...Before Driving Them Home in the Breast of Boredom.
|He was dying from boredom. It's better this way.|
I always have a book on the table while I eat. My kids think it's unfair because I won't let them read while they eat, but they are much more likely to have a spill, so it's just too bad for them.
This morning that book was Story, by Robert McKee. Easily the best book about how to engage an audience that I've ever read. I'm reviewing conflict and act design.
Here're a few tidbits-
Here's a simple test to apply to any story. Ask: What is the risk? What does the protagonist stand to lose if he does not get what he wants? More specifically, what's the worst thing that will happen to the protagonist if he does not achieve his desire?Ouch. Not worthy of telling. Sound like any memoires you've read? I kid, memoire-writers. Or is this one of those jokes that reveals my true feelings?
If this question cannot be answered in a compelling way, the story is misconceived at its core. For example, if the answer is: "Should the protagonist fail, life would go back to normal," this story is not worthy of telling.
Okay, let's take this concept down to the scene level. In a particular scene, what happens if your protagonist fails? If it's a return to real life, that's a problem, too. There are building scenes where the conflict is increasing without coming to a conclusion, sure, but there must be risk for the protagonist. There must be stakes, and they must be high.
A crit partner told me that's what her agent commented to her over and over in her edits: Raise the stakes.
In behavioral psychology, there's this term for increasingly desperate behavior called an extinction burst. We all do it. You put a few quarters in the vending machine, press the button. Your drink doesn't come out. You press the button again, a little more firmly. When you press the return change button, it's the same. Nothing. You lift the door, maybe the drink was released and somehow you didn't notice the loud thump as the can landed in the trough, but there's nothing there. So you press the button again, ten times real fast, each time getting harder. Maybe you're a little mad now. You hit the side of the machine, sure that somehow this will work.
In a lot of novels, the protagonist is operating in this way: trying with increasing desperation to get the Coke out of the machine. They would never just walk up to the machine and punch it, but because they are blocked over and over again, they are willing to try just a little bit harder, then a little more, hoping that it will finally work.
Incidentally, giving in when a child is in the midst of an extinction burst is the best way to teach them that desperate behavior works. It sets you up for years of buying candy in the checkout line at the grocery. So don't give in when kids are kicking and screaming. They are so close to giving up and getting on with their lives. That makes for a boring novel, though. In writing, we want to increase desperation.
Here's one more quote from Story:
A story must not retreat to actions of lesser quality or magnitude, but move progressively forward to a final action beyond which the audience cannot imagine another.You can't have your protagonist discover a baseball bat, and walk toward the Coke machine at the end of the chapter, then have them find 75 cents in their pocket at the opening of the next chapter. Wouldn't they have checked their pockets for more change before they considered destroying the machine? Raise the stakes, one step at a time. Lead the character to the climax, where they will do something they never could have seen coming on page one.
I hope you all had an amazing Thanksgiving. I love having a few days off to be with the family and revel in all of my blessings. Happy Writing!