I don’t have much to complain about, but I wrote a letter of complaint to the Merrell shoe company a few weeks ago. If they had bothered to respond, I probably wouldn’t be posting the complaint here on this public blog, but I just got a whopper bill for my arm and I’m feeling ticked off. It was a short letter, with illustrations. I didn’t expect anything from this company except an acknowledgment. Maybe a get-well-soon wish. Instead, they ignored me so I’m going public about these shoes.
These $130 shoes. The ones that are, as the title of this post implies, unsafe at any speed.
I bought them at the Tongass Trading Company in Ketchikan because they were comfortable for hiking, and made of Gore Tex. It’s true that several online reviews mentioned that they are slippery on wet surfaces. Looking at the soles of these shoes, you’d never know. I figured the online reviews were exaggerated…or written by klutzes…. NOT. The review are correct. THESE SHOES SLIP ON WET SURFACES.
I was off for a hike with Barkis and never even made it out of my yard. The grass was wet that day. In this part of the world, the grass is always wet. The hike ended with an ambulance ride and ferry crossing to the ER. As you can see, I’m still wearing the Merrell shoes in the ER:
So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.
Dr. Seuss is my hero for a lot of reasons. The perfect quote above is one of those reasons. Also, I collect his art. I admire his career. Did you know, he never took an advance from a publisher? Which probably makes him a hero to publishers as well…
In the Michael Hauge lecture, he touched on two key types of secondary characters and several types of stories. My further notes:
Other characters in your story:
The nemesis. This is the character who most stands in the way of the hero as he sets out to achieve his outer goal. The nemesis is at cross purposes with the hero, yet he embodies the hero’s inner conflict. The hero might discover how unlike the nemesis he is, or he might realize he needs to become more like the nemesis. (Maureen’s inner journey is to learn what a real leap of faith is, not just give lip service to it.) The nemesis stands up for the essence of the hero’s character.
The reflection. This is the sidekick character. Don Quixote’s Sancho. Donkey in Shrek. He is defined by the hero’s outer motivation. He is there to help and encourage the hero to achieve his goal. He tries to get the hero to go after his goal. He reveals the hero’s inner conflict: “What are you doing? Why? This is not who you are…” He holds the hero’s feet to the fire.
Types of love stories:
1. Romance is defined by pursuit. The hero can’t get the girl unless he reaches his goal, or abandons or changes his goal (a la Rain Man).
In a romance, there needs to be a clear, logical reason for the characters to be together. They can’t just be in love because they’re in the same story together.
The romantic interest character is the one who sees beneath the hero’s identity and connects at the level of essence. There is a deep connection; the love interest sees her naked (intimacy) and makes her risk being vulnerable and exposed even if it feels dangerous. The love interest must embody the hero’s essence. [Core conflict for Maureen & Eddie–she is too afraid/repressed to leave her family. He is afraid of showing how truly good he is at music because it exposes his vulnerability. She has what he secretly yearns for–a close family, a home. He has what she yearns for–a rambling footloose life of adventure. ]
If there’s a love story without a character arc, that’s probably porn. 🙂
2. A romantic comedy almost always involves deception. Deception is a powerful way of creating conflict. The character might practice a deception in order to achieve a visible goal. Maybe she pretends to be someone she’s not (Working Girl. Aladdin). During the pretense, she meets someone who believes she’s not who she’s pretending to be. The love interest falls in love with the pretend-person.
If revealed, the deception could destroy the romance.
Deception symbolizes the deeper deception of the heros struggle between false identity and true essence.
A romantic comedy demands a happy ending.
General comments –
Show the love interests meeting on the page, not in the past. FALLING in love is the whole reason for the story’s existence. The reader wants to see this and experience it moment by moment.
Show the reader the new life the hero achieves. Let the reader absorb the peak emotion of the climax.
It’s possible to write a story of an outer journey only, but you can create more emotion if you combine an inner and outer journey.
Everything has been done before. Great stories are consistent in their basic foundation, but unique in the particulars. Don’t worry about being original, just don’t copy the particulars of a story. Work harder to make your story seem unique and new. Find a new way to use the principles of a classic story.
Montage and flashback are the lazy way out, in general. They can be hackneyed. More effective in real time. Try dialogue.
Ayn Rand heros don’t have arcs. Adrenalin-powered thrillers might not have an arc.
A few of the films cited in the lecture:
Good Will Hunting
I am Legend
Stand by Me
Treat yourself to a movie tonight! And tomorrow, look for the conclusion and the most important statement a writer needs to make for herself.
What would you risk in order to get the one thing you truly desire? Seriously, what would you risk? (I’ll post my personal answer to this at the end of this series.) Today, let’s talk about it in terms of your character.
According to story expert Michael Hauge, the inner conflict is the struggle between identity and essence. (See yesterday’s post.) The character arc is the character’s departure from her identity and her journey to live in her essence.
Clinging to her identity–who she thinks she is, the way she wants the word to see her–keeps her emotionally safe. She believes her identity is who she is. Scarlett O’Hara is a great example of this. She believes she’s a Southern belle, destined to have a society marriage and a conventional life. You don’t need to read too far into the book to realize she’s deceiving herself.
Pencils out! Complete this KEY STATEMENT for your character. Imagine her speaking the words–how would she fill in the blank?:
“I’ll do whatever it takes to achieve my goal.
Just don’t ask me to __________________,
because that’s just not me.”
As the writer in charge of her destiny, you need to reply, “You can achieve your goal, but in order to do it, you’re going to have to kill your identity and live in your essence.” Each scene you write should address this transformation, even in a small way.
(Example–in Lakeshore Christmas, Maureen, the town librarian, is surrounded by books, so when I show her at work, I can have fun with the books she handles. While shelving a book, she comes across this statement from Anais Nin:
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
…which is pretty on-the-nose, but librarians notice things like that.)
Your character has a choice–she can be safe and unfulfilled or she can be fulfilled, her true unvarnished self, but scared and vulnerable.
The inner journey is structured the same as the outer journey (see earlier post):
In Stage1, the character is living fully in her identity, hiding her essence.
In Stage 2, she is still fully in her identity but she gets a glimpse of what living in her essence might be like. (In Lakeshore Christmas, Maureen sees Eddie, the love interest, flirting with women, and imagines what it might be like to be in love.)
In Stage 3, turning point #2, the hero moves into her essence but it gets so scary that she retreats into her identity. This can happen repeatedly, until she reaches the Point of No Return. She retreats in an attempt to go back to her identity, but discovers she cannot retreat.
In Stage 4, she finally leaves her identity behind and is fully in her essence. The outside world starts closing in. This tests her commitment to her essence. Here, some characters might go back even if it means she’ll die trying.
In Stage 5, she defends her right to be in her essence, probably facing resistance from friends, family and enemies alike. The arc is completed right before the climax. The hero has earned the right to attain her goal.
In Stage 6, she gets her resolution–maybe she’s rewarded for embracing her essence. Maybe it’s a failed journey and she dies, leaving the reader with a larger appreciation. Or maybe she abandons what she thought she wanted. Just make sure the aftermath is true to the story you’ve told.
The aftermath (Stage 6) is a glimpse of what it’s like, living in her essence. Stories rarely fall apart due to a flawed aftermath, but you still want the reader to say, ahhhh….
Sometimes the hero doesn’t achieve the goal. He might find the courage to attain it, but is fulfilled on a different level. In Stand by Me, the hero finds the body, which he set out to do so his parents will notice him, but he chooses to report it anonymously rather than grabbing all the glory. This is one reason both the movie and novella (“The Body” by Stephen King) are so terrific–that arc of learning what’s really important, the character becoming the person he’s meant to be, is powerful.
In a sad story (like Titanic), the goal is achieved (Rose gets her life of passion and freedom) but at a huge cost (Jack).
In a happily-ever-after, the goal is achieved and all the hard work of growth pays off. (Pretty Woman, Beauty and the Beast, etc.)
In a tragedy, the hero lacks the courage to stay in his essence. (Brokeback Mountain)
In a love story, there is a shared goal–the characters want to win each other’s love.
In a buddy story, characters might be on 2 journeys but they share a common goal.
In a group or ensemble story, characters are on different journeys but they are together for a common purpose (funeral, reunion, knitting class, book club…)
What kind of story are you writing? How does the plot mesh with the struggle between the character’s identity and essence?
Tomorrow, there will be a brief rundown of other characters and story elements.
Note: The Michael Hauge workshop notes begin here and continue here and here. This is the 4th installment. Happy plotting!
The INNER JOURNEY is the story told on another level. Stories that are told only on the outer surface, sticking strictly to the visible facts, tend to lack depth, drama and meaning. (Note from SW–this is why the daily news so often fails to satisfy.) Here are some questions to help you discover the key aspects of your character.
1. What is her longing? What is her deeply held desire? This is something she probably pays lip service to, but lacks the courage to pursue. She is enslaved by her own fears and inhibitions.
Some characters are so emotionally shut down that they can’t even express what it is they long for. (Rose in Titanic) It’s a need they don’t know they have–yet, maybe ever.
Show the hole in her soul. A need. A missing piece.
A longing is something the character can express. A need is unexpressed but there can be metaphors to show it–the “Keep Out” sign and fence in Shrek. (Maureen has a tattoo that expresses her unrepressed self, but she keeps it hidden and nobody knows she has it.) What is your character’s metaphorical fence?
2. What is her wound? What is the unhealed source of her continuing pain? What happened to her in the past that is unhealed but suppressed? This is something in the background, leaking through. (Maureen had a disastrous love affair while studying abroad, and came scurrying home to the safety of her family and home town.)
3. What belief has the character formed, based on her experience of the wound above? (Maureen believes passion is dangerous and fraught with deception, destined to fail and leave her hurting.)
[Note to self: This is something that really resonates with me. We all know people whose entire lives are built around avoiding pain. My recent arm mishap is a graphic reminder. In the ambulance, I was trying to make myself pass out just to escape the pain. The thing is now every color of the rainbow and I will do anything to keep from hurting it again. I’m fairly athletic, yet with this arm, I find myself tiptoeing around, afraid to bump into something. The doc said the risk of dislocating it again is high, which makes me horribly cautious. So that’s my story of avoiding physical pain. A person who has been hurt emotionally will show this kind of caution in her relationships, right?]
4. What is her emotional fear? (That the wound will happen again.) This is a belief that is logical, based on her experience, but inaccurate. <–note this; it’s important
5. THE KEY QUESTION: What is the character’s identity?Her ID is the false self she presents to the world–her emotional armor. It what she puts in front of her essence in order to protect her true self from that which she fears most deeply.
6. What is the character’s essence?If you strip away everything the character is attached to, what is left? Peel away the layers of her identity. Who does she have the potential to become? In a love story like the one in Good Will Hunting, he would rather break up with the love of his life than show who he truly is, because in the past, his father beat him and the belief he formed is that those we love and trust the most hurt us. In LC, Maureen would rather let go of Eddie than risk letting him hurt her.
So the character’s emotional arc is her transformation from her identity to her essence. In her essence, she is still fearful and vulnerable, but she is true.
Tomorrow I’ll post more about this, because it’s the key to everything in character development. For now, try to explore the contrasts between your character’s identity and his essence.
A plot can be divided into 3 acts, and narrowed down to 6 story stages.
is the setup, the first 10% of a story (in a screenplay, the percentages are fairly rigid, less so in a novel). We introduce the hero in her everyday life. It’s the starting point. The “before” picture.
Here, you want to create empathy for that character, establishing an emotional connection between the reader and the character. Some ways to create empathy:
Generate sympathy. Make her the victim of an undeserved misfortune. A poster child.
Put her in jeopardy. She is in danger of losing something important–her life, fortune, job, etc.
Make her likeable. Make her kind, good-hearted, loving. Show her as well-liked by others. Movie example–this is Tom Hanks’s trademark, even in Road to Perdition in which he plays a ruthless assassin. We first meet him coming home to his loving family.
Make her funny. People like being with those who make them laugh. Also, funny people say things that are politically correct, the sort of thing “proper” people would never say aloud.
Make her powerful. Good at what she does, like an action hero or crack lawyer.
In Lakeshore Christmas, Maureen generates sympathy by being the geeky librarian girl forced to work with the hot guy on the Christmas program.
is the initial glimpse of the hero’s desire. It occurs at the 10% point. Character is forced or tempted into some new situation. There might be a change of geography–she goes somewhere. The goal is to get acclimated.
At the 25% mark, something happens in the new situation that forces her to declare a clear, visible goal. Turning Point #2. It might mean a change of plans: “Now I have to achieve this goal.” It needs to be very specific. (Maureen: Now I have to save the library by making nice with the owner of the land on which the library sits, so he won’t sell out to a developer.)
Here, the outer motivation is established. It’s the most important turning point in the story. If this goal is revealed too soon, the story could fizzle. Or if it’s established too late, we’re past caring.
is the plan in motion to achieve this new specific goal, and the plan seems to be working. (Maureen knows if she casts the benefactor’s grandson in the lead role of the pageant, the owner will reconsider selling the land to a developer.)
At the midpoint of the story, we reach Turning Point #3. The hero passes the Point of No Return. She is fully committed, bridges burned, there can be no retreat. She can never go back to the person she was in Stage 1. In Shrek, the bridge literally burns behind Shrek and Donkey. There might be a verbal declaration. (Maureen hears Jabez sing and takes a leap of faith, casting him in the lead even if it means burning the bridge with the land owner.)
introducing increasingly difficult complications. The stakes get higher. It’s becoming more difficult to achieve the goal. The outside world is closing in, and failure will cause her to lose her destiny.
At the 3/4 point, we have Turning Point #4, a major setback. Something happens, a crisis that makes it feels as though all is lost. The plan is out the window, there’s a symbolic (or literal) death and they’ve given up. (Maureen learns the plan to save the library has failed because the funds aren’t there; now the library is doomed to close forever on the last day of the year.)
is the final push. The hero tries to get back to the ordinary world. But it doesn’t work, because she burned her bridges. Here, she makes a decision or is forced into it–she must make one last attempt. Every ounce of strength is poured into this attempt, it’s the resurrection stage. Turning Point #5
is the climax–the moment which must resolve what we’re rooting for. The reader needs to see success or failure with no ambiguity. We need to know once and for all what the outcome is. (On Christmas Day, everyone in town contributes to save the library.)
is the Aftermath–a glimpse of the new life ahead. This can and should be brief. Riding off into the sunset, final kiss, etc. I use a lot of symbolism here. In Just Breathe it was actually a comic strip. 🙂
Tomorrow, I’ll post the notes about the Inner Journey. This was my favorite part of the workshop.