So You Think You Can Write-Part 6.1: Protagonists

 

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How do you write a compelling main character who can take the reader on a ride and compel them to be on their side or cry over their tragedies? What does it mean when a character is well rounded? Does a character have to be good in order to be a protagonist?

If the current lineup of superhero movies gives any indication, it’s that there’s more than one way to be a compelling protagonist. Heroes like Supergirl and Wonder Woman have straightforward morals and convictions. Heroes like Jessica Jones and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, on the other hand, are not so clean-cut. However, what they have in common is that they all work towards a clearly defined goal and have unique, distinct personalities.

It’s really easy to try and write a novel based on your experiences and there is a way that you can do that, but don’t turn novel writing into gratuitous wish-fulfillment or a revenge fantasy. Don’t just limit yourself to making your character look different from you, either. See what you can do to make your protagonist act in a different way from you. One way to do this is to give them a personality type that’s different from yours. If you’re an introvert, make them an extrovert, for example. Check out the Myers-Briggs Personality Types and, for additional fun, sort your characters into Hogwarts houses! This will help you create a character with their own personality.

Also, make sure that your protagonist has a goal. Your main character needs to change in some way. The best stories revolve around how a character changes due to choices and/or circumstances. What does your character want out of life? How will she get what she wants? What prevents her from achieving her goal? Make this desire or goal specific!

If you want to write a female character, don’t be afraid of making your woman feminine as well as strong. In fact, I’m gonna quote Tumblr here

Screw writing “strong” women.  Write interesting women.  Write well-rounded women.  Write complicated women.  Write a woman who kicks ass, write a woman who cowers in a corner.  Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband.  Write a woman who doesn’t need a man.  Write women who cry, women who rant, women who are shy, women who don’t take no shit, women who need validation and women who don’t care what anybody thinks.  THEY ARE ALL OKAY, and all those things could exist in THE SAME WOMAN.  Women shouldn’t be valued because we are strong, or kick-ass, but because we are people.  So don’t focus on writing characters who are strong.  Write characters who are people.

The only bad female character, if you ask me , is one who’s flat.  One who isn’t realistic.  One who has no agency of her own, who only exists to define other characters (usually men).  Write each woman you write as if she has her own life story, her own motivations, her own fears and strengths, and even if she’s only in the story for one page, she will be a real person, and THAT is what we need.  Not a phalanx of women who can karate-chop your head off, but REAL women, who are people, with all the complexity and strong and not-strong that goes with it.

We need strong, female characters to inspire us and young girls. However, don’t make their strength their only defining characteristic. Give your main character some flaws to overcome.

That’s how you write a great protagonist.

 

 

So You Think You Can Write-Part 5: Scenes

If you want your outline to be as specific as possible, break every chapter down scene by scene. Anne Lammott, author of Bird by Bird, describes her writing as a series of “short assignments,” using a one-inch picture frame as an example. “All I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.” In another chapter, she compared writing the first draft to watching a Polaroid develop. I think both of these analogies work when applied to writing scenes.

A scene in a movie or TV series is usually pretty short or at least about as long as your average TED talk (15-20 minutes) at most. In a novel, scenes can be long or short, but they have to have a certain structure and purpose. I keep using movies as examples because movies have a solid structure.

One of my favorite books that helps me when I’m writing is John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. It’s a book that is targeted to screenwriters, but it helps novelists as well. It integrates plot and character together, showing how all the elements in a good story (whether in a novel or a book) work together.

In this book, Truby describes how to structure a scene:

“The beginning of the scene should frame what the whole scene is about. The scene should then funnel down to a single point, with the most important word or line of dialogue stated last.”

Truby’s book illustrates this by using the picture of an inverted triangle.

The widest part of the triangle represents the beginning of the scene, which starts out very broad. You can imagine this being an establishing shot in a movie. The narrowest part of the triangle is the end of a scene, which puts a great emphasis on an important word or line.

How does this particular scene structure work? Check out this example from Lessons from the Screenplay’s analysis of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Keep in mind that Gillian Flynn wrote the original book and then the screenplay for the movie adaptation. Never let it be said that we can’t learn anything from the movies.

When you outline or write out your scene, just ask yourself: “What is this whole scene about?” This will be the beginning of the scene. You can also ask “Where is this scene going to lead? What is the character supposed to choose or learn from in this scene?” This all factors into the beginning.

Then write out the scene. Push your character into a corner, to the point where he or she has to make a choice. The consequences of this choice will lead into the next scene. Ultimately, scenes are a matter of choices and consequences, cause and effect. Once you keep that in mind, your scenes will start to be more cohesive, even if you’re just writing the first draft.

Seven Quick Takes: Vlogs About Outlining

I love following vlogs about writing on YouTube. The writing community is just so amazing and supportive. So for today, check out these vlogs that talk about outlining. If you like what you see, subscribe to their channels.

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I mentioned Jenna Moreci before, but she’s seriously one of my favorites. Her vlogs are very honest, encouraging, and easy to understand. Jenna has two vlogs on outlining so far, so I’ll share the first video here:

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Katytastic’s 27 Chapter outline is another favorite of mine because it allows for a long story. It also allows for a consistent chapter length, which is good when writing a first draft. Not to mention all the plot points are basically spelled out. If you’re blocked as to what you think should happen, this outline will help you keep track of where you are in the story and guide you to whatever happens next for your character.

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Shaelin is an author of 8 novels and in the process of getting her Bachelor in Fine Arts. This video really speaks to pantsers because she says that she struggles with giving her plot structure. This particular plot structure is inspired by the “Save the Cat Beat Sheet,” but Shaelin explains those plot points with detail, in a way that’s easy to understand.

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Kristen Martin is someone who identifies as somewhere between a plotter and a pantser, or a “plotser,” as she calls it. If you want an outline that allows you to know the major events and keep things organize, but allows room to expand things, check out this video.

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You might know Brandon Sanderson if you’re a fan of the Mistborn series. He’s one of the most well-renowned fantasy and sci-fi writers. He has tons of videos on YouTube where he teaches writing to a class. Watching one of them is just as good as paying for a writing class. This is one of the many videos he has on outlining and story structure.

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Vivian Reis is a sci-fi writer who believes in plotting out a story. She’s self-published, so if you plan on publishing your novel yourself, check out her channel. This is one of the videos she has on outlining.

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Kim Chance is about to publish her first book, but she’s been vlogging about writing for a while. I love her channel because she’s very friendly and relatable. In this video, Kim explains different types of outlines. Here’s hoping you find the outline that works best for you!

 

So You Think You Can Write-Part 4.4: Dan Wells’ Seven-Point Plot

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Dan Wells is a famous horror and sci-fi author as well as one of the hosts of the podcast Writing Excuses. He also has a series of videos about story structure on YouTube.

Since Dan Wells is known for his horror novels, let’s analyze a horror movie tonight! One of my favorite horror movies is Wes Craven’s Scream, one of the best self-aware horror movies from 1996.

  • Ice Monster Prologue: This is an optional plot point. This gives the reader a “sneak preview” of what kind of world the story takes place in. The opening of the movie shows Drew Barrymore’s character, Casey, on the phone with a stranger as she makes popcorn. They talk about horror movies, which, at the time, was a unique, self-aware concept. Then the killer challenges Casey to a trivia game while holding her boyfriend hostage and attacks her. The scene where Casey gets killed and gutted is horrific, even by today’s standards.
  • Hook: Sidney, the true protagonist of the series, is established as an ordinary high school girl whose dad will be leaving town for the weekend. She has a boyfriend named Billy who wants to have sex with her. However, since this is a horror movie, Sidney is a virgin and won’t have sex. In a subversion of usual horror virgins, however, Sidney has a legit reason for not wanting to have sex, which is explained later in the movie.
    • Character Arc: Dan Wells also says that there are things that need to be interspersed throughout the story, such as subplots and character arcs. This is when we find out that Sidney’s mother was apparently sleeping around on her dad and that Sidney found her mother’s bloody corpse.
    • Subplot 1: Sidney’s circle of friends gets introduces. Aside from her boyfriend, we also meet her best friend, Tatum, her brother, Deputy Dewey, Randy, the movie geek, and Stu, Tatum’s boyfriend.
  • Plot Turn 1: Something happens that upsets the stauts quo. Sidney gets a call from the killer while waiting to hang out with Tatum. What really makes this personal for Sidney is that the killer claims to be the one who killed her mother.
  • Pinch 1: Sidney goes to the police station to file a report on Billy and encounters Gail Weathers, a tabloid journalist who is advocating for the innocence of Cotton Weary, the man accused of murdering Sidney’s mother. Over at Tatum’s house, Sidney contemplates whether or not Billy is the one who tried to kill her.
  • Try/Fail Cycle: A type of plot point that combines character arc with action. In Scream, Billy gets released from police custody. Gail connects the recent deaths to the death of Sidney’s mother. Sidney overhears two girls gossiping about her in the girls’ bathroom and then gets attacked by Ghostface. School lets out early, but a city-wide curfew gets established.
    • Subplot 2: The school principal gets murdered by Ghostface after disciplining two students pulling pranks. Sidney and Tatum have a talk about whether Cotton is truly innocent and whether the rumors about Sidney’s mother were true. Stu and Randy speculate on who the killer could be at the local movie rental store.
  • Midpoint: This is when the character decides to take action. This happens at Stu’s house. Billy arrives in hopes of talking with Sidney. The two of them go upstairs, one thing leads to another and…well, you know.
    • Subplot 3: In the midst of the party action, Gail places a camera to watch the party from her van, Tatum gets killed by Ghostface, and Randy relays the rules to surviving a horror movie. One of them is that you can never have sex, which implies that Sidney is in huge trouble for sleeping with Billy.
  • Pinch 2: The jaws of defeat appear and things go very, very wrong. The partygoers flee to see the principal gutted and hung on the football field. Ghostface attacks Billy and chases after Sidney. Ghostface kills Gail Weather’s cameraman and stabs Deputy Dewey in the process. Then Sidney confronts Randy and Stu, who plead innocence. Horrified, she hides in the house. This is when the real killer gets revealed.
    • Character Arc 2: The killer reveals his motives behind killing Sidney’s mother. The killer also plans to pin the blame on Sidney’s father.
  • Plot Turn 2: Taking advantage of a moment of distraction, Sidney gets her and her father to safety and hides, taking the Ghostface mask and voice disguiser with her. She turns the tables on the killer and starts fighting for her life.
  • Resolution: Billy gets shot in the chest and is supposedly dead. However, Randy points out that in horror movies, the killer comes back to life for one last scare. But before Billy gets his second win, Sidney shoots him in the face.

I hope this outline helps you in creating your story.

 

 

So You Think You Can Write-Part 4.3: Michael Hauge’s 6 Stages

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Michael Hauge is a story and script consultant who works in Hollywood. He has his own coaching services to help those who want to break into the industry. For this particular outline, I’m going to be sharing examples from Big Hero 6.

Stage 1:

  • Setup: This establishes a character who has little to no desire to change, even though he’s flawed in some shape or form. Hiro is skilled at making robots, but he wastes his time getting money from illegal robot fights.
  • Opportunity: Hiro’s brother, Tadashi, gives him a tour of his college

Stage 2:

  • New Situation:  Through meeting Tadashi’s friends, Hiro gets a glimpse of what he could do if he went to college with them.
  • Change in Plans: Hiro starts working on a robot that he can present at the tech expo, which will give him the opportunity to go to college with his brother and his friends.

Stage 3:

  • Progress: Hiro makes his presentation at the tech expo. However, just as he gets accepted into Tadashi’s school, the expo building is suddenly on fire. Tadashi goes into rescue his professor and dies in the explosion.
  • Turning Point: The action of the movie begins when Hiro accidentally activates Baymax. He also finds a microbot that is still active, in spite of the fact that his machines were supposedly destroyed in the fire. He realizes that a guy in a mask must’ve stolen his microbots and caused the explosion. Hiro turns Baymax into a combat nurse robot.

Stage 4:

  • Complications and Higher Stakes: This particular plot point allows for multiple scenes. In Big Hero 6, Tadashi searches for the man in the mask. Things get complicated when Tadashi’s friends distract from the mission. However, Hiro gets the idea to turn Tadashi’s friends into a superhero team and search for the man in the mask.
  • Major Setback: Tadashi finds out that the man in the mask is really Tadashi’s professor Callaghan, who refuses to take responsibility for Tadashi’s death. Hiro orders Baymax to kill Callaghan, but things go wrong.

Stage 5:

  • The Final Push: This is when the protagonist uses everything he’s learned to solve the problem once and for all. Thanks to Baymax, Hiro finds a sense of closure over Tadashi’s death. He also learns why Callaghan caused the fire and sole the microbots: to get revenge on Krei for the loss of his daughter.
  • Climax:  The final battle occurs when the Big Hero 6 confront Callaghan as he attempts to get revenge on Krei at a public event. A portal to a different dimension opens and Hiro and Baymax rescue Abigail, but Baymax sacrifices himself to get Hiro and Abigail out of the dimension.

Stage 6:

  • Aftermath: Upon discovering that the chip was in Baymax’s rocket-launched hand, he rebuilds Baymax and continues on his heroic adventures with Tadashi’s friends.

This outline works great when you have a character who has to undergo a change in order to become a better person. If you’re someone who likes a character-driven story, this outline might work out for you.

 

So You Think You Can Write-Part 4.2 Outlining with “Save The Cat”

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The Save the Cat outline comes from a screenwriting book of the same name by Blake Snyder. This outline is more detailed than a mere three-act structure and has room for subplots and more lighthearted moments.  In honor of Mean Girls Day, I will use Mean Girls with this particular outline. Happy October 3rd!

Act 1

  • Opening Image: This is a thematic image that establishes the main character’s “status quo.”  Mean Girls begins with Cady taking pictures with her parents and explaining to the audience that up until she was 16, she was homeschooled while living in Africa with her zoologist parents. Then, to quote the trailer, “it was goodbye Africa and hello, high school.”
  • Theme Stated: The theme of the movie gets presented when Cady learns about her new high school from Cool Loser Janis and “too gay to function” Damian. The theme of Mean Girls is that high school has its own set of social norms and cliques. Two scenes in particular explain the theme: When the Plastics get introduced and when Janice explains all the cafeteria cliques at lunch.
  • Set Up: The “setup” establishes the world that the movie takes place in and introduces all the major characters and motivations. In Mean Girls, Cady becomes friends with the Plastics and gets invited to sit with them for a week. She also gets a crush on Aaron Samuels, the guy who sits in front of her in math class, and gets discouraged from joining the Mathletes from both the Plastics and from Damian.
  • Catalyst: This is the plot point that gets the story moving forward. When Regina kisses Aaron in front of Cady, Cady goes to Janis and Damian. The three of them formulate a plan to humiliate Regina.
  • Debate: In some stories, this would be when the main character might refuse the call to adventure. The initial attempts at sabotage don’t work out and Cady and her friends are at a loss as to what to do. Janis tells Cady to crack Gretchen Weiners.

Act 2

  • Choice Made: When the main character chooses to accept the call to adventure or makes a choice that changes the dynamics of the story. Cady sends a candy cane grams to herself and claims that it came from Regina, but Gretchen doesn’t get any. Gretchen starts spilling secrets about Regina and everything finally comes to a boil when she gets pushed aside for Cady during the Winter Talent Show performance. Cue famous “We should totally just stab Cesar!” speech!
  • B-Story: This is where subplots start playing out. The major subplot in Mean Girls is Cady’s pursuit of Aaron Samuels. She pretends to be bad at math in order to get him to tutor her. Part of this includes getting Aaron to catch Regina cheating on him. Finally, when she kisses Aaron, she tells him about Regina cheating on him with Shane Oman.
  • Fun and Games: All the fun stuff relating to the premise of the story occurs. The protagonist is on his way towards his goal, but things are kept lighthearted. Cady gives Regina Kalteen bars to get her to gain weight. All the while, Cady starts turning into a Plastic. Then the nominees for Spring Fling Queen are announced. Regina is not surprised that she is nominated, but balks at the fact that Cady, Gretchen, Karen, and Janis were nominated. Cady herself is surprised that she is nominated for Spring Fling Queen because she and Damian just nominated Janis as a joke.
  • Midpoint: Things start getting serious as the stakes go up. The midpoint begins when Regina gets kicked out of the Plastics table for wearing sweatpants on a Monday and gets humiliated at lunch. All of a sudden, Cady becomes the new Queen Bee. She invites Aaron and her friends to a party she throws the weekend her parents go out of town. The party turns out to be a “false victory” for Cady because she vomits on Aaron, who tells her that she’s turning into a clone of Regina, and loses her friendship with Janis and Damian.
  • Bad Guys Close In: As the tension of the story builds to a high point, things only get worse. Regina finds out about how Cady has been sabotaging her and gives the burn book to the principal. She puts a page about herself in the book and implies that Cady, Gretchen, and Karen are behind it since they’re not in the book. On top of that, she makes copies of the burn book and scatters the pages throughout the school, causing chaos.
  • All is Lost: This is when the main character thinks he’s down for the count. All the junior girls in North Shore High break out into a giant catfight. Principal Duvall and Ms. Norbury gather all the girls in the gymnasium for trust exercises, getting all the girls to apologize to each other. However, Janis takes advantage of the situation to reveal all the sabotages she and Cady planned. Janis gets praised for taking down Regina while Cady becomes a social pariah after people think she pushed Regina in front of a bus and on top of that, to quote Anya Jenkins from Buffy, she’s flunking math.

Act 3

  • The Plan: To put things in baseball terms, this is the main character’s last chance at bat, standing at the bottom of the ninth with bases loaded and two men out. It’s the protagonist’s last chance to set things right. When the police investigate Ms. Norbury for allegedly selling drugs, Cady takes responsibility for what she wrote in the burn book. She brings flowers to Regina and goes back to being smart in math again. She also joins up with the mathletes to get extra credit.
  • Finale: Cady’s epiphany comes to her during the Mathletes State Championship, when she faces off against an ugly girl from the opposing team for the final round. After realizing that being mean to her opponent wouldn’t help her win the competition, she manages to solve the problem in front of her and win the Championship for the dance. Cady ends up going to the Spring Fling dance and gets crowned Spring Fling Queen. Then she apologizes for what she’s done and gives compliments to her classmates.
  • Final Images: The final image of a story should be the opposite of the opening image, with the character in a new status in life. Mean Girls ends with Cady finally fitting in with her classmates and getting the guy of her dreams. Janis gets the head of the Mathletes as her new boyfriend. Regina joins up with the lacrosse team, Karen becomes a weather girl, and Gretchen joins up with the cool Asian clique.

This outline is great for action movies, romantic comedies, and ensemble pieces. I highly recommend watching Mean Girls and analyzing the story for yourself.

P.S. If you’re wondering who that adorable gravity-defying kitten is, this is Beatrice, a cute kitten owned by my best friend Lucia Marcella. Although Beatrice and her twin sister Charlotte have been recently adopted, they are already part of Lucia’s growing menagerie, as you can see here. Be sure to follow Lucia and her adorable cats (and other animals) on Instagram: