Sunday, January 25, 2015

Three Kinds of Micro Fiction: The Drabble, 55 Fiction and The Twabble

Three Kinds of Micro Fiction: The Drabble, 55 Fiction and The Twabble



Today I want to do something different. I’ve just finished a five part series on the structure of genre stories and want to turn to the other end of the spectrum: micro fiction.

Why Micro Fiction Is Awesome


Let’s talk about the shortest possible kinds of fiction: Drabbles, 55 Fiction and Twitfic (also known as Twabbles). I’ll discuss what those are in a moment, but first let’s look at why writing short fiction is A Good Thing: 

There’s value in finishing a story and it’s much easier to finish a 100 word story than it is a 120,000 tome of fantasy fiction. (G.R.R. Martin’s works are magnificent but those suckers double as paperweights!)  

On the subject of the value of finishing a story, John Ward posted a link to a wonderful video made by Scott Sigler about how to get started writing—or, perhaps, what it takes to become an author. It’s excellent.

Not only does a micro story take less time to write but the structure is, of necessity, much simpler. Often there’s only one character, the protagonist. This strips a story’s structure down to its simplest elements and exposes it in a way that a longer story can’t, and it lets us play with it, tweaking the Inciting Incident, the protagonist’s response, and so on, and seeing how that changes the emotional impact.

Here is a structure I’ve noticed in some micro fiction:

1. Inciting Incident. Something happens.

2. Protagonist Acts. The protagonist reacts to the thing that changed their world.

3. Consequences. The protagonist and her world is changed because of her actions.

Kinds of Micro Fiction


As I mentioned, there are various kinds of micro fiction. In fact, I’m sure there are more kinds than I’ve heard about! But here’s three:

The Drabble


Although definitions differ, the general consensus seems to be that a Drabble is a short work of exactly 100 words. 

The history. Drabbles were inspired, in a roundabout kind of way, by Monty Python. Wikipedia tells us that “the 100-word format was established by the Birmingham University SF Society, taking a term from Monty Python's 1971 Big Red Book. In the book, "Drabble" was described as a word game where the first participant to write a novel was the winner. In order to make the game possible in the real world, it was agreed that 100 words would suffice.” (Drabble)

Drabbles are also popular in fan fiction (just google Drabble and Draco, or Drapple, if you don’t believe me.)

Below is an example of a Drabble. This story was first published as a response to one of my daily writing prompts.

Fossil,” by Brian Holt Hawthorne


She was twelve when she found the box with the golden watch. The instructions read: "To stop time, press and hold the red button. This function may only be used once."

She almost pressed the button, but decided not to waste the chance.

She kept the watch with her always, waiting for the moment when stopping time would enable her to save the world or obtain her heart's desire.

She had a career and a husband and children and a happy life.

She lay alone on her death bed and held the watch. She pressed the red button.

Time stopped.

I love that story! And I owe Brian a big thank you, not just for giving me permission to publish his story on my blog, but for introducing me to the terms “Drabble,” “Twabble” and “Twitfic.” Although I’ve been reading and writing micro stories for a while, Brian introduced me to their names. 

55 Fiction


An even shorter form of micro fiction is known as 55 Fiction where, you guessed it, the story must be exactly 55 words long. (Although sometimes any story of 55 words or less is thought to fall within the form.)

55 Fiction originated with a contest organized by the New Times of San Luis Obispo, California, in 1987. For that contest a story had to:

- be composed of fifty-five, or fewer, words.
- have a setting.
- have one or more characters.
- have some conflict.
- have a resolution. (Drabble, Wikipedia)

Further, the title could not exceed seven words, but was not part of the overall word count.

Here’s an example. I wrote this together in a few minutes, but hopefully it will give you the idea:

Awakening


I woke surrounded by darkness. Mother wept. Slow organ music. Voices murmured.
I tried to sit up and hit my head. Hard.
“What was that?” someone said.
Silence.
I rolled over and slammed into a velvety barrier.
My bed teetered.
Mother screamed.
Footsteps approached.
A creek of hinges.
Startled eyes.
“You’re not dead,” someone said.

Twitfic


An even more abbreviated form of micro fiction is the Twitfic or Twabble. Drabblecast.org, defines a Twabble as a short story of exactly 100 characters not counting spaces or punctuation. (Though I think that, more generously, a Twabble might be anything you can fit into a tweet.) For example:



Here’s a challenge: Take the next 15 minutes and write a complete story of 100 words or less. It should have a protagonist, a challenge and an ending. Then post it (or a link to it) as a comment! I’d love to read it.

That’s it! Have a great weekend and good writing.

Thanks for reading.

Photo credit: Original photo: "Journal Entry" by Joel Montes de Oca under CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo altered by Karen Woodward.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Three Act Story Structure: The Final Conflict (Part 5 of 5)

A Three Act Story Structure: The Final Conflict (Part 5 of 5)



This is the final post in my series on the Three Act Structure for genre stories. Yes! (I always get a bit excited when I write the last post in a series, it’s not the same as finishing a short story, but it’s still good.) Here’s an index to the rest of the posts in this series:


Endings Are Important


In many ways the final bit of your story, the Final Conflict, is the most important part. If the ending isn’t satisfying then, chances are, your readers won’t be waiting on pins and needles for your next story. 

I’ve written about story endings elsewhere (see here and here) but what I want to concentrate on today is everything that happens after the protagonist goes through the All Hope Is Lost moment and has her epiphany. (I’m not going to talk about this moment here because I covered it in my last post, see above.)

The Plan


Things are now looking up. Sure, nothing has actually changed. The protagonist is still in the deep dark pit with no way out and his allies are about to be killed in the most brutal of ways, but, still, things aren’t as bleak because the hero has an idea. 

Right now at this moment, the protagonist is everything we wanted her to be. She has struggled, she has failed, she has learned from her mistakes and the scales have just fallen from her eyes. She is aware of the lie she’s told herself. She has (partially at least) healed her deep inner wound. As a result, the protagonist is whole; she has come into her power.

Now the protagonist makes a new plan. Often she is alone at this point, her allies having been sidelined. But, even if she has allies, she often won’t reveal the specifics of her plan. (The writer  may not want her readers to be too informed at this point since not knowing exactly how the protagonist plans to pull things off can help build suspense.) 

Story reasons for the protagonist keeping her plan to herself could include the following:

- The protagonist knows that one of her allies is really a spy.
- The protagonist knows her allies would try to prevent her from doing what she must since she believes doing so will mean her death.

In any case, the protagonist advances, alone, to the place where the final conflict will take place. (Though, her being alone isn’t the crucial bit. She could have one or two allies come with her, the crucial bit is that she faces the Big Bad all by herself without any help.)

The Penultimate Conflict


There is often a confrontation with the antagonist’s minion, a confrontation that the protagonist will win, now, without too much trouble. The minion would have beaten her before her revelation—before the epiphany she had at the end of the All Hope Is Lost moment—but now the tables are turned.

Also, this confrontation with a minion shows how far the protagonist has come. She has overcome her weaknesses, she has healed her wound, and it’s time to let the audience see this. 

One way of accomplishing this is to have the protagonist wipe the floor with a bad guy that gave her a sound beating earlier in the story, around about the time she entered the Special World and was still figuring out how things worked.

Often this bad guy is the Big Bad’s second in command. He sees that the protagonist is in pretty bad shape, she’s beaten up, and he thinks she’ll be easy to obliterate. What ensues now is what I think of as fun, satisfying, violence, the sort of thing you see in the trailer to a James Bond flick. She will win the fight with the minion fairly easily (though the protagonist may fake an injury to build a moment or two of tension) and he’ll die with an incredulous expression on his face.

After this fight things get serious. Often, one way the protagonist can win is by sacrificing her life. This would be noble and a perfectly good ending, but we want her to live, so there’s suspense, tension.

The Final Conflict


Riding high from trouncing the minion the protagonist often walks into a trap. Or she is ambushed. Perhaps our protagonist has gotten a little cocky, perhaps a vestige of her former, scarred, self rears its head. Whatever the case, the protagonist gets into trouble.

This could happen right as the protagonist goes to engage the antagonist, or it could happen after the fight is well on its way and the antagonist is starting to realize he may not win the fight (or confrontation). Whatever the case, there’s a moment when it looks as though we were wrong—really really wrong—about the protagonist now being as good as it gets. She’s in trouble again and this could be the end of her and her quest. 

But it’s not. She faked the injury to get an advantage.

It sometimes happens here that the antagonist ups the stakes one last time by daring to do what no one else would. Perhaps he alters himself in such a way that he is now the walking dead but he’s going to be godly for the next ten minutes, which is more than enough time to destroy the protagonist. This pushes the protagonist to excel in a way we’re truly not sure she’s capable of and, once again, the audience is (hopefully!) on the edge of their seats.

- At this point the antagonist has no secrets.


At this point in the story all of the antagonist’s cards should be on the table. True, you don’t want an information dump where the protagonist, strapped across railway tracks, pleads for her life while the black cloaked villain rubs his gloved hands together, twirls his mustache, and tells her about the brilliance of his scheme.

But, still, no secrets. Perhaps the antagonist will taunt the protagonist by filling in the last little bit of the puzzle that lets the protagonist see how very high and dire the stakes are. Instead of simply the world being destroyed, he’s taking the galaxy out too! 

Yes, I’m exaggerating, but at this point it isn’t just the protagonist that is going to win or lose it’s also every single one of her allies, and perhaps her family and extended community. Also, the protagonist may have allies the antagonist has killed and who need avenging. Not to mention that by this time we’ve become emotionally attached to the protagonist and those she cares about.

- On with the fight.


After the antagonist shows us his last card we’re all on the same page. We now know the antagonist’s true power as well as his true agenda.

We, the audience, quake. Even our new punched up self-aware protagonist can’t possibly beat this guy, he’s just too badass.

Then ... why does the protagonist seem so confident?

Seeing the protagonist’s newfound confidence, the antagonist’s composure is shaken for a moment but then he laughs. “You’re faking,” the antagonist says and calls the protagonist’s bluff. Perhaps he even knocks the protagonist down. The Antagonist is now sure he’s won and sneers at the protagonist, ready to deliver the knock-out punch.

The audience is now worried that perhaps the protagonist was bluffing after all, that perhaps she really is all flash and no substance.

But, then, the protagonist shows the audience she wasn’t bluffing and shows the antagonist what she’s capable of. And wins. Since the antagonist was the thing that prevented the protagonist from achieving her goal, that’s it, we’re done.

The story question has been answered. (The story question is basically: Will the protagonist achieve her story goal? Jim Butcher has written a wonderful article on this.)

- Other kinds of endings.


Of course the story doesn’t have to end with the protagonist winning. 

a. She could fail to defeat the antagonist and die. 
b. Or she could fail to defeat the antagonist and live the rest of her life with the knowledge that she’d failed. 
c. Or she could beat the antagonist but still die. 
d. Or she could partially beat the antagonist and ... Well, there are many, many, possibilities.

Keep in mind, though, that each genre usually has pretty clear conventions about how stories will end. 

In a mystery story, if the sleuth doesn’t discover who committed the murder—or they do discover whodunit, but no one is ever brought to justice for the crime—then chances are that you’ll have plenty of grumpy readers who will make it a point of never ever reading another one of your mystery books.

In a Harlequin-type romance story, if the romantic leads do not live happily ever after (HEA) there will be hell to pay. A senior editor at Harlequin once told a conference I attended that they did break this rule once, and both the writer and publisher received hate mail. I kid you not!

The Wrap Up


The final conflict concluded, we wrap up the story by cashing out the final stakes. We do this by showing how the lives of each significant character have been changed because of the protagonist achieving the story goal.

Then, at the very end, the protagonist goes back to the Ordinary World and we see how the adventure changed her. Now, transformed, she does with ease tasks which were impossible before. For example, the protagonist can now best a bully, make difficult decisions, be a leader in the community, gain the elder’s respect, and so on.

Closing Thoughts: The Importance of Change


Let me stress that, although I do often talk about THE Three Act Structure, there’s really no such thing. There is no one monolithic structure that each and every genre story will exemplify. What I’ve written about is my own personal understanding of, distillation of, a structure I see in the overwhelming majority of popular genre stories.

Further, no single story will touch all these bases, and that’s fine. If I had to boil all the advice I’ve given over the years down to just one thing, it would be this: change is necessary.

Situations change, characters change. The mood of a scene changes. Readers—the audience—go from ignorance (Who is the villain?) to knowledge (It’s—drumroll—the mayor!). Without change, nothing dramatic can happen. And whatever else genre stories are, they should be dramatic.

Though, that said, there are only two actual rules in writing:

1. Write regularly. 
2. Read regularly.

If you’re looking for places to share your writing, or encouragement to write every day, I publish a daily writing prompt here, here and here, and the folks over at Critters.org have helped many writers hone their craft.

That’s it! Thanks for reading. 

Note: While the version of the Three Act Structure I’ve presented here does agree with that put forward by many screenwriters, I’ve noticed some put the break into Act Three after the All Hope Is Lost point. I think the take-away from this is to, as always, do what seems right for you. For me, it seems most natural to have the break into Act Three come just after the Major Setback but before the All Hope Is Lost moment, so I’ve placed the Major Setback at just before the 75% mark. 

I’d also like to note that, often, the Third Act will be quite short compared to the First Act. That way, once the hero breaks into Act Three it feels like one incredibly fast race to the Story Climax.

Photo credit: Original photo: "The Lonely Vacuum Of Space" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Three Act Story Structure: Act Three

A Three Act Story Structure: Act Three



Today I continue my series on the Three Act Structure for genre stories. 


In this post I’m going to examine a special kind of Try-Fail Cycle, what I call the All Hope Is Lost Try-Fail Cycle. It begins with the Major Setback, carries us into Act Three and ends with the Story Climax (or Final Conflict). I had hoped to get through the Final Conflict today, but that didn’t happen. I will do that Wednesday.

Act Three: The Rush to the Finish (75%)


Endings are important. It’s said that the first few pages of a story sell that book while the last few pages sell the next book. I believe that.

The ending plays out in Act Three so, ideally, the third act will build the tension of the first two acts into a crescendo of suspense, rushing into The Story Climax, where the Story Question will be decided.

All Hope Is Lost: An Odd Try-Fail Cycle


What I’m calling the All Hope Is Lost Try-Fail Cycle contains three events.

First Time. Often the first try-fail in this threefold cycle is the Major Setback (I talked about the Major Setback in my last post so I won’t go into it again here). 

Second Time. After that devastating, plot-twisting, defeat, the protagonist comes up with a new plan, but this new plan fails as well. 

Third Time (All Hope Is Lost). Undeterred, the protagonist forms a new plan and, though it seems impossible it will succeed, there’s nothing else to try. The stakes, now, are the highest they have ever been and the chance of success the smallest it has ever been. At the end of this sequence the protagonist seems to fail, totally and completely. 

Sometimes (for example, in “Edge of Tomorrow”), this seeming failure lasts only a few seconds and then, immediately following, we get the resolution, the conclusion, of the tale. Other times it is more drawn out. Both kinds of stories, though, usually have the same general structure:

1. (Major Setback) Try --> Obstacle --> Fail 
- Stakes increase.
- Likelihood of success goes down.

2. New Plan --> Try --> Obstacle --> *Fail*
- Stakes increase.
- Likelihood of success goes down.

3. New Plan --> Try --> !!!!!**FAIL**!!!!!
- Stakes turn out to be much bigger than at first thought.
- All Hope is Lost Point: No chance of success whatsoever.

1. The first try-fail sequence


Often the first try-fail is the Major Setback (I talked about the Major Setback in my last post so I won’t go into it again here). 

2. The second try-fail sequence.


After the devastating, plot-twisting, defeat of the Major Setback, the protagonist comes up with a new plan, but the new plan fails.

The consequences of the failure turn out to be very much worse than anyone imagined. The protagonist is unprepared for this and sometimes loses hope. Often an ally or a mentor figure will come onstage and give the protagonist a pep talk. Or perhaps the antagonist will push the protagonist past endurance and she’ll snap only to find a core of strength to her being she never suspected.

3. The third try-fail sequence


The protagonist comes up with another plan but this plan, too, fails, or appears to fail. 

This final try-fail sequence ends with the All Hope Is Lost beat, also known as the Dark Night of the Soul. 

As bad as things seemed at the end of the second sequence, it will turn out that what the protagonist thought was the true bottom—the worst things could possibly get—was only a way-stop on the way to complete and total ruin. 

Now the protagonist is at rock bottom. This is the lowest point of the movie, both for the protagonist and for the story quest as a whole. There is no possibility the protagonist is going to get out of this. No rabbits in this hat. Her quest is over and it’s all her fault. 

The Third Try-Fail Cycle and the Ray of Hope


The trick here is the protagonist’s mindset, what she thinks of as possibilities. A shift now occurs. I’ve said that there was no possibility the protagonist was going to get out of this, but what that means is the protagonist can see no way out of her predicament.

The last stop of her journey from darkness to enlightenment is for the protagonist to make a radical—and much needed—change to her worldview.

This is where all the messy touchy-feely stuff, all the character building, the talk of internal goals, scars, and so on, comes into play.

Also, though I haven’t mentioned it (I’ve only been concentrating on the A-Story) this is where the B-Story pays off big-time.

The B-Story


The B-Story is all about—is essentially about—the protagonists inner change. There’s something she is blind to about herself (with Shrek, it was that he was lonely and needed to let people in; both literally (into his swamp) and figuratively.)

The B-Story Hooks Into The A-Story


Here, at the final All Hope Is Lost point, at the very end of this cataclysmic try-fail cycle, we need the scales to fall from the protagonist’s eyes and for her to see things in a new way.

This often leads to the protagonist discovering what I think of as the ‘good trick.’ Since she is no longer deceiving herself, she sees what was right under her nose the whole time! (Or, at least, in a bolt of inspiration thinks of the problem in a new way and devises a new plan.)

Or, perhaps, now she sees the truth about herself, and this epiphany, this revelation, heals her inner wound.

Obviously, what happens now will depend on your story. Sometimes the new plan quickly leads to the final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist, sometimes not. If not, perhaps the group of adventurers needs to re-assemble—or at least the core group. Perhaps one or two of the protagonist’s allies go off on their own mini-quest. If so, these quests will be very short and the focus will still be on the protagonist and her final approach.

I’ll talk about the Final Conflict—the climax of the story—in the next post.

An Example of the All Hope Is Lost Try-Fail Cycles: Edge of Tomorrow


Spoilers ahead! If you haven’t yet watched “Edge of Tomorrow” I would advise you to stop reading now and watch it. It was, hands down, my favorite action flick of 2014. If you haven’t watched it and don’t plan to, here’s a summary of the movie.

Here are what I see as that story’s “All Hope Is Lost” sequences.

1. (Major Setback) Try --> Obstacle --> Fail 


The Major Setback occurs when Cage goes off on his own to confront the Omega (if you haven’t seen the movie, the Omega is the Big Bad and must be killed). At least, that was Cage’s plan. The obstacle was that ... surprise! ... the Omega wasn’t there. Instead of battling the Omega, Cage was ambushed by a couple of mimics who tried their best to kill him permanently. 

Cage escapes, but his failure to find the Omega knocks him and his allies back to square one. He now has no idea how he’s going to locate the Omega. And if he can’t locate the Omega he can’t kill the Omega. And if he doesn’t kill the Omega that will mean curtains for humanity. 

Things are bad.

2. New Plan --> Try --> Obstacle --> *Fail*


One of Cage’s allies tells him about a device that can be used to locate the position of the Omega. The problem is it’s in General Brigham’s office, and the general isn’t about to give it to Cage. Still, what other choice is there? Cage tries to convince the General of the truth of his story. At first it seems he has succeeded. The General gives cage the artifact, but that turns out to be a ruse and Cage and his ally must flee for their lives. While fleeing, Cage uses the device to locate the Omega. 

Unfortunately, Cage is wounded and taken to a hospital where he is given a blood transfusion. As a result, he can’t reset the day anymore. That was the only edge Cage had, that was his superpower.

Things are very bad.

3. New Plan --> Try --> !!!!!**FAIL**!!!!!


Cage comes up with a new plan, it’s the only option left. He convinces his squad to go with him to attack the Omega. After suffering heavy losses—his entire team has died—Cage swims toward the Omega intending to plant an explosive device on it. 

Unfortunately, before he can do this, a Mimic swims up behind him and thrusts one of it’s tentacles through Cage’s chest. Cage lets go of the explosive which drifts down toward the Omega, getting caught up in the thing’s gills. Still, this means nothing. Cage has failed. He didn’t arm the explosive charge before it drifted away. 

Cage has lost, finally, totally, completely. He is moments from death. The woman he loves is dead. All his allies are dead. His plans have failed. Humanity is about to be driven extinct and the Earth stripped of its resources. 

This is the All Is Lost beat. 

A moment before Cage dies he opens his hand revealing several trigger pins and we realize that he has armed the explosive, after all. Cage smiles in triumph and the next moment we see the Omega explode. Cage has won.

All Hope Is Lost: Summary


“Edge of Tomorrow” is just one example of how the All Hope Is Lost sequences were handled (though I think it’s an especially good example), but each story is different. For instance, there don’t always have to be three beats in this sequence. Also, the first beat doesn’t have to be the Major Setback. 

There is no one way of doing this, just like there’s no one right way of telling a story. (“He slept and then she slept,” is a story, though not a riveting one.) 

That’s it for today! Next time we’ll finish up this series and examine the Story Climax. Till then, happy writing, and thanks for reading.

(This blog post was first published on karenwoodward.org under the title: A Three Act Story Structure: Act Three.)

Photo credit: Original photo: "Get Off My Lawn!" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Photo altered by Karen Woodward.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Second Half of Act Two: A Story Structure In Three Acts (Part 3 of 5)

The Second Half of Act Two: A Story Structure In Three Acts (Part 3 of 4)



For the past two posts I’ve been stepping through what I’m calling The Three Act Structure. (Which is slightly misleading since there really is no one three act structure, but I’ve discussed that in my first two posts, so, moving on ...)


Today I’m going to talk about the second half of Act Two, including the Midpoint and Major Setback. In the next post I’ll conclude this series by discussing Act Three. 


Act Two: The Midpoint


As I mentioned in the last post, the protagonist and her allies will often have to journey to the place where the protagonist will confront—or at least make some sort of contact with—the Big Bad. 

Often, though, this contact isn’t of the up-close and personal variety. The protagonist can be tricked and, rather than tackling the Big Bad, is ambushed. 

(Spoiler alert!) At the Midpoint, Cage in “Edge of Tomorrow” thinks he will confront the Omega, the Big Bad, but instead is ambushed by mimics (one could argue that this is actually the first setback in the sequence of setbacks that leads to the dark moment of the soul moment, but it seems more like a delayed Midpoint to me). 

In “Die Hard” John McClane talks to the Big Bad (Hans Gruber) on the telephone. The contest is of wits and John McClane comes away with a better understanding of the situation.

Of course, there are lots movies that have a good old fashioned, no-holds-barred, fight between the protagonist and the Big Bad—or at least the minions of the Big Bad. Often, the spectacular and satisfying part of the midpoint comes before the confrontation with the antagonist. Generally the confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist is less than spectacular.

After all, if the protagonist confronts and defeats the antagonist at the midpoint then, since the antagonist is the force preventing the protagonist from attaining her story goal, the story would be over. 

The Protagonist Goes From Passive To Active


Although it’s a generalization, I’ve found that, before the midpoint, protagonists are often more led by their circumstances—reacting rather than acting—while after the midpoint they are more active. After the midpoint, rather than reacting to the actions of the antagonist they actively pursue the antagonist and his minions.

For example, at the midpoint in “Edge of Tomorrow” Cage turns the corner from frightened newbie to battle-hardened warrior.

A New Understanding


At the Midpoint the protagonist’s understanding of the Special World undergoes a sea change. She understands the antagonist’s goal, his powers, in a new way. Generally this understanding, this lifting of the veil of ignorance, extends to the very nature of the Special World, it’s dangers and potential. The protagonist now has a much better, though likely still imperfect, understanding of how things are done in this strange new place that is fast becoming home. 

For example, in “Edge of Tomorrow” when Cage goes to confront the Omega on his own, he learns that the visions that drew him there were a trap. He and his allies are, in many ways, back at square one. 

Act Two: Part Two (60%)


Regrouping


After the confrontation at the midpoint the protagonist will regroup with her allies. This could be as simple as getting back in touch through the telephone or they could physically meet to reassess the situation and decide where to go from here. If there is a celebration then it’s likely going to be the last feel good moment before the end of the book. 

Use this moment to show the protagonist and the other characters reacting to what’s happening. (This is a sequel.) Highlight disagreements among the group, disagreements that could drive the adventurers apart, handicapping the hero and perhaps even leading one of her allies to betray him.

The Protagonist’s Reaction To The Revelation At The Midpoint: Bigger Stakes


Even though the protagonist has survived her confrontation at the midpoint, she has learned that her assumptions were almost completely wrong. As a result, the old stakes no longer apply. The true stakes, she now knows, are much, much, bigger. 

The protagonist holds firm. There’s a chance. One slim chance. Still, the protagonist hasn’t lost hope. She believes they can do it. (The protagonist might have to be helped into this place of hope by one or more of her allies. If there is a romance, the romantic interest could play a role.)

Act Two: End of Part Two: The Major Setback (75%)


The protagonist and her allies make a plan, they’re going to attempt to achieve the story goal, whatever the cost. Since this point in the story is called the Major Setback you can guess that things aren’t going to work out well; they’re going to fail and fail big. Further, the failure, though not a surprise in itself, should come in a way the audience won’t foresee. Though, looking back, it should make perfect sense.

Before the Major Setback there’s going to be a planning and ‘suiting up’ scene. (After all, your readers need to be clear about what the plan is and all the ways it can go wrong!) 

Further, before the protagonist and her allies go into danger, before they engage with the enemy, we need to spell out the stakes. (Of course, when things go south and the stakes get cashed out, the consequences of failure are going to be worse, much worse, than we thought they would be. I’ll talk more about this in my next post.)

Once the stakes are clear and the plan has been spelled out, the protagonist and her allies—or, often, just the protagonist—travel to the place of confrontation. (BTW, the plan could be as minimal as: Let’s go in, kick ass, get what we came for and leave.) This is similar to what we did before the midpoint, only now the stakes are much bigger and the chance of success much smaller. 

Exactly how the protagonist’s attempt to achieve the story goal fails is, of course, up to you. Often, the protagonist is counting on something or someone. For whatever reason—the person was captured, killed or injured, they turned traitor, or whatever—this person doesn’t come through. Whatever the critical something is, it will fail, and it will fail in a way the protagonist couldn’t have anticipated. (e.g., Cypher in “The Matrix”) 

That’s it! In the next post I’ll conclude this series by looking at Act Three and discussing the All Hope Is Lost moment (or, rather, culminating series of crises that bring the protagonist to her darkest hour) as well as the most exciting scene of the story: The Climax.

Thanks for reading!

This blog post originally appeared on karenwoodward.org under the title: The Second Half of Act Two: A Story Structure In Three Acts (Part 3 of 4).

Photo credit: Original photo: "This Is The Construct" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Alterations by Karen Woodward.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Story Structure In Three Acts: Act Two

A Story Structure In Three Acts: Act Two



In my Last post, I examined Act One of the three act structure. Today, let’s look at Act Two. But, before we get to that, please keep in mind this is only one version. This is how I’ve come to see it. Doubtless, other people have their own way. Use whatever works for you.

I don’t think I’ve read or watched any story that incorporates each and every one of the points I’m discussing. But most genre stories have this basic skeleton: 

1. Call to Adventure (~10%): the protagonist accepts the story goal.

2. First Plot Point (~25%): the protagonist is Locked Into the adventure and enters the Special World.

3. The Midpoint (~50%): Complications and Higher Stakes, confrontation with the antagonist, new information.

4. Major Setback (~75%): Leads to the All Is Lost or Dark Night of the Soul moment.

5. The Climax (~95%): The showdown between the protagonist and the antagonist. The Story Question is answered.

Last time, we talked about the protagonist’s Call to Adventure and her entry into the Special World. Today, I’m going to talk about the first half of Act Two.

Act Two (25%)


As we saw, at the end of Act One the protagonist leaves the Ordinary World, leaves her familiar surroundings, and travels to the Special World of the adventure. We now come to Act Two and The Lock-In.

Plot Point One: The Lock-In


The idea or concept of a plot point was introduced by Syd Field in his eminently readable book, “Screenplay.” It’s the idea of a significant event, a complication, that spins the action of the story around in another direction. There are only two plot points, one at the end of Act One (The Lock-In) and another at the end of Act Two (The Major Setback).  

This complication has the effect of locking the protagonist into her quest. One of my favorite examples of this occurs in the Matrix when Morpheus gives Neo a choice: take the red pill and learn the truth he has been searching for all his life, the truth about the Matrix, or take the blue pill and continue life as before. Whichever choice Neo makes, there’s no going back.  

Act Two: Part One


I think of the Special World of the Adventure as being radically different from the Ordinary World the protagonist has just left. Metaphorically, it’s inside out and upside down (Kansas vs the Land of Oz). In this new environment, the protagonist’s strengths are now weaknesses and what were her weaknesses turn out to be strengths. Also, since the protagonist is radically unfamiliar with the rules of the special world, she doesn’t know how to behave and often acts like a fish out of water (e.g., Luke Skywalker in the Mos Eisley Cantina).

There’s a bit of mirroring here. Many of the things we said of the Ordinary World are also true of the Special World. For instance, the protagonist will often meet new friends as well as make new enemies. 

(Though I’m not going to say much about it, the B-Story often starts now and will involve these new acquaintances. To read more about the A- and B-Story’s I recommend Steven Pressfield’s article: The “A” Story and the “B” Story.)

Another similarity between the Ordinary World and the Special World is that, on entering the Special World, the protagonist will have an initial goal, one that will soon take on new dimensions.

Tests & Trials | Fun & Games


As soon as the protagonist enters the Special World she will begin a series of Tests and Trials, mini adventures which highlight the strangeness of the Special World. Because her strengths are now weaknesses, and vice versa, she will fail quite a lot and in ways she couldn’t have foreseen. 

As the protagonist goes through her Tests and Trials she’ll often receive aid and advice from her new friends and be hindered by her new enemies.

Tests and Trials are often also a time of Fun and Games, a time of bonding through adversity. Through the period of Tests and Trials it may seem as though the protagonist looses sight of their story goal (and that’s fine, as long as the writer hasn’t). This is a time of bonding and—for the writer—of character building.

Often, at the tail end of Tests and Trials the protagonist has her first big success. For the first time she triumphs over her tormenters. There’s a brief celebration then, suddenly, the Big Bad rears his head.

Pinch Point One


Though not every story has pinch points, there are often two such points in a story. Pinch points bring the focus back onto the antagonist and his goal. We are once again reminded of the stakes and of how truly awful this could turn out for the protagonist and her allies.

The first pinch point ends the Tests and Trials as well as the Fun and Games; it reminds the hero why he is in the Special World.

The Plan


As a response to the protagonist’s increased awareness of the danger she and her allies are in, as well as the ticking clock that the antagonist’s appearance has either set off or reminded us of, the protagonist and her allies devise a plan to press through and achieve the story goal. 

(By the way, the pinch point doesn’t have to involve the antagonist directly, it could feature a minion of the antagonist, or perhaps simply show us the destruction the antagonist is capable of.)

The antagonist and her allies come up with a plan, a way to end the antagonist’s tyranny and achieve the story goal. Sure, the protagonist hasn’t done all that well yet in the Special World, but she has no choice but to continue, not if she wishes to achieve her goal and save both herself and those important to her.

At this point there’s often a group moment, perhaps even a romantic interlude between the protagonist and someone special. This is a time of bonding before the group makes the dangerous journey to the place of confrontation.

That’s what I’ll talk about next time! Till then, good writing and thanks for reading.

(This post was first published on karenwoodward.org as: A Story Structure In Three Acts: Act Two.)

Photo credit: Original photo: "Catwoman Light" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Photo altered by Karen Woodward.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Story Structure In Three Acts

A Story Structure In Three Acts



I’ve just finished a string of posts on the topic of critical reading (Writing A Critique: Reading Critically). While I was writing that series I got to thinking (again!) about the structure of genre stories.

Genre Stories


There are so many genres and sub-genres, the mind boggles at the thought of listing them all. But I wondered: What are the top-level genres? 

I don’t think there’s one canonical list of top-level genres. For example, some lists have thrillers as a sub-genre of crime while others hold that they are a genre all their own. It varies depending on the person who draws up the list as well as when it’s drawn up.

Here are what I think of as the top-level genre:

Action, Comedy, Family, Horror, Romance, Sport, War, Adventure, Crime, Fantasy, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller, Western. 

All of these have sub-genre. For example, in the romance genre we find: Historical romance, contemporary romance, regency romance, time travel romance, romantic suspense, paranormal romance, spicy romance, and I’m sure there are many, many, more. 

Each genre and sub-genre will have it’s own particular structure, it’s own conventions. Ideally, any post on story structure would look in some detail at each genre noting the unique aspects of each.

I’m not going to do that here. Though, at various times, I have discussed the genre requirements of mystery and horror, and I have puzzled over the essential difference between mysteries and thrillers.

So, rather than look at how each of these genre differs from every other—I’ll leave that for you—I’ll examine what they each have in common.

The Three Act Structure


What I’m calling the Three Act Structure forms the structural skeleton of the overwhelming majority of genre stories. 

But, honestly, I think that with a few minor adjustments we could just as easily think of this structure as the Four Act Structure. Simply treat the first and second halves of Act Two as acts unto themselves, rather than as two halves of a whole. (See: A Four Act Structure

Act One: The Ordinary World


I think that the beginning of a story is the most complicated. It’s where we set everything up. It’s a bit like dominoes. You set them up in a certain way, in certain patterns, and then let them fall. Or like train tracks. You set the tracks up in a certain way, a certain configuration, and then release the train. Or, to completely change metaphors, if we plant an acorn an oak will grow. Not a willow or a birch. An oak. 

That’s like a story. In the beginning we introduce the protagonist and show you her strengths and weaknesses, her deepest desires as well as her scars. Then we put her through the fires of adversity. By no means are her actions predetermined, but we are giving the story a definite direction. We’re giving the reader certain expectations. 

And that all happens in the first few pages!

Introduce The Protagonist Early And In Action

We’re often admonished to introduce the protagonist at the earliest possible moment—on the first page if not the first line. And it’s excellent advice. After all, the protagonist is who we want our readers to bond with, to care about and identify with. 

Further, how we introduce the protagonist is important. We should, we’re told, introduce her in action (see: Jim Butcher’s Livejournal). This puzzled me at first. Why? I wondered. What’s so great about action? But action, generally, implies a goal. A temporary one, sure, but a goal nonetheless. 

A baker, red in the face, is running out the door of his shop. Why? Well, he’s running after a shoplifter, or the shipment he’s just received is for the wrong thing, and he wants to grab the delivery people before they drive off. Or ... well, you get the idea. 

Action implies a goal, it makes the reader ask: why. And that’s a powerful hook. Further, we can see (show vs tell) that the goal is important to the protagonist in that moment. 

(Note: The protagonist doesn’t have to be tackling shoplifters! As long as they’re doing something: stuffing envelopes, chatting with a friend or lamenting the number of calories in a Bavarian Creme Donut.)

But we’re not done. The action should also tell the reader something important, something significant,∂ about the protagonist. I won’t ramble on about tags and traits in this post (I’ve written about them here and here) but the action the protagonist takes at the beginning of the story should tell us something significant about them, about the character’s essence.

And all right at the beginning of the story! 

Once all that is established I think stories are much easier to write, so I think the extra effort at the beginning is worth it—not to mention that it will increase the chances a reader will want to keep reading.

Introduce Your Cast of Characters

In the remainder of Act One we introduce all the significant characters. Anyone, that is, whose goals are important to the protagonist achieving her goal. 

It will occasionally happen that a significant character will be introduced in the first part of Act Two. In this case, it’s a good idea to, if possible, foreshadow the arrival of the character in Act One. (But, that said, do whatever works for the story.)

Call to Adventure

Also in Act One, the protagonist accepts the Call to Adventure and takes on the challenge that will occupy her till the Final Confrontation at the end of the story. Let’s call this goal her story goal. This goal defines the protagonist’s arc and becomes the story’s backbone, tying all the other character arcs to itself. (Example: Shrek)

The protagonist doesn’t always accept the Call to Adventure. Often she rejects the Call and must be talked into it, often by a mentor. If a mentor is involved they may give the protagonist something that will aid her on her journey. For example, in Star Wars IV, Obi-Wan Kenobi gives Luke his father’s lightsaber.

Next time I’ll talk about Act Two. Thanks for reading!

Update: This post turned into a five part series. Here are links to the rest of the posts:

1. A Story Structure in Three Acts
2. A Story Structure in Three Acts: Act Two
3. A Story Structure In Three Acts: The Second Half of Act Two
4. A Three Act Story Structure: Act Three
5. A Three Act Story Structure: The Final Conflict

Photo credit: "The Counter-Claus Caper 2014" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. (I have altered the photo somewhat.)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

How I Write A Critique




The Critique

To recap: There are two parts or stages to writing a critique. The first part—what I’ve been talking about the past few posts (see here, here and here)—is all about studying it, reading it critically.

Today I’m going to concentrate on taking the information we’ve collected through a critical reading of the story and arranging it, writing it up and presenting our views, our opinions, to the writer.

After I finish taking all these notes, after I finish asking myself all these questions about the text I’m reading, I’ll end up with rather a long document. I do not pass along all this information along to the writer! For one thing, it would overwhelm them.

The Audience for a Critique

Let’s step back a moment and talk about the tone of a critique. 

When writing a critique, I think it’s important to ask oneself the question: What sort of a story is this and, given this, what sort of critique would the author appreciate?

In a way, critiquing is no different than any other kind of writing, it’s just that with a critique your audience has been whittled down to one. In this sense a critique is very personal. It is like a letter, a passing of thoughts and feelings between two people.

One thing I attempt to always keep in mind is that, really, I (as the critiquer) have it easy in this exchange. I’m not exposed. It’s the writer who has, metaphorically speaking, just stripped themselves naked.

In this sort of situation the writer is often going to be sensitive—especially if they’re new or if this is your first time critiquing their work. (Often it is helpful if you can chat with the writer beforehand and find out what kind of critique they are looking for.)

Critique vs Review

One thing I want to make clear from the outset is that a critique—at least, how I use the term—is a very different creature from a review.

A review, first of all, is primarily for potential readers of the story. A critique, as I’ve said above, is only for one person: the writer of the story.

Although a review may be read by the author of the work in question, it isn’t written for the author, it is written for folks who are wondering whether they would enjoy reading the story. As such, the reviewer has a responsibility to—if I may put it like this—call it as they see it. They have zero obligation to think of the authors feelings. 

In what follows I’m writing about a critique, not a review. I’m going to focus on writing a critique a writer would like to get. Such a critique, IMHO, is tactful and presents both praise and criticisms as opinions as opposed to the universal voice of truth. After all, the only way one’s observations will do the writer any good is if they are accepted, and no one is likely to accept a truth offered in an insulting manner. 

Okay, enough preliminaries!

The Anatomy of a Critique

Just as there is no right way to write a story there is no one right way to write a critique. What I’m going to share with you is how I do things. That said, I haven’t yet gotten into any fist-fights with writers. So! Onward.

Begin with a general impression.

It depends upon the depth of my critique, but I’ll usually (critically) read the story through once and then open with an overall, general, impression. If, overall, I loved the story—if I thought it was a good read—I’ll tell the writer this. 

Even if the story wasn’t to my liking, I’ll find something positive to say. Perhaps I liked the dialogue of one (or more) of the characters, perhaps one of the descriptions was particularly vivid, perhaps one or more of the try-fail cycles were clever. Perhaps I liked how the stakes built throughout the story. Perhaps I liked the overall structure of the story. Perhaps I found one or more of the characters interesting. 

(Of course liking is not required when it comes to characters. For instance, I thought Andrew Scott’s portrayal of Moriarty on the TV series “Sherlock” was wonderful. Brilliant! But I didn’t like the character.)

For myself, when I can’t find anything laudatory about a story after a first pass, I look deeper. There’s always something, even if it is simply the writer’s enthusiasm. That said—and this has never yet happened—if I really can find nothing to put in the “I liked this!” column, I wouldn’t send the writer my critique.

The Body of a Critique

As I said, I’ll begin the critique with my general, overall, take on the story. I’ll begin by drawing attention to something I liked and then give a succinct one line summary of how I felt about the story as a whole. After that I’ll present a ...

Line by Line Critique

As I read through the story I’ll comment on parts I thought were exceptionally well done or, depending on the genre, I’ll mention what a certain clue makes me think about how the story will turn out. It depends on how in-depth the critique is going to be. If a friend wants a quick evaluation and his/her manuscript is pretty clean (no awkward bits, etc.), I’ll often skip this step.

I will also flag any text that struck me as awkward. If I didn’t understand something because the sentence was mangled or because the idea the sentence expressed didn’t seem to fit with what came before, I’ll indicate this.

Generally speaking, I’ll flag sections of the text:

- that I liked, 
- that seemed awkward or confusing, as well as 
- places where I lost interest. 

The End of A Critique

I’ll close a critique with a more general analysis of the story. I’ll mention details of scenes or characters, or perhaps of the general structure, that didn’t (or did!) work for me. 

- Were there inconsistencies in characterization? Was one character’s hair red in one scene and black in another? 

- Were any of the characters underdeveloped or boring?

- Were the character’s goals clear? Were the stakes clear?

And so on. (Since I’ve explored these questions in my previous posts—see the links I gave in the first paragraph of this article—I won’t repeat them here.)

I think the number one thing to keep in mind is what the writer was trying to do. Were they attempting to write a genre piece? If so, then it’s both appropriate and helpful to point out if and where the story departed from what a reader of that genre would expect. 

For instance, a murder mystery that doesn’t unmask the culprit at the end would generate quite a bit of ire on the part of mystery buffs. Also, if the story deviates from something like the three act structureand this negatively affects the story—it might be something to mention.

End Thoughts

I always open a critique with something positive and close with something positive. 

Beyond that, I usually try and focus on three things I thought the writer did well and three things I thought could, perhaps, be improved upon. Or, if I am writing a very short critique, I will confine myself to giving one thing I thought the writer did well and one thing I thought could use improvement. 

In this series I’ve written exclusively about genre stories. But, often, a writer just wants to write a story. They don’t have anything particular in mind and they aren’t planning on publishing anything. They wrote their tale for their own edification and no one other than their family and friends will ever see it. 

In this case there are no rules. What this person has written is a work of art (which isn’t to say anything about the skill with which the story was rendered). If I were asked to critique a story like this I would talk about what thoughts and feelings the language evoked in me; I would talk about whether I found the ending satisfying, and so on. 

That’s it! I hope you found something I’ve rambled on about useful. In any case, thanks for reading.

Question: How do you write a critique? Do you have a tip to pass along? 

This blog post, How I Write A Critique, first appeared on KarenWoodward.org.

Photo credit: Wikipedia.com.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Reading Critically: Try-Fail Cycles (Part 3 of 3)

Reading Critically: Try-Fail Cycles (Part 3 of 3)


Today I’m going to finish up the critical reading portion of these posts. We’ll finish examining the anatomy of a scene by taking a look at try-fail cycles. Then we’ll look at an alternative to try-fail cycles. Finally, we’ll take the briefest of peeks at backstory and setting. And that’s it! 

The first post in this series: Reading Critically
The second post in this series: Reading Scenes Critically

In my next post I’ll talk about how to write a useful critique that a writer would like to receive.

Onward!

Scene Level Analysis: Try-Fail Cycles


I had this part of my post written and then, yesterday, came across a talk Jim Butcher gave in 2013 for the Space City Con. (part 1 is here, part 2 is here.) JB talks for less than half an hour at the beginning of each part, the rest is Q & A. Part 1 is about scenes, part 2, sequels. It’s great stuff, I highly recommend it. 

One thing JB talks about, and something you’ll come across in almost every scene—at least in genre novels—is the try-fail cycle. After all, it would be pretty boring for readers if the protagonist had a goal, there was some sort of opposition to this goal and then the protagonist either gave up or achieved the goal. 

At the beginning of the cycle, the protagonist tries to surmount the obstacle. Usually, her first attempt fails, as does the second. The third will either fail completely, partially succeed or completely succeed. But, whatever the outcome, the third attempt should be different. (Heidi Tighe has written a wonderful blog post on this, so—if you’d like to read about a great example of try-fail cycles from Breaking Bad—go check out her post: Four Elements of a Try-Fail Cycle.)

But that leaves us with a question. At the very end of the scene—that very last try—should the protagonist succeed or fail? Actually, there are four possibilities to choose from:

a. Total Failure: Does the protagonist achieve their scene goal? No!


This is a great way to end a scene! In the sequel we would then cash out the stakes and show the negative consequences for both the hero and those who were important to her. Then she would have to scrape herself off the floor (perhaps with the help of friends and allies), formulate a new plan and try again.

One of the most common pieces of advice offered to writers is to throw as much trouble as possible at the protagonist—and then triple it! Why? Because the way the protagonist reacts to adversity will show us who she is. It will skin her like an onion, showing readers the layers of her personality. It will (changing metaphors) whittle her down to her essence. Want to know who a person is? What they’re really like? Look at how they preform under pressure, when everything is going wrong. 

b. Total Failure with complications: Does the protagonist achieve her goal? No! AND there is a messy complication.


Everything we’ve said about (a) holds true here, but we pile even more trouble on the hero. Not only did his final attempt fail, but now it will be more difficult for him to reach his goal.

c. Success: Yes! The protagonist achieves her goal.


The hero achieves her scene goal. Often when this happens (unless it is the final scene in the book) it turns out that achieving the scene goal doesn’t get her closer to her story goal—although she had every reason to think it would!

For example, let’s say our protagonist found a way to overcome her allergy to the rejuvenating cream (this continues my example from last time). At the end of the scene her skin glows with youthful vitality. In the next scene, when she gets to the audition, she discovers that the modeling agency wants a more mature looking model, so her youthful glow actually works against her. Once again, the goal of her securing a modeling contract is in jeopardy AND now she has next to no time to fix matters, thus ratcheting up the tension.

d. Partial Success: Yes! The protagonist achieves her goal, BUT there is a messy complication.


The hero achieves part of her goal. She achieves something but also experiences a disaster. 

This can work fine as well. After all, it makes sense that a price must be paid for success. It makes sense that one can’t get something without first giving up something. I’ve written two articles on this, if you’d like to read more about try-fail cycles:


Questions to think about when reading critically:


- How does the main character of the scene attempt to surmount each obstacle put in front of her?

- Do the stakes build throughout the scene?

- Does the character’s success or failure connect up to the scene goal?

Questions to think about when writing a critique:


- Not all scenes have try-fail cycles, but if a scene does, was each iteration clear? By which I mean, was it clear what the obstacle was, how the character tried to overcome it, why they failed, why they tried again (as well as why they tried again the way they did), and so on.

- I mentioned this before, but I think it bears repeating: Is there a clear resolution to the scene as a whole? At the end of the scene is it clear whether the character has attained their scene goal? (Note: Some scenes can end on a cliffhanger. This occurs when a scene ends just before we know the answer to the scene question. Of course that’s fine. Everything will be cashed out, it’s just that the cashing out will be delayed.)

- Is it clear how the scene goal connects to the story goal?

- When the character doesn’t achieve her goal, are the stakes worse than she thought? (They don’t always have to be, but the stakes should gradually increase throughout the story.)

Alternatives To Try-Fail Cycles


The try-fail cycle isn’t all there is. As Orson Scott Card points out, there are other ways of progressing through a scene. (See: Uncle Orson's Writing Class: Novel Length: August 2, 2000.)

a. The Conflicting Objectives Cycle.


Conflicting objectives are “Things that are worth doing, that need doing, which sidetrack the characters and distract them from their quest.”

b. The ‘This Can’t Happen!’ Trick


 OSC writes: “Then there's the This Can't Happen trick (Gandalf dies?) that ‘changes everything’ and causes the group to reconfigure (again, some of them being distracted as they go off on sub-quests).”

c. Unequal Commitments


Not every character is going to be equally committed to the story goal. And that’s as it should be. “[Y]ou need characters who are not equally committed to the main quest (think Boromir) or who have other quests that only they can perform (think Aragorn).”

d. The Protagonist’s Conflicting Emotions About The Quest


Even the protagonist is going to, occasionally, have his doubts. He’s going to have “conflicting feelings about having undertaken the quest in the first place, and about putting other people's lives at risk. (I'll go off by myself, says Frodo, because this way I'm only bringing destruction down on myself [Actually, this was deeply stupid, since the friends were his main hope of avoiding being killed by the ring-wraiths; but Tolkien made it all come out anyway <grin>].)”

Alternatives to try fail cycles: something to keep in mind:


OSC cautions that the thing to keep in mind, here, is that whatever you do has to advance the story (in other words, whatever you do “to make us care more or worry more about the characters”) it has to arise “out of who they are” and it must eventually transform them.

Other Elements: Backstory


The goal in introducing backstory is to:

a. Give backstory only when the reader needs to learn the backstory. The trick here is to make the reader want to learn the backstory.

b. Give as little backstory as possible. That is, give only as much as will make the scene intelligible. Ruthlessly cut the excess.

- Is this true of the book/manuscript you’re reading? Are you showered with details you don’t need to know or, alternatively, do you often feel that a character’s behavior lacks motivation?

Other Elements: Setting


Is the setting interesting? Memorable? Is it unusual, exciting, exotic?

A Bird’s Eye View: How Do The Scenes Fit Together?


After I finish reading a story, I’ll spread my notes out on my desk (this includes my notes on each scene). Then I’ll look at how the scenes fit together.

- Do the stakes continually increase from scene to scene?

- Are the stakes interesting? The stakes will be interesting if they connect to a character’s deepest desires as well as their emotional scars/vulnerabilities. This works especially well if the character’s vulnerabilities are similar to the readers vulnerabilities.

- Are the scene goals connected to the story goal? (I mentioned this earlier, but I thought I’d list it here as well since it is very important.)

That’s it for reading critically! Next time I’ll talk about how to write a critique a writer would be happy to receive.

Photo credit: Karen Woodward.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Reading Scenes Critically

Reading Scenes Critically



Today I continue my two part series on reading critically. I had hoped to wrap things up today, but that’s not going to happen! Last time we talked about two levels of textual analysis, macro and micro: the story and the scene. Today let’s continue discussing scenes and what to look for. Let’s dive in.

Scene Level Analysis: Character’s Goals


Each significant character in a scene will have a goal and each goal will have stakes attached. That is, each scene will make clear what will happen if the protagonist achieves her goal and what will happen if she doesn’t.

Further, these consequences should be real-world consequences—concrete rather than abstract. We need to see and feel what happens to the character as a result of her emotional reactions, her decisions and actions. Also, these consequences shouldn’t just affect the protagonist, they should also affect those she cares about, those she feels responsible for.  

(Of course, in the beginning of the story the consequences may only affect the protagonist. After all, if everyone she ever cared about is affected right at the beginning there’s nowhere to go! The stakes should grow over the course of a story, so it’s fine to start small.)

Note regarding scenes and sequels:


In this article I’m concentrating on scenes rather than sequels but since I just discussed stakes let me make one comment. Often one uses a sequel to show the stakes being cashed out, to show how both the protagonist’s life, and possibly the lives of those he cares about, have been changed. (For more on sequels see: The Importance of Sequels and The Structure of Sequels.)

Scene Level Analysis: Character’s Motivation


Imagine that a character, Xan, is in a rowboat fleeing from a man-eating shark. He’s rowing to the shore, really putting his back into it, sweat soaking his clothes. In this scenario the shark (and accompanying bloody loss of life) is Xan’s motivation to reach his goal, which is the shore.

- In your scene, what motivates the main character’s action?

- What is the main character’s goal? Where are they headed?

- What obstacle (or obstacles) oppose the main character achieving his/her goal?

In my example, Xan was fatigued, worn out. That’s an obstacle to him reaching the shore. Or we could make the obstacle a bit more solid and have him hit a reef, one that shatters his rowboat. The possibilities are only limited by one’s imagination. 

Scene Level Analysis: The Antagonistic force


The antagonistic force is something that conflicts with, or opposes, the protagonist. This force can be a person, a place, a thing, an idea, or mental state. Further, if the antagonistic force is a person, then that persons’ goal must oppose the protagonist’s story goal such that if the protagonist achieves her goal then the antagonist cannot, and vice versa. 

In the example, above, the antagonistic force was a shark. Why? Because it opposed Xan’s goal of reaching the shore and because their goals were mutually exclusive. Xan’s fatigue and the reef are obstacles. Even though they weren’t placed there by the shark, they aided it in foiling the protagonist’s plans.

Obstacle vs Antagonist. One might wonder what makes one thing an obstacle and another an antagonist. It’s a good question; I think it largely depends on the context. In my example, above, if there had been no shark I might have thought of the reef as an antagonistic force rather than simply an obstacle. To my mind, antagonists tend to have agency, or we tend to attribute agency to them. Obstacles tend to be physical and specific. 

The Local Antagonistic Force


The Big Bad of a story is the protagonist’s ultimate opposition, but the Big Bad won’t be in every scene. However, the protagonist’s attempt to achieve his goal should be opposed in every scene. 

Let’s call this scene-specific opposition the local antagonistic force. For example, the protagonist could want to try out the latest in anti-aging creams so she can win a modeling contract (the story goal), but she can’t because she’s allergic. If she puts the cream on, her skin will become red and scaly. 

In this example her allergy is the (local) antagonistic force that prevents her from achieving her goal. The Big Bad of the story, on the other hand, could be another model she’s competing with for the modeling contract, one who will do whatever it takes to succeed. 

Questions To Ask When Reading A Scene Critically


Drawing upon all that we’ve said, here are a few questions to ask when reading a scene critically:

- Who is the main character of the scene?
- What is the main character’s goal?
- What are the stakes? What will happen if the main character achieves his/her goal? What will happen if he/she doesn’t?
- What is the antagonistic force in this scene? That is, who or what prevents the main character of the scene from achieving his/her goal?
- What are the concrete obstacles put in the protagonist’s way?
- How does the protagonist try to defeat these obstacles?
- Is the protagonist successful?

Here are a few points to consider when formulating a critique:

- Was it clear who the main character was?
- Was the main character’s goal clear?
- Were the stakes clear?
- Was it clear who or what was the local antagonistic force? That is, who or what opposed the main character in the achievement of his/her goal?
- Was it clear what obstacles were thrown in the character’s way and was it clear how these items (events, etc.) could prevent the main character of achieving his/her scene goal?
- Was it clear how the character dealt with these obstacles? Did he/she triumph against them or did they defeat him/her? (I’ll talk more about this next time.)
- At the end of the scene, was it clear whether he/she achieved his/her scene goal or not?

A Caveat


I’ll talk more about this when I discuss how to sift through this mass of information and use it to write a critique. But I want to stress that the questions I’ve shared, above, are only meant as an aid in reading critically. 

There are no rules. Stories don’t have to have try-fail cycles. Characters don’t have to have clear-cut goals. Actually, let me take that back. There are two hard-and-fast rules when it comes to writing: To be a writer, you must read. To be a writer, you must write. And that’s it.

With that out of the way, let me say that the stories I had in mind while writing these articles were genre stories. Generally speaking, readers have more expectations when it comes to genre stories than they do for literary ones (though I admit that the dividing line between genre and literature can be blurry at times).

What I’m saying is: Please do feel free to put everything I’ve written aside, read a story, and respond from your gut. Your heart. I’ve written these posts because ... well, I know that, for myself, I often would appreciate a framework. 

This is especially so when I feel that there’s something wrong with the story but I just can’t put my finger on it. In those cases, sometimes it helps to do a deep reading of the material while keeping questions—questions such as the ones I’ve raised here—in mind.

That’s it for today! I had hoped to finish talking about critical reading today, but I’d like to cover try-fail cycles. Also, I want to touch on both backstory and setting. I’ll pick this up again on Wednesday. 

Till then, just write!

Photo credit: I took this picture!