© 2011 Robert Ray.  Course Description: Rewriting 101.  All Rights Reserved. 

Following the writer introductions – who’s writing what, how it’s going – we’ll work on story. Definition: story is a competition for a resource base. Cinderella wants the castle. Jane wants Thornfield Hall. We’ll toss around the parts of a story: Place, Characters and Roles (Protag, Antag, Helper), Resource Base as the object of desire, core stories (there are seven), Ritual and Archetype, Objects (possession, need, greed, thievery, envy, etc.), biology in the subtext, back story trauma as Motivation.

  • A warmup writing that probes your novel or filmscript.
  • Scene Performance: We’ll view our first scene performance, with the cast drawn from fellow writers.
  • Homework that links to Week Two.

 What the writers brought in the first day:

  • One filmscript about a Ponzi scheme converted into a novel.
  • Two mysteries – 1) Teen Sleuth; 2) Gothic-Cozy.
  • Three tales of suspense – 1) a snake story;  2) a story of wounds from the Korean War; 3) a mainline contemporary thriller.
  • Three Otherworld-Fantasies – 1) three kingdoms and a budding princess; 2) Walkers vs. Water-Worlders; 3) Shapeshifters with secrets.  
  • Three theatrical stage plays – 1) Urns filled with ashes; 2) deep south hardscrabble; 3) conversion – turning a Bildungsroman stage play into a filmscript.

During office hours at Café Argento, writers bring problems and I offer solutions. On this first day, writers reveal their opening pages. Advice to my Gothic-Cozy writer on Day One: your Gothic, almost a cozy, needs a more suspenseful opening. Check model mysteries (Christie, Marsh, et al) for the sequence of:

  • Killer Onstage
  • Victim Onstage
  • Killing
  • Discovery of the Body by an Innocent
  • Reporting the Crime
  • Crime Scene
  • Sleuth Onstage

Advice to my playwright converting his stage play into a filmscript: the two-person seduction scene needs an intruder.

The Workshop

The writers assemble in the Library at Hugo House. Three collapsible tables shoved together. Everyone in the group has done timed writing – Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice, sharpening your focus by employing startlines and a kitchen timer. The workshop process is a mix of timed writing, reading aloud, mini-lectures, scene performance, and compression exercises like the power grid. Before we begin, I find out who’s in the room with questions directed at the work-in-progress:

  • What are you writing?
  • Where are you with your work?
  • How many pages?
  • How many subplots?
  • When will you have a scene ready for performance?

Writing practice is a sacred ritual where you exit your busy, real-world self and pay homage to your words. In her workshops in Taos, Natalie Goldberg starts with deep breathing. At Hugo House in Seattle, we follow Natalie.

Eyes closed, feet flat on the floor, focus on your breath, slip into your story, visualize your characters. What are they wearing? Read their faces, their gestures. Three minutes of deep breathing – paying attention to your chest rising and falling – gets you out of your head, away from your busy schedule. The timer creates protected space.

Our first writing is a warm-up with a startline that helps the writers focus on the protagonist: I want to write a story about a character who wants….

We write for 5 minutes. Then we read in small groups, one in each corner of the room. Then someone reads to the room. Reading aloud with no criticism helps writers relax. The warmup writing sets the tone for the workshop. When they read, I pay attention, not only to words and information, but also to tone of voice, volume, and body language. On Day One, my writers want to write.

Writing about the Antagonist

Antagonist comes from the Greek. It means the one who blocks the protagonist, the character who leads. Story is a struggle between protagonist and antagonist for a resource. Whether you are a novelist, a playwright, or a screenwriter, it’s hard not to  focus your first draft on the protagonist – fears, motives, back story, family and career, body parts, wardrobe, wants and needs.

But when you rewrite, your job is to re-balance the scales by nailing your antagonist, not only with charts and profiles and police dossiers, but also by rewriting the scenes in Subplot One, the path of your antagonist.


When you write from the Antagonist’s Point-of-View, you see what the antagonist sees; you are blind where the antagonist is blind. YOU WANT WHAT THE ANTAGONIST WANTS. When the antagonist stumbles, you stumble too.

When you craft the scene list for Subplot One, make sure that each scene is from the POV (Point of View) OF THE ANTAGONIST.

To get a handle on the antagonist, we do timed writing using a startline that calls for filling in some blanks: My name is…… I am the antagonist of a story called…. I was born in the town of XXX in the year ….. and the only thing that saved me was …..

Scene Performance

On Day One we hear three scenes performed. Writers take roles. Teen Sleuth presents in novel format, lots of ink, heavy on narration and exposition, light on the dialogue. The Bildungsroman stage play presents in dramatic format, heavy on dialogue and monologue, minimal stage directions. The Ponzi scheme script presents in script format: a blend of scene headings, action, and dialogue.

Scene performances by eager amateurs have three benefits for the author:

  1. Surrender. You give up your words to a stranger. Naked ego.
  2. The Squirm Factor – why didn’t you write better dialogue? Why did you write all that exposition? Will you live through this?
  3. Stage magic. Actors emerge. You, along with the audience, are amazed.

Scene Analysis – Film Script – South of Bixby Bridge

Rituals – threshold crossing and barter. As the protagonist crosses thresholds, he goes deeper into the lair of the antagonists. He is broke, they are rich. It’s Christmas in California: they buy him with a gold Rolex.

Intruder and Closed Circle

The lair of the antagonists is a fancy country place, a closed circle, entrance by invitation only. The intruder is the protagonist, a young man in search of himself.

Core Stories

Trevor is the protagonist; his core story is Coming of Age. Paul is Antagonist One; his core story is Scapegoat Sacrifice and Trevor is the goat. Tara is Antagonist Two; her core story is King Replacement. These three form a sexual triad.

Power Grid – Locking Down Character and Subplot

After scene performance, there is time for the power grid. I distribute empty grids modeled on the Jane Eyre grid below. The first row controls the writer’s data: name, role, plot/subplot, object, entry, exit, and core story. Jane Eyre, a tale about the rise of a Victorian Cinderella from the ashes of 19th century poverty, has thrived for 150 years. Jane has spawned 12 TV productions and 19 feature films.

The grid for Jane Eyre reveals one protagonist climbing the economic ladder and seven antagonists blocking her climb. The grid shows arcs – character entrances and exits – objects, and core stories. Like Cinderella, Jane’s core story is Rags to Riches. Mr. Rochester, an arrogant man of property, wants Jane to replace his mad wife Bertha. His core story is Queen Replacement. Core story marries archetype (Cinderella) to a ritual (born in poverty and danger; reborn into wealth and safety).

The grid below comes from the opening section of my recent book, The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel.

Name Role Plot/SP Object Entry Exit Core Story
Jane Protag Plot Sketchpad Act 1 Act 3 Rags to Riches
Mr. Rochester Antag1 Subplot1 Cloak Act 2 Act 3 Queen Replacement
Bertha Mason Antag2 Subplot2 Knife, Fire Act 2 Act 2 Revenge Quest
Richard Mason Antag3 Subplot3 Overcoat Act 2 Act 2 Revenge Quest
Aunt Reed Antag4 Subplot4 Silk Act 1 Act 2 Scapegoat Sacrifice
Mr. Brocklehurst Antag5 Subplot5 Overcoat Act 1 Act 1 Scapegoat Sacrifice
St. John Rivers Antag6 Subplot6 Letter/Bible Act 3 Act 3 King Replacement
Mrs. Fairfax Helper Subplot7 Apron Act 2 Act 3 Queen Replacement
Blanche Ingram Antag7 Subplot8 Party Gown Act 2 Act 2 Queen Replacement

 The empty grid for the re-writers looks like this:

Name Role Plot/SP Object Entry Exit Core Story

 To our online users: feel free to use this grid for squeezing the parts of your own work-in-progress.

The writers take 6 minutes filling in their grids. When I call time, there are still slots left to fill. Not a problem: grids fill themselves in when the writer gets insights.

We have time for a mini-lecture on subplot, agenda, need, and core story. 


  • Subplot = a secondary story that runs underneath the plot.
  • Subplot marks the path of a single character.
  • A character with motivation that creates an agenda.
  • An agenda that follows its own core story – King Replacement, Queen Replacement, Revenge Quest, Scapegoat Sacrifice, etc. – not the core story that follows the plot.
  • Example: Character B wants Character A, who is married to Character C, who is B’s brother (or Father, hmm). What does Character A want? If she wants Character B, her core story is King Replacement. If she wants Character C, then her core story is Scapegoat Sacrifice – and she becomes a character of substance. (Check the Candaules-Gyges-Queen Omphale story in The English Patient.)
  • Writing Tip: The King Replacement core story is powerful because the king controls the resource base. In the old days, the RB was a storehouse of corn, good land, and a steady supply of water. These days, it’s a fat brokerage account or a fat bank lockbox or an oilfield. Who’s got it? Who wants it?
  • Subplot has two main functions: a) to conceal secrets; b) to create texture, an illusory measure of depth, created by layering subplots. (When a book-reviewer says “multi-layered,” you will know the source: stacked subplots under the surface of the plot.)
  • Because it lives a double-life – on the surface and visible to the reader; under the surface, out of sight, but visible to you, the smiling writer – subplot helps you create subtext: 
    • what if character B is ravishing Character A in the bed of Character C;
    • what if there is a gun in the dresser drawer;
    • what if Character C turns a corner onto his street;
    • what if Character A knows that Character C is close;

            Then you can ratchet up the suspense by having C call A on his cellphone.  Hi, babe, it’s hungry me, just pulling into the driveway.

The Homework

  1. Develop a list of scenes
  2. Type up antagonist writing

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© 2011 Robert Ray.  Course Description: Rewriting 101.  All Rights Reserved.