steering the craft

the rest of the gang

In yesterday’s writing tip, I talked about keeping your hero firmly in the driver’s seat of your story.

But what about all those other characters? If the hero makes the choices that move the story forward, what exactly is the secondary cast of characters doing?

I’ll tell you what they’re not doing. They’re not doing nothing. They’re not extras. In opera they’re called spear carriers — the human set dressing that fills those vast stages.

A story is a designed thing, a work of both art and artifice. Strunk and White remind us that, just like a well-designed machine, good writing ought to have no unnecessary parts — including characters. 

Each secondary character must have a necessary job to do, and that job is to impact the journey of the hero. Positively or negatively, there is an impact. Your hero can’t get to the finish line of meaningful change without them. 

I love the work of Joseph Campbell and use...

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the star of the show

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...

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cause and effect

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...

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the rules of the game

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:

  • A story is far more engaging if you have someone to root for. A tale with no clear protagonist doesn’t grab the reader’s emotions. The deep, passionate attachment sports fans have for “their team”  is what makes sports so fun (and such a big business). Does your story invite the reader to feel...
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a new world

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...

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“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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