Write Awesomely

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

JSB, Grand Canyon

In last week’s post I mentioned I would be driving all day, and that was quite true. Mrs. B and I needed to get out, get away, do something different. Cindy suggested we motor to the Grand Canyon, just to spend a day looking at something big, majestic, unsullied and quiet.

Turns out my wife’s instinct was right on the money. Scientific research suggests that several benefits flow from the experience of awe—“from happiness and health to perhaps more unexpected benefits such as generosity, humility, and critical thinking.”

In The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, Florence Williams emphasizes the need to get away from anthrophone. This refers to the soundscapes created by things like cities, cars, planes, machines, lawn mowers, sirens, neighbors with a teenager who is taking up the drums, and such like. The thing is, that noise goes into our brains and triggers our “fight or flight” receptors. Over time this can create chronic stress, a very real danger to our collective health and well-being.

On the other hand, natural sounds like a gentle breeze, flowing water, and singing birds are interpreted by our brains as relaxing and rejuvenating. In this state we are more creative and less hostile toward other human beings (hmmm…maybe people should only be allowed to tweet when in a forest).

Photo by JSB

The Grand Canyon is something to behold. If you’ve never been there, put it on your bucket list. Plan to spend at least four hours just looking at it. You can drive to various viewpoints, or take a shuttle bus tour, a helicopter flight, or even ride a mule for an overnight stay at the bottom. We opted for the viewpoints.

Grand Canyon = Awesome. Good for the soul.

Writing awesomely = Good for the reader.

What does it mean to write awesomely? At the very least, it means giving your readers more than a by-the-numbers story. Help them feel something beyond numbers. Tap into the inspirational. After all, that’s what the great myths were for. A hero overcomes tremendous odds so that we, the audience, might exhibit the same courage on our own journey through life.

Heracles kills the Hydra. He does so with a mixture of courage, strength and thought. Since cutting off one of the Hydra’s heads means two more heads replace it, Heracles has his nephew, Iolas, put a torch to each cut to cauterize it. And thus he dispatches the monster. Hey, maybe you can do the same when it seems your bills are like Hydra’s heads.

Or maybe you face a seemingly insoluble problem. If you approach it wisely, like Theseus in the Labyrinth, you can kill your personal Minotaur and find a way back to the world.

In our modern storytelling, we have mythic heroes of various stripes teaching us valuable lessons. Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) in Now, Voyager, shows us that inner strength and beauty can be developed even under the worst of circumstances. Atticus Finch teaches us that sometimes a losing battle is morally imperative. Heck, even Dirty Harry Callahan shows us that sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to save the innocent—especially a busload of children in the grip of a mad killer. Do you believe that? “Well do ya, punk?”

Driving home with Elixir in the trunk.

So one of the ways to be awesome is to be intentional about the meaning of your story. In my book, The Last Fifty Pages, I talk about the idea of a “life lesson learned.” My friend Chris Vogler, in The Writer’s Journey, calls this the “Return With the Elixir.” It’s what takes a story from tale to myth, from entertainment to exaltation. Why not go for it, every time out?

To prepare, take a little time each day to get away from the anthrophone. There are abundant apps and sites with nature sights and sounds. A fifteen-minute break every now and then seems almost a health mandate these days. So get quiet, forget about Twitter, and maybe the boys in the basement will mix you some elixir.

What is awesome to you? What natural sites have lifted your soul? 

What works of fiction have elevated you, given you a takeaway that is more than entertainment?

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Using the Argument Against Transformation to Strengthen Your Story

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s post is for structure fans. If you’re a dedicated pantser for whom any thought of form and function causes you to break out in hives, you have my permission to go play Candy Crush, for we are about to take a deep dive into the skeletal framework of storytelling.

This post was prompted by an email from a reader of Super Structure and Write Your Novel From the Middle. The gist of the email is below, reproduced with the sender’s permission:

I’m planning a book that is plot-driven rather than character-driven, so as I look at developing my “Mirror Moment,” I know it’s going to be more about digging deep and finding the strength to face physical and/or psychological death (like in The Fugitive), rather than a specific need to change. I wondered how the twin plot points of “Argument Against Transformation” and “Transformation” worked in that case (since there isn’t an actual transformation)? Are those beats skipped in a plot-driven story?

This is a very intelligent question, and told me immediately that my correspondent has a real grasp of structure and what it’s supposed to accomplish.

He rightly points out there are two kinds of arcs for a main character: 1) he becomes a better version of himself; or 2) he remains the same person fundamentally, but grows stronger through the ordeal. (Note: both of these arcs can be reversed, resulting in tragedy).

In books or movies of the first kind, such as Casablanca, you’ll often find a compelling beat, which I call “the argument against transformation.” It’s a setup move which defines the MC’s journey and pays off nicely at the end, with actual transformation.

Thus Rick, at the end of Casablanca, has transformed from a loner who has withdrawn from the community into a self-sacrificing member of the war effort. Remember at the  airport, when he’s explaining to Ilsa why they can’t go off together? “I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do you can’t be any part of.”

And two minutes later Rick proves his transformation by shooting Major Strasser right in front of Louis, the French police captain.

Early in Act 1, we have Rick’s argument against such a transformation. That is, he states something that is the opposite of what he will come to believe—and be—at the end. He says it two times, in fact: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

Another example: At the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy has learned, “There’s no place like home.” But early in Act I, she argues against that notion. She tells Toto there’s got to be a place they can go where there’s no trouble, a place you can’t get to by a boat or a train. A place “behind the moon … beyond the rain …” (cue music).

That’s the first kind of transformation. But my correspondent was asking about the second kind, where the character does not change inside. Here’s what I wrote in response:

In the kind of story you describe, there is a transformation—from weaker to stronger. The hero is forced to survive in the dark world, and must become more resilient. So at the end he is not fundamentally a different person, but is a stronger, more resourceful version of himself.

In thinking about your question, it seems to me that the “argument against transformation” in a “getting stronger” story corresponds to what my friend Chris Vogler labels “Refusal of the Call” (in his book The Writer’s Journey). One example Chris uses is Rocky. When Rocky Balboa is first offered the chance to fight Apollo Creed, he says no. “Well, it’s just that, you see, uh…I fight in clubs, you know. I’m a ham-and-egger. This guy… he’s the best, and, uh, it wouldn’t be such a good fight. But thank you very much, you know.”

Implicit in that refusal is his belief that he’s not strong enough.

The transformation beat comes at the conclusion of the final battle, usually in the form of some visual that shows the stronger self. In Rocky, he’s got Adrian in his arms and adulation from the fans.

In The Fugitive, the argument against transformation is shown cinematically. After Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives on the scene of the train derailment, we cut to Kimble running through the woods, his face etched with fear. In a book, you could put in Kimble’s inner thoughts about it. I know an operating chamber, not the streets! How am I going to survive?

The Mirror Moment is what holds these two ends of the spectrum together, which is why it is perfectly situated in the middle of a book. The protagonist has a moment when he’s forced to look at his situation, as if in a mirror (sometimes there’s an actual mirror in the scene!). He either thinks, Who am I? What have I become? Will I stay this way? (Casablanca); or, There is no possible way I can survive this…I’m probably going to die! (The Fugitive).

Now, if you pantsers have made it this far without your heads exploding, I congratulate you, and offer this word of comfort: you don’t have to think about structure before you start a project, or while you’re writing it. Go ahead, be as wild and free as you like!

But when the time comes (and it always does) when you need to revise and figure out why something isn’t working—and what you can do to make it work—structure will be there to help you figure it out.

Because story and structure are in love, and there’s no argument against that!

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Gilstrap Watch: John reports that the surgery “went great.” He feels, naturally, like he “took a beating,” but expects to be “fine in a week or two.” Huzzah! (For those who don’t know what this is about, see John’s post from last Wednesday.)

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