7. Your protagonist . . .

It is axiomatic that the protagonist is the star of your story. We all know that. And we all know that the protagonist has the most to lose and manages to pick themselves up and rise to the occasion to resolve the roadblocks in their way . . . whatever they may be. This results in a positive ending. Loose ends are tied up, closure is achieved and the reader is satisfied with time well spent. While we root for the protagonist to succeed against overwhelming odds, a story could end in tragedy and still be satisfying. Example: “Romeo and Juliet.”

Question: Is there a way to craft what happens to the protagonist in your story? Consider what Robert McKee, who is a noted and gifted teacher, whose course on story I have taken twice, describes as The Negation of the Negation.” The point McKee makes is that when a story is written and its protagonist is affected by the absolute worst case scenario, the result is a powerful tale that grips the reader. It also makes for a great play or movie.

Let’s dig deeper. A story can be about love, and in doing so, addresses its negation: hate. But what is negation of hate? Self-hate. When a character addresses the negation of the negation . . . you’ve got a winning story.

How about Hitler and Fascism? These address justice. Its negation: injustice. What makes the Nazi story and all others that involve oppression compelling and gripping is the negation of injustice (the negation of the negation): tyranny. Witness bestsellers like “All the Light We Cannot See” or the “Paris Architect.”

So when writing a story, define the negation of the moral value that is at stake for your protagonist, understand what the negation of that moral value what be and then write to the negation of the negation.

For those interesed in taking a course by Robert McKee (I urge all to do so), you can learn more at:  mckeestory.com



6. So you’ve started writing . . . but where should you begin?

Start writing a novel in the middle of the story.

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Research done, fears and procrastination dispensed with, plot clear (or clearer), outline completed, it is time to start writing. But where to start the story? Do you start from the beginning, the middle or the end? Much has been written about in media res. Start in the middle. The advantages are many.

  • You can introduce your protagonist in some sort of dilemma. As the story unfolds, the dilemma is explained, the background explored, and the story develops toward a resolution.
  • Or start with an inciting incident. This grabs the readers attention, establishes a time and place, and enables you to explore the story, develop your characters and, again, head toward a resolution.

Starting your story in the middle gives the writer much leeway to go back and forth in time.

One of the critical things I learned years back was to understand the time frame of a story’s action. What do I mean by this? From the first time the protagonist is introduced or from the time the inciting event occurs, determine how long the “action” of the story covers. Is it a day, a week, a year, or many years? Does it matter? It sure does.

In “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the actual events in the story take 20 minutes, but the reader is exposed to a storyline that occurred over the previous 70 years. How wonderful is this? How skillful! The writer takes you back and forth, peeling away layer upon layer of the character’s history and all that surrounds the story, enriching it to make a sumptuous meal of words and ideas. I urge readers and writers alike to account for the length of time a story actually takes, and also pay attention to how much time in actually covers. Starting a story in the middle permits the writer to paint a vivid and rich story by skillfully guiding the reader through time patches that enhance the novel.

It is possible to craft a story telling the tale starting from the end. Consider “The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All: A Novel.” by Allan Gurganus. This is the story of a 99 year old widow who tells her life story. In doing so, the author is able to go back and forth in time, engaging the reader in a rich and satisfying book.

Lastly it is not a good idea to start a story at the beginning. Starting at the beginning does not allow the writer to refer to past events because everything is still in the “future.” Consider movies that are essentially fast and furious “chase” scenes. It is one stunt after another, with little character or story development. The movie can be exciting, but it is not a fully formed story layered in depth. Novels that start in the middle are.







2. Start writing that novel

Talk about intimidating. How much research should you do before you start?  Tons? Very little? Should you make an outline chapter by chapter? Just start writing? Start that novel and know the ending? Have no clue about the ending? Write in a quiet place? Noisy place? Starbucks? The variables of how to start are multifaceted and different for everyone.

Some writers are disciplined and outline every chapter before they start their opus. Others just start. There is no right or wrong approach this. Perhaps if you have a book contract and a deadline, you take the organized route. Me? I take my time and approach a book often not knowing the ending. While this causes dismay among lay folk, writers understand it: the characters tell the story. It’s their tale and they will give up the ending as your writing progresses. Be true to your characters and they will be true to you. I have said more than once, “I can’t wait to get home to see what happens in my story.” Non-writers are shocked by this. When I write, I get into a zone and feel I am the conduit for my characters. I am at their disposal to tell their story.

I need a certain comfort level before I start tapping away on the keyboard. Like all of us, I need a topic, an event, a specific theme and then I do a certain amount of research to become familiar with the locale, pertinent history, geography, mores, etc. What is critical for all writing is to know your protagonist’s personal history inside out. Where were they born? Who were their parents? Any siblings? What was their education? Special abilities. Childhood illnesses? Vacations? Favorite foods? Allergies? Medications taken? Music likes? Favorite authors and books? Movies? You get the picture. You may not use most of this, but the more you know about your character, the more real they become. Sprinkling “realistic” facts throughout your story gives depth, and enables the reader to relate to them. Once you have a basic comfort level with who your main character is, what the general plot will be, I urge you to begin. The minute you start, you are on your way to becoming a writer. Your journey will never be straight or unimpeded. There will be roadblocks, unexpected twists and turns, and dark alleys . . . rather than avoid, explore with relish and zeal.

I am interested in hearing how others approach starting a novel? This will be helpful to all.