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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: drama

Last week we talked about the antagonists that drive the action thread of the story. This week, we are going to talk about a different type of scene antagonist…the antagonist that drives the inner change of a character. This will conclude this series on antagonists. To write truly great stories that will resonate long after the reader puts down our book, we are wise to consider how a character will emotionally grow and change over the course of the adventure.

All good stories have ONE core problem that must be resolved. The story’s main antagonist–what I like to call the Big Boss Troublemaker–is responsible for creating this problem. Our protagonist, if pitted against the BBT in Act One, would fail. Why? He or she has not grown enough to be able to survive the Big Boss Battle. Protagonists who are strong enough to win at the beginning make for boring fiction.

Most real people are not self-aware enough to realize they have problems. In fact most real people spend years in therapy to come to the realization that they might actually be responsible for their own problems. Most real people do not wake up one day and say, “Wow. You know. I think today I am going to change.” Real people need some outside event or person to create discomfort that makes us change. Nasty breakups teach us not to take our partners for granted. Family members who move onto our couch and won’t leave teach us how to set effective boundaries. Credit card fees and penalties teach us to get better at paying the bills on time.

Great fiction takes real life and removes all the dull parts….but it still must reflect something of real life or it will ring untrue to the reader. Characters that are far too self-aware and who spend page after page thinking and mulling over inner monologues seem contrived and false. At best, the victory will come without facing any genuine opposition, which equals DULL STORY. We love books because of the opposition. It is the battle, the struggle, the darkest moment when all seems lost and how can they ever survive…THAT is why we read fiction.

Too many new writers have no BBT. Thus, there is no clear story problem. Since there is no clear story problem, it is impossible to create dramatic tension. All that is left is the dross of self-indulgent melodrama. Look to all the GREAT stories, the ones that will be told for generations. Does the author keep the finish line a secret? To be revealed with a twist ending?

No. All protagonists have very clear goals.

Lord of the Rings—Drop the Ring of Power into Mount Doom before Sauron grows strong enough to cast all of Middle Earth into perpetual darkness.

Finding Nemo—Find Nemo before Darla the Fish-Killer’s birthday.

Silence of the Lambs—Rescue the senator’s daughter and stop Buffalo Bill from killing more girls.

Star Wars—Defeat the (Sith) Emperor.

Fried Green Tomatoes—Stand up to abusive family.

Joy Luck Club—Go to China to meet lost twin sisters and relay the news of Mom’s death.

Coma—Find out who is responsible for killing patients and stop them.

The Road—Make it to the ocean without losing the essence of humanity.

The Hunger Games—Win the Hunger Games.

Good stories have clear finish lines. Better still, great stories have protagonists that grow and change over the course of the story. In the beginning, the protag lacks that fundamental ingredient that will allow him to triumph at the end. Thus, the trials ahead will fire out impurities and strengthen the character to make him fit for battle. Often there are allies and mentors who will serve as scene antagonists to drive the necessary change.

Remember, an antagonist is not necessarily a bad guy or villain. An antagonist merely has goals that conflict with what the protagonist wants. In the beginning, what the protagonists want are not always what is best for them. This is why allies and mentor characters are so vital.

Last week we looked at the children’s movie Finding Nemo. We studied how other incidental characters like Bruce the Great White in Recovery served to drive the story’s momentum when it came to the action thread. Today we will look at the protagonists’ inner arcs and how change is created.

What is the goal of Finding Nemo? Um, find Nemo. But the log-line might look something like this.

A neurotic fish father must swim to Sydney, Australia to rescue his son from a dentist’s fish tank before Darla the Fish-Killer’s birthday.

At the very beginning of the movie, we are given a few minutes of back-story. Marlin loses his wife and all their eggs (save one–Nemo) to a barracuda. This has made Marlin overprotective and overly afraid of…everything. He is smothering his son Nemo and not allowing him to mature.

Conversely, Nemo has a damaged fin from the barracuda attack. His father tells him repeatedly how this handicaps him and that is why he needs to stay safe under Dad’s control. Nemo, deep down, believes that he is handicapped, but it doesn’t stop him from resenting his father’s overprotective control.

In fact, it is this very resentment that births the story problem. Out of defiance, Nemo swims off the reef to touch the boat. This is what gets him snared in the diver’s fish net.

So in this movie, we have two story lines. Marlin’s and Nemo’s.

Marlin doesn’t trust anyone and he is a hopeless control freak. Thus, right after the inciting incident, who becomes Marlin’s ally?

Dori, the Forgetful Fish. Dori suffers short-term memory loss. She is a happy-go-lucky optimist who never gives up. She is exactly the ally Marlin needs to teach him to lighten up, let go of control, and to learn to look at the positive. Dori is Marlin’s mirror opposite. He is controlling and negative, where she is easygoing and positive. Dori is exactly the example Marlin needs to mend his ways.

Scene after scene we see how Dori serves the role of the antagonist.Heroes are not made in the comfort zone. Dori’s main role is to continually challenge Marlin and shove him repeatedly out of his comfort zone so that he grows and changes.

Marlin wants to moan and complain and give up when the one clue to finding his son drops into a deep sea trench. Dori starts singing, “Just keep swimming” and encourages Marlin to continue the adventure. Thus, we have a conflict lock. Marlin wants to give up. Dori wants to go after the clue. Only one party can have her way. If Marlin wins this battle of wills, the story is over and Nemo is doomed.

Dori continually places Marlin in a position of having to trust. She makes him overcome the greatest weakness he has….his need to control. His need to control his boy was what created the problem and is why Nemo was lost to begin with. Marlin must learn to let go of control to save his boy.

On the other side of things, Nemo awakens in a fish tank in the diver dentist’s office. It is in this tank we see the ticking clock. Nemo must get away before Darla the Fish-Killer’s birthday. Nemo is her intended gift and Darla’s last gift died from being shaken. Who becomes Nemo’s mentor? Gill. An angel fish with a damaged fin who won’t let Nemo make excuses.

Marlin must overcome his need to control and trust Dori to get to Sydney Harbor.

Nemo must listen to Gil and believe in himself in order to escape the dentist’s office.

Both parties must grow emotionally and overcome their greatest weakness in order to be victorious in the end. Scene antagonists are responsible for turning floundering helpless protagonists into heroes.

A good exercise is to watch movies. Try to figure out what element the protagonist needs to develop to be victorious in the Big Boss Battle. Who are the scene antagonists driving that change? How do events drive that inner change? Stories where the protag wakes up and has an ah-ha! are boring. That is lazy writing. Outside forces must challenge the protagonist to change, grow and rise to the occasion. Fiction is the path of greatest resistance.

Some of THE BEST books to help refine your craft–Bob Mayer’s Novel Writer’s Toolkit, Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure, and Les Edgerton’s Hooked.

What are your favorite stories and why? How did the protagonist change? Is it more clear who and what drove that change? Any advice? Suggestions? Questions?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of May, 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 May I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Important Announcements

Today is a holiday, so I will announce last week’s winner and the winner for May on Wednesday.

Make sure you join our LOVE REVOLUTION over on Twitter by following and participating in the #MyWANA Twibe. Read this post to understand how this #MyWANA will totally transform your life and your author platform.

Together Everyone Achieves More!!!! SUPPORT THE HUMANE SOCIETY OF AMERICA! Spread the word and save a life. Sigma Force saves puppies and kittens, too. Ahhhh.

In the meantime, I 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 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 over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

Happy writing!

Until next time….

 

Anyone in publishing will tell you that one of the most important parts of your novel is the beginning. As an editor I hear, “Oh, but wait until you get to the good part on page 50. This is all the lead up.” Um, no. Doesn’t work that way. You might have a humdinger on page 50, but you are competing against authors who hook readers in the first 1-10 pages.

Many agents freely confess that they can tell by page five if they will even bother reading the entire sample submitted. I know. Nothing has changed. I spoke at the DFW Writers Workshop Conference this past weekend and sat through the Agent Q & A. Agents have a lot on their plate, so they are looking for a reason to put a story down. Why?

Because agents are out to get you. They are really psychic vampires who feast on the crushed dreams of writers. Muah ha ha ha! Kidding!

To be blunt, agents love great writing. They also want to be good at what they do and make at least a living doing it (like the rest of us :D). How do they do this? By helping writers sell a lot of books. They understand that a novel’s beginning is the “hook” that will make or break a novel when it comes to readers. Agents want writers to succeed, and they know that excellent beginnings are vital to selling many, many books.

I actually believe that, as e-readers become more popular that beginnings will become more important than ever. I know that I frequently download free samples. I figure if a writer can interest me (sell me) in 3 pages, then I will read 5. If she can hook me in 5 I will read the free 30 pages. If I make it through 30, then this writer deserves my money and my time. But, remember, she had to make it past 3. Good writers do their homework and know what goes into a great beginning. I recommend studying great beginnings so you know what they look like.

So what makes a great beginning? Glad you asked. There are a lot of components that can go into a great beginning, but I am only going to discuss one of those components today—normal world. I believe if you can understand why normal world is important, the functions it serves, then you will be less eager to cut it out completely.

Normal world is vital. It is easy to feel the pressure to be interesting and begin our books with a car chase or a shoot-out.

**Hey, there isn’t a mistake I haven’t made as a writer or seen as an editor. Lighten up. It’s okay to goof up and live to laugh about it. The important thing is to learn and do better.

We as writers are so eager to be interesting in the first three lines, that we can easily forget an essential component to fiction…the normal world. Not wanting to bore readers, we toss them in a tank of sharks and grin—That’ll hook ‘em for sure.

The problem with that thinking? When we thrust a reader right into the heart of the action immediately, they haven’t been given a chance to care about or connect with any of our characters. Thus, what can easily happen is that we end up creating melodrama instead of drama. That is a bad situation, not conflict. What is the difference? Read last Monday’s post .

My favorite example of a story that desperately needed normal world is the movie The Crazies. The inhabitants of a small Iowa town are plagued by insanity then death after a mysterious toxin contaminates their water supply (via IMDb). This plot idea had the potential to be an excellent movie (I know it was a remake, but haven’t seen the earlier version). I feel this movie would have made it to a whole other cinematic level had the director made one vital change. I wish he would have kept us in normal world longer. Why?

We didn’t get a chance to meet and connect with any of the people who lost their minds and essentially became zombies that the protagonist had to put down like rabid dogs. The director had a great opportunity to create some real drama…but he missed it. He got too focused on zombies and forgot that the true drama came from the main character being forced to kill people he’d known and cared about his entire life…but we the audience didn’t really care. Oh, granted, we cared on a superficial level, but we hadn’t spent any real time with these characters, so when they died it didn’t make us emotional.

The director didn’t have to take long in normal world, either. Star Wars proves that. Who didn’t cry when Skywalker’s family was found dead? But we saw a scene with the aunt and uncle alive and well and they were nice people who we kind of liked…and it moved us to see them butchered. So keeping these movies in mind….

1. Normal world lays the foundation for genuine drama.

Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked explores this problem in detail if you would like to read more, but to keep it short and sweet I’m going to explain it this way. Most of us have driven down a highway at around rush hour, so picture this scenario. We notice emergency lights ahead.  The oncoming traffic lane is shut down and looks like a debris field. Two mangled cars lay in ruins, and there are still figures draped with blue blankets surrounded by somber EMTs. Do you feel badly? Unless you’re a sociopath, of course you do.

Now…

You look into that same oncoming lane, and one of the cars you recognize. It belongs to the nice family you chatted with in line at Wal Mart when you had to wait 40 minutes in the customer service line. You even helped the dad load groceries and put away their cart so the mom could buckle in their babies. You had to stop for gas, but 30 minutes ago that family was alive and well and now the coroner’s van is showing on the scene.

Before you cared…now you are connected.

That is how good characterization makes the difference. If we open our story with this gut-wrenching scene in a hospital where someone is dying, we are taking a risk. Readers will certainly care on a human level, but not on the visceral level that makes them have to close the book and get tissue.

Whether in books or on film, this is why normal world is critical. It gives the observer a chance to see the world as it would have remained had the inciting incident never happened. Would Luke Skywalker have been nearly as interesting if his aunt and uncle hadn’t been killed? And since we as the viewing audience were afforded a glimpse of Skywalker’s loved ones at the beginning of the movie, it had more impact on us when they were brutally murdered. It also helped rally us to Skywalker’s side as he set off on his journey.

2. Normal world gives the audience a baseline for character.  

By understanding how our hero is at the beginning, we also get a picture of what must be developed by the climax so our hero can be victorious. In the beginning of Romancing the Stone Joan Wilder is a single older woman who lives alone with her cat and writes about love and adventure because she has neither…and she is too afraid to pursue them.

Because we see normal world, we then recognize the inciting incident when we see it—the phone call from sister who has been kidnapped. Additionally, because we have witnessed this fraidy-cat writer, we observers are now seated in real conflict as we wonder—How on earth is she going to pull this off? We have seen this woman who is afraid of everything and wonder HOW she will develop the courage she will need to triumph. We are…hooked.

Joan’s life from the moment she receives the call from her sister will no longer be the same. A series of events have been set in motion and conflicts must be resolved to restore the natural order of things. But, since we are storytellers, we know that we must leave the world better than when we found it. Joan, at the end of her quest, must have love and courage to live the life of adventure she only could dream about in the beginning, which leads to my next point…

Normal world gives us an opportunity to see the character’s starting point on his or her arc. Joan at the beginning was afraid of her own shadow. Joan at the end has been tested and tried by bad guys, jungles, snakes, and alligators, and has come out victorious. She as a person had to change in order to triumph. Your protagonist, if pitted against the antagonist in the opening scene (for one reason or another) should FAIL. Why? Because then victory at the end is far sweeter.

3. Normal world also allows the reader to see what is at stake.

In The Fellowship of the Ring the story begins with the Hobbits. The wizard Gandalf the Grey is riding into town for a visit with fireworks in tow. There is a reason for these initial scenes of carefree laughter on a beautiful summer day. We as the audience get to see what is to be lost should our heroes fail.

In the beginning we witness a lush green world that is lovely and innocent…but in danger. We are told in the prologue that the Ring of Power was not destroyed. Thus the Ring represents an invisible, but ever-present threat. But, because we witnessed this world in an almost perfected state, it is more psychologically disturbing to us as the darkness grows. As the tale unfolds and Sauron grows stronger, we see progressively that the days literally grow darker and darker, the shadows deepen, and no one smiles or laughs any more.

At the end of the trilogy, in Return of the King we get to the ending scenes and see that the world of innocence and joy have been saved, but we see it has come at a price. The little Hobbits who were so naïve and bedazzled by the dreams of adventure are now war veterans, home from a journey that no one in the Shire will ever fully comprehend.

We see them sitting quiet at the table. We hear the unspoken words between them because we witnessed the darkness they faced and defeated. We, the audience comprehend the price they paid so the world could remain innocent. Yet, we know it was all worth it in that, unlike the beginning, the Ring will never threaten this world again. The world is restored…only better.

Points to remember:

1. Normal world lays the foundation for genuine drama—we have to get to know the characters in order to care and be vested in them.

2. Normal world gives us a character baseline—we need an initial glimpse to see how our hero is not in a position to succeed in the beginning. This creates genuine conflict in that we want to read the story to figure out how that protagonist could ever take down the antagonist. For a deeper understanding of HOW to do this, I recommend Bob Mayer’s on-line character workshop that starts this week, so sign up now for $20.

3. Normal world lets us see what is at stake—We need to see what could be lost. We also need to see what the hero may be clinging to that is keeping him from answering the call to adventure. The inciting incident must pry away something meaningful (Joan Wilder and security) or offer blessed escape (Harry Potter—escape from abuse).

What are some of the great beginnings either in film or in books? How did they hook you and why? Can you think of reasons a film or book didn’t grab your attention? What beginnings would you recommend we study and why?

I love hearing from you. And to prove it, I am going to sweeten last month’s deal and draw every week from the list of names. What do you win? My critique of the first five pages of your novel. At the end of the month, I will draw for the winner of the big prize. A critique of your first 15 pages. That give FIVE of you guys an opportunity to see if your work will hook an agent.

Names? What? Kristen, what are you talking about? Here is how you can win for those who don’t know. 

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 WANA in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. February’s winner will be announced on this Friday’s blog.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

Also, I highly recommend the Write It Forward Workshops. My workshop about building brand starts this week Sign up….like, NOW. Build your brand the right way. Also, as I mentioned earlier, NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer is teaching on character, too. Great stuff for the month of March. For $20 a workshop, you can change your destiny….all from the comfort of home.