See if you can diagnose the writer’s problem in the following fictional – but all too common – exchange.
I have it all too frequently as I coach writers on their stories. At conferences. In emails. As part of my new story coaching program. It goes like this:
“What’s your story about?” I ask.
“It’s about a woman who needs to find her place in the world.”
“I see,” I say. “A coming of age story. Excellent. So what’s the concept?”
“A woman goes into the world in search of herself. To find her way.”
“You realize I asked for your concept, but you gave me thematic sub-text.”
A blank stare ensues.
“So…” I press forward into this abyss, “tell me what your protagonist wants in your story, and what she does to get it. What she is up against. Her problem. A goal to strive for. What she must do or accomplish, what is at stake, and what opposes her in that quest.”
A moment of quiet pondering usually inserts itself here.
“Well,” says the writer, “she needs to find her way in the world. That’s her problem. She’s lost her way. Actually, she’s never found her way. What opposes her is herself, her lack of confidence. My story is about that. That’s my concept.”
Now it is me who is pondering. Pondering a way to turn this ship around.
“Okay,” I say, “let’s try this. What’s the conflict in your story?”
“She doesn’t know who she is, who she needs to be. The story is about her finding out. She can’t… that’s the conflict.”
“Maybe she could,” I suggest, “if you put her into a situation in which she has to. In order to survive. Or simply thrive. To find love. To change. To gain something.”
“Oh… you mean, like.. a plot? This is a character-driven story.”
“Fine,” I say,” but what does she DO in the story? And what DRIVES her to do it?”
“What does she do? She tries to find herself. She lives her life and learns her lessons.”
Stares are once again traded. One blank, the other patient. For now.
“How?” I finally ask.
“Well,” I often hear at this point, “she has these experiences and adventures, and eventually, because nothing is going well for her, she finally discovers who she is.”
“Who or what is the antagonist?” I ask. “You know, the bad guy.”
“Oh that? There is no bad guy. It’s just her. Her lack of self-confidence. She has no dream, no direction. Like millions of people out there.”
I want to say she has no plot, either, but I press on. “How far into it are you?”
“I’ve finished a first pass at it.”
“Great. How does it end? Does she find herself?”
“Yes she does. That’s how it ends.”
“How does she find herself?” I ask, trying to sound as redundant as possible.
A slightly confused expression almost always manifests before I hear, “She just realizes she’s had enough of her old self, and decides to be different. She wakes up one day and it’s suddenly clear.”
“That’s how it ends?” Ah, the old wake up and smell the coffee ending.
“Yes. She had to find herself, and she finally does. Life happens, we live and learn.”
“But you can’t tell me how. Process wise. What on-going, connected, dramatic path led her to it.”
“Life doesn’t work that way,” I am told. “One day we just realize who we are, we live and we learn, and then it happens. My story about that.”
“With no bad guy. No problem to solve. No drama. No stakes. Just her and her inner demons. Walking through life together. Another day, another thing. The story of her life.”
“Yes. The story of her life. What’s your point here, Mr. Storyfixer dude?”
I get this a lot.
With thrillers or dramas, this isn’t usually the problem. They are about dramatic tension… which is a good thing. If anything, those stories are challenged by heroes without an inner landscape, but that’s another post.
But with “softer” stories, so-called character-driven stories, especially inspired-by-the-author’s-life-experience stories, the focus on character arc can be fatal, if it consumes the writer’s focus to the point they forget to give us a reasonable, compelling plot.
One plot. A strong, single dramatic arc that leads the protagonist through the discovery and growth process by having them square off with external conflict and tension.
It’s a death sentence when that doesn’t happen.
Because the story won’t work. Or at least it won’t work well enough. It doesn’t stand a chance. Here’s why.
There is no EXTERNAL CONFLICT in play.
And there needs to be. Always. External conflict provides dramatic tension, which is one of the most power essences of story physics available to us.
Even love stories, including romances, have external conflict-driven storylines in play.
But in these problematic “personal growth” stories, what little dramatic tension there is takes place sporadically, episodically – just snippets and moments from real life, showcasing the hero’s flawed inner self – without ever developing into an actual story at all. Without a connected arc. These episodes unfold much like a series of short stories, each isolated from the others, each about how she feels rather than what she does.
There is no external conflict. There is nothing for the hero to do.
Allow me to repeat myself. This is something you should staple to your forehead, written backwards, so you see it every time you look in a mirror.
An effective story isn’t about something. It is about something happening.
It’s great to write a story in which your hero needs to find herself. Or come of age. But there’s a way to do it right, and there’s a way that will get you rejected almost every time.
The way you do it right is to give your hero a problem, and/or a goal.
Give her (or him) something or someone standing in the way of what she needs and/or wants. Give her obstacles to conquer on that path. Give her something to DO in facing those obstackes. Make sure there are consequences hanging in the balance (stakes). And have her DISCOVER WHO SHE IS – allow her to summon her inner hero self – along the way to becoming the primary factor in the conquering of those obstacles and the resolution of her problem, need or goal.
It boils down to this: her old, insecure, directionless self couldn’t solve the problem. So she is forced to grow, to change, in order to succeed in resolving the problem or reaching the goal.
That’s how she’ll find out who she is. Not through real life, not through a bunch of episodes and short stories masquerading as a novel or screenplay. Give your story a spine, a drama. Make it an EXTERNAL spine or drama.
You’ll find almost no exceptions… at least on bookshelves and on movie screens.
Chances are you have been enchanted by stories of personal discovery.
The hero comes of age. That’s the thing that moved you. Perhaps moved you so much, in fact, that you failed to notice that these protagonists were given SOMETHING TO DO in the story, a task, a problem, a goal, that put them in growth’s way. A quest that forces the hero to face herself and make changes, to do something differently.
Success in storytelling can be summed up in two words: EXTERNAL CONFLICT.
Designed to test and prod and lead and tempt and pull and seduce and affirm your hero… the one with the self-image and personal vision problems. The external drama becomes the catalyst, the STAGE upon which the inner demons of your hero are slain, upon which the hero redeems and discovers and validates herself.
I see so many story plans, in the form of summaries and synopses and outlines, in which this critical – this NECESSARY – element is completely missing, or under-valued.
Don’t let it be you. If you find yourself describing your story strictly in terms of your hero’s inner journey, make sure you have a killer external drama to thrust upon them.
Redemption may be organic in real life, the sum of experiences seasoned over time… but it usually makes for one boring read. We (readers) don’t want reality, we want a provocative ride that we can translate into our reality, on our terms. Without external dramatic tension in play, we’re pretty much left with a fictional diary… and unless your name is Anne Frank, diaries don’t get published.
Then again, poor Anne had quite an external drama to live through… just sayin’.
A great story isn’t “about” a theme. Theme is the result of a successful story Theme is sub-text. No, a great story is about something HAPPENING. Theme emerges from a dramatic landscape… it rarely IS the dramatic landscape.
See my earlier post, “When Your Passion Kills Your Plot,” for more on this deadly little story development trap.
Want to see if your story cuts the mustard? Check out my new “Amazing $100 Story Coaching and Empowerment Adventure,” (click HERE, or see the sidebar)… just possibly the most exciting and affordable story development opportunity… ever.
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