Writerly Wednesday special guest: Emily McKay

Today I asked my critique partner, bff and writer extraordinaire, Emily McKay, to share one of my favorite writing articles here to y’all. 

 

EVERYTHING I EVER NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT WRITING

In the weeks following the national convention, I found myself seated on my sofa, barely recovered from my post-conference, knowledge ‘hangover,’ watching rented movies I’d seen several times before. I was about halfway through a bowl of popcorn and just starting to appreciate how good Brendan Frasier looks covered in a fine film of dust when it hit me. Everything — well, nearly everything — I’d learned at the conference was right there in the movie.

I don’t mean to imply that The Mummy is a classic, though it is certainly enjoyable. But watching The Mummy allowed me to piece together some of the concepts I’d either recently learned or recently heard reiterated.

Newly enlightened, I’d like to talk about foreshadowing and goal/motivation/conflict. More importantly, I want to talk about how both concepts work together.

Foreshadowing

First off, let’s talk about why our readers read our books. If you think it’s because their lives are filled with fun and excitement and they just want to escape into our stories for a moment of peace and quiet, you’re wrong. That’s why people listen to new age music. That’s not why people read our books.

People read books — and go to movies — because their lives are stressful and they want the catharsis of watching as characters they love experience danger and come out okay. The characters can be at physical risk, emotional risk, or simply at risk of not getting what they want …. but they must be at risk.

Furthermore, the audience wants to see the danger coming from a mile away and relish it as it approaches. The audience wants to wallow in impending danger. Foreshadowing allows that.

The Mummy uses foreshadowing to build suspense from the moment the movie starts. As the movie’s ‘prologue’ comes to an end, the voice over tells us that should Imhotep (the antagonist and the titular Mummy) ever be released from his sarcophagus “he would arise a walking disease, a plague upon mankind, an unholy flesh eater with the strength of ages, power over the sands and the glory of invincibility.”

Let’s face it, with a warning like that, there’s no one in the audience thinking, “Well, thank goodness that’s never going to happen!” Instead, we’re probably all thinking “Ooh, that sounds bad! That sounds dangerous! I wonder who he’s going to kill?”

Just in case there’s anyone in the audience who didn’t get the message right off, the movie is filled with characters who issue warnings like, “Many men have wasted their lives in the foolish pursuit of Hamonaptra [the fabled city of the dead]. No one’s ever found it. Most have never returned.” And just in case that’s not enough, there’s a band of creepy, tattooed fellows called the Magi, who skulk around dressed all in black, ambushing the heros at every turn and saying things like, “Leave this place or die.”

There’s even a curse that reads:

He [Imhotep] will kill all who open this chest and assimilate their organs and fluids and in so doing, he will regenerate and no longer be the undead, but a plague upon this earth.

The foreshadowing escalates throughout the movie, becoming more and more specific. By the time the mummy actually does rise and begin sucking the life force from his victims, the audience knows exactly what to expect. We know he’s going to be a plague upon mankind. We know he’ll be a ‘flesh eater’. We’re even pretty darn certain he’s going to start with the four guys who opened the chest and were foolish enough to walk off with his sacred canopic jars.

We’ve spent the first half of the movie anticipating the moment he wakes up and now we’ll spend the second half anticipating the nasty things we were told about. That’s what foreshadowing does. It allows the audience to anticipate.

Think back to your prom, to the first time you saw your favorite band in concert, to your last big vacation. Chances are, in each of those cases, the anticipation you felt in the days and weeks beforehand was just as much fun as the big event itself. The same is true for fiction. Anticipation really is half the fun. So let the audience have fun. Let them enjoy waiting for disaster.

Which leads me to my second point …

Goal, Motivation, and Conflict

Let me begin by saying that if you don’t already feel like you have a working understanding of Goal, Motivation and Conflict, I highly recommend Debra Dixon’s definitive book on the subject.

But maybe you’re like me — you’ve got a handle on the theory, but you’re not sure you really know how to subtly intertwine GMC into you story.

Well, that’s your problem right there. You don’t need to be subtle about GMC. You don’t need to be sparing either. The audience needs to know what’s at stake for your characters. They need to know what your characters want and why they want it. If you don’t let your audience know what’s at stake, the audience won’t get to enjoy anticipating everything that could go wrong.

In the Mummy, we know what Evelyn wants right from the beginning. She wants to be a Bembridge Scholar. Her application has been rejected again, because she doesn’t have enough experience in the field. So we also know that she wants field experience and adventure, because she thinks that will help her achieve her main goal. Of course, what she really wants is recognition. She wants to live up to the legacy of her parents who were both great Egyptologists.

Keep in mind, a character’s goal and motivation will change and evolve as the story progresses. When we first meet Rick O’Connell, his only goal is to stay alive. Once Evelyn saves his life, his goal changes. Because he’s an honorable man (which another character tells us right off — “His word is his word.”), he wants to protect the woman who saved his life. As he grows to love Evelyn, his motivation changes, but his goal (to protect Evelyn) stays the same.

If you have a heroine who wants adventure and a hero who wants to protect her, you’ve got the start of an interesting story. You’ve the got the seed of conflict between them, but for an action/adventure movie you’re going to need more. That’s where the other characters come into play.

It’s not enough to have a good GMC for two characters in the story. You need GMC for all of them. That’s what gives you conflict. (Remember the C in GMC?) Characters who have opposing goals come into conflict with each other. And conflict is the key to interesting fiction.

If this still doesn’t seem like enough conflict for an action/adventure movie, well you’re right. That’s because I haven’t even gotten started on the villain. That’s right, your villain does need his/her own GMC. In fact, second only to protagonist’s, your antagonist’s GMC is one of the most important in the story.

Of course, in The Mummy, the antagonist is, you guessed it, the mummy, Imhotep. Because his GMC is as important as Evelyn’s, it’s stated just as clearly, maybe even more clearly. He wants to resurrect Anck-Su-Namun. Why? Because he loves her and wants to be with her. Everything he does in the story, all the flesh eating, all the sand storming, all the plaguing of mankind, he does not because he’s evil, but because he’s trying to achieve his goal. He’s trying to resurrect the woman he loves. Gosh, if he wasn’t releasing hoards of locust, you’d almost feel sorry for the guy.

All the things the mummy is willing to do to reach his goal create conflict for Evelyn and O’Connell. It’s important to note that as soon as Evelyn realizes that she’s the one who woke this “unholy flesh eater” her goal changes. Suddenly, her goal is to find a way to kill or incapacitate Imhotep, because there are things Evelyn isn’t willing to do to achieve her initial goal. She sets aside her goal of becoming a Bembridge scholar in favor of trying to save the world.

Her new goal (save the world) is in conflict with Imhotep’s goal (resurrect Anck-Su-Namun). Since Imhotep is going to use Evelyn as a human sacrifice to resurrect Anck-Su-Namun, he is also in conflict with O’Connell. And there you have it — characters the audience cares about in conflict with each other. Instant story.

It’s crucial to remember that the audience needs to know what the characters’ goals are. Once the audience knows a character’s goal and motivation, they can usually see the conflict coming from a mile away. Which, of course, is your goal.

Never make the mistake of thinking that because you don’t write Suspense, you don’t need to have suspense in your romance. The Mummy is certainly a suspenseful movie. The sweeping music, dim lighting, and creepy fellows skulking around dressed in black all add to that suspense. But the true suspense in the movie comes from wondering how the characters are going to reach their goals. That’s equally true in a romance novel.

You also want to make sure that you deliver exactly what you foreshadowed. Foreshadowing is all about letting the audience know exactly what the worst case scenario is for the characters. At the climax of movie, we’re not worried about whether or not someone will accidently bring him back to life. We’re not worried about whether or not he’ll manage to regenerate. At that point, we’re worried that he’ll manage to sacrifice Evelyn and he’ll become all-powerful in the process.

If, in your romance novel, the heroine’s goal for ten years has been to hide the existence of her child from hero, then the worst case scenario is going to be that the hero find out about the child they created together. You need to state the heroine’s goal, you need to foreshadow the conflict (the worst case scenario), and you need to deliver the pay-off.

Don’t cheat the audience out of the thrill of seeing all their worst fears come to fruition. That’s what they enjoy. Your story is only as good as your character’s GMC and your protagonists are only as strong as the antagonist they overcome.

Remember, GMC and foreshadowing work hand in hand. You use your characters’ goals and motivations to foreshadow the conflict. Without foreshadowing you have no suspense. And suspense makes great fiction.

Archetypes

Let me start by saying there’s no shame in relying on the tried and true. In fiction, in character development in particular, the tried and true are character archetypes. For more information on character archetypes, see The Complete Writer’s guide to Heroes & Heroines, by Cowden, La Fever, and Viders.

Using archetypes for character development works because it helps the reader know what to expect. Keep in mind, that reading fiction should be easy for the reader. They should be able to slide right into the story. The transition from their world to the fictional world you’ve created should be seamless. You do that by using characters archetypes, by letting the reader know what to expect. Making it easy on them, allows that seamless transition.

When using archetypes, it’s important that your characters really be that archetype. Their archetype should be obvious from the moment they walk on scene. It should be obvious in the way they act and the things they say. Don’t be wishy-washy with your characters either. If there’s information the audience needs to know about your character, then let the audience know right away.

Remember Evelyn from The Mummy? She’s a Librarian. That’s her archetype as well as her profession and we know it from the minute we see her, perched on a ladder shelving books. We know it from the way she’s dressed in prim Edwardian clothes, hair knotted tightly at the base of her neck. We know it from the ease with which she rattles off the names of ancient Egyptian pharaohs. And from the way she talks to the books, gently chiding them for being in the wrong place.

Within five minutes of screen time, we know everything we need to know about Evelyn. We know she’s librarian. We know she often gets herself into trouble — her single-minded focus on the task at hand (shelving books) causes her to knock down all the book shelves. Finally, from her interaction with her boss, we know she’s under-appreciated. He tells her the only reason he puts up with her is because her parents were great Egyptologists. Our first impression of Evelyn is as complete as it is strong.

The same is true for Rick O’Connell, the movie’s hero. He is a Warrior. We know he’s a Warrior from the first moment we see him, rifle aimed at an unbeatable enemy. A moment later, when his commander runs away while O’Connell stays to lead the men under his command, we learn more about him. By the time that first scene ends, we know everything we need to know about Rick O’Connell. He’s a warrior, a bit of a swashbuckler, but a man of honor. He’ll stay and fight when other men turn and run.

“But,” you may protest, “I want to write multi-dimensional, fully-layered characters.” Of course you do. We all do. And the truth is, most characters, O’Connell included, are more complex than even a strong first impression allows. And make no mistake, the first time your characters appear they will make a first impression. You have plenty of time to layer your characters later in the story. Your job as an author is to make sure that first impression is the right one. If your hero is a Warrior, then the first time the reader meets him, he should not be doing research in the library.

Think about Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones is a Swashbuckler through and through. Ironically, he also happens to be a professor. But professor is his profession, not his archetype. Who can forget that image of Indiana Jones racing through the ruins of an ancient temple with a giant ball of stone rolling after him? That opening scene in the jungle has very little to do with the plot of the movie but everything to do with establishing expectations.

Imagine how differently the movie would play out if our first impression of Indiana had him standing in front of a classroom of students. Interestingly enough, the second time we see Indiana, he is in the lecture hall. Because we’ve already seen him racing through the jungle, we know there’s more to him than meets the eye. We’re in on the joke. Therefore, when the men from Army Intelligence come to ask him to find the lost ark, we’re not shocked and confused — or worse, skeptical. Because we already have that first impression of him in our mind, we know he’s up to the challenge.

So remember, never be afraid to make a strong first impression. Furthermore, never be afraid to reinforce it whenever necessary. It’s even a good idea to give your characters a talisman, some physical object they carry with them that represents who they are. (Remember Indiana’s hat and whip?) After all, your characters exist in a physical world. They need objects to clutch when they’re nervous or stroke when they’re contemplative.

O’Connell’s talisman is his guns. He uses them to defend himself not only from physical danger, but from emotional intimacy as well. Once he’s cleaned-up and well-groomed, O’Connell feels nervous around Evelyn. After all, he’s a man of action and doesn’t quite know what to do with this intelligent, cultured, beautiful woman. Around her, his easy confidence slips. How do we know? By the way he handles his weapons. It’s no coincidence that before he’ll even sit down at the table with her, he rolls out his bundle of guns between them. Those weapons are his talisman; they make him feel safe, even when he’s not using them. In fact for most of the movie, his guns are useless against an immortal enemy. The Mummy obviously is not suseptible to bullets. Nevertheless, O’Connell’s always armed.

Evelyn’s talisman is her books. Makes sense — she is a Librarian. She’s surrounded by books throughout the movie, from the books she’s shelving when we first meet her, to the book she uses to save the world. Her books give her the same confidence that Rick’s guns bring him. After her first intimate conversation with Rick (the same one that made him nervous) she feels so rattled when she goes back to her room, she tries to read, but can’t. Like Rick, the way she interacts with her talisman shows us how she’s feeling.

In the case of both Rick and Evelyn, their talismans are related not only to their archetypes but also to the lessons they have to learn.

None of this is an accident. It’s just great fiction. Which is what we aspire to write.

Let’s face it, we all want to write a really great novel–the kind of novel that lives on in people’s memory long after they put the book down, the kind of novel people love without ever really knowing what made it so good.

To the reader, a wonderful novel seems like magic. We sit in the audience, amazed by the tricks and illusions being executed on stage by the master magician. Yet, we have no notion of how those tricks are performed.

To the writer, what was once magical can become merely frustrating. We want our own work to appear as seamless and wondrous. But how?

One of the ways is to have a well-developed premise and theme. I’m sure there are people out these who can write magical novels without know squat about premise or theme. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them.

The good news is, if you’re not one of those people either, then understanding premise or theme can give your writing an extra edge. That magical glow.

It can tie together your prose and add resonance to your words. It may even make the difference between writing a novel people enjoy and writing a novel people love.

Premise

According to James Frey, in How to Write Damn Good Novel, a premise is “a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict in the story.” In other words, it’s the lesson the audience or reader can learn by watching the movie or reading the book. It’s the point that’s proven by the events in the story. Most stories (certainly all the good ones) have a premise. For example: there’s no place like home (The Wizard of Oz), it’s a wonderful life (It’s a Wonderful Life), beauty is only skin deep (Beauty and the Beast), freedom is worth dying for (Braveheart).

You may have noticed in the examples above, that the really clever writers work the premise into the story so that it’s kind of hard to miss — if you’re looking for it. Most people aren’t. The average reader will probably never know you have a premise in your book — but they’ll enjoy it more.

The premise in The Mummy is that everybody gets what they deserve. The premise is illustrated most clearly through the character Benni. If you remember him from the movie, you’ll remember that Benni is a bit of a weasel. In fact, all through the movie people are saying things like “You’ll get yours Benni!” and “Nasty little fellows such as yourself always get their comeuppance.”

Just as everyone predicts, Benni does indeed get his. By the end of the movie his self-serving greed leaves him trapped in the treasure room of lost city of Hamonaptra. Though he’s surrounded by the gold and treasure he couldn’t leave behind, he’s also surrounded by flesh-eating scarabs. After betraying all of humanity, he has gotten exactly what he deserves.

What is true of Benni is equally true for all of the other characters. They too get what they deserve.

Anck-Su-Namun gets hers fairly early in the movie. Because she is the pharaoh’s mistress, her body is not her own. In the first scene of the movie, just before plunging a knife into her belly she says “My body is no longer his temple!” With her death, she gets what she never had in life–control over her own body.

Imhotep gets what he deserves as well. After spending over three thousand years as the undead, Evelyn removes the curse and O’Connell stabs him. Wounded and dying, he staggers backwards and falls into the well of souls–the same well Anck-Su-Namun’s soul rose out of when he was trying resurrect her. Ultimately, he has gotten what he deserved, death.

Of course, Evelyn and O’Connell get theirs too. Evelyn gets to use her intelligence to save the world. Thus she gets the adventure and the recognition she deserves. O’Connell, a self-proclaimed treasure seeker, gets the ultimate treasure–love.

Theme

Ah, theme. The bane of high school students everywhere.

For writers, theme is often both harder and easier than premise. A theme is woven through a story with more subtly than the premise. In Sound and Sense, Laurence Perrine defines theme as “the central idea of a literary work.”

Common themes, particularly in romance novels, are trust, self-acceptance, faith, and forgiveness. The easiest way to figure out your theme is to go back to your premise. Premise and theme are usually closely related.

A couple of quick examples: The premise of The Wizard of Oz is “There’s no place like home.” The theme is home. The premise of Braveheart is freedom is worth dying for. The theme is freedom.

If you’re having trouble with theme and premise, it may be easiest to decide on your theme first. Figure out what big issue you want to deal with in your book. Let’s say you want your book to be about Trust. Then decide what it is you want to say about Trust. Do you want to say that ‘Once trust is lost it can never be regained’? Or that ‘Without trust, love is meaningless’? Or maybe that ‘Love never really exists without trust’? What do your characters need to learn about Trust before they can have their happy ending?

The beauty of having a clearly defined theme and premise is that you’ll be able to use them to guide your story. Once you know what your theme is, you’ll want to make sure the every scene and character in the book reflects that theme. If you have a great scene that’s poignant and touching, but you’re not sure whether or not to keep it, ask yourself, “What doesn’t this scene say about my theme?” If the answer is “nothing” you’ll need to cut or rewrite the scene.

Which brings us to The Mummy. If the premise is that everybody gets what they deserve, then the theme is justice (Not in the Criminal Justice System sense of the word, but in the ‘the world is a fair and just place’ sense of the word.)

I’ve already talked about how all of the major characters get what they deserve, so you can probably see how they all reflect the story’s theme and premise. What you may not have noticed yet is how the writer uses even the minor characters to reflect the theme as well.

Remember the drunk British pilot? He’s a small character, on screen for mere minutes, but he serves an important function in the plot. O’Connell and the others are in Thebes and they need to cross the desert to Hamunaptra quickly (earlier in the movie it took them days to get there). A plane is the obvious solution to this plot problem, but plot demands a new character to fly it. It can’t be any of the other characters, because if they had access to a plane, they would have used it the first time they crossed the desert.

Enter the drunk British pilot. He shows up just in time to fly O’Connel and the others to Hamunaptra. But remember, he has to do more than that, otherwise, it would be lazy story telling.

Every character and scene must serve multiple purposes. So instead of just being the guy that flies them across the desert, his character must also illustrates the theme (justice) and the premise (everybody gets what they deserve). ‘But he’s a minor character’ you say. ‘How do we know what he deserves?’ Well, minor though he is he still has goal, motivation, and conflict. And the audience knows what his GMC is right from beginning. As soon as his character enters the story we learn that he’s last surviving member of the Royal Air Corp and he wishes he had died a glorious death along with the rest of his companions. So when he dies, we know he’s getting what he deserves–a glorious death.

Remember, in fiction, every scene, every character, every moment is precious. Your story needs to be tightly woven. You have to make every character work for his or her place in the story. So if you need a character to move the plot along, make sure you use that character for something else as well. These minor characters are perfect for illustrating your premise and theme.

In short, a well-defined premise and theme are like the wires the suspend the magician’s assistant three feet above the floor–the audience probably never sees them, but they’re crucial to the success of the trick.

You can find out more about Emily and her fabulous books at her website

  • Sabrina Shields (@SabrinaShields)

    Sorry I missed this last week when it first posted! Great examples using a great movie – who doesn’t think the Mummy is awesome?!?