Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Flipside of Hero Empathy

Or… why you should be following “The Following” (the Fox Television series).

Consider a workroom with twelve boxes and a desk.  Six of the boxes are labeled “Core Competency: …” and after that colon (one of those amazing double-edged words in the English language, this one with a smirk) there is a different name for each: Concept… Character… Theme… Structure… Scenes… Voice.

These are your tools.  Everything under the writing sun awaits in one of those boxes.

The desk is where you’ll use what’s inside the boxes.  Where you’ll write your story.

The other six boxes contain jugs of secret sauce.  These, too, include a colon… “Story Physics: …” and after each there is again a specific flavor of sauce: Compelling Premise… Dramatic Tension… Pace… Empathy… Vicarious Experience… Narrative Strategy.

Six boxes of tools, with six flavors of secret sauce to lubricate and empower them to deliciousness.

That’s the whole storytelling enchilada for you, right there.  How you use these boxes — your process — has a million variables.  But the essential nature of what’s in them… that’s non-negotiable.

When you open any one container you find a vast array of choices waiting to help you.  All the genres are in the Concept box.  All the ways you can create conflict awaits in that big bottle of Dramatic tension.  And so it goes.

Which is to say, you can break it down and label it any way you want.  No matter, though… before you are these 12 different yet inter-dependent categories of tools and parts and story essences (physics, the cause that creates effect)… and within them are hundreds, maybe thousands, of nuances and combinations.

Mix and stir as you please.  We live and die by our storytelling choices in this regard.

Here is one of these recipe options, and it’s huge.

You’ll pull this one out the “Empathy” container.  Your reader needs to feel something for your hero.  Causing them (the reader) to root for that hero.  Essential, 101-level stuff.

Here’s the twist, though.  Equally obvious, but rarely applied.

In the Dramatic Tension container you’ll find something called “the antagonist,” also known as the villain, the bad guy, the obstacle to the hero’s quest.

Now mix those two together, empathy and antagonist… and you have a VERY powerful ingredient for your story: the depth with which your reader roots AGAINST the antagonist.  Even, in the purest place of their most truthful self, loathes and hates  your villain while fearing her/him.

Passionately so.  Can’t wait to see them go down.  In a ball of flames.  Drenched in their own blood.  In the name of justice and all that is fair and right and deserved.

Is your villain detestable, or just someone with a different point of view?  You get to decide.  And certainly, not all stories lend themselves to a hero you’d like to see fry in an electric chair… slowly.

But it’s good when it happens.  REALLY good.  Because your reader has another reason to keep turning the pages, to get emotionally involved, to care.

The Following

I mention this killer (literally) television program because it offers one of the most compelling, interesting and deliciously hateable villains, maybe ever.  Right up there with Hannibal Lector, that guy with the mask in the Halloween movies and Dick Cheney.

The program is not for everyone, so vet this if you’re on the bubble.

But if you want to see how a writer (plural in this case) can grab the reader/viewer in such a way that the “rooting against” factor is every bit as strong and compelling and addictive as the “rooting for” factor, this is the show.

Next week is the second to last episode.  Catch it all soon on Netflix, or now via On Demand from your cable career.

Bottom line: Are you tapping into the emotional gold mine that villains present?  And doing so strategically, without resorting to mustache twirling and caricature?   Perhaps you should.

It’s all just more Story Physics… with a dark twist on human nature.  And that is not only our opportunity as storytellers… it’s our job.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

A Short Post on Short Stories…

… linking to a longer one.

Two months ago I put out an open request for topics to be covered here on  There were 76 responders, with over a hundred topic suggestions.

The most requested topic was this: short story structure.

Specific questions come in frequently — daily — and almost always I’m able to point toward a post on the topic in question.  Not that I expect (or hope) that anyone will wade through the over 500 posts on this site to find what they want… though, that said, there IS a search bar (just to the right of this sentence) that can help.

So if you’re a short story writer, and/or a short story question-asker… CLICK HERE.

More topics from that list to be addressed soon.

Thanks for your support and readership.



Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)