Hero. Protagonist. Main character. Whatever term you prefer, this character is the star of the show.
But what exactly does that mean? In weakly structured drafts, it often means that the writer uses the hero as a fictional doppelgänger. The character appears in every scene, observing and narrating, musing and mulling and commenting on all that she takes in.
But this passive hero doesn't do anything. She has many feelings and opinions, but the events of the tale happen to her and around her. When a big push forward is needed, some secondary character is likely to step in to orchestrate the next step.
This is using the protagonist to do the writer’s job. The big tell of this all-too-common type of flawed draft is that the secondary characters are always more interesting than the main character!
Putting your hero in every scene does not make her an active protagonist. In a well-structured story, the hero drives...
Do you know this oft-repeated quote by British novelist and critic E. M. Forster? He’s explaining the difference between his definition of story and plot:
“The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot.”
Forster uses the word story a little differently than I use it. By story, he means the most basic definition — a collection of incidents that happen in a timeline — but his point is clear and essential.
He argues (and who would disagree?) that the job of a well-structured tale is to make readers care what happens next. The writer does this not by providing a list of unrelated incidents, but by creating a dynamic chain of cause and effect.
Think of dominoes. They are meticulously arranged. They have a starting location and a finish line. They need not move in a perfectly straight trajectory (and it’s far more interesting if they...
I like baseball. It has a storytelling rhythm to it.
There’s one test after another, as the role of hero is passed from batter to batter. There’s a mentor in the dugout yelling instructions and encouragement. Back when there were crowds in the stands, the trickster mascot would trot around between innings, shooting t-shirts from a cannon.
The pitcher is the hero of his own tale, facing down that club-wielding shadow with the help of his faithful ally, the catcher. The promised scene may be hours away, but the ninth inning is always out there, waiting.
What can baseball teach us about writing? Two things come to mind:
Change is hard.
It takes time.
It takes letting go of old beliefs, old behaviors, old reflexes.
It can feel raw. Like shedding a skin.
A story is a journey of change. Is it any wonder that we writers have to put our heroes through the wringer?
All through the second act, our hero must face test after test after test.
Second acts are the long middles of any story (half the length, or more, of the entire tale). Second acts are the dangerous, obstacle-laden expanse your hero must cross, like the proverbial chicken, to get to the other side.
And every step of that long, treacherous way, the hero learns. Grows. Fails and regroups. Gets braver, bolder. Faces fears, confronts hard truths, and finds herself doing things she might never have dreamed she was capable of.
The middle is long because change is hard. It takes time. It goes step by step.
Let the journey begin!
TIP: Think of the second act as a series of tests that allow your hero to...
Early on — let’s say no more than twenty- to twenty-five percent of the way in to your story (quicker is good, too!) — your hero is going to cross an important threshold.
You'll often hear it called it the act break. It’s the dividing line between our old friend, “the beginning,” and that murky expanse known as “the middle.”
Crossing this line is so much more thrilling than these words convey! Quite simply, your hero leaves the world they've known and enters new territory. This is the world of the adventure, the training ground, the quest.
It is a wildly different place, with new rules and new dangers, populated with allies and adversaries. It is designed (by you, of course!) to test your hero to the core, and bring them step by hard-earned step along the incremental journey of change.
It might literally be a new world — Oz, perhaps? — or a long and difficult quest, like the one Bilbo...
Imagine if you will: You're in a serious funk, and for good reason. Your father has died (the circumstances? Mysterious!), and his death should have made you king, but your creepy uncle swooped in and married your mother and now it's creepy uncle who's king, not you.
And now your best friend, your ride-or-die, has come to you with a wild tale: A ghost has been spotted by the guards, not once, not twice, but three nights in a row, wandering the ramparts of the castle. Your pal (we’ll call him Horatio) has seen it with his own eyes.
Dude, says Horatio. I'm serious. It looks like your Dad. You need to come talk to the ghost.
Who wouldn't want to keep reading a story that starts like that? Our hero Hamlet is in a pickle for sure, but good storytelling demands that he DO something about it.
You need to come talk to the ghost. Hamlet does so, only to have the ghost challenge him to even bigger task: I was murdered, the ghost tells...
“Stories are about conflict.” Did someone teach you that in a high school English class? I think we’ve all heard it. Rising conflict, falling conflict, sideways conflict...
The problem with this statement is that writers can take it to mean stories are about arguments. I say yes, you say no. That's conflict, sure. But where’s the story?
You’ve already heard me say that stories are about transformation. Something’s got to change. And change is not easy. People and systems resist change. Call it Newton’s first law of storytelling: Objects in motion tend to stay at motion, objects at rest tend to stay at rest.
To overcome this inertia takes a ton of energy. Your hero’s deep need for change is the source, but your hero’s goal (or mission) is what focuses that diffuse glow into the laser beam of story.
What do I mean by mission? If you're Meg Murry, your mission is...
Fern woke and sat up in bed; she stretched, she yawned. She checked the weather—damp again!— chose an outfit, and got dressed in her favorite blue shirt.
She wandered downstairs and wheedled some breakfast from her mother. "Say, Mother," she said, as they finished eating. "Where’s Poppa going with that axe?”
Sincere apologies to E. B. White! But this unfortunate opening—let’s say it’s from Charlotte's Web in the bizarro universe where Spock has a beard — while perfectly “correct” in a grammatical sense, commits an all-too-common faux pas. It wastes words and the reader’s precious attention by clearing its throat and taking a bunch of practice swings while the STORY is just sitting there on the table getting cold.
“Where’s Poppa going with that axe?” is where this story begins. There is no need to start sooner. We can assume Fern gets up in the morning and gets dressed before...
Tone is everything, isn’t it?
If I say “what’s wrong with you?” in a rude way, it implies both that I think there IS something wrong with you, and that I have an opinion about it!
Yet a different, warmer, more curious intonation might be an expression of care. I can see something's wrong, and I want to know more.
This kinder, gentler way is the stance we must take toward our protagonists. I like to call them heroes, for reasons that will be made clear as these tips progress. Protagonist, main character, hero — look, you know who I mean. Your story is bound to have one.
And whoever that hero is — something’s wrong. Something is drastically, urgently, things-can’t-go-on-like-this wrong.
It might be something obvious (your horrible uncle hates you and makes you live in a cupboard under the stair, oh and you're an orphan too, long story! ) — or more subtle (you don’t actually mind being a...
A blank page just brings out the graffiti artist in me. Put a mark on it, quick!
But here’s the thing: writing is not made out of marks on a page. It's not made out of letters, words, sentences, paragraphs.
Good writing is made out of story. Character. Emotion. Transformation.
In a well-told tale, there’s a palpable energetic shift as both hero and reader journey from where we are at the beginning to where we end up at the tale’s thrilling, surprising, yet inevitable conclusion.
An axis has shifted. The transformation is profound and irrevocable. This tale has taken both protagonist and reader on an adventure of meaningful change.
TODAY’S TIP: Words are easily tidied up in revisions. In a first draft, dig deep and discover what happens. Your hero’s adventure may be bigger, wilder, and deeper than it first appears. What is it?
Storytellers, start your engines!