Challenging Your Protagonist (Secrets Of Narrative Drive), by Sarah Mussi
I thought in this post I demonstrate how I harnessed all these secrets of narrative drive in Siege.
Here goes. Here’s the story concept (pitch style) that I sent to my editor (my comments in bold caps are for this post):
THE PLUG (THE ‘YOU MUST READ THIS’ FACTOR)
A story for our times…
Of disintegration and carnage…
This is the beginning of the end…
SET THE TONE/PROVIDE A HOOK
Teenagers long dissatisfied, out of control, seeing no future, respecting no one, feeling cheated, angry, mindless, feral…
INTRODUCE THE ANTAGONIST AND WHAT IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN
Siege is a disturbing YA novel, capturing the Zeitgeist and drawing its inspiration from our inner city schools.
Siege imagines an autumn term, when a bunch of Year 9 teens, tired of rebelling against the authorities, feeling belittled in a system that has already discarded them – disillusioned, humiliated and vengeful, decide to take power into their own hands, power and guns. Over one long day, they hold up a school with nothing more on their minds than revenging themselves on their peers who have always done better than them in class.
INTRODUCE THE STAKES AND WHY IT MATTERS TO THE CHARACTERS
Outside, anxious parents gather, news tycoons offer rewards, television cameras roll, sociologists try to rationalise, psychologists give opinions, the army stands by.
INTRODUCE THE PROTAGONIST, HER GOAL (SURVIVAL) AND IMMEDIATELY PUT HER IN JEOPARDY
But can anyone really help Leah and Anton, hiding in the ceilings and air vents of YOU OP78 School, trying to feed themselves, trying to outwit their captors, trying to save some of the younger ones before the gang, the so called ‘Year 9 Eternal Knights’ finish their butchery?
PILE ON THE JEAPARDY AND THE DANGER
… and Siege is only the beginning…
With unlimited access to the Internet, Damian the psycho leader of the Eternal Knights orders all the killings to be videoed on cell phone, or so it seems, and pasted in chat rooms and social websites. Soon the world is hooked as each killing is replayed a thousand times across the globe.
Like a real time Big Brother show, kids everywhere watch, horrified, mesmerised. Some try to hack into the system to close it down, others message in who they think should be killed next.
Soon there is a whole internet site dedicated to casting your vote on the next killing: the Who, the How, the Why and the When.
Unable to intervene, a horrified nation watch as their future, their brightest and their best, are systematically butchered in front of their eyes by the rejects of our society: the hoodies, the dumbsters, the generation of wannabe gangsters and the bottom set kids.
FOCUS ACTION ON THE STORY GOAL AND DESCRIBE THE ACTIONS AND DECISIONS THE PROTAGONIST NEEDS TO TAKE TO ACHIEVE HER GOAL
In a nail-biting narrative of unmitigated tension, that will have you scarcely daring to draw breath, you follow Leah’s story as she struggles to survive; struggles to help Ruby, an injured Year 7 girl; struggles to check out rooms for survivors; tries to carry out surveillance for the SAS as well as attempting to keep the world informed. But most of all, as she tries to figure out who and why and what she could have done to prevent it all from happening.
HINT AT DEEPER OBSTACLES THAN THE PRESENCE OF THE ANTAGONISTS
There are no easy answers, for finally Leah must face her own role in the tragedy. She must struggle comes to terms with what might have happened to her brother, Connor: a brother she both hates and loves and is fiercely loyal to. Is it partly her fault? Could she have changed anything?
Seige is tale of horror, bravery, sacrifice and savagery, and as it unfolds, it will change the way you see teenagers forever.
The above is part of the actual premise pitch I prepared to show my editor. Of course it changed somewhat between that and the book but the core elements of Narrative Drive remained the same.
So what next? Well to recap where I left off in post nine – the decisions of the protagonist are driving the action of the story and efforts to overcome obstacles to the story goal are initially unsuccessful. This failure to reach the story goal creates conflict and tension. So if conflict is the desire of the protagonist to pursue his motivation towards his goal despite obstacles, then the stakes are raised. The stakes are what happens to the protagonist if they succeed or fail. They are the whips that drive him forward. In Siege the stakes are very serious. Life and death are at stake. Stakes show that things matter in the story.
Secrets of Narrative Drive
Secret Number 10
drum roll… tada!
The strength of a story and therefore its appeal to readers lies in how much it challenges the protagonist.
Why? Because challenges supply the powerful obstacles needed to arouse a reader’s interest.
So how you can use this secret?
- Make sure your antagonist is much stronger than your protagonist
- Make sure each obstacle and challenge is significant and looks like the end of the line for your protagonist.