empathy + stakes

Readers must empathize with a protagonist because nobody cares about what's happening unless they care about who it's happening to. But what is empathy and how do writers create it? That's exactly what Valerie explores in this season of the podcast.

Writers are asked 'what's at stake' or told to 'raise the stakes'. So, what are stakes and why do they matter? This season, Melanie will deep dive into this widely spoken about, but little understood, topic.

This might be one of Agatha Christie’s best known mysteries, but does it work for a modern audience? This week, Valerie and Melanie analyze Sir Kenneth Branagh’s version of Christie’s classic tale, and discuss just how far into a story the inciting incident can be. And don’t miss Melanie’s super sleuth skills in action as she uncovers a major plot hole that has to do with Poirot’s famous moustache.

In this episode, Melanie’s study of subtext has revealed something odd (and slightly uncomfortable). It seems that, according to Skyfall at least, M stands for mother. But why should Judi Dench’s M be a maternal figure for James Bond? Valerie’s study of Act 2 uncovers a striking similarity to last week’s film: Back to the Future. What on earth could these movies have in common?

It’s not uncommon for a subplot, or secondary character, to take over a story – especially when a writer is still learning the ropes. So, how do you keep a subplot in check and what do you do if it starts taking over? In this week’s episode, Valerie and Melanie discuss just that.

For better or worse, Generative AI will change the job market. Some professions will disappear and new ones will be created. One of the new jobs popping up is called an AI Prompt Engineer and companies like Netflix have already started their hiring spree. But what exactly is a prompt engineer? Will the job put authors out of business, or will it ultimately prove our worth?

Hey, this is Valerie. I recently had the good fortune to study with Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, Alec Sokolow. (Super cool, right!?) Somehow or other, I got up enough nerve to ask him for an interview and he graciously took 30 minutes out of his day to share with us his pro tips, tricks and advice. Oh, and he lets us in on his secret for writing a dual-protagonist story. Check it out!

Even though Operation Mincemeat hides its imperfections behind a star-studded cast, it’s still a good example of how to raise the stakes in story. Mind you, if this was a work of pure fiction, a writer would never get away with it – there are way too many coincidences. But hey, we still get to watch Colin Firth.

There’s nothing fancy about the storytelling in Pixar’s WALL-E. It’s a solid story that relies on the fundamentals to engage its audience, and it’s an approach that led them to gross over $521 million. Too often new writers reject the basics instead of embracing them. In WALL-E, empathy is established early and the stakes are clear. Mastering the basics has been a winning strategy for Pixar, and it can be a winning strategy for us too.

This movie does so many things well, it’s a great one for both novelists and screenwriters to have in their repertoire of reference stories. We’re studying stakes and empathy this season and boy does Manchester by the Sea deliver. If you haven’t seen it yet, add it to your short list and have the tissues handy. Trust us on this one.

This one’s coming to you by popular request! The #1 comment from women who’ve watched this movie is that it’s too close for comfort, so that makes it a perfect choice for a study of empathy. What is it about Emma Thompson’s character that resonated with so many viewers? What does she stand to lose? As an added bonus, this episode even has a cameo by Meryl Streep…sorta.

Well, they rushed this one. Given the subject matter, this film deserved to have much more care and attention given to it. Instead, it feels like the studio was in such a hurry to get it to market (given the social tensions at the time of release), that they ignored basic storytelling principles. At least it’s a great example of what not to do. Oh, and the first half hour? Get rid of it. It’s all exposition.

Everyone’s talking about AI these days, and for good reason. Experts say that AI will have a bigger influence on our lives than electricity. So what does that mean for writers? Will AI be a tool that helps us write better stories? Or, is it something that will put us out of business? Tune in to this bonus episode to hear our initial thoughts.

Melvin Udall is not a nice man, but he sure is interesting and that’s what makes this episode so important for writers. We concern ourselves with whether or not our reader will like our main character, but seldom do we consider whether our main character is interesting, or fascinating. Fascination is what we’re after, not likability.

Sometimes we stumble upon a story that gets everything right – especially when to reveal information and when to hold back. Melanie and Valerie discuss how mystery impacts the audience’s understanding of what’s at stake, and how empathy is established in the first scene via shared experience and then grows as the story is revealed.

There is so much storytelling goodness to be learned from The Godfather, it kinda boggles the mind. Even if you’re writing a light-hearted romcom, believe it or not, your novel/screenplay will benefit from the way Coppola and Puzzo approached the craft. The stakes start out high and get even higher. And when it comes to empathy, the role that world-building plays is a thing of beauty. Of course, one of us totally empathizes with Michael and the other of us doesn’t at all. Guess which one is which.

This may not be the worst movie ever made, but it’s certainly among them. The filmmakers have completely ignored storytelling basics and boy, does it ever show. It’s based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, so you’d think it would be brilliant, right? Wrong. Without the fundamentals in place this is nothing more than a bunch of stereotypes and cliches strung together, and it’s painful to watch. What did they do wrong and how can you avoid making the same mistakes in your story? Tune in to find out.

On this brand new season of the podcast Valerie and Melanie are diving deeply into EMPATHY and STAKES. How did the makers of The King’s Speech get us common folk to empathize with a king? How did they get an American audience to empathize with a British king when they fought a war to win their independence from the monarchy? Well, it was no easy task, but the trick to it lies in choosing the right type of protagonist (there are four types of protagonists). Tune into this episode to find out more.

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