What does it mean to plot from the POV of the antagonist and write from the perspective of the protagonist?
What’s your experience and how did it help with writing?
The best writing advice I ever received was to plot from the point of view of the antagonist and write from the perspective of the protagonist. Simple, right? But it was an a-ha moment for me.
A bit of background. Like most writers, I have a couple of practice manuscripts currently occupying space in the bottom of a drawer. They both garnered decent feedback from agents, but the novels were episodic—most of the second act chapters could have been rearranged without affecting the story. I wasn’t building on prior events. Why? Because I didn’t know what my antagonist was doing behind the scenes.
I think most writers put a great deal of thought into the character development of their heroes, but they tend to give their antagonist short shrift. But think about it—the antagonist is the character that drives the story. It is his or her actions that the protagonist must address.
For most of my adult life, I was a police officer. Part of the job description involved investigating crimes. Most incidents began when someone called 9-1- 1. Upon arrival, I’d try to piece together what happened by observing the scene, obtaining witness statements, and collecting physical evidence. Armed with this information, I’d search databases, develop additional contacts, run down new leads.
I was a first responder—just like my protagonist.
Imagine how easy police work would be if an officer knew before being dispatched to the scene exactly how the criminal had planned the crime, what motivated the person to do such a nefarious deed, and what steps he’d taken to avoid detection.
As a writer, you can do that!
To combat my story-structure issues, I enrolled in a plotting course for mystery and thriller writers. During the course, the instructor assigned two exercises that I’ve since incorporated into the planning stage of every story I write.
The first exercise explains the antagonist’s motivation for doing what he did. I write it in first person and it essentially creates the backstory of the character. The first line of this exercise for Adrift, my debut novel reads:
Ishmael Styx is a man who knows what he wants, and he wants to be dead. All he has to do is figure out how to make it temporary.
I then wrote 1200 words explaining what had happened in his life to bring him to this
The second exercise explains how the antagonist pulled off his crime. Adrift had a complicated crime (more than one, actually, but that developed later in the story).
Drawing on my background, I hatched the plan. Knowing how the crime occurred gave me the insight I needed to identify the clues my protagonist had to notice, what other things could be misinterpreted, and how to follow the breadcrumb trail left by the antagonist. The exercise revealed some surprising options that prompted me to go deeper into my storytelling.
The structure of a mystery novel is such that the antagonist runs the show in the first act. His crime is the inciting incident that ensures the protagonist’s involvement. Roughly the first half of the story involves the hero reacting to the actions of the protagonist. After the midpoint, their roles change. Now your protagonist is hot on the trail, developing those leads, realizing her mistakes. Sure, she’ll have setbacks, but as she gets closer to solving the crime, the two characters are also nearing their final confrontation. Both exercises will help you determine how your cornered antagonist will lash out, try to escape, or outwit your sleuth.
Mapping out the crime allowed me to structure my storyline so that it built on the information learned in previous chapters. Actions had consequences. My writing was no longer episodic.
The first time I’d put this writing advice into action was during the writing of Adrift. The novel won both the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence and the Royal Palm Literary Award for mystery. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
I knew how to foil the crime because I had plotted it first.
An FBI National Academy graduate, Micki Browning worked in municipal law enforcement for more than two decades, retiring as a division commander. Now a full time writer, she won the 2015 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence and the Royal Palm Literary Award for her debut mystery, ADRIFT.
Micki also writes short stories and non-fiction. Her work has appeared in dive magazines, anthologies, mystery magazines and textbooks. She resides in Southern Florida with her partner in crime and a vast array of scuba equipment she uses for “research”
“I am part of everything that I have read.” -Theodore Roosevelt
Anne Janzer is a marketing consultant and professional writer with more than 20 years of experience working with high tech businesses. Her clients include software industry giants, fast-moving tech start-ups disrupting the status quo, and clean tech companies trying to change the world.
Anne has worked with over a hundred technology businesses, from industry giants to innovative start-ups, helping them articulate positioning and messaging in crowded markets. In her consulting career, she has collaborated with serial entrepreneurs, industry thought leaders, and technology pioneers pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. As a ghost-writer for corporate executives, her work has appeared in dozens of industry publications and blogs, including Wired.com and the Sand Hill blog.
In addition to her own blog on subscription and content marketing, she contributes guest posts to many many technology and marketing blogs, including Business2Community, Social Media Strategies Summit blog, Marketo and Zuora blogs, Crowded Ocean, and others. Anne has an established and growing author platform, including an email list, blog, and expansive social media presence. She is a graduate of Stanford University.
I chose the English major because, as a lifelong reader, I knew that would always, no matter what, want a literature class on my schedule every term. I realized that with careful planning, I could complete the English major, leaving myself open to explore other subjects. I almost did a double major in Human Biology, which at Stanford is an interdisciplinary major combining the hard and soft sciences. But after completing the core work, I ran out of steam in designing a personalized major. Instead I took classes in journalism, computer science, and psychology. I’m a strong believer in the value of a liberal arts education!
Wonderful. Education can shape us in so many ways.
*Who or what were your early influences that led to a writing career?
I come from a family of readers and writers. I had always imagined myself as a writer, since the time I was young.
Your imagination was right on target.
*After college why did you go into writing for tech companies and marketing?
My first job out of college was at Stanford, working in the administrative computing group as a technical writer in a group of systems programmers. Being able to understand and write clearly about technology is a useful skill, particularly in Silicon Valley. Like many English majors, my career was more of a wandering journey than a clear linear path. I moved into product marketing at a startup, and then took off on my own as a marketing consultant/writer.
Nice. That would prove to a very useful skill in the silicon valley!
*Give us a summary of your book and why you decided to write it.
The Writer’s Process is about the inner game of writing – matching the stage of the work to the way that your brain operates to be more productive and creative. I’ve spent many years as a professional writer figuring out the ways that I work best. Reading research about focus and creativity, suddenly those methods started making sense from a cognitive scientific standpoint. That inspired me to dig in and analyze the process. I wrote the book because I truly believe that a better understanding of the inner craft can help writers of all levels have more fun and success with their work.
Well, I’m certainly glad that you did. This book had a major impact me. On the seeking and understanding of my own process. It’s very easily one of my favorite craft books of all time. See, all your hard work paid off. Come to think of it, this book seems to be a culmination of years of writing experience. Now it’s in print and ready for consumption. Thanks!
Writing is the painting of voice. – Voltaire
*What were your favorite parts in writing it?
I loved researching not only the science, but also the practices of other authors and writers. It’s fun to realize how much all writers have in common. Plus, there’s something very “meta” about writing a book about the writing; it gave me the opportunity to refine and tune my processes.
I think writing is both a collective and highly individualized art. We don’t exist or work in a vacuum. We’re influenced by those around us. The literary culture of our time leaves a remarkable footprint on society. Writers of every generation run, then pass the baton down to us.
The issue of their process, imagination and approach to writing leaves an indelible imprint on our souls. We seem to assimilate these ‘imprints’ into our own process, until we become a work of art ourselves. But when we learn, accumulate, express ourselves through our own process, we discover that it still bears a unique flavor. For when the flow strikes and flows through the artist, it takes on the sediment of the individual.
….Then go edit them ~Benjamin Thomas
*What did you learn from writing it? Or has it affected your craft?
Writing the book has definitely made me more disciplined about my own process. For example, now I notice when I am tempted to skip a step and short-cut the full end-to-end writing “recipe” to save time. I’m more intentional about incubating ideas and problems. When I recognize the Imposter Syndrome or run into other problems, I have defenses ready.
This is great. I always enjoy how others have adapted their own process. Having an understanding is critical, however discipline seems to be largely underrated in my opinion.
Second, the fact that we can change and adapt this process tells me that it’s extremely malleable. Sounds like a special piece of clay doesn’t it? I know in pottery clay can take on many forms, possibly thousands. It all depends on the hands that shape them.
*Tell us about the relationship and potential collaboration between the Scribe and the Muse.
The book describes two different mental systems that all writers rely on. The Scribe is my name for the intentional and hard-working writer, while the Muse refers to intuitive, creative processes.
I love this! Scribe is a great name by the way. Thumbs up. The Scribe resembles a type A, control-freak-businessman, while the Muse is much like a mysterious laid-back teenager with a mind of its own. But the two must learn to work seamlessly together as a team.
No hard feelings, eh?
(photo credit Angelos Ntinas)
*In your book you label the Scribe and Muse in order to point out the intentional and intuitive mental processes.
It’s a useful fiction, a way to frame the complexity of different inputs that go into writing. All writing depends on both systems; you need focus and discipline to work. But you also need the ability to summon thoughts and ideas and to make connections that bring your subject to life. Productive writers learn how to hand off the work between the two mental systems.
I think this statement sums up my enjoyment from the entire book actually. It’s extremely enlightening to realize that they’re two; but not diametrically opposed mental systems, and in order to be productive we must learn how to “hand off” the work between the two. Powerful.
*Can you tell us more about open attention and focus and how they relate to our writing?
Focused attention is how we get the work done, blocking out distractions to write, research, or revise. In contrast, open attention is what happens when we do something that doesn’t require dedicated focus. We experience open attention when taking a walk or doing everyday tasks that are somewhat automatic.
Knowing about the nuances of attention is quite an eye opener. We must master both to tap into better productivity as writers. No wonder so many people get writer’s block. Too much dedicated focus and not enough open attention. The Scribe dominates the relationship and the Muse retreats to who knows where.
~Don’t bully the muse. Give it some room to fly high and mighty. -Benjamin Thomas
*You said something very critical about moving between the two systems of Scribe and Muse by directing our attention. This seems to be a somewhat voluntary gateway; through which we can toggle back and forth between the two systems, or writing minds.
Exactly! Using the metaphor of the two mental systems, the Scribe operates in a state of focused attention, while the Muse appears when we’re in open attention. Perhaps the Muse is always there, but we only hear it in states of open attention. To hand off work between these systems, you need to be able to focus intently, and then let go of focus. Spend time writing, then time “not-writing.”
This is amazing every time I hear it. The intentional mental process and the intuitive mental process. Then learning how to utilize the gateway between the two to get our best work done.
*Speak about the benefits of open attention.
When we’re in open attention, the Scribe is not managing our thoughts, and the Muse has a chance to contribute, to process unrelated thoughts and come up with interesting ideas.
In this section you tell us that we connect to the Muse through open attention. I’ve never heard this before. That’s so cool!
The cool thing is that this really works! When you need creative input on a problem, queue it up in your head, and then seek out a period of open attention. Here’s an example: a client was looking for a metaphor for a complex technical topic. I was drawing a blank. So I thought about it intentionally, then walked to the gym, worked out, and returned home. In the process, I kept bringing my thoughts back to the problem. I ended up with a number of creative approaches. The Muse is present in the background, ready to contribute when you invite its input.
This is AWESOME. “We connect to the Muse through OPEN ATTENTION. This is the key!
*Speak to us about how to achieve a state of flow and what that means.
You marvelously explained how this is the result of the two writing selves working together in a fluid process, the productive and creative.
Flow is that ideal writing state, when you lose yourself in the work. It makes the work fun and worthwhile.
Using the Scribe and the Muse analogy, the two are working together side-by- side in a state of flow.
You cannot force flow to happen, but you can set up an environment in which it is more likely to occur. The Muse is easily distracted, so remove potential distractions or interruptions. Find a place you can focus and start working. If you hear yourself criticizing or critiquing as you work, try to silence the inner critic. Think about the work, not yourself, and keep going.
This is the ultimate benefit. When we achieve a state of flow by the productive work between the two mental processes. One major takeaway for me is learning how to go from the focused intentional state to the open attention intuitive one by learning how to direct our attention. To me, this is the real key of achieving balance, utilization, and producing an ecstatic state of flow. EPIC.
SOMEBODY BREAK THE DAM!
This is your brain while writing in a state of flow…