, then pleased, then delighted. I relaxed into the mood of the show, enjoyed the sets, empathized with the beleaguered young queen, and immersed myself thoroughly in this story world. I didn’t have to strain to be clever. I didn’t have to blink in confusion. I was never lost.

I don’t know who wrote it, but my hat is off to that individual or writing team.

Because–huzzah!–someone out there still knows how to construct a story that’s plausible and pleasurable to watch.

So I made up my mind that I’m no longer going to give way to this editorial nonsense, let alone cater to it. Good story is linear. It doesn’t have to be destroyed to be clever. It can be rendered less predictable by strategic ordering of scenes, jumping forward and folding back, judicious flashbacks, and viewpoint changes, but it doesn’t have to be a hot mess whipped into a mind-blowing froth.

I would far, far better read–or watch–a story that’s so skillful I forget I’m separate. I want a story that flows so logically, so effortlessly that I can lose myself inside the story world. I want a story that touches me emotionally. That is why I read. That is why I watch films.

Not to think, how clever this is. Or, look at that special effect! How was that done? But instead  to become the central character, to live through the moment, to vicariously be a part of the unfolding drama.

Chaos in fiction is a lie. It is hooey. It is a cheat to its audience, no matter how trendy it might be. I will continue to build stories, not destroy their proven structure for a fad.


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Where Are We Going?

In my last post, I commented on disconnected or random conflict and the problems it can cause a writer.

I don’t mean the kind of story where seemingly unrelated problems arise, but then at midpoint begin to fall into place and connect, leading to discovery of the true villain’s identity.

I mean the kind of episodic, disjointed sort of story that rambles around without a true central antagonist at work and depends on shock or mayhem to propel the plot instead of cause-and-effect.  Imagine the events of THE WIZARD OF OZ transpiring without the Wicked Witch.

My writing students are gravitating more toward this awkward plot structure.  I find it increasingly difficult to correct.  What is the root of this problem?  I can find several things that, in combination, are affecting how story is perceived.  Is it an evolution or an erosion?

1) The invention of the World Wide Web.

2) Video games

3) Role-playing games

4) Book series that are open-ended

None of these four factors is negative or undesirable; however, their prevalence helps generate a different audience expectation than perhaps some writers have dealt with before.

Recently, while having dinner with another author, I expressed frustration in getting my students to understand cause-and-effect plotting.

“That’s because you’re a linear thinker,” my friend said. “Your students are web thinkers.”

It explained a lot. I am indeed a linear writer. I grew up reading linear stories–meaning plots that move from a beginning point through a progression of tougher obstacles to an objective.  Every action compels a reaction to occur, and the story advances with logic underlying its emotions and conflict.

I was trained to be linear.  My writing craft is founded on cause-and-effect principles.  Characters in my stories may be puzzled or baffled for a while, but they sort things out.  No one is acting without a reason, whether or not those motivations are apparent to the protagonist at any given time.

The last time my agent shopped a prospective book synopsis around for me, one publishing house rejected it because it was “too linear.”

Of course, the project sold to someone else.  But that particular rejection has haunted me since.  Initially, I didn’t understand what it meant.  My agent was likewise baffled.  Yet since then, I’ve come to suspect that the fiction world is being assaulted by a quiet revolution.

Not the self-publishing versus legacy publishing debate currently raging among authors.

But instead one that speaks to the very heart of what story is and how to present it to readers.  Is anyone paying attention to this?  Is this issue the tiny leak that’s going to eventually crumble the whole dam?

Linear story is based on a construction that dates back to antiquity, to the very first stories ever told.  It pits protagonist against antagonist in a step-by-step, cause-and-effect progression of attempts and partial failures until the story’s climax, where sacrifice, risk, and heroic action lead to victory . . . or defeat.  At its best, this type of story is engrossing and cathartic.

Non-linear stories, however, aren’t concerned with an arc of change for the protagonist. There may or may not be a central antagonist.  Events are random problems to be solved that may or may not lead in any particular direction.  Sacrifice doesn’t often occur, or it happens to anyone but the protagonist.  Poetic justice is ignored.  The characters rush from here to there.  They encounter danger and solve problems, and if they ricochet long enough there’s an outcome of sorts.

As an example, let’s consider a series of teen thrillers by Alexander Gordon Smith that begins with a novel called LOCKDOWN: ESCAPE FROM FURNACE. 

It’s fast, creepy, and shocking.  It deals with a boy who’s framed for a brutal murder, tried and convicted, and incarcerated in a horrifying prison.  There’s just enough linear structure to hold this story loosely together.  The rest of it careens from one shock or problem to the next.  There’s a hint of an unseen antagonist, but the shadow force is so vague and nebulous that the story can’t hinge on it.  The ending is left open.  The protagonist doesn’t change significantly.  Readers are supposed to read the next volume and the next, hoping–presumably–to eventually get answers.

LOCKDOWN serves process-oriented readers, those who are entranced by the grim story world and are so determined not to reach an end to this experience that they’re willing to be cheated by the story’s last page. 

Compare Smith’s tale to THE LIGHTNING THIEF by Rick Riordan.  In this wildly popular YA story, the construction is definitely linear. 

The protagonist is a dyslexic boy named Percy, who discovers he’s the son of his human mother and one of the Greek gods of antiquity.  Percy and his companions go on a quest to recover the stolen lightning bolt of Zeus.  They constantly encounter traps and obstacles, but their unknown antagonist’s hand is clearly working against them.  Eventually, Percy identifies the villain and confronts him.  Percy also discovers the identity of his father.  And although this book is the first of a series, its plot is resolved.  Percy goes through a significant arc of change.  He fulfills the story role of hero through his sacrificial and courageous actions.  This story serves results-oriented readers, those who expect a definitive outcome to Percy’s adventure.  These readers may wish for another story about Percy, but they’ll continue because they’ve received a solid, rewarding reading experience.  Their time spent in this story world has been worthwhile, and Riordan hasn’t used tricks and shock just to keep them there.

I try to comfort myself with the economic outcomes of these two books.  Riordan’s classically designed story has–so far–outsold Smith’s shocker.  I’m glad, but not because I’m out to disparage Smith’s work. I read LOCKDOWN: ESCAPE FROM FURNACE with curiosity and got a certain amount of entertainment value from it.  But it must always been seen for the type of book it is and not presented as a model of writing that should be emulated. 

No, I’m glad for Riordan’s success because it shows that an audience will still respond–and respond well–to the linear, classically designed story.

However, I think it’s unwise to be complacent.  If we’re going to preserve cause-and-effect tales as the foundation of modern fiction–of all fiction–then we’re going to have to fight for this construction and stand diligently for its defense.


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