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.

THE INSIDE PITCH ON SCREENWRITING COMPETITIONS

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.

Writing Exercise: What’s in the Road Ahead?

Richard Bausch’s Cake

Years ago, at the 2011 AWP (Association for Writers & Writing Programs) conference in Washington, D.C., I attended a panel session with Richard Bausch, C. Michael Curtis, Elizabeth Cox, Jill McCorkle and Michael Croley called “Jets vs. Sharks?” The subject matter was whether it was good to learn the “craft” of writing in writing programs. Bausch proved to be one of those writers with an impeccable memory, quotes from authors throughout the ages bubbled up from him. He also proved a great story teller.

My memory is not as good as his (I wish I could find my notes), but this is how I remember what happened. Bausch was telling the audience about a writing exercise he’d given his students. The prompt was “write about a cake in the middle of the road.” Curtis started laughing. At the time, he was the fiction editor at The Atlantic. “So, that’s why I’ve been getting all these submissions with cakes in the middle of the road!” The room erupted.

A cake in the middle of the road. It’s a great image. As author Amy Hempel would say, that’s a story. An image can be a story.

What’s in the Road Ahead?

What’s on the road? A head?

My sister Sarah told me a story with a similar great image, which reminded me of Bausch’s assignment and inspired the perfect pandemic prompt. While driving through her neighborhood, she came upon paper shopping bag in the middle of the street. It was upright, undisturbed, as if it was carefully placed there. The bag was full of groceries. A lot of people are getting their food delivered rather than facing the supermarket aisles with their directional arrows and masked shoppers on a quest for flour and toilet paper. Because the name and address of the groceries’ owner were on the bag and because my sister is kind, she delivered the bag to a grateful man.

Writing prompt: Bag in the Middle of the Road

Write about a brown paper shopping bag sitting upright in the middle of the road. Begin with the image. What’s in it? Do you know who’s bag it is? What do you do?

Let me know what you discovered in the comments below!

Writing Exercise: Addressing your dreams

There is this idea that people don’t want to hear about your dreams. Whenever I have an interesting dream, I call my friend Susan, who is not only happy to listen, but is great at interpreting. She’s an amateur Jungian and will remind me that everyone in my dream is me. Fascinating.

Tell me your dream

Recently, I called her about a dream I had in which my daughter and I got into a Lyft and left my parents’ house. (No one was home.) After a few minutes of driving around, we passed their house again. I told the driver to stop, I was angry. When I said, “Why didn’t you take us where we needed to go?” He just laughed and shook his head. Back at the house, my parents’ front door was unhinged, lying across the threshold, half in, half out of the house. The railings and a short wrought iron fence were disassembled and spread across the lawn and walkway. My daughter reminded me of the cats (!) and we wrangled a couple of cats and three kittens nestled together under a bush, back into the house. Then we set about finding screws for the door, railings, and gate.

Talk to your dream

Susan wasn’t certain how to interpret this one and recommended I ask the driver why he was laughing, since he was the one I was angry with in the dream. So, I put pen to paper and wrote his response. He said, “I laughed, because I had brought you were you needed to go. The house was coming apart when you left. You didn’t notice. You didn’t want to notice.”

He went into more detail, but I fear I may be boring you. (Perhaps I should keep my dreams to myself and Susan.) But I think this is a great writing exercise.

Whether you are addressing a character in a dream or a character in you WIP, this can bring up some insightful motives. It can let you see things you’re not seeing and understand that which you ignore.

Writing Prompt

Meditate for a few moments, placing yourself in the scene. Imagine the person’s face as you ask them the question you want answered. Write down what they tell you. Don’t stop to interpret. Just listen and take notes.

Writing Exercise: Celebrate Earth Day 2020

Earth Day 2020

Earth Day turns 50

Today is Earth Day! It’s no mistake that when they conceived of Earth Day 50 years ago, they planned it for the Spring. The season with the most change in the natural world, or at least the most optimistic change. The season of rebirth, renewal, fresh starts.

Earth Day is about reconnecting with the earth. It’s about stirring our activism and educating us about how to take care of the earth we share.

COVID-19 Spring

Because of the COVID-19 Quarantine, I think this may be the most observed Spring on the record books for a century. Even though we are watching mostly through our windows, we are noticing the incremental changes each day. We’ve witnessed barren branches sprouting buds that slowly bloomed into pinks, purples and whites, and seen bold green stems pushing through the dirt. We’ve listened to the call and response of bird songs, much clearer without the sounds of traffic to squelch them. We’ve watched the light of day creep well into the evening. We are comforted by the beauty of nature’s spectacular shows of clouds, rains, winds, even thunder and lightening outside our windows.

The earth continues to tilt and spin, nature continues to burst into color, even as we stay home protecting ourselves, our families and communities.We are all in this together, we are all on earth together. One people, one planet.

Writing Prompt: Creation Story

Celebrate Earth Day with this writing exercise, in which we remember that we are of this earth.

Before freewriting this exercise, take a few minutes to meditate. Come into the body. Relax your muscles. Notice your breath. Let it naturally flow. Then ask yourself, what is my true nature?

Imagine your own creation story. How were you born of earth?

  • Did you awake on the seedy bed of a sunflower?
  • Did you land on your fresh new feet, released from the embrace of a lush fruit tree?
  • Did gleeful dolphins deliver you to the foamy shore?

Take up your pen and write. Have fun! No editing. No judging. Just write.

Let me know where you came from!