(Quick aside… a few days ago you received a post from me entitled, “Are You the One out of Ten?” It may have looked familiar… and it should have — it was originally posted on June 24th. Thing is, I didn’t send it. I haven’t opened up my WordPress dashboard since well over a week ago. Some undefined WP gremlin did something undefined that ended up redistributing the post. I’ve asked all the WP geniuses I know, and nobody can explain it… which means, they secretly believe it was me after all. Twasn’t. Theories welcomed. Sorry to clutter your inbox in this instance.)
The Rule Book — A Guest Post from Art Holcomb
Part 1 of 2
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about motives and consequences.
If there are two separate story paths that exist in each tale we tell, then there is an engine that drives each and they are quite different from one another:
The Plot line moves forward when we ask the question: “What happens next?’
The Emotional line develops when we ask, in contrast: “How will my characters react to the next turn-of – events?”
Every story begins at the same place. Act I always starts with a status quo – life as normal – until the Inciting Incident occurs. Then suddenly, something changes and our characters begin their journey by reacting to it. Nothing happens without the Incident and the subsequent and necessary Reaction.
The model is always:
Action –>Emotion –> Reaction –>Emotion -> Action
For example, in the movie Casablanca, Rick is happy running his little café “not sticking his neck out for anyone” (Act I status quo) until his old flame Ilsa arrives with the guy she dumped Rick for (Inciting Incident). Rick’s old wounds are ripped open (emotion) and he must eventually decide what to do about Ilsa, the letters of transit, and of course, those ever-present Nazis (reaction/consequence).
So . . . The Incident starts the ball rolling. We have an emotional reaction to this event which produces a physical action, which in term elicits its own emotional response elsewhere and the requisite action that follows.
In this way, emotions are the motive for what we do and consequences are the results of acting upon those motives.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we all have our own hot buttons issue to which we react in predictable ways. It’s only human nature. For example, some people get sad when they receive a rejection to a submission, while others double down emotionally and get back to work. Conversely, some people are elated and celebrate when they get a piece accepted for publication, while others become worried that they won’t find a supportive audience. And still others might simply acknowledge the fact and get to work on the next piece.
But, somewhere in the cobwebbed covered vault we call the human psyche, there is a rule book inside all of us.
If you doubt it, ask your spouse, partner or your parents the following question.
Go ahead – I dare you. Ask them:
“When I am ______ (sad, angry, frightened, or threatened), what do I usually do?”
However, be prepared to be surprised. We, as people, hardly ever see ourselves as others see us. Your parents or partners’ answers may surprise you.
In the end, we’re all predictably different . . . and so must our characters be.
You should never be surprised by the way your characters act in your stories. Each character is unconsciously designed by you to react in a specific and predictable way. This is natural and necessary because the emotional change we seek in our protagonist at the end of the story – the very thing that makes the character-driven story so powerful and relatable – occurs at the very moment that s/he breaks out of their old pattern, and creates a new rule – and identity – for themselves.
Storytelling masters like Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler (both of whom blurbed Larry’s first writing book, “Story Engineering“) talk about this rule change being a return to the very essence of who a character really is, a kind of stripping away of the emotional protective layer that Life forces us all to create as we grow. This change is what brings our hero one step closer to self-realization and his true nature.
So . . . let us turn this vague concept into something concrete and useful.
Let’s take a look at the rules you have given to your characters in your current work.
Here is a downloadable blank MS-Word Chart that shows the various possible character archetypes in your story along the top and the emotions that they are likely to go through in the course of the story listed along the left side. Both the names and emotions can be easily changed to fit your current tale. In the appropriate box, write the rule that this character will follow when confronted with this emotion. For example in the first box would go the answer to, “How does the HERO react when s/he is HURT?” The boxes will expand to fit whatever notes you want to include.
Complete as many boxes as you can. Empty boxes may indicate that more thought may be needed to enhance your understanding of the character.
Beware: You may think that there are nuances and subtleties in the way a character would react to, say, being hurt, depending on the cause; but if you look deeper you will find the controlling reaction should always be the same – until growth takes place and that particular rule changes.
Once completed, you will have a snapshot of the emotional range of your story.
This is your canvas.
This is where you will deepen your story.
Use as many colors and techniques as you can.
These emotions, taken as a mosaic of the character’s psyche, supply dimension and depth to the narrative, leading us to understand who that character is, why s/he must change and what they have the chance of becoming.
By completing your own Rule Book chart, you will be able to see the similarities and differences in your characters; some of these differences will suggest plot points, twists and turns you can use that you might not have seen before.
And by understanding the emotional rules of your main characters, you’ll be able to create the most powerful and dramatic emotional journey for your hero.
And isn’t that what we all came to see?
Part 2 of the Rule Book will be along in a couple of days, when we’ll talk about the wealth of story possibilities this process creates.
Until next time, keep writing!
To read Part 2 of this post, click HERE.
Art Holcomb is a screenwriter and comic book creator. This post is taken from his new writing book, tentatively entitled SAVE YOUR STORY: How to Resurrect Your Abandoned Story and Get It Written NOW!