The ENDGAME of Emotional Consistency

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Storytellers, today I want to talk about EMOTIONAL CONSISTENCY and why it’s so important to good storytelling.

This is a tricky one. So what sometimes happens is wow, you get so deep into your character’s head that you know exactly how they’d react in any given situation. It’s authentic. It’s real. It’s visceral. As they say, it rings true. And yet it feels SO WRONG.

You might be missing emotional consistency. Let’s look at a small-scale example first. I’d say spoilers for Avengers: Endgame, but since Tom Holland already brought everyone up to speed…

THE PAYOFF

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Early in Endgame, Captain Marvel saves Tony from certain death on the far side of space. One person who couldn’t be happier to see Tony alive is Pepper Potts.

Look at the emotion in this scene. Relief, gratitude, love. There’s a lot else going on in this scene, but the emotional core remains consistent. Let’s look at how this could have gone wrong.

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There are lots of different reactions Tony could have had that would make sense. The first person to run to Tony is actually Steve Rogers. What if Tony got irritated at the interruption? What if he was angry no one had a hamburger waiting for him?

In a different scene, those reactions would make sense for Tony (and could even be funny!). But those reactions would feel inconsistent and disruptive. See, scenes need to have an emotional point the same way you have a plot point.

It might make perfect sense for a character to react all sorts of ways in a scene, but if the character jumps from happy to sad to angry to impatient to terrified to happy all within a single scene, the reader feels torn in eight million directions. What’s the point of this scene? Where’s it going?

Let’s expand this example, take a bit of a wider view of the story.

THE SETUP

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In the opening scene, Tony believes he’s certain to die and is recording his final message to Pepper. He tells her, “It’s you. It’s always been you.”

 That scene establishes not just the emotional core for the next scene but the emotional palette the entire story will use. Injecting Tony’s signature snark—the kind that gets the audience roaring with laughter—would disrupt any sense of a coherent emotional arc.

This is what people mean when they say you have to figure out what genre you’re writing in. There are lines you have to be careful not to cross one way or the other.  

Not because there’s anything wrong with any of those lines, but because if you want to offer your reader a coherent emotional experience, going too far in one direction means you’ll now make certain kinds of decision that don’t fit.

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Imagine if in the middle of Halloween, Mike Meyers broke out into dance and sang I Want it That Way. Some humor in the new Halloween is fantastic, but if it suddenly turned into a musical, it just doesn’t fit.

And I say that as someone who’d love if someone made a horror musical version of Halloween! It’s not that it couldn’t be a musical, it’s that none of the rest of the movie fits a musical. I’m begging someone to make this version, though.


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Does it matter if your debut gets a print run?

Does it matter whether your first book is in print or digital-first? Some #thingstoconsider

A print run is different than Print on Demand (POD). POD makes each copy to order. Print runs mean a high volume of copies were printed to place them in physical bookstores.

Print run vs Print on Demand

Print run vs Print on Demand

Approved Print Run

Approved Print Run

Print runs are enormously expensive. If your first book is given a print run, you and the publisher agree that your book will sell enough PRINT COPIES to not just earn back the cost of the print run but turn a profit for everyone.

Note what I put in all caps: PRINT COPIES. The publisher isn’t just assessing whether the book will sell but in what FORMAT it will primarily sell.

If a book will primarily sell in print (with a minimum sales volume to recoup the print run cost), the publisher will give it a print run.

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But some books are more likely to sell as e-books/digital first (why is a whole other conversation, but basically, publishing is based on guesswork and magic).

If a book is more likely to sell as a digital-first title, the publisher is unlikely to give you a print run. And while I know most of us dream of a print run, in this case, you’re better off not getting one. Why?

ACQUISITONS

This is where we now have to talk about acquisitions. Editors primarily want to acquire your book because they’re in love with it. We spend hours and hours and hours with your book. We read it multiple times. We discuss it with colleagues and assistants and interns.

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Editors want your book to sell as many copies as possible. They want you to win awards and hit lists. They want THIS book to be the book that catapults you into impossible success. But before any of that can happen, they have to get the book through the acquisition board.

That’s right. Most of the time, an editor can’t just say, “I want that.” They have to convince an entire acquisition board.

The acquisition board has NOT spent that much time with your book. Certainly not as much time as the editor. How much time varies by publisher and board member.

Some read everything: book, synopsis, proposed selling copy. Others don’t even read the synopsis or sample pages (if that) until the editor pitches the book.

Some acquisition boards will look at your proposed cover copy and go off their first instinct. If they’re hot for it on the spot, acquired. If not, you never had a chance.

But let’s assume they give your book the consideration it deserves. Let’s say they agree that it should be acquired. Now they will strategize what publication channel best fits it. Print or digital?

Some (most) of this is guesswork and magic, but here is where they’re also thinking of your career. If a book is given a print run and it BOMBS, the author is in trouble. Remember our discussion about acquisitions?

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It’s easy to have lofty dreams for a debut, but once you’re published, you’re a known quantity. The publisher will look at your ROI (return on investment). Did they or another publisher invest heavily in print and lose a bunch of money? Eek.

A modest-selling digital-first title is easy to frame as an author who just needs a bigger platform, but a disastrous print run shows publishers that when given the biggest platform, the book failed.

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I’m not making a moral judgment, just noting what I’ve seen over and over. Publishers will hesitate to acquire anything else from the author, even a digital-first title. The author may have to essentially start over with micro-publishers and prove themselves all over again.

Or the author may need to totally reinvent themselves, and that’s an obstacle that’s been hashed out aplenty. Many authors simply can’t afford to reinvent themselves. Sometimes, unfortunately, because gatekeepers won’t let them. The ones who make it went on a tougher journey than Batman.

GOOD NEWS

Enough worries, we’ve got enough of those. What’s the takeaway? I mean, what I’m really getting at is that if your debut is digital instead of a print run, DON’T WORRY. Here’s all of the good stuff about a digital-first debut!

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Let’s say you want to shake your first and tell everyone why your publisher is wrong not to give your debut a print run. Here’s the good news. Some books sell better in print, but it’s a rare book that would sell better in print but doesn’t sell well in digital, too.

Point at the digital sales. Point at the POD sales. Point at the reader response. I’ve seen a nice share of books that started digital and then were quickly given a print run. A publisher is *delighted* for you and your editor to get to say I TOLD YOU SO.

This is the opposite of a disastrous print run. A DYNAMITE DIGITAL DEBUT PROVES YOU DESERVE A PRINT RUN.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Now I’m not making a secret here that some of what I’m saying is partly about making the best out of a potentially disappointing offer. If it were up to me, you’d all get the biggest platform possible for your stories.

There are some pros and cons, risks and rewards. And if you experienced a disappointing debut, there’s still hope. You have options.

Publishing is a marathon. I hope this helps you take the next step, whatever that is for you.


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Connective Tissue in Aladdin (1992)

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When you’re reading a story, do you ever ask, “What’s the point?”

If your reader asks that, you’ve lost them, so I want to tell you what I’ve found keeps the reader immersed and grounded.

My first wish is for us to talk about this essential storytelling strategy in the ever impressive, the long contained, often imitated but only once duplicated #Aladdin (1992).

CONNECTING YOUR A-STORY AND B-STORY

In longer works (short stories and novellas are different), one of the most popular story structures flips between an A-STORY and a B-STORY. Like if I was going to the fridge for ice cream (A-story) and was avoiding a bee attack on the way (B-story).

Think of the A-story as your big plot beats and the B-story as the connective tissue.

If you look closely at the Aladdin A-story plot beats side by side, you might notice something strange…

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It’s no coincidence that these plot beats look so similar. That similarity is essential to keeping the audience immersed and grounded. No matter how crazy you get in the B-story, they feel like the story knows where it’s going and most of all that it has a point.

(For more A-story examples, check out these articles on Black Panther and Moana)

And oh, I hope you get crazy in the B-story, because that’s exactly where you should let your freak fly. This is where you subvert the genre, defy expectations, give the readers exactly what they want, all of that stuff. This is the connective tissue.

It’s also where you forget about plot and theme and anything technical and just get creative. As long as you hit those mirrored A-story beats, readers will know you’re in control of the story.

My romance-writing friends know this perhaps better than anyone. Sometimes people condemn the genre as formulaic, but the creativity and personal touches you’ll see inside that formula make for stories that feel familiar but resonate more powerfully than anything you’ve ever read.

Don’t worry about what you do in the B-story. Just make sure you have one. Imagine Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 without Peter’s relationship with Yondu. Imagine The Last Jedi without Rose and Finn’s friendship. Imagine Jerry Maguire without Jerry and Rod’s friendship.

The B-story is what adds depth and intimacy to your book. It’s where your characters can forget about the plot and where they’re going. It’s where they can simply explore the world, their relationships, their internal life.

Hit those A-story plot beats hard, but between there? Be creative. Have fun. PLAY.

FURTHER READING

I love showing off story concepts in Disney movies because so many of them illustrate (ZING!!!) good storytelling with the plot AND the songs. For a fun look at other Disney (ish) movies, check out these other articles on Black Panther, Moana, and The Last Jedi.


Enjoyed this article? Come back soon for the next entry in this series on Disney movies.

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And if you want help with your own book, hire me :)

Don't Use Cliches! Except this one other time.

And then he just looked at me and said, “Using clichés is fun. I’ll show you how.”

Clichés are useful. They tell you immediately what’s familiar to your audience. Your job then is to takes what’s familiar and innovate.

Use a paragraph or heck, an entire book to tell the reader okay, here’s something you’ve seen a million times, but never like THIS. The trick here is that you don’t literally say the cliché, just use it to help you be more aware of how your reader experiences your story.


FROM THE DAWN OF MAN

This is a great one. Use a variation of this to subvert the reader’s expectations. The reader thinks they know exactly what the setup/payoff is, but you go a different direction.

I LEARN MORE FROM THEM THAN THEY DID FROM ME

Also used to subvert reader expectations. Use this exact phrase, then list the things you learned that are the opposite of what you’d expect to learn in that situation. Great for dramatic OR comedic effect.

ALL THAT GLITTERS ISN’T GOLD

I *adore* this one as is, but it’s easy to make an entire chapter that uses this without saying it. You show the reader that yeah, there’s this thing EVERYONE wants, but here’s the hidden cost no one else knows about.

LITTLE DID THEY KNOW

Dustin Hoffman explains this perfectly in STRANGER THAN FICTION. Unless you’re writing in omniscient POV, you deliberately break the limited POV to say hey, something so important is about to happen that God came down to say LOOK!!!

SOMEONE WOKE UP ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE BED

One of my favorites. The character is in a situation that should be fine, even awesome, but for some reason, they’re upset.

LOST TRACK OF TIME

This can be a paragraph where the character gets lost in the experience, then sees whoops, it’s sunrise. A good cliché to show, don’t tell.

ONLY TIME WILL TELL

This is good if you follow it up with, “And that time is now.” Otherwise, imo this is one to avoid. It’s like a prologue that’s all setup, no story.

CLICHES THAT DESCRIBE PEOPLE

HAD NERVES OF STEEL

Show your character refusing to bend in the face of something overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be epic, just an extremely vulnerable situation for that specific character.

A DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH

What makes your seemingly unimportant character special? A variation on this in romance stories is “Cutting the herd.” That’s when you take someone who seems like every other asshole who broke your heart, then show what makes them different.


What you’ll see across all of these clichés is that the key to using them is another oft-repeated cliché: “Show, don’t tell.”

I’ve been telling you how to artfully use clichés as the basis for a larger scene or story, but they’re also helpful if you flat out state a cliché. Here's Robert Cargill's advice on how to make cliches work by flat out stating them.

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He and Dave Chen have terrific writing advice in general, so follow them and subscribe to their @writealongpod if you haven't already.

NOTE: If you missed it, here’s Cliche’s Part 1.


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Don't Use Cliches! Except this once.

"And then he just looked at me and said…" Heard that one before? It’s a staple of storytelling. If you're not using it, you should be. STEPHEN! Are you honestly telling writers to use a *CLICHÉ*?! Yes. Yes I am. Here's why.

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First, it makes your scene breathe. You say there’s a point, but just for a second, you make us wait for it. That slight hesitation tells us something big is coming.

And second, it shows the reader that the scene has structure. Setup/payoff. Where’s the scene going? Never fear, dear reader, here’s the point…

We’re sometimes taught to do that in basic essay writing.

“In conclusion, here are my three main points again and why they matter…”

I’ll never tell you not to look for a more artful, elegant way to bring your reader into the experience of a basic setup/payoff structure, but for me, at least in the first draft, I like to make the setup/payoff REALLY obvious. If I read the draft again and not even I can see the setup/payoff, there’s a problem.

So when you’re reading back over your draft, look for whether you’re missing the “And then he just looked at me and said…” moment.


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Freedom from Your Inner Critic

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Due to our upbringing, many of us start our writing day already battling our inner critic. We know the critic is harsh and unfair, and yet we fear everything they say is true. Who are we beyond their judgment? Here is a tool to help you find freedom from the critic.


Think of this like warming up. Let's go over things to tell yourself before you start writing for the day.

Give yourself 60 seconds. Look at yourself in the mirror. Pay attention to your body language. Your posture, breathing, the location of your hands, tells you a lot about how you view yourself. Where are you today?

Don’t worry if your inner critic leaps at the chance to shame you. You are where you are.

1. Let’s start with this. Look at these aspects. Circle which ones you identify with, and say each one to yourself. “I am…” This isn't a complete list. You may notice aspects of yourself that aren't mentioned.

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If you can't find one you connect with, just say, "I'm awesome." You may not believe it yet. That's okay. Sometimes, these affirmations are more about practicing something healthy, new, and free from the messages of shame we grew up with.

Now let’s look at some more advanced affirmations.

2. I am good and getting better at -insert aspect of writing-, and I am grateful to share this with readers.

3. I really struggle with -insert aspect of writing-, but I see this and will get better with practice.

4. I see the usefulness and value of all things, including what I learn from my mistakes.

5. I celebrate myself when things are good, and I support myself when things are bad.

6. I have the right to ask for help.

7. Asking for help means I am embracing a growth opportunity and a chance for connection with another person.

8. I see opportunities for growth as proof of my potential, not evidence of my failure.

9. I set healthy limits and boundaries for myself. Sometimes, this means respecting my commitment to writing itself. Other times, this means knowing when to take a break.

10. As I practice healthy limits and boundaries, they will become easier to set and honor.

11. I set appropriate boundaries with people and behaviors that are not good for me.

12. I do not chase affirmation and approval from people who will not or cannot give it.

13. I will learn how to play and have fun, especially when telling stories.

14. I am here, I am alive, I am in my body.

15. I am human, and I have something to offer the world.

16. I face my mistakes and the opinions of others with confidence.

17. I have paid my dues with the countless cursings, threats, and neglectful acts I endured as a child and adult.

18. I have earned the right to exist simply by being me.

19. It’s okay if my affirmation work begins as surface work that I don’t really believe. I am doing the inner work that will transform my sense of self.

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These affirmations are also a good daily exercise to develop a healthier sense of self. They are one part of learning to see, accept, and love yourself in totality, the good and the bad. Thanks for reading. Me and Sydney hope you have a good rest of your day.


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21 THINGS I LEARNED AT THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY THEATRICAL SCREENING OF BATMAN (1989)

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#1 BATMAN 1989’S UNEXPECTED SIMILARITIES TO THE #GOTHAM TV SHOW

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#Gotham fans will be delighted to see that Batman (1989) actually had a scene like their pilot. The original script included a young James Gordon consoling Bruce the night his parents died. The scene was cut, but it was included in a BRIEF shot of the Gotham Globe newspaper. 

#1.5 The text reads: TODAY another gangland killing in Gotham City, prominent Doctor Thomas Wayne was brutally gunned down with his wife after leaving the theatre—his only son Bruce Wayne was with the doctor and Mrs. Wayne and unfortunately witnessed the crime.

2# MILLIONAIRES IN 1989 WERE NOTHING LIKE MILLIONAIRES TODAY

Bruce Wayne at the time was invisible and eccentric. He didn't want to be in the public eye beyond maintaining appearances, such as when he invites Vicky, a talented and widely-read journalist, to see his aloof millionaire self in person and report back the kind of person no one would ever suspect is Batman. No one even remembered that his parents had been murdered.

Back then, we didn’t have immediate access to a wealth of information and photos about whoever we want. Nor did we have the ever-hungry gossip and social-media machine

#3 BILLY DEE WILLIAMS AS HARVEY DENT WAS INSPIRED CASTING

I'm so mad we never got to see him as a proper Two Face. Like Michael Gough repeating his role as Alfred for all four movies until Nolan, Billy Dee Williams could have been the connective tissue in a series of ever-changing Batmen. The closest we got was this insane fan art (still from movie on left).

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#4 BATMAN (1989) HAS MORE TWISTS THAN A SHYAMALAN MOVIE

I was endlessly fascinated by imagining what it was like to see this movie for the first time in 1989. Unless you were reading Wizard, there was a good chance you knew next to nothing about the movie. You might not have even seen the trailer. Today, we make fun of people who were up in arms over Michael Keaton playing Batman (MR. MOM?!), but comic book culture was way different back then. Only nerds followed comic books, let alone a comic book MOVIE. You had a good chance of going to see Batman without knowing Michael Keaton was even playing Batman.

And the thing is that even though movies are often inextricably linked to the foreknowledge audiences bring into the experience because of the marketing, films are foremost made as their own entity. Every reveal in a movie was written and filmed so that an audience would experience it without knowing the reveal in advance.

For example, the first time we meet Michael Keaton, we don't know he's Bruce Wayne. We discover that at the same time Vicky does. She starts off by asking this random guy at the casino event which one of these guys is Bruce Wayne.

Random guy says, “Uh…I’m not sure.”

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 Then when Vicky is with Knox in the art room, they’re making jokes and looking around, and Random Guy quietly comes up behind them. They ask where a particular statue came from, and Random Guy says, “Japan.”

Knox: “How do you know that?”

RG: “Because I bought it in Japan. Hi, Bruce Wayne.”

And Vicky, in a callback to Bruce’s earlier response to her (“Uh…I’m not sure”), she now says, “Are you sure?!”

It was delightful to watch that scene again as though this is the first time we discover he’s Bruce Wayne, too.

#5 BRUCE WAYNE IS MORE ABSENT MINDED THAN YOUR DAD

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Bruce is absent minded, and that's hilarious until you think about whether that means Batman is absent minded, too. But I don't think he is. I think it's that his mind is always in the business of being Batman, and when he's Bruce, he's phoning it in. When he's Batman, he's nothing but focus.

#6 KIM BASINGER IS PERFECT AS VICKY VALE

If I had to cast Vicky Vale today, I'd cast Beyonce. The role requires someone who exudes grace, intelligence, and determination.

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#7 BATMAN (1989) IS ONE HELL OF A LOVE STORY

I looooooved the first date scene between Bruce and Vicky, and it gave me a deeper glimpse into this portrayal of Bruce Wayne. There is a real person inside Bruce, but he never shows it.

The scene starts off with them eating at opposite ends of a comically long table. And boy do they play up how comically long it is. Vicky asks Bruce for salt, and he can’t quite hear her. Then when he brings the salt to her, the camera switches to a wide shot and follows him as he walks ALLLLLLLLLLL the way from one end to the other.

The shot stays wide as he hands over the salt, and then stays so we can follow Bruce as he walks ALLLLLLLLLL the way back to his seat.

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From the audience’s POV, who knows how many times he’s done this before? All to preserve his image of eccentric millionaire (Not billionaire. Remember, this is 1989 posing as 1929). And of course he invited over Vicky Vale. A popular, reputable journalist who can report back that Bruce Wayne is the sort of person no one would ever suspect is Batman.

But yeah, this behavior and this table and this date are bizarre, and Vicky calls him out on it. Maybe she’s the first one who ever has? Because Bruce decides in that moment to show her his true self.

 #8 VICKY VALE CALLS BATMAN ON HIS BULLSHIT

I doubt anyone ever asks this simple question. They’re just happy to be having dinner with a millionaire, but Vicky is interested in who Bruce really is.

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 And after a moment’s reflection, he says, “You know…I don’t think I’ve ever actually eaten in this room. Do you want to get out of here?”

 And then we cut to him and Vicky laughing as Alfred tells a story of Bruce as a kid. It’s a side of Bruce that not even Bruce often thinks about, let alone shows to another person. And if Alfred is to be believed, it’s the first time since Bruce’s parents were gunned down that this mansion has been full of light and life.

It’s a rare moment for Bruce to show himself as the real Bruce. Not that Batman is just a disguise and not his true self, but he can’t show anyone the true Bruce who is both Bruce AND Batman. This Bruce Wayne is so secretive that most people don’t even know that his parents were murdered, as evidenced when Vicky has to figure out why Bruce laid down two roses in an alley. 

#9 EVEN BATMAN IS PROBLEMATIC

I don’t know what to do with this scene of Bruce and Vicky drunkenly stumbling up the stairs.

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Vicky points out the problem when she says, “I feel so drunk, but you’re not anything. How…?” I don’t want to believe that Batman would let himself get drunk, but if he’s only pretending to get drunk while letting Vicky actually get drunk, and now they’re on the way to sleep together, that is the definition of uncool. 

#9.5 Side note, I was so young when I saw this that I had no idea “sleep together” was a euphemism. Vicky later says, “I can’t believe I slept with you!!!” And I thought wow, that makes sense. Sleepovers really are a big deal.

#10 GOTHAM CITY IS AN AWFUL PLACE TO LIVE (DUH)

You get a sense for just how decayed Gotham City is when Joker kills someone in broad daylight, and the cops in the background just stand there. They don’t do anything until Joker’s goons gun them down.

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#10.5 Side note, can we just point out that it was Tim Burton, not Joel Schumacher, who made the bizarre decision to have the bad guys drive around in brightly-colored, easily-identifiable cars?!

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#11 BRUCE WAYNE HAS SUPERPOWERS?!

I was eight or nine when I first saw this, and when Bruce gets shot in the arm, I assumed he'd actually been shot. I thought oh, he's like Superman and is invulnerable. For years afterward, every time I imagined a new superhero, I assumed they too needed invulnerability since apparently all famous heroes de facto did.

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 #11.5 Similarly, when Batman in the finale flies his Batwing above the clouds for that iconic shot of the Batwing imposed over the moon, I thought ohhhhhh he’s recharging. Superman gets his powers from the sun, Batman gets his powers from the moon.

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 #10.75 Please don’t @ me to point out that the light from the moon is literally reflected sunlight. I was eight years old when I thought such things :P

 Besides, how are you to know that sunlight doesn’t adopt new properties when reflected through moon cheese?

#12 BATMAN IS A BOY JUST TRYING REALLY HARD TO IMPRESS A GIRL

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I refuse to believe Batman programmed his Batmobile to ram him down unless he says STOP. It must be programmed to sense something in his belt, so the only reason Batman pretends to use a voice command to stop the Batmobile is that he's trying to impress Vicky.

#13 I SUSPECT MICHAEL KEATON WROTE AT LEAST ONE SCENE IN BATMAN (1989)

I have no way of verifying this, but the scene after Alfred brings Vicky down to see Bruce in the Batcave reminds me of Michael Keaton’s humor. I mean that in a good way. Bruce and Vicky are suddenly a bickering married couple, Vicky worried about him always being at work, never being home with her, how long can this last? And Bruce get snitty and says, “I’ve got to go to work.”

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The sudden "I've loved you since I met you" in no way feels earned, but as a scene, it works.

#14 BATMAN IS JUST A DUMB GUY RUNNING FROM HIS PROBLEMS AND MAKING THINGS WORSE

That fight enrages Bruce, and he runs off to hide in work. He drives to Axis Chemicals and blasts the place to holy hell. Like, that’s something the police could do. Go in, shut the place down while he focuses on Joker. But nope, he’s mad, and so he goes to blow it up himself.

 Arguably, Batman’s decision to impulse-destroy Axis Chemicals in the next scene is what causes the destruction in the rest of the movie 

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See, while he's destroying Axis, Joker brings in his blimps and poisons everyone at his money event. I argue Batman would have been there to prevent this before it happened if he hadn't been elsewhere, destroying Axis. 

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#15 JOKER’S CRIMES DISPROPORTIONATELY HURT POOR PEOPLE

About Joker's crime. I never saw it this way before, but good lord does his big blimp event at the end disproportionately affect poor people. His big attraction is that he’s handing out buckets of money, but do you think any people of means were down in the streets to grab a handful of at most a few thousand dollars?

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 There’s a weird dissonance that never resolved for me about Batman somehow being the poor man’s hero, and Joker , if not being an outright rich person’s hero, is the enemy of the poor people. And is that really any different?

#16 JOKER IS A HUGE PRINCE FAN

lolololol he plays it on the stereo at the museum and at his poison event. I always thought it was movie music, but nope, one of the goons is carrying a massive stereo with Prince playing at full volume.

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#17 BATMAN (1989) IS A COMEDY

There’s so many laughs in this movie. Batman orders Vicky, “Get in the car.” She says, “Which one?”

The camera slides over to reveal a completely inconspicuous option.

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 It’s a joke that would be mirrored in Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Catwoman follows Batman off a roof and into his latest vehicle. She says, “Mother warned me about getting into cars with strange men.”

Batman answers, “This isn’t a car.”

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 #18 JOKER’S ALTERNATIVE FACTS

Once Batman reveals to the public which hygiene and cosmetics products to avoid, Joker puts himself on TV to call Batman out for a final showdown. He tells the audience that he’s showing his true face, and he’s calling out Batman to show his. Except this is a lie, because Joker says this while he’s wearing his fake Jack face.

We normally think of Joker as having a human face, and the green hair and white skin come from makeup. But not this Joker. This one’s face was turned into Joker’s face in the chemical accident. Now his skin is gauche, pasty white, his hair a toxic green. And he’s literally missing his lips. The surgeon, using “what he has to work with,” tattooed lips onto him with lipstick red.

Joker face comparison.png

 #18.5 Side note, LOL AT THIS SURGEON’S OFFICE?! It’s a back-alley office with a sign that says “Surgeon,” and yet when Joker loses his mind seeing how his face was put back together, the doctor sadly defends himself by saying, “You see what I have to work with here.” And the camera shows us a sad and limited assortment of surgical tools.

Surgery.png

WHY IS HE IN BUSINESS AS A SURGEON IF HE’S APOLOGIZING FOR HIS WORK?????

 #19 BATMAN’S SECRET CONNECTION TO JOKER IS AWFUL FOR BATMAN BUT GOOD FOR THE MOVIE

Joker being revealed as the person who killed Batman’s parents is awful. It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now, but at least in the context of the movie, it serves a purpose.

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It explains why Batman is so off his game that he doesn’t easily take out Joker. In his rage, he almost gets himself and Vicky Vale killed. 

First, when he flies the Batwing at Joker. He fires machine guns, missiles, bombs, all of them miss Joker. He could have ended this right away. That would have meant killing Joker, but Batman’s already shown he’s not above such things.

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For example, when Batman first encounters Jack Napier/Joker at Axis Chemicals, he lets Jack fall to his death into the vat of chemicals that will turn him into Joker. Essentially, Batman is saying that even if he doesn’t kill someone, that doesn’t mean he has to save them, a plot beat that would be repeated in Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS.

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 Second, once Batman catches up to Joker and Vicky at the top of the cathedral, he’s now recovered from crashing the Batwing, and he kicks the crap out of Joker. He goes out of his way to beat the guy’s face in rather than simply apprehend him and call it a day.

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 Batman is too smart to do any of that. The only reason he didn’t end this as quickly as possible is that he was so full of rage that he didn’t want to.

#20 HARVEY DENT WOULD HAVE BEEN A HUGE CHARACTER

Note that it is Harvey Dent, not Gordon, who reads the Batman's letter. Gordon lights the signal. An excellent foreshadowing for the relationships that would have formed, with Dent becoming Two-Face and Gordon replacing him as Batman's preferred contact.

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#21 THE END

lol at the end of the movie, why is Batman just standing there looking at his giant Bat signal instead of finding whatever crime made the police light the signal?! I realize he’s in love, but wtf?

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Thanks for joining me for this chance to revisit BATMAN (1989)!

GMC Redux: Intent vs Impact

In stories, as in real life, the Goal/Intent and Conflict/Actual Impact are almost never fully aligned. The greater the disparity, the deeper the character arc. Let’s look at how this manifests in the story.

CHARACTER ARC=recognizing how your actions contribute to the problems you want to avoid/resolve

BLACK MOMENT=you refuse to change, and that costs you everything

DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL=you accept how your actions contributed to your worst fears coming true

That doesn’t mean it’s all your protagonist’s fault. In a romance, for example, it takes two to tango. We're looking at what they contribute to the problem, not assigning blame. Take Dorothy from the movie JERRY MAGUIRE.

Dorothy.jpg

GOAL (intent): a full family

CONFLICT (actual impact): Jerry is offering loyalty, not love, leaving her lonelier than ever

MOTIVATION (how she rationalizes an unhealthy compromise): a partner and a father of any sort is better than none at all

Look also at THE LAST JEDI, which I went into more detail previously here. Rose and Finn have terrific character arcs.


Of course, it’s possible to tell a compelling story where none of these things are true. In such stories, rather than resolving character arcs, the story instead pits static characters against overwhelming external obstacles.

Like in HOUSE.

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House *always* returned to his status quo. He wasn’t allowed real growth until the series ended. Even then...did he really change?

Or DEXTER (uh-oh), who never actually changed.

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Dexter started off emotionally isolated, and he ended the show emotionally isolated. It was like telling the audience that every fit and start of growth over eight years was a waste of time.


If you found this helpful, here's a handy chart summarizing everything.

GMC chart.png

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The Irony Games

If you’re not already using IRONY to transform your story from familiar to irresistible, let me tell you why you should be.

The Irony Games.gif

Irony is “an action which has the opposite, or different effect to the one initially desired.” Let's use THE HUNGER GAMES as an example. Katniss did everything to ensure she'd be picked ahead of her sister. And yet Prim is chosen, so Katniss must volunteer as tribute.

On the surface, that might seem silly. Maybe it's ironic, but isn't it also kind of redundant for her to end up in the same place as if she'd been picked?

Well, no, because irony is at play. Katniss only volunteered because her sister was selected, and that grabs the attention of the public. Who else would volunteer for this horror show?!

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It's also, as Plutarch notes later on, why people are inspired by her. When given an out, she didn't take it. She sacrificed everything to save Prim.

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Suzanne Collins creates an even deeper irony later when Katniss sacrificing herself makes her the perfect person to lead the rebellion. More on that later. First, let’s contrast Katniss with Gale.

Gale would arguably be a better hero to inspire everyone. He's young, handsome, driven by rage against the Capitol, and has already sacrificed so much to protect his family.

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He's certainly more willing to fight than Katniss, but notice what’s missing from his arc. There’s no irony. Everything about his arc is straightforward and thus by its nature far less interesting.

Who would he volunteer as tribute to save? He can’t volunteer to save Katniss (conveniently against the rules, though that could have made a fantastic alternate story). Who else would he volunteer to save? Peeta?!

So already, Katniss is in a unique position to volunteer as tribute, and it’s the weight (and irony) of her sacrifice that inspires people and ultimately saves her.

If she’d simply been selected in the Reaping, no one would have cared. She’d have been one more sad face from District 12 destined to die.

And yet it’s the irony of her sacrifice that makes the public love her. This is a most unexpected plot twist, and they’re eager to see how it plays out. This is horrific, and yet as the actual audience, some would say we're oddly (ironically?) just as complicit.

The irony not only saves her life in her first Hunger Game, it also makes her perfect as the face of the rebellion.

It’s her very reluctance to be the symbol of the rebellion that inspires people. Gale is certainly more ready to fight (and die) than she is, but that's in part why he doesn't inspire people to the same degree as Katniss.

NOW ABOUT YOU

Now let's turn to YOU. It’s this kind of irony that will make your character and your story stand out. It’s what hooks your readers.

Think of straightforward premises that are fine but aren’t interesting. Look at all of the romance BCCs that end with something like, “But before the story is over, their love will be tested.” That hooks no one. We’ve seen that a million times.

The hook comes from irony like what we discussed above in The Hunger Games. The one person who’s ready to die is the one person we need to survive. The girl who just wants to live in peace must decide whether to be the face of a rebellion.

I want you to go back to your story and take a look at what separates (or could separate) your story from anything similar. Just a normal day in the life of your protagonist, until... *insert ironic inciting incident*

There’s a lesson there, too, about embracing what makes YOU different. Those very things you’re terrified make you unlovable might, ironically, be what make you irresistible.


If you want to discuss more storytelling tips from THE HUNGER GAMES, click or tap here for a previous article on building anticipation.

If you like THE HUNGER GAMES in general, you 100% need to check out the new audiobook special edition narrated by Tatiana Maslany, the insanely talented actress who played the lead in ORPHAN BLACK.


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The Problem with DIE HARD

Why does DIE HARD get worse with each sequel? One word: fear. With every movie, John has a little less of it.

Die Hard title.gif

The new Die Hards keep making the same mistake. They raise the stakes by giving John ever-increasingly dangerous external obstacles. This really misses the point of what makes those obstacles meaningful.

John McClain used to be scared. THAT is what made him an everyman. He worried he was making the wrong choice. He worried one mistake could get someone killed. And that person was sometimes himself.

The obstacles John faces don't in themselves make him an everyman. The thing that makes John relatable is his FEAR.

In DH1, he's TERRIFIED for his life. But more than that, he's terrified that if he dies, so will the wife and the marriage he's desperate to save.

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So it's not enough to pit John McClain against one difficult obstacle after another. Hey, it's cool that he can ramp a car into a helicopter, but where is John's fear?

Where's the fear we saw from John in DH1 when he looked at the tunnel he'd have to hang down to escape?

Where's the horrified curse we heard when dropped into the tunnel knowing he might plummet to his death?

Compare these two scenes, one from DIE HARD, the other from A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD. In DIE HARD, John hides under the table while Gruber threatens to kill the Nakatomi executive Joseph Takagi unless he gives Gruber the access code into the vault.

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The whole time, John McClain is RIGHT THERE, gun already drawn. And then he does nothing. Gruber shoots Takagi in the head, and our great big hero RUNS.

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That scene and what follows are exactly what make John McClain so relatable. He berates himself for not saving Takagi. "Why didn't you stop'em, John?!" But then he reminds himself why. "'Cause then you'd be dead too, asshole."

John McClain knows he's only human, and he's so afraid that even the filmmakers let him show it. That's bold. Compare this to A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD. John is...different.

Whereas once McClain worried about people getting hurt, now he's angry because these silly civilians keep getting in his way. Don’t they know he’s been in how many Die Hards?!

Now how do you fix this? Aside from not watching any of the Die Hards beyond part 3? Well first of all, make the stakes relatable. What even are the stakes in Die Hard 4?

I realize there were larger implications in LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD, but for a general audience, the premise of DH4 was essentially: Watch John McClain risk his life again to save...the internet? I'm going out on a limb to say they weren't trying for dramatic irony.

Now I get it, with each successive movie, John overcomes so much that it only makes sense that he gains confidence. By movie five, obviously he should laugh at the obstacles he faced in movie one.

But if you have McClain now full of confidence, the problem needs to be what new obstacles he faces precisely because of who he is now. That's the nature of a character arc. Something about who you are is causing the problem in your life today.

If he's so confident? Make him overconfident. He takes on something he never should have accepted, and it puts him and the people he loves in danger he hasn't known since DH1.

Or go the other direction. Who can go through this many unpredictable catastrophes and not have PTSD? I'd absolutely buy everyone around McClain thinking how awesome and badass he must be by now, but he's more scared than ever.

Or go the TAKEN route so that McClain doesn't care about his own life, it’s his kid who’s in danger because they’ve rejected everything about McClain. Their only hope is for them to save themselves.

In essence, make McClain as afraid as he was in DH1 because his child is in a similarly vulnerable position that he can't save them from simply by being badass. If you said I'm basically suggesting they write John McClain as C3PO, that's a good point.

If you said maybe Liam Neeson should play John McClain in the prequel, I would say that is the first Die Hard I will be seeing on opening day.

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Also, let's all remember that time the bad guy tried to karate chop John McClain.

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Anyway, I'm off now to watch DIE HARD: DIE HARDER. Those first three are still classics. Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk.


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Logline Basics

Working on a query letter? Pitching in an event like Pitch Wars? Struggling to identify the core hook for your story? You might need a good logline.

I want you to imagine you’re in an elevator. In walks the agent of your dreams. And guess what? They will listen to ANYTHING you want to pitch. The catch? You only get one sentence.

This is where a logline will help you. It's a single-sentence pitch that tells you not just what your story is about but why someone will read it.

Now I know we’re in the elevator with the agent, but let’s take a step back to the development process. A logline will help you here, too, because it's a quick and easy way to experiment with different versions of your story.

TEMPLATE

Someone (the protagonist) wants something (the story goal) and goes after it against great odds and/or obstacles (the antagonist and the conflict).

The key here is to make the odds/obstacles BIG enough that they will take an entire story to resolve. Big doesn't necessarily mean complex, just that the stakes are large enough that no single decision will fix anything.

Side note: That is often why romantic conflicts are weak if everything would be solved by the characters just having an honest conversation. "You mean to tell me you had a rational explanation that I refused to listen to?!" *screams*

Think of your logline as more than the Setup. You need to encapsulate in a single sentence what the story is ABOUT. What are we going to experience in the meat of the story? Here are some examples.

EXAMPLES

In a world inspired by ancient Arabia, WE HUNT THE FLAME follows a girl named Zafira, who must disguise herself as a man to seek a lost artifact that could return magic to her cursed world.

In a world inspired by ancient Arabia, WE HUNT THE FLAME follows a girl named Zafira, who must disguise herself as a man to seek a lost artifact that could return magic to her cursed world.

PRETTY WOMAN: A man in a legal but hurtful business needs an escort for some social events, and hires a beautiful prostitute he meets...only to fall in love.

PRETTY WOMAN: A man in a legal but hurtful business needs an escort for some social events, and hires a beautiful prostitute he meets...only to fall in love.

YOU’VE GOT MAIL: Two business rivals who despise each other in real life unwittingly fall in love over the Internet.

YOU’VE GOT MAIL: Two business rivals who despise each other in real life unwittingly fall in love over the Internet.

CITY OF ANGELS: Seth, an angel who wanders the Los Angeles area invisible to humans, falls in love with a distraught heart surgeon Maggie, who inspires him to forego his immortality and exist on earth with her as a feeling and mortal entity.

CITY OF ANGELS: Seth, an angel who wanders the Los Angeles area invisible to humans, falls in love with a distraught heart surgeon Maggie, who inspires him to forego his immortality and exist on earth with her as a feeling and mortal entity.

THE PROPOSAL: The only person who can save a publisher’s editor in chief from being deported is the executive assistant who hates her.

THE PROPOSAL: The only person who can save a publisher’s editor in chief from being deported is the executive assistant who hates her.

Again, the key here is NOT to stop at the setup. If you make the hook about a decision, a choice, a secret, a revelation, what are you really promising to the reader?

The conflict you present needs to be something that takes the ENTIRE book to resolve. It takes a second to make a decision. It takes a second to discover something. And similarly, if that's where your pitch ends, readers have to ask okay, but what's the story???

Look again at PRETTY WOMAN. The hook isn’t whether Edward will ask Vivian to be his date. It’s the promise of what will happen WHILE she is his date.

Look again at CITY OF ANGELS. The hook isn’t whether Seth will choose to reveal himself to Maggie. It’s what happens AFTER he reveals himself.

Whether you're still writing or you're cooking up the perfect pitch for your finished book, I hope this lesson on loglines helps you get to the next stage of your publishing career.


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Justice vs Revenge: Making Unlikable Characters Likable

REVENGE is one of the hardest storytelling tropes to get right, and yet it’s one of the most fun…if you remember this one thing.

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Revenge is hard to pull off because your protagonist’s goal is literally to destroy another person. Here, it’s vital for you to separate the goal from the motivation. The GOAL is revenge, but the MOTIVATION is something else.

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From page one, the anti-hero needs a motivation that the reader connects with and supports. Think of the classic THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO.

In TCoMC, Edmond Dantes doesn’t simply want revenge. The people who destroyed his life will continue to wreak havoc unless they’re stopped.

But go deeper, and we see that even if Edmond’s primary motivation was revenge (and I’ll be honest, it mostly is), these people truly wronged him.

He was betrayed and sent to life in prison by those closest to him. His lover (seemingly) abandoned him and married the best friend who betrayed him.

If that happened to you, would you want a little revenge? It’s vital to the Revenge trope that your readers answer YES.

Answering yes shows that the Revenge trope isn’t really about revenge. It’s about JUSTICE. It’s about balancing the scales and righting an awful wrong.

Keep that part in mind. Your readers are seeking balance, which is often why fiction functions in a way real life doesn’t. In the real world, sometimes the bad guys get away with it. But in fiction, if your character truly seeks revenge rather than justice, the reader is waiting to see what awful cost someone will pay.

This is where you need to decide the tone of the story and the arc for your character. Is this a happy ending or a HOLY SHIT THE WORLD IS AWFUL ending?

Maybe your story is light and fun, like the delightful OCEAN’S 8. Revenge there against a jilted lover is a small part of the story, but it’s a huge part of why we empathize with Debbie Ocean.

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Maybe it’s action-packed fun with an emotional core fueled by the protagonist’s grief over the villains killing his one last link to his dead wife, like in JOHN WICK. (poster from My Hot Posters)

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Maybe it’s actually about revenge, not justice, such as in Gillian Flynn’s exquisite GONE GIRL, where the reader’s delight in part comes from determining who is really getting revenge in the end.

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Maybe, in another story that’s also actually about revenge, it’s about exposing the awful costs of jealousy and vengeance, such as in the classic WUTHERING HEIGHTS.

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Or how about the out-of-this-world fantastic BURN FOR BURN by Jenny Han & Siobhan Vivian, in which three friends band together to finally bring justice against those who have wronged them.

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Even in our original example of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, Edmond ultimately must choose between sacrificing everything he loves for revenge...or sacrificing revenge to hold on to everything he loves.

Revenge or Justice are both fun tropes if you'll remember that your protagonist's goal isn't the same as their motivation. Revenge can be as evil as you please...so long as you give the protagonist a compelling motivation.


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title card.jpg

The midpoint high is a plot beat that’s easy to miss and even easier to get wrong.

WHAT IS THE MIDPOINT HIGH?

The midpoint high happens literally at the middle of the story. It’s an excellent tool to let the reader know where they are.

Just before the middle of the story, the characters encounter a big conflict and overcome it, creating a huge sense of victory. They did it! This is all going to work out!

This is your midpoint high.

DEFINING THE MIDPOINT HIGH

On the first side of the midpoint is the Fun & Games. No matter what crushing defeat the protagonist faces, each struggle brings them closer to achieving their goal.

On the other side of the midpoint is the Bad Guys Closing In, No matter what elated victory the protagonist faces, each victory brings them further away from achieving their goal.

And in the middle of that is the midpoint high itself.

The midpoint FALSE high

Look again at how the first half of Act II functions leading into the midpoint. The protagonist faces immense challenges. Sometimes, it feels like no matter what they do, every new obstacle is harder than the last. THIS IS A GOOD THING. It’s essential to making the reader feel the HIGH of the midpoint high.

Except the midpoint high is a FALSE high. The characters overcome this obstacle, but because they achieved that victory without facing their greatest fear, it’s a FALSE victory that quickly causes everything to spiral out of control.

Think of this like those movies that have DARK twist endings. You think everything’s fine, but then…

TWIST ENDING EXAMPLES

(BEWARE!!! SPOILERS ABOUND)

SEVEN

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After a grueling pursuit of a serial killer, Detectives Somerset and Mills finally catch John Doe. John agrees to reveal the location of his final two victims as long as Somerset and Mills will accompany him. Seems fishy (as a false high should!), but it really feels like they might have solved this.

MEAN GIRLS

Mean Girls.jpg

Cady successfully remakes herself in Regina’s image and takes over as the coolest, most popular girl in school...until she realizes that being the biggest B isn’t the prize she dreamed of.

UNBREAKABLE

SEVEN

David Dunn claims his true self as a superhero, a silent guardian for his city and the people he loves. He achieves this in large part due to the aid of his new friend, the comic historian Elijah Price. Except in the final moments, David discovers a dark secret about Elijah.

MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

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Garrett writes a “message in a bottle” to his deceased wife to let her know he’s found a new love. He’s ready to move on. HOORAY!!!! But then he goes sailing one last time solo…

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

The Fault in our Stars.jpg

Hazel and Augustus face their fears to discover their true selves and claim all of the best things in life, including the love they’ve found with each other. Except Augustus has a dark secret to share with Hazel that could cost them everything.

MEMENTO

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Leonard doesn’t remember much, but he does remember that he won’t rest until he finds his wife’s killer. In the film’s final moments, he does just that, but the killer’s true identity will upend everything he thought he knew.

UPGRADE

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A tragic accident leaves Grey Trace as a quadriplegic, but a benefactor implants a chip in his spine that gifts him not just with mobility but seeming superhuman abilities. Even after Grey discovers and defeats the hidden enemy behind it all, a darker truth awaits him in the film’s final moments.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Now here’s what you can learn about how to make an excellent MIDPOINT FALSE HIGH as well as an excellent transition into the BAD GUYS CLOSING IN.

The same way one of these twist endings feels like a true victory but then quickly transitions into a dark revelation is exactly how I want you to approach that middle part of your story. Make your reader jump for joy, even though they can tell this seems way too good to be true.

And you know what? They’re right.

WRITING EXERCISE

Now I want you to go back to your own story.

What is your midpoint high?

Does your protagonist face a huge obstacle before the midpoint high?

What flaw has your protagonist refused to face in themselves that fundamentally taints the midpoint high as a FALSE victory?

Answer these questions and you’ll be on your way to creating one of the most important plot beats of your story.


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Photo by @clever_visuals

Photo by @clever_visuals

You probably know what genre you intend to write in. You love contemporary. Or sci-fi. Or fantasy. Thrillers. YA. NA. Historical. But the genre that best fits your story may not be what you think.

It’s unfortunately VERY easy to get confused about this in an early draft. There are some notable (and hilarious) examples throughout pop culture.

My favorite? GOOD WILL HUNTING originally started out as a Coming of Age drama…and then bizarrely switched into an action/adventure set piece with Will narrowly avoiding capture by government agents. We can thank Rob Reiner for getting them back on track.

It’s easy to see where the boys went wrong once we stop to look at the story’s goal, obstacles, and stakes.

So your first task to reevaluate what genre you’re writing in is to answer this:

What GOAL is your character pursuing?

Of course, a goal doesn’t mean anything unless you also put your character against GREAT ODDS. Ideally, these odds are so big that they will take the entire story to overcome. So your next task is to answer this:

What OBSTACLES does your character face?

And finally, a goal and obstacles won’t matter to the reader unless you define why the goal matters to the protagonist. In order words, you need to answer this:

What are the STAKES if your character fails?

These answers don’t need to be (and often shouldn’t be) clear at the start of the story, but at the Break into Act II, readers need you to make these things clear.

Defining your genre

Say you’re writing an edge-of-your-seat story. You want the reader in constant tension. If at the Break into Act II, your protagonist’s goal is to evade capture by the bad guy, that implies there’s going to be a lot of SHUT UP JUST RUN!!! scenes. Welcome to the essence of a thriller.

But if at the Break into Two, the protagonist’s goal is “find out who’s responsible for this,” then there’s going to be a lot of INVESTIGATION scenes. The story is a mystery, a slow burn reveal, which is in part why mysteries can be so satisfying but sometimes struggle to find a larger audience.

Of course, there are all sorts of goals your protagonist can have that form the basis for Act II/the promise of the premise. Let’s look at a few popular stories to see what I mean.

EXAMPLES

Aladdin

After using his first wish to create a false persona, Aladdin must overcome his lies in order to convince the Princess that he’s worthy of her love.

Back to the Future

A well-meaning teenager who accidentally went back in time must now save his own existence by getting his teenage parents to fall in love.

Captain America: The First Avenger

After being transformed into a super soldier, Steve Rogers discovers the true meaning of being a hero by fighting fascism wherever he finds it.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

On the verge of defeating Hydra once and for all, Steve Rogers discovers that the true enemy might be among his closest allies.

Note that while CA1 was a straightforward action/adventure movie, CA2 turns into a political mystery/thriller. The story is as much about finding out who is behind this as evading capture.

Pretty Woman

A wealthy but emotionally isolated businessman struggles to close a deal without falling for the woman he hired to pose as his date.

(Equally illuminating if you write that from Vivian’s POV.)

Toy Story 3

After discovering that their owner Andy may have already moved on without them, the toys must overcome new adversaries in order to define their place in the world.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Now that we’ve gone over how the protagonist’s goal against great odds defines your genre, it’s easy to see how any of these story examples could (and probably did) get lost in the drafting stage.

Imagine Pretty Woman as an action/adventure story with Edward narrowly outwitting enemies trying to sabotage his business deal.

Or Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a romance, with Steve mostly focused on whether to date his neighbor or Black Widow.

These may sound absurd, but they’re no more absurd than Good Will Hunting’s early drafts. And the thing is that any of these altered versions could still be good, even great stories, but they’d be vastly different than the classics we know them as.

The point is less about what would make a great story and more about helping you define what story you’re writing. Once you realize your story is actually a romance, or a thriller, or a satire, or any other genre, your decisions get a lot easier.

closing thoughts

So…do you know what your character wants?

Do you know what great odds they need to overcome?

Do you know what’s at stake if they fail?

Answer these questions and you’ll not only know how to tell your story, you’ll have a clear vision to offer agents and editors. They’re already asking where the story will fit into the market, and you’ll quickly become their favorite writer by showing that you’ve already answered that question.


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WHY GENRE FICTION IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER

It was a time when a growing number of people found themselves robbed of their dreams. It was a time when we saw literal fascism on the rise. It was a time when oppression turned to totalitarianism.

I’m not talking about 2018. I’m talking about early 1900 America, when genre fiction—particularly noir—came to great prominence. The people of the 1930s survived the Great Depression and World War I, their spirits already broken, only to then see the rise of literal fascists, totalitarians, and bigots who wore their symbols proudly.

And in the midst of this were genre fiction writers. Fantasy, science fiction, mystery/thriller, romance, even the inklings of what would become the modern YA genre. They told stories that asked the questions few were willing or able to ask.

These writers compelled readers to think CRITICALLY and take action, to recognize and integrate the marginalized, to offer safety and security and above all a RECKONING for those whose only choices were to be abused, forgotten, or erased.

Whereas fantasy and science fiction writers presented their social criticism indirectly, writing about the future or other worlds to represent political and cultural voices that had been removed from public debate, suspense writers discussed “the devastating effects of American capitalism on society's marginal people” through crime thrillers.

Even genre fiction containing more obvious, explicit social and political commentary escaped condemnation because critics dismissed them as vacuous forms of entertainment.

That’s right. According to critics, genre fiction couldn’t inspire dissent because genre fiction had nothing substantial to say.

Sound familiar, writers?

It was here that genre fiction took an extremely dark turn.

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Mystery/thriller evolved into NOIR. Noir writers didn’t want to offer a single hint of escapism. They subverted reader expectations simply by showing the world at its worst. Hard work and good intentions for damn sure didn’t guarantee success in the real world. Where did that leave us?

What did that mean for main characters? Well, there might be another parallel here. If they saw that being heroic didn’t earn justice, why should they give a damn? If playing by the rules didn’t help, why not play dirty? If being polite meant indulging the worst impulses of their oppressors, why not embrace being rude as hell?

These questions drove noir storytellers to invent the anti-hero, a character who might have noble ambitions but didn’t require noble methods. In a world where value was defined within civility, noir heroes decided that sometimes, the kind thing to do was to fight. To shout. To play dirty. To be rude as hell if that was what was needed.

Evil, you see, can afford to be polite because it assumes full knowledge of the ways it is cruel and how to justify it.

It’s goodness that values kindness, and kindness means standing up for the downtrodden, marginalized, and abused, even when that means making enemies of those who don’t mind doing harm.

Suspense writers create situations where the audience must question the significance of choices reduced to what Kenneth Lincoln describes as “brute survival or massive robbery or corporate slaughter.” James Cain’s classic noir stories, for example, show a world where there is no law but chance. And yet as hopeless as that sounds, it’s in this desperation that genre fiction writers subvert convention and return the possibility of dignity to characters, no matter their end.

Genre fiction doesn’t so much repudiate the ideas of justice, love, and truth, so much as expands them to integrate diverse forms of self-creation. The world will go on its way without regard for human desires and concerns, but an unshakable fate doesn’t deprive our characters from contributing to their destinies with every decision they make.

The early 1900s wasn’t the first time writers weren’t taken seriously, and as we can see clearly today, it won’t be the last. This isn’t the last time that someone will tell you that what makes you different makes you weak. Or worse, that what makes you YOU somehow means you’re broken.

You already know this, but I still like saying it. You’re not broken. You’re not weak. The things that make you different make you YOU, and the things that make you YOU make you strong.

Genre fiction has never been more important, in part because it is still a vital mechanism for change. And most of all because the critics of that change still keep underestimating you.

They want you not just afraid but panicked and reactionary. Panicked people are easy to manipulate. But deliberate acts of bravery inspire others precisely because of the courage they require.

We can’t stop being afraid, and maybe we shouldn’t. But we can choose not to be panicked. We can choose to make choices in the face of terror. Terror, you see, is often the birthplace of true courage.

Now let’s be brave. Keep writing. Keep fighting. We’re in this together.