Create (and be) a compelling protagonist

I watched an episode of The Inside Pitch with Christopher McQuarrie on Screenwriting Contests. He invited four screenwriting competition readers to discuss, among other topics, what kind of protagonist mistakes are common.

Jack Dannibale said that one of the biggest mistakes new writers make is creating a protagonist who doesn’t do much or anything at all. Instead the screenwriter splits the actions and decisions among other characters. Things just happen to the protagonist. Protagonists should be the one making the decisions and doing all the interesting things.

When Dannibale was in grad school, one of the assignments his professor gave students was to write a screenplay in which the protagonist was in every scene. This exercise makes it clear how important the character and their actions are to a script.

Connie O’Donahue said that having a passive protagonist is problematic, because “we want them to drive the script.” Viewers put themselves in the shoes of the protagonist, so they want to be in the center of the action.

Protagonists don’t have to be likable, but they have to be compelling. And they are compelling when they are making things happen, not waiting for things to happen to them.

We root for the compelling protagonist.


Be a compelling protagonist

This was great writing advice and great life advice. We are the protagonists in the stories that are our lives. Wouldn’t life be more interesting if we made things happen, rather than waiting for things to happen? Wouldn’t we and our lives be more compelling? I found myself texting and inviting a neighbor to lunch, then asking my sister if she wanted to take her high school senior on a college tour weekend with me and my senior. It felt nice to make things happen even in these small ways.

Meditation: What do you long for?

Take a few minutes to relax and breathe. Arrive in the present. Take note of where you are in this moment. Ask yourself what it is you long for. Notice what sensations or thoughts arise in your body. Is it companionship? Is it answers? Connection? Think of what action you can take–a text/a call, reading a book that nourishes you, creating something, a walk through the neighborhood or in the woods.

Writing Prompt: Do it for the story

This is an assignment I gave to my students at Temple University in my Creative Acts course. I loved teaching that class; we covered poems, essays, short stories, and plays in one semester.

For “Do It for the Story,” I asked my students to do something specifically just so they could write about. Eat at new restaurant. Check out an unfamiliar neighborhood. Sit in a different seat in class and strike up a conversation. Have that talk with your roommate. Ask that question. Try out for that play or club. But don’t do anything dangerous!

You can do the same. Think of something you’ve been meaning to do or wanting to do. Or, maybe something will come up spontaneously; be on the lookout. Just do it. But take notes and write about it.

Good solitude in “The Midnight Library”

In Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, Nora Seed overdoses and finds herself in an in-between place where it is always midnight. She is surrounded by endless stacks of books. Her favorite librarian from childhood tells her to pick one from the shelves. Each one contains a different life based on her making a different decision. The options appear endless.

There is so much to love about this book and many people love it. It’s a New York Times bestseller.

All of us wonder, at some point, what our lives would have been like if we’d made a different choice – married another person, broke an engagement, took one job instead of the other, moved, stayed. Nora gets to try going down those alternate paths. As she does this, she not only learns what could have been, she learns about her own nature.

Nora Seed on solitude

This is one of my favorite Nora observations:

She had thought, in her nocturnal and suicidal hours, that solitude was the problem. But that was because it hadn’t been true solitude. The lonely mind in the busy city yearns for connection because it thinks human-to-human connection is the point of everything. But amid pure nature (or the ‘tonic of wildness’ as Thoreau called it) solitude took on a different character. It became in itself a kind of connection. A connection between herself and the world. And between her and herself.

from The Midnight Library, Matt Haig

Meditation: under your tree

Nature as we know is a calming remedy for the fast paced lives we live, even during pandemic times, maybe especially during pandemic times. I know that not all of us can step out into nature and enjoy its peace easily.

You can, however, sit quietly and imagine yourself in nature. Pick a favorite tree (whether it still exists of not) and imagine sitting or lying beneath it. Look up into its branches to see the dappled sunlight, the changing color of the leaves. Feel the breeze. Bask in the stillness. Feel the connection between yourself and the world, between you and yourself.

Writing Prompt: write a different book

Think back on a decision you made; it can be one of life’s big choices or something smaller—living one floor up in the apartment building.

Write in third person and start your story at that threshold. This is often where fiction begins. What if? Keep in mind that this different decision could have made life better or worse. You decide.

Jericho Brown gave me a lesson in mindfulness

This year’s One Book, One Philadelphia book selection is Jericho Brown’s The Tradition. It’s the first time a poetry collection was chosen. At the virtual kickoff event, Brown read a few poems from his collection and was interviewed by Philadelphia Poet Laureate Trapeta B. Mayson. There were performances of music and plays inspired by his writing.

Cover of The Tradition by Jericho Brown

The next night Brown offered a poetry workshop called Jumpstart Your Engines. I’d signed up the moment I learned about it. I’m a big fan of his writing and I follow him on Twitter, where one day he gave a master class on metaphor in a thread.

While I’ve been in many workshops and taught many more workshops, I hadn’t participated in a poetry workshop. I was excited, intimidated. I reminded myself that I was the student. Beginner’s mind and all that. I told myself to take a moment before the evening began to take a breath and prepare to listen mindfully.

Reader, I did not.

Brown screen-shared “The Coming of Light” by Mark Strand and asked us about the poem. He called on a few people and then me. I said, I think the poem is about . . .

“I did not ask what the poem was about.” And, indeed, he had not. So much for my mindful listening. He’d asked us (I believe) to describe the poem. What he was looking for was short. The poem is short.

Strand creates an image train, he said. These images are doing things they don’t normally do.

Poems, according to Brown, are not about something. They are not about answering a question. We put too much weight on them.

When we see a piece of abstract art in a museum, he said, we look at it and pass on by. We don’t stand there trying to figure out what it’s about. What it means.

He played a word game with us. Before he started, he asked us to go back to the age of five. He didn’t want us to overthink it. Brown wanted us to have fun. Not to make demands on the game and to approach language differently. He takes his playing seriously.

Despite myself, I learned a lot in Brown’s workshop. And I was reminded to listen. If you have a chance to work with him, jump on it.

Check out “Like Father” one of my favorite poems of his from his collection Please. It’s about… I mean. It’s pretty short.

A moment of silence with Scorsese, Walken …

My good friend and life coach Janice Molinari posted this Criterion Collection video “The Gift of Room Tone” on Facebook the other day. It’s intriguing so see the way different people react to being silent.

Years and years ago, Janice got me a job at MTV working for a new production called, if I remember correctly, “Squeal.” I packed up my life and moved to NYC. The Friday before my start date I called to get the logistics of my first day and was told the show was cancelled. “What does that mean?” I asked. “You don’t have a job.”

So, I took on temp jobs and worked on student and independent films when I could. On Gary Nadeau‘s “Red,” I was the boom operator for a few days. I would stand with my hands holding up a pole with a mic on the end getting close to the actors, but not too close or I’d hear “Boom” as I entered the frame.

I remember taking the room tone. A room full of people, mostly volunteers, sitting quietly before we attempted to bring someone’s vision to light. I remember those moments. They felt sacred. We were taking a minute before we created.

Happy New Year!