Since I’m starting this blog over again, I’m reposting (as opposed to riposting) some of the meatier posts from the past. This is actually a re-repost, as it is an old lecturette for a now-defunct DU course I designed and taught back in the day, called Writers on Writing. I’s my take on Campbell’s theory of the monomyth. Please to enjoy. ~Jenn
Three Rules for Protagonists: the Monomyth Revisited
Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.
Back in acting school, we learned a magic Three Rules that we were to adhere to whenever we performed a new character (which was often a couple times a week). No matter how big a role, the Three Rules for Actors worked to make a performance authentic, dynamic, and compelling.
When an actor plays a mood, she dissolves instantly into sham. Mood spelled backwards is Doom for the actor.In other words, if one “plays sad” the performance will seem false and cheesy to an audience. If one plays a verb, an objective, then one is playing an action instead of an emotion.
Three Rules for Actors:
“What do I want?” (objective)
“What do I do to get what I want?” (tactics)
“What stands in my way?” (obstacles)
Actors ask these three questions of themselves as the character they’ve been assigned, and often will write verbs in the margins of their scripts (tactics = action words) to guide them along the scenes. Any story can be boiled down to this formula. A character does actions to get her objective. When one action doesn’t work, she’ll try another. And the audience will want to know what she’ll do next, and if she’ll end up achieving her objective. When the character either achieves her objective, or discovers it can’t be achieved, the story is over. A new objective is a new story.
These three rules, though taught to actors, I have found to be essential in the understanding of story structure. A writer can ask their protagonist these three questions and the narrative nearly writes itself. Ray Bradbury probably never heard the Actor’s Rules, but his story-writing instructions are a direct reiteration of the objective/tactics/obstacles formula:
Find a character, like yourself, who will want something or not want something, with all his heart. Give him running orders. Shoot him off. Then follow as fast as you can go. The character, in his great love, or hate, will rush you through to the end of the story.
This formula works for anything narrative—fiction, non-fiction, or (obviously) drama. Poetry is about image and sound, so it doesn’t go by the Actor’s Rules. But anything that has events, things happening, a central character (even the writer-as-narrator of a personal essay) has added dynamism and a clean plot if the Three Rules are kept in mind.
This is where a lot of what’s called “literary fiction” falls into traps, and genre fiction writers get carried away.
Writers are faced with so much that is less than artistic sitting on the bookshelves, many wonder what they can do to be noticed by an inundated publisher or agent, and, not wanting to “sell out,” they try and write really, really good stuff. This is the problem. If a writer adds too much to the Three Rules above, it’s like adding too much stuff to a base skeleton: it becomes an overweight monstrosity that’s dressed in too many clashing layers of clothes. As Philip Pullman said in his Carnegie Medal Acceptance Speech,
…in adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness. Adult writers who deal in straightforward stories find themselves sidelined into a genre such as crime or science fiction, where no one expects literary craftsmanship.”
And what happens to the genre writers? They put the same flesh and clothes on the skeleton that hundreds have done before them, but those hundreds did it better. What results from the genre writers is a cheaply made clone that’s not any better than fan-fiction (and worse than some).
What to do?
Really, the answer is simple (which is what makes it so frakking difficult to execute). It has to do with Mamet’s statement of simplicity in storytelling:
As long as the protagonist wants something, the audience will want something. As long as the protagonist is clearly going out and attempting to get that something, the audience will wonder whether or not he’s going to succeed. The moment the protagonist, or the auteur of the movie, stops trying to get something and starts trying to influence someone, the audience will go to sleep.
In other words, stop trying to be a good writer. Just follow your character’s strong desire, and it will become a compelling story. That’s it. Don’t write a masterpiece of linguistic gymnastics with “a prophylactic garnish of irony.” That’s not what people who want books want to read. People want stories, they’ll watch movies or play video games to get stories; or as the pithy Pullman says again, “We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won’t supply them.”
I’ve had writing students struggle against this: they cry, “But if all stories are just the Three Rules, then anything I write won’t be original?!” Writers shouldn’t be afraid of this, the Three Rules for All Story, any more than they should be afraid of their own skeletons. I mean, think about it: if you stand my skeleton and your skeleton next to each other, there’d be hardly any noticeable difference. It’s the flesh and clothes and actions we take that make us different from each other, original works of art.
 Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
 Uttered by many of my previous acting profs, at CU Boulder and a couple UNC seminars.
 From Zen in the Art of Writing
 From Mamet’s On Directing Film
 Pullman’s speech again
Bradbury, Ray, Zen in the Art of Writing. Joshua Odell Editions. Santa Barbara, CA: 1994.
Mamet, David. On Directing Film. Penguin. New York: 1992.
Pullman, Philip. “Carnegie Medal Acceptance Speech,” His Dark Materials. 2008. Accessed 11/9/09. Available: <http://www.randomhouse.com/features/pullman/author/carnegie.html>