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Mapping: Legally Blonde and the “I Want” Song

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Apr. 2nd, 2013 | 06:14 pm

This is Part One of a new series of posts on the technical elements of writing.
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I’ve mentioned to a couple of my writing friends lately that I’ve used a spreadsheet to map out the plot of the book I’m working on.

Most of them respond with, “Hmmmmm…” which I think means, Way to be neurotically anal, Neurotically Anal Girl, but a couple of them have asked, “How does that work?”

If you’re one of the first group of people, move along, nothing to see here! But if you’re in the second category, draw closer, my friends…


Why Map?
I’m working on a larger work with three interlocking plot lines. It’s difficult for me to hold all three in my head at the same time. Plus, I don’t always succeed in writing every day, and the map helps me remember where I am, review what I wrote last week, and look ahead to what I need to be aware is coming up, storyline-wise.

For a smaller piece—say, a story or a magazine article—a map can help the writer break down structure and figure out why a story may feel incomplete, unfinished, or unsatisfying.

Mapping is technical, rather than creative, so it’s also a great way to spend a writing session where you aren’t feeling “inspired” but you need to get some active, thoughtful work done.

Over the next few posts, we’re going to look at how to analyze and map your own work in order to understand strong plotting and make your story satisfying to yourself and your readers.

Today? Objective.
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All About Objective: The “I Want” Song

I love the movie Legally Blonde. It’s charming, funny, well-acted, and unpretentious (if you haven’t seen it, the gist is that a sorority blonde gets into Harvard Law School).

When I watched it on DVD with the director’s commentary, they pointed out that they had originally ended the movie with Elle winning the big court case. Six months after shooting wrapped, they edited together the movie and realized something was wrong with that ending. They called all the actors together, brought everyone to England where star Reese Witherspoon was already shooting another movie, and filmed a graduation scene for the ending. It’s a short scene—Elle has been elected class speaker by her peers, and she makes a little speech.

Why’d they do that?

Because the story isn’t “Elle Woods becomes a successful lawyer.” The story is “Popular girl has to start at the bottom and win respect in a new peer group.” Winning the court case doesn’t make her popular, even though it makes her a winner. Getting elected to give the class speech shows she’s accepted by her peers and closes the story in a deeper and more satisfying way. Elle’s problem at Harvard is not that she isn’t a lawyer—nobody there is a lawyer yet. Her problem is that people have always liked her and suddenly no-one likes her. And we, the audience like her, so we want to see her win that battle.

Elle’s objective is “Make people like me.” Everything she does in the movie leads to that—she buys a new computer to do better in class, she brings muffins to study group, she works very, very hard. Her big test comes when being liked comes up against her integrity, and we’ll talk about that in another post.

Musicals are terrific at establishing a main character’s objective.

Usually, the opening song of a musical is the “Community” song—this is who we are when we’re all together, and this is what our lives are like. In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, it’s the prologue, that shows what the situation is with the Beast and how that has come about. In The Little Mermaid, it’s “Fathoms Below,” where we find out that there are mermaids and they have a kingdom under the ocean.

Almost always, the second major song of a musical is the “I Want” song.

Belle establishes more community by singing about the daily routine, then breaks out with, “There must be more than this provincial life.”

Ariel sings about all the things she already has, and how despite her physical possessions, she wants more: “Wish I could be part of that world.”

In My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle sings, “All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air,” and as the song develops, we hear not only that she wants the trappings of a simple, comfortable life (“warm face warm hands warm feet”)—she wants someone to share it with, someone to love her.

These are all strong objectives:

I want an exciting, intellectually-challenging life.

I want to see what the earthly world is like.

I want someone to love me.

In a book or story, your main character doesn’t have to state her objective flat-out. But you, the author, need to know what she wants, so that she can spend the rest of the book fighting to get it. (Or, in the case of literary fiction, drifting slowly through a malaise while despairing that he’s never gotten his objective and seeing a lot of symbolic visuals that suggest what his objective is and the tragic personal character flaws that stop him from getting there.) In an essay or editorial, the objective is the thesis that powers the story:

I want to prove that thong underwear in yoga class is wrong.

I want to move my father’s art safely to a new location.

I want to teach you how to write better.

And I’m gonna add one more thing I learned in drama class as an actor: The objective has to be an action you can communicate in one sentence.

“James Bond wants to prove himself again on active duty” is an objective. “James Bond is really sad about the death of his parents and so he sees M as a mother figure and needs to win her approval by taking bigger and bigger risks and lying about his physical condition” is zzzzzzzz… sorry, what?

Next post, we’ll look at the first of two common story structures—an eight-point fiction map—and show how to implement it.

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In the piece you’re working on right now, what’s your protagonist’s objective?

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Comments {18}

blahblahblah, whatever

(no subject)

from: kathrynrose
date: Apr. 2nd, 2013 10:27 pm (UTC)
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At the beginning of the book, she just wants to buy a nice writing desk to inspire her to do more writing.

Once she gets it, her objective is to make sense of the situation she has become part of and what it means in her life.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Apr. 3rd, 2013 12:31 pm (UTC)
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So the desk is the trigger? Sounds good!

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Vice Captain of the Universe

(no subject)

from: sweeny_todd
date: Apr. 3rd, 2013 12:49 am (UTC)
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I love musicals!!! I really enjoyed the fact that you included them in this.

recently my journal entry titles have all been from muscials. except possibly yesterdays...

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Apr. 3rd, 2013 12:31 pm (UTC)
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I'll have to pay more attention to that! I love musicals, too :)

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Epiphanyrun

(no subject)

from: epiphanyrun
date: Apr. 3rd, 2013 01:59 am (UTC)
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I like this. You really know how to write peppy, interesting non-fiction. Thank you for explaining it in a way that could actually result in helping us write better.

My protagonist wants someone to understand her, as, without that, life feels empty, if not downright meaningless.

By the way, you saying "ack" in a comment yesterday was the highlight of my day. It amused me.











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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Apr. 3rd, 2013 12:31 pm (UTC)
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Ack! Ack! Ack!

:)

Thanks for the compliment, and you're welcome!

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Laura, aka "Ro Arwen"

(no subject)

from: roina_arwen
date: Apr. 3rd, 2013 03:33 am (UTC)
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I'm not working on anything right now, but I love reading your posts about writing better.

Also, it seems like some of your links aren't working right?

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Apr. 3rd, 2013 12:32 pm (UTC)
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Thanks :) It's going to be a whole series, so I'm glad you're digging them!

Will fix links...learning how to use Amazon Affiliate, and clearly not learning fast enough!

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(Deleted comment)

whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Apr. 3rd, 2013 12:32 pm (UTC)
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WAIT TIL YOU SEE THE SPREADSHEET.

:)

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SuperCAILEfragilistic

(no subject)

from: caile
date: Apr. 3rd, 2013 02:06 pm (UTC)
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I made a spreadsheet for my current work in progress using the snowflake method. It is so, so helpful!

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Tom Ramcigam

(no subject)

from: magicmarmot
date: Apr. 3rd, 2013 07:45 pm (UTC)
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So excellent.

I have difficulty with longer-form writing, largely because I lose focus on an objective objective, and snarfle a subjective objective that warps my head into noodle-places.

Gotta try this.

When I get writing again.

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tigerweave

(no subject)

from: tigerweave
date: Apr. 4th, 2013 12:22 pm (UTC)
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The yoga thongs made me want to cry, but I'm not sure if it was in despair or hilarity. I've spent hour upon hour in the last week trying to develop a pattern for underwear for me that I can sew with the materials I can buy locally and easily, that will not disappear where they shouldn't. For pilates. (And bowhunting and running, but especially pilates)

OMGishouldjustbyag-string!!!


uh, what was the question?

Oh, well, she wants to further her art career by moving into commercial art, and do a big installation art on the foreshore.

Of course because it's a romance, we all secretly know she really wants Lurve. But sadly Lurve comes in the form of (an incredibly handsome, rich, high-status alpha) male who is a hippy at heart and doesn't want the foreshore to be ruined by her commercial installation art.

So we all secretly know her Real Objective is to overcome his predjudices and her own and happily ride off with him into the sunset. Kinda hard coz the sun sets over the sea. Maybe they'll need to sail.

What's the difference between what the character THINKS is her objective and what it really is in story? Just write down the Real One? or does the conflict between the two come into this mapping?

Yeah. her. Gosh forgotten her name. It's been a while. I've been sick :-(

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Your Face

(no subject)

from: kandigurl
date: Apr. 19th, 2013 04:23 pm (UTC)
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I have a solution for you for the underwear yoga problem: Don't wear underwear at all. ;) Just wear your yoga shorts/pants/what have you, and wash them. That's what I do, and it's soooooooooo comfy, and honestly, most people that go to yoga regularly don't wear underwear in class.

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tigerweave

(no subject)

from: tigerweave
date: Apr. 20th, 2013 03:07 am (UTC)
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huh, really? how interesting! I could.

I used to flat with someone who didn't wear undies under jeans and I tried it and it was heaps more comfy. But I live in a climate now where it's too hot to wear jeans.

I come from a dance background and there are all sorts of very good underwear solutions. But they're synthetic and for something like bowhunting - lots of walking over rough ground in a hot climate, they'd be so awful!
I need undies for that though. Chaffing. ugh.

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Your Face

(no subject)

from: kandigurl
date: Apr. 20th, 2013 04:43 am (UTC)
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I will actually wear yoga shorts to prevent chafing, since the legs are longer. I kinda prefer yoga clothes to underwear these days. :)

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tigerweave

(no subject)

from: tigerweave
date: Apr. 20th, 2013 08:08 am (UTC)
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hehe that's great! Kinda like trunks that guys wear, but for women as undies instead. Should remember that.

I do wear something like that for tango actually. Works a treat.

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Andrea Blythe

(no subject)

from: blythe025
date: Apr. 4th, 2013 07:48 pm (UTC)
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Great post! And great advice. Sometimes I feel lost with what my characters want. I'm thinking of my current novel who has a character with not clear specific goals as of yet. I'm going to have to nail that down a bit.

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Your Face

(no subject)

from: kandigurl
date: Apr. 19th, 2013 04:21 pm (UTC)
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I'm really excited about these posts. I think they will really help me with my editing. I struggle with that so much....I have a billion first drafts but when I go to poke at them, I'm like, "I don't know what to do with you."

My first draft writing is usually rough and tumble, nothing remotely planned, discovering what happens, letting the characters do whatever the hell they want. I think for my personal writing style, the mapping would be a great thing to do once the first draft "fun part" has been hammered out, so that I have some guidelines for what I need to go back and tweak/change/fill in.

I am looking forward to more of these! :)

(Oh, and also, I always thought that Elle looked a little different in that graduation scene, and now I know why!)

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