Take the Hypocritic Oath

DO HARMCathy’s note: here’s another winner from our newest editor, Lewis! 🙂

If you’ve watched medical or police procedurals, you’ve probably encountered the Hippocratic Oath, associated with the Greek physician Hippocrates—that’s four syllables, Bill & Ted fans, four—at some point. The oath is often summarized as “do no harm” though those words are not part of the oath itself.

Today, I’d like to introduce a different oath, one for authors and storytellers.

I shall call it the Hypocritic Oath, which states:  “Do Harm.”

Think about it. A book where nothing bad ever happened to characters wouldn’t be very interesting, would it? Do you want to read a book with no barriers to success of the main character(s)? A book with no conflict?

Ok, so why “hypocritic”?

Because as an author, you do all these terrible things to your characters, introduce obstacle after obstacle into their path, so they can overcome them. You know they are going to overcome them (unless you’re the kind of crazy-popular author who can get away with writing themselves into a corner before killing everyone).

It’s all about balance.

The more spectacular you want your ending to be, the more triumphant your hero(ine), and the larger the scale of the story, the greater the obstacles there should be, and the more pain and suffering and sacrifice your characters should endure before they achieve victory.

So I am here today to give you permission, as I often have with authors, to Do Harm.

Let’s get started.

Repeat after me:

I promise…to do horrible things…to my characters. To fill their lives…with pain…and misery…to torture them…at every turn…and to never…ever…make anything easy.

So, what now? Should you drop meteors on your main character’s head in the first scene? Well, I suppose you could, if you want your story (or your character) to be very short.

In many stories, the stakes increase as the story progresses.

This is an easy way to build tension. There might also be an added element of time pressure that comes increasingly into play, like the bus your character is on that can’t slow down without exploding might be running out of fuel. Ok, seriously subconscious, why do Keanu movies keep popping up in this blog post?

There should also be a natural order to the challenges you present.

I’m going to pick on the wisest of sages for a moment, “Weird Al” Yankovic. Mr. Yankovic’s ability to devise dastardly doings is unparalleled. But sometimes, for comic effect, he likes to screw up the order of escalation. There are a couple of great examples in the song “Virus Alert” from the album Straight Outta Lynwood. If the titular virus has melted your face off of your skull, is limiting your iPod to only being able to play songs by Jethro Tull really much of a concern? Probably not. Similarly, if a rift in spacetime had been torn open, would we really be concerned about litter caused by Twinkie wrappers?

When you are crafting a story, the circumstances should become progressively more challenging as the stakes and pressure increase. Aligning these factors can really help keep the story moving along at a brisk pace.

But if the order is off, the pacing probably will be too.

Now that you’ve been officially indoctrinated into the Order of Hypocrites (OOH), we should talk about two of the greatest enemies of the Order, “almost” and “nearly”. Ever have a character nearly get hit by a car or almost get shot? If you have, ask yourself why that happened.

Why did that car/shot/meteor miss the intended target? Were you subconsciously avoiding inflicting harm (breaking the oath you just took and condemning you to an eternity eating shards of broken glass)? Were you perhaps afraid that if your character were injured you wouldn’t know how to deal with that? If the answer to either of those was “yes” then you are injecting yourself into the story, which should be avoided.

Most importantly, if the character had been injured at that point, would it make the story better? Would it add tension and help with pacing? Does the character need something else to overcome at that moment?

Story structure can vary, but in most stories, a series of Bad Things will befall our intrepid heroes after the midpoint, escalating in intensity toward the point where all their hopes and dreams seem to have been flushed down the toilet with all those Twinkie wrappers. One of the many things that Donald Maass talks about in his various books and workshops is taking a situation and making it more difficult.

Here’s an exercise.

Take a look at one of your own scenes. What’s the situation? How can you make the circumstances worse? Once you have an idea, how can you make it even worse than that?

Have fun with it. Get creative. But do make sure the complication you introduce is organic to the story and doesn’t feel forced, you know, like Keanu starring in The Watcher.



5 questions to ask yourself when writing your novel.

I’m sure a lot of people are plunging into novel-writing… it’s January, after all.  Resolution season.  “This is the year I (finish the novel, start the novel, write another novel)…”

You get the picture.

This often also leads to pulling out whatever notes they might have, opening up a document, and diving in, whether that’s outlining or leaping into the draft itself.

But whether you’re plotting beforehand or doing a discovery draft, you might find yourself getting stuck. 

Here are five questions that can help give you some traction and forward momentum — and, if nothing else, will test the underlying bones of your novel.

Note:  because I primarily work with genre fiction, and because it’s my first passion, these questions apply to traditional three-act structured genre novels.

1.  What does your protagonist want?

This is a test for goal.

If your protagonist doesn’t want something, but is simply bouncing off of events and external characters’ actions like a pinball, then you may have a lot of episodes, but you’re going to have trouble creating a through-line.  Readers want protagonists with a clear, urgent desire, even if they don’t agree with the goal.  If you can’t tell me what your protagonist wants, then you’re going to wind up stuck somewhere around the middle of your novel.

You want the goal to be something tangible.  This is the external goal, the story driver.  So to clarify even further, a secondary question would be:  how will your protagonist know when he/she has it?

2.  What happens if your protagonist doesn’t get what he/she wants?

This is a test for motivation and stakes.

If your protagonist “will be unhappy” or “feel disappointed,” then your goal isn’t strong enough.  You want the protagonist to have a clear consequence if the goal isn’t achieved.  It will be more than just upsetting.  It needs to create a problem of some sort.  Preferably with a clear pain attached.

As a secondary check, you might see if the pain can be escalated.  If the protagonist is going for a job, say, the consequence may be that if he doesn’t get the job, he won’t be able to afford the house his family needs.  It can then be escalated if he loses his current job, or if his wife threatens to leave him if he doesn’t get it, or they lose their current housing.  Check for the possibilities of making the stakes higher and the motivation stronger.

3.  What’s standing in his/her way?

This is a test for conflict.

If your conflict is “he’s not sure if he really wants it” or “she keeps getting distracted” then you don’t have conflict, and your motivation is weak.  A character who is truly driven towards a goal won’t waffle about it, which means you’ve got to throw some fairly solid, and escalating, conflict in the way or you’re going to have a very short and unsatisfying novel.

Using the above example, escalating conflict is more than just “he has to go on a series of interviews” with more interviews being added.  It can be his car being repossessed, which makes getting to the job site more difficult.  It can be the introduction of an antagonist, a rival for the job.  It can be a “final jeopardy” interview which requires him to sell a million dollars worth of widgets in a one-week period.  It can mean moving to Antarctica (and away from his family/new house) for a year.  Again, think in terms of “how can I make this worse?”

4.  How is your protagonist different at the end of the book?

This is a test for story arc.  To be a true protagonist, your character needs to develop as a result of facing the challenges of the novel.  If you’re wondering about “how should I end this story?” this question is usually the key to the resolution.

This means more than “your protagonist has faced the challenge and won.”  He or she needs to have grown, in a visible way.

5.  Why does your reader care?

Note that I didn’t say “the reader.”  This is your Right Reader.  I get clients who ask “but don’t readers want more action?  More suspense?  A likeable protagonist?”  The result is usually a hodge-podge of humor, thrilling chases or superfluous murder, with a pandering “he may be a bastard, but he rescues puppies” scene shoehorned in.

Don’t do that.

Look at your character.  Will your audience understand his/her goal, and the motivation behind it?  Will they be able to relate, even if it isn’t a goal they’d particularly want?  Is your character compelling enough to keep the reader along for the ride?  Characters don’t have to be “likable.”  They can’t be boring, though.  Avoid generic.

Pull out these questions whenever you get off track.

Nine times out of ten, when I’m working with an author who is stuck, it’s because they’ve strayed from one or more of the above five questions.  Just asking themselves these questions usually gets them unstuck in a hurry.

Last ten days for editing special.

I’m running my editing special for the month of January.  It’s the only one I run all year.  If you need someone to look through your novel and help you with the structure, flow, and characterization, then now’s the perfect time.  If your novel’s not quite ready, you can reserve the rate for use on any single 500 page or less project through 2014.  Click here for more details.

Daylight’s burning, peeps.  Let’s write some stories. 🙂

Torture for Fun and Profit

As part of both my coaching service and my critique service, I get to see the framework of a lot of stories in progress.  When it comes to conflict in general, and Black Moments in particular, there’s one thing I’ve noticed over and over.

People pull their punches.

They get to the Black Moment, and it’s really more of a Light Gray Moment.  What happens is… unpleasant.  Possibly even upsetting.

As a reader, I don’t want unpleasant or upsetting.  I want soul-crushing*.  I want to be tied up in knots.  I want to stay up until three a.m., wondering how this character is going to get out of this predicament.

*And if you think this doesn’t apply because you’re writing comedy, you are so very, very wrong.  I direct you to THE HANGOVER, which is a funny gross-out movie, a perfect mystery, and a great example of how to raise stakes.

How to crush a soul (successfully.)

There are four questions you have to answer for your reader before you can have a true soul-crushing Black Moment:

1.  “Why do I care about this character?”

Usually, this is interpreted as: is my character sympathetic? Can the reader relate to the character?  Because relating to a character means your reader can imagine herself in the same situation.  She would care if it was happening to her.  That’s one step closer to caring about the character.  Bottom line: your character needs to be interesting, in an intriguing situation.  The situation will carry you until we learn more about the character. (One further note: she doesn’t need to completely empathize.  I love the show Dexter, and I can’t imagine chopping people up.  That said, I relate to his misguided sense of justice… and I look at the building conflict and go, Wow, how would I get out of that?)

2.  “What am I rooting for?”

Once you’ve managed to create a character readers can care about, you’ve got to go to the next step.  Readers need a clear and tangible outcome to root for.  Like any good goal, you need to know when you’ve achieved it.  Be crystal clear.

3.  “What happens if the character doesn’t get it?”

This is what’s known as creating high stakes.  If the answer to your character not getting what she wants is “she’ll be unhappy” then you do not have stakes. You’ve got a tangible outcome, right? You need a tangible consequence for failure.  If the ending means the character doesn’t achieve her goal, but there’s still a happy ending because she realizes that she didn’t need it, this still applies.  She has to feel shattered and hit rock bottom before realizing that.  She can’t simply have “an awakening.”  (See point 4.)

4.  “What’s stopping the character from getting it?”

This is the whole shebang:  conflict.  What’s standing in the way of success?  It not only needs to be sizable enough to require a lot of ingenuity and effort, it needs to escalate… like climbing a mountain, you’d better make sure every step gets harder. Oh, and be wary of internal conflict.  If your character has a goal of, say, getting married, and she’s got a proposal and everything but her conflict is her abandonment issues, if you’re able to solve it by saying “she decided her abandonment issues didn’t matter” then I have news for you:  YOU DO NOT HAVE CONFLICT.

Once you’ve got these four elements, you’re ready to craft a truly soul-crushing Black Moment.

The soul-crush.

Take your goal.  Look at precisely what your character wants, and why she wants it.

Next, write down a list of the ten worst things that could happen in terms of those characteristics.  For example, let’s say you’ve got a character who wants to get married by the time she’s thirty.  The reason why:  she’ll inherit a billion dollars… and she’s been struggling financially, trying to make ends meet to cover the expenses of a demanding and dysfunctional family as well as pay for school.

From a Black Moment standpoint, it has to look like she is not going to get the money, because she’s not going to get married.  To really make it worse, she’d get kicked out of school and disowned.  See?  No punches pulled there.  And say she fell in love with someone who doesn’t believe in marriage, and she was going to married some other guy just to get the money.  Bam!  She loses the guy she’s in love with, too!

At that point, she could also get hit by a truck.  Or maybe learn an asteroid is heading toward her home town.  Those are, admittedly, Very Bad Things.  However, they don’t really tie to the goal and motivation, so they don’t really apply.  The Black Moment must be in terms of what your goal and motivation have set up.

Donald Maass suggests a great trick:  write down at least twenty possibilities for scenarios where this could go.  The first ten will probably be stereotypical, complete cliches — what the reader’s expecting.  The next ten is where the juice is.  Stretch yourself.

Where the torture comes in.

You might think that the torture in the title means torturing your protagonist.  That’s true, to a certain extent.  More importantly, you need to torture your readers.  You’re putting someone they care about in gradually increasing pain.  Worse, you’re making them watch!

The really amazing thing?

They’ll thank you for it.  Pay you for it.  And keep coming back for more.