Behind Those Walls: A Story Lesson from HGTV by Pamela Mytroen

Ever notice how even the most mundane reality show, such as renovating a kitchen, includes drama? It’s never as simple as knocking down a wall and installing new cabinets. Never! Tension ratchets up when asbestos – gasp – is found in the ceiling, or nob and tube wiring is discovered in the walls. Disaster! And then a commercial break delays the drama some more, enticing us to stay tuned and find out if the internal problems are fixed.

A good story is similar to a renovation project. An external goal starts things off – a character must escape a demanding job or must save somebody else from a desperate situation – but in the process, internal secrets and/or needs are discovered which determine the trajectory and action from then on.

External goals are necessary, but without an internal need, the story sizzles out and dies. Sometimes that internal need isn’t realized until the action begins. For example, in “Red Eye” (Screenplay, 2005) Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy), who is part of a terrorist cell, traps Lisa (Rachel McAdams) on a late-night flight home. He forces her to place a phone call to the hotel where she’s Acting Manager, and move the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security to a hotel room where he and his family will be killed by a missile. If she doesn’t comply, Rippner has a hitman lined up to kill her father at home. Her external goal is to save her father. She tries everything to deceive Rippner but eventually succumbs to making the phone call. However, Rippner’s apathy calls attention to a scar on her chest, which brings her internal goal to the surface – to overcome a certain thought-pattern that she’s been battling for years – and gives her the super-charged strength to overcome all the obstacles Rippner puts up. She fights back with all she’s got, making for great action (but remember it’s the internal goal that’s driving that action) and saves both her father and the Secretary.

Another example is “A Lawman’s Christmas” (2011) by Linda Lael Miller. Dara Rose is up against an icy cold winter, widowhood, poverty, and two children to care for. She is living temporarily in the Marshall’s home, belonging to her previous husband. When the new Marshall, Clay McKettrick, arrives to town, he is ordered to take Dara Rose’s meager house. Instead of kicking her out of her home, he moves in and marries Dara Rose out of convenience to protect and care for her in the dead of winter. While Dara Rose’s external goal is met – to survive the winter – her internal goal is much deeper – to find true love. Sparks fly between them as Dara Rose yearns for something much deeper than a roof over her head. Will she find it in the Marshall?

The external goal is necessary – the wall must be knocked down to make the kitchen larger. But if that’s all that happens, it’s boring. Be sure to find some secrets in those walls. The house must be better than it was before, stronger, safer, and more sure, just like your characters must be transformed internally as well. Otherwise, your reader will take a commercial break and never come back!

Pamela Mytroen (sm)If Pam Mytroen could spend all day in her kitchen baking pies, brownies, and making turkey dinner for friends, she would. But Murray Pura once told her to write first and then bake—advice that she is trying to stick with these days, except, of course, when her grandchildren stop in for milk and cookies.

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