back to basics :: from my writer’s notebook
August 03, 2016
When I’m in the throes of rewriting a book (and wondering why I didn’t write it right the first time), I go back to basics. My study is strewn with lecture notes on writing workshops I’ve attended, dating all the way back to 1986, the year I sold my first novel.
One of my favorite writing teachers is a screenwriting expert–Michael Hauge. If you ever get a chance to see him in action, run don’t walk! My notes include asides about Family Tree. Doing this always makes the story sound so pedestrian! But it’s a good exercise. It’s lengthy so I’ll post it in parts over the next few days. Here goes:
The hero is the story’s protagonist. It’s a generic term so the gender pronoun doesn’t matter. Briefly, the hero is the one whose goal drives the story. His goal is the finish line the reader wants to see the hero reach.
The ultimate goal of a story (fiction, narrative nonfiction or memoir, film, drama) is to elicit emotion. This is achieved by creating a character who has a powerful desire, facing a conflict that keeps her from fulfilling that desire.
A story’s first audience–agent, editor, first reader, etc.–wants to know how this story is going to sell. Who are we rooting for? The most consistent problem with stories is that they are overcomplicated. The solution? Make it simpler. How? By understanding plot structure.
A story exists on two levels, the outer (visible) journey and the inner (emotional) journey or arc of growth (or deterioration/failure).
In the outer journey, the desire is visible. It’s a journey of achievement or accomplishment. What tangible thing does the hero want? It should be something the reader can see. (In Family Tree, Annie wants to reclaim the life that was derailed after a horrific accident.) There is a visible finish line, and the hero’s outer motivation is also visible.
The conflict must also be visible. (Again in FT, we see that everything Annie wants to reclaim has been ripped away from her.)
There are 4 general types of goal/conflict setups in most commercial stories (including novels, narrative nonfiction and films).
1. To win – a sports contest (Rocky), the love of another character (most romances)
2. To stop something from happening –most thrillers seek to keep a disaster at bay
3. To escape–character must get out of a bad situation (The Count of Monte Cristo, anything with “escape” in the title)
4. To retreat–quest stories in which the character must go and get something and return with it.
Michael calls these the 4 basic Hollywood goals. And you should believe him. He’s very smart about these things.
This is the outer plot. There is also a second level underneath the visible plot–the inner journey. A journey of fulfillment and/or transformation.
The love story is a great tool for developing a character arc.
Who is your character and what does he desire? What sort of plot will your story follow?
(In Family Tree, Annie Rush is the producer of a successful cooking show who faces overwhelming odds following an accident. Her journey brings her face-to-face with the past she left behind in Switchback, Vermont–a past that includes the town bad-boy-turned-good, aka the path not taken.)
Michael created a chart showing a 6-stage plot structure in 3 acts. There are 5 key turning points in a story. If I make my revision goal today, I’ll post his general structure for the OUTER journey.
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