Join Lisa Cron for an in-depth discussion in this video Example (Feeling what the protagonist feels), part of Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story.
Okay, now let's try it together. We'll start with a rough draft of a scene about a hockey game. (male speaker: It was the seventh game of the championship and the Stanley Cup was on the line--the biggest prize in hockey. Fans were crammed into the arena, hooting and hollering. Goalie Joe Williams looked at Larry Barnes, his childhood rival, who was playing for the opposing team. Boy, they sure had come a log way. Larry had the puck and was about to try to score, so Joe crouched in front of the goal--his few feet of ice--and waited to do his job.) That wasn't a very exciting scene, which is odd.
After all, it's the seventh game of the Stanley Cup. The reason it falls flat is because we have no one to root for. Sure we figured Joe probably wants to win the game, but it doesn't seem to matter to him. In fact, nothing seems to mean much to him, not the screaming fans, not that his team made it to the finals, not the fact that his life-long rival is about to slam the puck into the goal he's guarding. So why would a writer forget to let us know how Joe feels? What most likely happened is that the writer believed the situation is so incredibly exciting that we will inherently know how Joe feels, so he decided not to waste time telling us about it.
This is a very common mistake. Your job is to help the reader feel what the protagonist feels. To make that happen, this writer would need to do two things. First, he needs to let us know what Joe feels. Second, he needs to let us know why Joe feels that way. Let's look at the improved version below, so you can see exactly how it's done. Note that this time the writer lets us into Joe's feelings at every turn and has crafted a why that's specific, clear, and present.
Also note that the writer didn't accomplish this simply by tweaking the bad version of the scene. Instead, he completely reimagined and rewrote it. As we'll discuss throughout, the willingness to re-write is what separates those who are successful from those who never quite get there. Here we go. (male speaker: When the puck skidded across the ice, careened off the boards, and landed right on Larry's stick with six seconds remaining on the clock, Joe had to laugh. Of course Larry would maneuver to take the last shot.
Of course Larry would race up the ice and stare him in the eye as if he wanted to kill him, not shoot the puck past him and into the goal. It was Larry pitted against Joe, one more time--although this time, they weren't just a couple of ten year olds playing in their first game, or a couple of high school kids playing for the league title. This time they were facing off for the Stanley Cup--the biggest prize in hockey--and the whole world was watching. With a grim smile, Joe crouched, every muscle tense.
He was a machine finely tuned to do just one thing: this time, he'd stop Larry Barnes from scoring.) Now I am dying to know what happened. Did Larry score this time? Did Joe stop the shot? How did Joe feel at the end of the day? And hey, what's behind their rivalry anyway? It sure sounds like stopping Larry shot means more to Joe than just winning the game, and that my friends is what keeps me reading.
- What is a story?
- Hooking your reader
- Feeling what the protagonist feels
- Being specific
- Creating suspense and conflict
- Writing flashbacks and subplots