TIP #10: THE STRUGGLE part 2

by Peter Raymundo

3. TWISTS AND TURNS.  These are basically smaller challenges leading towards the bigger goal, all of which keep upping the stakes of the story.

A good concept to understand is that WHEN THE HERO REACHES FOR HIS GOAL, HIS ACTION CAUSES A CHAIN REACTION THAT MAKES THE GOAL EVEN HARDER TO GET--perhaps the hero is even physically or emotionally farther away than when he or she started.

For example, there was a great film in the 90's where the main character, a man in his mid-20's, was just miserable after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend.  His basic goal in the film was to get over this pain by way of meeting someone else.  Fortunately (and unfortunately) he had some nightclub-loving friends who were more than willing to "help" him out.  Often at his behest.

So at one point he meets a nice girl in a club and gets her number.  For the first time in awhile he feels positive about things.  His friends advise him to wait at least 3 days before calling her.  But he just can't wait...and calls her that very night.  (Again, here is our main character striving to reach his ultimate goal of getting over his pain by connecting with someone new).  So the phone rings and rings...until the ANSWERING MACHINE picks up. (remember this was the 90's).  So against his best judgment, he starts to leave a message.  But he's nervous, so he rambles.  And right when he is about to leave his phone number...her machine beeps and cuts him off.  

So he calls back.  But now he's even more nervous, and apologetic, and rambling.  And right when he is about to leave his number again...BEEP.  He gets cut off again!  

So calls back again.  And again.  And again. Until the girl picks up the phone.  We instantly realize she has been there listening to his growing desperation the whole time.  He tries to laugh it off, but the girl says not to ever call there again.  And hangs up.


And there it is.  His attempt to reach for his goal has left him even farther from it.  And now we as an audience are even more invested in this well-intentioned, but broken character's plight.

This same concept works just as well with action sequences too.  Just watch an Indiana Jones movie, or Mission Impossible, or James Bond.

Note that all of these twists and turns can be pretty wild, but they do need to fit within the bigger picture, and lead our main character towards facing the ultimate turning point of the story itself.  




by Peter Raymundo

A more complete title would be "The struggle to overcome the problem."  It is part 4 of 5 in my "Five Parts of Story."

This section takes up the bulk of most stories, and partly because of this, it is where most stories either really make it happen, or really fall flat.

Luckily there are a few basic guidelines for this area that can really help keep your reader's interest.

1. ESCALATING CONFLICT.  Plain and simple, the stakes need to get higher and higher, often until the main character is facing death itself.  The choices need to be harder and harder to make.  (Hint: not between good and bad--that's easy.  They need to choose between one love or the other, saving your wife, or a city filled with 2 million innocent victims).  And the physical challenges may become more and more difficult to accomplish as well.

This might sound obvious, but it helps to start your story with simple problems (like what to wear that day) and gradually build to problems so extreme (like life and death types of choices) that the first problem is seen in an entirely new light.  If your story doesn't have this kind of rising tension, the tendency is to get bored with the stakes we already know.


2. A CLEAR GOAL. I'm big on characters having very distinct goals.  However, it is possible for the short term goals to shift several times during the course of your story.  A great example of this is the incredibly popular Wimpy Kid books.  I certainly wouldn't try to speak for a master like Jeff Kinney, but the books seem to be fueled primarily by a long series of gags (each with their own short term goals), which all fit within one larger goal of trying to be cool. 

In most cases though, having a clear goal can be the difference between keeping your reader until the end or losing them half way through.  But let me add this other CRITICAL part to that:  we need to know WHAT BAD WILL HAPPEN IF OUR HERO FAILS.  It can be stated in one short comment if you want, but it NEEDS to be in there somehow.  In my picture book The Monkey Goes Bananas, there are no words describing things, yet through the visuals, we still know that if the Monkey fails to get across that water, he will get eaten by the shark.  In movies, it is super common for a character to literally just say the stakes, like "If we don't kill that shark, it will keep eating swimmers forever."



by Peter Raymundo

Few elements of a story can bring more depth and meaning than the play between the characters' inner and outer conflicts.

INNER CONFLICT takes place all in the character's head.  It is usually some kind of fear or heartache or flaw in the character's belief system.  Sometimes it can be helpful to reveal the backstory or reason behind this flaw.  In fact, sometimes the whole story may be about that reason.  But other times, all we need to know is that he has it, and wondering why has its own appeal.

OUTER CONFLICT is actually an odd way of defining what it is.  Outer Conflict is basically the PHYSICAL CHALLENGE the hero needs to overcome.  And in the story you're telling, this physical obstacle needs to have direct relevance to the character's Inner Conflict.  (for example, the Inner Conflict could be that the character is afraid of the dark.  And the Outer Conflict could be him having to go into a pitch black cave to rescue his dog).

While setting up your character, it can be very helpful to give him a distinct Inner Conflict before setting up the factors of his Outer Conflict, which is usually his main goal. Then once your character is on his adventure, he must first FACE AND OVERCOME his Inner Conflict in order to overcome the Outer Conflict, or physical challenge ahead of him.

It's worth noting that even though many books for beginning readers don't need to go into that much depth to be perfectly effective, many  do.  And if you can make a clear Inner Conflict a major part of your character, the chances are it will help.


by Peter Raymundo

What does the Main Character want, and why can't he get it? That's the essence of The Problem.

No matter what this problem is though, it is crucial that the audience understands it.  That is why, even in well-written stories, the main problem is literally said out loud--sometimes several times even--just to be sure that the audience knows what the whole point is.  It's incredibly important.

Keep in mind the timing of this though.  In picture books, this is often set up really quickly--like in the first page or two.  But in novels or movies it can be helpful to present the story's big problem after the character and setting (and some other conflicts perhaps) are better established.  

Note that many times the main character cannot go after the goal directly to get what he wants.  For instance, in Jaws, the Sheriff just wants a nice peaceful beach town to patrol until he retires.  But he can't have that because a giant, man-eating shark has decided that it wants to eat the swimmers.  So, in order for the Sheriff to get Goal A (peaceful beach), he must first accomplish Goal B (kill the shark).  And of course there are all sorts of complications involved, not the least of which is the Sheriff being afraid of water.

One thing that needs to be noted is how important the character's INNER CONFLICT is when answering "what is stopping the main character from getting his goal."  In many cases, it is this element (of seeing a character overcome his fears), that moves an audience the most.

I'll talk more about just what INNER CONFLICT and OUTER CONFLICT is i the next tip.


by Peter Raymundo

The Setting.

It can be incredibly helpful to have your Main Character be in deep conflict with with very place he is in--especially in longer stories.  A lot of times the story doesn't have to start out this way, but at some point it just really keeps our attention if the main character is thrust into some kind of upside down world that he now must conquer and get out of alive...and usually for the better.

Some well known examples of this would be The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, King Kong, and Jurassic Park.

I think the key idea here is the need for conflict.  Conflict, and the need for your character to make critical decisions, is why we are watching the story at all.  And it can only help if the very world the hero is in forces these decisions at every turn.


TIP #5: CHARACTER part 3

by Peter Raymundo

Irony.  I once heard this great definition of irony from a guy named Matt Bird on a podcast called The Narrative Breakdown. He defined irony as "any meaningful gap between expectation and reality."  This can mean many, many things, in equally as many ways, but overall, I would say things that are "ironic" are basically "opposites" of each other, but tied together by someone's expectations.  

This GAP between expectation and reality (or what happens) is the fuel for nearly all emotional reactions, and is one of the most powerful parts of great story telling.  And your Main Character could benefit by having at least one greatly ironic trait.  Perhaps their most dominant trait.  For instance, a character that is so smart he could save the world, but also so smart that he doesn't fit in and is scorned by that very same people he could save.

Not only could your character's strengths and weaknesses be linked ironically, but YOUR CHARACTER'S MAIN GOAL COULD BE IRONIC.  For instance, you could have a man who is trying to kill another man to avenge the murder of his father, only to find out that the "murderer" is his father.  (I know, it's cliche, but that's because it's so damn good).

This concept of ironic traits in your characters is tied closely to their INNER CONFLICT and OUTER CONFLICT as well.  For instance, you could have a character whose very life depends upon saving a princess from an endlessly tall tower, except he's deathly afraid of heights (because he doesn't want to fall and die).  

In short, having the the basic traits of your main character be deeply ironic gives you some automatic CONFLICT to work with.  And that's always a good place to start.

TIP #4: CHARACTER part 2

by Peter Raymundo


Even if a character is not necessarily “likeable,” they can definitely be interesting—even enough to be the main character.  There can be many reasons for this, but one of the most basic ways of getting the reader interested in any character is this:  THE CHARACTER HAS A DISTINCT GOAL HE WILL DO ANYTHING TO ACHIEVE. 

I once heard the phrase that “enthusiasm is infectious.”  And in both stories and real life I have found this to be true.  Take the Olympics for instance.  Anyone from around the world can just turn on the television, see athletes lining up on the starting blocks, and be completely glued to the set to watch as the athletes race with all they’ve got.  Without knowing anything about them, just watching total strangers attempt to accomplish something with every ounce of their being is……more than just interesting.  It’s compelling.  Emotional even.  Of course, the more we know about them, (their country, background, struggles to get there, etc.) the more engrossing the experience can be.  But just having the goal alone is enough to attract us.

So this goes back to my very first tip.  What does the main character want?  But let me add to this by saying that ALL of the characters in your story should have a clear “want.”  And the more UNDERSTANDABLE the goal, the better.  Food, love, safety, friendship, to help others get the same….These are the best kind.  The story can get more and more complex, filled with dozens of other characters, but at the root of the story, we need to be able to say “This character wants THIS.  He has to overcome THAT in order to get it.  And he is willing to go to the end of the line to do it.”

TIP #3: CHARACTER part 1

by Peter Raymundo

CHARACTER part 1: 

The world of entertainment is filled with great characters—heroes, villians, and all the in between.  And anyone can spot one when they see one.  Children who can’t even read can tell who to like and who not to. 

But why?  What makes a character interesting?  Or likeable?  Or both? 

After thousands of years, are there some kinds of….formulas (for lack of a better word) to help with this?

Luckily the answer is yes.  A big yes. 

And even though whole books could be (and have been) written on the subject, I have learned (from people wiser than I) that there are really only a few basic principles to follow.  This is a topic I will probably revisit a lot over time, but I’ll spend the next few entries focusing just on the basics of developing a good character.

The NUMBER ONE way to make a character likeable by far is to make them SELF-SACRIFICING.  That means they put themselves at risk to help others.  They would even give their own life to help others.  Does this sound familiar?

This principle is so powerful that the character doesn’t even have to help another person, or same kind of creature.  In fact, sometimes even the “lesser” the creature saved, the better.  This SELF-SACRIFICING concept is the very essence of all great Super Heroes, perhaps of all heroes in general.

Again though, this is just ONE way to create a compelling character.  And it works primarily to make them likable and heroic.  It's very effective, but it is by no means the only way to make a character interesting or easy to follow.    

Tip #2: The Five Parts of a Story

by Peter Raymundo

Tip #2:  The Five Parts of a Story

1. THE CHARACTER - Obviously there's endless things to say about developing a good character.  But let me just say this:  NO ONE else should be able to fit as your main character as well as the one you have.  Think about that.  It's a simple concept, but can take a little bit to really understand.  Why do we like him?  Why do we care?  What's interesting or ironic about him?  What's his main characteristic?  What's his job, passion, and goal in life?  What do other say or think about him?  

The answers to these don't need to be complex.  In fact, they can be quite simple, but they need to add up to the best possible character for your story.

2. THE SETTING - The "Setting" is not just the background.  It should be an absolutely critical part of the overall story.  The best advice I have for this is to think of the Character and Setting as one big, conflicting element.  The main character must be at odds with the setting (whether that's a school, island, city, or whatever).  And the Setting must be at odds with the main character.  But I find that usually the setting (at least initially) is the more dominant factor.  (like an honest man in a city of liars).

3.  THE PROBLEM - This is basically summed up by the questions I posed in Tip #1.  We find that the  main character wants (better yet, NEEDS) something.  This can be almost anything, but my advice is to keep is very understandable, like food, or love, or safety, etc.  And again, the obstacle between the character and what he wants should usually have something to do with the setting itself.  And then give this opposing setting some kind of "champion" that our hero can actually face off against.  

4.  THE STRUGGLE - This is often the bulk of the story.  The "second act" in movie terms.  It's basically all of the stuff that the character does to try and overcome the obstacle in the way of his goal.  (to get a tad deeper, this usually involves the character first overcoming some kind of internal struggle, THEN being able to find the ability to overcome the physical obstacle in the way).  There's really no easy answer or formula on how to do this, but some of the most basic things to keep in mind here is to keep escalating the stakes.  Your character starts off with what he feels is the most efficient path, but this leads to a whole new (harder) set of problems.  And this repeats at higher and higher levels,  until often, even in children's books, the main character faces death itself in order to attain his or her goal.  And when this Struggle is at it's absolute peak, at it's tipping point, that is called the Climax.

5. THE RESOLUTION - Or how it ends.  I think when you are first formulating your story, it's only important to know whether it ends positively or negatively.  Does the hero achieve his goal or not?  The exact details of how and where and when can be worked out later on in the process.  For me, knowing how the story basically ends is as important as knowing where you are going when you're driving.  I mean, if you don't have a distinct destination, you will just end up getting lost and driving in circles forever.  That may have it's benefits in real life, but in story terms, it just means a boring, meandering story that no one wants to hear.

Tip #1: Where to start?

by Peter Raymundo

This is a question I hear a lot when I speak about the process of writing and/or drawing with people.  So I figure this might be the perfect way to begin a Story Blog--giving advice on "where to start."  (Please note that, like almost all story topics, I'll have to break it up into several different entries.  And try to keep them in short, digestible chunks.)

Ok, now that I think about it, my first tip actually comes BEFORE Tip #1.  And that is to take everything I say (or anything ANYBODY says) with a grain of salt.  All I can do is talk about what works for me and hope that some of it might work for you.  And with that said, it's time for....


TIP #1:


Who is your main character?

What does he want?

Why does he want it?

And why can't he get it?


That's it.  Believe me, you have your work cut out for you just answering those.  Notice they don't contain the standard grade school terms of Beginning, Middle, and End.  Or Plot.  Or Theme.  Or even the word Story itself.  That's because those come later.  And for me, trying to figure out things like story beats, or character arcs without being able to answer those first 4 BASIC QUESTIONS is a huge mistake--like putting the cart before the horse.

Of course I have further advice on just how to make those answers good ones, but that will have to be the topic of another entry.