Is Your Novel a Spineless Weakling?
Now that NaNoWriMo is behind us, it is time to take a hard look at the 50,000 or so words we wrote. Is it really a story? Or is it 50,000 worth of organic goo that we can maybe perhaps grow into a story? Maybe some of you didn’t participate in National Novel Writing Month, but you are working on a novel. Maybe you have finished a novel and can’t understand why you’re getting rejection after rejection. Perhaps you desire to write a novel, but have no clue where to even begin? Where do professional authors get all their ideas?
All in due time…
Three years ago, I left my home critique group even though I had been president for three years. Why? My home critique group placed too much importance on reading pages. My opinion? Beautiful prose does not a novel make. Is prose important? Absolutely. But it isn’t the most important. We can have prose so lovely it makes the angels weep, yet not have a story. Sort of like, I could have the flawless skin of a twenty-year-old super model, but if I don’t have a skeleton? I’m dead meat. Same with prose and novel structure. Novel structure makes up the internal support structure, and prose fills it all in and connects everything and makes it look pretty.
I broke away and, with help from a few close friends, created a new kind of critique group that we named Warrior Writer Boot Camp in honor of our favorite mentor NYT Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer. When creating WWBC, I wanted to create something with the capacity to look at stories as a whole and judge the “big picture.” The first lesson all writers receive upon entering my critique group has to do with the antagonist (the spinal column of your story) and that’s what we are going to talk about today.
Why is the antagonist so important? No antagonist and no story. I think most craft books make a critical error. They assume us noobs know more than we do. Most new writers don’t understand the antagonist the way they need to. We have some hazy basics from high school or college English and then we try to go pro. Then it takes years of trial, error, rejection and therapy to see any success. Um, yeah. Bad plan. The antagonist is critical, and is often one of the most troublesome concepts to master. No worries. I am here to help.
What happens when we don’t have an antagonist?
I teach at many writing conferences and see all the nervous writers, eyes dilated and skin pasty with panic. They are waiting for their agent pitch session and it takes every bit of courage they have to not throw up in their shoes. Ask them what their stories are about and 99% of the time I get fifteen minutes of convoluted world-building and a character cast that would rival Ben Hur.
The writer generally didn’t understand the antagonist when she wrote the book. So, since there wasn’t a clear-cut antagonist with an overall plot problem, what we have left is a bunch of literary Bond-o (extraneous characters, world-building, extra sub-plots and gimmicky twist endings).
This is one of the reasons many writers find it easier to do brain surgery on themselves with a spatula than to write the novel synopsis or the query letter. They can’t boil down the plot into one sentence because the plot is so complicated even they barely understand it. Been there, done that and got the T-shirt, myself.
When helping writers plot, I often suggest that they write their ending first. Many look at me like I just asked them to reverse the earth’s orbit around the sun. Why? They don’t have a clear story problem to be solved. Yet, when we look at it, what is any story’s ending? The solution to the problem created by the antagonist. That is the climax.
All of this angst with pitches and queries and synopses can be traced back to one single problem. There is no antagonist or there is a weak or unclear antagonist. How does this happen? I feel there is a huge logical fallacy to blame.
For those of you who have slept since high school, a logical fallacy is an argument that mistakenly seeks to establish a causal connection when dissimilar objects or events are compared as if the same.
All apples are fruits. An orange is a fruit therefore all oranges are apples.
What does this have to do with today’s topic?
Most writers mistakenly believe this:
All villains are antagonists, therefore all antagonists are villains.
The antagonist seems to be a real sticky wicket, especially for new writers. Hey, I’ve been there. It is easy to see how there could be confusion. Villains make no bones about the mischief and mayhem they seek to create. Nobody doubted who the bad guy was in The Dark Knight. Joker will live on in infamy as one of the greatest arch-villains in movie history. Yet, villains are only one kind of antagonist. So if the antagonist isn’t merely a villain, who is he?
The antagonist is merely whoever drives the conflict.
All stories are the antagonist’s story. Why? Because without the antagonist, there is no problem. The protagonist’s happy joy-joy life would go on as normal. If there is no problem, then there is no need for our protagonist to rise to the occasion. The antagonist represents this dire change that must be set right by the end of the book. Great fiction actually uses many antagonists. Let’s take a look.
Different types of antagonists:
The Core Antagonist—The Big Boss Troublemaker
All stories MUST have a core antagonist, what I like to call the Big Boss Troublemaker. The BBT has a plan that disrupts the hero’s ordinary life and that plan is the overall story problem. Big Boss Troublemakers need to be corporeal. Antagonists are tremendously complex, and thus, in my opinion, the most interesting. Even if the overall antagonist is disease, nature, war, weather, the antagonist will almost always be represented by a proxy. Humans tend to be concrete thinkers, so tangible antagonists generally work best. In fact, I’ll wager that many stories that seem to have non-corporeal BBTs actually do. Let’s take a quick look.
The Perfect Storm—The antagonist is not the storm. Rather it is the captain who, out of greed and pride, makes the decision to endanger the crew to save the haul of fish…and everyone dies, which is probably why we should avoid weather/nature as an antagonist.
In fairness, how many best-selling books involve a hero pitted against bad weather chapter after chapter? We can’t control the weather so how can we conquer it? Can’t make heroes with bad weather. Well, maybe someone can, but my advice is to steer clear.
Steel Magnolias—In the movie Steel Magnolias the BBT is death and disease. Who is the main antagonist? Daughter Shelby. Shelby has life-threatening diabetes. Had Shelby decided to adopt, there would be no story. It is Shelby’s decision to get pregnant despite the risks that creates the story problem for the mother (Protagonist) M’Lynn.
In the movie Footloose, who is the BBT? Religious fundamentalism that forbids dancing. Who is the main antagonist? The town preacher who is out to get the city boy (protagonist) who wants to hold a school dance. The preacher represents the BBT—religious fundamentalism that forbids dancing.
Protagonist against Herself
Oh, but my protagonist is her own worst enemy. Yeah, no. Therapy is not fiction. Need an outside BBT.
In the movie 28 Days, Sandra Bullock’s character Gwen Cummings is an alcoholic. Alcoholics do not generally believe they have a problem. Most do not wake up one day and say. “Wow, I really drink too much. I need to quit.” There will be an outside force that creates the problem and drives the change. In this case, Gwen gets a DUI. The judge orders her to court mandated rehab. Who is the BBT? Alcoholism. Who is the antagonist? The judge. If he hadn’t sentenced Gwen to rehab, she would still be drinking. If Gwen fails, then this same judge will send her to prison (stakes). If Gwen finally sobers up, she will defeat the BBT, Alcoholism. But, she must face-off against the judge’s challenge first and prove she can sober up.
Every story needs a Big Boss Troublemaker. If your BBT isn’t corporeal, then your story will need a corporeal proxy as shown in the examples. Existentialism doesn’t make for great fiction. Navel-gazing is therapy, not fiction.
Employing Scene Antagonists
Once you have a clear Big Boss Troublemaker and a story problem, then you can begin plotting. Ah, but how do we ramp up the tension? We use scene antagonists. Every scene must have a clear goal for our protagonist…and he can rarely if ever succeed until the end. There must be obstacles and very often those obstacles will be other characters that your protagonist calls “friend.”
Think of your favorite cop shows. I love Law and Order Criminal Intent. The detectives are after the murderer (BBT), but the Commissioner just called and they’re chief has his panties in a twist. How many times have you seen a police chief kick a detective off a case because of the political heat? Is the police chief a villain? No, but he is an antagonist because his wants stand in direct opposition from what the protagonist wants…finding the bad guy and brining him to justice. This creates dramatic tension. Will our detectives risk career suicide and find the killer? Conflict now comes at the audience from two fronts—long-range (BBT) and close-range (scene antagonist).
After you write your first draft, I highly recommend looking at every scene. Write what the goal of the scene is on an index card. Who stood in the way? Allies should rarely, if ever agree. If they need to escape an island, the hero will want to take a boat and an ally will insist they take a plane. Some of the best conflict for your story will actually come from your protagonist and his gaggle of allies.
The Pixar movie Finding Nemo is an excellent movie to study this. Watch Marlin and Dori. Dori provides far more conflict to the overall story than Darla the Fish-Killer. Darla (BBT) merely creates the overall problem and sets the stakes and the ticking clock. Darla the Fish-Killer is the BBT because if she’d wanted a puppy for her birthday, there would be no reason to find Nemo. He’d still be safe at home. Yet, aside from a couple of short scenes, we never really see Darla. Lovable ally Dori is the heart of most of the conflict.
Marlin wants to give up when the one clue to finding Nemo drops into a trench.
Dori wants to Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming and go after the clue.
Marlin wants to avoid the whale.
Dori calls out to it.
Marlin wants to give up.
Dori won’t let him.
Antagonists are at the core of all great stories, whether those stories are for children or adults. The bigger the antagonist, the bigger the problem and the greater the stakes. Failure must be catastrophic for the protagonist, or he can’t rise to ever be a hero. Some great books I recommend are Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches by Jessica Morrell, and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. I also highly recommend taking one of New York Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer’s on-line worskhops. They are $30. Aside from these resources, watch a lot of movies and pay attention to who creates problems and how they do it. Take notes. Study. Learn. That’s the great part of being a writer. Stories are our business, so watching movies counts as work.
So what are your thoughts? Comments? Questions? Feel better or do you need a paper bag (just put your head between your knees and breathe :D).
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of December, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of December I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Last week’s Winner of 5 Page Critique is Carolyn Neeper. Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi at gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com.
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!