April 2nd, 2013


Mapping: Legally Blonde and the “I Want” Song

This is Part One of a new series of posts on the technical elements of writing.

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.

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.

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