Let There be Blood
I know I keep promising to finish with these “Reports from the Trenches.” But I’m still deeply in the muck and mire myself, and each week brings a fresh insight.
This week’s flash is about blood ties.
I first learned this trick from a wonderful book called Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman. Mr. Zuckerman is Ken Follett’s literary agent and something of a legend in the business. Blockbuster can be heavy going because it presents its case in such detail, but I recommend it highly nonetheless.
Here’s one of the book’s brilliant insights:
Tie your characters as tightly together as possible.
What do Zuckerman/Follett mean by this?
They mean if one of your female characters is going to murder one of your male characters, make them husband and wife.
If Luke must duel Darth Vader to the death, make them scion and patriarch. And don’t forget Princess Leia. Throw her into the gene pool too.
If you can’t bind your characters within the family web, make them lovers.
Make them intimate friends.
Laertes should be Hamlet’s best buddy, and Ophelia should be Laertes’ sister, and Polonius his father. If Hamlet’s mom, the queen, is gonna murder his dad and marry the usurper, let that dastard be Hamlet’s father’s brother.
Game of Thrones works this magic every week.
I’m not a geek for the show (I can’t really tell Daenerys from Cersei or Sansa Stark from Arya), but I know that 99% of GOT’s dramatic power comes from the fact that everybody is related to everybody else. Even the dragons were raised from eggs. They’re members of the family too.
When brother betrays brother, that’s drama.
Wife murders husband.
Best friend seduces best friend’s wife.
The Godfather gave us blood ties across three generations.
The Sopranos played like a family album.
Even Breaking Bad, whose central family was bound primarily by the secrets each member was keeping from every other, was about teacher-student bonds, fellow-criminal bonds, etc.
Which brings me back to this Report from the Trenches.
When our novel crashes and we’re desperately seeking to unearth the core story beneath, Albert Z’s trick can help us disinter that elusive sucker.
Three days ago I took a male and female character who had been unrelated and made them brother and sister.
Wow, did that help!
If you can’t make your characters related by blood, it can be almost as good to give them shared backstories.
Paul Manafort was a partner in Black, Manafort and Stone, powerful Washington lobbyists who represented numerous overseas clients. The Stone in that trio is Roger Stone, the agent provocateur and long-time pal of Donald Trump. Stone’s mentor was Roy Cohn, who was Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel in the Army-McCarthy hearings. Cohn also mentored the young Donald Trump.
See what I mean?
Tie your characters together.
Give them intertwined roots.
For the reader, the fun of the story is unraveling these hidden links.
Thanks for this Steve – pure gold! I’ll also read Zuckerman’s book now. When I first saw it years ago I thought the title was cheesy so I passed it by. Thanks for setting me straight.
Please don’t stop! Love these Reports From The Trenches, your play-by-play commentary. Need more!
I was on soaps in New York and L.A. for fifteen years. I know all about blood ties. And when I retired and came home to Louisiana, I moved first to a rural area where my neighbors were cows and where every single person I met was the cousin of every other person in the area. Blood ties work. And I also love Zuckerman’s book and must have listened to it fifteen times.
But regarding your example, what I don’t understand is why “Game of Thrones” is SOOOO popular. I don’t watch it. My favorites are high-tension thrillers such as “The Americans”, “House of Cards”, and “Homeland”, but I know enough to know who Daenerys and Jon Snow are.
So if and when you have time, please break it down and explicate the fascination. I’ve been told it’s nothing but fighting, fucking, and FX. Is there something more?
Please keep breaking your promise to stop the Trench reports. We love them!
God bless, Anne Marie 🙂
This really got me thinking about structure and story. Thanks, Steve.
I’m curious to know if your brother and sister characters know they’re related from the beginning. Complete story shift if they don’t, right?
So obvious once you see it! Such a helpful post. 🙂
Love the reports from the trenches .Thanks Steve!
Insightful and useful as always. Thank you for your ongoing reports. I’ve loved them!