Writing Heroes (Part 2 – Reluctant Heroes and Anti-Heroes)

Reluctant Heroes

Another relatable type of hero is the Reluctant Hero. In fact, these sometimes go hand in hand with Unlikely Heroes to make them even more relatable. It is a character who senses they have the option of doing something heroic but they spend considerable time in the story trying to avoid it.

Sometimes the reason is because they feel they don’t have the power to do anything significant (although if you go that route then you’ll need some explanation as to why the thought of doing something has even occurred to them in the first place). Sometimes it is a character who has little or no power and then enters a situation where they are being offered the power to make a difference. They are afraid of the responsibility, their own character flaws, what it might cost them, or any number of other things. Generally a fear is in place, and it is a fear that they will have to overcome if they are to become the hero that the story needs.

Sometimes it is a character who already has the power to do great things, but they have been focusing on selfish ambitions, or they have been afraid of what becoming a hero might mean, or they are afraid their power will cause more damage than good.

A prime example of a reluctant hero is Frodo Baggins. It’s just not in Hobbit blood to do much of anything adventurous. In the end his desire to protect his homeland overcomes his fears and feelings of inadequacy.

Luke Skywalker is a reluctant hero at first. He longs for adventure but when it falls into his lap he’s like “It’s such a long way from here.” Unfortunately it takes the loss of the life he’s known for him to be willing to step up.

 

Other examples of Reluctant Heroes…

 

Strider in the film version of The Lord Of The Rings

Sarah Conner from The Terminator

Simba from The Lion King

Rapunzel from Tangled

Wolverine from X-Men

James Edwards from Men In Black

Bruce Banner from The Incredible Hulk

Nathan Algren from The Last Samurai

Jack Shephard from Lost

 

 

Anti-Heroes

I would describe an Anti-Hero as a villain who you want to see succeed because their goals in some way end up benefiting people you care about. I think there are exceptions, but that’s generally what it comes to. Most fictional jerks that people love, like House for example, don’t start off being likeable for who they are but they are able to help people the audience does care about, and so the audience wants to see them succeed by proxy.

Jack Sparrow is a pirate. He steals things – at the very least. For all we know he’s also murdered several innocent people, but we don’t know much about his history. Regardless, in the first film his goal of getting his ship back lines up with Will’s goal of rescuing the woman he loves. Audiences who aren’t much fans of thieves will still end up wanting to see Jack succeed, even if only temporarily, just so that he can help Will to rescue Elizabeth.

 

Other examples of Anti-Heroes…

 

Riddick from Pitch Black

Dominic Toretto from The Fast And The Furious

Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z (Seasons 2 and 3)

 

In my next post I’ll talk about one of the most difficult types of heroes to write – the Symbolic Hero.

 

Photo ‘Wolverine X-men 3’ credit BlackCat Nala under Creative Commons license

 

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Writing Heroes (Part 1 – Unlikely Heroes)

There are many different kinds of hero types used in popular stories, and many different kinds of villains. I’ve only listed a few different kinds in these next few blog posts, and as storytellers get more creative I expect more types to pop up. So don’t take these posts about heroes and villains to be a complete list – I don’t want to box any authors in – but I do want to give you an idea of some of the more common types and how they’re used. Some characters will even fit multiple categories, or switch categories as the story progresses. We’ll start with the most common type of hero.

 

(Star Wars Spoiler Alert)

 

Unlikely Heroes

Unlikely heroes are among the most popular kinds of heroes because they tend to be the most relatable. Most of us don’t feel like we could be heroes, but a lot of us wish we could be. To see someone like us, with the same disadvantages as us, plucked out of their normal everyday life and brought into an adventure where they somehow manage to save the day is one of the most inspiring kinds of stories. And there’s a lot of ways it can go wrong.

 

Going back to what I said about the ‘What If’, if you take someone who can’t fight, and put them in a situation where they have to defeat a master martial artist in order to save the world, the Natural Conclusion is: the world ends.

The audience knows that. They know you have to take the story that Step Further that sees the protagonist somehow pulling it off, but it’s in the Step Further that I think a lot of writers make unfortunate choices.

 

Methods of enabling the Unlikely Hero to succeed

 

  1. Just make it happen

This is of course the laziest solution, and it tends to be obvious and put off audiences. A problem I’ve seen too many times is writers making their villains so powerful that there’s no reasonable way the hero can win, and then the writers just make it happen anyway. It’s the reason the Emperor has no defense against being picked up by a one-handed Darth Vader. It’s the reason Darth Maul is suddenly paralyzed when Obi-Wan jumps over him.

The audience knows that the only reason the hero won is because the storyteller wrote it that way. It would not have happened without the writer’s intervention.

That may sound silly, because of course the story was written by someone. But when you’re telling a story – a gripping, immersive story – the point is for the audience to get so caught up in the story that they feel as if it’s really happening. They should, at least for the duration of the story, forget that you exist. That’s the goal of a truly immersive story. But putting in outcomes so unlikely that the audience knows they wouldn’t have happened without the writer’s intervention, reminds them that they are reading/watching a work of fiction, and suddenly the illusion is lost. If they know that the hero is going to win no matter what, then why does any perilous situation after that matter anymore. The Tension is lost. Game over.

 

  1. They’re the Chosen One

I would generally (but not universally) recommend against this. It has its merits if done right, but in most cases it just tells the audience that the unlikely hero is going to magically become a likely hero and save the day automatically. It is then impossible for them to lose. Game over.

There are versions of this where being the Chosen One does not mean automatic victory – it just means they are the best choice available. Most cases of a “chosen one” tend to be linked to a prophecy though, and prophecies have a nasty habit of breaking tension in stories. A good way to get around this may be to replace phrases like “you are destined to do it” with phrases more like “you are the only one who can”. This still places responsibility on the character to live up to their supposed potential, rather than removing all sense of worry, and can feed into the inner struggles of Reluctant Heroes (which I’ll discuss in the next post).

 

  1. Training

This is the route I recommend most strongly. Without creating a prophecy of victory or making it just happen, training allows the hero to have both a chance of winning and a chance of losing, thus maintaining the tension. You do still have to make sure they train properly for the particular challenges they will face.

 

  1. They are given a powerful gift

This is best done in combination with training rather than on its own, just because of the messages it sends depending on how you do it.

As much as audiences want to see a protagonist overcome significant challenges, because it makes audiences feel as though they can too, the story loses its impact if the victory makes no sense, or if it is attributed to something unattainable like pure dumb luck or outside forces. Hard work, intelligence, quick thinking, perseverance and various positive character traits that play into the struggle are much more significant to audiences as reasons for the hero’s victory. Being given a magical weapon as a free gift from someone outside the circumstances of the story is not as significant as the protagonist searching for the magical weapon, overcoming obstacles and earning the weapon themselves, or discovering the power within.

 

Examples of Unlikely Heroes…

 

Rocky Balboa

Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit

Sarah Conner from The Terminator

Ripley in Aliens

Emmett from The LEGO Movie

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Cause and Effect in your Story

In the next few posts I’ll start talking about how to write Heroes and Villains. Before I do though, there is an important aspect to establish first in your storytelling, which will help you to recognize if your heroes and villains are even making a difference in your story.

 

(Raiders of the Lost Ark and Aladdin Spoiler Alert)

 

I don’t know if there is already a name for this principle, but it goes like this: You can determine the relevance of any item in your story by analyzing how the story would unfold differently if you remove that item.

This was brought to light in a tangible way by a particular episode of The Big Bang Theory titled “The Raiders Minimization”. It analyzed the film Raiders of the Lost Ark and realized that the character of Indiana Jones held no actual relevance to the unfolding of the story. With Indiana Jones in the story, the Nazis acquire the ark and the ark kills them. Without Indiana Jones in the story, the exact same thing would have happened. So his presence in the story makes no difference, so he is irrelevant to the story. He accomplished nothing. I’ll talk more about that film at the end of this blog, but first, the principle of Cause and Effect is worth discussing in detail.

 

For the record, in order for the hero to be a hero, they have to accomplish something. Something useful. You don’t want to tell a story where your hero is irrelevant, because then they’re not really a hero. This is why “and then the police showed up” is not a popular ending, because then the police are the hero, and your character is just someone who managed to not die for two hours. Now the police showing up in the end is tolerable if that was the hero’s entire goal from the beginning, because then you’re making it an integral part of the game – the tension. And the game is over when the police show up. But you want the hero to be the cause of the police showing up. You don’t want your audience to believe that the police would have shown up anyway if your “hero” had not been around.

 

In light of this principle, you want your hero to be somebody who shows up and solves a problem that already existed before they came onto the scene. I.e. there’s a crime spree going on in the city and the police don’t have the man-power to stop them. Then your hero shows up and is able to stop them, or joins the police squad and gives them the help they need to put an end to the crime. You want your hero to make a positive difference.

Likewise, when writing villains, you want your villain to be somebody who makes things worse by their presence, or by the decisions that they make when they come onto the scene. You want everyone in the story (or the good guys at least) to be worse off because of the villain’s existence.

And at the end of the story, if the hero defeats the villain, you either want everything to be back to the way it was before, or you want things to be better because of the continued work of the hero. But you don’t want a scenario where things are better because of something the villain did. That would be to give credit to the villain for the good way that things turned out in the end.

 

A film that does this principle extremely well is Disney’s Aladdin. Consider how the story changes by removing certain elements from the story. In each case everything that should have relevance has the right kind of relevance. Let’s analyze it one piece at a time.

First, the villain. Without Jafar, there is no threat to the kingdom, so the city of Aggrabah is better off without him, although the princess is still lonely either way. Since he is in the story, he controls the sultan through the hypnotic properties of his staff, and he is able to force a marriage between him and princess Jasmine against her will and rule the kingdom. With or without the existence of the lamp, he is still a problem for the kingdom.

Aladdin is the hero, and like a proper hero he saves the day. True, without him in the story, Jafar never would have been able to get the lamp, but even without the lamp, Jafar is still able to marry Jasmine against her will and rule the kingdom because of his hypnotic staff. But Aladdin is the one who recognizes what the staff is doing, and Aladdin is the one who breaks it, removing Jafar’s power. And even with the lamp in play, Aladdin still has the wisdom to trick Jafar into trapping himself with his greed.

So with or without the lamp, Jafar still wins as long as Aladdin is not around. With or without the lamp, Aladdin still saves the day. Which brings us to the lamp. The fact is, the lamp is unnecessary. It makes the story more interesting, but it really isn’t necessary for Aladdin to be the hero – and that’s the whole point of the film.

Some might say, “But without the lamp, Aladdin would not have gotten the girl.” But don’t forget, Aladdin and Jasmine had already met. They were in his hideout and having a special moment. Aladdin was about to get the girl. The only reason that moment was interrupted was because of Jafar chasing him down, which only happened because he was looking for the one who could get the lamp for him. Without the lamp, Jafar never ruins that moment. Aladdin gets the girl, the girl brings him home, Aladdin see what’s going on with the scepter, breaks it and saves the day, the sultan rewards him by revoking the law that Jasmine has to marry a prince, and everyone lives happily ever after. Even better, Aladdin never goes through that whole mess of thinking he has to be somebody else in order to win Jasmine’s heart. They just fall in love naturally.

That’s why the movie is called “Aladdin” instead of “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” as the story is normally called. Because the lamp isn’t the point. The lamp doesn’t save the day. The lamp isn’t the hero. Aladdin is.

 

In summary: nobody’s perfect, but a hero by definition should (at the very least) solve more problems than they cause. And a villain, by their own choices, should cause more problems than they solve.

 

If I may go back to The Big Bang Theory’s analysis of Raiders of the Lost Ark for a moment, I look at the film a little differently. Yes, all their points about the ark and the Nazis are valid, but without Indiana Jones in the story the girl would have been tortured and killed, or at the very least tortured and taken prisoner. In fact, even if she had somehow survived all the way to the end of the film, she still would have died along with the Nazis when the ark was opened. The only reason she didn’t die is because Indiana Jones told her to keep her eyes closed. So in my opinion, the point of Indiana Jones is not to defeat the Nazis, or even to acquire the ark. The point of Indiana Jones is to save the girl.

 

 

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Tension-Killers

Simply put, tension is the only reason your reader will turn the page. It’s the only reason a viewer won’t switch the channel. Without tension, you lose the audience.

So what is tension? It’s a question. “Will this happen or won’t it?” “Will something different happen?” Every single scene requires some kind of tension in order to keep the audience interested, and every story needs an overall tension that remains (preferably) unresolved until after the climax, or even until the credits roll.

The best way to understand tension (and equally important, to understand tension-killers) is to think of it as a game. There is something your protagonist wants, and something is in their way. The game (the tension) is them trying to get what they want and dealing with all the obstacles in their way in order to get it. And the game should not be over until the story is over.

Now here’s where some stories miss the mark. A game is only a game as long as there is a chance that you can win, and a chance that you can lose. If there is no chance of winning, then you check out. If there is no chance of losing, then there’s no excitement. The tension only exists as long as the Protagonist has both a chance of winning and a chance of losing. And here’s the thing, it’s not about what you the writer know (because you already know what happens), it’s about how the audience perceives things. Even though you already know whether the hero wins or loses, it should still be able to go either way in the audience’s mind.

This is why it is not a good idea to make either heroes or villains with god-like powers (unless the opposing forces have something of equal power or know the character’s weaknesses). Because if the hero has infinite power and the villains are all weak, then in the audience’s mind there is no chance of the hero losing. Game over. And if the villain has god-like power and the protagonists are just normal people, then in the audience’s mind they have no chance of surviving. Game over. This is why Superman needs Kryptonite in order to stay interesting.

Audiences generally assume that the protagonists will win, even when the odds are stacked “impossibly” against them. Because that’s how the majority of stories go. But here’s the thing – when the writer creates a situation where the audience knows, logically, that there is no possible way for the hero to win, the audience at that point concludes that the story can only go one of two ways. Either the hero loses, logically, or the writer is going to make up something random and stupid that changes the situation so that the hero wins anyway. I have seen this happen many times, where writers made their villains way too powerful, and then had to make up some ridiculous weakness so that the hero still wins. Audiences don’t like that. And if you create a situation where there is no logical way that the hero can possibly win, you will find that audiences lose interest because they know that either things won’t go the way they want, or things will go the way they want but only for ridiculous reasons. If those are the only two possibilities then audiences lose interest.

 

My next post will discuss how to make sure each element in your story has the right kind of significance for the right reasons, and whether your hero is really a hero or just a bystander.

 

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The Message (Part 3 – Consistency)

Whatever your message, make sure the story you are creating (the world, the characters, the events) is actually compatible. I’ve seen writers completely change characters part way through, or change the way that their world works, in order to try to accommodate a particular message.

The most commonly occurring example of this error is when writers, in an attempt to show their support for the gay community, will take a character who we’ve known for a long time and who has thoroughly displayed a heterosexual disposition and the writers change the character to make them gay, and then say that the character was gay all along and was just pretending to be straight.

Now to be clear, I’m not saying that writers cannot or should not do this. In real life people come out all the time. But there are right and wrong ways to do this, in order to get the message across more effectively. When writers decide to do this with a character then they should plan ahead and write that character in such a way that the change and explanation is believable. A lot of writers do this very well. Oscar on the American version of The Office never did anything contradictory to his orientation before it was revealed, so it did not seem against his known character when he came out. Aunt Patty on The Simpsons, on the other hand, is a prime example of how not to do this. Patty had been established as heterosexual for a long time, due mainly to her fixation on MacGyver but also including an episode early on where she dated Principle Skinner. Then, in the sixteenth season, the writers decided to change her mid-way. They at least dropped some hints leading up to the episode, and in so doing they tried to prepare ahead of time for the revelation that she was lesbian (which was a wise move), but in so doing they had to go against what had already been known about the character since the show began.

The point of these episodes, in most cases, is the message that people are born this way and should be accepted for who they are. The message doesn’t work when the characters were created one way and then changed partway through the story for the sake of convenience. It flies in the face of the point the writers were trying to make.

There are times when such changes can be made to characters midway, but you as the writer have the responsibility of checking what the audience already knows about the character, and making sure that any revelations you want to bring about are not a clear contradiction to anything that’s already been established. Heck, even bicuriosity would be believable in many cases – the character experimenting just because they’ve reached a place in life where they feel unsure or they’ve rediscovered something. Patty’s coming out would have made more sense if it had been a gradual discovery on her part, carefully analyzing her own interests and then naturally coming to that conclusion, but the writers went with the statement that she had always been into women and there was never a change. Her long-lasting fixation on MacGyver was phased out of the show because it no longer made sense, but it also meant that you had to ignore the earlier episodes.

Recently the comic book community was in an uproar because Captain America revealed that he had been a Hydra agent this whole time. That simply doesn’t make sense, and the fans know that. Not because it’s weird for a character to switch sides, but because we’ve seen things from Captain America’s perspective, and we know that it doesn’t fit his views of himself or the world. The revelation asked people to ignore what they already knew for the sake of a plot twist. Fans were understandably upset.

When we’ve already seen things from that character’s perspective and they are clearly one way or another, and then you ask the audience to ignore all of that for the sake of pretending that they had always been another way, then you lose the confidence of your audience. Why should they take anything you say seriously after that?

In summary what I’m trying to get across is this; any time you have to change the way things are in order to make a point about the way things are, you nullify the point you were trying to make. The audience can sense when something is off or out of character, and anything you were trying to say through those elements will end up meaningless.

Don’t change your characters for the sake of a message. Know the nature of your characters, and how they fit with the message you want to tell. Or if necessary, add new characters. In either case, the message comes across much more believably when the characters are true to themselves. Because people may not relate to a message for its own sake, but they’ll relate to the characters.

 

In my next post on Storytelling, I’ll talk about what Tension is, why it’s important, and what kills it in a story.

 

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The Message (Part 2 – Factual Thinking)

I’m gonna take some time now to talk about how to get messages across when you feel the message is not a very popular one, or one that a lot of people have a hard time accepting. There are many different topics I could use as examples; racial tensions, homophobia, various political agendas, etc. On the subject of what I call ‘Factual Thinking’ I’ve decided to use the example of sexism since I’ve seen so many examples of writers trying to get messages across on this particular topic and a lot of them unfortunately come across awkwardly because of not using Factual Thinking. I’ll try to explain why these attempts fall short and hopefully give you a better idea of how to get your messages across more effectively.

 

Have you ever noticed how a person or a TV show can try so hard to not seem sexist that they end up seeming sexist just because of how hard they’re trying? I can think of a few examples. The Sherlock episode “The Abominable Bride” comes to mind.

There was a particular commercial I saw once. I won’t name the company, but their closing message was “We proudly support women in sports.”

What I heard was “We’re comfortable with the women folk thinking they can also do things.”

We live in an interesting time for women’s rights. And by interesting, I mean bizarre. And I recognize that a lot of our own perceptions come from the cultures and beliefs that we grew up with, so I’m not faulting anybody for struggling with this concept. I just want to offer some advice that may help get the message out sooner.

 

When it comes to any worldview that’s relatively new and not yet widely accepted, there are three different categories, three different ways that people respond to it.

  1. “No.”
  2. “Of course.”
  3. “Oh, well, I don’t see why not. Sure, I’m on board.”

In other words, there are people who take to the idea a lot more easily than others. The idea that ‘maybe women can do things too’ is no exception. But the idea is super trending right now, so everybody wants to write their stories with this idea inserted somewhere. The “Sure, I guess” kind of people, though well meaning, have a tendency to make things worse. It’s not that they intend to, it’s just that they’re still trying to fit it into their own perception of things and it’s not quite fitting yet.

Many people in Category 3 will not even realize they’re there, because they’re so supportive of the idea. And they are supportive. It’s not that they disagree with it; it’s just that they’re not quite sure what it looks like for women to be smart and skilled. That’s why we need to set the example and show them.

I think the problem stems from the belief that the concept of women doing things is something that still needs to be proven, as opposed to treating it as if it’s common knowledge. Granted, there are cultures and even subdivisions within cultures that still view women as second-class citizens, or as hardly capable of thinking or moving around much, so there certainly does exist places in the world where the value of women is not common knowledge, but I know from experience that simply trying to argue a point rarely has the desired result. And that’s how most writers go about it. But turning it into an argument tends to have the opposite effect, just driving people deeper into their already held beliefs.

On the other hand, acting as if the point has already been made, is self-evident, common knowledge and able to stand up for itself if challenged, is a far more effective way of changing a person’s point of view.

Those who do this well are writers like Joss Whedon.

 

I’ll further address specific matters on ‘how to write women’ in a later post, so I won’t talk much more about that particular subject here. I just mention it here because, like I said, the idea of women doing things is a particularly trending topic right now. And as such it provides an abundance of both positive and negative examples of how to try and get one’s message across.

 

My next post will discuss the link between Consistency in your writing and making your Message more credible to your audience.

 

 

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The Message (Part 1 – Hidden Gems)

The message of your story, generally, is also tied very closely to your Core Concept, although the message may not always be obvious when you first start writing. I think it took me a while after I started writing Singularity before I understood what possible message I could give to people through it. It was honestly an afterthought, because my Core Concept was just to write an interesting story. I didn’t want the search for a ‘message’ to get in the way of that. But I did what I often do in such situations, and what surprisingly works for a lot of writers – I just wrote the story down and let the message reveal itself when it was ready.

 

(Avengers: Age of Ultron SPOILER ALERT sort of)

 

I don’t always start a story knowing ahead of time what the message will be. I don’t always have an agenda like that. But I’ve found that when I write authentically, meaning when I let characters and events flow naturally, messages usually come about on their own.

I hope that can be an encouragement to some of you. If you already know the message you want to communicate, then great. If not, I would say not to worry about it. Just write honestly. Odds are you or your characters will say something without realizing it, maybe even just through their actions rather than words, and your audience will be inspired in one way or another.

People are naturally inclined to find messages in things, even if the writer didn’t intentionally put anything there. Sometimes what the audience gets is completely different from what the writer intended (which could be a sign of bad writing, but we’ll get to that in future posts).

People are surprised when I talk about how many Jesus parallels I find in the movie Chronicles of Riddick. I am quite certain that it is not what the writers intended, but it’s what I see when I watch it.

Of course, being Christian is likely a big part of why I even saw those parallels in the first place, because I’m already used to thinking in ‘Christianese’ terms. Be aware that the same will go for your audience. Some may not see what you want them to see. They may walk away with a very different message depending on their own experiences and what they associate with what.

I just recently watched Avengers: Age of Ultron with a specific view to what I sensed were messages about my personal struggles over the past few years. I have tried so hard to fix a particular issue in my life, and I’ve tried so many different ways, only to apparently make bigger messes. And I’ve worried a lot about how my unwise or misguided choices may have negatively impacted others. But now I recognize that everything is not my fault alone (in Age of Ultron there are many people to blame). Sometimes I played the blame game a bit too much. In the end though salvation comes, not necessarily through our own efforts, but through God taking our messes and knowing how to turn them around into something he can use to make things better.

Now, ask Joss Whedon if that’s the message he was trying to get across. Yeah, right! But that’s what I got out of it simply because that’s what my heart needed to hear at the time.

 

My next post will talk about how to communicate your Message without pushing away your audience.

 

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The ‘What If’

Every work of fiction is a ‘What If’. With Science Fiction the What If is more obvious. “What if we had the ability to travel back in time?” “What if we could bring dinosaurs back?” “What if we could clone ourselves instead of having children?” But even contemporary fiction has a What If when you look closely. “What if a guy began a relationship with his best friend, but then the girl he’s had a crush on for years suddenly shows an interest?” Whatever scenario the story is dealing with – that’s the What If. It’s more commonly known as the Premise. It’s a scenario that gets the reader wanting to follow the story to find out what happens. For that reason, you can usually find the What If or Premise by looking at the synopsis on the back of the book, or the back of the DVD case.

 

(Star Wars and The Matrix Spoiler Alert)

 

There are two things every story needs to do with the What If in order to be a great story: the story needs to take the What If to its natural conclusion, and then not stay there – to take it a Step Further. If the What If is not properly addressed, by taking it to its natural conclusion, then the audience will feel like you haven’t done the premise justice. Because you haven’t. You’ve avoided the reality of what would naturally happen. You need to at least go there, even if only temporarily or as a trick, in order to show your audience that you know what you’re talking about and that you plan on dealing with the issue in a believable manner.

On the other hand, ending the story with the natural conclusion can be predictable and boring, and often times a bummer. This is why it’s a good idea to ‘not stay there’ and take it that ‘Step Further’ once the natural conclusion has been addressed. At least, don’t stay in the natural conclusion for too long.

If I wrote a novel in which someone arranged to have me get into a fight with Bruce Lee, the What If is: “What if I got into a fight with Bruce Lee?” And the natural conclusion is: Bruce Lee wins. If I don’t at least let the story go there, then the audience will feel like I’m not being realistic with the premise.

But that conclusion is also very predictable and makes for a boring story. But the Step Further could be that just when it looks as though I’m about to lose I get up and say “Aha! But little did anyone know that this whole time I’ve been secretly training under Chuck Norris!” In which case I still lose, but you get the idea.

Most What Ifs involve impossible odds, because stories aren’t usually exciting otherwise. And the natural conclusion to impossible odds is that the hero loses. The story has to at least make it look as though things are heading in that direction, because otherwise the audience will feel like the story is unrealistic. The Step Further usually involves some last-minute piece of inspiration or motivation that pushes the hero to go further, delivering the one good punch that knocks down the villain. Those are the kinds of endings that audiences generally want, because we want to believe that we can face impossible odds too, and overcome them, even if we (understandably) seem to be losing a lot of the time.

Neo takes on an Agent for the first time. Everyone has been told to avoid Agents because they’re impossible to kill, even for Neo. The natural conclusion is Neo dies. The Step Further is that Neo had to die in order to fulfill a prophecy about him being The One. He comes back to life, seeing the Matrix for what it really is, and is able to destroy the Agents with no effort whatsoever.

Luke Sywalker takes on both Darth Vader and the Emperor. The natural conclusion is he’s no match for the Emperor’s power (at least not after using up his energy on fighting his father). The Step Further is that Vader’s heart is turned, and Vader himself takes out the Emperor to save his son.

 

My next post will begin a three-part series on how to get The Message of your story across more effectively.

 

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The Core Concept

The Core Concept is the first thing to establish when you set to work on your story, because it lays the groundwork for every other idea you might have for it. I’m not saying you need to make a Core Concept – if you have even a basic idea of a story then your Core Concept likely already exists. The important thing is to identify it. If you don’t know what your Core Concept is then you run the risk of making decisions that don’t fit the foundation of your whole idea – or worse – you run the risk of throwing out the Core Concept in order to make room for what should be lower priorities, not realizing that you’ve tossed out the very foundation of your entire story, and then you may wonder why nothing looks like what you had originally set out to do.

 

The thing to ask yourself is: why do you want to write this story? Why is it the one to come to your mind when you think of a story that you want everyone to experience? If you dig deep, there is usually a reason. Something you personally are passionate about.

Your Core Concept may be a particular character, in which case the story would very likely revolve around them. It may be a particular kind of world, dealing with certain laws of government or laws of physics. A particular kind of plot twist that you think no one will see coming. For me, it is usually an emotion – a particular thing I want the reader to feel at some point in the story and I can only think of so many ways to take the reader to that place, which gives me my foundation and my direction for how to tell the story.

Once you know what your Core Concept is, try to look at it as the foundation on which all the rest of the story is built. Every time you have an idea of something to add to the story or something to change about it, ask yourself: “Does this help my Core Concept, or work against it?” This principle of Core Concepts applies to individual elements like characters as well. Is your character shy? Then don’t have them opening up to complete strangers, even if that’s needed in order to make something else work. Is your planet fertile? Then don’t position it too far from or too close to the sun. Is your character a highly trained swordsman? Then don’t give them a background where they’ve had no time to train. Even if it feels necessary in order to make some other aspect of the story work – if it interferes with the Core Concept, with the very foundation on which everything else is built, then it’s not that important.

 

If you’re not sure what your foundation is for certain characters, events, locations or any other aspect of the story, and so you’re not sure if an idea is contradicting a foundation or not, a good question to ask is: “How do I want people to feel when they think of this character/event/location?” And then when considering new ideas, ask yourself: “Would this help or hurt the way that I want people to feel when they think about this character/event/location?” If you want people to think of a particular character as pure-hearted, then don’t have them thinking or saying lewd things. If you want people to feel regret when looking back on a particular event, then don’t have things result from that event that make people happy and that could only possibly have happened because of that event. If you want people to associate a particular location with peace and joy, then don’t have a tragic event unfold there. Asking the simple question of “How do I want people to feel about this?” is an important habit to get into.

As great as the recent Star Trek reboot films have been, there is a nagging problem I have with them. None of the films are really about exploring the stars – which had been the whole point of Star Trek since its beginning in 1966. The recent films have very little to do with exploring new territories. They’re boldly going where people have already been. They dropped the Core Concept.

 

In many cases, the story’s Core Concept is either very simply the What If, or it is very closely related to it. So I’ll talk about that in the next blog post.

 

Photo ‘Jenga’ credit Claus Rebler under Creative Commons license

 

 

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New Focus

I’ve been particularly quiet on my blog for the past while. Part of that was because of focusing on book publications – editing and revision work. Another reason though has been new writing prompts and projects that haven’t reached completion yet.

It’s been on my heart lately to talk more about writing – specifically about the art of storytelling. I’ve been collecting information over the years from all the things I’ve been reading and watching, and there are certain things I’ve noticed that feed into a good story, and other things that backfire.

I’ve already assembled a book to talk about these elements in detail, but since I’m into my sabbath year now I’m not looking to publish another book until 2018. That leaves me wide open for doing blog posts though.

So what I’ve decided to do is take some samples of the notes I’ve taken on the art of storytelling and put them into blog posts over the next little while. I’ll do a short series on a number of topics, including hero types and villain types, and how writers can get their messages across more effectively through the stories they tell.

 

I’ll be doing my first post about storytelling soon. I’ll start with some of the more foundational aspects of building a story (like how to establish your focus for the story and make sure you stay on track) since it’s an element that a lot of us find challenging but it’s generally the best starting point for putting a story together.

 

My intention is for these posts to be beneficial for writers on all levels of experience. The kind of issues I’ll be pointing out are mistakes that I see made by even the most renowned writers, but the tips are simple enough to pick up on any stage in the journey. The research process and the insights I’ve learned have definitely helped me grow as a writer, and I hope they’ll be helpful to my fellow storytellers also.

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