Saturday, March 28, 2015

Part 2: NEED - The Protagonist WANTS Something

Part 2: NEED - The Protagonist WANTS Something

Dan Harmon On Story Structure


In Part 1 (YOU) everything was hunky-dory. Even if things weren’t perfect, the protagonist was comfortable. Then something happens to the protagonist’s Ordinary World and knocks it off-kilter. 

Now the protagonist is uncomfortable; now they have a NEED. Harmon writes:

“If this is a story about a war between Earth and Mars, this is a good time to show those Martian ships heading toward our peaceful planet. On the other hand, if this is a romantic comedy, maybe our heroine is at dinner, on a bad blind date.” (Story Structure 104)

“This is where a character might wonder out loud, or with facial expressions, why he can’t be cooler, or richer, or faster, or a better lover. This wish will be granted in ways that character couldn’t have expected.” (Story Structure 104)

Call To Adventure


This is where the protagonist receives the Call to Adventure. The Call can be about something internal (“I wish I was the life of the party”) or external (“I want to rescue the Ark” or “I want to discover the true nature of reality”).

Harmon writes:

“[...] a more literal, exterior “Call to Adventure” could come in, at the hands of a mysterious messenger, explaining to a dry cleaner that he has been drafted by the CIA.”

Often action movies have an external call to adventure. In the movie, The Edge of Tomorrow, the protagonist, Cage, discovers that the upcoming battle is a trap. If it occurs the aliens (Mimics) will win a resounding victory and the human resistance will be crushed. Cage’s need is to stop the battle from happening.

Refusal of the Call


The protagonist often Refuses The Call. Just because his life is complicated, this doesn’t mean he wants to participate in a high stakes adventure. His world may have problems, but at least they’re familiar problems. The devil you know.

The Refusal of the Call is something the audience understands. Why? Because, as Dan Harmon says, it’s all a part of the pattern, of playing out the rhythm. “We’re all scared of change.”

That’s it! I’ll be back with Part 3 (GO) next week.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Part 1: Create A Protagonist Audiences Will Relate To

Step 1: Create A Protagonist Audiences Will Relate To

Dan Harmon On Story Structure


Yesterday I introduced the bare bones of Dan Harmon’s story model:

When YOU have a NEED you GO somewhere, SEARCH for it, FIND it, TAKE it, then RETURN and things CHANGE. 

Yes, I wrote about this yesterday, but thought it would be helpful to reproduce the structural overview again and in more detail. All this is basically verbatim from Dan Harmon’s article, Story Structure 103)

1. A character in a zone of comfort (YOU)
2. The character WANTS/NEEDS something.
3. The character GOes to, enters, an unfamiliar situation.
4. While SEARCHing for what they want, the character adapts to the new situation.
5. The character FINDs (at least a part of) what they were searching for, what they wanted/needed.
6. The character TAKEs it and pays the price.
7. The character takes their prize and RETURNs to the Ordinary World, to the place they began their journey.
8. The character, who is himself changed, can now CHANGE the Ordinary World.

Why Story Structure Is Important


Dan Harmon believes that “a story has to contain certain elements, in a certain order, before the audience will even recognize it as a story.” He believes that “our society, each human mind within it and all of life itself has a rhythm, and when you play that rhythm, it resonates.” (Story Structure 102)

Cyclic patterns such as death swallowing life and life emerging, Phoenix-like, out of death. Patterns such as the contents of consciousness falling away, sinking into unconsciousness, then emerging, transformed. Patterns such as order crumbling into chaos and chaos receding, yielding, to order. The one feeds the other, depends on the other.  

Dan Harmon writes:

“Whereas the health of an individual depends on the ego’s regular descent and return from the unconscious, a society’s longevity depends on actual people journeying into the unknown and returning with ideas.

“In their most dramatic, revolutionary form, these people are called heroes, but every day, society is replenished by millions of people diving into darkness and emerging with something new (or forgotten): scientists, painters, teachers, dancers, actors, priests, athletes, architects and most importantly, me, Dan Harmon.” (Story Structure 102)

Story Resonance


“Now you understand that all life, including the human mind and the communities we create, marches to the same, very specific beat. If your story also marches to this beat—whether your story is the great American novel or a fart joke—it will resonate. It will send your audience's ego on a brief trip to the unconscious and back. Your audience has an instinctive taste for that, and they're going to say ‘yum.’” (Story Structure 102)

Sorry for all the quotations, but I wanted to establish WHY story structure is important. I’ve read other people on this issue, but have found Dan Harmon’s explanation the most persuasive. 

Now let’s examine the structure itself.

1. YOU - Establish A Protagonist - Pity


A writer needs to give their audience a place to land. Dan Harmon writes:

“[...] if we are not inside a character, then we are not inside the story.” (Story Structure 104)

Agreed. Stephen King is brilliant at this. If you doubt me, read the first few paragraphs of “The Shining.” The real question is, how is it accomplished?

For the big and little screens it seems relatively easy: show them a character. Dan Harmon writes:

“You’d have to go out of your way to keep the audience from imprinting on them. It could be a raccoon, a homeless man or the President. Just fade in on them and we are them until we have a better choice.” (Story Structure 104)

But what about writers? Is it as simple as writing, “So there was this guy, see, and ...”? 

Yes and no. Harmon writes that an audience will relate to a character that evokes pity. He writes:

“Fade in on a raccoon being chased by a bear, we are the raccoon. Fade in on a room full of ambassadors. The President walks in and trips on the carpet. We are the President. When you feel sorry for someone, you’re using the same part of your brain as you use to identify with them.” (Story Structure 104)

I’ll be honest, that took me off-guard. I was ready for Harmon to say something about the character’s goal being just, or them being skilled at something. But pity ... I wasn’t expecting that.

 Though, thinking about “Community” and movies like “Die Hard” or even “The Princess Bride,” it fits. Just about every character I’ve strongly identified with has a flaw, often a deep one. But I hadn’t thought of the flaw in those terms, as connecting the character to the audience by invoking pity. Brilliant!

Creating A Character Your Audience Can Relate To: Have Them Do What The Audience Would


Here’s Dan Harmon’s advice: Have your protagonist always do what the audience would do. He writes:

“The easiest thing to do is fade in on a character that always does what the audience would do. He can be an assassin, he can be a raccoon, he can be a parasite living in the raccoon's liver, but have him do what the audience might do if they were in the same situation. In Die Hard, we fade in on John McClane, a passenger on an airplane who doesn't like to fly.” (Story Structure 104)

Caution: Switch Perspectives As Little As Possible


But there is a limit. Harmon warns:

“Like anything adhesive, our sense of identity weakens a little every time it’s switched or tested. The longer it’s been stuck on someone the more jarring it’s going to be to yank it away and stick it on someone else.” (Story Structure 104)

Introduce the protagonist early and make them the focus of the story.

That’s it! My next post will be about the second part of Dan Harmon’s story structure, the character’s NEED. See you then and good writing!

Original Photo: Curious Raccoon

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Dan Harmon On Story Structure

Dan Harmon On Story Structure

Yesterday a friend sent me a link to Dan Harmon’s series of articles on story structure. I had no idea Harmon was passionate about story structure, though I should have guessed. 

In this article I barely brush the surface of what Harmon has to say, so I will be returning to this material in future articles. Or at least that’s the plan (knock on wood).

Here are the links to DH’s articles:


Dan Harmon’s Story Model


Dan Harmon’s story model, his story structure, really isn’t his. He tells us this up front. He got it from Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. He got it from Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey. He got it from Syd Field’s book, The Screenwriter’s Workbook.

And those are useful books. I know, I’ve read them. Yes, okay, I read Joseph Campbell’s book a couple of decades ago and there was some head-scratching involved, but still. I say this because even though I’ve probably read most of the books on writing DH has, his way of looking at story structure is unique. Reading his articles gave me a new perspective on story, and that’s exciting! 

Dan Harmon’s talk of rhythms, of drawing one’s audiences’ attention to certain patterns, gave me an ‘Ah ha!’ moment, a realization about something that had puzzled me: How to think of the gap between the Midpoint and the All Hope Is Lost beat. For some reason, that particular stretch of story, bridging it, was a bit of a desert trek for me. 

I’ll talk more about that when we get there. For now, let’s take a barest of bones look at Dan Harmon’s story model:

When YOU have a NEED you GO somewhere SEARCH for it, FIND it, TAKE it, then RETURN and things CHANGE. 

Or, even more simply, “YOU NEED to GO SEARCH, FIND, TAKE and RETURN with CHANGE.” (SS 103)

Too condensed? Here it is stretched out over the eight stages:

1. When YOU
2. have a NEED,
3. you GO somewhere,
4. SEARCH for it,
5. FIND it,
6. TAKE it,
7. then RETURN
8. and CHANGE things.


The Barest of Bones


It’s going to sound odd, but I suggest you read Dan Harmon’s last article (SS 106) first since it gives a nice, if dense, summary of his system. It’s a kind of whirlwind tour of his 8 steps. Do it now. Here’s the link: Story Structure 106: Five Minute Pilots.

Back? Good!

What I want to do today is, rather than apply this structure to a 5 minute video (as Harmon does), apply it to a 4,000 word short story. 

Ready? Let’s go! (Keep in mind that this is the condensed version)

1. Ordinary World


Here is where you establish both the protagonist (YOU) and the protagonist’s NEED. 

The protagonist is comfortable in the Ordinary World, or at least he thinks he is. But, nevertheless, he wants/needs/desires something. Next, begin to change his circumstances and unleash the Call to Adventure.

2. Enter The Special World of the Adventure


Because of his need, the protagonist enters (GO) a new, unfamiliar, situation. While SEARCHING for what he wants, he adapts to this new situation.

The character FINDs what they were searching for.

3. Paying The Price


The character claims their prize (TAKE) and pays a price. Their mission accomplished, the protagonist begins the long trek back home (RETURN). 

The Big Bad rallies his strength and chases after the protagonist. When the two meet we have the final confrontation that decides whether the protagonist will return to his community with whatever he has taken. (Note: this doesn’t have to be an object.)

4. The Return


Show how the protagonist’s circumstances have CHANGEd as a result of their adventure. This is where the stakes get cashed out and we see how the journey, the adventure, has changed not only the life of the protagonist but the lives of everyone around him.

That’s the barest of bones. When I pick this subject up again, I’ll begin at the beginning and take an in-depth look at the first link in the chain: 1. YOU.

By the way, DH stresses that not every single stage must be explicitly present in every story. Sometimes (often) a story will condense one or more of the stages due to time or space constraints. After all, if we couldn’t do this then I’m not sure if we’d have many truly “short” stories anymore. Having said that, the order of the stages is important.

The Fractal Nature of Story Structure


I’d like to mention something I’ve been thinking a great deal about recently, the fractal nature of story structure. That is, each part of a story can mirror the structure of the entire story.

To put it another way, just as DH’s eight stages describe an entire story they can also describe a chapter or a scene or a paragraph. For example, here’s Dan Harmon’s story about "the guy whose soda turned out to contain poison”:

“(2.1) The guy [you]
(2.2) Makes a stink face [need]
(2.3) Starts inspecting the soda can [go]
(2.4) Runs finger over ingredients [search]
(2.5) Finds "poison" in ingredients [find]
(2.6) Chokes [take]
(2.7) Falls down [return]
(2.8) Dead [change]” (SS 106)

That’s it for today. Have a terrific rest of the week. If the mood strikes, try using Dan Harmon’s story structure to write a Dabble

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Rewriting Is The Essence Of Good Writing


We’ve all heard the sayings:

“Rewriting is the essence of writing,” William Zinsser 
“The best writing is rewriting,” E.B. White
“All writing is rewriting,” John Green

I agree wholeheartedly. I believe that rewriting is the essence of good writing. I also believe rewriting is a skill that, like any skill, takes time and much practice to acquire.

But I know some folks won’t agree with me, so let’s look at a few of their arguments.

Rewriting Can Strip A Story Of Soul


This can happen. Beginning writers do have the tendency to edit the soul out of their stories. I know I did.

When I first began writing, rewriting was NOT my friend. I recently dug some of my earliest stories out from the shoeboxes I’ve lovingly interred them in. I write in drafts, always have, saving versions 1 to ... well, to however high it goes. 

For my oldest stories, my beginner stories, the first draft, perhaps even the second draft, had a sort of quirky personality. A mood was communicated. Yes, the story itself needed a lot of work, but there was something there, a spark. Then I read the versions of the story that followed and saw that spark dim and finally die.

So, yes. I agree. Rewriting doesn’t necessarily make something better, sometimes it just spoils it.

How can we prevent this? I believe that this is where the craft, the techne, of writing comes in. Part of the reason writers must write regularly is so we can practice rewriting. It’s also helpful to get feedback from folks who know how to spot where we’ve gone off the rails. This is especially important in the beginning. After a while we get a feel for it; this is often called developing our distinctive voice.

So, yes, writing can strip a story of its soul, but that just means we need to write a lot and read a lot and solicit feedback from people whose opinion we respect, because that’s how one gets better. 

Rewriting Takes Time


That’s true. Rewriting does take time. A LOT of time. Time that could be spent doing other things.

And it’s true that if one wants to make a living at writing one must produce work on a schedule. If one must put out, say, a 60,000 (or greater) word book every three months then the amount of time one has for rewriting is curtailed. 

Some folks have a knack for writing strong prose and a gripping story in a staggeringly brief amount of time. It’s a skill, and my guess is they were pretty good storytellers to begin with.

In any case, yes rewriting takes time and how fast one can put a book out can determine (at least if one isn’t a New York Times Best Seller) whether one can make a living at this.

But, as I said above, learning to rewrite both well and quickly is a skill, and to hone a skill takes practice. Sometimes a LOT of practice. If you’re not there yet, don’t give up. In this case, slow and steady does win the race.

Only New Words Count


I used to believe this.

For a time I was convinced that if one wasn’t writing new words that one wasn’t writing. Rewriting and editing didn’t count. (Which isn’t to say that one doesn’t need to edit one’s work. One does.)

Harlan Ellison is famous for sitting in a bookstore and, with a crowd looking on, writing a short story in a matter of hours. (See, “Dreams With Sharp Teeth”)

Jack Kerouac wrote “On The Road” in three short weeks, a book called one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Here’s a sample:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars. (Jack Kerouac, On the Road)” 

Beautiful! Some folks mock writers who can write a story in one draft by calling them typists rather than writers, but I say, “Type away!”

Lester Dent, perhaps the most famous of the pulpateers, at times wrote over 200,000 words a month and made a nice living even during the depression era. He never rewrote and editing was left to the publisher. I’ve read some of his stories, for first drafts they are amazing.

But being able to produce publishable prose on a first draft is rare and I think that, sometimes, even in those cases, taking a second pass at the material would have only improved it. (But some books, books like “On The Road,” are perfect as they are. It would be a crime to change them.)

I also think that certain stories, perhaps even certain statements, are best made from the heart in one great orgasmic rush. To rewrite them wouldn’t improve them. 

So, to sum up, these days I do wholeheartedly, believe that for the overwhelming majority of writers, both professional and amateur, rewriting is indeed the essence of good writing.

That’s it! See you next week.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Blog Topics For When You’re Stuck

Blog Topics For When You’re Stuck

Sometimes we get stock for topics. To be fair, it’s not that we can’t think of anything to write about, it’s that we can’t think of anything interesting or exciting to write about. Often this just means we’re having a blah kind of day. When that happens to me I find that lists are my friend.

1. Best Of 


I love reading these posts, especially if they’re titled: The 10 Best Free Apps I’ve Used This Year. 

Best apps, best blogs, best books, best writers, best vacation spots (for writing research and inspiration, not to mention a bit of R&R), best writing programs, best classes, and so on.

2. From The Heart


I believe the key to great writing is being able to evoke emotion in one’s readers. We’ve all had setbacks and—the overwhelming majority of time—after we get knocked down we get back up again. We cope.

One thing we can be sure of is that our readers, being human, have had setbacks, have suffered loss. This is likely why most of us love reading about others triumphing over adversity. If you have a personal tale of loss, followed by struggle and victory (or even partial victory), that might be something you would want to share.

3. Practical Advice


Who have you learnt from? Who do you follow on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and so on. Are their tutorials you’ve benefited from?

I love Scrivener but it took me a long while to feel comfortable with it. One tutorial that helped enormously was Garrett Robinson’s series of articles, How To Format A Perfect Novel. I also liked Joel Friedlander’s article, How to Publish Your eBook from Word to Kindle in under Ten Minutes

(BTW, if you’re thinking of getting Scrivener but aren’t sure if it’s for you, they offer a free trial for 30 days.)

4. Links


I love it when writers share links to interesting articles. So, in that spirit, let me share a links to a couple of posts I found useful when researching this article:

32 of the Most-Popular Blog-Post Ideas, over at The Blog Stylist

That’s it for today! Thanks for reading.

Photo credit: Owl Family Cute Clipart

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Kurt Vonnegut On The Relationship Between Plot And Literature


“When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do.”
— Kurt Vonnegut

By now you’ve likely heard about Matthew L. Jockers and his program (Syuzhet) designed to reveal the underlying plot structure of stories by analyzing sentiment. Jockers writes that he got this idea from Kurt Vonnegut and Vladimir Propp:

“After seeing the video and hearing Vonnegut’s opening challenge (“There’s no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers”), I set out to develop a systematic way of extracting plot arcs from fiction. I felt this might help me to better understand and visualize how narrative is constructed. The fundamental idea, of course, was nothing new. What I was after is what the Russian formalist Vladimir Propp had defined as the narrative’s syuzhet (the organization of the narrative) as opposed to its fabula (raw elements of the story).” (Revealing Sentiment and Plot Arcs with the Syuzhet Package)

Well! That combines two of my favorite things: storytelling and programming. I spent some time yesterday reading about MJ’s program as well as the lively debate between himself and Annie Swafford. (If you’d like to read more about this I recommend: A Fabula of Syuzhet.)

But I’m not going to talk about any of that today, at least not directly. After I finished reading “A Fabula of Syuzhet,” I decided it was time to re-read what Kurt Vonnegut had to say about plot. That’s what I’d like to share with you today.

Kurt Vonnegut On Story Structure


Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t seem to have been at all snobbish when it comes to admitting the need for some sort of plot, some sort of story structure. For instance, during an interview, published in The Paris Review, he said:

“VONNEGUT: I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaningless of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now, there’s an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are—

“INTERVIEWER: And what they want.

“VONNEGUT: Yes. And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. “Modern life is so lonely,” they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.” (Kurt Vonnegut, The Art of Fiction No. 64, The Paris Review)

Kurt Vonnegut’s Plot Shapes





(Click to enlarge.)



1. Boy In Hole


Here someone gets into trouble and then gets out of it. The protagonist starts out just above average. They aren’t depressed about life. Not yet. 

KV says: “You will see this story over and over again. People love it and it is not copyrighted. The story is “Man in Hole,” but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole. It’s: Somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again [draws line A]. It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers.” (From: A Man Without A Country)

2. Boy Meets Girl


This plot starts off with average people on a day like any other. There’s nothing exceptional here. Then something wonderful happens, followed shortly by a reversal of fortune. So this could be described as: The protagonist didn’t have much of anything, then got something, lost it and, finally, got it back.

3. Cinderella’s Story


KV remarks that this is the most popular story in western civilization. We love to hear this story. “Every time it’s retold someone makes a million dollars, you’re welcome to do it.”

A little girl is the protagonist. Her mother has died and her father has remarried. Her step-mother is a vile tempered ugly woman with two nasty daughters. 

There’s a party at the palace but she can’t go. “She has to help her two stepsisters and her dreadful stepmother get ready to go, but she herself has to stay home. Is she even sadder now? No, she’s already a broken-hearted little girl. The death of her mother is enough. Things can’t get any worse than that. So okay, they all leave for the party. Her fairy godmother shows up [draws incremental rise], gives her pantyhose, mascara, and a means of transportation to get to the party.

“And when she shows up she’s the belle of the ball [draws line upward]. She is so heavily made up that her relatives don’t even recognize her. Then the clock strikes twelve, as promised, and it’s all taken away again [draws line downward]. It doesn’t take long for a clock to strike twelve times, so she drops down. Does she drop down to the same level? Hell, no. No matter what happens after that she’ll remember when the prince was in love with her and she was the belle of the ball. So she poops along, at her considerably improved level, no matter what, and the shoe fits, and she becomes off-scale happy.”

4. Franz Kafka’s Story


Franz Kafka’s Story isn’t shown in the four minute clip, above. KV says:

“Now there’s a Franz Kafka story [begins line D towards bottom of G-I axis]. A young man is rather unattractive and not very personable. He has disagreeable relatives and has had a lot of jobs with no chance of promotion. He doesn’t get paid enough to take his girl dancing or to go to the beer hall to have a beer with a friend. One morning he wakes up, it’s time to go to work again, and he has turned into a cockroach [draws line downward and then infinity symbol]. It’s a pessimistic story.”

What Does Plot Have To Do With Literature?


Then KV asks the question, the question that, arguably, this has all been leading up to. KV asks: 

“The question is, does this system I’ve devised help us in the evaluation of literature?”

And that is, indeed, the question. KV’s answer seems to be that it doesn’t. Why? Because these kinds of gains and ills aren’t what makes a story great literature. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with having them, but they’re irrelevant. What makes Hamlet great isn’t that it has one of these structures, it’s that it told the truth. KV says:

“But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.”

So, what’s Kurt Vonnegut saying? He’s not saying throw away the plot, he’s saying use the plot to keep an audience’s attention—even if the plot is simply whether or not the protagonist will get an errant piece of dental floss out from between her teeth! Give the audience something that will keep them reading, keep them entertained, while you tell them your truth.

And that’s what storytelling, great storytelling, is all about.

At least, IMHO.

That’s it! Thanks for reading.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Mistakes of a Beginning Writer


A few days ago I dragged my old (and by “old” I mean ancient) stories out from under my bed and read through them. A couple weren’t bad. Many were snippets, fragments of thought. Perhaps today we’d call them microfiction. But all the stories had at least one glaring beginner mistake.

I began writing my boxed stories well over a decade ago at a time when the only arc I knew was the one Indiana Jones acquired from the Nazis. In those days, I finished about half my stories, but even the ones I did complete didn’t satisfy me. I knew there was something wrong with them but couldn’t quite figure out what.

Today, I thought I’d be fun to take one of the first stories I ever wrote and look at the beginner mistakes I made. 

The Ship


The story I chose—it’s one of my favorites; my execution didn’t do it justice—is about an enormous spaceship, a conservatory, traveling through deep space. It is thousands of years in the future and, though humankind is long since extinct, it carries our collective memories, entrusted to bioengineered orbs, into the future. 

Remember the alien probe from Star Trek IV? I imagined it like that, only rather than being a transport carrier for blue whales this ship sustained the life processes of organic orbs that are each encoded with the consciousness of one person. 

The vessel is almost like a ghost ship, wandering the universe, its only goal to keep its cargo safe.

I thought it would be fun to take this story and try to diagnose what was wrong with it, with my expression of the idea. 

Mistakes I Made:


1. The protagonist isn’t active. The orbs don’t really DO anything.

2. It’s not clear what the protagonist wants. 

3. Nothing happens.

In the case of this story, 1 & 2 & 3 are due to …

4. The wrong character is the protagonist.

When I began writing “The Ship” I had thought the contents of the ship, the orbs, were what the story was about, and that led me right smack into a brick wall. Why? Because the orbs don’t change over the course of the story! It’s implied they will change, transform, at some later date, but during the story … eh, not so much.

The story, as it stands, is about the ship. The ship has a goal: to safeguard the orbs. It refuels at conveniently placed stars and avoids dangers such as black holes, comets, asteroid belts, the odd space-pirate, and so on.
  
In retrospect, the idea is something like Silent Running, but after the bio-dome is set free to wander the solar system.

Summary Of Faults:


1) The protagonist isn’t active. 

The protagonist, the orbs, aren’t active. They are literal blobs of goo. They don’t DO anything.

2) No goal. 

Perhaps the reason the orbs don’t do anything is because they don’t want anything. After all, they’re gelatinous blobs, what could they possibly want? 

Against this my former self could argue they would want to stay alive, and that’s a good point, but the orbs live in a dream and have no knowledge of their true form.

3) The wrong character. 

If I was going to try to fix this story—which I’m not going to do; it is what it is and will be lovingly re-boxed and slid under my bed—I would make the ship the protagonist. The ship goes places and wants things. It can be harmed. 

4) Nothing happens. 

Now, I would begin the story at a point where the ship’s goal is put in jeopardy. Perhaps it’s running out of fuel, or it comes across an especially well-equipped band of space pirates. 

Or we could put the two together and say that, not only is it running out of fuel (and so must conserve energy) but its radar has just detected space pirates in the vicinity.

That’s the ticket!

That’s it for today. Have you looked at your old stories recently? If so, what beginner mistakes did you make?

BTW, here is the text of my story. Please keep in mind that I wrote this many, MANY, years ago. I know it is far from perfect. Read at your own risk. ;)

“The Ship,” by (a very young) Karen Woodward


The ship drifts through deep space. To an observer it would appear dead. Only the occasional whir of machinery disturbs the silence of its corridors.

Endless walkways, unused for millennia, snake through its body and lead to a vast metal womb, control panels decorating the walls. Lights blink on and off in hypnotic patterns that wash over a metal tank positioned at the center. Inside the tank, bathed by iridescent light, orbs float in lukewarm transparent liquid. 

The orbs dream of other places, other centuries—the soothing babble of a brook or the adrenaline filled, death defying, plunge of a skydiver. If any of the orbs become overexcited, the ship emits a light from one of the panels. The light bathes the affected orb in shifting patterns of illumination until its thought patterns quiet. 

Once every few millennia the ship corrects its course to avoid the death of a star. Occasionally, one of the orbs dreams of death and the ship assimilates its memories. Even more rarely, one of the orbs deteriorates, its cells dying. At these times, or in anticipation of them, one of the womb's panels retracts and a robot emerges. The robot injects the orb with substances designed to regenerate cells, mending it. With regular tending, the orbs are immortal as the stars, kept alive in anticipation of the beginning at the end of time.

Photo credit: Pulp-O-Mizer

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Structure For Short Stories

A Structure For Short Stories

I was going to take a break from talking about story structure but I came across a fabulous post by Chris Winkle over at Mythcreants, “Outline a Short Story in Seven Steps,” that I have to share.

I encourage you to head over to Chris Winkle’s site and read his article for yourself, what follows is what I’m going to call ‘a creative summary.’ Inevitably, I’ve filtered his ideas through my own point of view. One of the results of this is that CW’s seven points have blossomed into nine.

1. Create a problem.


This problem will be the central conflict of the story. I like to think of this as ‘the engine’ since this is what drives the story forward, as well as what will initially grab the readers curiosity. Additionally, this problem is what propels the protagonist to action.

CW advises writers to make this problem neither too easy nor too complex. He writes:

“... if you choose something trivial, you’ll work harder to make it meaningful, and if you choose something daunting, you could struggle to find a solution.”

Instead: “Look for a significant problem that can be solved by one person, in one scene.”

Great advice! I’m realizing why so many of my short stories morphed into novellas or novels: I have the habit of using problems that are much too big.

2. Create a character (the protagonist) to have this problem.


CW (wisely) advises us to follow KISS (keep it simple ... silly). We’re trying to write a short story, so don’t describe anything that isn’t integral to the story.

CW also advises that the protagonist be consistent, distinctive, driven, complex, deep and evolving. (To read more on this see CW’s article: The Six Traits of Strong Characters. Jim Butcher has also written about this on his Livejournal account: Characters.)

3. Answer the question, Why does this problem matter to this character?


CW writes: 

“The more important the problem is to the character, the more important it becomes to the reader. Come up with a solid reason why this character cares; this goes double if your problem is trivial. Raise the stakes until it has emotional impact.”

Humans are ruled by their curiosity. Yesterday I was watching a recording of a live performance and the only thing I remember about it is that one of the people in the balcony had his jacket draped over the edge. I kept wondering, Will it fall? 

I know, this was completely trivial. It was just a silly old jacket. Even if it did fall the stakes were infinitesimal. Imagine how captivated I would have been if, say, the president of the US were to pass underneath?

But this illustrates an important principle: How does a problem become important? By raising the stakes. (Also, by showing the character’s motivation to win the goal.)

4. Introduce an obstacle that prevents the protagonist from achieving their goal.


If the problem is solved too soon, there is no story. So an obstacle has to be introduced, something that will keep the protagonist from quickly and easily achieving their goal.

Character is revealed in adversity, so throwing a bunch of trouble at your protagonist is, all around, the best thing you could do for the story.

The protagonist’s external arc


Often the obstacle is introduced by an antagonist. That is, by someone who is very similar to the protagonist in that they have a strong, clear, goal. In the antagonist’s case, of course, this goal is in direct opposition to the protagonist’s goal.

Let’s say the protagonist wants to go off to a college in a far away state in order to study environmental management. Their goal is to, eventually, preserve a patch of wetlands near their childhood home, one that is threatened by a proposed development. If this were the case then the antagonist would want exactly the opposite.

The antagonist doesn’t have to be a villain. For example, the antagonist could be the protagonist’s mother, someone who wants to keep her child close, and safe, and cared for. Someone who doesn’t want them leaving for four long years. 

Or, if we wanted a villain, the antagonist could be an unscrupulous land developer who wants to build a shopping mall over the wetlands.

And so on. The crucial thing is for the protagonist’s goal and the antagonist’s goal to be mutually exclusive. If one attains their goal then it must be impossible for the other to. (Although they can both lose.)

The protagonist’s internal arc


What I’ve written about, above, concerning the wetlands, etc., would be part of the protagonist’s external arc. CW points out that if you want your protagonist to have an internal arc as well as an external one, to “make their obstacle a personality flaw.” (For example, Mr. Monk.)

5. Have the protagonist fail.


CW advises us to include at least one try-fail cycle but no more than three. And be sure to show the consequences of this failure. That is, show the consequences for the protagonist and those he cares about. This is how one builds suspense. 

CW writes that “after every attempt, they should be worse off than when they started.” (This is usually done in a sequel. For more on this see, The Structure of a Short Story: The New Plan.) 

6. Build the solution to the problem into the protagonist’s failures.


This is excellent advice, the kind that makes me want to pick up a pen and start scribbling! CW advises that we ...

“Give each failed attempt a small step toward the solution. It might be a clue, a tool, or a piece of advice that will help your character. That doesn’t mean they’ll recognize it right away. In fact, it’s better if they don’t.”

7. Create a critical turning point.


After the last, biggest, most devastating defeat something happens—perhaps the protagonist has an epiphany—and the hints you scattered in (6) finally come together in the protagonist’s mind.

CW writes: “They have a stunning realization, a clever idea, or finally understand a piece of wisdom.”

Sounds happy, doesn’t it? If tragedy is more your cup of tea, CW has advice for you as well:

“If you’re planning an unhappy ending, the hero’s realization may be false or incomplete. Perhaps the hero latches on to the wrong solution to their problem.”

Note: Even if the protagonist will ultimately fail, your readers should still feel there’s hope.

8. Show the hero achieving (or failing to achieve) his goal.


Whether the protagonist wins or loses should hinge upon a choice he makes. There isn’t much to write here because, to a certain extent, what happens is determined by all that has gone before.

9. Wrap up.


CW didn’t explicitly include this step, and perhaps it is implicit in the above, but I’ll mention it anyway. Here we show the stakes being cashed out. We show how the protagonist’s world changes because he achieved his goal. If there were other main characters, show what happens to them.

Also, if the antagonistic force was a character (sometimes it’s simply a ticking clock and time), show her receiving her just deserts.

That’s it! If you haven’t, I recommend reading Chris Winkle’s article in it’s entirety. He scattered links throughout, links which lead, like magical breadcrumbs, deeper into a dense maze of captivating articles.


See you Wednesday!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Crying Uncle: When Should We Lay A Story Aside?

Crying Uncle: When Should We Lay A Story Aside?

When should we lay a story aside? 

It’s a difficult question. I know, I’m struggling with it. Though I’ve finished other stories over the past few months, one remains stubbornly unfinished, the one I care about most—my murder mystery.

It boggles the mind. How can I love reading murder mysteries, how can I watch them incessantly, and not be able to finish writing one?

Am I too close to the story, too emotionally involved? Perhaps I judge my mystery stories more harshly than my other work? Perhaps, even though I love cosy mysteries it just takes practice. It’s not something I should expect to work on the first (or even the fifteenth!) try.

Reasons aside, because of my predicament, the question has been taking laps around my brain: When, if ever, is it okay to lay aside a story?

1. Too Big


Sometimes a story is too big, too complex, and it overwhelms the writer. This happened to me several times when I first started out. It was like catching the tail of a dragon, I wasn’t strong enough (yet) to hold on and the dragon wrenched free and flew away.

2. The Story Changes


I think, at times, a story changes too much from conception to execution, from that initial red hot idea to the cold, sedate, logical outline one finally hammers out. It’s a bit like falling in love with someone then taking them home to see one’s parents, sitting around the dinner table. Suddenly, one sees them in a new, and not very attractive, light. What one once thought whimsically romantic becomes childish and ill-conceived. 

Though I like to outline I think that, if the story is changed too much, it can disintegrate, twisted beyond recognition. Although it is perhaps a tad melodramatic to say, it’s as though the story loses its soul. 

When that happens, one’s passion seeps away.

Often, when a story is left to lie for days, weeks, months or years what kills the story isn’t that we lose the thread—though, absolutely, that happens—but that we lose the story’s heart. 

We fall out of love with it, with the characters, with the setting, with the initial idea that captivated us.

And, yet ... In my mind’s eye I see a phalanx of professional writers frowning, saying, “It doesn’t matter if you’re in LOVE with the story, it’s a job! You finish what you start or you don’t get paid, end of discussion.”

And that is, of course, correct. One doesn’t have to be enthusiastic about a thing in order to do it. One doesn’t always FEEL like going to work, but one still does it.

But, against that, I would argue that if one can’t sustain passion for the core idea of the story, for the characters, long enough to write a first draft then one doesn’t care about the story enough to see it through the umpteen drafts it takes to turn the raw clay of one’s first attempt into a finished product.

I think that, for myself, the golden rule is: Write a complete zero draft BEFORE one begins outlining.

Perhaps—and I realize this is a grizzly analogy—it’s a bit like a brain surgeon trying to operate without first mapping the patient’s brain. With a finished zero draft in hand, I have a better grasp of what is essential to the characters, to the story, before I begin operating/outlining.

3. There’s no such thing as writer’s block, just put your butt in a chair and WRITE!


I’ve heard this often, and I think I know what the people who say this want to express.

When I have a deadline, it doesn’t matter if I feel inspired, I have to hand something in.

When one has a contract to deliver a certain story by a specific date, it doesn’t matter if one feels one’s story is as exciting as uncolored cardboard or as interesting as drying paint. One is on the hook and must turn something in. And chances are what one turns in won’t be as bad as it seems when writing. But, from a certain perspective, it doesn’t matter. One gave one’s word that something would be turned in, so something (no matter how dreadful) WILL be turned in.

Even so, writer’s block exists. It’s a real thing. I know, I’ve had it. I couldn’t write after my father passed away. Every time I sat at my computer, fingers poised over the keyboard, time would warp and I saw my father’s face. Not his face as it was in life, but as he lay dying, his brain shutting down, his humanity being stripped away.

In retrospect, I was likely traumatized, my thoughts pulled back to the moment at which my life had become warped, the moment at which certain things had stopped making sense.

I got through it with the help of friends. I realized I could still write, just no longer at the computer. I could write longhand. My journalling practice dates from then, from that realization.

Sorry for rambling. To sum up, I DO believe that writer’s block is a real thing, but I also believe there are ways around it.

Just because you lay a story aside doesn’t mean you’re giving up.


The point of this meandering essay is: Boxing a story is not giving up. 

Recently I finished a story I began over a decade ago. It was unfinished because I didn’t know the ending. The story came into being as a writing exercise. I hadn’t intended to do anything with it, but the characters drew breath and insisted I finish what I had begun. 

The problem: I had NO idea how the story ended.

I took various runs at it over the years, but nothing stuck, nothing felt right. Then, one day, a friend’s chance remark kicked off a cascade of ideas that lead to me looking at the story differently and the ending popped, fully formed, into my mind. I have no words to describe the ecstasy of that moment, the joy, the relief of realizing my story was complete.

Summing Up


Although I finish the overwhelming majority of stories I begin, there is still the occasional tale, one I’m writing for my own amusement (which is how I begin most of my stories) that will demand to be laid aside. But that doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned the story. It took Stephen King over 30 years to finish “Under The Dome.” As Bob Wiley said in “What About Bob”: This one’s just temporarily disconnected.

Thanks for reading! See you next week.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

What Are You Reading?


I've often stressed the importance of reading so, today, let's talk about what books we're reading. (And, yes, I got this idea from Chuck Wendig!)

At the moment I'm polishing off Brimstone , the fifth book in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s fabulous mystery-thriller series featuring their quirky yet indomitable sleuth Aloysius Pendergast. Preston and Child know how to generate suspense. Their books keep me up until indecent hours!

I'm also reading—and, yes, this book has been on my to-be-read list for a while—The Secret History by Donna Tartt. For some reason I thought the book would be dry and academic, but when I picked it up at the bookstore it hooked me immediately. 

I like having two books cued up, ready to go, so my third book is J.D. Robb's (/Nora Roberts) futuristic mystery-romance Holiday in Death .

If I had to pick one book out as a favorite, one I've read fairly recently, I'd have to go with Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects,” but “Gone Girl” is fabulous as well. I highly recommend the audiobook since those particular narrators helped bring the characters to life.

What are you reading? What's your favorite genre? Please share!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What Bad Books Can Tell Us About Good Writing

What Bad Books Can Tell Us About Good Writing

Today I want to discuss what bad books can tell us about good writing. To do this I’m going to discuss the history of an intentionally bad book—Atlanta Nights—and tell you about something surprising (well, surprising to me) I’ve discovered.

Atlanta Nights


First, Atlanta Nights. This book was created as part of a sting operation against notorious vanity publisher, Publish America. James D. Macdonald organized a group of science fiction and fantasy authors to pull off this travesty, each author taking a chapter (one was computer generated!), with the goal of creating a story so bad only a vanity publisher would accept it. Appropriately, the group pseudonym they adopted was: Travis Tea. (See: Atlanta Nights)

Happily, Publish America accepted the book allowing everyone to ask a very good question: Why on earth would a respectable publisher, one who made their money from book sales, accept such absolute dreck? After all, it was so bad the publisher couldn’t possibly hope to make money on it. Unless, that is, Publish America wasn’t a respectable publisher at all. (If you’d like to read more about Publish America and the controversy swirling around it, head over to Absolute Write.)

What Atlanta Nights Can Tell Us About Good Writing


Here we have a rarity, an intentionally horrible book. It turns out (and this is the surprising bit I’ll go into in more depth at the end of this post) that writing a bad book isn’t easy.

Story vs Prose


Here’s how I look at things, writing—good or bad—is composed of two things, the prose itself and the story the prose expresses. I agree wholeheartedly that the story expressed by the prose in Atlanta Nights is awful, horrible, irredeemable. But the prose itself, it’s actually not that bad. It’s not good, but it’s certainly nowhere near as bad as the story it expresses.

From the outset, I’d like to make one thing perfectly, vividly, clear: Atlanta Nights IS a bad book. I know that’s not a technical way of putting things, saying just that something is ‘bad’ isn’t descriptive. So I’ll let you judge for yourself. What follows is a quotation from Chapter Two of Atlanta Nights:

The Atlanta sun slanted low in the west, rain showers predicted for later that afternoon, then clearing. Bruce Lucent looked from the side window of his friend's shiny Maserati sports car as they wheeled their way westward against the afternoon traffic.
"I'm glad you could give me a ride," Bruce Lucent muttered, his pain-worn face reddened by the yellow sunlight. "What with my new car all smashed and all."
His old friend, Isadore, shook his massive head at him. "We know how it must be to have a lot of money but no working car," he said, the harsh Macon County drawl of his voice softened by his years in Atlanta high society. "It's my pleasure to bring you back to your fancy apartment, and we're all so happy that y'all is still alive. Y'all could have been killed in that dreadful wreck." Isadore paused to put on the turn signal before making a safe turn across rush-hour traffic into the parking lot of Bruce Lucent's luxury apartment building. "Y'all'll gets a new car on Monday."
"I don't know how I'll be able to drive it with my arm in a cast," Bruce Lucent shoots back. "It's lucky I wasn't killed outright like so many people are when they have horrid automobile wrecks." (Atlanta Nights—this link leads you to a free pdf of the story; it’s on the website of Andrew Burt, one of the authors.)

This is certainly NOT good writing, and intentionally so. (This bit was excerpted from the chapter penned by James D. Macdonald.) I’d say the authors collectively called Travis Tea did a fabulous job creating a story no respectable publisher would buy.

But, as I said, there’s a problem. It turns out that while we all intuitively recognize this writing as bad, that, in one respect, it’s ... okay.

Let me explain.

I’ve been creating a program, a writing analysis program, that has the ability to analyze a book and compare it to other books along various dimensions.

For example, my program will look at how many “-ly” adverbs, wh-adverbs, how many superlative adjectives, how many verbs ending in “-ing,” and so on, a book contains. Based on this my program will generate a score for the book.

One thing I was curious about was how close my generated score (a score generated from objective and quantifiable characteristics) would align with the subjective scores I had assigned each book.

The Results


It turns out that the score generated by my program and the subjective scores I’ve assigned to each of the books are strongly correlated. 

So far so good. 

But there is a problem. It turns out that while my program generated scores are quite close to the user defined scores for the higher scoring books that the generated scores are off when it comes to one low-scoring book.

That book is Atlanta Nights.

It turns out that although humans have no trouble identifying Atlanta Nights as bad, it throws my program for a loop. While it should put Atlanta Nights in the same group of books as The Eye of Argon, my program consistently puts it closer to James Patterson’s books (and, while Patterson’s books aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, they certainly aren’t bad in the same way Atlanta Nights is bad.).

In the beginning, this caused me no end of concern. I thought something had to be seriously wrong with my program since it scored Atlanta Nights high.

But, what I’ve come to suspect, is that the writers of Atlanta Nights did one thing well and one thing not so well. What they did well was telling an awful story. What they did not so well was WRITING an awful story. That is, they couldn’t help themselves, their prose itself (as opposed to the concepts expressed by that prose) wasn’t in the same badness category as, say, The Eye of Argon. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it was good! Far from it. But it wasn’t horrible. 

Now, I’m not at all trying to cast aspersions on any of the writers involved in the creation of Atlanta Nights. I’m just saying that, in a way, they failed. Their prose (as opposed to the story expressed by their prose) wasn’t all that bad. Or, rather, wasn’t as bad as some books that have gotten published by traditional, non-vanity, publishers (case in point: The Eye of Argon).

This seems to point to something truly interesting, and the reason I wrote this post: It’s possible that one’s prose style is built up over a long period of time—years—and becomes ingrained, like one’s accent or culinary cravings.

It’s possible that we, as writers, aren’t even completely conscious of our prose style and so find it very difficult to change, even when we want to!

What do you think? Whatever your opinion, I invite you to create a truly terrible microstory of 100 words or less.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Crafting An Effective Writing Prompt


As many of you know, for the past few months I’ve been posting one writing prompt a day on Google+ (I’ve begun archiving them on Pinterest), a practice which has given me ample time to reflect on a deceptively simple question: What makes a good writing prompt?

What Is A Writing Prompt?


First and foremost, a writing prompt is one that—as the name implies—provokes someone to write. In this writing prompts are a bit like jokes. Can a joke really be called a joke if it doesn’t make anyone laugh?

Some connoisseurs of prompts are picky and demand that one only write about one’s characters and then only in the third person. I disagree. I encourage folks to reply in whichever person strikes their fancy (and, let’s face it, prompts are an invitation to try out unfamiliar and perhaps quirky styles of writing, such as second person future tense). And if one wishes to recount something about one’s own life (or one’s re-imagined life), that’s fine! 

After all, writing prompts invite quirkiness, they invite experimentation and stretching one’s writing muscles by doing something one has never done before, whether this is writing about a certain subject matter or writing in a person or tense one has never tried.

3 Characteristics of Effective Writing Prompts


I’ll be the first to admit there is no formula for creating a writing prompt which gets people to put pen to paper and write something. But, with that caveat, here are a few qualities I’ve found most of my popular prompts shared.

1. An effective writing prompt is short.


A while back, I experimented with the length of prompts and discovered that the shorter the prompt the more responses it got. So I’ve made it a rule: If a writing prompt can’t fit on a 3 x 5 inch index card, it’s too long.

2. An effective writing prompt asks something about the writer/reader.


Or, possibly one of the writer’s characters. But I’ve tried posting conundrums having to do with one’s characters rather than the writer/reader themselves, and it seems to me that most of the popular prompts have asked about the latter.

3. An effective writing prompt has a clever twist, something that captures the writer’s/reader’s imagination.


This is something that is definitely more easily said than done. It isn’t as though one can sit down at one’s desk and say to one’s muse: I need a clever twist, please. At least that’s never worked for me, you may have better luck!

What I’ve found is that if a particular thought fires up my own imagination, if it makes me puzzle about how I’d write a response to the prompt, then it’s probably going to have the same effect on others.

Conclusion


Perhaps prompt writing is a bit like comedy in this sense. One has to expose one’s work to the public to see what will catch. If a person laughs (/responds to your prompt) it’s a keeper. If not, back to the drawing board.

That’s it!

If you’d like to read some fun prompts pick up a copy of “642 Things To Write About: Young Writer’s Edition,” or Ryan Andrew Kinder’s excellent volume of prompts, “1,000 Awesome Writing Prompts.”

Talk to you again on Monday.