Recently, I’ve talked about avoiding writer’s block through plot outlines and then I told you a good way to make a plot outline. Now I’m taking a step backward. Well, a lot farther backward, before the plot outline. You’re thinking of a book you want to write. Maybe you’ve got a character in mind or just the conflict. Maybe you know only that you want to write a book in a specific genre such as a space opera or a Colonial American historical romance.
The point is: You’re in the planning stage.
You’re still figuring out who the characters are. Why they are going on this journey? Why do they care at all?
I’ve started toying with a new idea for a story, and I already know that it’s going to have a very long planning phase. I’m going to create pages of character sketches, world essays and notes, and even more character backstory notes before I even start writing the book.
As I’m creating my characters and the world they will inhabit, I’m also going to take some time to dissect some of the stories and characters I’ve come to love during the past several years. The point isn’t to replicate something else someone has done well but to understand why it worked, why it reached the audience, why you loved it in the first place. Is there something you can learn from someone else’s success that you can apply to your own work?
Let’s look at a couple examples very quickly.
A few months ago, some friends introduced me to Doctor Who. After the first couple episodes, I thought it was cute and okay. By the end of the first season, I was absolutely addicted. I’ve spent an insane amount of time crying at the episodes and the other small part of the time cheering. They are full of whimsy and strangeness, where the unexpected regularly happens.
I’ve spent an insane amount of time trying to figure out why I love the series. The stories are good, but not ground breaking. All the characters are interesting. I think it comes down to one thing.
- Whimsy vs. Profound
The writers of the plots have established an amazing balance when writing their scripts. For the most part, the vast majority of the scripts and actions are exciting and whimsical. Even when the characters are running for their lives, they maintain a happy sense of adventure. But it all can’t be a carefree lark. No, there must be the deep, profound moments, but they are used sparingly so that they don’t lose their impact.
If the script has 200 lines, then only 2 lines are deep and profound. Sure, the Doctor can go on a rant about what is really important, but do you want to hear a rant? How about 2 lines of earthshattering statement back-up with an action? Which has a greater, more memorable impact on the viewer?
In one instance, the world we know has come apart in the most terrible way and a tearful Donna, a companion of the Doctor, is explaining how unimportant she is in the grand scheme of things. It comes back to her almost constant refrain, “I’m just a temp.”
But Rose needs to say only one thing to reach the viewer. “Donna, you are the most important woman in the entire universe.”
And you cheer! Why? Because that simple statement was matched with an action – the entire universe coming apart because of one very small decision Donna makes. She is the most important woman in the entire universe.
Another moment, and possibly my most favorite:
“I’m burning up a star just to say good-bye to you.”
The Doctor loses someone dear to him, but he stubbornly won’t say those magical three words. No, he manages to do and say something even better. A man who treasures the beauty and life in all the universe destroys a star just to reach out to one person. What’s more, for the rest of his life, you see him react when he hears of this woman, as if he is constantly reaching out and searching for a way to get her back.
Lesson learned: Instead of a rant or multiple rants, can you pare your key emotional or intellectual entreaty down to a paragraph? Now, cut it down to 2 lines. Or maybe just 1. Now marry that 1-2 lines to an action.
Guardians of the Galaxy
I won’t say too much about this one because I don’t want to give anything away if you haven’t see the movie yet. I have actually seen it twice and I’m ready to go back again. The storytelling followed a tried and true formula – that I will take apart on another day – that works very well. What I want to focus on is the main character, the hero Peter Quill, Starlord.
I think what I liked about this hero is that he was unexpected in many ways. Sure, he starts as the classic anti-hero, but in a lighter, less jaded version. He was rough around the edges, but without being hard and cold. There are 2 great words to describe this character:
Yes, they story is set in space and involves aliens, magical powers, and galaxies far, far away, but this main character remains easily relate-able through the entire story, making the viewer willing to follow him on this journey – even if you don’t understand what’s going on the whole time.
And being vulnerable, you understand his reluctance. You understand his mistakes and bad decisions. And in the end, you cheer when he learns, grows, and makes the right decisions.
Lesson learned: Your main character needs to be relate-able. The reader needs to be able to see himself/herself in their shoes. They will feel the character’s pain and joy. They will follow your character into the dark woods, deep space, or down into the unlit basement.
Will I be able to easily work these lessons I’ve learned from two of my favorite shows into my next book? I don’t know. I certainly hope so. These are the types of things that I’ll be keeping in the back of my mind as I write.
If you’re looking for some more awesome tips, check out these 22 Rules of Storytelling from Pixar.