Friday, May 30, 2014

What Would James Bond Do?

From the first page, an author must pull the reader into the story by assuring him of its forward movement. There’s no better way to do this than to involve your reader in your protagonist’s goal-oriented behavior. Here’s an easy way to remember how to do that, straight from a master of story action.

If things get slow, just ask yourself, WWJBD?


One thing I feel sure of: Once James Bond enters the scene he will not sit down somewhere and get lost in his head.

He will set a goal.

Do not fear stating this goal overtly. Doing so can actually ramp up suspense and remind you to push your story forward.

Let’s say we are writing a middle grade novel about a boy named Brandon who hopes to find the courage to tell his first crush, a recent immigrant named Parvati, that he likes her. He knows she likes soccer, and he wants to demonstrate his proficiency at it, so you set a scene at a game, show him playing, and put the girl in the stands.

This scene sounds relevant to the story, but it lacks impulsion toward the over-arching story goal. WWJBD?

Harnessing his inner James Bond, Brandon will ramp up his efforts in this particular game by setting a scene goal relevant to his attainment of Parvati’s attention. He’s known and valued for his set-up shot—the whole team counts on him for this—but today he will show Parvati what he is made of and go in for the score.

Now that Brandon has shared his scene goal, the reader will form a question in her mind: Can Brandon switch up his usual team role and win her admiration? This question has the all-important role of “bond-ing” the reader to the protagonist. As an experienced reader of stories, you know that one of three things will happen:
  1. He will meet his goal and the story will move forward. 
  2. He will not meet his goal and end up worse off than before. 
  3. Goal attainment will be delayed. 
There’s no right or wrong choice here.

Is it best, just now, if Brandon musters everything he’s got, prevails with the winning goal, with the result that Parvati comes over to talk to him? Or is it better for your story that he misses the goal, injures another player with his unexpected strategy, incurs the wrath of his teammates, and, covered with mud, watches Parvati shaking her head and leaving the stands with another boy? Only you can decide what’s best for your story.

For the sake of our discussion of story movement, let’s look at the third option—a delay. In inexperienced hands, a delay can be a way of avoiding the forward movement of your story. When used deliberately, however, a delay has its uses.

Let’s say that halfway through the game—when sweet success is one kick away!—a thunderstorm causes a rain delay. He looks up and sees that Parvati has already made a run for cover. Tension builds within Brandon, who is sure that their mutual love for soccer will be the shared language that will bring the two together. He must live with his unfulfilled desire through the entire group math project they work on that week, which day after painful day reveals that when it comes to math, he is no match for Parvati. Tension builds toward the next game.

Do not make the mistake of sending him into that game, however, with the exact same goal and the same stakes for failure, or it will feel as if your story has stalled.

If you repeat a scene goal, raise the stakes.

Feel free to raise them a couple of ways—now Parvati has seen that he’s no good at math, Brandon’s specific goal attainment will feel all the more critical. And maybe she has made friends with a clique from the math club, and brings them all to the game, and he sees them pointing to him and laughing. And maybe he caught a cold that kept him out of practice that week, so he doesn’t realize the team has switched up its own strategy.

What Would James Bond Do? He’d swallow his fear, run onto the field, and kick some middle grade…soccer balls.

No matter your genre, keep your story moving with scene goals and increased stakes, and you will win your reader’s attention—as well as all the friends to whom she’ll describe your story as a page-turner.


Kathryn Craft
is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service, and the author of The Art of Falling, a novel by Sourcebooks. Her monthly series, "Turning Whine into Gold," appears at Writers in the Storm. Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.

13 comments:

  1. I got excited when I read the title of this blog ... Craft, Kathryn Craft. JB was a huge influence on my beady little adolescent brain. After the game, Brandon should light up a cigarette ... custom-made by Morland of Grosvenor Street, of course ... and swill a martini (shaken, not stirred) with Parvati ... you know what will happen next.

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    1. Christopher my parents wouldn't let me watch—I was ten in the mid-sixties—but even then I understood the allure of these stories. So when I spent the night at a friend's, and her older brother was watching a James Bond on TV...I got an eyeful!

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  2. You are singing my song. :) That's the purpose for Story Building Blocks.

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    1. As rookies we can be so creative in the ways we fail to advance our stories, can't we?

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  3. Keep it movin', folks. Love the James Bond comparison. He always had a plan, and so should we.

    I just rewrote the short first chapter of my new novel to reflect my updated plan and then tweaked chapter two to fit the revised setup in the prequel, all of which now fit nicely into the enhanced storyline—which recently did a one-eighty after I woke up thinking about an unexpected twist I hadn't imagined before. Go, James Bond!

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    1. And as writers we must act on our inspiration if we are to meet our own publishing goals. James Bond shouts back, "Go Linda!"

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  4. And thus, Elspeth found her new mantra.

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  5. Sorry folks, ended up traveling all day. Hubby now driving--will be home soon to address comments!

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  6. Elspeth for some reason the "reply" button went dead on me—but I'm glad you have a new mantra. You don't need to be writing a spy novel to benefit from a protagonist goal. May it invigorate your stories!

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  7. I can't remember exactly which writing book spoke about character goals, or which workshop -- probably a whole bunch of them, but I found good advice in something very similar to what you're saying. Your character wants something, and the answer can be: 1) Yes. 2) No. or, and this was the one that is often the best for the story: 3.) Yes, but. #1 usually ends the conflict. #2 sends things in another direction, but #3 makes the character reevaluate how much that goal meant to him.

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  8. Good clarification, Terry. The goal can also be delayed, if for good reason—but, as I said, for good reason, and with higher stakes if repeated again.

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  9. Great idea to illustrate your points with James Bond. In addition to the goal-setting, I think we can all take a bit of inspiration from the character about being daring. Let's dare to be more than we think we can be. I might make that my mantra. (smile)

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  10. I like that, Maryann! Great addition.

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