Monthly Archives: September 2012

“The Hopes and Dreams of Truly Awful People” — a guest post by Art Holcomb

Love Art Holcomb.  His resume is… massively credible.  Use the search function (to the right on this site) to find more Storyfix contributions from this guy.  Worth every minute.

In fact — to show you who this guy is — about ten minutes before posting this I get a lengthy (and genius) email from Art about how to take Storyfix deeper into the screenwriting world.  We should all take a page out of this guy’s book.

When you’re done here, click over to Inkybites for an interview with yours truly. 

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The Hopes and Dreams of Truly Awful People

by Art Holcomb

After more than twenty years writing comics and screenplays, I have come to know a lot about villains and what makes them tick.  In that time, I’ve created crazed megalomaniacs, fierce aliens, marauding computer programs, scheming business tycoons and – in one particular case – a very angry dragon.  And let me tell you, writing for the villain is often more difficult and more pleasurable that writing for the hero!

With that said; please consider the following Rogue’s Gallery – all members in “very bad” standing:

Moriarty, Voldemort, Dracula, The Werewolf, Iago, Darth Vader, Lex Luthor, Captain Hook, Skar, Satan, Nurse Ratchet, Richelieu, Hannibal Lector, Scarface, , Norman Bates, Anton Chigurh, Freddy Krueger, Gordon Gekko, Senator Palpatine, Harry Lime, Jack the Ripper, Hans Gruber, Auric Goldfinger, Stromboli, Sweeney Todd, Michael Corleone . . . The Joker.

So . . . what is it that all these characters have in common?

Answer: They each go to bed every night knowing – absolutely knowing – that they are the HEROES OF THEIR OWN STORY.

And they are right! 

Because it was the only way for their creators to make sure these characters could do their job: that is, drive the conflict necessary to bring about REAL change in the hero.  It’s what makes each of these stories a classic. 

For example, Voldemort is positively relentless in his evilly-do.  His ever- growing threat forces Harry Potter to change, to evolve from a petulant little boy to the Master of the Wizarding World. But, to make it work, Voldemort HAS TO BELIEVE that his vision of the world is the right one- that everything would be better under his benevolent but oppressive reign. We watch as he gleefully take in supplicants to his cause, metes out swift and awful justice and takes great pleasure in planning for a new world order where nothing was left to chance.

The same is true for Vader, Luthor, Richelieu, and Scarface.

Creepy? Sure!  But all very human.

Others, like Moriarty, Iago, and Goldfinger, are not out for world conquest. They will tell you that they are just men pursuing a dream of personal wealth and power.  It’s about destiny – they really just want what is theirs.  If no one had tried to stand between them and their dreams, everything would have been fine.

It’s a literary version of “won’t be nothin’ if you don’t start nothin.”

Of course, that’s never what happens.  Their clashes with the hero never work – not because good and evil always play in a zero-sum game . . .

But because they are, in many ways, cut from the same cloth.  Both have powerful characters.  Both play for high stakes.

But most of all, the characters work because both hero and villain really want the SAME THING.

They both want TO WIN. 

Just as each of us wants every day of our lives – we all want to win.

All antagonists MUST BE WRITTEN AS REAL PEOPLE if they are to drive the action and conflict in a story.  This is especially important in genre pieces because villains almost always get the first real move, feel the first passion.  They bring as much action as reaction into the conflict.

If such a character is only two-dimensional, it isn’t strong or complex enough to force the necessary changes in the hero. And when a writer creates a wishy-washy or reluctant antagonist, he loses his best opportunity to TIE THE READER TO THE STORY and create that all important audience-protagonist bond that will bring the reader back again and again to the writer and his other works.

In other words, disappoint the reader in this way and he’s gone.

So, some things to consider as you craft your antagonist and put him/her/it through their paces:

  1. Western storytelling allows you to learn about your hero as you write the story, but you had better completely know your antagonist from the very beginning.  Your hero should be the only malleable character in the piece. In other words, your hero must be genuine, but your antagonist must be genuine and tangible.
  2. While your hero will debate and have doubts about the path he is taking, your antagonist cannot.  He must be sure of himself, his cause, and his ultimate victory.
  3. The antagonist is not there to merely stop the hero from getting what he wants; he has an agenda, his own list of goals, desires, and tangible goodies that the Protagonist is preventing him from having. The sword must cut both ways: each player wants to get what they want while all the while denying the other what THEY want.  It isn’t enough to do just one or the other. They must be completely incompatible with each other.

 When such desires manifest themselves, conflict begins.  And the antagonist is the implement of that conflict and the instrument of the hero’s necessary change.   By standing squarely in the hero’s path and opposing him, he makes the hero strive ever harder.  The bad guy is the crucible in which the impurity of the Hero is burned away, leaving a purer form.

It’s best to eliminate the idea of good and evil as motives, unless that is thematic to the piece.  Best instead to sit in the villain’s lap and let him tell you about growing up, his successes as well as his failures.  Watch him in those moments when nothing is at stake and you will see his humanity. 

If appropriate, repay him and delight your reader by writing for the bad guy a humanizing “Darth Vader Rescues the Kittens” scene at least once in a story. It will reach the audience on a basic level and increase their investment in your tale by making him mortal and vulnerable.  It never hurts to give character his or her own private moment with the reader. 

EXERCISES: Think about these questions as you ponder your current bad guy . . .

#1: Who are your favorite villains?  What makes them so? 

#2: Who are the antagonists in your own life?

#3: Go home to the place where your antagonist lives.  Look around. What do you see, hear, taste, and smell?

#4: Describe what it would be like for your best friend to turn against you.  What would they have done?  How is that different from right now?

#5:  How DOES your antagonist sleep at night?

Until next time . . .

Keep writing!

Art Holcomb is a produced screenwriter and a published comic book author of such comics as Marvel’s X-MEN and Acclaim’s ETERNAL WARRIORS.  He consults and teaches screenwriting and comic book writing for the UC Riverside Extension Writer’s Program.  His most recent story is ALWAYS WINTER BUT NEVER CHRISTMAS and is currently working on a book for writers entitled Perfecting Your Premise.

He lives in Southern California.

Footnote (from Art):

This year, I’m a guest speaker at the Screenwriter’s World Conference in Los Angeles in October, and I’m fortunate enough to be appearing with some of the best screenwriters, teachers and consultants working today.  The link is: Screenwriters world . Drop in and say hello!

Also, I still have some spots available in my Scriptwriting class at UC Riverside in October.  We’re covering screenwriting and comic books/graphic novels and while I am an industry consultant primarily, the class meant for developing a screenplay and/or a graphic novel script with constant access and input from me throughout.  The class is open to everyone. The link is. UCRiverside Class.

*****

 By the way (and this footnote is from Larry)… here’s what Art said about my new $100 Story Coaching service (unsolicited): “I think your $100 service is absolutely the greatest value I have ever seen for ANY form of critique – Well done!”)

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Novelists: The Data on “Normal”… And the Path to Extraordinary

They say that about two out of every 100 novels submitted to publishers actually get a contract.  Of those, a majority were submitted through established literary agencies, which changes the odds dramatically.

That’s good news and the bad news.  Because it means you need to get an agent – which you absolutely can – before that two percent probability kicks in. 

Without an agent, your odds are significantly lower.

Based on less scientific numbers (i.e., me talking to people), I’d say the number of projects accepted for representation by agents is about 1 in 25 of full manuscripts submitted.  But you need to realize that’s after they’ve heard pitches and read partials before they even consent to read a full manuscript… so the number goes to about 1 out of 100 (because they read full manuscripts for about 1 out of 4 of the projects they consent to review as a partial, at best; the bigger the agent, the lower those odds).

The net-net of that… for every novel that gets legitimately published, only one out of every 2000 novels written finds a publisher.  And of those that do, the vast majority will have gathered more than a few rejection slips along the way.

Those are pretty crappy odds.  But they are also reasonable, given what actually arrives in the inboxes of agents and publishing houses.  (The odds are even worse in the screenwriting trade, unless you have a close connection to the industry.)

Wouldn’t it be good to know why? 

And to be able to apply that knowledge toward your own projects, to fix what the professionals will so quickly and easily find lacking – the basis for rejection – before you hit the SEND button?

They won’t tell you, in detail, why they’re rejecting you.  But…

I can tell you why they will.  Or not. 

I really can.  Not just theoretically, but statistically, through the filter of my own experience as a story coach and author who is on his third agent, seventh writing book and sixth published novel.

I’ve read and analyzed 112 stories since April 1st of this year, as part of my evaluation service.  Now, before you tell me to get a life, I certainly haven’t read an entire novel or script every two to three days.  No, only about ten of these evals have been fully executed projects. 

Rather, the vast majority of these evaluations were submissions to my new affordable story physics-based analysis, which calls for the writer to answer some scary questions and submit a synopsis, from which I can pretty much tell if they have a solid shot at delivering a story that works, through their demonstrated awareness and application of essential story physics and where they stand relative to the six core competencies of successful storytelling.

I thought you might like to know what I see in these stories.

Specifically, and as trends and pitfalls.

And thus, why talented, well-intended writers are coming up short in the core areas that agents and authors are looking for. 

What’s interesting – and tragic – is that pretty much every client wasn’t even aware their story was weak in any given area, they were already well down the development road (some had even completed a draft or two).

And yet, there was almost always some area(s) of softness or weakness in the stories that would ultimately, almost certainly tank them.  Their investment of $100 is well placed, because I call these out, explain them, and offer alternatives and solutions to fix the problems, some of which call for an entire reboot.

How can this work? 

Because agents and editors are looking, first and foremost, for a great story.  Your writing, your stunningly beautiful sentences and your genius worldview, has very little to do with it (because writing can be fixed), which means the bones of a story can be exposed and analyzed against known criteria and benchmarks to access strength, potential and the presence of disease at the conceptual, thematic and structural levels.

I’d say half the stories have issues with dramatic tension

As in, not enough of it.

They aren’t putting their heroes into a situation that has them credibly pursuing a worthy goal, solving a challenging problem that absolutely needs a solution, or putting them in harm’s way, with a villain or antagonist in the mix.  Rather they have their heroes in an interesting situation (from the author’s perspective)… which isn’t enough.

I’d say the majority of the other half, those that do have a compelling dramatic question in place, aren’t unspooling it in the proper (or optimized) order.  They’ve mishandled the structure, especially the First Plot Point, which is the most important moment in a story.

Some stories – about 20 percent – jump the tracks from their original story onto a completely different story spine somewhere in the middle.  A few even completely abandoning their heroes and the opening conceptual context when – my guess is there were pantsing here – another idea presented itself.

About a third were self-destructing because they were passionately focused on an theme or issue, or a historical time and place, turning the narrative into a journalistic essay or historical travelogue with sociological tones… with weak or absolutely no tension or hero’s quest in the mix.

I’ve said it before, it bears repeating: great stories aren’t just about something… they’re about something happening The access to having a reader understand your thematic intentions resides in the consequences of the decisions, actions and dynamics of and between your characters, rather than the author’s projected agenda.

About two thirds suffered from episodic storytelling.  Stories that cover a lot of ground, showing the hero having many experiences, but without a forward-evolving connection to a core story or spine. 

About one in four had ideas, sometimes even expressed in a conceptual way (a good thing; half of these were ideas that weren’t conceptual, which is a deal-killer), that weren’t inherently compelling.  Which offers little potential for drama and tension (necessary), that were work-a-day normal and vanilla, with too little for a protagonist to do that a reader would find provocative or interesting. 

You can’t turn a bad idea or premise into a good story via good writing.  Like a chef, you need rich and tasty raw materials as the stuff of your main dish.

A few projects held huge potential, they had story physics and core competencies that covered nearly every base.  Even then, I found opportunities to suggest tweaks in structure or nuance that could make them even better.  Of the 112 stories, I’d say about 15 fell into this category.

Some writers had decent stories, but couldn’t express them clearly within the confines of a synopsis or answers to questions.  Which is a huge yellow flag.

Of the 112 stories, I’d say about 110 were projects that had a definite fix available, from some major tweaks to a full re-conceptualization and restructuring.

I found something worthy in all 115. 

I am, if nothing else, supportive and empathetic to the pursuit of storytelling and storytellers – I’ve been there, felt that – and I’m rooting for you from the first page.

And if this math seems to exceed 100 percent, that’s because many of these  projects had two of more of these weaknesses or symptoms screaming out at me.

Some writers will find this less than encouraging, but I didn’t create the math, it’s out there waiting for you already. 

What I have created is a way to mount a better, more empowered attack on these odds, through feedback from a professional that might just see things you can’t, don’t, or won’t.  From a guy who does this for a living, in addition to doing what you do as a writer of stories

If you’d like to see what this feedback looks like, click HERE

This author consented to share his Questionnaire answers, with my feedback, in the hope that others can see the upside.  Like most writers, he had a story he’d worked hard on, and believed was ready.  The news wasn’t particularly good, nor was it completely horrible… but in the end it was full of hope.  Because the story wasn’t dead, it was just in need of surgery and some new shoes.

He got it.  He’s going to fix his story.  And he’s more excited than ever. 

Because once he got over the initial jolt from the lack of affirmation he was hoping for (which is true for about 90 percent of the submissions), he quickly understood the critique, agreed with most of it, and now he’s on his way.  Informed, coached, empowered with knowledge and new ideas, and thus, better than ever.

About 19 out of 20 of my clients find themselves having the same experience. The other 1 out of 20… to be honest, I don’t know.  I don’t hear back, which could mean anything.

This could be you.  On all fronts.  At all levels of the odds.

I do know this: it’s the best investment you’ll ever find, and ever make, in your writing dream.  Even at over 10 times the price, which is what you’d need to pony up for a full manuscript analysis… which would focus on the exact same variables and qualities, and yield almost the same level and nature of feedback.

*****

Click HERE to see more on The Amazing $100 Story Coaching and Empowerment Adventure. 

I also do full manuscripts and longer partials, also at a value price – my goal is to make this accessible to every writer… email me for a quote on those.

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