Thursday, September 17, 2015


Tips for Indie Authors: Our Protagonists Must Risk it All. 

Our stories are not like real life. Our main character does not go to the bathroom twice a day. Our main character does not wash the dishes or shop for tomatoes. Or clean the fridge. Our main character probably does not wonder about the calories in his or her meal.

Why not? Because in our stories all the little things in life are pushed aside. Our story--the decisions of our protagonist--come to the front. That he or she takes risks.
Annie Taylor Discovers the darkest lie of all.
(Coming Soon)
What is the story? It always centers around a decision our main character makes. Our story centers around a dire risk that the protagonist chooses. Of course our characters each have their own desire. That’s what moves them forward in our stories. But our main character must have the strongest desire of all, so strong that he or she will risk everything.

That risk must also change his or her world. Not the planet. Just his or her personal world. And if he or she fails, it’s not regular life that returns, but a wholly different and unwanted life. Our character risks everything.

Take Jodi Picoults story, Larger Than Life.  It's about a wildlife researcher in Africa who goes against every rule: Rather than let a baby elephant die as it naturally would without it's mother, she brings it back to her tent.
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Okay, that doesn’t seem like much. The world will not collapse if baby elephant dies. The sun will not explode. No nukes will detonate. 

But within her life, within the context of the story, the risk is enormous.  If she is found out, she would lose her credentials and her career.  Her life as a research would be over. And, because she's taken this risk, we are pulling for her. We are concerned for her.  We like her and want her to succeed. Of course we like the baby elephant too.  And how the heck is she going to hide a baby elephant in her tent?  You'll have to read the story to find out. 

Or take Mildred Pierce. That’s the name of the novel by James M. Cain and the HBO miniseries. Who is she? She’s a middle class housewife in the 1930’s, a victim of the depression, who is stuck with a worthless husband, and who has two daughters, Veda and Ray.

Product DetailsWhat does she risk? She risks being even poorer by kicking her loser husband out. She risks the scorn of her children by deciding to take a menial job as a waitress. She even has to hide her uniform from priggish and abusive daughter Veda who will do everything to not be seen as “common.”

Not much of a risk, you’re thinking? Wrong. In the context of the story it is everything—the loss of the respect of her children.
What else does she risk? She risks starting a restaurant. In the midst depression.  

Okay, I understand; it's not a Jack Bauer moment where Los Angeles will blow up or the president will be assignated. But given Mildred Pierce's world, it's enough. And we feel that because the author has successfully brought us inside her world. 

And yes, Mildred Pierce's risk will evoke an opposition, an antagonism, from the world around her and its peoples. That’s what makes her risk even greater.

In short, Mildred’s risk is everything in her own world. If she fails, she’ll be worse than penniless. She’ll be in the street.  She’ll lose the respect of Veda. She’ll be left with nothing at all.

When you're reading a book or even watching a TV drama, ask yourself what happens if the protagonist fails. If he or she just goes back to the same old job and life, then the risk isn't great enough, isn't interesting enough. And it's not enough for our stories either.

What happens to Mildred Pierce?  Sorry, no spoilers here.

As you read your next novel or watch a movie or TV drama, look for the choices the characters make. Big or small to us, they will be huge to the character himself or herself. 
Adam Snow says he 
didn't do it.  Sure.
Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if the protagonist fails?” That's the question that the author of the story has already posed to himself or herself. 

The answer to that question is what draws us in. It makes us care. It will make us follow the story from beginning to end.

Summary: Our protagonist makes a choice. It could be Jack Bauer returning to save Los Angeles from an atomic bomb, or it could be Mildred Pierce taking a waitress job. 

The character takes an action hoping for success, hoping that the world will receive their actions well; but instead that same choice raises the steady forces of antagonism against them.

That’s what a good story is. 

Friday, August 7, 2015




Okay, you’ve got an idea for a story. Now you want to make it work in a really winning way. Your first step is the Protagonist.  That’s the leading character in your story. Here is the first tip to making a great protagonist.

Empathy: Empathy isn’t sympathy. Sympathy is when we feel sorry for a person.  Empathy is when we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

Your reader must be able to empathize with—identify with—the protagonist; there must be some shared piece of humanity between your protagonist and your reader.

Your reader should be unconsciously rooting for your protagonist. Getting behind your protagonist. The reader should be able to feel like he or she is in the protagonist’s shoes. This creates a bond between your reader and the protagonist. They want your protagonist to succeed. They want to keep reading to see what happens.

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You may remember Max Dembo. That’s the character Dustin Hoffman plays in the fine film Straight Time.  (I’m using a film here as an example because more of us have seen the same films than read the same books.)

Max is an ex-con. Just out of jail. Yes, a criminal. But we still like him. He’s gentle. He’s vulnerable. He’s a worldly guy. He wins us over with that hesitant, Dustin Hoffman smile.  He also wins over Jenny Mercer who works at a canning factory. Hmmm.

You’ve already figured out that Max doesn’t go straight. And he can’t, not after he handcuffs his parole officer to a highway divider, with his pants down, no less. Oops.  But we love him for it, don’t we. Max has been treated badly by the parole officer, and now the guy gets his due. We are for Max. We are with him. We want things to work out. We empathize.

Now Max is on the run, and he’s back to his old tricks. He robs a market, a jewelry store, and even a bank. But we are still with him. Yes, we like the criminal. We feel his tension. We feel his need. His tension becomes our tension. We root for him to get away with it, with all of it.  How does it work out?  No spoilers here.  You’ll have to get the film.

This means that your protagonist doesn’t have to be a goody-goody.  Vito Corleone wasn’t a goody-goody.  Nor were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Certainly not Jack Bauer. You could make a list. But what they all have in common is that we can ‘relate’. We can empathize. We actually like them. There is humanity there for all of them.

Or take Jodi Picoult’s fine novel House Rules.
Here there are a number of protagonists:
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Emma, the mother coping with a teenager with Asperger’s.  Are you a parent? Does your kid have a problem? Then you’ll understand. 

Then there’s Jacob, the teenager with Asperger’s. He can only think literally. No nuances. You can’t say “Catch you later” or "Give me a break," because he'll take it literally. No exceptions. And Jacob is a budding crime buster. With his special mental acuity, he figures things out that the police can’t. We like him. We love him. So endearing, he wins us over.

Oh, and don’t forget Theo, the brother who is always in second place next to his brother Jacob with all his special needs. We like Theo too.  Except that he was at the crime scene also. He’s not perfect, just like we’re not perfect. We can relate.

And Rich, the kind detective who learns to be a better detective from Jacob. And then he has to accuse Jacob of a heinous crime. And arrest him. We feel divided, just like Rich does. We are torn too. Oh, and did I mention that Rich is attracted to Jacob’s mother, Emma?  Hmmm, how will that work out?
4 protagonists that we care about even though they are in conflict with one another. We understand each. Each has a piece of humanity that we relate to. It’s our humanity. And it all goes toward a great story.
In your next read, or even you next movie or TV show:
1.     Identify the protagonist right off
2.     Actively observe your feelings toward him or her.
3.     Observe how the writer coaxes us to like the protagonist. (Or fails to)
4.     At what point or page are we “in”; that is, at what point or page do we finally relate?  Or not relate? 
 Adam Snow reveals who Madeleine really is.
Adam Snow reveals who
Madeleine really is.
5. Examine how your feelings toward the protagonist affect your enjoyment of the book. 
6.  And check how do your feelings change from the first page of the book through to the end. 
That’s yet another conscious step toward building a better story, writing a better book.

Thanks for reading. More Protagonist tips to come.    PG

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

What is the Inciting Incident?

What is the Inciting Incident?
Imagine this:
     Presumed Innocent
  • Your name is Rusty Sabich.
  • You’re the prosecutor for Kindle County.
  • There’s been a death.
  • It’s someone you know – a recent but past lover (yes, you’re married) has been found raped and murdered.
           (Your world is not in chaos yet –until. . .)
  • Analysis shows that it’s your semen that was found in her.
                  Yikes! Is your world now upside down? You bet. 
This is, of course, the starting point for Scott Turows great novel - Presumed Innocent.

The above scenario is what called an ‘inciting incident.’
Sometimes it’s called an “exciting incident.” Before it, there is relative peace and equilibrium in the lives of the protagonists. The inciting incident changes that. Dramatically (literally). It’s the reason for the story in the first place. The rest of the story is the protagonist solving the problem, regaining the lost equilibrium.

Repeat: The inciting incident is the reason for the story in the first place.  

Here's an inciting innocent on the first page of a book I'm currently reading.
"I saw something fall from the rear deck of the opposite ferry. I could have beena bundle of trash; it could have been a child-sized doll. Either was more likely than what I thought I say: a small human face, in one tiny frozen moment as it plummeted toward the water."
Does this paragraph get your attention? This is from Sara J. Henry's Learning to Swim.  Does the protagonist jump in to save the child?  (You'll have to read the book.)  Does it change her life completely?  (No surprise there. Yes.)

Or, take Hamlet: What is the inciting innocent?  It's when, upon the death of Hamlet’s father, his mother immediately moves to marry his father’s brother. Hamlet goes mad. His world is upside down. The rest of the play is Hamlet trying to turn his world right side up.

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Oh, and what about Joe Turner? Remember him – the Robert Redford character in 3 Days of the Condor? He goes to work one day, in a downtown Brownstone, at his usual job as a CIA reader. Fine. He has his life. He has his love interest. He has his great job where he reads things -- looking for ideas that might help the CIA. 

What can go wrong? (Your kidding, right?)
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Joe Turner goes out the back door and comes back with sandwiches for everyone in the office. But they are all dead. Massacred. His life is turned upside down. Who can he trust? (It’s the CIA after all.)  Are they really after him? What does he know that endangers him? The rest of the story is Joe Turner battling the CIA (in ingenious ways) to right the turmoil in his life. (If you haven’t read it or seen it, you’ve missed a terrific story.)

Or The Godfather. The normal equilibrium of the Corleone family is gambling, prostitution, and murder. Hard for them to have an inciting incident, yes?  But there is one – when the Godfather himself is gunned down in the street. That sets the book and the movie in motion, and the rest of the story is the family trying to save him and right their world.
Does the inciting innocent have to be violent?  No.

“If you build it, he will come.” Yikes! It turns the Iowa corn farmer into a tizzy.  What’s next? As he tries to make his dream real, the story builds and builds and builds. Neighbors reject him. His family thinks he's crazy. His farm is going into foreclosure.  But it was premised on the inciting incident --this one simple sentence, If you build it, they will come.

Oh, and the great book Grapes of Wrath. Here the inciting incident is the dust bowl during the depression. It turns the Joad family’s world upside down, forcing all of them into one car to make it to California (their own field of dreams.)

Does the inciting incident have to be negative: No

Take the terrific novel by Steven Smith - A Simple Plan.  The inciting incident is the finding of money. Lots and lots of it. Nice! Good news, yes? Not so fast. 
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The chain of events that lead from finding the money turns everyone’s world upside down.  The rest of the story consists of the characters trying to right their world so that they can survive.

Are there rules for the inciting incident? Here’s 5:
     What Happens When the CIA Gets Inside Your Mind?
  1. It should come fairly early in your story (10-15 pages), along with the development of the genre, first scene, and characters. 
  2. It pulls the main character(s) into the plot.
  3. It has to be of sufficient interest to the reader – actually hook him or her. 
  4. It has to provide enough energy to sustain the story.
  5. The inciting incident has to be satisfactorily resolved at the end of our stories.  (Of course, the ending must be a surprise, but logical. And, it must give the reader what he or she wants, but not in they way they expect it.) 
Homework: As we read our books and watch our films and TV shows, look for the inciting incident. 

  • Identify where it is placed in the story. 
  • Does it interest us? 
  • Does it pull the main character(s) into the story? 
  • Is it violent or nonviolent.
  • Do we care? 
  • Why do we care? 
  • Does it provide enough energy to launch the story?
  • Does it sustain the story through to the end.

If we study like this, we are examining other stories to see what works, and what doesn’t. It’s just one way that we become better writers.

 a love story of suspense

Monday, June 1, 2015

What is Backstory?

What is backstory?

Let’s face it, you have issues. Or you had them. Or you’re still working them out. You know which ones—the unresolved conflicts from childhood, from a bad marriage, wounds from something you saw as a child or an adult. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that as an author, you can use them. 

The reason some novels aren’t as compelling as some other novels is because the characters’ don’t have their own issues. They only do things and say things. They fall in love. They fight crime. Or they fight the law. They have great sex. Or weird sex. They quit their job. They fight with their husbands or wives or parents or friends.

And our readers don’t feel them. They aren’t real.

Your characters must have issues. Something haunts them. Or they have a fatal flaw. Otherwise they are not all that interesting. They are, as is said in the business, like cardboard characters.

What is backstory?  Backstory is everything that happened before your story starts. It’s the subtext to your story and what your characters do, and in a lot of cases, it explains your whole story.

In other words, your story doesn’t begin at the beginning. It begins before the beginning.

Your backstory doesn’t have to be said.
Text is what you say. Subtext is what you don’t say, but which is there nonetheless.

Take Batman, for example. We know that his backstory is the reason he does what he does, the reason he is the dark knight, the reason he is morose and even depressed; Bruce Wayne is the person he is because, as a boy, he saw his parents gunned down by a small-time criminal. Right then, before Joker, before all the other villains, Batman begins. 

These murders are the subtext to each episode whether on film or comic books. In some episodes the murders aren’t even mentioned. They don’t need to be. Even if we don’t know the backstory at all, at some level we know that something is wrong with him. Perhaps wonderfully wrong. We might not know exactly what it is or why, but without a past like that, there would be no person like that. Batman has big issues.

Or take the suburb novel In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien. It’s a tame title to what is definitely not a tame story. It takes place in Minnesota. But John and Kathy Wade’s backstory is clear: Vietnam. No, not the Vietnam we think we know. The backstory of John Wade in Vietnam doesn’t just move the story forward; it launches. The war we’ve all heard about, and maybe are tired of hearing about, is a stunning backdrop to a wholly different and utterly compelling story.
What happens when the CIAgets inside your mine?

In my novel, OperationFantasy Plan, Peter Gaines is kicked out of the CIA after 17 years and he doesn’t know why. He can go forward now, and see Yellowstone, Rushmore, all the places he’s never seen in the country which is his own, but which he hasn’t seen because he’s been operational in so many other countries

But something haunts Peter Gaines. Something he did in Thailand. Years ago. He realizes that he can’t go forward with his new life yet. First he has to go back and undo something he’s done.
That’s the backstory. The rest is the story going forward, and what unravels for him personally as well as internationally as he tries to right this single terrible wrong.

How do we build a backstory?
Begin by considering your own issues, your own backstory. What makes you tick? What makes you different? What makes you write? What draws you to what you read? What are your quirky personal habits? Your quirky sexual habits? What causes you to be lazy? Or to work hard? What don’t others know about you but nevertheless makes you who you are? 

Then Interview your characters:
What is their home background? Geographical location, parents’ history, interactions with parents, family problems such as alcoholism, molestation, inability to be affectionate, playing around. Or were the families of your characters perfect, hardworking, honest, unafraid, thrifty and brave. Probably not. What flaws do they have? Make a list--one, two, three. What is their economic background? Has family fortune gone up and down? Down and up? Just down? What political views do they hold?  What religious views? What is their formal and informal education? What do they read? Or, perhaps don’t read. That’s important too.

What are your characters afraid of?  Something as simple as spiders? Or maybe snakes, like Indiana Jones. Or are they afraid of success? Or failure? Or marriage? Or divorce? Or death? Or the law? Or maybe God?

 "The truth will sock you in the guy."
"The Truth will sock you in the gut."
What values do your characters hold? What do they hold dearest to themselves? What do they consider right and wrong? What line won’t they cross? What are they looking for in a friend or a lover? What kind of person are they attracted to?

What is the most significant event in your characters’ lives? Start by asking yourself what the most significant even in your life is. Loss of a parent? Some other physical or emotion event? A time at war? A time when you came home from war? The finding of a loving partner? A marriage? Or loss of a loving partner? The loss of a job. An especially humiliating event?
Remember too, that while others may not know us well, our own personal backstories are always with us. They are present to us, but hidden from others. To write real characters we have to be our own psychologist as well as the psychologist of our characters.

Don’t make your characters’ issues too familiar. Struggles with alcoholism, for example. We’ve read that story enough times. If your main character is an alcoholic, he’s going to have to be really different in some other way.

Often we build our characters backward.
We start with a person and a setting, and see how they react to some event. We let them surprise us. Often they do. Then we go back and try to explain to ourselves why they acted that way.  And as we go forward with the story, the character we thought we knew may surprise us again, or may change, become violent, or more loving. Then go back and build the reasons he or she has done what they’ve done.

The backstories of our characters don’t have to be overt at all. They don’t ever have to be fully spelled out.  But we have to know what they are because we have to understand them. If we write well, our readers will feel the presence of the backstories even if we haven’t spelled it out for them.
This is the story of
what really happened to Madeleine

It is sometimes said that our characters are really pieces of their authors. Perhaps that’s true. But if it is true, and if our story is fiction and yet with authentically human troubles and faults, our readers will find their own backstories inside our stories. Then our readers won’t just be looking down at the page. They will be drawn into the story itself, even hooked, because we’re reminding them of who they are, as well as showing them who our characters are. 

Peter Gilboy