Archives for November 2011

Give your hero strong—and deepening—goals

Sometimes writers get lost in poetic descriptions or associative tangents. Sometimes there’s a lot of action in a story, but it’s sequential rather than cumulative.

The cure for all of these ills? Clear goals. The three-act structure works on the principle of clear—and deepening—goals.

Your hero probably doesn’t really have a goal at the beginning of their tale. They are probably stuck in the Ordinary World, vaguely dissatisfied but unable or unwilling to take the kind of risk that would change their life. (Throughout these blog posts, I’m going to regularly refer to the three-act structure, which I outlined at the beginning.)

When the Call to Adventure comes and your hero crosses the first threshold, they are, by definition, pursuing a goal. And, from that point on, they are always pursuing a goal, although their understanding of that goal will deepen as they gain insight.

In Act 2, your hero  pursues what they want.

At the beginning of Act 2 of Some Like It Hot, for instance, Tony Curtis’s character, Jerry, wants to get laid by Marilyn Monroe’s character, Sugar Kane. Jerry comes very close to success. (Who could forget the steamy scene on the yacht or Sugar’s brain-melting dress?)

Jerry’s goal deepens, however: he starts to really care for Sugar. His goal adjusts: he wants to win this girl’s heart, but he fears she won’t love him if she finds out that he’s not the millionaire that he has been pretending to be.

In the Act 2 Culmination, Jerry fails to reach his goal. Pursued by the mob, he has to flee. Rather than revealing his true identity as a two-bit saxophone player, he abandons Sugar and breaks her heart, as well as his own.

Then, in Act 3, Jerry pursues what he needs: full and honest love with Sugar. Having evaded the mob, he tells Sugar the truth. She loves him anyway and they head off into the sunset.

So Jerry initially wants sex, but comes to understand that he needs love. As his insight deepens, his goals adjust. And he is always, ALWAYS pursuing a goal.


Check into M/Hotel


This week, my pick is definitely battery opera’s M/Hotel, which runs until December 10 at the Holiday Inn on Howe Street.

The maximum audience is five and the piece unfolds in a hotel room, so it’s a given that you’ll be dealing with issues of intimacy.

A person who commented on my review online said that they enjoyed the show but wanted the narratives to be less disjointed. I, on the other hand, enjoyed the challenge of that aspect. (I saw two of the 12 pieces on offer; one was pretty linear, the other was more broken up.)

You can check out my review here:

Pull up “The 13th Chair”












This week, the best show I’ve seen is The 13th Chair at Studio 58. In this production, director Sarah Rodgers takes a creaky old thriller and turns it into a hilarious and stylin’ evening. Everybody in the large cast is strong and Kazz Leskard, who plays the police inspector, may very well be a star in the making.

Here’s the link to my full review on the Straight‘s website:

Over at the Cultch, Ronnie Burkett’s marionette show, Penny Plain, is dazzling in terms of his skill, and the marionettes are gorgeous objects. Unfortunately, the story is weak. You can check out my full review here:

Stuck in the Ordinary World

At the beginning of the three-act structure, which I outlined in my previous post, your hero is STUCK in the Ordinary World. Things might look perfectly cosy from the outside; Frodo’s life in the Shire looks okay, right? But deep in his or her heart, your hero is dissatisfied. The life that they are leading is based on fear and on a limited notion of personal potential. Some negative experience from the past may contribute to your hero’s sense of inertia; having been hurt before, they are reluctant to take risks.

You know those little toy cars that you rev up by running the wheels backwards, then you set them down and they shoot off? That’s kind of what you’re doing in the Ordinary World: you’re creating frustration in your hero so that, when they Cross the Threshold and set off on their adventure, the rubber hits the road and they really take off.

Plunge into my blog!










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Three-Act Template

When I work on novels and screenplays, I often work with the three-act structure. It’s a useful tool that can really help to focus and enliven your story.

Check out the template below and feel free to apply it to your work.

If the template doesn’t make complete sense right away, don’t sweat; I can talk you through it.

Lately, a number of authors have asked me to edit their outlines—sometimes before they’ve written a first draft, sometimes when they’re preparing a second draft.

If you’d like to create an outline for me to edit, just write a few sentences for each of the steps in the three-act structure; describe the Ordinary World, tell me what happens in the Call to Adventure, and so on. If you’re still in the early stages of developing your story, the Mid-Act Revelation and the Ordeal, might be difficult to identify. Don’t worry about it; they’ll come later. Do make sure to identify your hero’s Act 2 and Act 3 goals, though.

I hope you find this helpful. Have fun!






Ordinary World

– We see the hero’s world as it exists outside the realm of the adventure.

– The Ordinary World may contain an event called the Inciting Incident, which kicks the story into action.


Call to Adventure

–       In the Call to Adventure, someone or something demands that the hero take action. In the Call to Adventure, the Ordinary World is disrupted; the hero is presented with an opportunity to make a necessary change.


Refusal of the Call

–       The hero refuses to accept the Call to Adventure.

–       It’s important to identify why the hero refuses the Call. If it’s because of a particular fear, the protagonist will be called upon to overcome that fear in the story’s Climax. 

–       Here’s another way of looking at that last point: the reason for the Refusal makes the hero’s vulnerability clear.

–       The tension created by the hero’s vulnerability is what makes the story exciting. Will the hero succeed?

–       The tension created by the hero’s vulnerability is also what makes the story meaningful. What does the hero have to learn in order to succeed? How does the hero grow?


The Intervening Mentor

–       The Intervening Mentor is a parental figure, sidekick, or pal who supports the protagonist in taking action, either through their direct and ongoing presence, or through some kind of message or memory.

–       Many characters can be mentors to the hero throughout the story, but only one is the Intervening Mentor, the character who encourages the hero to accept the Call, despite their vulnerability, and cross the threshold into adventure.




Crossing the First Threshold

–       The protagonist commits to their adventure and takes action that demonstrates that their adventure has begun.

–       This step establishes the protagonist’s goal for Act 2.

–       In Act 2, the protagonist pursues what he or she wants.


What is the protagonist’s Act 2 goal?

–       It’s important to identify this goal. The story’s action emerges from the protagonist’s pursuit of their goal.

–       As the protagonist’s understanding deepens, revisions to the goal will reflect that deeper understanding.

–       The protagonist’s deepening understanding will reveal the story’s underlying wisdom and themes. (Don’t try to plan this part! Just let it happen as the protagonist’s goal shifts. Follow your hero’s growing wisdom.)


Tests, Trials, Opposition, and Allies

–       The protagonist applies different strategies in an effort to attain the Act 2 goal. Some succeed. Others fail. The protagonist encounters resistance as well as support.

–       The protagonist’s struggle creates narrative tension, which is essential to your story.


Mid-act Breakthrough

–       Because of a revelation, the protagonist understands the terms of his of her quest more clearly and commits to it more fully.


What is the protagonist’s altered goal?



–       Having clarified his goal, the protagonist faces an Ordeal.

–       If the Climax of Act 2 is to be negative, this Ordeal will likely resolve positively. If the climax of Act 2 is to be positive, this Ordeal will likely have a negative outcome, which spurs the protagonist on to greater effort.

–       You can think of this step as a tension builder, a strategy for making the Act 2 Culmination more dramatic. “Oh!” you might think. “The hero has overcome the Ordeal! Yay! But wait! In the Act 2 Culmination, the hero fails!” The opposite might also be the case: “Damn! The hero has failed to overcome the Ordeal. But now s/he is succeeding in the Act 2 Culmination! Hooray!”


Act 2 Culmination

–       At this point, the hero either succeeds or fails in achieving his Act 2 goal.

–       This turning point can shift the focus from what that protagonist wanted (Act 2 goal) to what he really needs (Act 3 goal.) 

–       If this turning point is negative (all is lost), Act 3 will reverse and result in triumph. If this turning point appears positive (triumph), Act 3 will result in failure.




–       Act 3 is all about pursuing the deeper objective.


What is the protagonist’s Act 3 goal?


Crisis and Climax

–       In the Crisis, circumstances force the hero to confront his or her greatest challenge.

–       In the Climax, the hero either succeeds or fails.



–       In the Resolution, we see how the hero has changed as a result of their journey. Has the hero gained wisdom and knowledge or has the hero become corrupted and defeated?

–       We also see how the world has changed (or not) as a result of the hero’s struggle.

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