The 15 Minute Four Act Structure

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Over here, in my part of the world, it is winter. Which means flu season. Which, when you have a toddler in daycare, means lots of sniffly days on the lounge under blankets watching kids shows ad nauseum.

It’s not as bad as it sounds – there’s a lot of quality kids series out there these days and most only go for fifteen minutes. That means a distinct, wholly-contained, discrete narrative in fifteen minutes. And, as a bonus, the really good ones are perfect examples of the four act structure boiled down to its essentials.

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of the four act structure and have seen me break it down and assess it in detail before – so go ahead, you can skip this paragraph. For the newer readers, the four act structure is (at its core) a three-act structure that has its second act broken up into two components. The second act is still the middle – it’s just a middle of two parts – Act 2A and Act 2B. You can read more about the four act structure (and my take on it) here: go ahead, we’ll still be here when you get back.

So here I was, on another chilled out evening, rugged up in my favourite Basotho blanket with my favourite little man watching another episode of Rusty Rivets. Rusty Rivets is a series about a young inventor, Rusty, and his best friend, Ruby, who invent things and then get into trouble when those inventions don’t go as planned, and then have to use their creativity, ingenuity and resourcefulness to get themselves out of trouble.

Rusty Rivets

As I was watching tonight’s episode I thought to myself how I really liked that each episode always showed Rusty and Ruby thinking up new ideas, testing them, refining them, and then coming up with new ideas when the others didn’t work (a life lesson I’m always trying to teach my son). And that was when I realised, each episode is a quick lesson in the four act structure.

And what I really like, is that each episode is a lesson in using the four act structure in a medium that needs to hook attention early and keep it throughout. Something that novelists are being challenged with in an era of countless books, short attention spans, and lower tolerances for books that don’t grab readers by the throat and keep the pressure til the end.

So, what does this lesson in the four act structure look like – and what does it mean for us who use it in longer forms of narrative (like novels and scripts)?

Hook comes before the Status Quo

In my interpretation of the four act structure, each story (and act) begins with the status quo before moving to the disturbance. And that still holds true – but rather than locate the story’s hook with the disturbance, this new approach puts it up front in the status quo. In this approach, the hook is a point of interest that happens in the world of the status quo. It is interesting, but not unexpected or unusual.

In the  Rusty Rivets episode where a robot skunk is on the loose, Rusty is attending a flower show festival with his mum. The festival a point of interest within his usual world. It’s noteworthy – it stands out from the regular routine – but it’s not unusual or out of the comfort zone. It’s the difference between a festival (lots of fun and excitement, but in a comfortable/’I’ve seen this before’/’I know what this is about’ event) and an alien invasion (exciting, but also terrifying in a ‘I’m completely out of my depth’ kind of way). One’s the hook, the other’s the disturbance.

In Hunger Games – the hook is the day of the reaping. It’s noteworthy and interesting, but not unfamiliar. Compare that to Prim being called and Katniss volunteering – that’s noteworthy, interesting, terrifying, and something that upsets the status quo and sends things on a new trajectory.

And that’s kind of the point:

  • The hook is something interesting about the status quo/normal/business-as-usual world – it’s a bright point but it doesn’t change the status quo and doesn’t elicit any change or need for development in the protagonist. It serves three purposes – i) to get us interested in the story, ii) to hint at the disturbance and/or story conflict, and iii) to show the story world and the status quo and the protagonist’s characteristic moment.
  • Unlike the disturbance, which is the thing that interrupts the status quo and threatens to throw the normal world off balance and the protagonist out of their comfort zone.

In the Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise’s character, Major Cage, getting deployed to active combat is the hook. And one that really pushes the envelope as far as hooks are concerned – because it does seem to teeter on the edge (no pun intended) of becoming a disturbance. It is a dramatic shift in the status quo and normal world of the protagonist and it pushes the protagonist out of his comfort zone.

edge of tomorrow

And maybe, if the story was a war drama, it would have been the disturbance. Except this is is a sci-fi movie, so we know that things haven’t really disrupted the status quo. A military desk officer being deployed to active combat is still within the realms of possibility in this story world – the event is an annoyance to the protagonist and threatens his comfort zone, but doesn’t threaten his worldview of what is or isn’t possible. That comes when kills an alpha alien and gains the ability to reset time every time he is killed. That’s the disturbance.

LESSON: Put your hook up front and use it to show the normal world and the protagonist’s motivation and armour/critical flaw.

 

Keep the initial response short

The initial response to the disturbance (typically a refusal of the call to action) in the long form of the four act structure is designed to show the protagonist’s inner conflict – to show that engaging with the disturbance/story problem is not an easy decision or one within their comfort zone.

There a hundreds of reasons why a protagonist won’t engage with a disturbance – it doesn’t directly affect them, the personal stakes aren’t high enough, they don’t have the skills or resources or opportunity to engage, the risks of engaging outweigh the risks of avoidance, etc, etc.

If you’ve done your job in establishing the hook and status quo, you shouldn’t need to spend too much time on this initial response. The refusal should be logical/reasonable given all that has come before.

In Rusty Rivets, Rusty doesn’t engage because his mum steps in to deal with the skunk. In the episode about the super sticky glue, he doesn’t engage because he is literally unable to move. Both reactions are brief and quickly followed by a push towards the first plot point/the point of no return/the undeniable push for protagonist engagement.

In Edge of Tomorrow, the initial response by Major Cage is to become a passive spectator. He gets reset and reacts to the same scenario and dies and gets reset again. It’s shown in a kind of montage – emphasising that he is stuck in this new reality and that his reacting isn’t getting him anywhere. It quickly changes when he meets Emily Blunt’s character, the Angel of Verdun,  and we get the sense that now the real story is starting.

The ‘passive spectator’/’react only’ characterisation that is at the core of the initial response. It’s only when the protagonist starts to actively engage that we move into Act 2. Readers and audiences want to get to this part quickly – they like warming up to a story, but once they get a feel for the world, the protagonist, and the story problem, they start getting impatient to get to the ‘real story’ – to know what thread, out of all the many possible threads there are, will be followed. Don’t hold out on them – get to Act 2 quickly.

LESSON: Do the heavy lifting with your hook and status quo to limit the time you need to dedicate to the initial response. Get to the ‘real story’ of Act 2 as soon as you can. 

The difference between Act 2A and Act 2B

Where the initial response is passive reaction. Act 2 is all about active engagement. The first part (Act 2A) is engagement without growth or change. It’s the protagonist acting the way they would normally act, drawing on the same resources, falling back on what they know and have done in the past.

In Rusty Rivets, this is always Rusty and Ruby trying to solve things without an invention (i.e. running after it, sneaking up on it, trying to catch it themselves, etc) or trying to fix the invention that has malfunctioned by normal means (things that any kid would come up with as a solution).

In Hunger Games, this is Katniss surviving using the skills and knowledge she already had back in District 12 – hunting, trekking, climbing, being stealth.

In Act 2A, the protagonist is engaging, but not growing.

Act 2B the protagonist is both forced to think completely outside the square of their old life and draw on the new knowledge, skills, resources, and comrades (mentors, sidekicks, allies) they have gained in Act 2A to make progress.

In Rusty Rivets, this means Rusty and Ruby combine it and design it to come up with a new invention to fix the problem. Which they continue to refine until they get to their false victory.

In Hunger Games, it’s Katniss no longer relying on herself to survive (as she always has), but teaming up with someone else to win.

It’s still active engagement, but it’s engagement that requires the protagonist to do something new (hinting that protagonist is becoming someone new).

LESSON: Act 1 is passive spectating/reaction, Act 2A is active engagement without change, Act 2B is active engagement by trying something new/becoming someone new 

Act 3 is still the same

Yep, it’s still what follows the false victory and dark night of the soul, where the protagonist must use all that has been learned along the way and shed the final remnants of the old self in order to gain ultimate victory and achieve the final goal. Whereas Act 2B shows the protagonist doing something new, Act 3 is the protagonist emerging as someone new.

This is probably more on the lighter side in kids shows – there’s not as much character development (obviously). In Rusty Rivets, it’s always the same ‘transformation’ – Rusty and Ruby trusting their innovative and creative minds and thinking outside the box to use their latest invention in a new and unexpected way (like using the hot air balloon as a cushion to save Rusty’s mum from crashing into the ground). In Edge of Tomorrow, the transformation is deeper and more complex – Major Cage becomes the hero he ran from being in the beginning of the movie even though he no longer has the ‘reset’ ability to fall back on.

LESSON: Act 4 is the emergence from the chrysalis – the butterfly ready to confront and defeat the antagonist in a way that the caterpillar never could. 

The 15 Minute Four Act Structure

Forget the Goal – Your character just needs conflict

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Everyone has seen them – the pithy pieces of writing advice that can fit on a 940×780 pixel sized square, perfect for posting on facebook and inspiring a new generation of authors. Show don’t tell! Every character should want something! Every scene needs a goal! Wait, what? Every scene needs a goal?

 

I have always struggled with that last piece of advice. My characters are usually pretty clueless at the beginning of the story and are entirely reactionary in the first part of the second act, so goals never really seem to fit. 

Maybe it’s my inability to get past the definition of a goal. A quick google search defines ‘goal’ as the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result. Embedded in this definition is a sense of knowing, of conscious decision-making with a specific end-point in mind, of a plan or strategy to get something or somewhere. And that just doesn’t work for me.

Yes, yes, I can hear you saying – “just replace ‘goal’ with ‘want'” – and that does seem, on the face of it, a nice solution. Everyone wants something, even if it is to just sit around all day in the sunshine ignoring the problems of the world. But even ‘want’ implies a sense of knowing – a want is really a goal without a plan for achieving it.

And, besides, if we focused on building a story around our character’s wants, we might end up with a novel about someone who just wants a glass of water. Not really interesting right?

“But it could be interesting,” I hear you say, “if there was a monster standing by the sink, or if the character had a deep-seated phobia about water, or there was only one glass of water left in the entire world and a hundred other people were bidding for it.”

Excellent points! And I am so glad you raised them! Because, that is what is at the heart of this post – forget about the goals (and the wants) – what every character needs, what every scene needs, is conflict.

And if you have conflict in every scene, you don’t need to worry about articulating the character’s goals or wants. Sometimes the conflict will naturally uncover them – Kasie must sell her soul for the last glass of water in the world (implies that what Kasie wants is that glass of water, also implies her goal (since a plan is involved) to successfully sell her soul and outbid the others), but sometimes it will uncover something else.  Anaiya is secretly playing her forbidden music in the Edges to avoid being detained and executed – this is a summary of the first scene in my book Rebellion (Divided Elements #2). There is no clear goal and even the want is ambiguous – Anaiya’s wants are in conflict with one another. She wants to avoid detention and execution, but she also can’t deny the part of her that needs to make music. It is the conflict (and not the wants) that is more interesting and more critical for the story development.

 

CATEGORIES OF CONFLICT

So, what type of conflicts are there?

I’ve come up with two major categories (I’ve also come up with a range of types – but am leaving that discussion for a future post):

  • Direct threat: Antagonistic force that requires defeating for the character to progress. Can be proactively engaged, but is more likely to be engaged reactively. Must be defended against or pre-emptively attacked.e.g. A fire outbreak closing in on a house. Demands engagement. Can not be avoided. Requires direct combat – either defensive (stopping it from reaching the house) or pre-emptive (trying to put out the entire fire). Must be defeated if the  house and the character are to survive (and the story progress).

    e.g. A super villain terrorising a city. Demands engagement (won’t stop until the whole city is razed to the ground).  Is actively attacking either the character or what is important to the character. Can be proactively engaged (typically the case with superhero narratives, where the protagonist will actively seek out and defeat the evil force), but is typically only engaged when the protagonist (or what they value) is directly threatened.

    e.g. An illness that becomes debilitating. Demands engagement. Is actively attacking the protagonist. Must be defeated.

  • Passive obstacle: A permanent or temporary barrier that requires removal for the character to progress. A challenge to be overcome. A detente between two forces that must be resolved. Must be proactively attacked.e.g. The memory of a dead husband stopping a character from dating again. Doesn’t demand engagement – there are two ‘wants’ in opposition – the character wants to remember her husband and wants to find happiness with someone else. One of the two opposing forces must be (fully or partially) removed for the character to progress, e.g. she could give up on the dating scene, could try to re-animate her dead husband, could undergo hypnotherapy to forget her husband, etc.

    e.g. Two destinies competing for realisation – is she destined to save the world or condemn it to a black hole of oblivion? A detente between two equally-compelling forces. What will she choose? What is required to tip the balance one way or the other (in effect, limiting (partially removing) one of the options).

    e.g. An inability to score the grades necessary to make it into the starfleet academy. There is nothing directly attacking the character, but there is an obstacle that needs removing and a challenge that needs to be overcome. Must be proactively engaged, otherwise the status quo will remain.

 

Interestingly, these two categories can be articulated as either POTENTIAL conflicts or REALISED conflicts. Potential conflicts are those that are hinted at – where the preconditions for actual conflict are present, but the catalyst has not been triggered (e.g. the bomb is present, but the fuse hasn’t been lit). Whereas REALISED conflicts are those that have been triggered and are actively in conflict or opposition with the character or are actively challenging them.

 

PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE

The best thing about these categories is that you can use them in the plotting or revising stages of your novel. A case in point, this is what I get if I apply them to my recent novel, Rebellion (Divided Elements #2):

Scene 1: Anaiya plays her forbidden music in the Edges to avoid detection – which will only lead to detention and execution. There is a conflict within her – part of her revels in her new Heterodox existence, finds joy and inspiration in creating music, thrives in her growing Air identity; part of her is terrified that her Heterodoxy, her blatant flaunting of the strict rules that govern Otpor, will lead to her death – just like they lead to the death of her mentor (and original Heterodox Resistor), Kane 148. REALISED PASSIVE OBSTACLE

The conflict is amplified when her music and presence is discovered by a character from her past. Seeing Kaide brings back painful memories and stirs up uncomfortable emotions of guilt and regret. But, it is his realisation that Anaiya’s realignment back to her original Fire Element has failed that generates the real threat – with that knowledge he could send her to the Execution Pillar. POTENTIAL DIRECT THREAT

 

UPDATE: A reader contacted me via email to talk about their struggles with switching away from the ‘goal’ mindset and focus on ‘conflict’. You can read their question and my reply here.

 

What about you? Do you also struggle to find a character’s goal/want for every scene? Does thinking about it in terms of conflict make it easier? Let me know if you apply this to your own novel – I would love to hear if it works for you!

 

Divided Elements - Book 1 and 2


Resistance, 
The award-winning first book in the dystopian Divided Elements series is now available for free! Click here to grab your copy.

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Forget the Goal – Your character just needs conflict

How to start your novel – The first part of the first act

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Starting a novel is no easy task. The problem with beginnings is that they are all about set-up, and set-up can very easily turn into boring exposition, unnecessary backstory and painful info-dumping. When I think about the beginning of a story, I think about the first part of the first act – what I like to call Gap A.

Gap A is all about setting the context for the story – articulating the status quo of the protagonist and their world – a status quo that will soon be thrown into disarray with the inevitable disturbance (the first story Turning Point) and it subsequent impacts.

A richly-drawn status quo is important for giving the disturbance the punch it needs to throw the protagonist (and the reader) into a spin. Winning a trip to Paris for a seasoned jetsetter who spends every other weekend in France is less of a disturbance than it is for a recent widow who has dreamed of going to Paris for the thirty years since seeing Gigi at her local cinema.

Which brings us to the first necessary component of Gap A – The introduction of your protagonist. Give the reader an understanding of what makes your character tick. Focus on their key traits – their unque quirks that will ultimately drive the story and underscore its conflict. Introduce your protagonist with action, not exposition. Don’t tell me that your widow is shy and defeated and fragile. Show me.

The best way to show what lies at the core of your protagonist is to position them in a characteristic moment. Your widow has finally left the confines of her small flat to do some grocery shopping. She shuns the new, red shoes she bought the week her husband died, she leaves the makeup littering her dressing table untouched, she swipes at a stain on her blouse, but doesn’t bother changing it. At the grocery store a dashing older man pays her a compliment, she blushes at the attention and then is wracked by waves of guilt. She ignores his question, leaves her shopping trolley in the middle of the aisle, half full, and leaves the store in a hurry.

Giving the reader a clear picture of your protagonist gives you the leverage you need as an author to create maximum impact with the Disturbance.

But, in order to give your reader a clear picture of your protagonist – you first need to have a deep understanding of your character and all their complexity. Which is particularly difficult to do at the start of your novel when you are not yet sure how your character is going to react to the challenges and obstacles you throw in their path as your story progresses.

Hmmm. We have a catch 22.

To write a good beginning, you need to know your protagonist. To know your protagonist, you need to have seen how they react to your story points as they progress. 

Oh, Yossarian, what to do?

Thankfully, our solution to this paradox is fairly simple – write a rough draft of your beginning, knowing that you will need to change it after you have finished your first draft (when you will have the understanding you need to write a better beginning).

This is what I am currently doing with Divided Elements. After quite some time apart from this WIP that is loved and hated, I have returned to revisit the beginning. I have a much better understanding of my protagonist, Anaiya, and a much clearer picture of the traits and relationships that both define her and define her conflict with the novel’s main storyline.

What about you? How do you develop a strong understanding of your protagonist? How do you build this into your novel’s beginning to set-up a stronger disturbance with maximum impact? 

Image courtesy of Steven Depolo via Flickr Creative Commons.

How to start your novel – The first part of the first act

The only two things your protagonist needs to be…

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

What makes an effective protagonist? There are a lot of theories out there that list a number of critical characteristics, but I think they confuse an effective protagonist with an effective plot. The protagonist is the main character of your story. The plot is what happens to, around and because of your protagonist. And whilst an effective plot must be interesting, goal-oriented, active and full of tension and twists, an effective character need only be two things.

1. Early

2. Suffering

 

What readers expect of your protagonist

The human brain is a weird and wonderful thing. Most notably, it is hardwired for stories. Readers have subconscious expectations about the key components and pace of a story – years of listening to and reading stories has given them an appreciation of the three act structure: They expect trouble for the protagonist, they expect trouble to intensify, they expect the protagonist to achieve and then have their hopes dashed, and they expect  the protagonist to triumph (unless they are reading a tragedy, in which case, they expect the protagonist to fail).

Just as they have a subliminal understanding of the storyline, they also have a precognitive awareness of the protagonist. Interestingly, this understanding of the protagonist is bedded in the word itself. Protagonist is an ancient Greek word that means “one who plays the first part”.

And this is definitely one of the two critical components of a protagonist. They must arrive in the story’s beginning – after all, it is their story. But it’s more than just being early and, indeed, more than just being first.

To be a protagonist, the character must be the first with whom the reader empathises or sympathises. I won’t delve into the semantics of empathy vs sympathy, suffice to say they both are defined as a compassionate response to another undergoing a recognised trial or tribulation.

The protagonist, therefore, must not only appear early in the story, they must also be noticeably suffering from something which elicits an emotional response from the reader. They must be victimised (but not necessarily a victim). They must be suffering – even if this suffering is a) trivial (I missed the train; I broke my watch; My date stood me up; My dog ate my homework) and/or b) in no way relevant to the real trial(s) the plot will eventually throw at them.

 

The story of Maggie Jordan

I came to this conclusion after watching the first episode of The Newsroom Season 3. Whilst we were first introduced to the character of Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) way back in Season 1 Episode 1, we weren’t given cause to feel sorry for him. He wasn’t suffering – in fact he was the aggressor. And whilst he is, possibly, the central character around which the other characters and plots revolve, for me, he is not the protagonist. I don’t cheer for Will – he didn’t grab my sympathy first (and hasn’t really grabbed it at any stage of the series). For me, the (largely obscured?) protagonist is Maggie Jordan (played by Alison Pill). We meet Maggie a scene later – she’s having a very public disagreement with her dominant and arrogant boyfriend who is trying to weasel out of meeting her parents…again.

Ding, ding, ding – we have a winner.

Now, I don’t like Maggie – she’s kind of neurotic and lets herself get pushed around and sometimes just says things that make me cringe. I don’t relate to Maggie – I would dig a hole through the newsroom floor before I had anything that even remotely looked like a disagreement with my boyfriend in front of my colleagues/boss. I don’t even sympathise/empathise with Maggie in most cases throughout the series – mostly I find her annoying.

But, for some unknown reason (which is now not so unknown), I found myself cheering for Maggie throughout the first episode of Season 3 – much as I had silently cheered for her during the previous two seasons. All because, in that first episode of Season 1, she took pole position in making me feel sorry for her. (Incidentally, it is probably the same reason that I still don’t cheer for her ex-boyfriend, Don. Ever).

And, the “feeling sorry” is key once we consider the three act structure – the whole putting a character up a tree, throwing rocks at them and letting them find their way down. An introduction to a character experiencing an extreme feeling of elation or achievement or confidence can elicit empathy and emotional responses from readers – but it doesn’t predispose us to cheering them on when it is time for them to face their hurdles.

So, forget about making a character likeable or interesting or active – let the plot achieve that for them. Just make sure they turn up early (if not first) in the story and make sure they have a hint of suffering about them with which to pull at our heartstrings.

 

(Feature Image courtesy of Zuhair A. Al-Traifi via Flickr Creative Commons)

The only two things your protagonist needs to be…

Straight & Narrow vs Zigzag Helter-Skelter: Which Character Arc is your Protagonist on?

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Now that I’ve past the midpoint of my WIP, Divided Elements, and am on my way towards the second plot point, darkest hour of the soul and shattering enlightenment of Act III, I’ve been thinking a lot about my protagonist’s character arc.

“Her what, now?” you ask.

(Hahahahaha. Oh, reader – you are such a card!)

Her character arc. Wikipedia knows it as the status of a character as it unfolds throughout a narrative; Jim Hull stresses that we heed the difference between character growth and character transformation in a character arc; and Gabe Moura sums it up as the way in which a characters evolves, grows, learns, or changes as the plot unfolds.

Basically it’s the path your character (in this case, the protagonist) takes on their journey of self development, discovery, awareness and actualisation.

 

The varied paths your characters can take

Now, for anyone that has ever taken a road trip, you’ll know that there are many and varied paths that can lead to a destination. And, in knowing this, is the ever-constant reminder that “life is a journey, not a destination”.

(interestingly, my autocorrect wanted ‘destination’ changed to ‘detonation’, a Freudian slip on behalf of my keyboard, perhaps?)

Random, tangential observations aside, Ralph Waldo Emerson had it right. A thousand protagonists could end up at the same point (UN Secretary General) and still be incredibly different characters depending on their starting point (orphan vs the wealthiest 5 year old in the world) and their journey (complete with pirates, smugglers, assassins and moonlit seductresses vs lots of hard work, bribes and the occasional extra-marital affair).

So, yes, character arcs can be wildly different in terms of NATURE, but what of DIRECTION?

This has been the major question on my mind lately…

When I look at the plethora of images tagged with “character arc” on Google, I get this:

Screenshot 2014-10-30 20.16.34

Yes, they all seem vastly different. But, do you notice the one thing that they all have in common? (Have another look – I’ll sit here singing the Sesame Street song – you know the one…)

Yep, they are all LINEAR.

Not linear, in terms of straight, but linear in terms of no double-backs, loops or crazy spirals. I don’t know about you, but I change my mind a couple of times a millisecond. I think I want A, get distracted by B, get bored by B and remember that I love A, and then remember why I got disillusioned with A in the first place and go after C.

Unsurprisingly, my protagonist is a little like me in that respect. And I’m wondering whether that is a good thing. Yes, it may be authentic, but is it readable? (Incidentally, that is the second major question I have been toying with lately, and will no doubt become a blog post in due time…)

 

Character Arc Directions

So, let’s look at some of the kinds of character arcs, different in both NATURE and DIRECTION, that we can play with as writers:

1. The straight and narrow: Your character is born or gradually endowed with what they need to do to fulfil their destiny and they grow in stages accordingly to reach their destiny.

For me this is the most boring – it screams privileged white boy growing up in a gated community with all the trappings of an entitled life. A boy who is groomed to become the CEO of a multinational corporation worth gazillions by his demanding father and subsequently goes through a series of trials to gain the remaining necessary skills to do just that. Uggghhhh. I can’t think of any movie or book with this plot line because it is so boring it either wasn’t made or I fell asleep somewhere in the middle… Or, could The Last Starfighter fit this description? (in which case, I may have to write a lengthy retraction…)

2. The slight deviation: Your character needs A and knows that they need it, but somewhere along the way the become distracted by B and take a little detour, before realising their mind snap and dutifully return to their proper path.

Slightly more exciting that the rich white snob, but still pretty tame. Having said that, this is 30% me on a daily basis. I’ll be driving towards our agreed dinner destination, will see a neon sign for a new Mexican restaurant, convince my passenger to go there instead and instantly regret it when faced with plastic chairs, cutlery and queso, beat a hasty retreat and end up where we were meant to be all along. Plus, some of my favourite stories employ the approach. Think Crazy, Stupid, Love, or Easy A, or Divided Kingdom, or Animal Farm.

3. The variety is the spice of life: (bear with me, it’s a little like #2, but with a twist) Your character needs/wants/is lost in A, gets distracted/enticed/entrapped by B, jumps at the chance/agonises over whether to make the switch (or resists making it), makes the switch, learns to love/endure it, life is great.

This falls more into the ‘transformation’ arc and is very, very, very popular (as in, you’ve probably read it in a hundred books or seen it in a hundred movies). Think Fahrenheit 451, the entire Wheel of Time series, The MatrixBreaking Bad, etc etc.

4. The I want it, I want it, I want it: Your character is stuck with A, finds their ultimate soul mate (person, job, life) in B, faces obstacle after obstacle to get B, but throws such a tanty – everyone and everything else be damned – until they get B.

I want to hate on this arc, but, if done right, can be cool – think Whip It – but if done wrong, is like the girl with the curl (horrid) – you can figure out your own examples, because I am not going there 🙂

5. The I don’t know what I want, but, when I find it, I will probably change my mind a thousand times before I realise I want it: Yes, as you can tell by the vitriol, that is where I am at with my protag: It’s the arc where your character wants A, then something happens and they want B, but then B is not all it cracked up to be, so A is looking good again, and then A turns out to be exactly the thing that made it possible to be distracted by B, which just ends up in messy confusion and lots of soul searching and a heap of tension.

Sounds like a messy relationship, but this arc isn’t specific to romance. I think it is specific to character-driven stories, however. Because characters, by their very nature, are complex and (largely) unpredictable, and (following the ‘character arc’ theme) undergoing a serious and profound transformation/change/evolution. I also think it is specific to the human mind and goal setting.

Without going on a long and boring nerd-track, if you’ve read or heard of Daniel Kahneman and his Thinking, Fast and Slow, you’ll know that humans do not think rationally. About anything. Especially the things they care most about – love and money. So, having a character that bounces around and back-flips in the #5 profile isn’t unreasonable.

Whilst these arcs are more goal-oriented than growth-oriented – i.e. they focus on the goals and path of action that the protagonist takes – they can incorporate the strict character arc either directly or indirectly.

Directly, we can apply the same approaches to character development and growth – e.g. with the first approach, you can have a protagonist who starts out as a little shy an timid but with a spark of bravery in a particular area (when they are wearing their red spiderman underpants), who continues to grow in courage until they are fighting fires and saving kittens and disarming nuclear bombs. With the fifth approach, you can have a protagonist who starts off as emotionally distant, falls for someone and becomes more vulnerable, gets hurt by them and decides emotionally-distant and alone is better than vulnerable and heartbroken, but then finds there is no satisfaction any more in being aloof.

Indirectly, you can use your protagonist’s inner development and growth to drive the decisions and actions that generate the plot paths above – e.g. your protagonists wants B because they have become more loyal, or selfish, or curious, or grounded (etc, etc. you get the picture).

As you can see, the goal arc and inner-growth arc are inevitably intertwined. As Robert McKee says:

We cannot ask which is more important, structure or character, because structure is character; character is structure. They’re the same thing, and therefore one cannot be more important than the other.

What do you think? Which character arc does your protagonist follow?

 

(Feature Image courtesy of Swalo Photo via Flickr Creative Commons)

Straight & Narrow vs Zigzag Helter-Skelter: Which Character Arc is your Protagonist on?

SWOT your Antagonist: Driving the middle of your story with well-rounded characters

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Ah, ‘the middle’ – bemoaned the world over. Middle child syndrome causing siblings to feel overlooked and resentful; middle of the road thrown out in conversations to denote something boring and unoriginal; middle sections tortured by never-ending diets and exercise regimes. Even the adjective – middling – is a disaster, sending otherwise attractive nouns (like income, skill and appeal) into mediocrity.

I’m at that stage in my WIP where I am revising, fleshing-out and drafting my novel’s middle. The occasional euphoria at seeing that mandarin/sunrise orange of my Scrivener progress bar is always subject to the unease about the expectations of a great middle. Recently, I blogged about how I’ve discovered a range of business tools and techniques that are assisting me to tackle the challenge of writing a great middle – from triple-loop learning to gap analysis. Today I want to talk about SWOT analysis.

The common culprit behind many writing problems is a distinct lack of conflict. For problematic middles, poor or non-existent conflict is a killer. When you consider that the first plot point is the transition from the set-up of conflict in your first act to the realisation and consequences of that conflict in the second act, the importance of infusing well-developed and attention-grabbing conflict into your story’s middle is a no-brainer.

The easiest way to generate conflict in your book is to delegate it to your antagonist. Often, as authors, we are so caught up in the plight of our protagonists that we place too much a burden on them to carry the story for the entire novel. Middles are a great opportunity to give our protagonists a break and let the antagonists carry the story for a bit. In order to ensure our antagonists’ shoulders are broad enough to carry the load, we need to build them up. Developed, well-rounded and authentic characters are critical for generating solid conflict and a great technique for writing these characters is to put them through a SWOT analysis.


SWOT Analysis

SWOT analysis is a business analysis technique, which, despite some debate about its ongoing relevance in the business world, still offers useful application in the business of fiction writing and character development.

SWOT analysis comprises the identification, discussion and evaluation of an entity’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats – hence the acronym. Implicit in these terms is the potential for all sorts of conflict and tension – on an internal and an external level.

SWOT Analysis-Character Development-Internal and External Conflict
Generating internal and external conflict with SWOT Analysis

As indicated by the graphic above, STRENGTHS and WEAKNESSES evaluate the characteristics internal to the character (in this case the antagonist), whereas OPPORTUNITIES and THREATS articulate the circumstances external to the character. Let’s look at each one in turn.

S is for STRENGTH

Strengths are the advantages an antagonist carries with them into the battle against the protagonist. Like greatness, some antagonists are born with their strength, others achieve their strength and others have their strength thrust upon them. Strengths can be skills, attitudes, knowledge, superpowers or positions of authority. Moby Dick was born with his ferocity, strength and size in Melville’s classic, whereas X-man Magneto had his ability to manipulate metals thrust upon him at an age of manifestation. Misery’s Annie Wilkes achieved her physical dominance over Paul Sheldon due to his misfortunate accident, whereas Fahrenheit 451’s Captain Beatty worked his way up to the position of Fire Chief.

Developing or intensifying your antagonist’s strengths will help to further your story’s tension and conflict. 

W is for WEAKNESS

Weaknesses are the vulnerabilities in our antagonists’ armour. Sometimes the weakness can be a a less-than-concrete commitment to the cause – e.g. an antagonist that ends up falling in love with the protagonist or an antagonist that is thrust into a family feud but has no direct, personal cause in it. Other times the weakness can be time-limited -e.g. a storm that cannot go on forever, or a superpower that can only be used for a period of time, beyond which the antagonist is severely exhausted. Weaknesses can be physical flaws or intellectual deficiencies, emotional connections (or disconnections) or problematic attitudes  (e.g. over-inflated egos, delusions, misperceptions).

Exposing and testing your antagonist’s weaknesses will bolster hopes for an eventual protagonist win.

O is for OPPORTUNITY

Opportunities are the events and circumstances that are generated external to your antagonist and often beyond your antagonist’s control – A corrupt official that allows your antagonist the opportunity to get fraudulently elected; a once-in-a-hundred-year storm that provides the conditions for advantageous genetic mutation; the arrival of an exotic stranger that allows the antagonist to cast suspicion away from themselves; a painful rejection that allows the inner antagonist to question the protagonist’s hopes and dreams. Opportunities are not borne of the character, but antagonists can catalyse or facilitate them (by nudging a character here, or manipulating a circumstance there) and will almost always capitalise on them.

Giving your antagonist the means to capitalise on opportunity will help drive action, tension and conflict. 

T is for THREAT

Threats are the events and circumstances generated by external entities that, if realised, will undermine your antagonist and possibly exacerbate their weaknesses or mitigate the advantages of their strengths. The most obvious threat to an antagonist is the developing strength and advantageous opportunities of your protagonist, but there are other, more creative, threats to consider. Distractions can offer viable threats to your antagonist – in much the same way as putting out multiple spot fires can take its toll on the ability to fight a firestorm. Threats can also come from the inside – a minion who dreams of a coup d’etat or a corrupt official who is willing to be bought by the highest bidder.

Plaguing your antagonist with a range of threats not only helps out the protagonist, but also gives you the opportunity to craft a story of two sides on the foundation of two fully-realised main characters. 

How does your antagonist  shape up after a SWOT analysis? 

SWOT your Antagonist: Driving the middle of your story with well-rounded characters

Stuck in the middle: Fighting mediocrity with strong plotting

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Recently I hit the middle of my novel and discovered that it was everything everyone said it would be – brutal, intimidating, a bog of viscosity to rival the pitch drop. You get the idea. Yes, the middle of a novel can be rough – thankfully, there are hundreds of helpful articles and blog posts out there to give advice or just share the pain. Most of them advocate a common panacea – ‘structure’.

I’m a big fan of structuring novels (well, I am now). Gus the plumber opened my eyes up to the simple effectiveness of building a novel from a logline through to a detailed three act summary and the Script Lab helped me to further develop my novel’s structure with the eight sequence synopsis.

I saw these tools as my very own Higgs Bosons – allowing the small seed of my novel idea to gain mass as it waded through each of the higher stages of evolution.  I have separate documents in the research folder of my Elementals scrivener file that document the development of my novel from a logline to a three-sentence summary, to a three-paragraph summary and to an eight-sequence synopsis. I have research documents that articulate the major plot development points of movies and books that have helped me develop a deeper understanding of these structural elements.

Basically, when it came to structure, I thought I had it sorted. But then the middle struck and my awesome structure wasn’t enough to help. I was like Artax in the swamp of sorrow. I had hit the saggy, mushy middle and it was dragging me and my novel down. As Chuck Wendig sagely notes:

The beginning’s easy because it’s like — BOOM, some shit just happened. The ending’s easy because — POW, all the shit that happened just lead to this. The middle is where it gets all gooshy, like wet bread or a sloppy pile of viscera.

Gross, right? That was my middle. Even though I had the basic structure, my middle needed more support than my beginning and end. It needed more detail. Deciding on that detail was a major challenge.

 

Plotting the Second Act – Planning your Road Trip

Plotting a second act is like deciding your route on an epic road trip. You know where you’re starting from and you know where you want to end up. If you have a decent structure, you also know some major pit-stops along the way (the midpoint and lowest point). But even with those basics decided, there are a multitude of routes you can take. Do you go the most direct? The fastest? The most scenic? Do you make sure you pass through all the towns with funky art galleries and quirky historical icons? Do you throw in a random “let’s check out Hobart, even though its nowhere near our general route, because let’s face it – it would be awesome and we’re never heading in this general direction ever again’?

With a road trip, you make these decisions based on non-negotiable and ideal criteria – time, budget, aversion to sea/air travel, penchant for art/history, etc. And that is what was missing from my middle’s plot development and structure – the CRITERIA.

So, what criteria do you need to set for your middle? For me, the answer is found within a solid understanding of your protagonist. What does she need to learn, discover, obtain, let go of, in order to react/respond to a) the midpoint and b) the lowest point, the way you need her to?

For instance, your story may be about a intergalactic guitarist who slays aliens with the wicked chords she strangles from her obsidian axe. The inciting incident is her discovery of a mega-alien that is seemingly immune to her cool, yet deadly, tunes. The first plot point comes when the mega-alien, annoyed at our protagonist and her black guitar, kidnaps her boyfriend. Now the music warrior protag must find a way to defeat this mega alien. As a feel-good novel about how cool music solves all problems, we know our protag will eventually defeat the alien and rescue her boyfriend. The mid-point comes when our hero realises that it is not a perfect technique that will do the ultimate damage, but a riff of unparalleled uniqueness and awesomeness. The lowest point will come when her guitar is smashed under the alien’s foot before she gets a chance to play her riff.

The mid-point sets up a situation where the protagonist needs to LEARN or DISCOVER the true solution to defeating the alien. The lowest point sets up the situation where the protagonist needs to DEVELOP her original musical voice that goes beyond her guitar-playing. Knowing what our hero needs, we can now start plotting out the situations and encounters and near-misses and glimmers of hope that will eventually give her what she needs: guitar battles with the mega-alien’s minions; conscription into a league of awesome guitar player warriors; an encounter with a grumpy, retired guitar warrior; an appreciation for the obscure and alternative musical elements of her world, etc, etc.

That’s what the middle is all about – knowing what the protagonists needs and watching her struggle and fail and almost obtain it – each time learning something or gaining something or developing in some way that will ultimately reward her.

I love thinking about the middle in this way because it also allows me to create an environment in which the bond between my reader and my protagonist will deepen. Making the events of the midpoint and lowest point all the more powerful, poignant, gut-wrenching and all sorts of other high-charged emotions.

Now to writing it… Wish me luck!

 

(Featured Image courtesy of id-iom, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Stuck in the middle: Fighting mediocrity with strong plotting