(Spoiler warning: In this post, I talk about the plot of the children’s book The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. If you haven’t read the book yet, get it. If you haven’t seen the movie… get the book.)
A few years ago, a friend and I had an idea for a story: a sister and brother fall in love with the same person.
I’m sure the idea has been done thousands of times, especially in the 90’s when gay characters were hip and “edgy”, but we were very excited about it and met a number of times to brainstorm a story.
Six months and over a dozen stops and starts later, we still didn’t have much more than the original idea. Why? What went wrong? What were we missing?…
It’s a very common problem. Writers can be so excited about an idea that they get all dressed up and realize they have nowhere to go. It’s as if we started working on The Polar Express with just the idea of a magic train appearing on a little boy’s front lawn.
Ok, cool. THEN what? Well, he gets on the train and, uh, takes a ride to… somewhere…
If you’re lucky, the logistics of who, where, what, when will just fall into place, but more often you’ll find you have so many options to choose from that the story ends up going nowhere.
On the flip side, I pitched some ideas to a group of my fellow students at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and at the end of each pitch they seemed bored. I asked why and they said I was pitching plots, and they already know stories that have the same plots. Why were they supposed to be interested in my story?
I didn’t have a magic train premise, or “hook” to get the audience interested. It’s as though I said, “a kid takes a train to the North Pole, meets Santa, receives the first gift of Christmas and in the end continues to believe in the magic of Christmas.”
Ok… neat, but everyone has heard stories like that before. Boring.
So, if you have no plot or no premise, what do you do?
In either case, your audience will be asking the same thing: Why do I care? And the answer to that question is always CHARACTER.
The character of your story is the reason why people care. The character has problems or goals that the audience can relate to. It’s those problems or goals that allow the premise to stir them from their current situation, pushing them out the door and into a series of events (plot). Hopefully those events will challenge and encourage those relatable problems or goals until an inevitable success or failure for the character. It begins and ends with character.
What does a magic train mean to this particular little boy? What would meeting Santa and receiving the first gift of Christmas mean to him? (Note: The book and the movie differ on this.)
Why does falling in love with the same person challenge these particular siblings as individuals? Or as a family? What would it mean to me if I were in their shoes, or if I were the one they both loved?
With any idea, find something about the character(s) that you can emotionally connect to, or move on to a different idea. Otherwise, you will be stabbing at the dark for six months wondering what to do with the magic train parked in your front yard!
Good luck! I hope that helps.
In my previous post, I discussed a common problem in writing: trying to tell more than one story within one story. Typically, this is made apparent by having more than one protagonist and/or more than one problem for the protagonist(s) to face.
This happens all the time. It is so common, that professionals do it constantly. Pixar did it in Ratatouille. Christopher Nolan did it with The Dark Knight. And even the It-guy of comic writing, Alan Moore, did it in Watchmen… (Note: If you haven’t read Watchmen, there are spoilers below.)
First, a little vocab:
1) “Protagonist” = the character responsible for handling the main problem and the one most in need of change, emotionally.
2) “Mentor” = the protagonist’s conscience. They are the prevailing side to the thematic argument. They voice the lesson that must be learned by the protagonist in order to change for the better.
(Update 10/31/09 — see the Eight Character Roles for more)
Many people have argued with me that Rorschach is the protagonist, but I disagree. Dan Dreiberg is the protagonist.
The Comedian’s murder is the catalyst Dan needs to change from a complacent wimp to the embodiment of Rorschach’s message, “Never Surrender” (theme). Rorschach already embodies this theme; he has no room for change. It is Dan that needs to change.
Therefore, Dan Dreiberg is the protagonist of Watchmen and Rorschach is the mentor.
The entire structure of the story is built around Dan gradually incorporating Rorschach’s message: Dan saves people from a burning building, he defies the warnings of the police, he breaks Rorschach out of jail, and even confronts Adrian Veidt on Adrian’s turf.
Each act of deviance builds upon the other so that when Dan ultimately makes his final choice to either succeed or fail at embodying the theme in the face of certain adversity, his experiences within the story will support that decision and he will have changed for the better.
In the end, Dan folds, repeating his mistake to be complacent to the wills of society, as though he hasn’t experienced a thing, and Rorschach is given center stage as a false protagonist.
We watch as Rorschach continues to embody “Never Surrender” and Dan wilts away. Bummer.
It is my suspicion that Alan Moore lost his focus and forgot that Dan was the protagonist.
It’s entirely understandable. In the final chapters, a great deal of effort was spent on grounding the rather odd logistics of Adrian’s crime. In the cloud of the murder mystery (not to mention all the other stories he was writing at the time), Moore could have easily forgotten that the point of the story is not the murder mystery itself but what it means to Dan’s mid-life crisis, resulting in a finale that has two protagonists instead of one.
So, you see? Even professionals make this mistake! Fortunately for Moore, readers either don’t notice or are forgiving enough to enjoy Watchmen for it’s numerous strengths. But, I wouldn’t recommend relying on that.
I hope that helps!
During Coffee-4-Crit, a story consultation service I’ve started while attending The Center for Cartoon Studies MFA program (UPDATE: I’m not currently taking any story consulting gigs. Thank you.), I’ve found that one of the most common problems (in both the writing of others and in my own) is when one story tells more than one story.
What do I mean by that? Each story is about one thing. There is one protagonist dealing with one problem, and while writing, we can lose focus from that one thing.
If this happens to you, don’t worry. It happens all the time. It’s really easy to do.
We may have too many awesome ideas, too many interesting characters or we get confused over what something truly means to us, whatever the reason, we get distracted from the point (to have our protagonist encounter a problem) and we start telling more than one story (two or more protagonists and/or two or more problems).
1) Imitate — Find good movies or books where protagonists deal with a problem similar to your story and imitate their plots – keyword being “imitate”, not “duplicate” (I do not advise ripping off other projects. Instead, use it as a learning tool).
I use the book Save the Cat for this approach (see my book review entry). The author, Blake Snyder, has done the legwork for you, categorizing movies based on problems the protagonist must face which he calls Storytypes. Love stories, monster stories, road trip/journey stories, etc. Each Storytype covers the same problem, but each does so in it’s own way. The examples are all movies, but the same patterns apply to comic stories as well.
& 2) Write a logline – one sentence describing the protagonist and the tangible problem that forces/inspires them to change (If the problem is intangible, you’re dealing with the theme, not the problem) – then, have an analytical person read the story and tell you what it’s about. If they don’t match, you’ve got a problem.
Typically, I can’t write a good logline until after my first draft. I have to muck everything up before I realize where it’s supposed to go.
I hope that helps.
If not, send me your script and we’ll talk in more detail…over coffee. (UPDATE: I’m not currently taking any story consulting gigs. Thank you.)
P.S. For an example of a professional story with this problem, see my next entry about Watchmen.