El Sendero: Saying No To Your Characters

Soooo while writing today I did something totally against my nature as a writer: I went back and edited a scene I’d written the day before. IN FACT I literally just blogged about how I don’t do that. What I do is steam power through first drafts, chop chop chop and mark down any changes I know will have to be made in a separate document. Because to me first drafts are all about momentum, write with your whole body yes? Yes.


Several things: I was feeling a little stuck on some minor but aching plot points. And I have this one character – he’s not the most emotive dude in the playground. Which could be okay, growth and arc and whatnot yeah, but he’s the protagonist AND his life is narrated by a very very emotive spirit AND he’s always meeting interesting people that know how to deal with their emotions aaaaaand I’m like what? 2/3 in. So yeah, the dude has to start dealing with his shit.  And in this scene i wrote he’s really just going through the motions.


I’m reading Robert McKee’s STORY, which is actually about screenplay writing but is a must read for any writer, i totally recommend it x 1 million and in it, he drops this interesting little dewdrop of story theory:

“True action is physical, vocal or mental movement that opens gaps in expectation and create significant change. Mere activity is behavior in which what is expected happens, generating either no change or trivial change.”

I had to read the whole section like 8 times to make sense of it, but in short, what was happening in my scene was mere activity. It was pretty, the words were nice and there were things happening that mattered but also not really. Not in the sense of TRUE ACTION (sounds like a bad Arnold movie). McKee is saying the source of tension that pushes fiction forward is in the difference between what characters think will happen and what really happens. This is puts fire under our people, ignites the many little movements that amount to a true arc.

I used to do comedy improv in college and one of the rules you use in improv is The No No Rule. It means no matter what the other person in your scene says, you can’t say no to it, because if you do the scene crumbles and there’s no trust developed between the actors. “And now I will fly us to the moon! Away we go!”

“No you won’t.”


*Scene shatters into a billion little pieces*

Right. In fiction though, i think it’s the opposite. As the writer you have to be constantly saying no to your characters. Oh you thought this was gonna be easy? No. You thought she would love you back just like that? Nah. You thought if you finally expressed your emotions everything would go your way? Nein. And the stakes keep climbing, the gap between what’s expected and what happens widens and the action propels us forward. Yes.

So I went back, opened up a bunch of return keys in the scene and got deep in Ramon’s troubled head. And what happened? The story swerved off in awhole other direction. One that I wasn’t at all prepared for…in fact, I didn’t expect it (realizing this AS i type…) and so something great happened: True Action, both in the piece and my own writer brain, and my story opened up wide.

This ever happened to you? What unexpected gifts has leaving your comfort zone brought to your storytelling?



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