steering the craft

who’s the opponent?

 

I was doing a little research into Stoic philosophy—like ya do!—and came across a quote from Seneca: 

“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”
—Seneca (4 B.C.E. — 65 C.E.)

To be thankful for one’s misfortunes is Stoic to the max. Leave it to a Roman to pull no punches!

But look at that second sentence: Without an opponent, “no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”

For our hero to pass through a story without an opponent would make for a pretty dull tale. And yet, experience suggests that the single aspect of good storytelling that developing writers most want to punch in the face is the necessity of filling their pages with obstacles. 

I get it. No one wants obstacles in real life. We want smooth sailing, even if Seneca says...

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does your story need a villain?

 

It’s been said that a story is only as good as its villain. Agree or disagree?

The truth is, our heroes need obstacles. Other characters in the tale may be instrumental in providing those obstacles. Why might they do this? Does being a “villain” equate to being “evil”?

More questions about villainy abound! How do we create “bad guys” without writing stale clichés? And how can we bring ourselves to write fully-imagined characters that we ourselves find unsavory?

Mwah-ha-ha! Clearly, the role of the “villain” is fraught with complexity. That’s what we dig into this week.


My weekly livestream happens on Wednesdays at 1 PM Pacific. Come live and participate! Or catch the replays here on the blog.

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good writers make bad things happen

 

Look, I’m a nice person. I know you’re a nice person too. 

Yet when we put on our storyteller’s hats, being nice is a big mistake.

Think of it: Our protagonist is on a journey of meaningful change. What’s more likely to spur a life-altering transformation? 

  • An evening on the sofa under cozy blankets, complete with hot cocoa and Netflix?
  • Or an urgent, high-stakes journey way outside the comfort zone, overcoming one tough obstacle after the next?

We owe it to our heroes to put them through the wringer. But it’s not always easy to do! In today’s livestream I talk about:

  • why writers struggle to give up being nice
  • the trouble with “conflict” as the basis for scenes
  • how to keep crafting obstacles without being repetitive

Some great audience questions get addressed, too! Thanks to all who participated during the livestream, it made for a great discussion.


My weekly livestream is on...

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whose story is it?

The story of Thanksgiving that I was taught growing up was mostly a bunch of hooey. 

That familiar fiction of friendly Pilgrims and helpful Native Americans getting along feels terrific to tell and hear, if that’s the only story you know. It has no bad guys. It both instructs and inspires. If only we could all be so peaceful, welcoming, and cooperative! 

The problem, of course, is that it’s not the truth. There’s a gut-wrenching history of slaughter and appropriation just outside the margins of the tale that I was taught as a child. 

In terms of writing craft, we’re talking about point of view. Who’s doing the telling? To whom? And, importantly, to what end?

It’s said that history is written by the victors, but serious historians are always challenging the narratives offered by their predecessors. New research and new perspectives can’t change what happened in the past, but they can...

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shootout at the corral

You know I love a good pithy saying. Here’s one I made up, just for you: Good books get read; great books get reread. 

Think of the books on your shelves. Most of them you’ll read once, but the ones you absolutely love you will surely read again and again.

A great book is a friend for life. The better you know it, the more you love to reread it — and you can take that as proof that great storytelling does not depend on keeping secrets from the reader. 

A common authorial misstep is to conceal the hero’s true mission from the reader.

Why do this? These authors mistakenly assume that secrecy equals suspense. They hope that the reader will keep reading in order to find out what’s really going on.

It’s a false hope, alas. The reader keeps reading to find out not what the climactic scene of the plot is, but how that scene turns out. 

Will the Wizard help Dorothy get home to Kansas? Will...

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facing the shadow

Yesterday’s talk of tricksters got me thinking about the archetypal energies that infuse every story. I call them energies because I consider storytelling a form of energy.

If that sounds a bit vague or metaphysical to you, consider this: A story is not its physical form. It is not the book between hardcovers; it is not the film on celluloid or digital data; it is not the little clickable box on your Netflix home page that takes you (at last!) to the new season of The Crown. Now you know what I’m doing this weekend! 

Story is a non-physical phenomenon that connects both author-to-reader and reader-to-reader. It’s the deep engagement with fictional characters in a made-up world; the feeling of having taken a journey with those characters and being altered by the trip, just as we are affected by the events of our real lives.

Oral traditions may manifest in written versions that later get made into...

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good bones

You know the old joke about “boneless chicken,” right? How did it walk?

As a long-time vegetarian, I don’t worry much about bones in my cooking! But I think about them All. The. Time. in my writing.

Just as the overall story has a structure, so must each scene. This is especially true in the middle, or second act.

Why? The middle is most of your book. A long expanse without some sturdy support is not going to hold up. It’s a tent without a tentpole.

The middle’s job is to place obstacle after obstacle in the way of your hero’s progress toward her goal, or mission. Think of it as a series of tests. Some, your hero will pass; some she’ll fail; some she’ll barely scrape through.

Each test forces her to level up in some way (a story is a journey of change, as I’m sure you recall!). But a series of tests can too easily look like this: Test. Test. Test. Test. Test. Scene after scene after scene.

Monotonous, no? And...

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tension

“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...

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