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.

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

Books = Stories about stuff happening

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Books are a lot of things, but mostly they are stories about stuff that happens. They are not monologues or dialogues, long transcripts of people just talking. They are not detailed descriptions of static environments, lovingly crafted words about what things look like or how they smell. (Not that these things don’t have their place).

No, books are all about the action – movement, activity, change, consequences.

 

THE FIVE Ws

In crafting a book, it is the 5Ws that separate out that stuff that is happening in your book from the stuff that is happening in other books:

* What is the stuff that is happening? Is it an alien invasion, a falling in love, a fight to the death?

* Who is the stuff happening to? Is it a small and isolated island community, a thirteen year old boy, a nun on the run?

* Where is the stuff happening? In the middle of the Andaman ocean, a backwater town, a distant moon colony?

* Why is the stuff happening? Because of a stray meteor hitting earth, the arrival of a new face, the unexpected discovery and firing of a gamma ray?

These first four Ws can inject a great sense of character to your novel, tag it with its own unique personality. But, it is the fifth W – the When does this stuff happen? – that is the most crucial and that provides us with the framework of the Three Act Structure.


THE THREE ACT STRUCTURE

The Three Act Structure is built around pivotal story moments – all points of the story where important stuff happens.

In the First Act, there is:

* The sympathetic stuff that happens: This is the introduction to your protagonist. They are doing something that a) gives the reader both a sense of who they are and the world they live in and b) instils in the reader a sense of sympathy for the protagonist – something that will keep them cheering for your story’s main character, even if they don’t particularly like or relate to the character.

For more on this ‘stuff’ see my blog post on “The only two things your protagonist needs to be”.

* The call to action stuff that happens: This is part of the story where something changes the protagonist or the world they inhabit, something that is of such magnitude that it calls to the protagonist to get involved.

* The resistance stuff that happens: Despite your protagonist’s call to action, there is a resistance to engage. This could be because of fear, uncertainty, apathy or ignorance (or a multitude of other reasons). In their effort to resist the call, the protagonist does a lot of stuff to avoid getting involved.

At the juncture of the First and Second Acts is the First Plot Point – a major point of significant stuff happening. This is where, despite your protagonist’s best efforts to avoid personally engaging with the inciting incident, something happens to spur them into action. A bigger fear trumps the earlier one, a mentor provides assurances and generates confidence, the stuff happens to someone close to the protagonist, making the challenge personal, or the protagonist has an ‘a-ha’ moment and finally sees the truth and severity of the situation.

The Second Act is divided into two parts of stuff happening.

Part One is about stuff happening to the protagonist. This is basically where the protagonist is the weak punching bag for the plot – it just hammers them with stuff that happens – events and actions and conflicts and explosions – and the protagonist is like a piece of driftwood in the ocean, just trying to stay afloat and survive.

Part Two is about stuff happening because of the protagonist. Your main character is in control and pulling the strings – the plot is now the character’s slave and the hunter has become the hunted. Stuff happens because the protagonist says so – the wall explodes because they set the TNT, the aliens flee because the protagonist is chasing them with a sword of fire, the girl is swooning because the thirteen year old boy is putting on the moves, and the moon mafia is gearing up for a fight because the nun on the run is kicking some serious ass.

Part One and Two are separated by the Midpoint – another major point of significant stuff happening. So major, that the protagonist inevitably and seamlessly shifts from punching bag to Bruce Lee.

For more about crafting a solid Midpoint, check out my blog post, “Tipping the Balance – How to find Plan B and Write your Midpoint”

The juncture of the Second and Third Acts is marked by the Second Plot Point – the final major point of significant stuff happening. For me the Second Plot Point is a composite of two significant moments – the Darkest Night of the Soul and the Glimmer of Hope. In Part Two of the Second Act, the protagonist is killing it – they are on fire and clearly destined for success – until the Darkest Night of the Soul. Some major stuff happens to seriously put a dampener of the hero’s quest, to crush it so low that it seems all is lost. But then some other major stuff happens – the community’s outcast finishes his alien-destroying weapon, the boy discovers the girl’s favourite story, the nun runs into the mafia-boss’ mother-in-law – and once again, there is hope that the hero with triumph.

The Third Act is one big stuff-happening fest. It’s hell for leather, as lots of stuff happens – driven by the protagonist, antagonist, secondary characters, the conflict and tension, the hopes and dreams, the insatiable pull towards the climax – until it all culminates in one big showdown (major stuff happening here) – which the protagonist either wins (comedy) or loses (tragedy).

IN SUMMARY

So:

In the First Act, stuff just happens (and not necessarily to the protagonist).

In the First Part of the Second Act, stuff happens to the protagonist.

In the Second Part of the Second Act, the protagonist makes stuff happen.

In the Third Act, all the stuff happens.

 

 

(Featured Image courtesy of Jonathan Kos-Read, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Books = Stories about stuff happening

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?