Saturday, July 21, 2018

How to Emotionally Connect a Protagonist to Your Audience.

 This is an updated post from 2010.

Our full house at EXTRAORDINARY's premiere
A  recent workshop attendee who works with teen filmmakers asked this question:
What are the major events in a story that a protagonist must face and overcome to make sure the audience emotionally connects with the character?
That question tells me the filmmakers believe it's the external (or visible) story EVENTS or ACTIONS that connect the audience to the character. But that's only half the truth.

The action a character takes is valued by the audience only because of said character's motivation to take said action. If the protagonist kills another character, the event will be judged differently by the audience depending on whether the killing is pre-meditated murder or self-defense. That is, what's important to the audience is WHY the character took said action. And that is all about who the character is internally. It's the character's internal values that mostly dictate the emotional connection of the audience.

The way the audience discovers those values is the work of the plot and how the character responds to the beats of the plot. More about the plot beats below, but first let's look at how the audience will come to recognize the character's internal values. This is how it works in real life, too.

This diagram from a workshop I give will help. On the left side of the circle, items 2, 3 and 4 happen internally to a character. In a motion picture the audience does not see these unless the character shares his thinking with another character. In a novel, internal monologue often supplies these points.  But everything on the right side of the circle, items 1, 5, and 6 are in the visible, physical realm which the audience sees. So, let's begin with...

Friday, July 20, 2018

How to Change the World at Bedtime - The Art of Storytelling

There are many ways of trying to convince someone that something is true. There is the "BOP!" method, frequently employed by our parents and school teachers.

"I'll tell you what you're suppose to believe, and if you don't repeat it faithfully I'll bop you on the head with this here book."

Such is the method currently being used in segments of our political sub-culture. Either you toe the party line or I'll kick you off my Facebook page, out of my store, or the safe zone at the local university. So much for the pursuit of truth through dialogue and tolerance.

Many of us grew up in such fascist environments. But I don't think those who think much, think much of the effectiveness of such methods. In a pedagogical sense we might describe the BOP method with terms like rote, punishment, telling, didactic, or tyrannic. But most of us more likely appreciate learning through personal experience, discovery, experiment, showing, and simulation. Oh, yes, I should add the verbal pedagogies like dialogue, debate, and argument (as long as the arguments are the logical, not the yelling kind).

To those in the communication professions these two styles of communication can be identified simply as...

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Meet Kate DiCamillo

I'm coaching a Chinese lady going to school in Germany and traveling throughout Asia for her job with the UN working on a human trafficking task force. She wants to be a writer, and has the talent for it. She told me about this speech by Kate DiCamillo (the children's book writer). Her speech begins at the 20 minute mark, after the 20 minutes of introductions. (Whew!) It's a short speech, about her Moment of Grace as a writer. She wrote "Because of Winn-Dixie" that was made into a movie. I think it was her first book, written two pages at a time, early mornings, before going to work in a cold book warehouse.

On her author's website is this very short essay about writing too, that is wonderfully inspiriting. Read it:


Thursday, June 21, 2018

International Moral Premise Plot Contest

Free Contest Inspired by True Events

Complete the beats for Act 3 of an International Thriller and win discounts and free story consulting services on your own screenplay and novel idea.

Hey, Moral Premise Troops here's a new contest. It's an Act 3 Story Contest. ACT 3: Writing a Great Ending to Your Screenplay, of course, is the book by my friend Drew Yanno that encourages you to set up in Act 1 what eventually culminates in Act 3. Doing so ensures you resolve your story/character arcs to produce a satisfying catharsis.

But of course, this is about The Moral Premise and the fundamental story beats illustrated by the Story Diamond or the The 13/20 Roller Coaster Beats.

Again, this is one of those contests in which everybody can be a winner...but I am NOT GOING TO GIVE OUT "Participation Awards." So, don't expect something from nothing. Writing is hard work, but it's also very rewarding. I hope this contest encourages you to launch into the deep, think structurally, and get something great written.


1. Open to all writers, all ages, all genres, except NC-17 rated submissions. May be written for screen, stage, or prose, long or short form. (I will probably not be very good a judging epic poetry.)

2. I'll beat out Act 1. I'm calling it TRAFFIC and the beats are told at the bottom of this post.

3. You submit (1) a 400-600 word description of Act 3, (2) a draft of a log line, and (3) and a draft moral premise statement. For the 400-600 word description you can do it as a synopsis paragraph, or beat it out. (see next point)

4. Judging Criteria: I will be looking for your Act 3 beats that connect back to Act 1. You can list them simply as bullet points, but label them, to the extend you can, like those in the Story Diamond or The 13/20 Roller Coasters Beats diagram, such as:
  • Beat 9: Dark Night of the Soul (you may have to also explain what happens in Beat 8: the Act 2 Climax/Near Death beat just before.)
  • Beat 10: Final Incident
  • Beat 11: Preparation to Do or Die
  • Beat 12: Act 3 Climax (Hand to hand combat)
  • Beat 13: Denouement
And I'll be looking to see:
  • How do the details in the Act 3 elements above connect to Act 1. (You may have to explain what you would include in Act 1 that I have not included below.)

5. Submit by PDF or TEXT file to If I do not return a CONFIRMATION RECEIPT to you within 24 hours, write me a short reminder to look in my spam filter at

6. Contest Time Limit: No limit. It starts when I post this on-line, and it's over when I take it down.

7. The awarding of prizes is entirely subjective in my judgement. I may not award any prizes to any submissions, but I will write back and tell you why not, and you may resubmit your entry.

8. There is no entry fee. It's free.


3rd Place Prizes 
A $65 Value.
You get:

Number of 3rd Place Prizes: No Limit. I just have to like what you write.
Fine Print: You own the story. I get partial story credit for Act 1, unless you change it.

2nd Place Prizes 
A $115 Value.
You get:

  • 3rd Place
  • FREE Level 1 Consulting described here, although you do not have to be an unsold writer as would normally be true for a Level 1 submission. (In Level 1, I will critique the first 10 pages of any one screenplay you have written for style and substance.) 
  • You may apply the $50 value of this prize toward a higher Consulting Level.
Number of 2rd Place Prizes: Five (5).
Fine Print: You own the story. I get partial story credit for Act 1, unless you change it.

1st Place Prize
A $215 Value.
You get:

  • 3rd Place
  • FREE Level 2 Consulting described here. (In Level 2, I will spend up to one hour with you on the phone helping you develop a good Moral Premise statement or Log line for a story of your choice.)
  • You may apply the $100 value of this prize toward a higher Consulting Level.
Number of 1st Place Prizes: Two (2).
Fine Print: You own the story. I get partial story credit for Act 1, unless you change it.

The Set Up
Act 1 Major Plot Beats

Yang Ye is an attractive Chinese agent for the UN's anti-sex trafficking task force. She is a young but savvy criminal investigator assigned to Bangkok, Thailand. Her job is to find Chinese girls in Bangkok who are victims of the sex-trafficking underworld, rescue them, and return them to their families in China. But she is authorized to work only through official Thailand government channels and it's not going well. While sex trafficking is against Thailand law, it is the life blood of Bangkok, and she is continually stonewalled by officials in Bangkok that are assigned to help her. The UN is on her case for not producing results, and a family back in her home town of Nanning, China believes she doesn't care about their daughter, Su Fang, who was last traced to Bangkok.

Yin Ye meets a handsome Chinese-American businessman, Joe Smith, who asks her to dinner. They share about each other's lives. There seems to be a mutual attraction.

On the third date, they spend the night together. In the morning, Joe makes breakfast for Yin. She's smitten. This might be the guy for her. During breakfast he tells her that something has come up and he has to make a trip to America, and he's not sure how long he'll be gone. He doesn't want their short relationship to end, would she like to travel with him? She tells him she can't because of work. But as the date for his departure draws near, she reconsiders. He's persuasive. She'll need a visa and getting a tourist visa from the U.S. consulate can take a while. He suggests that the UN might arrange a visa if she had a professional reason to track down a client. She says she doesn't track girls to or from America, that's another department. "But what if..." he says, smiling. "You know I always wanted to see New York."

Ye creates a fictitious case file about a girl from China who was successfully trafficked into Bangkok and is then taken to the U.S. She lies to her superiors about having a strong lead and U.S. connections. To her surprise the UN arranges for the visa. Meanwhile, unknown and unseen to Ye, we discover that Joe Smith is a well-connected underworld trafficker of young girls.

Ye and Joe get on a plane to the U.S.

Now, you tell me what happens in Act 3.
Yes, there are a few story holes here to fill.
But you only have to suggest what happens in Act 3.

Friday, June 15, 2018


A producer called me a few years ago to ask for script consulting help on a series of films based on Flannery O'Connor's stories. He claimed to be part of an organization that had the rights to all her work and they were gearing up for production. I do not recall much of the conversation, but there was a certain naivete involved and nothing ever came of the effort..,.at least with me.

In the meantime I've been told that Benedict Fitzgerald (who did the screenplay for Mel Gibson's THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST) has a family baby-sitting connection with Flannery, and it is Fitzgerald that has long held the rights...never to let them go.  And for "A GOOD MAN..." he's constructed a full length screenplay...not just the short story Flannery wrote. Fitzgerald is also the credited writer on Fannery's WISE BLOOD (1979) which John ("Jhon") Huston directed.

The movie production rights for O'Connor's stories had moved around a bit...if memory serves. I got the sense that no one knew how to make the movies and sell them. To call her stories Southern Gothic Horror is perhaps a bit simplistic.

According to the usually late and incorrect IMDB, Michael Rooker is somewhere in production on this story. (Perhaps someone out there that actually knows can update us.)

In the meantime, a filmmaker friend of mine, Jon Springer, ( who produced LIVING DEAD GIRL ( which I discussed in The Moral Premise, has had a long time obsession with visualizing the characters in A GOOD MAN...  So, last fall Jon made a trailer for A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND. He does not have the rights. He just wanted to be the first to visualize the characters. I think he did an excellent job. I wrote Michael Rooker's agent, hoping to get Rooker to look at what's below. Are you a Flannery fan? What do you think of Jon's trailer.

A Good Man is Hard to Find - Movie Trailer from Cricket Films on Vimeo.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Miracles Don't Just Happen, and Neither Do Story Hooks.

Story hooks are very much like miracles. But unlike miracles, your audience won't take the hook on faith. You have to explain it.

I have been working on a non-fiction book that has a couple of chapters that deal with the intersection of miracles and natural law. It occurred to me that miracles are very much like story hooks.

What's a Miracle?

A miracle can be defined as any unique physical phenomenon that defies natural explanation and which appears to have some benefit to a person or group of persons. That definition is an attempt to separate incidents of fate, or natural catastrophes that harm humanity (e.g. tsunami, tornadoes, or ...falling branches—like the one that totaled my wife's car yesterday in our driveway) from a similarly fascinating natural event that saves a person's life or prevents catastrophe. While a tornado may level a house we would not call it a miracle. But the baby that is carried by that same tornado to a field 2 miles away and set down without serious injury—
The view out my office. NOT a miracle, unless it can be fixed.
—that's a miracle!

And of those two events (the house leveling tornado or the tornado as baby transporter) which is the story hook?  The baby for sure.

My examination of miracles for this book I'm the editor of (in which I find myself at times rewriting the material), has revealed that there are many ways miracles can be naturally explained, although such explanations are nearly as miraculous and as fanciful as the event itself. The explanations involve unseen hierarchy of the nature's laws, the hierarchy of species, coincident of event timing, and the intersection of spacial and time dimensions beyond those which we normally perceive (3 of space and the point-dimension of time).

Miracles (and perhaps story hooks, too) seem to have two common components:
  1. There is an instigation or incident from an outside trigger, and
  2. After the outside trigger natural physical laws take over. 
In other words, the idea that a miracle violates or breaks natural laws is probably a false concept. It appears that the unusual event is the trigger, after which Natural Law dominates. (Ah! Now, I'm sure some of you would argue with that. Well, hold on, there's more but I can only type one finger at a time.)

Do Miracles and Hooks Break with Nature?

Now, as I just stated, people of religious faith will challenge me on ideological grounds that miracles do not violate or break a natural law. They will claim that unless there are miracles that defy nature they aren't miracles, and if there are no such nature-defying events then religious faith is dead...and since we can't have that, miracles must defy, violate, or break with nature.  (So much for the circular reasoning of ideology. I prefer evidence, else one could believe in anything....really.)

I'm not going to try to defend religious faith here (although I have it, and I do believe in miracles), but let's examine some ideas and see the story potential in each. My point is that miracles are a good way to conceptualize story hooks...and likewise your hooks should be/could be/must be miraculous...with an explanation of a sort. 

Are These Miracles? Could they be Hooks?

A dandelion growing in the middle of the desert? We'd call that a miracle, but it's an event that can be explained. The miracle here is that a dandelion seed got into the desert mud. After that inciting incident, natural law took over...when the conditions were right we have a blooming dandelion.

We call the development of a human being in a mother's womb and its delivery, The Miracle of Birth, although biologists claim that it can all be least at some level. Frankly, science can explain very little about how it happens nor can they create a baby from scratch. That makes it a everyday miracle, hey get that thumb out of your mouth, you want buck teeth? Why look at that thumb and those teeth...wanna explain either of those?

Aunt Millie being healed of some strange lung disease is one thing...we're not really sure if there was a misdiagnosis, or if some "miracle" drug actually worked, if if an angel visited her in the middle of the night. 

But how do we explain Splash, Jesus walking on water or healing the eyes of the blind, or Moses leading the Children of Israel through the Red Seat on dry land? The skeptic's easy explanation of the Bible miracles is that they're as real as Splash—they didn't actually happen. The person of faith, on the other-hand, is much like the avid story connoisseur...they believe, for there's something of value in the story and the belief. And a good hook or miracle can reveal truth in the story myth that follows.  (Where "myth" is the story vehicle, regardless of it's truth. J.R.R. Tolkien once told C.S. Lewis that the Jesus myth was a true myth worthy of belief. The Chronicles of Narnia were the result.) [Did you ever wonder why those British authors only used initials for their given names?]

Daryl Hannah in a mermaid suit, Morgan Freeman walking on water, or Jesus spitting on a man's eyes are all good hooks, aren't they? How can they be possible? We wonder, we're intrigued, we allow mystery and suspense to pile in...and we become engaged in the story...because of the miracle. We're hooked.  Most people of faith don't want an explanation of miracles (from the ancient past or present day.) But story mavens need something, and I think people of faith need something too, otherwise belief in anything, true or not, would be probable. 

In stories then, when we're presented with the hook, we want to know something about it, like where did it come from, or how does it work? It can't be the writer's convenience and just appear. We can't expect readers or audiences to buy into the ideology just because we said it is so. Even if we can't explain it perfectly, audiences expect us to give it some basis in logic, even if the logic is faulty.  

For example, in WHAT WOMEN WANT, Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson) has a bathroom accident with a hair dryer and a bathtub, that "allows" him to hear the thoughts of women he's near. At first this is just what playboy Nick would want. But then it turns into a curse. Nonetheless, the hook, or miracle is least enough so we can suspend disbelief. And of course it makes no sense, whatsoever. If anything like what happened to Nick happened to a real person, they'd be electrocuted dead. End of movie. 

So, it occurred to me, that some of the philosophical, logical, and scientific understandings of where real miracles come from would help us as storytellers come up with believable hooks. 

5 Rules for Miracles and Story Hooks

1. Miracles and hooks are at first unexplained phenomenal events, seeming impossibilities in the physical realm. But in reality, miracles and hooks do not actually violate Natural Law. C.S. Lewis writes in his book Miracles:
If God creates a miraculous spermatozoon in the body of a virgin, it does not proceed to break any laws. The laws at once take over. Nature is ready. Pregnancy follows, according to all the normal laws, and in months later a child is born.
2. Miracles and hooks are not the same as events of fate or catastrophes which occur due to natural law of occurrences, but without moral purpose. Miracles and hooks are specific to a person or group of people with a moral purpose. That is, a miracle or a hook involves some intelligent, benevolent "person," or "force" that triggers the event.
"Everything in a successful story relates to the character arc described by the moral premise statement, including the hook, which describes the peculiar and person problem of our protagonist....Peter." (personal interview with Stan Williams) ...hey, I needed a quote...can't I quote myself even if I just made it up?
3. After the event is triggered, Natural Law takes over and all other things in the person's life or story transpire without additional miracles or hooks. Natural law is never violated, although the natural laws involved may be unknown.
Scientific discoveries reveal natural laws heretofore unknown which caused events that previously could only be described as unexplained phenomenal, or something God does in secret.  But even if we have some explanation for how the event occurred,  the phenomena's moral purpose defines it as a miracle.
4. The "person" or "force" behind the miracle or hook may be a representative of a higher order species that intervenes in the life of the lower species. 
A miracle to a nutritive plant could be triggered by a brute sentient animal. A miracle to a brut sentient animal maybe triggered by a rational person.  A miracle or hook to a rational person would be triggered by a supernatural entity. In each case, the higher species reaches down into the environment of the lower species to trigger an event. For both agents, in both species, no natural law is broken, although the lower species may not understand the natural law which the higher species invokes. 
For example, a young girl folds her laundry and puts 12 pairs of socks in her drawer. The next morning there are only 9, her three favorite pair of red socks are missing. She wonders if she counted wrong. But then a few days later a miracle occurs and the three missing pairs show up again, in the drawer, perfectly in place. She takes one pair out to put it on, and low and behold she discovers a second miracle, the holes in the heels of the socks have been mended. How did this happen? Well, you guessed it, a higher order species paid her a visit...her mother.
5.  "Persons," and "forces" can trigger miracles by operating in extra dimensions of time and space beyond the 3 dimensions of space and 1 point of time humanity normally experiences. Science fiction is always playing with time and other dimensions. If we're to consider some of the theories surrounding Quantum String Theory we have as  many as 10 dimensions to play with, and all we need is a 4th for Jesus to walk through walls, or for Bruce Nolan (Jim Carey) to hear the prayers that God hears and to walk on water.


So, the next time you're trying to think up a hook, think instead of a miracle. That impossibility that through your craft you make reasonable. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Story Logic of Things Not Seen

'The road to the Stars" in Bentley Kansas |
Photography by @jaxsonpohlmanphotography
How do you describe something incapable of being expressed in words...things that are ineffable?  The ineffability of ideas is what the storyteller must conquer daily. 

For most writers this comes instinctually. But a closer examination of ineffability can be revealing and improve our efficiency. 

Let's start with a story's theme...okay, okay, the story's moral premise...

Hostility leads to making enemies; but
Love leads to making friends.

With nothing more I'll bet you could come up with a story about that... or at least draft a log line. 

But could you do this? Could you describe for me the IDEA of hostility? or the IDEA of love?

No, I don't mean what hostility or love looks like when practiced in life (e.g. making enemies or making friends). The moral premise already tells you that. But what I mean is, can you describe the idea, the thought, the value? 

Ideas, thoughts and values are ineffable. That are not things we can sense with our six physical senses (sight, smell, touch, hear, taste or balance). The materialists among us would be tempted to say that such ineffable things don't exist, because ideas, thoughts, values or even God can't be sensed, at least with our  physical senses. But ideas, thoughts and values do affect us, and often physically. But where are they? Where do they exist? Can you point to them? See them coming?

As storytellers we know that ideas and insights exist. We rely on them for our physical reality, because it is the thought, the value, the idea that animates our lives and our characters. We might say it is the ineffable that are the first movers of who we are as humans. 

The mathematician can ponder a proof for years...and then suddenly the insight occurs and a solution reveals itself. Such insights have revolutionized civilization. Gravity, Pi, String Theory. While we can describe the resulting formula you can only describe the insight with words that express vague, rhapsodical terms that sound more like a religious experience.

But the insight is real.  Reality is found in the value that anchors a character's arc, that nails the conflict, that motivates action, and allows consequences to be physically experienced. And yet such reality, per se, is incapable of being seen. We CAN describe a character with a mustache sitting on a rock by the side of a road outside Bentley, Kansas at night starring at the Milky Way. But we CANNOT physically describe the value that put the character in that place, lost in his dreams. There you go, DREAMS. You can try to describe a dream, but they're really beyond explanation. You'd have to have been there.

So, what do we, as storytellers, do with the ineffable? Well, we have to treat them as real, as the absolute logic behind our stories. But they are invisible. So, we "struggle to find similes for what cannot be said directly..." we look for visual motifs that symbolize ideas, "personifying the forces of nature and hunting everywhere for metaphors and analogies." (W. R. Inge, Studies of English Mystics as quoted by D. Elton Trueblood in The Trustworthiness of Religious Experience. Friends United Press, Richmond, Indiana. 1939).

Are ineffable things real? Do they exist? The materialist or atheist, if they are to be consistent, would have to say, no. But stories cannot exist without the ineffable. Indeed civilization would not be very civilized without the reality of ideas, values, and insights. 

I hope you won't let the irony of this escape you. One of the first rules of storytelling is SHOW, DON'T TELL. But logic demands that our stories begin with and are motivated by what is not seen...the ineffability of ideas, values, and insight...that which make our stories connect with the reality of our readers and audiences. In fact, without the ineffability of these things, there would be nothing to see, smell, taste, hear, touch or run to or away from. Our lives, and our characters are only real (in a physical sense) because of the reality of the ineffable (that which is not seen). 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Scene-Sequel Roller Coaster

I'm preparing for a story meeting with a client this morning. In the process I created two slides (below) to guide our conversation. My client is not a novelist or screenwriter, but a public speaker. She's wanting to keep her audience engaged as she makes her presentations and tells her story. She's a fairly animated person, and is already engaging to listen to. But she sees the need for more structure to a long series of short talks that would benefit from following a pattern, thus helping her audience over time to see where she's going.

The basis of the slides (which I have used extensively in my workshops and in my Storycraft Training on-line series, came from studying a number of other story gurus, and so I give credit to: Dwight Swain, Randy Ingermason, Jack M. Bickham, and Thank you one and all.

Think of the SCENE as an action, external, or physical scene, and the SEQUEL as the mental, internal or psychological scene. Both screenwriters and novelists through their craft SHOW both of these, and a speaker or dramatist does the same, although the minute craft are a little different (which we will not delve into here.)

Each scene or sequel is broken into three parts of unequal lengths. 
  1. In the GOAL your protagonist will physically attempt to attain something.
  2. In the CONFLICT your protagonist will meet with people who try to stop her.
  3. In the DISASTER  your protagonist will be defeated.
  4. In EMOTIONAL REACTION your protagonist will internally respond to the defeat. 
  5. In DILEMMA THOUGHT your protagonist naturally transitions into an internal monologue about what to do next. There are various options that create the dilemma, each with a positive or negative consequence, and unfortunately the protagonist will not be able to know what the unintended consequences will be. This creates an increase in anxiety and enhanced dilemma. 
  6. In DECISION your protagonist chooses one of the options thought through in the previous step. And this launches your protagonist in to the next Scene-Sequel duplex with a goal to achieve.

The desired roller coaster effect (whether it be physical or psychological) follows the black arrows I've drawn on the diagram. The bird's-eye view of this is that the Scene is generally a downward dread, and the Sequel gives us an upward hope. And, when you string them together in a longer form composition, you end up with an endearing and engaging roller coaster, as seen in the diagram below.

Friday, November 17, 2017


(posted November 17, 2017)

The webisodes are complete and have been edited together into a short 45 minute movie. But we are going to wait until after the upcoming Holiday Season to stage a Crowd Funding Launch event with a theatrical premiere. That will occur in S. E. Michigan probably late in January 2018, and the Crowd Funding Campaign will run through Valentine's Day.

Following the launch premiere we will begin to post the webisodes one every few days for the rest of the world to see.  Thank you for your interest. Please share with us your email address (below) so we can keep all our friends informed.  Thank you! (Stan Williams)

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Trailer for ANNALIESE! ANNALIESE! Webisode 2 - ON THE RUN

Here's a trailer for our second ANNALIESE Webisode - ON THE RUN. Sign up for following us on Indiegogo via the link at