Thursday, November 1, 2012

Three Ways to Fix a Broken Story

"Harry, we think your first draft needs work."
Being human is something we all somehow manage, daily. Writing about the human experience, though, is so very difficult. To construct a tale that artfully blends universal archetypes with your personal voice is quite possibly one of life's greatest challenges. It's right up there with controlling the weather or finding a table at Serendipity in Manhattan without a four-hour wait.

You've written your first draft. It took you weeks/months/years. It feels great to be done. Congratulations!

But a first draft is not brilliance. It's not even great. It's a first draft. A plot draft. It isn't the completed puzzle. It's the puzzle pieces, dumped out of the box and onto your floor.

Your work still needs work. Bestselling children's author Avi wrote over 50 drafts of his first chapter for Crispin: The Cross of Lead. That first chapter is only a few pages long. It's not that he didn't find the right words on the first try: it's that he eventually found the right words.

When advising my students with regards to editing, I posit that bigger problems ought to be fixed before smaller ones. Applied to your writing, these are the three areas I'd focus on, first and foremost:

1. Character Transition

This is the big secret. This is why we download ebooks, watch films, and see plays. In a word: change. We like watching a character start in one place and end up in another, emotionally. Watching someone, invested with human characteristics, struggle and fight to become better than what they are at the beginning of your story – that's why good stories are as popular as they are. Look at storytelling's biggest triumphs:

The Shawshank Redemption, a story of convicted murderer Ellis Redding (Morgan Freeman), his fellow inmate Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and their transition from hopelessness to hope.

Harry Potter, a story of a young man, tempted by power and the lure of immortality, who ultimately accepts the fact that he will one day die.

American Beauty, the tale of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a (self-styled) loser, and his transition to being a good father and role model, a veritable winner.

The Phantom of the Opera, among the most successful plays in history, is the story of a tortured musical genius transitioning from a life without compassion to finally forging a single, meaningful human connection.

It's not an accident that emotional transition is the soul of your piece, whether novel, short story, screenplay, or otherwise. Static characters are lame. The most compelling Indiana Jones films (Raiders and Last Crusade) are the ones in which Indiana learns something important about himself and demonstrates it at the end (i.e., repairing his relationship with his father).

Never, ever discount character transition. If a character doesn't change over the course of your work, then he or she must at least be challenged to change in every scene, and also change everyone around them (see The Social Network or Patton).

2. Conflict

You're not writing a biography about who your characters have been: you're spinning a yarn about who they are and will be. That's why your audience needs quick, efficient backstory and exposition. The trouble is how best to sneak that in while not seeming to.

Is your exposition integrated with the action, or does your story pause for it? If it pauses, it runs the risk of drawing attention to itself, and audiences know when the writer is feeding them exposition. Oh, how bitter the taste of blatant exposition.

While character transition plots your character over the entire arc of your story, the best way to tell us what your character is all about, at any given point in time, is conflict. Conflict within, and conflict without. Conflict between your character and the antagonist. Conflict between your character and his/her family. His/her friends. His/her pets. There is never enough conflict, and that suggestion alone seems to cause problems for some writers.

The most common excuse I hear is, "But my protagonist is friends with this other character! How can there be conflict between them?"

If you have real-life friends, you've very likely had real-life conflict with those friends. You can still be friends and have conflict. In fact, the strength of friendships is best defined when conflict hits. If they run at the first sign of stormy weather, then are they really your friend?

Look at Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) in Jurassic Park. They're a team. They work together. They're attracted to each other. But screenwriter David Koepp still packs in conflict:

It's good-natured, sure, but it's conflict and we learn a lot about both characters in a very small space of time. Alan Grant doesn't like kids, he's dismissive, he might be cheap, and he's smart. Ellie Sattler likes him, she likes kids, likes to tease, and is also intelligent. We see what binds these two together, what might drive them apart, the fact that they're both good friends, and it's all done through conflict. Every scene and interaction in your story must have it. Period.

3. Archetypal Story

Your characters must be relatable, and transition and conflict go leagues in making your audience care for them. But what about their quest? Their external story? What are they setting off to do? Granted, members of your target audience have likely never been romanced by a vampire, had to throw a powerful ring into a volcano, or constructed an iron man suit, so how will you make the cares of your characters into the cares of your audience?

Keep the stakes and story archetypal. My go-to examples for this are Pixar's Finding Nemo and Up. In Nemo our protagonist, Marlin, loses 400 family members in the first five minutes. In Up, our protagonist spends a lifetime with his spouse and loses her within the first 15. When I pause the films at this point and turn to my students, there's not a dry eye in the house, and I can guarantee you that none of them have ever lost 400 family members or spent a lifetime with a spouse.

Or, in the case of Harry Potter, our protagonist learns that he's a powerful wizard, and it's his destiny to defeat the greatest dark sorcerer who has ever lived.

How do we relate to this? How can we possibly?

These stories are successful because they deftly handle the archetypes. Namely, what is it that all humans have in common? We all know what it's like to desire something or someone. We all know what it's like to love and be loved, to fear death, to want to protect ourselves and those around us.

These must be the stakes of your story. These must be what your story's really about. Granted, you might not have lost 400 family members or even a spouse, but your audience will know what it feels like to have lost someone close. Your audience may not be wizards, but they will know what it's like to fear death. If you're writing a romance, then remember that everyone in your audience has "the one who got away."

That's what the best storytellers tap. It's not just the story of their characters: it's your story. The story of everyone. We all know love, loss, death, self-preservation, and desire. That's what it means to be human.

Whatever your character wants must somehow be tied in to what everyone wants.


On the next pass of your novel, script, play, or what-have-you, make sure that you've baked these tenets into your work. To remind us of ourselves while simultaneously taking us away is the daunting task ahead of every storyteller, but it's something you can and must certainly accomplish.

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