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JJ Barnes – Writing Advice

Free writing advice – writers supporting writers

By - JJBarnes

The Lie Your Protagonist Believes

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I’ll be writing about the video The lie your protagonist believes, writing tips and advice SPOILERS – The Nightmare Before Christmas, from the writing advice series I’m doing on YouTube with Jonathan McKinney.

Giving your Protagonist an interesting arc where they grow and change as a person is an important part of story telling. If they come out of the story unchanged and having learned nothing, there is no point in sending them on that journey in the first place. The lie your Protagonist believes takes your character at the start of your story where they will believe something about the world, and follows them through the course of the story as they learn the truth.

The lie the Protagonist believes can be something external about the world, but more often it is likely to be something internal about themselves. It’s something they believe they want or something they believe they need, and it turns out through the story that’s not true. You see this a lot in romantic comedies where the girl believes she’s in love with one man, and through the course of the story it turns out she’s in love with somebody else. However, the example I’m going to write about in this blog post is Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas.

In The Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack Skellington sings a song about how bored he is of being the king of Halloween, and how he longs to be anything else believing that would make him happy. He then discovers Christmas Town and Santa Claus, and becomes obsessed with the idea that if he replaces Santa Claus, he’ll get the satisfaction and fulfilment that he longs for.

Whilst he’s expressing his longing for another life, he’s being followed around by Sally who is in love with him, but he doesn’t know. It’s a visual clue for the fact that during the course of the film he learns that what he’s longing for isn’t actually a different life, it’s to be in love and he finds that satisfaction and joy at the end of the film with Sally.

As you follow Jack Skellington, you watch him following the lie he believes to be true, and the story is what happens when he follows the lie, but the fact it’s a lie is what gets in the way of his happiness. The audience is discovering the truth as Jack Skellington does, and that’s what you can take into your own writing.

When using this device in your own writing, you keep to your Protagonist’s POV so the story presents as if what the Protagonist believes is true, but together your audience and your Protagonist discover the truth, and that keeps your audience and the Protagonist connected. Your audience is going on the journey with them, even if on an emotional level they realise that it’s not true, but everybody has to discover the truth together.

Ideally, your audience will learn the truth a little bit before your Protagonist. Not a long time before as they need to be rooted to your Protagonist’s experiences, and if it’s too obvious too soon they’ll feel disconnected from your Protagonist, but if they realise it just a bit before, they can then watch the story unfold in a satisfying way as the Protagonist discovers the truth. This is something you can play with, make sure you reveal it to your audience in a subtle and effective way by planting seeds throughout the story that hint towards it, without revealing it to your Protagonist.

This is a really useful writing technique to make your Protagonist’s story arc interesting and keep your audience invested in them and connected to them. Giving your Protagonist something they want and sending them in pursuit of it is always the first step in story creation, and making that thing a lie is an interesting device that just makes it more layered and interesting.

You can find more writing advice on our YouTube channel where we’ll help you become a better and more confident writer. If you have any writing questions, comment below and we will try to do a video for every question we get!

Click the picture to find details about all the books written by JJ Barnes and where to buy them.

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