Broken Inside: How to Make Your Audience Sympathize

Copyright © 1998 by Madhouse

Characters are messy, sometimes. They bleed across the page in torrents of dialogue, poor decisions, tortured backstories, and over-the-top actions that drive the plot forward. If you’ve ever read a Stephen King novel or watched an episode of Game of Thrones, you know what I’m talking about. It’s the sort of thing that peak TV is built on, for better or worse.

But, for writers, there’s a question about dealing with characters: how do we make them worth following?

Here’s a hint: it’s not just cool cars and clothes. It’s about feeling.

I’d like to introduce you, then, to a little something I like to call the “Alone in the Bedroom” scene.

I can’t lay claim to being a big-time published author, but I’ve written tons of fiction over the years. Time and time again, I’ve found that there’s a recurring motif in a lot of my stories. I like gettting into my characters’ heads, sometimes to juxtapose the difference between what they’re thinking/feeling, and what they’re saying/doing. All well and good, but there are times in each of my better-written stories were a character will take a pause in the action and wrestle with their flaws or fears early on.

This is what I call “Alone in the Bedroom.” Because, in a lot of my stories, the bedroom is usually where these quiet moments take place. It’s where the College Girl comes after a long day of classes and social events, so she can drop her pollyanna mask and gripe about the pressure she’s under back home. It’s where the Friendly Vampire, who’s spent a whole night out feeding on the criminal element of their city, retreats just before dawn, sliding into their coffin and wishing they could be among normal people during the day.

Revealing trauma, and how it motivates (or frustrates) a character, is a key step in any narrative. We can’t always relate to a survivor of abuse or a criminal kingpin, but we can relate to a quiet moment where they’re mourning a loved one’s passing or debating how to proceed in life.

For an example, even though it doesn’t take place in a bedroom, let’s consider a key moment from the 2003 South Korean thriller Oldboy (spoilers to follow).

Copyright © 2003 by Show East

After the film’s bloody climax, our antagonist Lee Woo-jin (played by Yoo Ji-tae) has just reduced his longtime rival Oh Dae-su to a blubbering, ruined mess and earned his vengeance after 15 long years. Except, standing alone in the elevator, with a pistol in hand, Lee Woo-jin can’t help but picture his sister before she ended her life on a bridge, and he breaks down. He decides to end his own life, having neither joy nor purpose left with his revenge complete, and he shoots himself in the head right before the elevator reaches the ground floor. It’s a powerful scene, rendered with no dialogue, but the visual cuts between a suicide 15 years in the past and a powerful man with blood on his hands creates this beautiful, painful tension. In that moment, for all the things we might hate Woo-jin for doing to Dae-su, we end up sympathetic for the grief that his sister’s loss still brings him.

The Alone in the Bedroom scene is an unguarded moment. It’s a chance for the writer to let us peek into the character’s head (or soul) outside the main course of action. Not every story needs such a scene, but it’s still crucial to give your audience a reason to appreciate the source of a character’s pain. Hamlet is still mourning his late father and bemoaning the rotten state of things in Denmark since his uncle took the throne. Frodo Baggins is a hobbit overwhelmed with the monumental weight of carrying the One Ring into the land of Mordor. Daenerys Targaryen is a descendent of royalty fighting for idealistic causes in a cruel, savage world, wrestling with the idea that she’s entitled to a crown and throne in a land she’s never seen.

I say all this not to preach, but offer ideas to other writers. Get creative. Dig into your character’s woes, and don’t be afraid to show them to us. Sometimes you get some of your best material in those small, quiet scenes.

Worldbuilding: Is It What Your Story Needs?

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There’s nothing like writing a good story. All that drama playing out on the big screen or on page after page of your novel. All those characters, so colorful and engaging. All the magic and wonder of getting lost in someone else’s world, be it the starship Enterprise, a Carribean beach hotel, the halls of power in Washington, or the ancient palace of Queen Nefertiti.

Now, there’s usually one problem a lot of writers face with their stories, and that can be getting started.

I’ve been through it myself. And as someone who tried for many years to write a science fiction or fantasy novel, it can be brutal when you realize that you’re spending more time trying to flesh out your setting and less time crafting a good outline for your plot, or mapping character arcs. You hit that moment (or at least I have) when you find yourself with 3 to 4 new tabs open on Wikipedia, all so you can look up Alcubierre drives for starships, negative mass for how to power said drives, Dromaeosaurus for a dinosaur species to inspire your reptilian aliens, and Star Trek for any clue as to how Gene Roddenberry envisioned the warp drive working at all.

But then, take a step back. What we have are a lot of ideas with no real story or characters around them. I could write several paragraphs explaining what I’ve learned about faster-than-light travel, but unless you’re looking to learn about the physics of future spaceflight, your eyes might be glazing over at the thought of that jargon. And, to be sure, that’s what old-school “hard” science fiction used to be. Engineers and doctors who wrote in their spare time would write stories for each other, all technically explained and justified by scientists and engineers in dialogue, even as they’re being attacked by aliens or dragged through wormholes.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Worldbuilding can be useful. It just has to have a point to the narrative.

At the moment, I’ve been rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it’s a healthy reminder of how worldbuilding works. Almost too good, since you know every fantasy writer since Tolkien has wanted to show off their Middle-earth to the masses. But where did Tolkien’s world come from? It came from Nordic sagas, Old English poems, Celtic legends, Catholic spirituality, his lifetime’s work in philology, and his native West Midlands countryside. And while Tolkien does spend a lot of time describing the countryside as Frodo and his companions carry the One Ring closer to Mordor, he never gets too lost in his own woods. He introduces songs, legends, words of Elvish, and magical occurrences all in relation to the main plot. Everything has a point, even if it makes for three very dense books of prose and poetry.

At the same time, though, you can only build so much of your setting beforehand. I’ve written some of my best stories without knowing what the setting was apart from, say, a small town loosely modeled on my hometown, or perhaps a subway station that reminds me of the London Underground. The scene is set. I don’t really need to do ten thousand hours of research into when the Piccadilly line runs, or when certain buildings in my part of California were erected in relation to the 1994 Northridge earthquake. If I only need a subway or a small town setting for the purpose of staging two people having an argument or falling in love, then that’s all I need. People want to read about the tension between those people and how it’s resolved.

Tension matters. And if your setting can add or release that tension, like a couple having a fight in a rainy New York street, or a war-weary soldier stumbling across a mythical rural town that’s been hidden for centuries, then so much the better.

How to Strengthen Your Story (With Dueling Genres)

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Story is about conflict.

Conflict is about competing interests or desires.

How do you get competing interests between characters?

It’s deceptively simple. You simply have to get characters to think that their story is different from everyone else. And then you have it that way.

Here’s an example for all you audio drama fans out there. I’m a huge fan of Alice Isn’t Dead (and currently loving the heck out of the novel written by Joseph Fink). This podcast is a great example of two genres competing for dominance.

On one side is our narrator, a lone trucker searching the empty highways of America for her missing wife Alice. For her, it’s a romance trying to stay alive in the wilderness. On the other side is the Thistle Man and other walking nightmares, who appear normal from a distance and monstrous up close and feed off poor travelers at rest stops and small towns across the nation. As you can see (or, since it’s a podcast, hear), we’ve got a protagonist who wants romance and an antagonist who wants horror.

This clash of needs, simple on paper, creates a powerful 3-season story.

Or take a story like Romeo and Juliet. The tragedy lies in the competing needs of the young lovers and their families. Romeo and Juliet want to be in love together, be it in life or in death. Their families want to win their ancient grudge match, which turns every interaction into something akin to a street fight or a political drama. If not for the family feud, there’d be only an awkward teenage romance for our couple. Instead, unable to escape their turmoil (and perhaps making poor decisions because of the extreme war), the two end up dead by play’s end and their families bitterly reconciling after the fact.

There’s always more than one story at work. Luke Skywalker thinks he’s on an epic quest to overthrow an empire and honor his Jedi legacy; Darth Vader thinks he’s a broken-hearted warrior restoring order to a galaxy that’s falling apart. Captain Kirk is out to regain his command and reconnect with his former lover and his son on a distant outpost; Khan Noonien Singh mourns his fallen wife and crew, and he seeks revenge on the captain who marooned him.

Depending on who wins the story determines the overall genre for the story. Gatsby loses his love interest and dies in a swimming pool, so that makes this a tragedy. Portia gets Antonio and Bassanio out of trouble with the law, so that makes their tale a comedy. It’s a question of clashing ideals, clashing desires, and clashing methods for success. It’s what makes every conflict so real in the great stories.

On a final note, I’ve found that this is actually a great way to build loglines as a writer. Loglines are those one-to-two-sentence elevator pitches, ones that usually start with “In a world where…” But in this case, it’s about telling your audience what kind of genres (or competiting interests) they’re in for.

Let’s look at a story like Hamlet. Consider this logline for the play:

When a ghost informs him of his father’s murder, a brooding prince must wrestle with how to avenge his father’s killer—his own uncle and the new king of Denmark.

What does this logline tell us about the story? First, that it is a revenge play. Second, that it has supernatural elements (i.e., the father’s ghost). And thirdly, that the antagonist is both Hamlet’s blood relative and a usurper to the throne. Again, remember that Hamlet and Claudius’s desires are from different genres. For Hamlet, this is a revenge plot, but a tragic one because it’s unfolding within his own royal family. For Claudius, this is a political drama in the vein of House of Cards, where he accrued power through lies and murder, and he fears his nephew’s interference in the new regime.

So, learn to change things around. Look for antagonists to be more than just cardboard cutouts or walking excuses for the hero to run into trouble. Tell us their story, even if we never see things from their perspective. And then, once you know what the hero’s goal is as well, you’ve defined both your contributing genres, your core conflict, and set up the ground for a (hopefully) great-selling pitch.

Writing for the “Oooh” Moment in Stories

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It’s hard to know some days when a story’s worth telling. You wake up, and for a split second, you have fragments of a dream that make you go, “Ooh, yeah!” So you jump on your notebook, or on your computer, and you start trying to build off those first few impressions. Several notes and a half-started draft later, you soon discover that, you know, maybe this isn’t all that big an idea anymore. I mean, isn’t the plot just cribbing off a big-ticket franchise like Star Wars or Romeo and Juliet? Haven’t we already seen this before?

There really is nothing new under the sun. Even Will Shakespeare knew this. He borrowed just as much from the legends and royal histories of his day, turning them into dramas and comedies we still obsess over and perform year after year. But he didn’t just give his audience that same legend they all read about, but “This time, it’s set in Florence!” He gave them something deeper than a mere retelling.

I’ve been trying to capture that element of writing for over three years now.

I call it the “Oooh” Moment.

What it is, essentially, is when you’re trying to develop a story idea and you find something that makes you excited. Because, ideally, if you’re excited about this idea, then your audience will be excited, too.

The “Oooh” Moment comes in a variety of ways. It can come before you’re started a single draft, or it could come in the middle of Chapter Thirteen, or it could happen right at the start of Draft No. 19. But when it happens, as a writer, you know when it happens and what it looks like.

Here are a few real-life “Oooh” Moments that I’ve experienced on different stories:

I like this plot, but the protagonist isn’t all that exciting. Oooh, wait, but what if we follow things from the love interest’s POV? Make it her story…!

“Hmm, good romance here, but this villain’s weak. Where’s the tension? What’s their end of the story? It’s almost like… oooh, wait that’s it! It’s Iago and Othello! Oh, yeah, and then that would make her Desdemona and him Michael Cassio…!

“So we’ve got these story prompts now. Okay, has to take place on a boat… there’s a tape recorder, running for an elected office, political drama… oooh! What if the boat belongs to a candidate on a mad expedition? Ok, and the tape recorder is how our narrator–the campaign manager–gives us the story! I gotta start writing now…”

If you’ve written enough fiction, long or short, you’ve probably run into these moments a number of times. You suddenly get this vision of What Could Be, and it gets you inspired to keep going. I know that some of these stories have worked once I found the “Oooh” Moment. That same excitement showed in my work, and when I gave it to my audience, they were just as hooked.

Of course, the hard part is knowing when you’ve stumbled onto such a moment. Be patient, though. It’s hard work, but if you find that kernel of energy in a story, then grab hold of it and hold it up for your audience, too.

So, what’s been your example of an “Oooh” Moment in a story? When did it happen? How far did you run with it? Share your experience in the comments below.

Why I Write In Neo-Noir

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I adore Star Wars and other science fiction and fantasy tales, but that’s not what my inner writer enjoys.

My inner writer likes light and shadows.

He likes big cities and jazz.

He likes alternative rock soundtracks set over lonely highways.

He likes running from cafés in broad daylight and confrontations on the bad side of town at a quarter to midnight.

He likes troubled heroes ready to get back into action and panicked damsels who’ve made morally questionable choices.

He likes individuals fighting corrupt organizations, and he likes the tired heroine getting trapped with the psychopath.

He deals with anxiety, paranoia, isolation, having to go on the run, and digging through layers to find the truth.

He’s a film noir fanboy with a neo-noir flair.

On that note, I’d like to offer a quick and dirty list of films and TV shows that I think fall square into the neo-noir mix, with one or two genre overlaps. Some of these stories have stuck with me for a long time, and in many ways, they’re a big influence on why I write what I do.

Blade Runner (1982). Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Hampton Francher and David Peoples.

Oldboy (2003). Directed by Park Chan-wook. Written by Hwang Jo-yoon, Lim Joon-hyeong, and Park Chan-wook.

Collateral (2004). Directed by Michael Mann. Written by Stuart Beattie.

No Country for Old Men (2007). Directed and adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen. Based on the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy.

Jessica Jones Season 1 (2015). Created by Melissa Rosenberg. Based on the comic series by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos.

Altered Carbon (2018). Created by Laeta Kalogridis. Based on the 2002 novel by Richard K. Morgan.

If you have any additions or other recommendations about neo-noir media, please feel free to leave it in the comments below.