AG wrote:
“I was musing with a friend over why [Sense8 was cancelled), and it occurred to me that the best shows can usually be summed up with a very simple “subject verb object” statement that encompasses both premise and plot, so audiences near-immediately know what they’re getting into. (This doesn’t apply to books, this is just what kinds of shows more easily ensnare new browsing viewers) Consider:
“A teenage girl slays vampires.
“A vampire fights supernatural crime.
“A crew of thieves swindles bad guys . . .”

I think the idea behind the one-sentence premise does apply to books, too, but I think it’s more complicated than subject/verb/object.  (Of course, I do.)

I’d start with protagonist/conflict verb/antagonist, which gives you AG’s “A teenage girl slays vampires.”  (I’d swap out “fights” for “slays,” but that’s a quibble.)

The problem is that there’s not enough there to be interesting.  That’s probably because Buffy spawned a slew of teenagers whose stakes are sharp, so the original twist (wait, the little blonde isn’t the victim?) has been co-opted into the mainstream.  But I think there has to be more in the basic premise, something that lifts it above “X fights X,” that answers the question, “Why should I care?”

Go to another one of AG’s examples: “A crew of thieves swindles bad guys.”   That’s your vintage “biter bit” plot, and it intrigues because it’s bad guys vs. bad guys.  It succeeds because it’s really interesting thieves who form a family bond and fight those who make the Evil Speeches of Evil, stories with clearly drawn moral lines even though both sides are on the wrong side of society’s moral line (that would be Sterling, most of the time).  (Implicit in all of this is that the stories are well-written: good writing can save a bad premise, but bad writing will sink a good one every time.)  So it’s “A family of thieves, grifters, and hackes fights rich people who prey on the helpless.”  Now we got ourselves a premise.

That’s why “eight telepaths fight a sociopathic doctor” isn’t as strong as “Eight telepaths who have formed a psychic bond fight the sociopathic doctor who is trying to lobotomize them.”  That’s not “telepaths fight doctor,” that’s “family fights lobotomizer.”

Of course, as i said above,  no story premise is a guarantee of success;  that lies entirely in the execution plus a whole lot of industry stuff that’s just depressing to talk about.  But I agree with AG that the ability to state the premise simply is key to writing a story that holds together.  When I teach conflict, I teach the central question that must be answered by the end of the story:  “Will the protagonist defeat the antagonist and get the goal?”  The answer does not have to be “yes,” there’s nothing wrong with the protagonist failing unless it breaks the contract to the reader (see Moonstruck as an example of the protagonist failing but the contract being fulfilled for the romance reader).  Then you use that stout stake to govern the  rest of the novel.  Go anywhere you want in the discovery draft, but once you have that main question/premise/statement, that’s your stout stake that the rest of the story is tethered to, the party you invited that reader to, your contract with the reader.

So to go back to AG’s original point, Sense 8 had premise problems from the beginning, not because it didn’t have a great premise, but because it kept wandering from it.  The parts of Sense8 that were enthralling were the places where the sensates connected: Will, Sun and Capheus saving Noni in the beginning, the karaoke scene, Lito and Wolfgang partnering up, Will and Sun standing with Capheus, and so many more.  Whenever they focused on the sensates fighting for each other again evildoers, the show was mesmerizing.  Whenever they wandered into side plots or were deliberately opaque about what was going on–Sarah Purcell comes to mind here–the show was annoying.  Sense8’s second season was really good because I got to see these characters again, but as far as the plot goes, it was a lot of promise and very little pay off.  There are a lot of bad vibes around Lito’s new acting gig but I do not know why.  Sun’s on the lam with her evil brother after her, and I don’t know what’s going to happen there.  Kala’s marriage is taking a bad turn but I don’t know why.  There are other clusters trying to kill our cluster and I don’t know why.  I’m okay with mystery and expectation, but I’ve seen the entire second season, and I still don’t know why.   The final episode was the worst in this respect: the sensates are finally all together except for Wolfgang and I don’t get to see that meeting, the meeting two whole seasons have promised me.  The season ends, Wolfgang’s still in big trouble, everything’s up in the air, and I’m feeling frustrated and cheated.  Sense8 is not fulfilling my viewer contract because it’s not sticking to the main premise: I don’t get to see these eight people safe at the end having defeated the Bad Guy.  Will the Sensates defeat Whispers and the BPO?  Who knows?  The series is over.

So my advice is, after the discover draft, figure out your premise/central story question/promise you made to the reader on the first page/reader contract, and then as you revise, paste that sucker at the top of your computer screen and make sure everything attaches to it so at no point will your reader say, “Why am I reading this?”

That seems draconian, I know, but it’s the glue that will hold your story together.  

Now I must go cogitate on this for Nita because I’m definitely wandering in Act Two.  I’m still in discovery draft, so that’s okay, but knowing my stout stake can only help. 


31 thoughts on “Protagonist/Conflict/Antagonist

  1. Whedon and Rogers in BtVS and Leverage respectively ensure that a season tells a story with beginning, middle and end. As a child “to be continued” at there end of an episode was a gag, something silly. Now, I don’t have time for cliffhangers and I seldom binge on a new series. I like them to unfold like getting to know new people.

  2. Okay that’s the second time in a short while that someone has mentioned Moonstruck–a movie I’ve liked since it came out. For many, many reasons.

    But I recently re-watched it and have been left scratching my head re the ending. Spoiler alert to those who haven’t seen it, but I think I missed something this time around because I didn’t get why the fiancé, after returning from his trip, says he can’t marry Loretta. It’s all good of course (& convenient) because then Loretta is free to marry Ronny. But just didn’t make sense–if the mom was dying and recovered when she was happy to hear the fiancé was planning to marry Loretta, why would breaking off engagement be good for the fiancé & his mom?

    Anyone remember the movie and can fill me in? I’m sure I missed a step in the re-watch.

    1. The reason he’d never married was that the thought of it upset his mother.
      The reason she was dying was because he’d told her he was going to marry Loretta.
      When he told her he wouldn’t do it, she sat up and asked for food.

      1. Thanks. See I thought she sat up & was happy when he told her he was marrying Loretta–which didn’t make sense. I knew I missed something this time around. Now it makes sense:)

  3. I find a lot of shows suffer from that “you’ll find out later” syndrome. It’s even been stated outright by a certain show that springs to mind this year. “Be patient. You’ll get all the answers at the end. We’re a 20+ episode show and the finale will pay off.” That’s 20+ episodes of not knowing what’s going on, why it’s going on, who I’m supposed to be rooting for & against. 20 episodes of “I don’t get this,” and that’s a lot to ask anybody for a TV show, especially when eps 1-19 lack character goal/motivation and leaves you going, “Huh? Why is X character doing this?”

    I’m frustrated by stories that meander with a season-long plot that never pays off or new shows that ask me, based on the concept, to invest 5-7 years viewership straight off the bat to get any kind of answers to the core questions of the show. Pass, pass, and pass.

    I really enjoyed Sense8’s first season until the finale and then it seemed to focus on the one character I thought was the blandest and that’s when it lost me. I haven’t bothered with Season 2. Sounds like I’ll just skip it all together.

    1. It’s like Season One, it has marvelous moments in it. I’m not sorry I watched it. But they seemed tone deaf to the juice of the story which was the relationships among the cluster. The stories about Sun were marvelous, Lito’s were heartwarming, Will and Riley were bonded which was nice to see, Kala finally went to Wolfgang, lots of stuff happened. But there was also a lot of stuff I didn’t care about, just like in the first season.

      I do hopw they give Sense8 a final long form episode just to wind everything up.

    2. “A lot of shows suffer from that “you’ll find out later syndrome.”” This is the problem I am having with the Starz series based on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Is anyone else watching this, because I would love to discuss!

      There’s a lot of “the audience can’t know this yet because one character is hiding it from the main character, so everyone has to be as confused as the MC.” We’ve barely learned ‘what’ (the goal), which is get to this place and do this thing. We kind of have to infer the thing is a war between gods. And now there are only two episodes left of the first season, and we have no idea ‘why’. Again, we can make some inferences – gods fighting for the ever-dwindling worship bandwidth of Americans – but most of the gods are already living without followers. So why does it matter now? And what are the stakes? What happens if they lose?

      I want to love this series. Neil Gaiman! Ian McShane! Religion as metaphor! Cool production values! But they’re losing me by not giving me enough info to make me care. If I hadn’t read the book years ago so I have bit of a sense of what’s happening, I’m not sure I would even get through season 1. If things don’t change, I won’t be back for season 2.

      1. I’m not watching, but I quit the book 2/3 of the way through because of that. I had enough mythology background that I could pick up on Odin and Bast, but even knowing that, the damn thing just wandered. I understand the filmed version is better.

        I think my problem with the story is my problem with Gaiman: beautiful writing, interesting scenes, but no sense of an authority in the text. I don’t trust him to mean anything at the end anymore. I love Coraline, so maybe he’s more disciplined for kids (although I haven’t read the book for that), but my 2/3 of American Gods and a fairy tale short story are the only things of his I’ve read, and the short story annoyed the hell out of me for being mostly vivid scenes about a Destroying Woman archetype with nothing underneath, she was just evil because she was born Evil. American Gods was an anthology of great characters wandering through a chaotic sort-of plot, and when I still couldn’t figure out what anything meant 2/3 of the way through, I bailed. I know, it was the New Gods trying to stop the Old Gods from taking back power, with Shadow in the middle, and I was pretty sure Shadow was more that just an ex-con who’d had Loki for a cellmate, but there was so much stuff in there that didn’t attach to anything, that the assumption that there’d be some revelation coming up that would Explain It All just wasn’t there.

        Sense8 did the same damn thing, but there was enough of a central plot plus romance and humor that I stuck with it. Thinking back, I’m not sure it wasn’t just the promise of the romances that kept me going because it sure wasn’t the Whispers plot. Maybe that was my problem with American Gods: the central character is rootless, and the superficial attachments he forms with other characters are episodic except for Wednesday. He never knows what’s going on, he just does whatever Wednesday tells him to do. He has no goals of his own, he’s completely reactive, and he never (in the first 2/3 of the book) makes the story his own. Annoyed the HELL out of me.

        Having said that, I know Gaiman is beloved, so it’s probably just me.

        1. The discussion happened, but I had wandered away (to write!) so am just returning to it. I have the same issues with Gaiman. Lots of ideas, but no through-line, or at least not one my brain can grok. American Gods is the only book of his I have finished, having read it when it was newly released. ‘No sense of authority in the text.’ I hadn’t thought of it that way, but yes, this.

          I want so much to love his writing because I think he (or, at least, his public persona) is kind of awesome. He’s wonderful to fans, supportive of other creatives, and married Amanda Palmer. And my daughter got to meet him after an Amanda Palmer show, before NG and AP were married, and said, “She’s dating some really cool old dude. I think he’s some kind of writer…” He strikes me as the kind of cool ‘old’ dude who wouldn’t mind that description of himself.

      2. I’ve discovered that I love traditional family/sports movie structure, where the team gets together early and enjoys some success, but then a complication threatens that for the climactic battle.
        But a lot of TV and film nowadays are delaying that getting together for the climax, which means I’ve just spent however many acts before that not seeing the characters work together, only to get a taste of that in the last act, only for the thing to end right after. Way to not deliver on the promise of the premise, guys. So many shows that are fandom darlings leave me scratching my head because the team rarely actually acts as a team, and that’s what I’m here for!

        I read American Gods, was left cold the entire way through (the only Gaiman that hasn’t has been Good Omens thanks to Pratchett, and his Doctor Who stuff, where he’s elaborating on Moffat’s formula), have not bothered remembering any bit of it. Like with Good Omens, Pratchett managed most of those concepts better, in Small Gods, in Thief of Time, in Hogfather, etc.

        1. That’s my complaint about Sense8, too. Seven of the eight finally meet in person AND THEY DON’T SHOW IT? And it’s in the last episode of the second season? Grrrrrrr.

          The thing about Pratchett is that he always knew where he was going. He could swing pretty wide–Small Gods is an excellent example–but you never had the feeling that the story was out of control. WIth American Gods, I get the feeling that he’s beautifully illustrating interesting ideas that are passing before his protagonist, who has no idea what’s going on and isn’t terribly interested in finding out. Wednesday tells Shadow, “Go to this town and stay there until I call for you,” and Shadow goes to that town and stays there until he’s called for. He meets interesting people everywhere Wednesday drops him, but he doesn’t connect aside from assorted odd sexual couplings that appear to be mostly woman-as-healer, he never has a stake in anything, he’s just a pawn that Wednesday moves around. I’m okay with that if Wednesday is the protagonist, but I’m not going to follow an emotionally-dead protagonist whose character never changes through a plot that never arcs.

          It’s funny because I’ve been beating myself lately up for not being a better writer because no matter what else you can say about me, a poet I am not. And then I started reading Georgette Heyer for comfort, and she’s not a poet, either, she just writes a damn good story. So I’m feeling better because I’d rather be a non-poet who can write a story than a poet who puts beautiful sentences on the page that don’t go anywhere. Of course, the best of all worlds is a poet who can tell a story, but that ship sailed for me a long time ago. Snark is not poetry.

          1. Snark is better than poetry.

            (-: Snarky haiku is the best. (And there’s a seven-syllable statement, and I don’t have time to add the first five and the last five! Sigh. My life.)

          2. Yes, but snark makes me laugh. That is worth more to me than all the poetry in the world. Your stories give me comfort. I cannot begin to tell you how much that means to me when my life is in chaos, which it all too often is.

          3. Well, thank you. I think that’s what a lot of us go to fiction for. Real life is so chaotic, especially right now, that a story where evil is vanquished and the good guys win and everything is completely understandable is a great comfort.

            Boy, book sales should be skyrocketing about now.

      3. I haven’t seen the show, either, but that seems to be Gaiman’s modus operandi. Good Omens also suffered from that a little bit, but the ride was fascinating and the characters great, so it was fine. I really liked Anansi Boys and American Gods, but I was slightly lost through almost the whole reading. I think that’s a subgenre of SFF:
        The World of Wonder, so called because you spend at least half the book (or series) wondering what the heck is going on. (See also the Amber series by Zelazny.) Sometimes the wondering can be the best part of the book.

        But sometimes it can be very frustrating. Wheel of Time bored me to bits. I only got through the first book.

        1. I loved Good Omens all the way through, but the stuff I REALLY loved was the angel and the demon trying to save the world and Adam and the rest of the kids. The Four Horsemen just got in the way. That is, I know they were important to the story, you couldn’t cut them, but they weren’t very interesting, except for the guys who joined them and then fought over what their new names would be, which I am pretty sure was Pratchett because he does the same thing in Guards! Guards! with the names of the secret society. Crowley and Aziraphale were so much fun, and Adam and his pals felt so real, and the Horsemen were just Clever Ideas. Even Agnes Nutter felt like an Idea.

          1. The Four Horsemen stuff was fascinating in light of how Pratchett does nearly the exact same story with them in Thief of Time. Which narrative thread did you enjoy most in that one? The heart of the story is with Lobsang, but Susan and LuTze are so fun, and then Lady Lejean is kind of heartbreaking.

  4. Fantasy novels had this problem in the 1980s. Everyone assumed they needed a triology except the 2nd book was notoriously weak.

    1. I haven’t talked to groups of writers in a long time, but I remember people showing me their work and saying, “This is the first book of a trilogy,” and me saying, “No, it’s just this book, put everything into this book” because planning for a trilogy means weak books because the big finish is at the end of Book Three, plus there are writers who were contracted for trilogies that never got books two and three because the first one didn’t sell enough.

      1. I dislike sequels so much that when I am looking on Amazon or Audible and the title says “Book 1 of blah, blah, blah that I will pass on it. Unfortunately that has become such a trend that there are few right now that seem to be written as a stand alone. I know that I miss some good books but I am so tired of starting book 1, there is no conclusion because “Book 2 is coming!” and then that book is so weak that I sometimes quit in the middle. I will say that I recently bought a book that I did not know had sequels – A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders, and liked it so much that I did buy the next, and liked that one too. The difference is that she wrote each one as a stand alone so you had conclusion to the story.

        1. I like cozy mysteries and am very happy when I find one I really enjoy that is part of a long series. Makes it easy to find a book to read.

        2. I like mystery series fine, because I can be reasonably sure the plot is self-contained. When it’s done well, you get the benefit of long-running character arcs without having to read multiple books to finish one plot. Or you just get a lot of mysteries with familiar characters that you can read in whatever order you want. Either way works for me. But I do miss reading stand-alone stories. Seems like romance is the only place to find that anymore, and even then there are a lot of related books with families, friends, etc. forming a series. I guess that makes sense from a marketing perspective, but I admit to a certain amount of series-fatigue.

        3. I know. Someone recommended Ariana Franklin’s books last week on Good Read and I didn’t want to tell them not to start because the author died and the last book ends in a cliff hanger.

          They’re wonderful books so they’re worth the read but there was not the last time I checked conclusion.

          Hey, I wouldn’t even start Harry Potter until she published the last book.

          1. Good morning, Jenny
            You probably know this by now but Monument Valley came out with their second installment yesterday. We won’t see much of you for a while.

  5. kay brought up in the Cherry Saturday thread about how you do have some beloved shows that aren’t serialized nor procedural like Firefly, Star Trek, or Xena, where the show really is just “these characters have an adventure every week.” And I was thinking how the success of these shows square with having a good description, how they are still appealing to new viewers.

    It seems either you should be able to state the simple premise/plot for the entire show, or be able to do it for each episode. (With the best shows doing both, of course, see again Buffy or Leverage) An episodic show has to have strong individual episodes, which seems obvious but apparently some shows don’t get that message. But the point being that a show can still catch attention with a vague overall premise if they offer strong modules. Super serialized shows would be a full dish, and episodic shows would be hors d’oeuvres.

    Sense8 does neither. (In the food metaphor, such shows are delicious bites in the middle of the rest of the dish. Like a pasta salad where you only like some of the ingredients?)
    There’s no thread for each episode, you check in on each of the storylines and that’s it. But Game of Thrones can get away with that because they have the strong overarching plot/premise of, well, the game of thrones. But the individual storylines in Sense8 are still more interesting than the overarching plot. So you don’t have episodic hooks, you don’t have a seasonal hook, and you don’t have a series hook. Just what are new viewers supposed to latch on to? (The answer being stuff outside of the storytelling, like the Wachowskis’ reputation, admiration for certain actors, a reassurance from a friend or a trusted reviewer than, no, it’s still worth watching without an obvious plot, etc.)

    1. Didn’t Firefly have a throughline about River?

      I think Sense8’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t understand that the juice in its story is the cluster relationships. So we get all this other stuff that dilutes the cluster stuff. I understand and enjoy the different character plots, but none of them are as much fun as the cluster interacting with each other.

      1. Yeah, coming up with a bunch of characters, each of whose primary conflict is completely independent of the others, and then their connection helps them work through those conflicts, kind of has potential as something like an anthology series, or some of the more stylized teen dramas (Skins, for example). But not so much in a “conservation of detail is good” genre piece, where we expect and/or want the team-up.
        Teen Wolf also started the first few seasons leaning heavier into teen drama to stave off the team work, but had settled into a Scooby gang by season 3. But they could also do that because all of the characters were in the same high school. Even if Sense8 wanted to bring their cast together, the’ve already set up their show structure as global, the way PoI baked flashbacks into their structure.

        1. I think they just missed where the juice of the story was and kind of sprayed plot all over the place.
          But I still love those characters a lot.


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