See Through a Glass, Darkly: View Your Story Through Your Character’s Filters

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

All that we experience is filtered through our preconceptions, our previous experiences, our beliefs, our prejudices, our misunderstandings. No two human beings view things entirely the same way. In some way, there really is no objective truth. Four million people can read your story and come away with four million interpretations. Many may vary only by a small amount, but no two will be exactly the same, and none will be the same as the one you were working with when you wrote it.

Background Image: Paula Bailey/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Consider this exchange in Hamlet:

What have you, my good friends, deserv’d at the hands of
Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?

Prison, my lord?

Denmark’s a prison.

Then is the world one.

A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and
dungeons, Denmark being one o’ th’ worst.

We think not so, my lord.

Why then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 239–251

Hamlet sums it up very well—thinking makes it so. How we think about things determines how we react, and how we think about things is determined by our filters. We all have filters. Some we are aware of, some we are not. Some filters help us see the glass as half empty, some help us see it as half full.

Some filters are so strong, they distort everything that comes into the brain. You probably know someone with a filter like that: the coworker that turns everything you say into an insult, the partner that takes any disagreeing statement as proof of your failure to be loyal, the friend that interprets every previous commitment as a passive-aggressive way to show that you no longer like him, the child that assumes that everything you say is a command… And eventually, the constant distortion ends up bringing about the very thing the filter is trying to prevent.

Your characters should have filters too. In fact, they do. You probably just think about it as “characterization” rather than filters. But thinking about your characterization in terms of filters can help you develop characters that are self-consistent in their reactions. Knowing their key filters and really thinking about what events look like through those filters is the first step. The next is to figure out what emotions would follow from the filtered event. Then figure out what the response would be to the filtered event—preferably while those emotions are at their peak. This process will give your characters truly authentic responses to key situations that show your audience how multi-dimensional and uniquely human they are.

Consider the following primary mental filters that three different characters might have:

Character 1: I can’t do anything right. Everyone hates me. No one respects me. They all think I am stupid.

Character 2: Everyone in my life leaves me. I am always alone. I can’t form any lasting relationships, and I don’t know why.

Character 3: I never have anything worthwhile to say. I don’t even know why I bother having any ideas, no one cares what I think anyway.

Now, imagine that each of these characters is a writer, and that they each get the exact same form rejection letter from an agent.

How would each feel?

Character 1: This character would probably get angry. The anger would start with the self (I never do anything right) and that anger would quickly move on to the agent that sent the rejection (Everyone thinks I am stupid).

Character 2: This character would probably feel betrayed. Even though the relationship did not yet exist, the character feels this is yet another example of being abandoned. The feeling of betrayal would probably lead to feelings of depression and loneliness.

Character 3: This character would probably feel worthless and insecure. They would withdraw inward. Once again, there is proof that they truly have nothing interesting to say.

Now, what might each of these characters do in response to the letter?

Character 1: This character is in a rage and blaming the agent. This state of mind would lead to a rash action that will boomerang on the character. Perhaps the character would send off a vitriolic and threatening letter to the agent and end up blacklisted.

Character 2: This character is feeling lonely and betrayed. In this state of mind, the character might seek out a bar hoping that a drink would dull the pain, and that they might be able to find some companion there that won’t betray them.

Character 3: This character would accept the judgement of irrelevance, and give up writing. Perhaps medical school would at least please the parents, who think writing is impractical anyway.

When multiple characters have very different filters, use the filters to up the tension. For example, suppose Character 2 and Character 3 are best friends, and 2 wants 3 to go bar hopping to “drown the pain of rejection.” Character 3 has given up on writing. The medical school application is due next week, and mom and dad have expressed their joy in the new plan. Character 3 says, “Sorry, can’t make it, and I won’t be in the writing group any more.” This plays right into Character 2’s major filter, and a blowup ensues that threatens the friendship.

Authentic responses come from the interaction of common events with unique personal filters. To get you started in thinking with filters, ask yourself the following questions:

  • In what ways are my character’s views of events affected by the way my character thinks? (These will be clues to identifying your character’s filters.)
  • What are my character’s primary filters? Do they color things in a positive way? In a negative way?
  • How strong are those filters?
  • How distorted are the filters?
  • How did the character get the filters? From a defining event? Gradually over time?
  • What types of inputs reinforce the filter?
  • What types of inputs “break through” the filter?

Then look through the glass darkly:

  • What emotions result from the filtered event?
  • What actions do those emotions lead to?
  • How does one character’s filter play off the very different filter of another character?
  • Does the story depend on the filter changing in some way? If so, what will make it change, and what will it change into?

And remember: there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Final Poll Results

Mental Filters

A Pen In Each Hand

By Bellman

John is an auto mechanic. He has the following mental filter:

My time is more important than anyone else’s time. No matter what they say about my intelligence, I know I am smarter than they all are, so they should listen to me.

Bob is an accountant. He has the following mental filter:

Too many people have tried to cheat me. I will never let anyone ever cheat me again.

Now use these filters to write a scene for each character in which the following events occur:

  • The character is in line at a bank.
  • A noise, sounding like a shot, is heard outside.
  • The man standing behind your character, who is wearing a blue coat, suddenly grabs hold of your character’s arm immediately upon hearing the noise.

Storming the Castle: Interview with Richard Castle

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

The Toasted Cheese editors spent some time in the Hamptons this summer trying to wrangle an interview with Richard Castle, author of the the popular Derrick Storm series and, more recently, the best-selling Nikki Heat series (the first Nikki Heat book, Heat Wave, reached #6 on the New York Times Best Seller List). Our plans to waylay him at his Hamptons home were stymied by his publisher, who claimed he was too busy finishing his latest novel, Naked Heat, to talk to us. Luckily, one of the locals clued us in to the fact he was actually off solving the mystery of the fallen angel. By following him on Twitter, we were able to stalk… er… follow him and catch him in a quiet moment.

Toasted Cheese: We understand you have been hard at work on your new novel, Naked Heat, which will be available on September 28, 2010. Tell us a bit about it.

Richard Castle: Writing Naked Heat was a tremendously gratifying experience. It allowed me to relive some of my favorite memories from the past year of doing research with the NYPD.

TC: Is it different writing about a female police officer instead of a male detective?

RC: Well, unlike Derrick, Heat’s not always trying to get into bed with everyone she meets. The difference is more psychological. Derrick considered himself a man of action, an agent provocateur, so to speak. He’d walk into the bad guy’s lair without a plan. Heat’s much more methodical. She works from evidence, not from her gut. In a lot of ways she’s smarter than Derrick, though Derrick was more charming. There’s a hint of Derrick Storm in Jameson Rook, although Derrick’s much manlier.

TC: Where did you get the ideas for your Derrick Storm novels? Any plans for Black Pawn to reissue them?

RC: Derrick Storm grew out my desire to cross the traditional detective with the kinds of protagonists you’d find in a spy novel. What if James Bond had become a P.I. instead of a secret agent? I wanted to try to capture that kind of cool and sex appeal within the structure of a detective story.

No current plans for Black Pawn to reissue them, however I am currently in discussions with a comic publisher to turn them into a series of graphic novels. I’ll keep you apprised, or maybe I’ll keep you guessing.

TC: What was the first piece of writing you used to pick up a girl? Did it work?

RC: It was a Shakespearean sonnet. Yeah, it worked. I was nine. We held hands.

TC: Tell us about your history as a writer. Are you mostly self-taught, or did you take classes or workshops?

RC: My mother was an actor and spent a lot of time at the theater, and instead of getting me a babysitter, she’d drop me at the New York City library. I spent hours and hours reading mystery books—Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe. And then when I was a teen I took a Learning Annex course: “How to Become a VIP Matchmaker” (the course on mystery writing was full). After I successfully matched over a hundred couples, I sat down and wrote my first book, In a Hail of Bullets. I love the Learning Annex. I’m taking a class now called “How to Talk to Your Cat.” Now I don’t have a cat, and I’m not particularly interested in getting one. No, what I want to do is talk to other people’s cats. How cool would that be? “Hey Cleopatra, you know whose head you should jump on next?” Or maybe tell their cat a joke and it starts laughing and everyone’s like, why’s that cat laughing? Dude, what’d you say to my cat? And maybe cultivate my own feline army…

TC: Wait a minute. Wasn’t In a Hail of Bullets inspired by the soap operas your mother parked you in front of?

RC: Yes, well… that’s my mother’s version of events.

TC: What do you do when you get writer’s block?

RC: I eat more fiber.

I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe in writer’s embarrassment. That’s when you’re too embarrassed by what you’re writing to continue. But if you do continue, something strange and wonderful happens. After a few pages your drivel becomes interesting drivel and often times you find solutions naturally emerging for whatever problem you were facing.

TC: What do you consider the most important element of a mystery novel? Why?

RC: The most important element of a mystery novel is mystery. I know it sounds like I’m being flip, and usually I am, but not now. The question the reader is always asking themselves, whether they know it or not, is “Why should I keep reading?” If the writer’s done his job, the answer is usually pretty simple: “Because I want to know what happens.” Any good writer creates multi-level mysteries—mysteries of plot, mysteries of characters—to keep the reader engaged.

TC: What advice would you offer to people who want to write mystery novels?

RC: Stop talking about it and start doing it. And make peace with the prospect that at first it’ll probably be really bad. That’s okay. The first draft is just clay to sculpt. Keep working it until it’s good.

TC: A lot of people view you as an extension of Nathan Fillion, the actor. How do you deal with this?

RC: An extension? Like I’m somehow .nfil? (That was a computer joke. Not a particularly good one either.)

I know Nathan pretty well. Handsome fella. People say we look alike, but I think he looks more like Jason Bateman.

TC: And our editor Lisa Olson asks: I haven’t seen your mom since graduation. How has she been? Does she still play her Beatles albums backwards?

RC: Yes. It drives me crazy. And apparently Lisa borrowed a pink sweater that was quite flattering. My mom would like it back, along with the boy Lisa stole from her.

TC: We’ll send Lisa along with the sweater sometime, but we’re not sure she kept the boy…

We shouldn’t keep you from your writing any longer, so we will let you get back to your, uh, research. Thank you so much for your time.

You can watch Richard Castle gain his inspiration for the third Nikki Heat novel on Mondays on ABC at 10:00 pm ET (9:00 CT).

Final Poll Results

Interview with a Dark Lord: Creating Villainous Characters

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

In my never-ending quest for good writing tips, I, intrepid Toasted Cheese Editor, braved the Dark Lord’s lair to get some first-hand insight into what makes a good villainous lair.

Unfortunately, this editor fell into the first trap in the first Dark Tower. In order to gain enough time to escape, I used the old “get them talking about their evil plans” trick. So, change of plans. Instead of a piece on the villainous lair, a piece on the villainous character, gleaned from our conversation.

Background Image: Ivan Vranić/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

TC: So, Evil Villain Character, how are you feeling these days?

Dark Lord: Frankly, I’m feeling a little flat. But what do you expect when you are continually described as “The Lord of Evil” or “The Ultimate Killing Machine” and never given any other motive or depth in your evil doings?

TC: Well, labels are a quick way to identify a character type. What do you have against that?

Dark Lord: Look, I know as the Antagonist I’m playing second fiddle to the Lord High Fully-Realized Protagonist, but that doesn’t mean I’m just a cardboard cutout villain. Your standard protagonist comes complete with a past, motivation, and a flaw. Why can’t I get the same kind of attention?

TC: A flaw? You want a flaw?

Dark Lord: Damn right, I do. People are complicated. Look at Darth Vader, for example. First movie he is the ultimate in villainy. Black cloak, black mask, kills anyone who gets in his way. A stereotypical Lord of the Sith, if you will. And then what happens? Give him a little popularity, and suddenly he’s the protagonist’s father, and much more complicated than anyone ever imagined. And then we see how he was lured into evil, and how his flaw, caring too much, turns him into the evil guy we all know and love, or maybe hate. But why couldn’t we see some of that in the original movie? Was he really designed with that flaw? Not much evidence of it at the beginning.

And that’s what is bugging me right now. I’m just this evil dude. No one knows I was tortured as a child, no one knows I believe I am doing the right thing for my people, they just think I’m evil, and that’s the end of it. Take Sauron from Lord of the Rings for example. he is a total cardboard Dark Lord. He sits in his dark tower and sends his minions forth to do evil. You don’t really know why, or if he’s anything more than evil. He is just there to be defeated. Maybe I was good once, but became so proud that I turned into a dictator, thinking I knew better than everyone else. Like that Boromir dude in Lord of the Rings, who might have turned into something awful if he had survived. I mean, he just wanted the ring of power to save his people, but he was proud, and his pride would have been his downfall. Or maybe I loved a woman who ditched me for another, and I swore my revenge on her family. Or maybe I have good intentions, but can’t see the dangerous consequences of my actions, and don’t notice how I made it all the way to hell.

TC: So what kind of flaw do you want?

Dark Lord: Well, the best kind is a flaw that is either similar to the protagonist’s, so that the reader can see how “there but for circumstances goes the hero” or one that is opposite to the protagonist’s, so they can play off each other and feed each other’s weaknesses and strengths. Either of those choices makes for good dramatic tension.

TC: But what about the ultimate battle of Good versus Evil? If you are complicated, and have a flaw like the protagonist’s flaw, doesn’t that make things messy and uncertain?

Dark Lord: Life is messy and uncertain. That’s the joy of fiction, to explore the mess and uncertainty. The best villains are the ones you love to hate. No one loves a stereotype. Really. Look at Shakespeare. None of his villains are cut and dried. They have their own agendas, and they do very evil things, but in the end, they are only human. Take a look at Richard III for example. All twisted evil, but why?

“I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

That’s really all I am asking for: to be human. I just can’t be interesting if I am not human. Even if I am an evil monster, even if I control millions of evil minions, even if I am a mass murderer, or even if I am just a schoolyard bully, and yes, even if I am some weird sort of alien, I am still human. If you prick me, do I not bleed? Why can’t I bleed meaningfully, instead of stereotypically?

TC: So you are saying you don’t want to be an archetype?

Dark Lord: Not at all. Nothing wrong with an archetype. But don’t confuse that with a stereotype. People are comfortable with archetypes, the various character types that permeate our literature. We expect, in the ultimate battle of good against evil that there be a villainous Dark Lord. That’s why we have them. But stereotypes are shortcuts, cardboard cutouts, and the lazy writer’s way out of understanding a character. Nothing wrong with making me a Dark Lord. But make me a specific Dark Lord, with my own personality and my own issues. Then I will be an archetype. But if you can’t tell me apart from a host of other Dark Lords out there, I’m a stereotype.

TC: So, what is it that you are asking your author to do?

Dark Lord: Just give me the same amount of thought as you give your main character. It’s fine to make me evil, but keep me human. Make me more than just Dark Lord #21,403. Use the same character development lists for me as you use for the protagonist. You can even base me on people you know the same way you might your protagonist: what might drive you or someone you know over that line between good and evil? What characteristics of good do you or others have that could get twisted into something hideous, or even just into something twisted?

TC: Wait, I’m not evil… how can I base something evil on me?

Dark Lord: Mwahahaha! I think that is one reason I tend to end up so two-dimensional. Totally evil people are far removed from our own flaws. We might have cracks, but hey, we aren’t totally evil like that character, so that’s ok! People are often afraid to acknowledge their own flaws, their own cracks. Afraid that if they admit to having a bit of the beast in them, the beast will win. That’s human, too. But we all know there is a dark corner in everyone. If you allow your villain to have a bit of the hero inside, and your hero to have a bit of the villain inside, then both characters can connect with the reader on a much deeper level.

TC: Well, I think it is time to free myself from this trap now. Thanks for the long backstory and lecturing while I undid my bonds and let my friends in…

Dark Lord: Eh, well, some conventions are still hard to overcome. But be careful on the way out: my evil minions actually practice aiming and hitting their targets.

Final Poll Results

Stage and Scene: Finding Writing Tips in Acting Techniques

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

I’ve had the good fortune to take several acting classes from the Piven Theatre Workshop. While the classes are are fun and interesting in themselves, I find they also have offered me insight into writing well-constructed and interesting scenes. Here are some of the techniques I’ve learned that apply to writing as well as to acting.

Background Image: Jonathan Cutrer/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Keep Passing the Energy

A significant part of the Piven technique centers on theater games. Many of these games focus on keeping the energy in the room high, by passing it from person to person, trying to grow it with each pass.

Written scenes also need to keep passing the energy, or they start to feel flat. Have characters in a scene pass the energy between each other as they interact. This will keep the scene immediate and draw in the reader more than just dumping the energy into a single character until it fades, taking the reader’s interest with it. If a scene with multiple characters isn’t working, see if one of the characters is dropping the energy instead of passing it. For instance, if two characters are having a fight, keep the anger flowing between them somehow. An easy way to do this is to alternate the action and dialogue between the two. As they argue back and forth, let the energy grow. Escalate the verbal and physical actions in response to this growing energy. Don’t make the fight so one-sided that one of the participants might as well be out of the scene.

You can also pass energy from action to tension and back again. There is usually a natural point at which the impulse of the action changes. Let the shift grow organically from what is happening in the story. Don’t drop energy if the action slows. Instead, shift the energy into internal tension rather than external action. This is another way to keep the energy flowing and keep the reader engaged in the story. Consider our arguing couple. Perhaps one of the participants is yelling, and the other is sitting there not saying anything. That doesn’t mean they aren’t reacting. Think about how this situation might look on a stage. The person who is not responding could be fidgeting, deliberately hiding behind a newspaper, tapping a foot. Let your character do that sort of thing too, and grow the tension. An actor isn’t just standing frozen if he or she doesn’t have any lines. Even if there is little or no action, there is always some kind of interaction.

Interrupted Destination

When you are writing a scene with more than one character, you are probably focusing on just one of the characters in the scene. This is usually the scene’s point of view character or the main character of the story. This character has a set goal and encounters setbacks, and overcomes obstacles present by the other characters. But what about the secondary characters in the scene? Their goals and setbacks are not usually very well defined. How can you round out their actions?

One of the techniques I learned in scene study was the idea of interrupted destination. If you don’t have a clear action goal determined by the plot, find one. But make it one that is constantly interrupted by what is going on. For example, the scene may be one in which you are having an argument with another character. You set yourself a goal of putting on your coat and walking out the door. But each time you start to make progress with this, the argument gets in the way. You may only make it half-way to the closet, or end up with your arm through one sleeve, or, quite possibly, manage to open the door. It doesn’t matter that you don’t succeed—having the goal gives your character an immediacy that he or she wouldn’t otherwise have just standing there screaming at someone else.

The idea of interrupted destination can be used to add a lot of depth to your secondary characters. Think of each character as an individual actor in a play. Even if they only have bit parts, they need to do something other than just stand and speak lines. They don’t need to have a complex goal for the scene, but if each one has some action they want to achieve, and they are interrupted and interrupt each other, the scene will take on an amazing richness. Your secondary characters will also take on additional depth. You can also use the interrupted destination technique to give a major character a physical goal in a scene where the major goals are internal.

Staying in the Moment

When you have memorized lines that you recite multiple times, it becomes very easy to only act, and never react. You know someone is going to make you angry, so you act angry. You know someone will surprise you, so you act surprised. It’s easy to just say and behave the way you know you are supposed to rather than reacting to what is going on. Most people do this with conversations, too—rather than listening to what is being said, most people are thinking ahead to what they want to say. But if you allow your character to be in the moment, instead of anticipating what is ahead, suprising things can happen, and you can build a more genuine interaction.

This applies to writing as well. Your character needs to react as well as act. Your character needs to genuinely respond rather than always anticipating.

Good scene structure stays in the moment. A well-structured story alternates between doing and responding. Stories aren’t just a string of scenes. They are an alternating strings of scenes and sequels. The scene is the action, the sequel the reaction.

A good scene has the following structure:

  • Goal—What the main character wants to achieve.
  • Conflict—The obstacles the main character must overcome to reach the goal
  • Disaster—The character fails to reach the goal.

For example, the main character wants to avoid an argument by putting on her coat and leaving before her husband notices (goal). Her husband comes in, and asks where she is going (start of conflict). She doesn’t respond, and continues putting on her coat. Her husband starts to argue, then yell at her. Finally, he tells her if she leaves, she can’t come back (disaster).

Then the character reacts to the disaster in the sequel. The structure of the sequel is:

  • Reaction—This is what keeps things immediate. The character has an emotional reaction to the failure before taking further action.
  • Dilemma—The character faces some tough choices because of the failure. Have the character react genuinely to the situation, and work through the options.
  • Decision—None of the choices are ideal, but the character has to go with one of them anyway. Time to decide. And that leads the character to a new goal, and a new scene.

In the sequel to the argument scene, the wife is shocked (reaction). She has to decide if she will still leave, or stay and participate in the argument she is trying to avoid (dilemma). She finishes putting on her coat and walks out (decision).

Even on a smaller scale, the character still has to react to what is going on. There is nothing more boring than a play where it feels like the actors are reciting their lines in a set way, regardless of what other actors are doing. Shake up things for your characters so they can’t anticipate ahead of the action. Keep your characters in the moment. Foist an external event on your characters and see how they react first. Then have them act on that reaction.

The “What’s Between”

Another scene study concept that is useful to look at from a writing perspective is something called the “what’s between.” This is, in essence, an actor’s version of “show, don’t tell.” The idea is to act the scene with a hidden tension in it. There’s some secret the actors know that they aren’t sharing, and it comes out in the tension of the interaction. Think about the hidden things in your story whenever two characters interact, and see how you can use them to add tension and energy. For example, suppose you have a father meeting a son for the first time. The mother has agreed to this meeting on the condition the father does not reveal the truth. In what ways would the father act differently under these conditions than he might otherwise? In what ways does the strain of the secrecy come out in the dialogue? In the father’s actions? What tension does the son pick up on? What tension does he miss entirely? Thinking in this way, exploring the “what’s between” in your story and how you can use it to build tension and character, will add that extra dimension and depth to your scenes.

There’s a lot to be learned by studying good actors and good acting techniques. Next time you watch your favorite TV show or movie, see if you can pick up other ideas for enriching your writing.

Final Poll Results

Plot + Emotional Journey = Good Story Structure

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

For a long time, I’ve known that a good story is just as important as good writing. Or possibly more important. But what makes a good story? In search of what makes a good story good, I took an online class that focused on story structure and development. I found that just as good writing has some basic rules that writers should be aware of, good stories have a standard structure.

Most writers know that stories need a good plot. Plot is the sequence of physical events. Aristotle proposed a basic plot structure that should be present in a good story: the inciting event, the complications, the climax, the dénouement, and the resolution. Writers depending solely on Aristotle’s incline, however, risk missing half of what makes a story a good story.

Also critical to a good story is the emotional journey undertaken by the character. This journey is usually defined by the protagonist’s character flaw. And like plot, the emotional journey also has its defining moments. There is the backstory, where we are introduced to the protagonist, the crisis, where the protagonist’s main flaw sends the protagonist into inner turmoil, and the epiphany, where the protagonist confronts the flaw head on and either overcomes it or fails to overcome it. A story in which the protagonist fails to overcome the flaw is a tragedy.

The plot and the emotional journey do not work in isolation. Events drive the character, and the character’s emotional reactions drive events. The plot sequence meshes with the emotional journey sequence to form a solid story. A well-structured story will contain the following checkpoints, in order:

Plot + Emotional Journey = Good Story Structure

Act 1:

  • The Hook:
    Start the story with an exciting introductory action to draw the reader in.
  • The Backstory:
    Introduce the main characters and reveal the protagonist’s flaw (through action, not exposition!).
  • The Inciting Event, or Trigger:
    This is the defining event that starts the protagonist on both the emotional and physical journey. This event is generally instigated either directly or indirectly by the antagonist, the person or force acting against the protagonist.

Act 2:

  • The Crisis:
    The crisis is an inner moment of emotional turmoil caused by the triggering event and the protagonist’s flaw.
  • The Complication, or Struggle:
    The physical action that occurs as a result of the triggering event and the crisis is driven by external events and the character flaw. The action is mostly directed by the antagonist.
  • The Epiphany:
    This is the inner moment when the protagonist realizes he or she needs to change, and makes the conscious decision to overcome the character flaw.

Act 3:

  • The Plan:
    The protagonist has confronted the flaw, and can now move in a new direction. This ends the struggle, and allows the protagonist to find a potential solution to the main problem confronting him or her.
  • The Climax:
    The protagonist confronts the antagonist. The insight from the epiphany allows the protagonist to use the antagonist’s own character flaw against the antagonist. Whether protagonists ultimately triumph or fail in a climax depends on whether or not they were able to overcome their own character flaws.
  • The Ending, or Resolution:
    The effects of the climax are shown, and both the emotional journey and the plot are brought to a satisfying conclusion.

These acts are structure points, not space guidelines. They are not each meant to be one third of the story. Writers can spend varying amounts of time on each act. An act and a checkpoint should only be as long as they need to be.

In one story, Act 1 might be a paragraph, while in another, it might be several chapters. The crisis could be several paragraphs, or it could be a single sentence.

For most stories, the bulk of the writing will probably be in Act 2, with the struggles. The struggles should escalate until the character reaches the epiphany.

Act 3 is often short as well. Generally, you don’t want the plan to drag out. Once the character has reached the epiphany, things start to move quickly toward the climax, and then quickly from the climax to the end.

Putting it In Action

Let’s see how this structure works for one of the more popular stories of our time: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Here’s one way to break the story down into its checkpoints. (Disclaimer: These checkpoints are my interpretation of the story after the fact and may or may not agree with anything J.K. Rowling has thought about.)

Act 1 (3½ chapters)

  • Hook:
    The wizarding world is celebrating the defeat of the evil Lord Voldemort, and the infant Harry is left on the doorstep of his aunt’s house.
  • Backstory:
    Harry is bullied by his family, particularly his cousin. Also, strange things happen around him that make his aunt and uncle very angry. He is unsure of himself.
  • Trigger:
    Hagrid the giant reveals that Harry is the son of a wizard and a witch, and that he is to go to Hogwarts, a school for wizards. Harry’s Aunt Petunia accidentally reveals she’s known his past all along.

Act 2 (8½ chapters)

  • Crisis:
    Harry is shocked to find out the truth about his parents. He struggles to reconcile people’s expectations of him because of his past, and his own self-doubt and confused identity.
  • Struggle:
    Harry tries to find his place in the wizarding world. Mysterious events related to the Sorcerer’s stone occur, each one more dangerous than the last. Eventually Harry finds the Mirror of Erisid, which shows him his parents, and he becomes caught up in the identity he never had.
  • Epiphany:
    When he is caught at the Mirror or Erised by Dumbledore, Harry eventually realizes he has to learn to depend on himself and be who he is rather than the person he never was.

Act 3 (4 chapters)

  • Plan:
    Harry and his friends find out that Voldemort is back and is trying to steal the sorcerer’s stone. When they can’t find Dumbledore, they resolve to save the sorcerer’s stone themselves.
  • Climax:
    Harry and his friends navigate a series of magical challenges. At the end, Harry must leave his friends behind to face Voldemort by himself. Voldemort, who has possessed one of the teachers, tries to kill Harry, but touching Harry sends him into agony, and Harry defeats him simply by being who he is.
  • Ending:
    Harry becomes a hero to the school, and shows that he will not be as easily bullied when he returns home. This highlights his new-found confidence in himself.

Viewed through this structure, the story hangs together. There is a strong theme of accepting yourself for who you are that becomes apparent when you look at the different checkpoints. Notice, too, how the checkpoints related to Harry’s flaw of self-doubt about his identity. A lot of Harry’s struggles are directly related to his self-doubt and how it affects his interactions with the external events perpetrated by Lord Voldemort and his minions. He ultimately realizes his lack of identity (as represented by his parents) is fueling this self-doubt and that he must learn to accept himself as he is. And it is because of who he is that he is able to win in the end.

A Backbone, Not a Ball and Chain

I’ve heard people complain that using a story structure like this takes the creativity out of writing, and makes all stories sound the same. But the structure is actually very flexible, and not all checkpoints must have equal weight. For example, an action-adventure story would focus more heavily on the plot checkpoints than on the character’s emotional journey checkpoints, while a work of literary fiction would focus more heavily on the emotional journey checkpoints. The amount of time spent in each checkpoint can also vary widely.

Remember: This structure is the backbone of your story, not the flesh, and not chains wrapped around the flesh. Use the checkpoints to shape your story, not as your story. It should be deeply embedded in your writing rather than brought to the surface and made obvious. The emotional journey checkpoints should evolve naturally from the character flaw and plot checkpoints. When you plan for this to happen, your story is stronger and more satisfying.

Final Poll Results

Show and Tell 101

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

As a writer, you have probably at some point been given the advice to “Show, don’t tell.” What do people mean when they say this? What is showing? What is telling? When do you show and when do you tell?

There are two ways to create a scene. One way is to tell the reader what is happening outright. For example, suppose you are writing about a man who is worried because his wife is late, you might write:

John was worried. His wife had never been late for dinner before.

This is telling. Instead of saying telling the reader that John is worried, you can show it:

John glanced at his watch, then yanked the door open and looked out for the fifth time. Still no car. Where was she? Dinner grew cold.

When you show, you are conveying the worry through the actions and the specific thoughts, rather than through the label “worried.”

Background Image: Béliza Mendes/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Why “don’t tell”?

Historically, many writers relied heavily on narrative summaries, which are “telling” in nature, to get information to the reader. Writers would often introduce a lot of back story, or information about things that happened before the main action of the book. For example, in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the narrator introduces the reader to a complete history of the family in the first few pages:

Being Southerners, it was a source of shame to some members of the family that we had no recorded ancestors on either side of the Battle of Hastings. All we had was Simon Finch, a fur-trapping apothecary from Cornwall whose piety was only exceeded by his stinginess. In England, Simon was irritated by the persecution of those who called themselves Methodists at the hands of their more liberal brethren, and as Simon called himself a Methodist, he worked his way across the Atlantic to Philadelphia, thence to Jamaica, thence to Mobile, and up the Saint Stephens. Mindful of John Wesley’s strictures on the use of many words in buying and selling, Simon made a pile practicing medicine, but in this pursuit he was unhappy lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God, as the putting on of gold and costly apparel. So Simon, having forgotten his teacher’s dictum on the possession of human chattels, bought three slaves and with their aid established a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens. He returned to Saint Stephens only once, to find a wife, and with her established a line that ran high to daughters. Simon lived to an impressive age and died rich.

So if all these famous authors start out telling instead of showing, why should you show instead of tell? Styles change over time. The rather static but flowery language of previous eras has slowly shifted to the lean, dynamic writing today’s readers and editors prefer. Generally, you should start your story in the middle of the action to hook in the reader and bring them into the story. If you make readers wait for action, you run the risk of losing them before your story really starts. Large quantities of narrative summary do not work effectively as a hook.

Writers who are advised to “show, don’t tell” often overuse narrative summary, which makes the writing seem flat by today’s standards. Think of it this way: How long would you watch a movie where all that happens is a character sits and tells you stuff? No flashbacks, no visualizations, just the character sitting in a chair explaining things. If the explanations are interesting, you might watch for a while, but eventually you have to ask yourself, “Why isn’t this person doing anything?”

Why Show?

Generally, showing has far more emotional impact on the reader than telling does. Remember John, who is worried about his wife. As the reader watches John fidget, it’s possible to fidget with him. You give the reader the opportunity to feel the same worry and to identify with the character. By showing, you give the reader specific actions on which to focus the emotion. If you just say “he is worried,” the reader is more likely to think, “Ok, he’s worried,” and leave it at that.

Show, don’t tell, isn’t just good advice for conveying emotion in your narrative. You can also “show” in description and via dialog.

For example, consider this exchange between Dudley Dursley, Harry Potter’s obnoxious cousin, and his mother from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

Dudley, meanwhile, was counting his presents. His face fell.

“Thirty-six,” he said, looking up at his mother and father. “That’s two less than last year.”

“Darling, you haven”t counted Auntie Marge’s present, see, it’s here under this big one from Mommy and Daddy.”

“All right, thirty-seven then,” said Dudley, going red in the face. Harry, who could see a huge Dudley tantrum coming on, began wolfing down his bacon as fast as possible in case Dudley turned the table over.

This exchange effectively paints Dudley as greedy and spoiled.

Dialog can be used to reveal people’s characters. It can also be used to give information to the reader. This kind of dialog, if not handled well, can become a clunky form of telling. Consider how much information Van Helsing is giving the reader in the following exchange from Dracula by Bram Stoker:

“Here, there is one thing which is different from all recorded. Here is some dual life that is not as the common. She was bitten by the vampire when she was in a trance, sleep-walking, oh, you start. You do not know that, friend John, but you shall know it later, and in trance could he best come to take more blood. In trance she dies, and in trance she is Un-Dead, too. So it is that she differ from all other. Usually when the Un-Dead sleep at home,” as he spoke he made a comprehensive sweep of his arm to designate what to a vampire was ‘home’, “their face show what they are, but this so sweet that was when she not Un-Dead she go back to the nothings of the common dead. There is no malign there, see, and so it make hard that I must kill her in her sleep.”

This turned my blood cold, and it began to dawn upon me that I was accepting Van Helsing’s theories. But if she were really dead, what was there of terror in the idea of killing her?

He looked up at me, and evidently saw the change in my face, for he said almost joyously, “Ah, you believe now?”

When dialog tells too much, it’s often referred to as “As you know, Bob” dialog. “As you know Bob, I’m about to reveal some important information in a long piece of dialog.” (For tips on avoiding “telling” dialog, see Something to Talk About.)

How to Show

Showing is a powerful technique. How do you turn a “tell” scene into a “show” scene? One key is in using powerful verbs and nouns. In general, the fewer adjectives and adverbs you use, the less “tell-y” your writing will be.

For example, take John again, waiting for his wife. Compare the following sentences:

John looked nervously at his watch, then opened the door and looked out impatiently.

John glanced at his watch, then yanked the door open and looked out for the fifth time.

In the first sentence, the reader is once again being told how John feels. He feels nervous and impatient. While this is an improvement over the terse “John was worried,” it is still telling the reader what the emotions are. The second sentence moves the emotion right into the action. He glances, he yanks. He’s done this four times before.

Another way to show instead of tell is to invoke sensory description. Involve touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste where you can. The more you can draw the reader into the moment, the more powerful the scene will be.

Recognizing When You Tell

A big clue that you are over-telling is if you find yourself using the words was and felt. John was worried. He felt anxious. These are telling statements. Another is if you are using a lot of adverbs. John said anxiously, “Where is she?” He paced nervously. Look for places where you are explaining emotions. If they are important emotions, or important scenes, work on showing in these places.

It’s also possible to show, and then undercut your showing by summarizing what is going on. For example, if you wrote:

John glanced at his watch, then yanked the door open and looked out for the fifth time. Still no car. Where was she? Dinner was getting cold. John was worried that his wife wasn’t home.

you would be following your showing with a telling summary. When you are writing for adults or young adults, they already know John is worried because of the way he is acting. Telling the reader he is worried doesn’t add any new information. don’t underestimate your readers—don’t pull them out of the moment by explaining what you’ve already shown.

(Note: Writers will often both show and tell when they are writing for young children. Young children are not able to infer things the way adults and teens can. If you both show and tell what is going on in a scene, you help children to learn how to infer what is happening.)

When to Show and When to Tell

Most beginning writers rely heavily on telling to get their point across. This robs them of the immediacy that will pull the reader into the story. Because of this, “Show, don’t tell” has become a basic mantra for writers. But it isn’t always practical or even desirable to present an entire story by showing it all. An action movie with all action scenes will quickly exhaust the viewer. There need to be down times between the excitement to make the excitement meaningful.

In general you should SHOW when:

  • You want to make an emotional impact
  • You want to convey an image with your words
  • You want the reader to feel “in the moment”

In general you should TELL when:

  • You want to summarize relatively unimportant events
  • You want to convey events over a long range of time
  • You want to give the reader information the characters don’t know

Dos and Don’ts

  • Do show important scenes.
  • Do show more than you tell.
  • Do tell when it is appropriate
  • Don’t tell using dialog.
  • Don’t undercut your showing by summarizing the scene with telling sentences.

Final Poll Results