[Join www.storygrid.com to read more of Shawn’s Story Philosophy]

How do you choose what kind of story you want to tell?

Maybe you do it by thinking up a “What if” Event—what if terrorists attacked in the middle of the Super Bowl*?

Maybe you do it thinking of a “What if” Protagonist—what if the hero of my story is an inanimate object**?

Freddy Krueger, one insprired force of antagonism

Obviously, you can’t have a story without events and protagonists. But is there another way to goose yourself into a feverish writing jag? One that can sustain you for an entire first draft?

My advice to anyone tinkering in their heads about a big Story is to put both Events and Protagonists aside.  Especially in the primordial stage. You’ll have no shortage of anguish with those two elements in the future, but for now—when you’re just doing internal spit balling—forget about them.

Instead go dark.

The most important element in any story is the force/s of antagonism. If you create incredibly specific forces of antagonism that you want to explore, the choice of genre to expose that darkness becomes crystal clear.

The hard truth is that the bad guys and the internal subconscious torments of your lead character will make or break your Story. The simple reason why is that readers want to witness life at the furthest edges of human experience.

Yes, I know you’ve been thinking about your protagonist (probably a thinly veiled version of yourself) since you were in kindergarten.  That’s fine. We’ve all done that.  But now, it’s time to put a pin in all of those thoughts and do the very difficult dirty work necessary to make your Story compelling and interesting.

The truth is human beings love evil. We’re fascinated by it. In all of its wonderful and horrifying forms. It is your job as writer to create a fresh Hell, one no one else could ever imagine. The more sinister and powerful the better.

No one reads or watches The Wizard of Oz to see Dorothy. We tune in to see the wicked witch. She’s the one who takes no shit. She’s the one who wants and actually has total dominion over her world and does whatever it takes to get it and hold it. If L. Frank Baum had created a “sort of mean witch,” no one would care. It certainly would never have been made into the classic movie.

Once you nail the darkness, the rest of your Story will practically take care of itself.  Embrace all the bad thoughts you’ve ever had, all of the frustrations you’d endured in your life, all of the nasty, petty, revenge oriented fantasies that have ever occurred to you. Can you adapt one of them into a compelling plan? A plan that a master manipulator could execute without detection?

Now laser-focus the fantasy and give it life. If you’re writing a horror novel, you better have an original monster.  If you’re writing a domestic drama, you better have a brilliantly undermining member of the family. If you’re writing a murder mystery think about the worst moment you’ve ever felt.  When you literally wanted to kill someone.  How would you do it and get away with it?  Indulge that vengeance.  Really.  If someone told you that they’d give you a million dollars if you came up with the perfect way to get away with murder what would you recommend?

Put your protagonist up against all of the worst things you can imagine.  Not the stuff you’ve seen before on TV or in the Movies…the stuff you wish you could get away with when you are your most angry.  Indulge your darkness in your Storytelling.  Once you nail the negative, the protagonist will, by necessity, gain in stature.  If your protagonist can confront and overcome the worst you can dream up, he/she will be indelible.

Also remember, the forces of antagonism are twofold—external and internal.  The best Stories, the ones that sit with us our entire lives, pit their protagonists up against both external forces and internal demons.  Take a lot of time to get your forces of antagonism right.  It will pay better dividends than Berkshire Hathaway.

*The compelling “What if” of Thomas Harris’s novel Black Sunday

**Luxo, Jr. is a desk lamp and the protagonist of John Lasseter’s first Pixar film.

[Join www.storygrid.com to read more of Shawn’s Story Philosophy]

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  1. Joel D Canfield on October 17, 2014 at 6:24 am

    your protagonist (probably a thinly veiled version of yourself)

    Ouch. (X3. Ask my editor.)

    But the rest of this is gold. I tend to back away from truly evil villains, when I know full well I could write a force of darkness so sympathetic readers couldn’t fail to love her while they fear her.

    Love the aspect of the villain’s amplification reflecting on the protagonist. Most useful.

  2. Mary Doyle on October 17, 2014 at 6:59 am

    This is a very useful shift in perspective – “nail the darkness, the rest of your Story will practically take care of itself.” It’s ironic that the darkness that makes a great Story is the same stuff that, if we say it aloud, makes our family and friends wonder if we should be locked away somewhere.

  3. Patti on October 17, 2014 at 7:15 am

    Thank you for keeping me honest. I’m toying with a story of a casino scam that I had intimate knowledge of – but the force of antagonism isn’t there. The force of antagonism is the deal maker on whether it’s worth the telling of it.
    Another issue I have is what genre it might fall under.
    Since I started reading this blog a few weeks ago, I’ve come to understand that story telling isn’t merely “just the telling of the story”, it’s an art combined with a hint of science – the right alchemy and a bit of luck will give the extra oomph needed for “maybe” a successful good read.
    Love this blog.

  4. Kent Faver on October 17, 2014 at 7:18 am

    Kind of funny that the reading I am personally gravitating toward now have lesser antagonists – or do they? My two best reads this year – To Kill a Mockingbird and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

    Who is the antagonist in To Kill? Racism? The antagonist in Gilead – a hauntingly beautiful novel – I guess could be death, old age or heart disease, or maybe young Jack Boughton – who we come to find out was really not so bad, just misunderstood.

    Of course, I cannot comprehend the complexity of writing either novel, so, maybe darkness is the ideal starting point.

  5. Faith Watson on October 17, 2014 at 8:12 am

    Stunning advice. That pile of legal pads, note cards and printed docs has been stuffed in a (literally) gray envelope for 2 years waiting for someone to tell me to do something like this. Thank you. THANK YOU! I feel completely renewed. Ugh I have to get back to regular work now and I don’t want to!

  6. Alex Cespedes on October 17, 2014 at 8:24 am

    The line that makes it all clear: “Once you nail the negative, the protagonist will, by necessity, gain in stature.” A good story shows a hard-fought triumph, and a protagonist that grew in the process. Now THAT’s interesting.

    Jim Rohn always said: “Don’t wish it were easier, wish you were better.” Nuff said.

  7. Ed on October 17, 2014 at 9:59 am

    Why can I not buy The Authentic Swing here?

    Ed in Brantford Ontario.


  8. Jeremy on October 17, 2014 at 11:10 am

    Great stuff Shawn. The first novel that came to mind after Silence of the Lambs was No Country for Old Men, with one of the most terrifying external antagonists ever conceived in Anton Chigurh and plenty of self-doubt and internal conflicts within the protagonists.
    Your post makes the story even more intriguing, because one of Sheriff Bell’s biggest challenges is trying to wrap his head around this unprecedented level of violence and wondering if he is capable of fighting it, i.e. sufficiently gaining in stature.

    • Shawn Coyne on October 17, 2014 at 11:48 am

      Great call Jeremy. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN… absolutely stunning piece of work.

  9. Erik on October 18, 2014 at 10:09 am

    Human beings love evil, huh.
    We love taking a gang shower in Auschwitz?
    We love watching our daughters being raped and mutilated?
    I’ll tell you what we love. We love seeing idiots like the writer of this article impaled on a giant lollipop.
    I’ll work out the details.

    • Erik on October 18, 2014 at 10:37 am

      Sub-humans love evil as long as they feel safe.

    • BING on October 19, 2014 at 3:08 pm

      whew, that was close, thanks for the balance. I think some explaining needs to be done about someone “loving evil”.


    • Samantha on October 22, 2014 at 7:41 am

      Hi Eric, I feel like the bigger the evil, the bigger the hero’s journey has to be. Therefor, the more the audience will be wanting him to conquer that really big evil. That is just my humble take on it, but it did help me decide on what direction to go with a story I was struggling with.

      On a side note you seem bitter. I recognize this because I was in that same “fuck the world” as you appear to be in. It was after my father had died tragically! The world just fucking sucked! My friends, use to seeing me always optimistic and bubbly, tried to get me to take anti-depressants. I refused because how was that going to help if the world just fucking sucked? After sometime, I read a Buddhist book that said we were at a more enlightened place in our lives when we DO realize how fucked (paraphrasing) this world is. That it is about suffering and pain. It is enlightened to look around and see the suffering and pain of others and not be oblivious to it! This made me at peace with my new pessimistic self! I didn’t have to pretend to be happy and optimistic because sometimes life just fucking sucks! Having said all that, isn’t the point of story telling to give a gift to others? To have purpose. Rather it be to make them forget about their sucky worlds or to be able to watch their sucky world in a movie and know that they’re not alone in this. There are others that have experienced tragedies and really big evils! I don’t know how often I have felt inspired or enlightened by a story at a time in my life that I really needed to be! I may have been totally off base about where you are in your life and I humbly apologize if I am.

      • Chris Watters on November 9, 2014 at 6:06 pm

        Samantha wins the internet, showing love,compassion and empathy to calm the savage beast. Samantha is a gift to those that know her well.

  10. David Y.B. Kaufmann on October 18, 2014 at 7:02 pm


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