So, it’s been a week since you’ve made all your New Year’s resolutions, set your yearly goals, and filled out your word-count tracking sheet. You’ve even set aside a chunk of time each day to dedicate to your craft.
Now, come procrastinate with me.
Remember I said I would review Pixar’s 22 storytelling rules? Here’s the first one:
You admire a character for trying more than for their success.
Hmmmm, sounds deep, huh? Don’t laugh. It actually is.
When I first read this rule, it put to mind the story of The Little Engine that Could by Plat and Munck. You all know this, right?
Okay, okay, for those of you who grew up on Mars, it’s a children’s story about a small engine that struggles to pull a large train up a difficult hill. He succeeds because he tries. Nothing else. No one comes to help the train when he encounters the difficult mountain passes. He doesn’t get a booster from the other engines. And he doesn’t develop any special powers or trick the mountain by going through it. Nope. He succeeds simply because (all together now) he thinks he can.
Such a simple story! But it has endured in our collective literature for decades because of two things:
- Our character tries his heart out. He tries so hard, before you know it, he has succeeded.
- Simple motivations. The engine tries because that’s who he is.
When I think of my novel character with this rule in mind, I see what I’ve done wrong. Well, I see one of the many things I did wrong.
He doesn’t try. He just does. I outlined my story so well, going from plot point to plot point, that I really didn’t think about his most basic motivation. For each immediately task, I just winged the motivations as I went along, increasing his complexity without any explanation. Consequently, not only is the reader confused about why he’s doing what he’s doing, he doesn’t have to try to do any of the tasks I give him. He simply does them to get to the next point in the story.
But that’s the very part of the story our readers are interested in – the trying bit! The struggle. The story is the struggle. If our characters aren’t convincing themselves that they can the entire way through their ordeal, then it is time to re-focus the story on what folks are interested in reading: the struggle/attempt/battle/conflict/toil/trial/the trying.
Once we do that, we’ll find that our readers will engage with our characters.