As I put the final touches on ‘Red Rum’, I have begun to look back on the process of writing this particular short story. I had decided to dive deep into Dan Harmon’s Circle Method a.k.a. The Hero’s Journey (I prefer to call it Dan Harmon’s Circle Method, as that is the primary source that I leaned on). Reflecting back on it now I can see how it had helped me create a stronger product. Every step of the method helped any time I came across what seemed to be a roadblock to the narrative. It was very liberating. But there was one step, that really was the linchpin to the entire thing.
I felt like most of everything else fell into place once you asked yourself, “What does this character need?” That is when everything comes tumbling after. Find what your characters need, and you’ll begin to know exactly how they will react in any given situation. This becomes a great tool when writing even the most simple of your one off characters. Say you have a scene where your main character is getting coffee. Their need is to get this coffee for their boss or else they will be fired. Now you could have a simple interaction with the barista.
Jeff rushed into the coffee shop. “I need a Vinte Mocha! Here take my money!”, he screamed as he threw his last ten dollars on the counter. His foot tapped on the ground like a cartoon rabbit on speed. The young female barista picked the money up off the counter and smiled.
“Yes sir, that will be right up,” she slapped on her plastic smile and rang up the order, handing Jeff back his change before slumping off to the back to make his order.
Simple enough and straight forward. We can see the main character is nervous and that the barista probably doesn’t care to be there. But what if we take a moment to find out what she needs? Say she just got off the phone from a terrible conversation where her boyfriend of six years — the one she thought was going to propose — told her he found someone else and was moving out. Now all she needs, you could even say wants, is to get out of there and cry.
Jeff rushed into the coffee shop. “I need a Vinte Mocha! Here take my money!”, he screamed as he threw his last ten dollars on the counter, his foot tapped on the ground like a cartoon rabbit on speed.
“Look, you don’t need to yell at me. OK?” Jeff could see tears welling up in her eyes. No. No he didn’t need this now. Ten minutes until the meeting starts and now this. “Look, lady. I just need this drink or I am about to get fired. Please just ring it up.”
Her face turned viscous as a crocodile tear ran down her cheek, “All men are the same. You don’t care how people feel! It’s just about yourselves and no one else.” The young lady snatched the money off the counter, and began to take her anger out on the till as she completed Jeff’s order. “Go sit over there and I’ll get your friggin’ coffee.”
Now we have ourselves a little scene with some drama. It really starts to stretch out the tension for our main character. Now not only does he have time against him, but the girl as well. Stacking up the drama. The danger here is giving your side characters too much of a need that it may take away from your main characters narrative. We could have gone into a diatribe of her recounting her entire conversation on the phone to the main character and explaining why all men are bad. That isn’t necessary, and most readers probably wouldn’t care since they don’t care about her. Unless you are able to make the scene really good. But I would say for the most part, try and keep the narrative supporting your main character.
The next big evolution in this concept of “Need” is layering multiple needs on your character. Say your writing about a bunch of bank robbers. Your main character needs this money to get that operation for his kid. During the heist, he needs to pee. Now we’ve told ourselves just exactly how he will act during the entire robbery. He’s going to rush it, be fidgety, and short with people. He has to go bad! He may make a mistake, forget or not care how much money is in the bag. “Yeah yeah yeah, just hurry up with the money!”
This idea of “Need” can be as big or as little as you want it. But always remember that everyone has one.
This is the poker scene from my new short entitled, “Red Rum”. The big challenge here was to write something that was both mechanically accurate, but had good character interaction as well. I worked to strike a balance between both. Let me know what you think!
Edit: Been getting some great feedback from poker players on Reddit, who’ve pointed out some errors in the card game. I have gone back through and fixed up some issues to make sure the game works appropriately.
“What we got here? Stud?” The other three men glanced between themselves before turning to Dade.
His grin widened, “Pull up a chair, McGuiness. We’re always glad to have another player.”
Red grabbed a chair and sat across from Dade; between his other poker mates. He put his cash on the table and Squirrelly slid the chips over with a nervous look across his sweaty face. Dade deftly shuffled the cards, then proceeded to pass them out — one face down, one face up to all. Red cursed himself as his Two of Hearts laughed up at him. Having to pay the bring-in right off wasn’t boding well; he threw in a nickel chip and play began. Lifting his down card, the Queen of Clubs helped ease his pain; Red scratched his left ear.
The first of the original players to Red’s left leered at his cards and rubbed at the scar across his check with his thumb. A few moments passed before he said, “Call,” sending a nickel into the pot.
“Call,” Dade threw in and leaned back in his chair, tapping his Ten of Hearts.
“Fold,” said Squirrelly as he flipped his Eight of Hearts over and pushed his cards in.
The second gentlemen — his large bristled mustache quaked — looked at his Five of Clubs, peaked at his down card once more, then said, “Fold.”
Dade burned the top card off the deck before passing out a face up card to Red, Scar, then himself. Red looked down at his third card — the Queen of Diamonds looked up and giggled at him. That itch behind his left ear started acting up again, and his flask called his name. Another slug of rum down the hatch.
Scar’s pair of fives gave him the bet. Red thought he saw a look pass between the man and Dade, but wasn’t sure. “I’ll raise a dollar,” the blue bone chip thudded on the table.
“I’ll call that,” Dade smirked and put his own dollar chip down.
“Wow, you boys sure are confident with such weak hands,” Red glanced down at his cards. His feet screamed out in protest. He needed a horse bad, and these were good cards. Go with it, “Raise. Two dollars.”
“What!?” Hawk stood up from this stool.
Chuckling Dade said, “It looks like your friend doesn’t approve Mr. McGuiness.”
Scar folded and sat back in his chair. Dade looked at his cards once more and with a smile, “Call.” Red watched as Dade dealt out the new cards. Wait, Red thought, did he burn the top card? Red blinked his eyes trying to remember. “Are you all right Mr. McGuiness?”, Dade asked.
“Yeah, just fine. Good rum this is,” Red remarked as he took another swig.
“Yes, well it is your bet.”
Red looked down to see the Queen dancing with the new Two of Clubs. “Huh, well isn’t that somethin’. Three dollars.” Three more blue chips joined the pile.
“You drunken fool!”, Hawk took another step closer to the table.
“I’d prefer you kept a reign on your savage Mr. McGuiness,” Dade sneered at Hawk.
Red surged to his feet as Hawk bristled next to him, “You call him a savage again and I’ll rip out your tongue and feed it to your sister there!”, Red pointed fiercely at Squirrelly. The disjointed plunking of the piano stopped abruptly and several hands twitched near their guns.
Dade remained seated. His eyes cooled to steel, and his mouth set into a thin line. “Very well. I believe we have a game to finish. I see your three, and raise you five,” the blue chips thundered as they hit the wooden table. Red looked at his dwindling pile of chips.
“Call,” Red sat down and placed his own chips into the pot — saddened that they didn’t seem to have the same weighty sound as Dade’s. The last round of cards hit the table. There was something funny about the way he was dealing, Red thought, but couldn’t seem to get his brain to tell him why. Mighty fine jacket he’s got though.
Red looked down at his last card; a Four of diamonds. No problem. Two pair is good. Queen high. Red looked across the table at Dade’s hand. Ten, Seven, Seven… Ten. Red scratched furiously at his left ear. I got him.
“You’ve got the hand, Dade. You sure you can beat me?” Red sneered as he took a long drink.
A wicked smile grew across Dade’s face, “I may manage. Ten dollars.”
Red nearly spat his Rum across the table onto Bristles, “What’re you trying to pull, Dade? I don’t have that on the table!” He looked down at the few chips in front of him. He looked down at the few chips in front of him. He furiously counted them.
Dade’s face set hard, “We don’t play table stakes in Beatty.”
“But, I only got a dollar fifty…” Red slammed his fist into the table, sending chips bouncing up into the air.
“Then I would imagine you need to find another eight dollars and fifty cents, Mr. McGuiness,” Dade stretched and placed his arm over the back of his chair.
“Hawk, gimme your gun,” looking back at Dade, “It’s nickel plated. That more than meets the bet!” Red reached for the revolver at Hawk’s hip. The Indian slapped his hands away in annoyance.
“I’ve no use for anymore guns, try again.”
“Sir, they have a real nice mare outside,” Squirrelly all but rubbed his hands together as he mentioned the horse.
Red’s face lit up, “Consider that my bet and raise!”
“No!” Hawk leaned into Red, “Wisk is not property to be traded and sold!”
“I’m sorry but the bet has been placed,” the ends of Dade’s mustache seemed to curl more as his devilish grin widened, “I can cover that right here myself.” Reaching into his left breast pocket, he withdrew a billfold and threw a stack of bills on the table. A metallic glint shone off inside his right sleeve, “Let’s show our cards shall we?”
“Hawk, I can’t lose!” Red reached to the face down Queen and flipped her over, “Two Pair, Dade. The Queen’s parade!” Red stood over the table and began laughing. Dade only smiled, placed his thumb and forefinger on his card and turned.
Red looked down and immediately stopped; a full house stared back at him. The table had grown silent, but Red could feel the heat of anger radiating from Hawk behind him. “You lose, Mr. McGuiness,” Dade’s voice sliced through the room. Standing up, Dade began to gather the money and chips with his right hand. That was when Red saw it, the bit to this puzzle that had him all night.
Like a snake Red snatched up Dade’s arm and pulled down the sleeve. A leather strap sat snug against his forearm, with a metal clasp holding a group of hidden playing cards. Red grinned as he held up Dade’s arm, “Shoulda been more careful, Dade. I got all these witnesses here. I bet your town sheriff will love to hear about a cheater.”
Dade cocked an eyebrow, “Really?”, as he pulled back his woolen coat to expose his belt. A gold star with the word Sheriff stamped into it glinted in the lantern light.
Finished my outline for my next short “Red Rum” yesterday, and today I’m about 1000 words into it so far. I’m having a load of fun with the main character, Red. He’s an alcoholic cowboy who’s only friend is a Mohawk Indian that he calls ‘Hawk’. I guess you could say I’m trying my hand at a ‘buddy’ story. It’s fairly cliche, I know, to have the Cowboy and Indian tale. But I guess it is just one of those iconic things that just really resonates with me. I’ll go ahead and post the first scene here, let me know how you guys think it is coming along.
The devil of a sun baked the Nevada earth. The blue cloudless sky looked like a lake of cool water that mocked the two men bellow. A dark shadow circled over Red as he took another swig from his tin flask. Pushing back his brown sweat stained Stetson; he peered up at the bird.
“I don’t like the way that he’s eyein’ me,” Red spoke.
As he walked across the plain, his dark boots kicked up a cloud of dust that stacked onto his leather duster. His jeans were once blue, but now had the look of sun bleached bone. He had the look of a worn down man — cooked by the sun, and seasoned by the earth.
He took another swig from his flask.
“Friend, he is circling you because you are a man about to die.” Red looked up to the Iroquois riding a sleek white and brown Pinto next to him. He had adopted the dress of the white man. A boss of the plains hat covered his black hair, which hung in a thick braid down his back. His own duster flapped to the cadence of the horse. He sat straight in his saddle — body in perfect rhythm with the graceful trot of the horse.
“That’s encouragin’. Thank you for that, Hawk.” Red spat at the ground then lifted his red handkerchief that hung around his neck and dabbed at the sweat forming along his lip.
“I am not the one drinking spirits. Here, water,” Hawk reached into the saddle bag back behind him, careful not to bump his rifle and withdrew a water-skin.
“Rum is water,” Red shook his flask in the air, “It’s sweet, fills my belly, and helps a man forget he’s walkin’.”
Hawk let out a chuckle, “You should learn not to trust prostitutes with a neck as thick as your own.”
Red’s tanned skin grew flushed as he drew out another slug of rum and slammed the flask back in his coat pocket. Hawk roared with laughter at his friend’s silence. “Let me ride, you bastard!” Red stumbled toward the Pinto, his arms flailing to catch the side of the saddle and pull himself up. With a graceful prance the horse sidestepped before Red could get a grasp. Unable to catch the horse in time, he tripped over his own feet and fell onto the hard packed earth, kicking up a cloud of dust.
Seeing Red on the ground, the Iroquois doubled over his pommel, holding his stomach. His face red with laughter, Hawk worked to gain his breath through the bought of guffaws. With some effort he gained his composure, “She is… hahah… a fickle one, Red. Hahaha… I am sorry.”
Red spun onto his back and glared up at his friend. The sun pierced his eyes and he could feel the sweat on his face begin to roll down his cheeks. The cowboy drew his Dragoon revolver and aimed it up at Hawk. Reigning his horse, Hawk reached for his rifle, the mirth falling off his face. Red gave his counterpart a hard look, and let out a bark from his gun.
The black buzzard above them reeled from the impact of the bullet; its cry filling the sky. It pumped its wing to try to fly away from the pain. The wound proved to be too much for it. It beat its wings one last time before dropping like a brick — crashing to the earth behind a long rock a few yards ahead. Red stood up, snatched his hat from the ground and used it to dust himself off as he walked over to the carcass.
Hawk burst into raucous laughter.
Coming around the rock, Red found the buzzard laying across a wooden sign. In white wash letters it read, Beatty 19 miles, with a white arrow pointing off to the west. Red groaned, wiped the sweat from his brow, and turned to the west.
Dan Harmon, for those who do not know, is the creator and head writer for the great television show Community. Each week he and his writers produce some of the wittiest and engaging stories you can see. What really sets his show a part is how strong each story is. Well it has come to my attention that Dan has gone over his methodology in great detail. He is essentially using the “Hero’s Journey” but breaks it down and uses modern examples that we all can identify with.
It is an awesome read if you have the time and has helped me re-evaluate my own work to see if I have these essential elements. But in case you just want a quick run down, here is how the cycle is broken down.
1. You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
2. Need (but they want something)
3. Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
4. Search (adapt to it)
5. Find (find what they wanted)
6. Take (pay its price)
7. Return (and go back to where they started)
8. Change (now capable of change)
He also offered this small drawing that I took the liberty of remaking for myself–as I couldn’t find a larger copy. It gives you a visual representation of the 8 parts.
The power of this visualization is that, as Harmon points out, each point is a direct counterbalance to its opposite. Each section will inform and bolster its counterpoint. This is a very powerful thing to keep in mind as it should help you muddle through those moments of, “what do I do next?”. For instance, Step 4 “Search” is the point in the story where character is gaining the skills and knowledge needed for Step 8 “Change”.
One of the best instances of this that I can think of is from Kill Bill Vol. 2. The Bride is under the strict tutelage of Pai Mei who is teaching her the necessary skills of an assassin–step 4, “Road of Trials”. By the climax of the film she is a master of both worlds, able to exact change upon the world that Bill once was in charge of–step 8. She performs the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” taught to her by Pai Mei in step 4. See how these things play off each other?
Now in this instance Quentin plays a bit with this structure to be sure, as we’re only told about the crucial technique but never see Mei actually instruct our hero. But in context of the film, I think it serves as a powerful statement between the two characters. It also goes to prove how powerful the cycle can be.
Thanks Dan for your great insight and helping some of us understand the “Heroes Journey” just a bit better.
I came across this great video with John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, talking about creativity. It is only about ten minutes long so I encourage you to watch.
I especially enjoyed what he had to say about problem solving. How what once seemed like a problem, suddenly vanished the next day. I have experienced this mainly with problematic paragraphs or dialogue. What the night before was something I kept beating my head against, the next day I could easily see the fixes. Very interesting how your brain keeps working on that long after you’ve moved onto something else.
Thanks brain. You’re pretty cool.
A couple of things to talk about today.
The first is something I haven’t spoken much about. I am currently in the outline stages of my first Dragon Age module. This module will focus on only two backgrounds, each being a different perspective of the same events. I really enjoyed how in the base game you would come across events that took place for all the starting origins. Each time you would get a glimpse of that story from another point of view. With that in mind, and how intrigued I am by the plight of the City Elves, I began to write.
I am currently finished plotting out the City Elf section, and will soon be done with the Human story. Once I’ve completed outlining them both, I’ll begin working on the dialogue trees. This is my first foray into deep intricate dialogue trees, but I think it will be a lot of fun. The most challenging thing about this type of writing, I am discovering, is making sure you have a solid and engaging story, with several possible ways to reach the end; while maintaining believable characters and interaction.
Once I get some dialogue trees written out, I’ll post a few samples.
The second thing I wanted to talk about is Science. Specifically science in speculative fiction. While working on Dragon Age I am also researching what new trends are happening within the science field, in order to get some inspiration on how I should handle technology in my Complex novel. There is some amazing stuff happening in the world of science right now that sends my little writer brain into a tizzy.
But I have come to realize that most of it is over my head, and it makes me wonder. Should I try and make the science as “real” as possible– leaning towards hard sci-fi. Or should I just throw it all to the wind, go Dr. Who style, and just let the fantasy fly. I would like to think there is a good middle ground. Being believable enough, while still allowing room for yourself, as a writer, to have some fun. Many sci-fi writers I have been studying from have said, “As long as the rules stay consistent you will be fine” (or some variation like that). While that is a comforting thought, I know as a reader there have been many times that I didn’t even agree with the rule itself. Some rules just break things too much for me to take seriously.
I guess this is something I will discover the more I write and the more I work on the “science” of my world. Maybe if I believe in it enough, so will you.