Here’s a mind-bender for you: the best story themes are both universal and unique. But how does that even work? How can you learn to how write unique themes that say something fresh and new—and yet are resonant to every person on the planet?
The last several books (bestsellers) I’ve read have had themes that were so obvious and timeworn. Four hundred pages of story just to make a point everyone agrees with. This drives me nuts…. Give me something timely, teach me something, make me look at something a new way, make me think/decide, say something controversial, but for crying out loud don’t let the moral of your story be something everyone already knows.
Although any thematic presentation is likely to be superior to a story with no theme, it’s true that phoned-in themes drastically weaken otherwise original stories.
We’ve all read a bazillion romances that didn’t have much to say beyond love is important or action stories that triumphantly recited good always wins. We’ve all read them, watched them, and for the most part, promptly forgotten them. The writing might otherwise have been pretty good—enjoyable characters, snappy dialogue, sharp plot. But because the themes were lavished with about as much thought as the quips in a fortune cookie, the stories never made us think. They found convenient, well-worn niches inside our memories, curled up, and went to sleep—never to be heard from again.
I don’t know about you, but that’s not where I want my stories to end up in my readers’ brains. And yet if you want to talk about a universal theme, let’s talk about this one: There’s nothing new under the sun.
How are you supposed to figure out how to write unique themes that steer away from clichés, stimulate readers’ minds, and enhance your plot and characters?
Can You Write Unique Themes?
Think of a unique theme. Yep. Right now. Just sit back for a sec and see how long it takes you to think of a totally original theme. I’ll do it too. Here’s ten hours of the Jeopardy theme song to help us out.
Jeopardy theme song [10 hours] - YouTube
Well, I got zilch. How about you?
Sure, I came up with what maybe seemed like a few unique angles. But underlying the specifics of any idea, there always seems to be some peskily simplistic and universal premise. Yep, there’s love, justice, mercy, pain, empowerment, death, hope, despair, deceit, truth, fear, and courage. Guess the Greeks covered it all back in 700 BC. The rest of us might as well pack it up and pack it in. No unique themes left for us to play with.
Fortunately, however, this is where the balance between unique themes and universal themes comes into play.
Life itself is universal. That’s inescapable. The narrative of life is one we all share.
And the result is the emergence of deeply archetypal patterns. The very structure of story and character arc are founded in the common personal experiences we all share. The reason these basic structural premises work is because we, as humans, resonate with them. If we changed them up too drastically, readers would fail to recognize them, fail to empathize them with, and, frankly, fail to care about them.
Archetypes go even deeper than story structure and character arcs. Life and death, parents and children, joy and suffering, mercy and cruelty, hope and despair—these and so many more are the fundamental premises of life itself. To write a story so unique that it avoided all these ideas is not only impossible, but ultimately pointless.
In contrast to everything the title of my post seems to be saying, I’m going to posit that themes never get old. I will never get tired of the victorious feeling I get from a story that tells me love conquers all or good is stronger than evil.
It’s not themes we get tired of. Rather, it’s the same themes being told in the same way by the same story. In short, it isn’t archetypal themes, plots, and characters that get old, but rather the ways in which they are combined.
3 Thoughts on How to Write Unique Themes
The difference between a unique theme and a hackneyed theme actually has much less to do with the theme itself than it does with the execution. Creating freshness and vibrancy doesn’t mean you have to posit something radical. It does mean whatever you posit must be radically and honestly personal to you. Tell me good triumphs over evil (again), and I may close the book yawning. Tell me good triumphs over evil as if your life depends on it—and I’ll remember you.
Here are four tips for refining your thematic ideas to find their most passionately and personally unique cores.
1. Look for Your Character’s Theme
Theme is always rooted in character. Your characters, specifically your protagonist, will tell you what your theme is about. Even if you try to tack on another theme, what your story is really about is whatever is at the heart of your character’s internal struggle.
This means you can’t just dream up some wild and unexpected thematic premise and squirt it onto your story like Dijon mustard onto a casserole. You have to start with what you’ve already got. Look at your character—who she is and what she wants—and look at what she’s doing in the plot.
Now look harder.
Let’s say you’re me and your writing a historical adventure story called Wayfarer (which, it so happens, I am). It’s a coming-of-age story about a kid who gets superpowers and runs around the city figuring out what it means to be the good guy and save the day.
On its surface, that’s a story about good versus evil, with maybe growing up thrown in as a side dish. Or maybe, like Spidey, he’s learning that with great power comes responsibility. All of those ideas are inherent within the story’s premise. But there’s nothing unique there. More to the point: there’s nothing personal there.
So we dig deeper. We look at what specific struggles this character is facing.
What does he want?
Why does he want it?
What is he willing to selflessly sacrifice to get it?
What is he willing to selfishly sacrifice?
What will he gain and what he will lose by the story’s end?
How will he have changed?
When asking yourself these questions about your character, the right answers probably won’t be immediately evident. You’ll have to think about them, roll them around in your brain. You’ll have to recognize and reject most of the obvious answers. In the process, you may find your conception of the character and plot evolving into something deeper right alongside your theme.
2. Look for Your Theme
Your characters will give you specific manifestations of the themes that are most pertinent to your plot. But your characters are really just extensions of you. To tap into the kind of passionate honesty that creates earnestly unique themes, you have to first ask yourself some probing questions.
1. What’s a Specific Question You’re Asking About Life Right Now?
Boring themes are answers. Love conquers all. Yawn. But reframe it as a question: Does love really conquer all? Once you find a question to which you honestly don’t know the answer, you know you’ve found an interesting thematic possibility.
Consider the issues that are most on your heart right now. What do you find yourself constantly chewing on? Maybe it’s a political or social question, or maybe it’s a deeply personal question about yourself or your relationships. Maybe it’s a question about an illness or work struggle you’re trying to figure out.
Whatever the case, I guarantee there’s grist for the mill right there. In writing about it honestly, you may just find some of your own answers along the way.
2. What’s a General Question You Feel You’re Always Asking About Life?
Don’t stop at the “little” life questions right there in front of your face. Look up and look out. What are the big questions that it seems like you’re always asking in one way or another?
I realized just this week that one of the themes that crops up again and again in my stories—and perhaps most blatantly in Wayfarer—is that of identity. My characters are always asking who they are and what their purpose is. Although I don’t deliberately insert this premise into my stories, it’s always there because it’s central to many of the questions I slowly ponder in the back of my own mind all the time.
3. What’s a Virtue You Feel Is Undervalued?
If you’re writing a story with a Positive Change Arc and a happy ending, then your theme will probably focus on affirming a virtue—love, courage, justice, mercy, kindness, self-sacrifice. If this so, don’t just pick the obvious one—love for romance and courage for action. Instead, choose one that is important to you and that you feel is either undervalued in the world or underrepresented in fiction.
Cap sincerely tells a frustrated Tony Stark, “I don’t mean to make things difficult.”
To which, Tony gripes ironically, “I know, because you’re a very polite person.”
Tony Stark Tries To Convince Cap To Sign | Captain America Civil War (2016) Movie Clip - YouTube
It made me realize two reasons why Cap is one of my favorite characters in recent stories.
1. His politeness is actually very unique. Few modern characters—much less action protagonists—are noted for their politeness. It fills a gap that most of us probably didn’t even realize was there.
2. As a “very polite” person myself, I resonate with him. Since it’s a “virtue” I appreciate, I both enjoy sharing the commonality with a character onscreen and seeing a character admirably balance the difficult aspects (being polite without turning into a pushover with no boundaries).
Make a list of the top five virtues or good qualities you value in others and try to cultivate in yourself. How can you thematically explore the difficulties, downfalls, and rewards of these traits in an honest way?
4. What’s a Vice That Scares You?
Where there’s a virtue, there’s a vice. Maybe you’re writing a dark story with a Negative Change Arc. Or maybe you just want to explore the downfall of your antagonist. Either way, consider the flipside of your favorite virtues. What are the vices you see that really get under your skin? Murder, rape, child abuse, substance abuse—those are all big ones. But look at the littler ones too—white lies, verbal insensitivity, maybe even workaholicism.
Look specifically for something that gives you a visceral reaction. If it scares you deep in the pit of your stomach, you know you have to write about it. Or, if it’s a lesser vice, maybe it’s just something that irks you, that makes you hot under the collar, that makes you want to lash back with some equally unattractive vice of your own.
We all deplore the actions human take that hurt one another—from war right on down to petty shoplifting. But don’t mount a moral high horse just because it’s obvious. Choose a vice that has personal significance for you—and use your writing to find out why.
3. Ground Familiar Themes in Fresh Milieus
Consider some of the stories you’ve read lately that just don’t have that nice clean fresh smell. Chances are good this is not because you’ve already seen this particular character, plot, or theme too many times before—but rather because you’ve seen all of them together too many times before.
Original stories are rarely stories that blare their uniqueness in every aspect. Instead, they’re stories that take a fresh look at otherwise familiar elements.
Star Wars was famously a new riff on westerns.
The Book Thief is a predictable Holocaust story that became beloved because of its earnestness and its unexpected narrator.
The Princess Bride is an utterly familiar fairy tale told in a completely unfamiliar way.
Arguably, none of the themes in these stories is unique. But the stories themselves feel fresh because the messages and milieus used to convey the themes are unexpected.
Archetypal characters, plots, and themes will never grow old. As long as humans are living, loving, fighting, wondering, suffering, laughing, and dying—the fundamental things apply.
But if you find yourself writing a certain type of story that always portrays a certain type of theme, stop and question yourself.
Would this theme have something better to say in a different story, a different genre, a different plot?
Or, conversely, would a different theme make everything else about this story absolutely pop?
Finding the right theme for the right story is the secret to writing stories that are universal and yet feel utterly unique and original. Don’t give up until find one!
My mom tells me I’m going to put myself out of business with that title.
But, seriously, I mean it. Don’t let anybody tell you how to write. Not me. Not Stephen King. Not Writer’s Digest. Not Aristotle.
This is actually a huge problem among writers. I know because I’ve spent my own fair share of time walking that dusty, crowded path marked with prominent neon billboards that flash assurances of The Right Way. It adjoins Shortcut to Success and is littered with historical tourist hot spots promising you’re about to walk in the very footsteps of such idols as Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, Madeleine L’Engle, Dean Koontz, Margaret Atwood, and G.R.R. Martin.
If only you’ll just follow this one path, doing it exactly the way everybody else did it before you, then you’re sure to reach the pot of gold at the end of the journey.
And if you deviate? If you feel the call of your own creativity, your own individuality and originality? If you go wandering off-road?
Well, God help you. Everybody knows you’re doomed, because everybody knows you can’t write a good story and be a real writer unless you do it that one very specific right way.
And the only way to to find the “right” way is to kneel at the feet of the greats (and sometimes not-so-greats) and let them tell you exactly how to do it.
Strangely enough, I find myself in the weird position where people actually look at me like I know what I’m doing and ask me to tell them how to do it.
So if you’re going to listen to anything I tell you about how to be an author, then listen to this one thing: don’t listen to me.
In Which I Take Back Everything I’ve Ever Said (Including That Last Sentence)
Okay, okay, so a little facetious fun aside, let’s talk seriously here.
What I’m really saying is this: There’s a huge difference between learning responsibly from other writers and letting them tell you (directly or indirectly) how to write.
We writers are a funny bunch. Actually, here’s a joke I just made up: If you take a human being, with all his or her crazy dichotomous conundrums and contradictions, and put him or her under a microscope, what do you a get?
A writer, of course.
(And, yeah, okay, so I won’t go out for stand-up anytime soon.)
Perhaps one of the greatest dichotomies of being a writer is that we start out as inherently freewheeling creative individuals. You have a story that beats in your breast. You have words in your mouth. You are an inventor, a philosopher, a lover, and a fighter—all rolled into one pulsing, passionately imaginative need to express yourself.
And yet, ironically, as we foray deeper and deeper into the actual craft of being a writer, most of us feel compelled to become conformists.
This is so for a couple of reasons:
1. Writing Is Complicated and Difficult
In the writing wilderness, it’s easy to get lost, scared, and overwhelmed. I venture that almost all writers—even outright geniuses—feel at some point that suffocating burden of not knowing how to say what they want to say. Scratch that, sometimes we don’t even know what it is we want to say.
Perhaps that’s the greatest irony of being a writer right there: our purpose on this earth is to express ourselves and yet—we can’t. Never entirely anyway.
We want someone to help us. We want to learn from the accrued wisdom of those who have gone before us. And this is relatively easy because…
2. Writing and Storytelling Follow Logical Patterns
For all that writing often feels like this mystical, muse-touched experience, it is actually an extremely sensible discipline. The untrained eye might look at an excellent story and believe it just happened—it just popped from the writer’s brain, fully formed and Athena-like. But the more you study the many techniques that come together to create a story—and indeed the patterns found across the spectrum of all successful stories—the more you realize writing well is something that can be learned.
And if they know secrets you do not—secrets that are otherwise keeping you from writing better stories with less stress—then why in heaven’s name would you not let them tell you how to write?
Indeed, as far as I’m concerned, that’s all to the good. What’s not good is when we move from the admirable open-mindedness of gleaning information from other writers to the scared and stunted mindset of believing we must do what we are told—or else.
Structures Aren’t the Destination, But Rather the Vehicle
I talk a lot about the balance of logic and creativity in artistic pursuits. A couple weeks ago, I posted “6 Steps for Thinking Clearly” as a writer. I love logic. I love linearity. I love systems and structure. They just make everything so much easier. They clear the clutter, emphasize the meaning and patterns within what might otherwise be a chaotic dump of information, and streamline the hardest parts of life.
In short, logic in all its forms is that shortcut we talked about earlier. When we understand what’s going on—what road we’re on and where it’s headed—it often gives us enough of an overview to avoid unnecessary roadblocks, inconvenient detours, and pointlessly meandering scenic routes. We can immediately identify the best route to our end goal and get there in the fewest number of steps with the least amount of hassle.
This is why story theory—specifically that of structure—is so endlessly valuable to writers. It removes the guesswork about where we’re going or what’s blocking us, and allows us to surge ahead with confidence and support. This is also true when it comes to narrative principles such as show vs. tell, genre guidelines, and even marketing trends.
It’s just super-nice to have someone come along, take us by the hand, and show us the path that worked for them and for others.
That’s all great.
The problem is this: logical constructs only work as a means, not an end.
We impose rules and limits on creative ideas to help us better understand them, to better define their edges. Stories are so much more than their structures, just as the writing life is so much more than its “rules.”
What this means is that however many tools your fellow writers may be able to lend you, they cannot and should not dictate what you build or how you build it.
8 Ways to Learn Responsibly
Learning responsibly how to write is not the same as being told how to write. The former is dynamic, evolving, and life-affirming; the latter is, bluntly, brainwashing. The former enables curious artists who push their own boundaries as well as those of the art form; the latter churns out automatons who lack the motivation and courage to pursue either individuality or originality.
I’ve realized lately that even more than becoming a good writer, I want to become a good student. The one, I believe, leads inevitably to the other.
Whereas the emphasis on being a good writer (or good whatever) sometimes indicates definitive ideas of success or failure, the emphasis on being a good student is different. When you focus on being a student, you accept the inherent realization that there is no specified destination. There is no “making it.” There is only the journey. And that means you have space in which to harmonize the dance between “the way to do it” and an infinite number of alternatives.
Here are some guidelines:
1. Learn the “Rules”
Whenever a writer goes off on a diatribe about non-conformism (like this one), it’s hard to avoid sounding a little anti-establishment. But as I’ve said before, this isn’t a total sum game. This isn’t a question of being for or against the principles of the craft. Writing is a craft. It is a discipline. It follows established patterns and principles. Accomplished authors understand, accept, and love the patterns of story.
2. Respect the Art (More Than the Artist)
Ever noticed how many writers—especially the super-successful ones—often offer conflicting bits of advice?
In many instances, this is because writers themselves don’t fully and consciously understand their craft. Sometimes, this is especially true when it comes to their own stories or processes.
Does this mean you shouldn’t listen to them? Not at all. But it does mean that sometimes the greater truths will come not from the authors’ mouths but from their pens. Instead of looking to other authors for the “secret” to great storytelling, look to the great stories to see if you can figure out the secret.
3. Take Nothing for Granted
By all means listen to what other writers are saying. Piggybacking on the understanding and experience of other people is one of the most exciting blessings of life. But (and this is may be the most important but in the whole article) don’t ever take anything for granted. Just because Stephen King says it doesn’t automatically mean it’s true. Taking the words and ideas of other writers as gospel is a sure sign you’re shutting down your own ability to think, not just logically, but creatively.
4. All Information is Good, No Information is Final
Information is information. It always tell us something. Even when a piece of information is categorically wrong, it’s still telling us something. The mark of a student is an open mind. And the essence of an open mind is the ability to hold information loosely—forming opinions on it but being willing to adjust those opinions as new information filters into the picture.
5. Hone Your Powers of Observation
We often think of learning responsibly as sitting with a book and ingesting facts. This is true, of course. But this is perhaps the more stagnant half of learning, since in these instances, we are essentially being told what to think.
Balance this ingestion of information against your own powers of observation. Stand back and look at the big picture.
Look at the patterns you see in the books you’ve read.
Look for the things that ring true over and over in the advice you read, versus the things that ring false.
Look for the places where the advice of your favorite authors is exemplified in their own writing—and where it is contradicted.
When someone tells you the sky is blue, make sure you go outside and look.
6. Cultivate Self-Awareness and Self-Honesty
While logic may not come as naturally as creativity, it is actually much easier to learn, thanks to its linear nature. Creativity, on the other hand, is easy to take for granted.
An idea pops into your head and—pow! you’re creative! Nothing more to it.
But that’s entirely true.
Disciplined creativity is not random and is often not first-blush. Rather, it is a by-product of perhaps the greatest discipline of all—the ability to be aware of one’s self and what one finds there. Ask yourself:
7. Don’t Be Afraid of Having Your Own Opinions, But Don’t Afraid of Letting Them Go
The “rules” of writing are long-established and well-respected—to the point they can often seem too intimidating to question.
But never be afraid of having your own opinions. You think story structure is garbage? Good for you!
But never take your opinions (or, more specifically, your own understanding of your opinions) for gospel, anymore than you do another writer’s opinions. It’s hard to master anything if your ego keeps getting in the way—whether through self-negation or self-glorification.
Hold yourself most loosely of all.
8. View the Mastery of Writing (and Life) as Long-Term Projects
There are many practical reasons why you shouldn’t let others tell you how to write. Perhaps the greatest of all is this: writing is a ultimately a discovery of one’s self. And nobody can tell you how to do that. As Sage Cohen writes in Fierce on the Page:
Writing and life are long-term projects. The destinations can be ambiguous and hard to reach.
She also says:
We don’t live in our lives but in the stories we tell about our lives.
Learn to tell your stories with honesty, integrity, and a never-ending sense of creativity and curiosity. There are no greater gifts a writer brings to the world than these.
When we think of creativity, we usually think of light and color, happiness and freedom. That’s the upside of living the creative life of a writer. But there’s a dark side too—one we don’t always like to talk about. And that dark side can be encapsulated in two words: judgment and perfectionism.
There’s a controversial running joke in the writing community about “grammar thugs.” The joke is a denigration of those among us who feel compelled to point out other writers’ (or sometimes poor, hapless non-writers’) spelling and grammar mistakes.
The controversy, of course, enters in that it seems irresponsibly hyperbolic to compare violent criminals (or worse) to someone’s annoying “it’s Levi-OOH-sa, not LevioSAR.”
But as in most jests, there’s a note of truth, however small, to be had here.
This notable tendency among writers to inflict public smackdowns upon each other over nothing more than a few misplaced letters (and, yeah, I know some of you are cringing at the idea that misplaced letters are “nothing”) is not indicative of the higher emotions that sometimes flutter in the human breast. Indeed, our willingness and even need to judge others and demand perfection from them is, in fact, an indication of even more substantial roadblocks to our own creative and personal journeys.
The upshot is this: writers are a judge-y lot. But, in truth, we judge no one more harshly than we judge ourselves.
(Note: Before moving on, let me just throw out a quick clarification that there’s a huge difference between grammar thugs who publicly humiliate others over mistakes it’s too late too correct versus writers who kindly watch out for each other by privately providing the heads-up about a typo or mistake that can still be fixed. To anyone who has ever emailed or messaged me about a typo in a post: thank you!)
Who Are You Really Judging—Others or Yourself?
While reading Sage Cohen’s inspirational book Fierce on the Page, I had to stop and muse over the painful familiarity of her anecdote:
The reader had given me a five-star review of my book. She spent a few paragraphs raving about all she had learned, and then she dedicated the entire second half of the review to venting about a typo that displeased her. Reading this review brought me back to my own long and circuitous journey living alongside the inevitability of mistakes.
Certainly, I’ve been on the receiving end of such unbalanced criticisms. But I’ve also been on the giving end. When first starting out as a writer, and particularly before I was published, I felt a certain measure of credibility in being able to point out other people’s mistakes. I remember with regret an early review I left for a self-published book in which I said something vague but cutting along the lines of “the editor should have been horsewhipped.”
Too, I’ve stamped my ticket and taken my seat in that crowded rowboat bobbing its way on an endless journey to the Isle of Indignant Typo-Spotters. How dare Random House be so careless as to release a book with such a glaring atrocity as “she walked to the the window”?
And if the offender was a lowly self-publisher? Well, then, of course, I must bear the responsibility of hammering them with my own wisdom in order to improve their faults.
But here’s the interesting thing: I was just as hard on myself. My own mistakes were devastating. I was humiliated when people pointed out typos. I was distraught when beta readers didn’t think my characters were well-developed. I measured my success or failure, not just as a writer but as a person, on the success or failure of my book launches and reviews.
Here’s the other interesting thing: as my personal journey has led me into the ability to show myself grace and compassion, to relinquish perfectionism as a mistaken means to an unachievable end, and to stop viewing writing (and life) as a zero-sum game of success or failure—then so, too, have I found myself surrendering the need to judge others in equal measure.
In short, our judgment of others is almost always a symptom of a deep-seated judgment of ourselves.
The Inherent Roadblock of Judgment and Perfectionism
Ironically, writers often see perfectionism as an antidote to the sting of self-judgment.
We think it makes us, well, perfect. Or at the very least, it keeps us competitive with excellent writers. We think it is the only way to shut up the harpings our “always right” internal editors. But really, perfectionism just makes us paranoid, gives us writer’s block, and kills our creativity.
Perfectionism is not the antidote to judgment. It is not a counter-balance designed to ensure there is nothing to judge. Rather, it is judgment at its most extreme.
Perfectionism judges everything and finds everything wanting.
We embrace this judgment in the belief it will enhance and refine our creativity. But the opposite is true. Perfectionism is poison.
I recently listened to an interview with sociology professor Kathryn J. Lively, who shared the deep insight that:
Judgment and curiosity cannot live in the same place.
Creativity is founded on curiosity. Creativity is much more the ability to ask questions, rather than the need to provide answers. This is true at every level of the writing process, all the way from “What makes a sucessful story?” to “What if my character did this?” to “What if this unexpected thematic premise were true?” to “What if releasing a book with a glaring mistake really didn’t matter?”
Yeah, I know that last sounds radical. But, seriously, ask yourself: What if it didn’t matter? What if it didn’t matter if people liked your book? What if it didn’t matter if the book got trashed in reviews?
I’m not saying it doesn’t matter—but what if?
Isn’t there a sense of freedom just in the act of asking and exploring?
The Why and the Who: Why Are You Doing This? and Who Are You Listening To?
Most of our perfectionism and self-judgment is fueled less by our own ideals and more by what other people seem to be telling us our ideals should be.
We hear all these messages and more every single day. And we listen to all of them. We want to succeed. We want to write excellent and worthwhile stories. We want to make a difference in the world. We want the promises inherent in all these statements to be true.
That first moment you set foot in the writing world, you were undoubtedly bombarded with these mission statements about what it means to be a true writer—and what you had to do to become one. Mostly, it all boiled down to “following the club rules.” You have to write this way, market this way, and want what everybody else in the group wants.
Maybe you do want that. And maybe you don’t.
Something I’ve realized in the last few years is that many of the things I’ve done along the way are things I did with no real desire or enjoyment, but just because I was told I had to do them if I wanted to be the Best Writer Ever.
There is no endeavor in life so deeply and intimately personal as the act of creation. There is no one who can tell you why you’re doing it and what you really want from it. Only you can know that. The problem is that we are often so used to listening to others tell us what we want that our own inner voices fade away.
The irony is that much of our self-judgment is based on desires we don’t even really want and ideas we don’t even really believe in.
Don’t let anyone judge you for what you’re wanting or doing until you really, really know what it is you actually want and how you want to do it. Paulo Coelho shared beautifully:
I write from my soul. This is the reason that critics don’t hurt me, because it is me. If it was not me, if I was pretending to be someone else, then this could unbalance my world, but I know who I am.
Ask Better Questions Than “Is This Good?”
One of the reasons perfectionism is so crippling is because it is so limiting. Perfectionism blocks out the exploratory curiosity that allows us to ask helpful questions about our work. Instead, it limits us to one question and one question only: “Is this any good?”
We are often paralyzed by the starkness presented by the only two possible responses to this question. Someone recently emailed me, asking:
How do you stay focused on your calling to be a writer when it feels terrifying? There’s a type of creating—the fun kind—where we work on a project through meals and just baaarrreely remember to get up and go to the bathroom. And then there’s this other kind of creativity where we contemplate using ratchet straps to hold ourselves to our keyboard because we so desperately want to run away.
After a lot of thought, I responded:
This is a good question, and frankly one that’s tricky to answer. I think this is because there isn’t a black-and-white answer. In the past, I would have said something about “willpower, old boy, willpower,” and how we just have to grit our teeth and power through the difficult times.
I still believe this. But in the last few years, life has taught me a lot, not least of which is the importance of being kind of ourselves, of realizing that however important our writing may be to us, it is not the be-all-end-all. Taking care of ourselves, listening to our resistance, understanding why things are difficult without beating ourselves up for it—these are all important steps toward healthy balance.
What keeps me writing, day in and day out, is the question: Who do I want to be?
When all the dust settles, do I want to be the person who gave up on her dreams? Who gave up on trying to contribute something worthwhile to the world? Who gave up on creating? The answer, of course, is no. So while I also try to be more generous with myself in giving myself permission to take time off when I really need it, I’m also determined that what I’m doing is worth doing every single day, even when it’s hard.
Stop asking binary dead-end questions. Start asking open-ended questions that lead to growth rather scaring you with their finality. Freelance author Steve Goodier offers some good starting places:
Still the voices of your critics. Listen intently to your own voice, to the person who knows you best. Then answer these questions: Do you think you should move ahead? How will you feel if you quit pursuing this thing you want to do? And what does your best self advise? What you hear may change your life.
Perfectionism vs. Professionalism
So here we are—at the end of a post in which I’ve been going on and on about ditching perfectionism. Don’t worry if you’re a slob! Don’t worry if your book has typos! Don’t worry if readers hate what you’ve written!
Yeah, I know. As much as you may want to slay the perfidious perfectionism beast and kick ruthless self-judgment to the curb—you also want to produce clean copy, strong stories, and purring readers.
There’s a happy medium to be found between perfectionism at one end and apathy at the other. The difference is between caring and caring too much. It is the difference between perfectionism and professionalism. One is unreasonable and unattainable; the other is not. Perfectionism says any mistake is an unmitigated disaster. Professionalism, however, has different aims.
Professionalism wishes to create polished, excellent products (be it stories, blogs, or even public personae), but if it’s to succeed, it must incorporate the grace and flexibility to bounce back from its own mistakes. Perfectionism says any typo is the Black Spot. Professionalism says it’s one misplaced letter in a sea of millions. Professionalism fixes the mistake if can and moves on if it can’t.
A mistake isn’t the end of the world (unless you’re Matthew Broderick). Learn to judge yourself with exactly the right amount of force. Be specific; never be melodramatic. And always be kind. Be cheerful.
You made a mistake. All that means is you must now fix it. It does not mean you are a failure or unlovable.
Nineteenth-century American writer Elbert Hubbard put it perfectly:
The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.
As an infamously vivid dreamer, I often find myself waking up with this surging certainty that my subconscious just gave me the best story ever.
One of my most memorable dreams featured an end-of-the-world plot. Aliens were coming! Asteroids were coming! Klaxons were blaring. People were running around madly. I think the theme from Armageddon might even have been playing.
Time was running out, and there was only one way to save the world. So our brave heroine did what no one else had the brains or the guts to do in this last minute of need. She ran up to the very top of the space observatory, which the aliens would be bombing any minute.
And… she grabbed a container of sour cream and started carefully spreading it over every inch of the floor. It was the only way, after all.
My “sour cream” dream has become my single favorite example of how insane my sleeping mind can get. It’s also a perfect example of why the garblings of our subconscious brains—however vivid and emotionally charged—do not by themselves create good stories, much less good writing.
If I had a donut for every time I floated back to consciousness with the emotional certainty that I had a great story idea, only to have my logical brain come back online and snort at me—I’d never have to make breakfast again.
Our macro journeys as writers often aren’t so different. When we first start writing, all we have is a vivid idea that charges us on some emotional level. We throw it onto the page and have a ball doing so. And then… our logical brains come back online and snort at it.
We start out believing writing is nothing but creativity, glorious creativity. And we end by learning that, in fact, historian David McCullough (in one of my all-time favorite quotes) nailed it:
Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.
Writing Mastery: When the Subconscious Becomes Conscious
Why do we care about story theory? Grammar? Optimized writing processes?
If writing was nothing but the rainbow-vomiting of creativity, we wouldn’t need any of those things. We’d need no systems, no structures, no processes.
I have long considered [writing] to be the art of repair through language. In my own literary cosmology, it seems to me that we restore ourselves and our world by arranging the fragments of experience, memory, invention, and emotion into a mosaic of meaning through which we transcend the parts and move into unexpected wholeness.
Many of us start out as writers and storytellers with at least some modicum of talent. Talent is a gift from the subconscious. We don’t think about it. We don’t earn it. We just get to cash it in, like an inheritance from a great-uncle we barely remember.
As McCullough warned, getting the subconscious and the conscious to play nice is work. But it’s some of the most gratifying work in the world. That place within you where you start to see and understand your own mind is beyond rewarding. Who needs donuts anymore?
6 Ways for Writers to Begin Thinking Clearly
It should come as no surprise that the art of linear, logical thinking is itself very linear and logical. Indeed, thinking clearly is a conscious mastery all its own. Today, let’s take a look at six steps you, as a writer, can take to specifically optimize your ability to share vivid and coherent dreams with your readers.
1. Inhale Information
Here’s where it all starts. You can’t think clearly if you don’t have something to think about. This is true of logical premises, and it is true of creative premises. I’ve talked previously about stuffing your brain with images. You also need to stuff your brain with stories.
The entire concept of story theory is based on recognizing and interpreting the patterns that show up universally in good stories. The more stories you’ve ingested, across multiple mediums, the more accurate your pattern recognition will be.
More than that, as a writer, there is no information of any sort that cannot be utilized to create facsimiles of and conjectures about life. Become an information vacuum. The more you know, the better you think, the better you write.
2. Begin With an Emotional Premise
Just as the subconscious is the foundation for the conscious, feeling begets thinking. (I differentiate between feeling and emotion, with feeling being deeper-seated and more fundamentally primal and individualistic, while emotion is a product that arises from feeling but is also influenced by other forces, including physical well-being.)
Feelings tell us what is important to us. They tell us what we care about enough to think about. Or write about.
It’s true feelings can get cluttered up along the way. What they initially seem to be telling you may not, in fact, be true. But there’s always a truth at their core. Dig deep enough and honestly enough, and you’ll find that truth.
3. Identify Your Purpose at Every Level of the Story
What are you trying to say with this story?
What are you trying to say with this scene?
What are you trying to say with this sentence?
These are the logical questions you should be asking at every step of the process. If you don’t know the answers, who does?
Purpose is the guiding light of intelligible writing. When McCullough says writing well is thinking clearly, what he’s really saying is that the process of clear thinking will enable you to identify your purpose and then choose only scenes, sentences, and words that support that purpose.
It’s like sculpting a statue. You won’t know which bits of clay to scrape away until you know what must remain in order to form something that looks like Julius Caesar or Napoleon.
It’s totally possible to do this retroactively. Maybe when you first sit down, you have idea who you’re going find in that hunk of clay. You start poking and scraping and voila!—a nose. But at some point, your conscious brain will need to narrow its focus and choose its unifying purpose.
4. Asking the Right Questions
Once you’ve come up with a powerful story idea and narrowed it to a conscious mission statement, you’re ready to start drilling for oil. At this point, you’re not so much looking for the right answers but rather the right questions. Find the right question, you’ll find the right answer.
There are several different techniques you can use at this stage:
1. Brain Dump
Empty your brain. Throw it all out there. Root around in the dark cobwebby corners and see what you find.
Freewriting is a great way to do this. Cohen again:
Freewriting is a practice of nonattachment. You write words on a page, for a set period of time, without stopping. The point is to generate without forethought, to move beyond your judging and editing mind, to simply move freely across a page. For the pleasure of it. For the momentum of it. To witness yourself in motion, and to discover the knowing beneath your thinking that pours out of your body when you let it.
2. Posit Truths But Don’t Hold Them
At this point, you’re trying to discover what you know about this story. So make definitive statements (“this is a story about children affected by divorce” or “this character is an amnesiac spy”), but don’t lock them into your brain yet.
Get inside these ideas and live in them for a little while. Ask questions about them. Look at them from every angle. But if something isn’t working out—if it doesn’t feel right or make sense—don’t be afraid to abandon it.
Clear thinking is largely a process of elimination.
3. Listen to Your Instincts
However important it is to consciously master your stories, you will never have a greater or more accurate crystal ball than your subconscious. Listen to your gut instincts. If you feel good about a choice, it’s probably the right one. However, if you’ve come to what you think is a sensible conclusion, and yet there’s some little niggle that doesn’t quite sit right, listen to that. Take a closer look. That feeling is a red flag signaling a weak spot that needs further investigation.
5. Recognize Patterns and Use Them as Shortcuts
There’s one simple reason writers find comfort in such ideas as story structure. Story structure (and other theories based upon acknowledged patterns of logic) provide us a bumper lane in which to practice our own critical thinking skills.
This is not to say you should take these patterns for granted or that you should never try to think your way beyond them. Probably you’ll think yourself right back into them because there is a reason they’re looked to as authoritative. But you will have gained a personal understanding of the inside and outside of the posited formula. There’s a great quote I love from mathematician and statistician George E.P. Box:
All models are wrong; some models are useful.
Once you’re comfortable operating within the relative accuracy of any particular model, you can then use its pre-established theories as shortcuts to bounce from logical question to logical question. For example, once you’ve gained a foundational knowledge of story structure, you can start using plot points as road markers to help you identify where you’re at in a story, what should be happening here, and where you may be going wrong.
6. Hack Your Brain
Thinking clearly is incredibly fun and empowering. But like any discipline, it requires focus and effort. If you can optimize little hacks along the way to make it easier to sink into a mental flow state, so much the better.
1. Organize Your Writing Process Into Chunks of Creativity and Logic
Brainstorming is creative, outlining is logical, drafting is creative, revision is logical.
There is, of course, crossover. But by trying to optimize different parts of your brain at different parts of the process, you can get out of your own way and let your mind work at optimum capacity.
2. Manage Your Energy
Don’t fool yourself: mental work is exhausting. Sitting at the computer and thinking is not the same as just sitting. This is why it’s often so hard to sit and write for two hours after a hard go at the day job.
Life is always busy, and scheduling is always challenging. But wherever possible, focus on managing your mental energy.
Try to integrate writing into your life in a way that taps your best energy. This might mean:
Writing at the same time every day.
Writing in public places.
Writing to specific types of music.
Writing in bursts between other activities.
Dictating while jogging.
Don’t stop until you find the right system for you, and then don’t stop using it.
3. Get Out of Your Body
Speaking of jogging, make time not to think.
Remember, mastery is a harmony between conscious and subconscious. That means you must give your subconscious a chance to work. It needs downtime in order to process new information and churn out new ideas and conclusions.
If you find your energy consistently resistant to sitting down and writing, it could be because your subconscious needs some downtime. Find a “creative lollygagging” activity that will calm your mind and free up your energy.
Take a nap.
Color in an adult coloring book.
Go the movies.
Weed the garden.
Wash the dishes.
4. Try Alpha Waves
Music that incorporates alpha waves or binaural beats is fantastic for calming your energy and focusing your mind. Whenever I find myself feeling stressed or distracted, I’ll type “alpha waves” into YouTube’s search. I’m still amazed by how instantaneously it settles my energy and focuses my mind.
Study Music Alpha Waves | Studying Music | Concentration Music | Focus Music for Work Brain Power - YouTube
One of the greatest joys of being a writer is crafting powerful scenes by putting together one coherent sentence after another. It’s a feeling of power and clarity that’s hard to match. In the early days of writing, it might seem like achieving this rarefied “in the zone” experience is a random gift. But it doesn’t have to be. Learning to hone your mind and organize your thoughts is the first step toward writing purposefully and clearly on the page.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go figure out how to make that sour-cream sequence a little more logical.
If plot, character, and theme are the foundational underpinnings of story itself, then they must be present in every scene as well, right? But that gets tricky. How can you make sure these elements are doing their job in every scene? And if they’re not present in every scene, does that necessarily mean the scene is problematic?
That first question was put to me this week in an email from Dennis Tannenbaum. It immediately pinged my storytelling radar, because, frankly, it’s not something I’ve ever specifically considered on the scene level.
Today, however, I want to dive down and take a closer look, not so much at scene structure, but at how the story should look down on the ground level, scene by scene.
1. Plot on the Scene Level
Plot is the external conflict that moves the story’s physical events. At it’s most basic, plot is what happens in the story. The good guy fights the bad guy, gets the girl, hurrah, hurrah. That’s plot.
Cohesive plot is executed through application of story structure. There are many different perspectives and explanations of story structure, but all boil down to essentially the same thing: pursuit of a goal that arcs through the basic steps of Set-Up, Conflict, and Resolution. (I talk about this in-depth in my books Structuring Your Novel and its freebie “sequel” 5 Secrets of Story Structure).
This is the big picture of plot. But what about the little picture? What about plot on the scene level?
Plot is perhaps the easiest part of our story trifecta to double check on the scene level. Scenes are, essentially, mini stories of their own. As a result, they follow their own structural and emotional arcs. When properly constructed, they form the links that, in turn, construct the chain of the larger plot.
The best and simplest way to approach scene structure is to view every scene as requiring two halves to make a whole. You can think of these mates as any or all of the following:
In plotting my own stories, I find this approach endlessly useful for the simple reason that it provides both consistent cause and effect and a continuous chain of scenes that all connect one to the other. The Decision at the end of one scene always leads seamlessly into the Goal in the next scene—ad infinitum.
But now we must ask the question: Does perfect scene structure automatically mean the plot is being perfectly executed on the scene level?
Yes, it’s a good rule of thumb. But, no, it’s not a guarantee. The guarantee comes into play when you can verify the following:
Perhaps the single best way to approach and manage what we might call “the inner plot” is via the theory and structure of character arc.
Character arcs (which I talk about in my book Creating Character Arcs) come in many shapes and sizes—from classic Positive Change Arcs to tragic Negative Change Arcs to heroic Flat Arcs (in which the protagonist doesn’t personally change but rather positively changes the story world). Choosing the right arc for your story will have everything to do with plot. This is the first step to intertwining plot and character to the point that they cease being separate entities and instead become two sides of the same whole.
Once you’ve chosen an arc for your characters that integrates seamlessly with the plot, how do you make sure you’re executing it properly in every single scene?
Although this is a less logical and less straightforward process than applying scene structure to support the plot scene by scene, the answer is inherent in scene structure itself. Specifically, it is found in the emotional arc of a scene.
For plot and character to work together, the external and internal conflicts must impact and drive one another. What happens in the external plot must change the character, and what happens in the character’s internal conflict must impact the external plot. And this mutual impacting must happen in every scene.
Remember how I said the only way to make sure a scene is meaningfully incorporating the plot is to check whether that scene has changed the plot? Well, same goes for character.
Take a look at a recent scene. How has it changed your character?
Usually, the change will be subtle. If the change is too dramatic, the rapid evolution will either strain suspension of disbelief or end the conflict too quickly. Complete change—either internally or externally—signals the end of the story. Therefore, of course, it can’t happen until the end of the story.
Above, we talked about how you can view scene structure in terms of “Action>Lesson” and “Emotion>Opposite Emotion.” Both of these are keys to nailing down your character’s progression in any given scene.
It’s true that Action>Lesson can apply merely to the story’s external process: the character takes an action to implement the scene goal, runs afoul of conflict, and learns something new about how to enact the next goal with more success. However, this is also be a useful metric for gauging the character’s internal development on the scene level.
How have the events of this scene changed my character’s internal conflict?
What new information has the external conflict provided that gives the character insight into the thematic Truth and/or makes him uncomfortable with the Lie?
In order for the character’s actions to be more successful in the external conflict’s next scene, what internal adjustments must be made?
If the answer to any of these questions is vague, you’ve probably found a scene that hasn’t optimally integrated character development or advanced the character’s arc.
Occasionally, it will be appropriate to dramatize an obvious “lesson” for your character, as per the above approach. Most of the time these “lessons” need to be subtle even to the point of being subtext. Otherwise, they quickly become on-the-nose and start feeling moralistic.
So how do you change your character without being too obvious about it?
The answer is emotional arcs.
As you chart the external actions of a scene, make sure your character is internally arcing. Never end a scene on the same emotional note as the one on which is began. Use the events of the scene to change the character in an obvious emotional way. If she starts the scene happy, end sad. If she starts curious, end satisfied. If she starts depressed, end elated.
Needless to say, the emotions at either end of a scene’s spectrum must be organic to the story and must progress the plot. She can’t be depressed for no reason and end up happy in a way that doesn’t force external changes. Her depression at the beginning of Scene 2 must be the result of what happened in Scene 1, just as her happiness at the end of Scene 2 must set up consequences in Scene 3.
3. Theme on the Scene Level
Finally, we come to the ghost of our trifecta. Plot is the astronaut going to space, taking action, looking awesome, and getting things done. Character, meanwhile, is the astronomer, who both gleans understanding from the astronaut’s discoveries and uses that knowledge to help the astronaut achieve their goals.
Theme (to strain the metaphor a bit) is the secret agent. It works behind the scenes. Sometimes the powerful effect of the information it provides is clearly obvious. But sometimes it’s invisible in plain sight. To the naked eye, it seems like it’s in stealth mode most of the time.
But this simply ain’t true.
Theme is always there. Indeed, for a story to succeed in creating cohesion and resonance, theme must not only be present in every scene, it must be the guiding principle of every scene.
Ironically, theme is actually the easiest of the trifecta to implement on the scene level.
If you’ve already successfully intertwined plot and character to the point they’re crucially affecting each other in every scene—then you can be almost positive theme is already present as the glue holding them together.
Put in its simplest terms, theme in a story’s unifying idea. It should be present in the premise itself and then spread out to every other aspect of the storyform. If a story has no unifying idea, then it’s in trouble on the ground level before you ever get to plot and character, much less their execution on the scene level.
Theme on the scene level is rarely as obvious as plot and character. Unlike plot which is the scene and character which provides the necessary engine that moves the scene, theme is often entirely subtext. It is present by implication.
For example, let’s say your theme is Love Conquers All. The concept of “love,” or its many variations or opposites, will probably only be mentioned in a handful of scenes—or perhaps not at all. But it should be the unifying idea that guides you in choosing each scene’s pertinent action. Specifically, theme will reveal itself in the character’s inner change and actions. Theme is whatever idea is “proven” as the Truth, via the character’s changing relationship to the Lie He Believes.
In other words, even if the character doesn’t realize it, what he’s seeking in every scene is the theme. The ways in which each scene’s plot changes the character is a direct advance toward or retreat from the story’s thematic Truth. If it is not, then you have to question whether that scene’s action and character development is actually contributing to the story’s overall cohesion and resonance.
The easiest way to double check this is to take a look at the “lesson” and “emotion” in the character section. Do they both relate in some way to the theme?
For example, if the theme is Love, the character’s “lesson” might be as ancillary as “I can’t achieve this specific goal without help,” while the “emotion” might be gratitude toward a friend who agrees to help or loneliness in the realization that he currently has no loyal friends.
Another actionable way to integrate theme onto the scene level is to look at ways to turn the character’s inner battle between Lie/Truth into an externalized moral or philosophical argument. If one of the obstacles in the external conflict is another character’s resistance to the protagonist’s belief in the way and the why of accomplishing the goal, then the plot itself becomes inherently thematic.
If you’ve already set up your story trifecta of plot, character, and theme on the macro level of your story, implementing it on the scene level becomes much easier. Optimally, it’s even instinctive, happening fluidly scene by scene as you pull together the pieces of the story into a seamless whole. Use this checklist to make sure every scene in your story is intertwining the most important aspects of your story.
What is character chemistry? And how can you use it to make your story un-put-down-able?
We most often hear about character chemistry in reference to actors—particularly those playing love interests to each other. Chemistry is hard to define but easy to spot. When two people show up on stage together and the result is a special “spark,” you know you’re seeing chemistry.
Chemistry is the “it” factor in all great fiction.
It’s the “it” factor in life.
Consider some of the people you know. Even assuming you like them all equally, I’ll bet you don’t respond to them all in the same way when they walk into a party. Some of them get a smile and a casual wave from you. Others, however, light up the room. They amp up your energy, instantly make you happy, and make it easy for you to be your best self.
What Is Character Chemistry?
To one degree or another, chemistry exists in all relationships, whether they’re romantic, familial, friendly, or just casual. Some chemistry is positive; some negative. Either way, chemistry is basically just an energetic exchange between people.
Instinctively, humans respond to one another according to any number of social and subliminal signals that end up creating paradigms that belong uniquely to any two of us. It’s a subtle dance, in which we take cues from one another, testing out our moves, discovering to what degree we can unleash the full power of our personalities in an ever-shifting dynamic of opposition and harmony.
When we have great chemistry with someone, we discover an almost instinctive synchronization that allows us to rest into our peak energy while easily batting back and forth the ball of interaction.
Hello, friendly banter.
But chemistry doesn’t necessarily have to be friendly. We can potentially do this dance with our worst enemy just as surely as with the epic love of our lives.
And that’s where character chemistry becomes so valuable to fiction.
In fiction, as in life, the chemistry between people lifts simpleexchanges of dialogue or action beyond the status of basic information and into “entertainment.”
Think about some of your favorite scenes. What makes them great? They’re not doing anything more than presenting characters who are either showing or telling you something. And yet these scenes are branded into your brain. You love them. They’ve engaged you permanently, either because they’ve intellectually stimulated you, emotionally engaged you, or (a combination of the two) entertained you. I’m willing to bet my typewriter that character chemistry played a huge role in creating this dynamic (and, yep, even if the scene only featured one character—because, guess what? that character still has chemistry with you).
The Riddle of Character Chemistry
Long ago and far away, I ran a poll asking readers what they’d like me to write about. That was years ago and I’ve long since written about almost all of the viable ideas from that poll. The one that I neither wrote about nor threw away was a request for a post about—you guessed it—character chemistry.
I’ve been kicking that idea around for a long time, trying to get a handle on what it is that creates character chemistry. It’s such a nebulous thing, right? Even after I spent those nine paragraphs up there explaining what chemistry is, do we actually have any solid info on how to create it?
Character chemistry shares another similarity with theme: it’s far too important to leave to the whims of our subconscious. Character chemistry can make all the difference in creating a superior story.
I’ve read far too many books that were excellent in all respects except their characters just flopped around on the page like dying fish. They were bland, they were boring, and they had zero chemistry. This is perhaps most obvious in by-the-numbers romance stories that throw flabby Marty-Stu and Mary-Sue characters together and expect readers to care just because there’s gonna be a kiss in the end.
Contrast that with books that offer great character chemistry. You know what I’m talking about: the ones where you just can’t wait for two particular characters (whether they’re romantic or not) to get together on stage because you know the results are going to be electric.
For a very basic example consider Barney and Otis in the classic sit-com The Andy Griffith Show. These archetypal frenemies lit up the screen with their bickering every time they were together.
Gin Rummy - YouTube
Or how about Jo and Laurie from Little Women? There’s a reason everybody ships them—and it has nothing to with romance and everything to do with chemistry.
Or how about Cathy and Heathcliff’s love/hate relationship?
Or Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin’s odd-couple pairing?
Or friends-on-the-run Thelma and Louise?
All of these characters are great in their own right. But they’re better together, yeah?
5 Ways to Create Scintillating Character Chemistry
Great character chemistry begins with great characters. Those flabby Marty-Stu and Mary-Sue characters I mentioned above aren’t ever going to light up a scene no matter how many chemistry-clever tricks you pull. The foundation of good fictional relationships is good characters.
This goes without saying. Still, creating these fabulous characters remains one of the greatest challenges in all fiction. Double-check yourself.
Remember that dance I talked about earlier? Character chemistry is never static. It is an ever-shifting dynamic of opposition and harmony.
The perfect example of this is banter. Whether in real life or in fiction, banter is a generally playful exchange that takes on the appearance of an argument, in which the engaged parties try to verbally one-up each other. This can have various undertones—from being totally lighthearted with no consequences to verging on a real dispute with grave stakes.
Great fiction is often noted for its witty banter, and great banter is always a sign of character chemistry.
Back to the dance metaphor: think about professional dancers out on the floor. They are always in sync, but they are always moving. One pushes, another yields. Then the roles are reversed. Back and forth, back and forth. They’re not fighting. Their energies are harmonized (in this instance, toward the mutual goal of a seamless performance), perfectly balanced against one another.
Even in instances where two characters are fighting (whether subtextually, verbally, or physically), the balance remains. They are evenly matched. Each gives as good as they get—and there is inevitably a certain measure of respect, one for the other’s skill.
Consider Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester. They spar almost from the moment they meet. Their arguments are earnest, but their energy is always aligned. There’s a reason these two still top the list of fictional lovers, and that reason is character chemistry.
3. Focus on Dynamic Character Archetypes
Again, this dance of character chemistry is founded on the adjoining ideas of resistance and acquiescence. Some of this can result from a careful use of character archetypes.
As in life, some of the best exchanges and relationships arise when one character pushes against his assumptions about the other character—only to eventually be met with resistance as those assumptions are subverted.
For example, the best banter always includes moments of surprise. The banter rolls on pretty much as expected—an instinctive script of classic responses—until suddenly one of the characters no longer fits the expected role. She says something unexpected, and the entire dynamic shifts. The other character is forced to adapt a new response.
Nowhere do we find better banter (or, generally, better character chemistry) than in the heyday of Golden Hollywood. For example, from one of the great romantic pairings of all time, William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man:
Nora: All right! Go ahead! Go on! See if I care! But I think it’s a dirty trick to bring me all the way to New York just to make a widow of me.
Nick: You wouldn’t be a widow long…
Nora: You bet I wouldn’t!
Nick: …Not with all your money.
4. Enact Change
The energy present in strong character chemistry means there must be movement. There must be progress. Evolution. Change.
Bringing together these two dynamic personalities on the page is like smashing clouds together in a thunderstorm. There’s gonna be lightning.
Mutually strong characters who share storytime for any length will necessarily change each other. Again, it is a search for balance. They spark against each other because of their differences, but if they’re to remain in the same space, they must each adapt. Either one completely overwhelms the other (as is usually the case with protagonist/antagonist relationships), or they start rubbing off a few of each other’s rough spots.
To some degree, the amount of change present will depend on the type of relationship you’re creating.
Relationshps like Barney and Otis’s in The Andy Griffith Show and Jack and Stephen’s in the Aubrey/Maturin series are designed around static characters. If they changed, the show would lose the opportunity to reuse their schtick time after time.
But in standalone stories, such as Little Women, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre, the characters must change if they’re to reach their individual goals. It’s telling, in fact, that Cathy and Heathcliff—the one pairing in this group of examples that do not change—are the only ones who do not ultimately reach harmony in their relationship and success in their external goals.
5. Create Coherent Conflict
In my opinion, here is the entire secret of character chemistry: it must be thematic.
What we call “chemistry” is what happens when we have two characters on the page whose interaction is interesting because it is pertinent to the theme, with each character illustrating different facets of both it and the conflict.
It’s “coherent conflict,” so to speak.
It’s completely possible to create characters who are witty and fun together even if they’re misplaced within the larger storyform. However, for character chemistry to be a worthy piece of a larger whole, it must, of course, contribute to that larger whole.
When character chemistry becomes the fuel in the engine of a well-designed story, it then becomes the driver for the back-and-forth piston of plot and theme.
In designing characters who will work well together, always look to theme first. How will they represent different facets of the thematic argument? How will they contrast each other’s pertinent strengths and weaknesses? How can these very differences become important catalysts within the story itself?
In short: it’s not enough to create characters who can argue in an entertaining way. You need to make sure these charged exchanges are moving the plot.
Character chemistry is one of the secret “it” factors of great fiction. Learn to inject it your own stories, and you can be sure you will create the kind of scenes that stick with readers long after they close your book.
Part 19 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel
I have to believe Thanos would be a good writer.
Why? Because he totally understands one of the most important principles of story theory:
Pretty, isn’t it? Perfectly balanced. As all things should be. Too much to one side or the other… [and it doesn’t work].
Nowhere is this more critical than in the foundational balance of protagonist against antagonist. This partnership creates plot, creates theme, creates conflict, creates balance.
We might even go so far as to argue that the antagonist is the story. After all, without the antagonist, what is the protagonist? Just a happy dude in a happy world doing happy stuff. Makes for a good retirement-center commercial maybe. But it ain’t a story.
The definition of story, in a word, is change.
If we hark back to middle-school parts of speech, the protagonist is just the direct object. She’s the one being acted upon. The antagonist, though? The antagonist is the verb. The antagonist is the agent of change—the hammer to the protagonist’s stone.
To write a complete storyform—one that is perfectly balanced—your vision for that story must include a fully-realized antagonistic force that has been specifically crafted to oppose, challenge, and change your protagonist at every juncture.
Meet Thanos—the Hammer to the Avengers’ (Infinity) Stone
Hard to believe it, but here we are in Part 19 of our ongoing series the Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel. Like so many of you, I have been eagerly awaiting The Avengers: Infinity War—aka the beginning of the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as we know it anyway). For a while now, I’ve been experiencing a bit of a malaise regarding the quality of stories we’re seeing come out of mainstream Hollywood, so it was fun just to be genuinely excited about a new movie for a change.
I went into the theater knowing the challenges the movie faced, and I left feeling like the crew at Marvel had made the best possible movie they could have made under those limitations. Is it a hot mess? Oh yeah. But it is also, for my money, a satisfactory payoff of everything so far in the series, as well as (and most importantly) being a grand setup for the final chapter.
It’s entertaining at every step. It carries its length well. It handles its monster-sized cast with as much finesse as was possible. It’s full of consequences (some of which will undoubtedly be overturned, but others that won’t). And it is the perfect stage for (finally) providing an antagonist strong enough and well-realized enough to counter-balance so doughty a protagonistic crew as the Avengers.
Is it a perfect movie? Absolutely not. For my money, it’s not even close to being the best entry in the series and probably not even the best Avengers movie. But it is a fun ride that respectfully and skillfully opens up the Third and final Act of our ten-year adventure.
So a few of my favorites:
Honestly, I think my favorite moment in the entire movie was Peter Quill’s utter insecurity in the presence of the mighty Thor.
This moment, which totally gave me chills in the trailer.
Pretty much all the groupings made for maximum characterizing: Thor and the Guardians; Tony, Peter, and Dr. Strange; Tony and the Guardians; Cap and the Wakandans.
The Hulk refusing to fight after getting trashed by Thanos in the opening.
And, of course, the snap.
Not so favorite things included:
Not enough Cap. I read somewhere he only got six minutes of screentime, and his section does seem dramatically underserved, although I also read that they’ll be making up for this in the sequel.
Giant Peter Dinklage. Just totally didn’t work for me.
4 Ways to Instantly Write a Better Antagonist
One of the common complaints about the MCU is that they rarely realize their antagonists. This is so for two reasons:
1. The antagonist is rarely a direct influence upon the protagonist’s personal journey.
In other words, with a few exceptions (most notably, Iron Man, all of Cap’s movies, and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2), the external and internal conflicts are inherent to one another. This means the climactic Third Act confrontation between antagonist and protagonist often feels somewhat ancillary to the larger story.
2. The antagonist doesn’t get much screentime.
This is usually a direct result of the outer antagonist’s supplementary role to the protagonist’s inner conflict. The further result is that the antagonist isn’t given much opportunity for development.
This is why Loki is so awesome. He’s totally a character in his own right. Over the course of the series, he’s been given nearly as much screentime as many of the main Avengers. He’s not just a token villain or a plot device; he’s a legitimate presence.
While Thanos might not be the single best antagonist in the Marvel universe, he is unquestionably one of the best realized. Even though he has been present very little in previous movies, his presence has loomed large. By the time we get to Infinity War, we already feel like we know him. And then Infinity War itself does an extremely smart job of paying off all its foreshadowing by evolving Thanos beyond villainous plot device to a character in his own right.
I’m happy that, in Infinity War, they have essentially given Thanos his own movie. It provides profound weight to his presence within the MCU and makes his threat to the Avengers much more formidable for the sequel.
So today, in Thanos’s honor, let’s take a look at four ways Marvel turned Thanos into one of their best antagonists—and how you can learn from them to up your own antagonistic game.
1. Put the Antagonist in Charge of the Plot
This one is totally counter-intuitive. Isn’t the story supposed to be about the protagonist? Isn’t the protagonist supposed to be active rather than passive? Isn’t the protagonist supposed to be cooler, stronger, and ultimately more powerful than the antagonist?
The problem with that line of thinking is that all of these are trick questions. Their collectively affirmative answer isn’t necessarily a wrong one. But it is misleading.
If you’re going to tell a convincing story of change, then the antagonist must play the dual role of forcing that change and providing a yardstick of sorts against which to measure the protagonist.
There are two different ways you can create this dynamic within your story:
1. Give your antagonist a head start toward the goal.
That’s where your antagonist comes in. Whether your antagonist is a person, an oppressive system, or even the protagonist’s own inner problems, this opposing force is something your protagonist reacts against. It may be the protagonist recognizes the inherent destruction in the antagonist’s goal and forms his own goal of opposing the antagonist. Or it may be the protagonist forms his own goal, independent of the antagonist, only to discover their two goals oppose one another—creating conflict.
Either way, antagonistic forces that contribute cohesively to the entire storyform are almost always those that control the conflict from the outside. It is the protagonist who must rise to meet them, not the other way around.
2. Make your antagonist inherently stronger.
By extension, if you want to create gripping and realistic stakes within your story, the antagonist needs to be formidable. He needs to be someone the protagonist can’t defeat at the outset. He needs to be someone who makes not just the protagonist doubt his own abilities, but the audience as well.
After all, if the protagonist is more powerful than the antagonist from the start, why is it taking a whole story for the conflict to reach its obvious ending?
In Which Thanos Takes Charge
There are several nuances to Thanos’s formidibility.
Thanos has the advantage of great press coverage. We’ve been anticipating this dude almost since the beginning of the series. He’s been teased over and over. The Avengers are duly freaked out about him. Some of them have even spent time onscreen trying futilely to hunt him down or oppose him. Before he even sets foot on the main stage, audiences are already primed to understand this guy is a big deal.
2. Characteristic Moment
And when he finally does step up to the camera, he is given a powerfully demonstrative take-no-prisoners Characteristic Moment. When he trashes Hulk in his first scene, he proves instantly and inarguably that he can take on the the strongest of the Avengers without breaking a sweat.
3. Longstanding Goal
Thanos was pursuing his goal of balancing the universe long before he ever registered on the Avengers’ radar. In other words, he’s way ahead of the game. At the beginning of this story, he’s already well into action, which leaves the Avengers no other choice but to react. His offense is truly his best defense. They can’t take it to him; they can only take it from him.
This will, of course, evolve in the next movie as they regroup and form active goals of their own in an attempt to reverse Thanos’s victory. But as with all solid storyforms, they start out in a reactive mode (not to be confused with passivity), scrambling to figure out why their old methods for living are no longer successful.
4. Personal Strength/Resources
Finally, Thanos himself is an impressive personage. As a Titan, he is more physically powerful than any one of the Avengers. After half a dozen of them throw everything they’ve got at him, Thanos wryly points out:
All that for a drop of blood?
But if that weren’t enough, Thanos’s basic goal is one that will only enhance his power within the conflict. Everyone in the story understands that however formidable Thanos is without the stones, he will become unstoppable with them. Hence, the stakes.
2. Give the Antagonist Objectively Good Qualities, Even Virtues
Good characters are rounded. They’re real human beings. They’re neither black nor white. They’re gray. Good guys have bad qualities; bad guys have good qualities.
Although we all love a good bad guy we can love to hate, the best antagonists are those who are compelling characters in their own right. They need to have motives just as primal and vulnerable as the protagonist’s. They need to have convincing moral justifications for their actions.
They need to demonstrate the same basic needs and desires we all have:
To pursue meaning and purpose in their lives
To experience emotional connection with people they care about
To improve themselves as individuals
To expiate their sins
To this end, it’s important to realize that “antagonist” and “villain” are not always synonymous. The “antagonist” is an integral piece of the storyform, as an opposing force to the protagonist. In itself, the role demands no specific moral alignment. In fact, it is entirely possible for an antagonist to be the most righteous person in a story.
But even if they are not morally good, it’s still important to balance their negative attributes with convincing positive aspects. Bad guys who are charming or even kind are all the more interesting. Bad guys who are conflicted evoke our empathy. Bad guys who are funny or outrageous can make us like them in spite of ourselves.
In short, bad guys should be reasonably aware of how the world sees them, as well as how they want to be seen.
In Which Thanos Is a Good Ol’ Boy
When word first trickled down the grapevine that Josh Brolin had been cast as Marvel’s arch-villain, my initial reaction was Whaa? With that all-American jaw and that Pa Walton voice, he wasn’t exactly the scenery-chewing, death-wielding, baby-eating monster Thanos was supposed to be. In short, he initially seemed like a weak choice.
But now it all makes sense. The sincerity and even uprightness Brolin’s performance brings to the role is one of the things that lifts Thanos beyond the single dimension of pure evil to a nuanced and compelling exploration of humanity. He demonstrates many excellent qualities. His henchman wasn’t lying when he said:
No other being, has ever had the might, nay, the nobility, to wield not one, but two Infinity Stones.
As an antagonist, Thanos surprises us with his many “good” qualities, including his patience, his dignity, his compassion, and the “philanthropic” motives behind so evil a mission as wiping out half the universe.
Is he still bad? Still scary? Still the worst thing the Avengers will ever face? Yup. But it’s the balance brought to his character by his good traits that turn him into someone memorable.
3. Create Someone Who Loves the Antagonist
This is a trick that is too often overlooked. Many authors understand the antagonist should have some good qualities to keep him from becoming a Snidely-Whiplash stereotype. Often, we try to accomplish this by giving the antagonist someone to love (i.e., a dog to pet). If they’re trying to enact their evil plan so they can save their little daughter from leukemia, then we’re giving him a sympathetic side, right?
Yes. But don’t stop there. Even more powerful than giving the antagonist someone to love is creating someone who loves the antagonist.
Creating an antagonist who loves someone else isn’t so surprising, or even endearing. Anybody can love. It’s the most natural of human instincts. But if someone else sees something worth loving within this potentially despicable person, then that can force readers into also viewing the antagonist through this surprisingly sympathetic lens.
This was done to great effect in Daredevil, another Marvel production, in which we see a woman fall genuinely in love with the antagonist Wilson Fisk. It causes us to view him in an entirely different light than if she had failed to find anything lovable in him.
In Which Thanos Loves and Is Loved
Thanos’s relationship with his adopted daughter Gamora is the emotional heart of the story. She is the only one among the Avengers (because technically she is an Avenger now, yeah?) who has a personal relationship with the antagonist.
She hates him. But she also loves him in spite of herself.
One of the best scenes in the film, for many reasons, is the scene in which she believes she has killed Thanos and weeps over his body. Thanos then reveals the entire moment was an illusion. He is obviously touched by her grief, however conflicted it may be:
Is it sadness I sense in you, daughter? In my heart, I knew you still cared.
In flashbacks, we see Thanos’s genuine kindness to a young Gamora juxtaposed against his ruthless brutality in slaughtering half her people, including her family. We understand the anguish Gamora suffers in being able to recognize both Thanos’s best and worst features—and loving and hating them in turn.
More than that, we see Thanos’s love for her. It softens and rounds him—and makes him all the more horrifying when he doesn’t hesitate to hurt and manipulate her, before finally choosing to sacrifice her in spite of his great love for her.
4. Link the Antagonist and the Protagonist
The antagonist powers the external plot conflict; the protagonist powers the internal thematic conflict. For a story to be both cohesive and resonant, the two must be linked. They must each affect the other in equal measure.
At some level, overcoming the external antagonist must be either a metaphor for or a direct application of the protagonist’s culminating inner journey (as it was in Black Panther). If not, it’s likely because the two conflicts aren’t joined at their heart.
This is just as true in stories that are not heavily thematic or focused on character change—because in these stories, the protag/antag battle is literally all there is. In these stories, the relationship between the characters and the reasons for their conflict against one another must be absolutely clear—and the more personal the better.
In Which Thanos and the Avengers Come Full Circle
In all fairness, Thanos actually had this one much easier than most of his villainous predecessors. Because he’s been teased almost from the beginning of the series, and because the Avengers have been preparing defenses against him for almost as long, there is an established link long before Infinity War even starts.
Thanos is committed to wiping out half the universe; the Avengers are committed to protecting that same universe. They are linked before they ever meet. In essence, the Inciting Event of their conflict has already taken place long since. The Avengers already aware of the conflict. Pretty much the entirety of this story is their “Second Act.”
Add to that Gamora’s direct connection to him—and thus her direct and personal responsibility to stop him—and you get a strong enough link between..
Part 18 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel
The best stories always rest upon the foundation of believable character change and thematic depth. In turn, these two vital elements pivot upon the fulcrum of the Lie Your Character Believes and the Truth Your Character Believes.
The Truth Your Character Believes is the transcendent theme of the entire story. It offers your protagonist the potential for positive inner growth and, by extension, the understanding and ability to conquer plot goals and end the overarching conflict with the antagonistic force.
The protagonist’s ultimate relationship to the Truth—and the specific Lie that keeps interfering—will define the entire nature of your story. Characters who end by embracing the Truth undergo Positive Change Arcs. Those who reject the Truth end up in Negative Change Arcs. And those who successfully model the Truth to a positively-changing world around them portray Flat Arcs.
In teaching about character arcs and themes, I almost always focus on the Lie the Character Believes. This is for the simple reason that the Lie is the story’s most obviously catalytic piece. Without the Lie, there is no story; if the protagonist and the surrounding world already possess the Truth, there is no need for change and thus no conflict.
However, in linking back to posts, I’ve been noticing the need for a cornerstone post that specifically talks about the Truth Your Character Believes and its role in the story, as opposed to the Lie’s role. I’ve been holding onto this post idea for a while, waiting for the right opportunity to share it. And that opportunity has come.
Black Panther on Why (if You Really Have to Choose) You Should Choose Theme Over Plot Every Time
Welcome to a very long-overdue eighteenth installment of the Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel. Due to a lengthy series of unfortunate events (including a horrible case of laryngitis and then my one and only local theater closing for change of management), I missed Black Panther‘s historic run in theaters and had to wait to see it on VOD. In the interim, you all have been emailing me like crazy, wondering when I’d be writing about it—so I apologize for the delay and appreciate your patience (and enthusiasm!).
Now, that I’ve seen it, I can report that I liked absolutely everything about this movie—except the plot.
That’s a big exception, and I debated whether or not to make this a “don’t” post about what happens to a story’s structural throughline when it fails to set up the antagonistic force opposite the protagonist at every turning point in the story. For the most part, however, I’ve already covered this issue in critiques of Iron Man 3 and Ant-Man.
Anyway, I’d much rather focus on what works. And Black Panther does work, on many levels—not least of which is theme. Optimally, of course, plot and theme work together—one seamlessly generating the other. But this movie is a prime example of how cohesive theme can create a solid story experience even in the face of the occasional plot stumble.
But before we get into all that, here’s my highlight reel of all the other goodies I enjoyed:
Excellent casting/characters. Marvel is always good at creating solid ensembles of likable characters who are well cast, but I thought they outdid themselves here. Every character is interesting and, for the most part, original. And every casting choice, from Chadwick Boseman to Michael B. Jordan to, especially, Lupito Nyong’o and Danai Gurira, was phenomenal.
Winston Duke. Winston Duke. Winston Duke. I gotta give extra props to Winston Duke as rival chieftain M’Baku, whose presence and charisma take over every inch of the screen in every scene he’s in. He was seriously underused, and I hope he gets major screentime and development in sequels.
Wakanda. Wakanda, in general, was a delight from start to finish. The culture was well-realized without requiring a massive amount of time or info-dumping to establish. In a superhero landscape filled almost entirely by familiar urban locations, Wakanda feels extremely fresh and interesting, with its juxtaposition of third- and first-world expectations.
Mythic fantasy. I’m all about mythic archetypes. So, in a story that could have gone in so many different directions, I was totally psyched by the deeply archetypal values and ideas that were being presented here. It’s closest approximation within the Marvel universe is Asgard, but for my money, its themes are represented much more organically and effectively here. Thor may be regal, and Cap may be noble—but in T’Challa, we get the perfect blend of both.
Costumes, colors, music. Finally, the whole vibe of the movie was delightful. It was beautiful from start to finish. The costumes (especially Nakia’s) were gorgeous and imaginative. The use of color was phenomenal, and the music gorgeous.
On the flipside, aside from the plot issues, things I would have liked to have seen strengthened included:
Humor. The movie has its moments (“He froze, didn’t he?”), but I felt it could have upped its traditional Marvel-esque humor quotient a bit more.
Fight scenes. I wasn’t wowed by any of the choreography (except for Okoye’s). The car chase was fun, but the hand-to-hand stuff felt too familiar without any really exciting or gripping moments. Admittedly, though, it’s getting harder and harder for Marvel to come up with fresh takes on the same old pow! pow! stuff.
4 Truths About the Truth Your Character Believes
You’ve heard me say it before: a story is never just a story. Whether or not it’s the author’s conscious intent, a story always says something about the world. And if it’s going to be a good story (i.e., one that resonates with audiences in any measure), then that message is going to have to offer at least a kernel of Truth.
This is why I fundamentally believe story is theme and theme, by extension, is the most important aspect of the storyform. To create a powerful storyform, plot and theme must be joined so closely, they are inextricable. The plot creates the theme, and the theme creates the plot. It doesn’t always work out like this, and humans (being humans) are still able to gain Truth even from less than perfect stories. But if you, as an author, can purposefully enter your story through the door of the thematic Truth Your Character Believes, you will have a much greater understanding of what your plot is really about and how to execute it to its maximum potential within the confines your story’s structure.
To get you started, here are the four most important principles about the Truth Your Character Believes, all of which are on display in Black Panther.
1. The Truth’s Evolving Relationship to the “Little” Lie
I know, I know. That header totally sounds like an axiom. But I mean it in a completely literal way. The Lie Your Character Believes will usually be something very specific to her and to her personal goals and challenges. But the Truth is infinite.
The Truth will have multiple facets, some of which will be linear portals through which your character gradually advances on her way to finding the one aspect of the Truth that finally and forever destroys her Lie.
Other aspects of the Truth will be pertinent to the Lie, but not directly related. These are often aspects that can be explored in subplots via related Lies, believed either by the protagonist herself or by other characters in the story.
The comparative size of the Truth is important in avoiding confusion about the relationship of the Truth to the Lie. Instinctively, when we consider a premise of Truth vs. Lie, we think of the two as essentially equals—e.g., it would seem that for every Lie there is an equal and opposite Truth. But this isn’t necessarily so.
A thematic premise can usually be boiled down to one specific element of Truth (such as Black Panther‘s “responsibility”), but within the story’s exploration of that principle, there will be many ways of expressing the Truth and many related thematic ideas that all contribute to the larger idea.
This can get tricky. You want to create a thematic storyform that is as cohesive and linear as possible—and yet Truth itself is often too “big” to be conveniently packaged. That’s where the Lie comes in. The Lie provides the throughline that interacts with every aspect of the conflict. Destroying the Lie may require many different (if related) elements of Truth, but you know you’re on target as long as overcoming that Lie is central to your story. The moment you branch into other Lies is the moment your story has likely wandered from the path of resonance and cohesion.
Black Panther’s Big Truth vs. Its Specific Lie
As he mourns the death of his beloved father King T’Chaka and prepares to become Wakanda’s new leader, T’Challa starts out believing a very specific Lie: that his father was the perfect king and that his ideas of leadership should be perpetuated—specifically the paramount ideal of protecting Wakanda’s wealth and resources from the rest of the world. Like all convincing Lies, this one presents itself as a good thing. Indeed, even viewers have no reason to initially reject T’Challa’s unquestioning devotion to his noble father’s ideals.
On its surface, this is also a very “small” Lie. It’s a Lie specific to T’Challa himself, since only he is the son of the king. Only he can carry on his father’s mantle and protect his kingdom. And yet, as the story’s progression proves, this small Lie stands in opposition to the much vaster Truth that responsibility requires a marriage of tradition and innovation.
Taken at face value, this huge Truth doesn’t have much to do with T’Challa’s “little” misconception about his father. And yet that little Lie will be the entry point to his character arc over the course of the story.
2. First Act: The Truth the Character Resists
Because the protagonist starts out the story with an extremely limited awareness of the Lie, his awareness of the Truth will be even more limited. In the beginning, the character won’t even know he has a false understanding of something in his world. Indeed, what he starts out with may not be so much a false ideology as a basic resistance to some aspect of the larger Truth. This aspect will be the first of the “smaller” Truths the character will encounter on his way to understanding the story’s “big” Truth.
In the First Act, the character will not yet have fully joined (or even be aware of) the main conflict. As a result, his existence within the Normal World of the Lie will be largely, if not entirely, unchallenged. At this point, the necessity of the Truth isn’t even on his radar; he doesn’t yet have any notion that what he believes isn’t the Truth.
In establishing the argument for the Lie in this early segment of the story, you should also be setting up the initial “entry” Truth, if only by implication. If the character believes that this (the Lie) is true, then what, by implication, is the smallest iteration of the larger Truth standing in opposition to this start-up belief?
The Truth T’Challa Resists in the First Act
T’Challa is a great example of how a Positive Change Arc can occur even in the life of a character who is already “positive.” T’Challa doesn’t undergo a dramatic change from a bad person to a good person. His intentions and personal values are always good. He doesn’t have to learn to be a good king; he just has to learn a few things about how to be a good king.
As a result, his Lie isn’t a monumental question of “good vs. evil.” This makes it much subtler and, in turn, allows his opening Truth to be much subtler. In the First Act, T’Challa desires nothing more than to live up to his father’s legacy. For good reasons, he clings to the age-old traditions that have protected the kingdom from outside depredations. When Nakia, the woman he loves, refuses to become his queen because she has “seen too many in need just to turn a blind eye,” T’Challa doesn’t deny her Truth so much as resist it by reiterating his father’s credos: “If the world found out what we truly are, what we possess, we could lose our way of life.”
3. Second Act: The Truth Becomes a Specific Antidote to the Lie
Once the character fully enters the conflict in the Second Act, her relationship to the Lie and the Truth begins to evolve. Throughout the first half of the Second Act, she slowly begins learning about the Truth, until finally she reaches the Moment of Truth at the Midpoint, where she can no longer deny that this Truth is the Truth.
This is a second aspect of the Truth. It is an evolution and a step up from “the Truth the character resists” in the First Act. At the Midpoint, the Truth becomes concrete. It is no longer just a vague idea the protagonist is resisting; it is a concrete ideology that makes total sense within the larger context of the conflict.
But it is still not the entire Truth. At the Midpoint, the character will accept that the Truth is true. But this doesn’t mean she has entirely seen through her Lie. In the second half of the Second Act, she is trying to balance the two. She is trying to accept the Truth without sacrificing the perceived “protection” of her Lie.
The Truth presented at the Midpoint is, in essence, a specific “antidote” to her specific Lie. It is not the entire Truth, in all its glory, but it is a pointed argument, scaled down as a counterpoint to refute her personal Lie.
The Moment of Truth That Begins Overcoming T’Challa’s Lie
T’Challa is shocked and horrified to learn a dark secret from his father’s past: “You ain’t the son of a king. You’re the son of a murderer.”
He learns T’Chaka killed his own brother to protect Wakanda’s secrecy, leaving behind his orphaned and angry nephew, Erik. When Erik arrives in Wakanda—first, to demand that Wakanda use its resources to punish the rest of the world and then to challenge T’Challa for the throne—T’Challa must confront the mistaken belief at the heart of his commitment to his father’s traditional ideas.
This section of the story is underdeveloped since T’Challa is presumed dead and off-stage for almost an entire quarter of the story, but we understand his evolution when he confronts his father on the Ancestral Plane and angrily insists: “You were wrong! All of you were wrong! To turn your backs on the rest of the world! We let the fear of our discovery stop us from doing what is right!”
In realizing his father was not the perfect king he always believed, T’Challa embraces the further Truth that following in T’Chaka’s footsteps won’t guarantee that he, in turn, will be a good king. Instead, he must begin taking responsibility for his own beliefs and actions.
4. Third Act: The World’s Larger Truth
By the time the protagonist rounds the painful reality of the Third Plot Point into the climactic Third Act, he will have confronted his Lie and accepted several entry iterations of the Truth. What remains is for him to understand the larger Truth, to claim it on a deeply internal level, and then to enact it in a way that conclusively impacts the external conflict in the Climactic Moment.
The Third Act provides the largest stage for your story’s largest Truth. This Truth will be one that directly confronts the character’s initial Lie. But it will also transcend that Lie. This is the Truth that has been represented collectively by all the little Truths found throughout the story, either literally or ironically: in the lives of the supporting characters, in the opposition of the antagonistic force, in the tone of the Normal World, in the tone of the Adventure World, and at least symbolically in the Thing the Character Wants and the Thing the Character Needs.
The Third Act demands your character definitively prove his relationship to the story’s Truth. Whatever proof he offers—whether it ends up being an acceptance or a rejection of the Truth—that is what proves your story’s theme. Done well, this never comes across as a “moral of the story,” but rather an organic growth within the character’s life that directly impacts the external plot.
T’Challa’s Larger Truth
Within the external plot, T’Challa’s final confrontation with Erik is about who will sit upon the throne of Wakanda. But more than that, it is a confrontation that will decide whose world view will triumph.
Will Erik’s vengeful belief that Wakanda’s vast resources should be used to “send vibranium weapons out to our War Dogs” prove worthy enough to win the fight?
Or will T’Challa’s traditional ideas that “it is my responsibility to make sure our people are safe, and that vibranium does not fall into the hands of a person like you” find balance with his new mindset that “in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers”?
In the end, it’s not enough for T’Challa to simply reject his Lie. He must embrace the broadest Truth possible. In this instance, the Truth is that responsibility requires more than protecting the past; it requires a proactive sharing for the future. And, of course, he does embrace it.
Writers are students. Sometimes this is the result of nothing more than sheer necessity: we seek answers for our questions because writing is proposes difficult problems. But often, writers are students first and writers second. If this is you, then concentrating on how to grow as a writer isn’t just about improving your writing; it’s part of a personal manifestation of learning and growth.
I fear nothing more than stagnation. Every moment standing still is a moment I’ve wasted by not learning something about this deliciously mad world of ours. (This isn’t to say we can’t learn—a lot—by the physical act of standing still, but if you’re learning, are you really standing still, hmm?) I feel this challenge as a person, and I feel this challenge as a writer. I’ve always said, tongue in cheek, that the moment in which I know everything about being a writer will be the moment I flat-out quit.
But even if you’ve yet to reach the lofty pinnacle of Mt. Know-It-All, it’s still scarily easy to get stuck along the way. Just because you’re writing—just because you’re moving around enough to kick up some dust—isn’t necessarily a sure sign you’re progressing.
Today, let’s take a quick gut-check to make sure you’ve still got your compass aligned to true North in a journey designed to teach you how to grow as a writer.
Growth: A Journey of Personal Honesty
What is growth?
Growth is change certainly (just ask that protagonist of yours about his character arc). But it’s more than that. Just as your story’s plot can’t be advanced by any old flurry of activity, your own story can only be moved forward by the kind of personal changes that redefine everything you know about life: your identity, your personal narrative, your understanding of the world.
If that sounds super-dramatic, it’s because it is. This is Life, baby. Biggest stage in, well, life.
But most of this drama—including the drama of learning how to grow as a writer—will occur in such minute moments that you don’t even notice the changes building. For the sake of our sanity, that’s probably a good thing. Our poor little conscious brains aren’t always so good at swallowing the huge revelations and intuitive leaps that our subconscious take for granted.
To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility….
As writers, we should be intimately familiar with humility. Most of us discover early on that learning how to grow as a writer is a bumpy journey marked by disparaging road signs that offer such enlightening messages as: “This stinks!” “No one will read this!” and “Turn back here, all ye fainthearted!”
It’s rough. But it’s also pretty awesome. However treacherous the caverns, deserts, and switchbacks we’re exploring in our writing journey, we are exploring. We’re adventurers. We’re pioneers. We’re astronomers and astronauts all rolled into one.
We’re discovering how to be better writers, and in discovering how to be better writers, we’re discovering how to be better people. In learning about ourselves, we’re learning about the whole world, and in learning about the world, we’re taking not one single moment of this life for granted.
How to Grow as a Writer in 5 Logical Steps
We’re all destined for change whether we’re consciously open to it or not. Even when we’re resistant, life itself forces us to evolve, day by day. However, when we open ourselves to the possibility of growth, this evolution becomes an adventure in which we get to take part. And when we start consciously pursuing it, that’s when things really get rolling.
Growth may feel like some airy-fairy thing over which you have no control. But that’s not entirely true. Become an active participant. Learn to recognize the patterns of growth. Rather than resisting the challenges of personal honesty, start pursuing them with a stick.
Here are five steps to get your started.
1. Be Brutally Honest
Learning to be honest with ourselves is all about learning to see through the subtle defense mechanisms we erect to protect ourselves from the parts of ourselves we are ashamed of. But like all Lies, these mechanisms hold us back from growth and improvement.
The first step in creating an environment for learning how to grow as a writer is to get real about the areas in which you actually need to improve. We’re all familiar with that icky feeling that something is drastically wrong with what we’re writing. Something is off. It just isn’t working.
That feeling, by itself, is of little use. It’s not specific enough for us to learn from or take action on. All it does is make us feel miserable. (Cue flopping on the couch, arm over eyes, and wailing about how somehow the magic genius-writer gene skipped your generation.)
Ironically, however, this feeling is often something we cling to. Why? Because self-pity is incredibly safe. As long as we’re moaning about how untalented we are, we don’t actually have to get up off the couch and do something about it. We get to play the victim under a seemingly admirable guise of humility and honesty.
But you’re not really being honest. Not yet.
Brutal honesty requires specificity. Why are you experiencing this feeling?
Emotions are not logic. How you feel about your writing itself and your personal ability as a writer won’t always offer you logical answers (see above). However, those feelings are never false. They always come from somewhere, and they’re always the first place to start when striving for deliberate growth.
Your goal here is figuring out how to step forward. Your instincts already know exactly in what direction that step should be. Listen to them. Don’t try to logically translate them right away. Just feel them. Try to go beyond the surface; sometimes there’s another feeling hiding underneath because it’s something you’re less comfortable with.
Maybe what you find is that you have a distinct discomfort when you think about your execution of show vs. tell, your understanding of theme, or your development of a particular character. Or maybe what you find is an outright terror of sharing your work with readers, of writing about a particular subject, or of risking failure.
That’s all good stuff.
3. Ask Logical Questions to Find Holes
Once you’ve identified what your instincts are telling you about your weak points as a writer, it’s time to bring in your logical brain. Start asking specific questions to get to the root of the problem and to figure out the best way to solve it.
Often, writers panic when they realize some aspect of a story isn’t working. Maybe the dialogue is terrible. It’s stilted, boring, and just doesn’t flow. These writers know enough to know there’s a problem, but they don’t know how to fix it. (Cue more wailing on the couch.)
Here’s the good news: once you’ve figured out what’s wrong, figuring out how to fix it is much easier. Remember Sue Grafton’s credo:
If you know the question, you know the answer.
Start narrowing down the questions. Go from “how do I fix my dialogue?” to “what is the specific issue with my dialogue?” to “what is the specific fix for this specific problem?”
Don’t ever try to swallow a problem whole. Keep breaking it down and breaking it down until you’ve got it in completely bite-sized pieces—each one with an obvious actionable next step.
4. Amp Up Your Contextual Knowledge
Your logical ability in solving your storytelling weaknesses and learning how to grow as a writer is only going to be as good as the information you have to work with. Although humans have an instinctive understanding of storytelling, few of us start out out with enough knowledge about the craft to consciously iterate problems and solutions.
So fill up your brain. Treatises on the craft, like this site, are a great aid in helping you understand the theoretical and technical constructs within which your own storytelling logic will best operate. But your best contextual knowledge for story will always come from story itself. Read widely; watch widely. But don’t stop there. Enter storytelling experiences with a critical eye, not so much on the story itself, but on your own reactions to it.
A common protest I hear from writers is that the more they learn about writing technique, the more difficult it is not to view other stories critically. There’s a certain amount of truth to this, since the more refined your own taste becomes, the less tolerance you’ll have for weak work.
That said, one of the best ways around this problem is to realize you don’t have to (and, for my money, shouldn’t) study story by sitting down to read or watch with the intention of tearing the thing apart. What you’re interested in is not whether or not a book’s narrative head hops, but how this makes you feel as a participant in the storytelling experience and, most importantly, why it makes you feel that way.
This is the basis of the kind of deep theoretical knowledge that will allow you to accurately understand your own stories, what’s working in them, and how to fix what is not.
5. Get Betas to Help You With Your Blind Spots
We’re all human. We’re all finite. We’re all blind. No matter how educated and aware any one of us may be, we’re never going to perceive anything with absolute accuracy—and especially not our own work. This is why it’s so important for writers to benefit from the objective eyes of beta readers, critique partners, and editors.
Feedback from anyone is valuable, in its context. Even objectively incorrect opinions can teach you something about how readers are interacting with your story. That said, the better your beta readers, the better your feedback. Readers with great storytelling instincts are fantabulous; readers who can logically iterate those instincts are even better.
However, as important as it is to solicit and accept feedback, it’s also important that you never take anyone’s opinion for gospel. In receiving criticism from someone else, apply all of the above steps in qualifying the worth of their feedback, just as you would in trying to understand your own problems with a story.
Learning how to grow as a writer is your highest artistic calling. Identifying, accepting, and moving past your current weaknesses not only makes you a better writer, it is also part of the framework of growth within the larger story of your entire life. I believe most of us become writers because we are interested, on some level, in understanding life. How awesomely meta is it that the writing itself provides such a wonderful opportunity for doing just that?
There are many lies writers believe that hold them back. When you think about it, this is kind of ironic. After all, aren’t stories stories lies that serve to tell the truth?
I think the reason most writers get a perverse chuckle out of that last idea is because, as humans, we are hard-wired to have a complicated relationship with truth. We crave, we need it, sometimes we even want it. But like those green beans I was supposed to eat when I was four and instead shrewdly dropped under my brother’s chair, we also exercise an incredible amount of creativity in avoiding the truth—and then denying we’re avoiding it.
In a Positive Change Arc, the character starts out clinging to a Lie (without, of course, acknowledging it is a Lie) because she believes this Lie protects or provides for her. It is only over the course of the story that she begins to realize this Lie is, in fact, holding her back. The journey to accepting and living the Truth is never easy (otherwise, she wouldn’t have fought against it so hard), but it is always a necessary step toward empowerment, freedom, and health.
In most Negative Change Arcs, the character resists the Truth (aka, refuses to eat the green beans) and as a result of his crippling reliance on the Lie ends up in a worse place, morally and/or physically, than that in which he started (aka, frames little brother for not eating the beans and grows up with the rickets or something).
The one exception is the negative arc I call the Disillusionment Arc. In all respects, the Disillusionment Arc is just like the Positive Change Arc, except the Truth the character finally learns to accept is not an immediately positive Truth. In a Positive Change Arc, she might learn “the world is shaped by love,” while in a Disillusionment Arc, she might have to face the equally potent reality that “the world is shaped by violence.” It’s important to realize the Disillusionment Arc is just as viable and important as the Positive Change Arc, since avoiding negative Truths is ultimately just as unhealthy and self-defeating as avoiding positive ones.
And, finally, in a Flat Arc, the protagonist already understands and accepts the story’s central thematic Truth. Thanks to his personal maturity and wisdom in this area (which, presumably, is the result of previous Positive Change Arcs in his life), he is able to use that Truth to help others around him overcome their own Lies.
In real life, we all experience every single one of these arcs. Unlike a book, in which one central arc defines the protagonist, our lives are a complex, ever-shifting evolution from arc to arc to arc—and, often, multiple arcs at the same time. Whatever our personal hang-ups, I think we all instinctively understand we need to be moving toward Truth. We struggle through Positive Change Arcs toward liberation. We get stuck—hopefully, only temporarily—in Negative Change Arcs. We grieve over our Disillusionment Arcs. And when we’ve emerged victoriously, we stand upon our mountaintops of hard-fought Truth and walk confidently through Flat Arcs that allow us to encourage positive change in the world around us.
5 Lies Writers Believe
We all share in the journey of overcoming the Lies we believe, unhitching them from the emotional baggage that motivates them, and moving toward the often scary but always peace-giving and life-affirming Truths. And yet each journey is deeply unique and intimate to each person.
Although we won’t all face the same Lies, there are many, many Lies so prevalent that most of us can relate to them. These begin with the big life Lies that are rooted in primal desires for love, safety, and validation—and the instinctive, if ultimately counterproductive, survival mechanisms we enact defensively out of fear that we won’t get them.
These Lies are heavy. It can take years, perhaps even lifetimes, for us to peel back the many layers of Lies before we get down to their cores. But along the way, there are many “smaller” Lies, which although (arguably) easier to overcome are just as potentially damaging. Here are five lies writers believe that I hear all the time—all of which I believed in at one point before fighting through to better Truths.
Lies Writers Believe #1: Being a Writer Should Be Easy
Entry Truth: It Ain’t Easy.
Ultimate Truth: Writing Is a High-Level Skill Set.
Many would-be writers enter storytelling through the door marked “Fun.” Just as many of these would-be writers exit right back out through the same door.
Writing—I mean really writing—is a deeply complex art form. Doing it well requires from its author the ability to master such widely ranging subjects as philosophy and even psychology (because what else is story theory?), dramatic structure, a thousand different prose techniques, and not least of all David McCullough’s art of “thinking clearly.”
Accepting that writing should be challenging eliminates our ability to defend our inherent human laziness and dares us to become more than we ever dreamed we could.
Lies Writers Believe #2: Being a Writer Is Too Hard
Entry Truth: Writing Is Not for Lazy People.
Ultimate Truth: Writing Is Rewarding and Important Exactly Because It Is Hard.
Other writers (or sometimes the same writers) stick around to lament the high bar of storytelling’s difficulty level. We want writing stories to be as fun, easy, and instantly gratifying as reading or watching them. But it’s not, never has been, never will be. Oh yes, it’s fun—it’s rewarding—it’s sublimely empowering and enlightening.
But I say thank God that’s not all it is. Thank God writing isn’t a fun little game we can master in an afternoon. Indeed, the very worth of stories is found in all the things that make them tricky to write. It is the difficulty inherent in every new book we write that gives each of us the precious and irreplaceable gifts of growth.
Lies Writers Believe #3: You Need Someone to Show You How to Be a Writer
Entry Truth: No, You Don’t.
Ultimate Truth: Learning From Others Is a Self-Motivated Process Completely Different From Expecting Others to Magically Transfer to You Their Knowledge and Experience.
Sometimes people ask me, “Can you help me be a writer?”
This is a tricky one to answer. It’s one of those “yes and no” scenarios. Can I share with you what I’ve learned from my own experiences as a writer, just as others have shared with me in their turn? Yes.
But can I give you the keys to the kingdom? No. I can only show you where the door is. Writing is ultimately a journey of self-growth. No one can take that journey for you. No one can hold your hand along the way. And they certainly can’t give you a piggy-back ride. We can cheer you on from the sidelines, but that’s it.
All the information and encouragement in the world won’t give you the secret formula to being a writer. You have to eat that information, digest it, and transform it into your own personal brand of creative energy. You won’t understand story structure until you make it yours. You won’t find a comfortable writing process until you create your own. And you won’t write worthwhile stories unless you’re writing your stories, up from the deepest depths of yourself.
Lies Writers Believe #4: You Don’t Have Anything Worth Saying and/or Will Never Say It Well Enough
Entry Truth: If You Believe That, Stop Writing Right Now.
Ultimate Truth: You Are Alive, Therefore Your Experience Is Valuable; You Are Writing About Your Experience, Therefore You Believe You Have Something Worth Saying; You Are Persevering, Therefore You Will Learn to Say It Better.
This Lie is a masquerade. Writers don’t actually believe they have nothing to say. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be saying it. Rather, what they believe is that they need the validation of the others to put the stamp of approval on what they’re saying.
There is a certain measure of practical truth to this. After all, if you want to be published, you’re going to need someone’s approval somewhere along the way.
But instead of falling into the slough of self-pity (a sure sign you’re in denial about a Lie of some kind), acknowledge these two truths:
1. On a personal level, you need no one’s validation. Recognize your own inherent self-worth and by extension the worth of you’re writing.
Lies Writers Believe #5: Where You Are Today Defines Your Success
Entry Truth: Your Journey Isn’t Over.
Ultimate Truth: You Can’t Judge Your Story’s Ending by Its First and Second Acts.
At any given moment in your life, it is so easy to look up, look around, realize you aren’t anywhere close to where you want to be, and start feeling like an unmitigated failure.
But your story isn’t over.
Just take a look at whatever fix your characters find themselves stuck in at this very moment in your work-in-progress. Doesn’t look too good for them either, does it? But you, as their author, know their story isn’t over. They’re not even close to the ending yet; they will not be judged by the mistakes they’re making in the middle.
And neither should you judge yourself. Keep writing, keep living.
With a dedication to overcoming your Lies and pursuing your Truths, you can trust the story of your own life will roll to an ending better than you can even imagine right now.