Digging into relationships

If the relationships in your story are flat or confusing you, these acting analysis techniques can help to heighten the dynamics and unravel the tangles. They’re also great idea generators.

Part 1: Roles    |    Part 2: Goals     |     Part 3: Emotional bank accounts

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Relationships have labels like friend, wife, mother, sister. But since labels are factual, they tell us nothing about the health of the relationship. Is a marriage amazingly romantic or painfully toxic? The plain old label married doesn’t tell us.

To clarify, we need to look at what’s going on at an emotional level. That is, what they want from each other, expect from one another, and whether these wants and expectations are satisfied. Roles provide a short hand for doing that.

Roles come out of stories and our culture. They are icons as lofty as knight in shining armour or ordinary as helpdesk customer service rep.

If I want my boyfriend to be my knight in shining armour, I want him to come to my rescue. If he wants me to be his princess, he wants me to be a girly girl who sits there looking pretty and swoons at his manliness. This relationship has a chance of working out because what we want from each other is complimentary. But it isn’t very interesting, is it?

But if I want him to be my cheerleader and root for my legal career while he wants me to be his doting mother, who packs his lunch for him every day and tucks him in at night, we might have problems.

Finding a single, strong role allows the actor or writer to clarify what the character wants and expects from the other person.

In preparing a scene, an actor will complete the phrase: “I want Johnny to be my….”

  • Seducer
  • Play mate
  • Mentor
  • Love of my life
  • Equal…

The more descriptive and specific the role, the more useful it is in figuring out the relationship for that situation. Which brings me to another point.

As situations change, so do our wants and expectations.

At home in the kitchen I want my boyfriend to be my sous chef. When I have an appointment I expect him to be my chauffeur. Out at dinner I want him to be my entertainer.

Each character in a scene wants something from every other character in that scene, which can get complicated if taken too far. If I’m working on a scene with more than two people, I’ll focus on the important relationships and only consider the others if I have to. My aim is to understand the relationship I’m writing about, not to fill out a bureaucratic form, right?

When you’ve got some options figured out, you’re ready to put them into a scene to see how the sparks fly. That’s where goals come in.

Roles come from my fantabulous scene study instructor, Ron Singer. Goals courtesy of Michael Shurtleff’s Audition. Emotional bank accounts, business guru, Stephen Covey.

Do you suffer from performance anxiety?

typewriter keyboard

Shh! Don’t tell our computer overlords you’re reading this.

Many actors will hand write their lines to learn them. The physical act of setting pen to paper, forming each word and punctuation mark, uses both sides of the brain allowing actors to tap a deeper, more thoughtful place. The words burn visually, physically into their memory. If you’ve ever sat in an exam and remembered the answer to a question because you also recall the doodle on that same page of your notebook, you’ve done the same thing.

Just reading the lines over wouldn’t reach so deeply. Tapping them out on a keyboard wouldn’t either.

Actors use other tools: Creating specific visuals for each sentence, connecting the words they speak with physical actions or developing a rhythm to the words that becomes like a song they sing.

Notice how not one of these methods involves a computer? Actors recognize that their craft is an organic, fluid process. Just because we can do so many things on the computer, doesn’t mean we should do everything there.

Each stage of the writing process requires a different kind of fluidity, just like acting. The idea is to match the method that works for you to each writing task.

I’m so old, my first play was written on a type writer. (Yes, ouch). I felt so bohemian, sitting on the floor of my apartment, the typewriter between my legs, tap, tap, tapping away for over a year. For a review / edit session I’d take the pieces of paper and go through them. When edits were needed I’d physically cut and tape bits of paper together, labelling pages 4A, 4B, etc. If I wanted another draft, the entire thing had to be re-typed from beginning to end. A pain in the buttinsky, sure (in more ways than one). But typing up each draft also gave me another perspective on the story I was building, which proved useful.

When I shifted to computer I noticed how writing a first draft felt different.

The screen was more like a stage than a blank page. I’d type a few words and my inner editor would jump all over them, slashing at ideas. It was like I was trying to set everything in concrete from paragraph one. My first drafts were studies in performance anxiety, because I’d edit the line until it was perfect. When I had something of a draft, I’d print out the whole expecting genius and find a scrambled mess. Oh, each sentence was lovingly crafted. But each was an island.

I learned that a first draft works better if I allow myself to sketch, to throw ideas around and let them live. To write by hand, doodle, circle, arrows and shapes.

Each writer is different, of course. For some the computer screen doesn’t induce anxiety, it’s a pool to throw words into and swim. I guess each of us needs to find the method to match stage and style.

How do you interface with your words and drafts? Leave a comment.

If interested, take a look at Colleen’s draft prescriptions.

The magical canvas of the imagination


I’ve heard some writers say that when they write, they use their words like a video camera. What they put on the page has to fit within the visual frame of a film screen or it doesn’t work.

Using this metaphor, they couldn’t merely write “Ted is angry,” because how can the camera show that? But if they said, “Ted’s cheeks became red and he bared his teeth like an angry dog,” that’d work.

I like to take this metaphor a little further and say:  The prose writer’s canvas is the imagination of the reader. 

Without a budget, and in just a few words, a writer can take the reader to the moon or Mars. We can plop them into a bubbling soup of molten lava at the heart of an erupting volcano, or put them up on a cloud couch in heaven looking down and sipping tea. And all while they’re reading on the bus to work!

What I like about this metaphor is how it nudges the writer towards creating an experience for the reader, rather than a lecture.

This metaphor is, in fact, a way to get yourself firmly rooted in your point of view, whether first, third or omniscient.

Now, I’m as guilty as any writer out there of falling in love with my own words. I think this happens when I’m writing from MY point of view.

But if I see the reader plopped inside the experience of the words, whether it’s first person, third or omniscient, I’m less likely to go all purple. It’s less about how brilliant I am, and more about the roller coaster ride I’m taking them on.

Another benefit of using this is it forces writers to show, not tell.

Here’s an example from a recent Guardian article by Joshua Williams on his anxiety. Notice how he takes you inside his anxiety attack:

“…there was no good reason to be covered in sweat. The train was steady; there was no good reason to be stumbling down the aisle, legs shaking. There was no need to feel faint. Or to be seeing through an ever-narrowing tunnel. Or to have a tingling in my arms. Or for my heart to be pounding through my rib cage. I wasn’t at all hungry; there was no good reason to be buying a ham and cheese sandwich. But I was, because I was having a panic attack and I didn’t know what else to do.”

In this paragraph, he shows us passage of time, transition from one place to another. We feel his sweat, see with his tunnel vision. We can feel the rock of the train, the trembles in his limbs. The desperate, confusion of his mind.

The canvas of the imagination is made of more than just 2 dimensions.

You don’t need special glasses, only words. 

Here, anything is possible.

Clarity and precision

0_hor_treerootsA story is about emotion, not facts

It’s easy for a great idea to turn into a spaghetti junction of ideas. Tendrils of stories branch out and multiply. Characters take over. What you thought might be a simple story because a muddy, mix. 

One way I combat this as a substantive editor, is for each story tendril, I ask this question:

Does  the reader really need to feel this?

It may be gorgeous writing. It may even be fascinating. And yet, if it doesn’t develop the progress of the story, it distracts the reader. Distracted readers don’t turn pages, they put the book down.

Your goal is to place your reader into the emotional world of the character. The words you choose need to serve that function.

Take a look at this example and try to determine the primary mood the author is trying to set:

“…not unlike my closet, is in various degrees of disassembly and disarray. Post-it notes frame my computer screen, and tumbling stacks of paper cascade over one another and on top of pens, pencils, and stock photography, all of which neck their way close to my keyboard, which sits atop the only free space on my desk. Josie delicately displaces two tote bags that are clogged with freebies from potential clients from the chair opposite my desk and sits.”

This list of visual details scream “I’m overwhelmed!” But in the story, the scene is about the main character landing a major contract for an advertising campaign. Do you see victory in any of those details? I didn’t. 

Now, in this example, look at the precision and variety of senses tapped, how they develop the relationship:

“As we turn the corner, the local bakery is getting its powdered sugar delivered, funneled into the cellar by the barrelful as if it were cement, and we can see nothing but the shadows of the deliverymen in the white, sweet cloud. The street is billowing, and Nick pulls me close and smiles that smile again, and he takes a single lock of my hair between two fingers and runs them all the way to the end, tugging twice, like he’s ringing a bell. His eyelashes are trimmed with powder, and before he leans in, he brushes the sugar from my lips so he can taste me.”

What works so well in this example is that every detail is used for a good emotional reason. We experience the wonder of the sugar cloud, the physical closeness, the brushing of lips, the implied first kiss.

The movie screen of the mind picks up on the double sweetness of the icing sugar cloud. The physical detail of pulling the lock of hair places us in their close embrace. The visual of his eyelashes references a moment earlier, where she could see him as a boy, which adds depth in terms of time. A return to the physical, with the very intimate brushing of her lips so he can taste her. We aren’t told they kiss, it’s implied.

The prior example gives us a lot of detail, too. But the emotional space it creates for us is not nearly as precise, as visceral. We may be in that cubicle, but it speaks of anxiety not victory.

When writing, there are topics that you need to get down, to figure out, explore. Through the draft process, these pieces get distilled to their essence. Others are moved out when they are identified as your writer’s “homework.” That is, the stuff you needed to explore, but isn’t needed for the story’s narrative arc.

So, when I ask myself:

Does  the reader really need to feel this?

I’m looking for how that section places the reader in the emotional skin of the characters.

What’s missing from your story?

Spoilers in here for Gone Girl, The Meaning of Everything and The Circle. 


The most riveting aspect of some stories is what’s not there.

What would happen if, on the first page of a murder mystery, the author exposed the murderer, how the victim was abducted, tortured and then brutally killed?

Gone would be the experience for the audience to ponder the suspects, to learn inch-by-agonizing inch where the murderer did it, how they did it, and how they tried to get away with it. In other words, there wouldn’t be a mystery at all.

What keeps us reading is the missing information — the things we don’t know. Some things are hinted at but not spelled out, other things just seem odd. Little clues are planted by the writer to keep us guessing, pondering, thinking.

When we’re thinking, we’re engaged and keep turning pages. That’s why murder mysteries are so popular: our brains go click, click, click as we try to figure out who is guilty.

But missing information isn’t just for murder mysteries. All genres, including non-fiction, can benefit from keeping secrets from the audience. In The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, the key contributor of entries politely turns down invitations from the editor to attend events or meet, yet submits volume after volume of beautiful work. Eventually the editor goes to this contributor’s address to thank him in person. At the address is an insane asylum.

Missing information is the striptease of storytelling. It creates tension and surprise. It turns the story in a new direction, or reveals the reason for odd behaviour.

In Gone Girl, Amy has gone missing. Her husband, Nick, tells us that he’s lying to the police, but doesn’t tell us what he is lying about. He admits to having a temper, to hating his wife, and never fully says that he’s innocent. Meanwhile, he has a disposable cell phone that keeps ringing. He doesn’t answer. He wants to throw it out. The missing information: he’s having an affair. He looks guilty because he feels guilty.

In some stories, the secret is not something hidden by a character, but the author. Again in Gone Girl, Amy’s journals are a fiction created by the character, but the reader doesn’t know this. She learned of Nick’s affair and is furious enough to doggedly plot and plan her revenge for months. She creates a journal that leaves a trail of clues that show her as the good guy and Nick as an angry, brutal husband. As we continue to read years of faked entries, we grow to like this fictional Amy, even if there are aspects that seem a little too perfect or a tad too cliche. Half way through the book her ruse is revealed and we meet the very sick puppy that Amy is. Someone capable of knifing herself so she bleeds until she’s faint, who plans on killing herself to enact her revenge.

The biggest piece of missing information a storyteller can create (methinks) is to serve us the bad guy as the good guy. When we discover the truth, it turns our world upside down. We’re forced to revisit all that has come before, click, click, click. It’s a trend I’ve noticed in a few novels of late.

In The Circle, for example, Mae is established as the protagonist, hired by a Google-like conglomerate in a low-level job. At first she struggles in her new role. But as the story progresses and she buys into the company’s mantra to the point of turning in friends, we realize that perhaps she isn’t the one we should be rooting for.

Turning your protagonist into the antagonist is a ginormous leap to take. You don’t need to go that far unless you have a good reason.

What skeletons are rattling in the closet?

Other opportunities for missing information lie in the shameful fact a character wants to keep hidden, until…. The person your character doesn’t want to face because…  An unsavoury ambition, such as Amy’s goal of seeing her husband fry… A secret from long ago never shared, such as a child who was given away… A vice they’re trying to hide, such as drugs, smoking or pornography. That uncle who drinks too much and then gets in his truck as everyone in the family looks the other way. The death (or other event) that didn’t happen exactly as now told. An object with a significance never shared. Something that didn’t happen, but was very much wanted, such as the pregnancy in, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?

Look for it in positive emotions as well as bad ones. A character can be hoping for something to happen in the future, such as someone to return from the past. Do remember that a key theme of many fairy tales: Be careful what you wish for.

Your job as writer is to slowly peel away the secrets, layer by layer. To give your audience a striptease that makes them wonder what’s next, what’s real, what’s not? To yearn for more. To make them think.

The question to ask yourself: How far will my character go until they are forced to reveal their secret? Then, take the character to that place, because that’s the writer’s job.

What they don’t want

In playing a scene, an actor will ask herself, “what do I want?” That is, what does her character want from the other person in this scene?

Do I want this man to be my seducer? My victim? My best pal? What do I want to hear the other people in the scene say and why? Am I looking for flattery or confirmation? What are my goals?

Do I want to get married? Do I want the job? Do I want to see him suffer?

What a character wants helps the actor to determine the tactics they’ll use to get what they want. Are they flirty, firm or fidgety? Forceful, flowery or fretful?

It sounds all very manipulative, doesn’t it? And yes, it is. But come on, you do it, too. Sometimes without realizing it, you’ll be a bit more pouty than you need to be when declaring a case, or a bit more effervescent when faced with someone you fancy.

From a writing/acting perspective, thinking about a character’s wants helps you inject action into the scene. If a character has a goal, they aren’t going to sit there picking at their cuticles waiting for their life to change. They will do something. Actions betray their true desires, words don’t.

But what your characters don’t want can be just as, if not more, important to figuring out long-term motivations. I’d argue that their hopes for the future are bound up more with what they don’t want than what they do want.

Look to your own future. You don’t know what it holds. You can imagine, yes, but you don’t know for sure if the goal you’re striving for will satisfy you. You think you do. But at the same time, one thing you do know is, you don’t want to be…

  • a cubicle worker for the rest of your life
  • drunk every night like your mother
  • alone in the world
  • (insert your own or your character’s fear here)

In some ways, it is as though we head into the future running backwards, terrified of becoming one of those train wrecks we see spinning into the background as we hurl ourselves through time.

Just as in life, your characters are struggling to release themselves from something. So, in trying to figure out what they want from the future, try to consider what they are trying not to be, just as much as what they hope to be.

Stories are the means we use to “get away,” or escape. They are filled with characters trying to release themselves from a fate, a situation, a struggle.

A tragedy is a story where the hero discovers that what she thought she wanted comes at a price higher than she was willing to pay. She may think she wants to be queen, to discover the criminal who killed her father, or that she wants her son to demonstrate his love. She can taste what this satisfaction will be like with absolute certainty. She looks forward to it, fights for it at every turn. Consider, if you will, Macbeth, Oedipus, King Lear.

Modern stories tend to morality tales where the hero always wins. They ‘win’ the throne, put the criminal behind bars, and the son buys her a mansion in the country. It is as though we need the happy ending because of… what?


How plot works

Sahara. Camels.

There are two ways to look at your story: Up close and  far away. Magnified and in landscape.

MAGNIFIED:  The words on the page.

LANDSCAPE:  The arc of the story and the points that get you there.

The landscape view is what plot is all about.

The mechanics of plot
A plot timeline look like this:

 beginning. middle. end.

  • He came. He saw. He conquered.
  • Boy gets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back.
  • Beginning. Middle. End.

Each section has a purpose. If you’re like me and get lost in the moment to moment of your stories, understanding the purpose of each section will help you differentiate between essential scenes and fluff.

beginning  } introduction

middle } development

end } resolution.

Notice the frames which enclose these three parts? There are four of them, right?

The frame of 3=4

These ‘frames’ are your writing tools.

The parts
The five mechanical parts of a plot are:

  • Inciting Incident (ii)
  • First Climax (I)
  • Midpoint
  • Second Climax (II)
  • Third Climax (III)

You may know the term ‘climax’ under a different name: ‘Turning point’, ‘Plot point’. They’re the same thing. Use the term you feel most comfortable with.

Let’s take a look at the characteristics of each.

Inciting Incident (ii):
The event that incites the action of the story. The catalyst that sets the question or engine of the story, in motion.


  1. Aunt Mary, who lives two thousand miles away, walks in your door, plops down her bags and says “I’m moving in,” and that’s when it all begins.
  2. Romeo & Juliet:  Those Montague boys crash the Capulet party.
  3. Star Wars: Princes Leia places her request with the droids.
  4. Wizard of Oz: The neighbourhood witch takes the dog away, but the dog breaks loose and comes back as a tornado wreaks havoc.
  5. Blindness:  A motorist instantly and inexplicably becomes blind and causes an accident (Saramago’s Nobel Prize winning book of 1997).

In film there’s a rule that the inciting incident has to appear in the first twelve minutes. For thrillers it comes in the first scene: a bomb explodes, secret documents are stolen, someone is murdered…

Until the inciting incident happens the audience doesn’t know what the story is about.

Climax: A general definition
The good guy and the bad guy (protagonist versus antagonist) have a stand-off. The result: win, lose draw. 

As a result something happens. The story spins in a new direction. 

First Climax: a decision
In the first climax, the main character has her first run in with the antagonist. She makes a decision that commits her to the story until the end.

  • Star Wars: Luke finds his aunt and uncle dead, he decides to join the rebel forces.
  • The Crying Game: Fergus can’t kill the British Soldier and lets him go.
  • Romeo & Juliet: They’re getting married!
  • You decide that Aunt Mary can have the spare room for as long as she needs.

The decision is not announced, it’s shown through action. The decision your character makes and the actions that follow reveal something about their character.

When Luke discovers his dead uncle and aunt he could have crawled into a bar and ordered a beer, or he could take action. Because he decided to join the rebel forces, it reveals something about his character. If he chose the bar route it would have revealed something else.

With the decision the character is committing themselves to the story. The only way out of their commitment is to go through the rest of the story.

With Luke, he’s leaving his planet and is  on a ship travelling across the galaxy. Try and get out of that easily.

The first climax occurs one third of the way into your story. In a feature film it’s about 30 minutes in. Next time you watch a movie, see if you can find this point.

Another characteristic of this climax, it sets up the action for the second act.

In the case of Aunt Mary, suddenly she’s moving in. A truck shows up at your door with all of her furniture, she’s doing yoga in the living room and serving wine to your children at dinner. In other words, she’s turned your world upside down. Mayhem ensues.

The second act

From the first climax to the second is the hardest part to write. If the first act is getting your character up a tree, the second act is throwing rocks at them. By “rocks” I mean the little complications that are forcing them to get what they want. Relationships are developing and changing in little steps.

In an overcoming the monster story, this is when our hero is travelling to meet the monster, learning as she goes.

In a romance, this is the back and forth of wanting and not wanting, dating and misinterpreted actions.

All of the steps lead to the…

The midpoint: I hadn’t thought of that!

A sideways barrel roll of the roller coaster is an apt metaphor for the midpoint. The antagonist is not present, but something happens that skews the story in some way. The midpoint provides a change in pace and often causes your main character to look at their situation from a new perspective.

In many story types, new information shows up or old information resurfaces and it changes everything.

In a murder mystery, perhaps a small fact leads the detective to think in a different way. In a voyage and return story our heroes race toward what they think is the doorway out, but it’s a dead end. In a romance, the girl is about to give up on the relationship when she learns something (old or new) about the guy, and it turns her attitude around. Or a character is reminded of a past event, and it changes everything.

Midpoints are sometimes non-events pretending to be events. In a quest story, the adventurers survive a waterfall. In a horror story, a rumbling in a closet turns out to be a kitten.

There is only one thing story geeks can agree on regarding midpoints: They happen in the middle.

Second climax: deep doo-doo
At the second climax your main character battles the antagonist and either loses or the result is a draw. Why? Because if they win the story is over.

Stories are, in essence, about transformation. Your character has to change by the end. It is in the second climax where they try to win but can’t because they haven’t quite changed enough.

As a result of this battle, they realize that they need to change their approach the situation. Through this shift, they grow and change. 

In Star Wars, Obi Wan Kenobe dies, our heroes escape the Death Star, but just barely. Romeo is misinformed, told that Juliet is dead and he returns from Padua.

Third climax
The hero fights the final battle and wins or loses. If it’s a comedy or morality tale, the hero wins. If it’s a tragedy, they lose.

For all stories, the third climax unravels the story. Luke destroys the Death Star, Romeo dies; You start taking Aunty Mary’s yoga classes.

A correction
I need to make a correction to the graphs I used above.


The purple line is a timeline. The green boxes show the placement of the inciting incident and climaxes. The black line is the action. Note how the action falls slightly after a climax before you enter the next section of the story. Roller coaster!

Also note the proportional differences between beginning – middle – end. In a movie, the beginning (first act) is 30 minutes; the middle (second act) 40 minutes; the end (third act) is not over 20 minutes. This is formula. But a very flexible formula.

Next time you go to a movie, time it. See if you can figure out the different plot points. Doing this with each story you encounter will help you to find these story components in your own work.

How to use this knowledge
Figuring out plot points takes practice, especially with your own work. And even harder if your struggle isn’t good guy v. bad guy. Don’t sweat it. This is a tool. It gives you a different way to look at your story. The more you use the tool the more useful it will become.

"Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself." - Truman Capote

"It's not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them." - T.S. Eliot