A Discussion of Story with Three Experts on the Art: Donald Maass, James Scott Bell and Christopher Vogler
Three of the most popular writers on story structure will come together this November 3-6 in Houston, Texas, for an intensive three-and-a-half day workshop called “Story Masters”. As a preview, we asked them the following questions.
Q: There are lots of dark protagonists around lately. Is this a fashion or an archetype? What makes them popular? What makes them work?
Chris Vogler: It’s more than a fad, since storytellers have featured juicy, nasty, flawed, and downright sinister protagonists all the way back to Oedipus. Twenty-four centuries ago the Greek playwright Menander wrote a play called “The Grouch” about a mean old man, part of a genre of harsh character studies, although that one features a redemptive turnaround for the protagonist. The possibility of redemption is a big factor in the popularity of such stories – we enjoy seeing “bad” protagonists enjoying the perks of their power but still struggling with the desire to be good or to be loved.
There is a strong trend to look deeply into the face of evil, or to get into the minds of sinners, lunatics and monsters. Maybe this is just a by-product of our media culture. Once everyone on earth has enjoyed the stories of conventional good and evil, there is a natural desire to look behind the masks of the villains and creatures of the night, where we find sympathy for our own darkest tendencies.
Jim Bell: There seems to be a sympathy factor for dark characters. People see them as a product of the very times they themselves are living through. There might be a vicarious thrill, too, of experiencing that side of human nature through fiction or film. But I don't think it's particularly novel. We've produced Hannibal Lecter after all, and Norman Bates before that.
Don Maass: It would be nice if a few of the armies of paranormal protagonists around these days achieved archetypal status. But most don’t. Paranormal authors seem to be going for cute, sexy and accessible. It’s rare that reading these characters gives me a surge of primal power. I find myself longing for Beowulf, or even Mr. Hyde.
One thing paranormal authors could do to strengthen their creature-characters is to make them less human, more other. Another would be to give them impossible choices on a Greek-tragic scale. Most paranormal protagonists have destinies and important roles in the human-paranormal interface. They’re often at odds with the governing bodies of their species. That’s all fine. But power struggles aren’t the same as struggling with your own nature. Paranormal protagonists today act easily human. They’re less convincing as monsters.
Q: Is there really any such thing as plot, or is that just an easy label for something else?
Jim Bell: Oh, there is definitely a thing called plot because at one time I couldn't do it, then I learned how. Plot is the arrangement of story incidents. It's a simple concept, but within that one must then use all aspects of the craft to create freshness and originality.
The reason plot and structure are so crucial is that this is how readers are wired to receive a story. To the extend you ignore them, you frustrate readers and reduce the reach of your book. For some that may be what they want to do. Experiment. It's a free country, so no problem—just as long as you understand the consequences.
Don Maass: Plot, to me, is shorthand for the sequence of external, observable events that comprise a story. It’s the things that happen. And unless things happen it’s hard to give a story impact.
What many authors need are stronger events. Most pull punches, underplay and basically wimp out. Strong story events feel big, surprise readers and even shock them. There are ways to do that deliberately. One is magnifying events, both in their outward, observable sense and in their inner impact. For instance, you can work backward to make a certain event a protagonist’s worst fear. Better still, you can take something a protagonist must do and make it something that character has sworn *never* to do. Or you can work with an event’s consequences, finding unexpected damage to inflict or unlooked for gifts to give. There are lots of ways to make events strong. A string of strong events is what we call a great plot.
Chris Vogler: Terms such as plot, theme, premise, tone and motif have to be defined every time you have a conversation because people use them so differently. My actual usage is exactly the opposite of the famous E. M. Forster formula. According to E.M., “The king died, then the queen died” is a story, while “The king died, then the queen died of grief” is a plot, a superior thing because it shows cause and effect. I use it the other way around: plot is the bare account of what happens in a story, without much consideration of “why” or how it affects characters and audience emotionally. I reserve the word “story” for the artful arranging of the plot to produce these emotional effects. When you tell a story, you put in all the “becauses” and “therefores”, turning the naked plot into a sequence of cause and effect that triggers emotional engagement. Who ya gonna believe, me or some guy named Forster?
Q: In constructing character arcs, what’s the most important consideration?
Don Maass: For many novelists, a character “arc” consists of one simple change, a lesson learned, a secret uncovered. That’s like correcting a bad habit: nice, but not that big a deal. Most character arcs need more steps. Protagonists’ emotional landscapes need to be more expansive. Their inner conflicts need to be stronger. Their change from one state of being to another needs more frequent measurement. They need to matter more to themselves. The whole process of change needs to be more difficult and detailed. More people need to be affected by a protagonist’s inner journey. Its outcome needs to be a greater relief.
Chris Vogler: Making sure the character has a long way to go. Most of the time you want the character to make a long journey from condition A to condition Z, with plenty of incremental steps along the way. Each step is an opportunity to learn more about the human quality that’s under your microscope, or a potential pitfall where the character may slide back into old habits. In movies and TV, the long journey with lots of steps is appealing to actors because they get to play the many slight shadings of behavior and awareness. I once consulted on a TV movie project intended for Angela Lansbury and she was very keen to know every slight nuance of her character’s growth, every stage on the journey from being a shy, helpless widow to becoming a strong, confident survivor.
Jim Bell: It's essential to understand what I call the "layers" of a character, the deepest of which is self-concept. That's what we protect most and is hardest to change. Spreading outward from that are things like core beliefs, values, attitudes and opinions. You should see the story as applying pressure to those layers, getting through the outer ones first. That way, when the final transformation comes, it will be understandable.
Q: Beginner story mistakes are obvious, but even pros have weaknesses. What’s their most frequent shortcoming?
Jim Bell: I've seen pros who have series sometimes get dialogue happy, where the dialogue has no real tension or purpose. It seems like filler. We have to remember that dialogue is an expression and extension of action, and should never be filler. It should be used by characters to pursue an agenda.
Don Maass: Actually, I find many published novelists making the same two big mistakes that rookies make: 1) Failing to create characters for whom we have an immediate reason to care, and 2) Not using enough micro-tension to make it necessary to read everything on every page. Causing a reader to care—quickly—involves showing right away something about a character that is strong or good. Micro-tension means creating a constant—constant—state of unease, worry, apprehension, question, doubt or anticipation in the reader. Most writers do that occasionally. All need to do it all the time. All the time.
Chris Vogler: Pros sometimes can’t see the forest because of all the trees in the way. They may be reaching for a big effect, some overall objective that causes them to overlook local flaws in logic and credibility. It’s hard for everyone, pros and beginners alike, to balance between a huge overall architecture and the perfection of all the fine details.
Another weakness of some pro writers is overthinking. Top writers got their positions in the industry on the strength of their wild imaginations, and sometimes their creativity or thirst for sensation causes them to overwrite, crafting needlessly complex solutions to simple story problems.
Q: You three Story Masters each teach universal principles but also singular techniques. What dimension of storytelling is most important to you?
Chris Vogler: Connecting with the emotions of the audience. My approach is based on my belief that this mysterious thing we call story is hard-wired into our nervous systems as a survival tool that we evolved over millions of years. Storytellers are actually trying to trigger physiological responses in the organs of the body that are connected to our emotions. We respond naturally to certain situations in life, feeling deep grief in the body when we lose someone close to us, feeling the bubble of laughter when something funny or wonderful happens to us, feeling a sublime tingling of the scalp or back of the neck when in the presence of something sacred. We respond with almost the same intensity in the organs of our bodies when we see or read imaginary scenes in stories. I want to find out where those organs are located and what situations trigger those responses. I like to say that if a story doesn’t make two or more organs of your body squirt fluids, it’s not a good story.
Jim Bell: Page turning. I have to keep the reader wanting – needing -- to know what happens next. Without that, nothing else really matters. You can have a great style and a great theme, but the reader has to want to read on or they'll set the book aside. Or sometimes throw it with great force. I don't want to let that happen.
Don Maass: Just one? To my way of thinking there are three levels of story: the macro-conflicts that drive the action from beginning to end, scene-by-scene goals and change, and finally micro-tension or line-by-line tension. All three must be working all the time for a novel to be gripping.
But behind all that there’s another consideration that I’ll pick as my most important dimension: Whatever it is that the author wants to say, or wants us to see, understand or get. You can call it theme. I call it what matters to the author. I’m amazed that many authors can’t answer that basic question about their stories, or if they can the answer isn’t an emotional one.
What in the world of the story makes you the angriest? What’s the greatest injustice? What’s the principle at stake? What in the story is closest to your own heart? What’s the most painful parallel to your own life? Answers those questions and you’re getting close to what matters. When you know what that is, you can use it more deliberately to build a story with meaning.
Christopher Vogler is the author of The Writer’s Journey and president of Storytech Literary Consulting. He has consulted for among others Disney, Fox 2000, Paramount Pictures and for filmmakers such as Roland Emmerich, Darren Aronofsky, and Will Smith.
James Scott Bell is a bestselling suspense writer. A former trial lawyer, he was the fiction columnist for Writers Digest Magazine, and an adjunct professor of writing at Pepperdine University. His books on the craft, Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure, Write Great Fiction: Revision & Self-Editing andThe Art of War for Writers are three of the most popular writing books available today.
A literary agent in New York, Donald Maass’ agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He is the author of The Career Novelist (1996), Writing the Breakout Novel(2001), Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (2004) and The Fire in Fiction (2009). He is a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.