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!
Sure, there’s STUFF going on this month. Big stuff. Election stuff, holiday stuff, pumpkin spice latte stuff.
But to those of us in the writer tribe, what November really means is NaNoWriMo.
I have several thoughts to share about NaNoWriMo.