Wednesday, October 22, 2014

NaNoWriMo Is For Everyone, Even Rebels!

NaNoWriMo is almost upon us!

What is NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo (or NaNo for short) is a terrific way to help kickstart a creative project.

During the month of November many people don writing hats (mine is a well-worn dark blue baseball cap), sequester themselves within the lonely depths of their writer’s cave, and attempt to complete the first draft of a 50,000 word novel.

Is NaNo For Writers or Non-Writers?

NaNo is for everyone! 

Granted, many writers pen/type more than 1,600 words per day so NaNo wouldn’t be very much of a challenge for them, but even so I think there’s something to be said for joining thousands of other writers all over the digital world and sharing a common experience. 

And, let’s face it, if you publish your word count every day that’s one more reason to stick with one’s story and do one’s best. When I write, when I’m in the bowels of a project, sometimes I feel isolated, sometimes I feel that no one else cares what I’m doing. When those feelings seep in it’s a lot easier to slack off instead of keeping my nose to the grindstone—metaphorically speaking, of course. That would be a terribly uncomfortable position, like something one might see in the Tower of London!

NaNo Is For Rebels

I’ll talk about the official rules of NaNo in a moment, but I want to stress that NaNo really is for everyone, even if you’re not keen to follow the official rules. 

Instead of writing X number of words a day, would you like to create a picture? If so, you won’t officially be participating in NaNo, but the sites invites you to join with them in November and be a rebel.

NaNo can be used for editing as well as writing 

This November I’m going to be a rebel!

That’s right. Instead of writing 2,000 words a day (my usual NaNo goal) I’m going to edit 14 pages a day. Since I’ve come back from my (marvelous!) vacation it’s been difficult for me to get back into the swing of things and I’m a wee bit behind on my WIP. So! This is an excellent opportunity for me to benefit from some of the glorious momentum that NaNo creates and channel it into something I need (yet dislike) to do.

The Rules of NaNo

* “Write one 50,000-word (or longer!) novel, between November 1 and November 30.

* “Start from scratch. None of your own previously written prose can be included in your NaNoWriMo draft (though outlines, character sketches, and research are all fine, as are citations from other people's works). [NOTE:] While this is no longer a hard-and-fast rule, it is still very strongly recommended, ESPECIALLY for first timers. 

* “Write a novel. We define a novel as a lengthy work of fiction. If you consider the book you're writing a novel, we consider it a novel too!

* “Write more than one word repeated 50,000 times.

* “Upload your novel for word-count validation to our site between November 25 and November 30.”

If you don’t want to upload the first draft of your novel to the official website you won’t be an official winner, but you will still have won. I’ve never uploaded the first draft of any of my novels simply because I hate the thought of anyone being able to see my first draft. (And yes, I know my NaNo account is password protected but I can think of far too many ways that could go wrong.)

I know some people, Stephen King for example, write first drafts (he includes an example in his book, “On Writing”) that are very close to the final draft. I don’t. One of the bloggers I follow once quipped that she didn’t write her first drafts, she vomited them. Yep. That’s me too. Not pretty. Not something I would ever willingly share. 

(Thinking about it now, it might be kind of fun to write a program which randomized the positions of all the words. That is, which kept the number of words in each sentence the same, which even kept the punctuation the same, but which swapped each word with another found elsewhere in the manuscript. Were I to do that the word count would stay the same but the text would be gibberish. Hmmm ...)

NaNo Resources

In the coming days I’m going to write more about how to prepare for NaNo, how to defeat writers block, how to pry oneself free from a dead end, and so on. For now, here are a few articles:

My previous articles on NaNo, what it is and tips on how to prepare:

Photo credit: "Don't drop the Ball..." by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, October 20, 2014

On Breaking The Rules of Writing: It’s All On The Table

On Breaking The Rules of Writing: It’s All On The Table

I’m a rebel at heart. I like it when writers break so-called rules and still produce a stunning piece of writing.

The Rule: Never begin a story with a character waking

For example, Gillian Flynn opens “Gone Girl” with a character waking. As I write this I realize someone might protest that “Gone Girl” begins with three paragraphs of Nick Dunne’s musings about his wife’s head, it’s shape and possible contents. But then, after these 185 words, Gillian Flynn writes:

“My eyes flipped open at exactly six A.M. This was no avian fluttering of the lashes, no gentle blink toward consciousness. The awakening was mechanical. A spooky ventriloquist-dummy click of the lids: The world is black and then, showtime! 6-0-0 the clock said—in my face, first thing I saw. 6-0-0. It felt different. I rarely woke at such a rounded time. I was a man of jagged risings: 8:43, 11:51, 9:26. My life was alarmless.”

And then, after this paragraph about Nick Dunne waking up, we get a paragraph about the weather! And you know what? Not only does it work but it is some of the most beautiful, alive, witty prose I’ve read in a long time.

The Rule: Never have your narrator address the reader directly

Another thing we’re told not to do, something that irks many readers enough to fling their books (or eReaders) across the room, is when (Dear Reader) the writer—or, really, the narrator—addresses the reader directly.

I’ve started reading P.G. Wodehouse, perhaps as a reaction to the delicious darkness of “Gone Girl”. I’ve broken into his corpus by way of his Jeeves books (specifically, “Thank You, Jeeves.”)

Here’s an example of what I mean. The narrator is Bertram (Bertie) Wooster.

“I wonder if you would mind just going back a bit and running the mental eye over that part of our conversation which had had to do with the girl. 

“Anything strike you about it?


“Oh, well, to get the full significance, of course, [...]” 

In those short paragraphs Wodehouse speaks directly to the reader. Here’s another example:

“But I had carried on according to plan, and here I was, on the fifth morning of my visit, absolutely in the pink and with no regrets whatsoever. The sun was shining. The sky was blue. And London seemed miles away—which it was, of course. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that a great peace enveloped the soul.”

All that is perfectly standard. It’s funny, and Wodehouse’s distinctive voice shines through the prose, but the author isn’t doing anything outlandish. Then, in the next paragraph, the narrator shakes things up by confessing to the reader that ...

“A thing I never know when I’m telling a story is how much scenery to bung in. I’ve asked one or two scriveners of my acquaintance, and their views differ. A fellow I met at a cocktail party in Bloomsbury said that he was all for describing kitchen sinks and frowsty bedrooms and squalor generally, but the beautifies of Nature, no. Whereas, Freddie Oaker, of the Drones, who does takes of pure love for the weeklies under the pen-name of Alicia Seymour, once told me that he reckoned that flowery meadows in springtime alone were worth at least a hundred quid a year to him.”

I know some readers hate the jarring sensation that can accompany being scooped up from your comfortable armchair (or park bench or bus seat or ...) and plopped into the story. Many (many) people would like to keep their narrators at arms length and not have these little private asides from them. Personally, though, I love the cosy feeling of being involved in the story, of being drawn into it like this, where the characters themselves reach out to you. One gets the feeling: They are talking to me! (If you’re thinking that this is a sign I should get out more, you could be right.)

Writing Rules

I think there are only three rules when it comes to writing:

1. Writers write.
2. Writers read.
3. Take all other rules with a grain of salt.

Yes, there are rules of thumb, advice that can make things easier for a new writer, someone who isn’t as adept as, say, Gillian Flynn. Her writing is artful, her prose is poetic.

The problem (I say that as though there were just one) in beginning a story when a character wakes up is that, generally, waking up isn’t terribly exciting. What’s the conflict? The struggle to stay awake? If so, the story’s in trouble before it really gets going. But, in Gillian Flynn’s able hands, it is interesting. One gets a sense that these opening paragraphs form a kind of parallel, or allegory, for the story itself. Nick is awaking ... to a nightmare. Perhaps one of his own making.

In summary, don’t let any writing rule make you feel you can’t do something you’d like to. Ultimately, we write for ourselves, we write because it’s not only something we must do but because it’s something we (usually) enjoy doing. As Stephen King says in “On Writing”:

“There is absolutely no need to be hidebound and conservative in your work [...] Shit, write upside down if you want to, or do it in Crayola pictographs. But no matter how you do it, there comes a point when you must judge what you’ve written and how well you wrote it. I don’t believe a story or a novel should be allowed outside the door of your study or writing room unless you feel confident that it’s reasonably reader-friendly. You can’t please all of the readers all of the time; you can’t please even some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time. [...] And now that I’ve waved that caution flag [...] let me reiterate that it’s all on the table, all up for grabs. Isn’t that an intoxicating thought? I think it is. Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, “Murder your darlings,” and he was right.”

That says it all.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

How To Give Your Character Meaningful Flaws

How To Give Your Character Meaningful Flaws

Let’s talk about blind spots.

We’re often told that protagonists need to be likable but it’s just as important that they have flaws.

I’ve just finished reading “Falling Angel” by William Hjortsberg. In that book the protagonist loses everything, even his identity. Which is a tragedy. He was courageous, resourceful and generally likable. It’s easy for the reader to identify with him, and if this was true for the reader I imagine it was true for the writer as well. But Hjortsberg resisted the impulse to coddle his protagonist and the book was better for it. 

That said, Hjortsberg didn’t give his protagonist, Harry Angel, just any flaws, he gave him flaws that seemed to grow organically from the core of his character. Giving a character blind spots is one way of achieving this.

What are blind spots?

A blind spot is a flaw, a weakness. For example, I have a friend who often complains about not being able to lose five pounds while she’s eating a bag of crunchy, vinegary finger-licking-good potato chips.

What creates a blind spot?

Desires create blind spots. Specifically, desires which fly in the face of strongly held beliefs either about ourselves or the world around us.

In my example, above, the desire being indulged was of the potato-chip-eating variety and the strongly held belief was that my friend was doing everything she could to try and lose weight. 

Taking this to a more serious level, a person might have a strong desire to learn the truth about a particular situation but not be able to get past the strongly held belief that their friend (or sibling, or mother, or father) is a good person and would, therefore, never do certain things.

Denial and unconscious defense mechanisms

I would, of course, never be this bold (or foolhardy!) but were I to call my friend on her chip-eating-duplicity and say, “You’d lose five pounds if you stopped eating potato chips,” what do you think her immediate reaction would be?

Yep, anger. Then she would try to justify her behavior. She would try and explain how her behavior really did, despite appearances to the contrary, fit with her desire to lose weight. 

Most folks, when it’s made clear to them that one or more of their behaviors flies in the face of a real or stated desire will attempt to justify it rather than change. “Oh this package of potato chips is so small and it’s only one bag. It’s not like I have one every day.” Or, “You’re right! This will be my last one, I’ll stop tomorrow.”

How to make bad things happen to good characters

Writers have to be the bad guy. They have to be mean to their characters. (Don’t Flinch)

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, one of the ways we can lead our characters to ruin is by giving them blind spots.

The ones I’ve talked about so far are relatively mild. To show you the kind of blind spots that can make for great literature let’s take another look at “Falling Angel.” Here the protagonist, Harry Angel, has a core belief, one you and I likely share: I know who I am. Harry couldn’t have been more wrong. 

When Harry Angel finally realizes he has been blind, that he has believed a lie, it is far too late for him to save either himself or the girl he has come to love.

Creating Character Flaws: How to Use Your Character’s strengths against them

I’d never thought much about blind spots and how they can be used to create tragedy until I sat in on a workshop Bob Mayer taught at the Surrey International Writing Conference. Mayer gave some wickedly useful examples of how your character’s strengths can suggest desires which can, in turn, be used to create character flaws.

An Example: Loyalty

Loyalty is an excellent trait for a protagonist to have. Since we, as humans, tend to believe that other people are like us—that they have the same desires and strengths and weaknesses we ourselves do—people who are loyal tend to believe that other people, especially those they consider their friends, are loyal as well. (Also at work here is the principle that it’s much easier for a person to believe a statement they want to be true than it is for one they want to be false.)

Underlying need/drive/desire:
- To trust others and to be trusted in return.

To see the world as you would like to see it, not as it actually is. This can lead to (at least) two weaknesses:
- Gullible. The need to trust others can make a hero gullible. They want to trust others even if, deep down, they know they shouldn’t.
- Unreasonable skepticism. Often when a person has trusted someone when they shouldn’t have—and been harmed because of it—they can swing to the other end of the spectrum and not trust anyone, even someone who has proven themselves trustworthy.

Blind Spot:
- Here is the loyal character’s blind spot (or at least one of them): Even though he’s let me down in the past, this time will be different.

Another Example: Competitiveness

Let’s say a character is naturally competitive. That can be a very good thing.

Underlying need/drive/desire:
- To achieve, to conquer.

- To achieve and to conquer no matter the cost, no matter who it destroys in the process.

Blind Spot:
- My drive to achieve isn’t hurting anyone.

In conclusion

If you ever have a chance I highly recommend Bob Mayer’s writing workshops. I haven’t read it (I’m still snailing my way through Robert McKee’s excellent book, “Story”) but his book The Novel Writer’s Toolkit comes highly recommended.

What blind spots have you given your characters?

Photo credit: "Cat's shadow" by Marina del Castell under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What’s The Difference Between Mysteries And Thrillers?

What’s The Difference Between Mysteries And Thrillers?

In previous posts I’ve talked about the difference between mysteries and thrillers. In a mystery an event happens toward the beginning of the story—often in the first few pages—that violates one’s sense of justice, that shatters the status quo of the community. Things must be set right, justice must be meted out, the wrongdoer(s) must pay. But, first, they must be discovered. (How to write a murderously good mystery.)


In a mystery the crime, often a murder, grows out of a pre-existing rottenness in the social fabric of the community, a rottenness few (if any) suspected was there. For example, in Agatha Christie’s story “Toward Zero” the murder of Lady Tressilian grew from Nevile Strange’s insane desire to possess the woman he loves (Audrey). Years ago he had committed one murder to secure her love and, now, he decides to commit another. The difference is that Nevil’s goal is not to rekindle their devotion but to frame Audrey for murder, in his mind this is just punishment for rejecting him.

On her way to figuring out whodunit the intrepid Miss Marple must bring to light the concealed injustices of the past, for the murder is generally (at least in books!) not a crime of passion or the fruit of psychotic craving, it has a pedigree, it has roots. These roots are generally long and snarled. The primary work of the sleuth is to discover these roots and, in so doing, unmask the perpetrator of the current crime.

In this sense, much of the work of a mystery is spent delving into and uncovering those past events which gave birth to the catastrophic event (/Inciting Incident) which set the current story into motion.


What’s the difference between a murder mystery and a thriller?

Paul Levine, in his article Mystery Novels vs. Thrillers, puts it like this:

“... the thriller hero must stop the villain’s plan, rather than uncover a crime that has already happened.”

I think that’s it in a nutshell. Though, that said, often the hero of a thriller is tasked with doing both. 

In a mystery-thriller the hero must not only discover the perpetrator of a crime, she must also prevent the antagonist from accomplishing his goal. Further, often the crimes the hero is trying to prevent are on a grand scale: “serial or mass murder, terrorism, assassination, or the overthrow of governments” (Thriller, Wikipedia).

It’s a difference in focus. In a mystery, we look back into the past, back to the murder that became the Inciting Incident.

In a thriller while we do look backward (that’s how the hero uncovers the clues that will allow the protagonist to ultimately outwit the killer), the emphasis, especially at the end of the story, is on the future. Often the hero solves the puzzle and reveals the identity of the antagonist before the climax (though perhaps not long before). The most tense part of a thriller generates that tension through the lives of the characters, characters we have come to care about, being put in danger.

While in a mystery lives are on the line as well they aren’t effected in the same way. In a mystery the characters will not be able to go back to their normal lives (back to the Ordinary World) until the murderer is discovered by the sleuth and revealed to the community. Often one or more characters will be social pariahs, indefinitely under suspicion, if the murderer is not brought to justice.[1] 

Similarities between mysteries and thrillers:

1. Mystery. Thrillers often include a mystery or puzzle. Often this mystery involves some perversion of justice.

2. Suspense. Both mysteries and thrillers are suspenseful, though in a typical murder mystery the life of the sleuth is not put in danger. That said, their reputation and (often) way of life will be on the line.

Differences between mysteries and thrillers:

1. In general, a mystery looks backward while a thriller looks forward. In a mystery, the most horrible perversion of justice lies in the past where, with a thriller, it will occur in the future if the hero does not bring the antagonist to justice.

2. Hero versus Sleuth. The protagonist of a murder mystery is usually some sort of sleuth. They will be either a professional detective (police officer or private detective) or will be recognized as possessing that role by the other characters (for example, Miss Marple). In a thriller, on the other hand, the protagonist’s main goal generally isn’t to solve the mystery, it is to (for example) prevent something from happening in the future or to make sure it does. Yes, solving a mystery is usually crucial to the outcome of the story, but the mystery is not the central event. For example, in the movie “Along Came A Spider” the protagonist’s goal was to return the kidnapped child. In keeping with this, often the protagonist’s of thrillers are neither full-time nor part-time detectives.


It seems to me that the difference between a mystery and a thriller is one of emphasis. In a thriller there is generally a race to the finish line while in a mystery there is a reveal. The sleuth already has all the answers, all that is left is for him to reveal them.[2]


1. Though, that said, Agatha Christie wrote many stories that were clever variations on this theme. For example, in “The King of Clubs” no one was murdered, though there was an unexplained death. Further, if the killer had been exposed this would have brought about an injustice. In another of her stories, “Murder on the Orient Express,” the murder that the sleuth starts off investigating is (on one interpretation) an act of justice.

2. I’m currently reading, “Falling Angel,” by William Hjortsberg, it’s the book on which the 1987 movie “Angel Heart” was based. That book (as well as the movie) is an excellent example of a mystery (the private detective is investigatin g events long past to determine whether Johnny Favorite is alive or dead) but it morphs into something more when many of the people the sleuth talks to end up murdered. It’s one of the best and most daring mysteries I’ve read and provides us with an example of a story that straddles the divide between mystery and thriller.

Photo credit: "the proper order of things is often a mystery to me" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Protagonist Checklist

Protagonist Checklist

My mother cleaned our house from top to bottom every year; she cleaned out every drawer, every cupboard, every closet. 

That’s practical industry at its best. Unfortunately it’s also something I’m almost completely devoid of. I feel at my best amidst a friendly snarl of papers and pens.

Yesterday, though, I had the day to myself and had the uncharacteristic urge to go through the drawers in my office and do a bit of tidying. (These days most of my tidying gets done as I listen to an audiobook.)

My office drawers have become receptacles for the revolving miscellany of papers I tack to my walls: bits of writing advice, admonitions, to-do lists and urgent reminders for events long past. 

I sifted through the pages of writing advice and lifted out one or two of my favorites to share with you.

Character Development

After I write a first draft here are some questions I ask about my protagonist (or any character that’s not a walk-on):

1. Main Desire. Every protagonist must want something deeply, desperately. Does she? What is it? Find (at least) one clear expression of it in your novel. Bonus points if you showed rather than told. (Though this is so important you might want to do both.)

2. Motivation. What is your protagonist’s motivation? Why does he have this particular overriding desire? For example, in The Mummy Rick O’Connell’s motivation for leading the expedition to Hamunaptra was to repay Evy for saving his life. His goal, on the other hand, was to get everyone there and back safely. (That, and he liked Evy.)

3. Decisive Action. When (in which scenes) does your protagonist take decisive action to get what he wants (his main desire)? Although a character can do their share of wiffle-waffling, they have to take decisive action at least once.

4. Stakes. What are the stakes? They should be clear and substantial. Further, the stakes should get bigger over time. (The stakes are what the character gets if she achieves her main goal—in other words, fulfills her main desire—and what she loses if she doesn’t.)

5. The Stakes Must Matter. Why do the stakes matter to the other characters? In the case of The Mummy all the characters wanted the treasures concealed within Hamunaptra, though their reasons for wanting them varied.

6. Well Defined Problem. What is the well defined problem that sets the protagonist’s goal? I mentioned The Mummy, above. In that movie the problem was to find the lost city of Hamunaptra and return with its artifacts.

Character Development: Scenes

- Strength. What is your character’s main strength? Find (at least) two scenes where the protagonist depends on that strength to solve a problem.

- Weakness. What is your character’s main weakness? Find (at least) one scene in which the protagonist’s weakness prevents her from solving a problem (/achieving her goal or desire).

- Silly Quirk. What is your character’s silly quirk? Find (at least) two scenes in which the character’s quirk complicates their life. That is, find at least one scene in which their silly quirk threatens to prevent them from achieving their goal. The goal here is that of a scene or a sequence of scenes, not necessarily the final, ultimate, goal. For example, Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes. 

- Contradiction. I’ve blogged about this the last few days. Complex characters are, generally, a mass of contradictions. 

* How does the character’s characterization contradict one or more of her internal traits?
* How do the character’s internal traits (intelligence, charisma, etc.) contradict each other?
* How does the character’s dominant trait change over time?

Find at least four scenes that show your protagonist’s contradiction(s).

- Clever. Most protagonists should be clever and resourceful. List at least two scenes in which the protagonist’s resourcefulness turns a situation around and allows him to achieve his goal.

- B-story. This won’t be the case for all stories, but in some the solution to the B-story provides the hero with the solution she needs to, at the story climax, achieve her main goal. What is your B-Story? In which scene does it begin and which scene contains its climax? In which scene, or scenes, do you tie in the epiphany of the B-story with the final culmination of the A-story?

- Guiding Principle. Often a character will have a guiding principle they live by. Hercule Poirot was fond of saying, “I do not approve of murder.”

General Questions

I try to always keep these questions at the back of my mind:

- What are your protagonist’s positive qualities? Is she strong? Good? Is she principled? Is she brave?

- What can your protagonist do that no one else can?

In Conclusion

I agree with those who hold that a protagonist doesn’t have to be amiable, likable or admirable. As long as your protagonist:

a. Has a special talent
b. Is clever and resourceful
c. Is wounded

then it doesn’t matter if the reader thinks he’s likable. The key thing is that the protagonist must be pursuing justice.

That leads us to our final  question: In your manuscript what one thing embodies the protagonist’s pursuit of justice?

That’s it!

Today’s writing exercise: The significance of the apparently mundane. (William Hjortsberg make the most of this in "Falling Angel," a book which was made into the movie "Angel Heart.")

Photo credit: "Oh happy rainy day!" by Caroline under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Key To Making A Character Multidimensional: Pairs of Opposites

The Key To Making A Character Multidimensional: Pairs of Opposites

I’m not going to recap the content of my previous two posts (it would take too long), but if you’d like to give them a quick look here are the links:

Today I’m going to look at ways of making the story world a crucible for our main characters.

How to show the reader a character’s layers

It’s simple. Or at least simple to explain yet not at all easy to do.

In my first post I talked about how to create a complex character. It is not enough just to give them desires, one must give them conflicting desires.

For example, a character could be both bold and timid. That’s one dimension. But how could we show this? One cannot be both bold and timid at the same time.

Though, as I typed the above, I realized that it’s perfectly possible to, say, both want, and not want, the last slice of cheesecake. Or the last potato chip in the bag. But, in those situations, what the character is experiencing are competing desires (in my case, the desire to lose five pounds and the desire to eat something delicious; one cannot live on rice cakes alone!).  

The sort of traits I’m talking about here are, really, dispositions. In general, one is either timid or bold, brave or cowardly, happy or sad. 

In any case, there are, I believe, three ways to show the reader a character’s contradictory trait.

1. People. Have the protagonist interact with different people. With one person they are bold and outgoing, with another they are shy and retiring.
2. Setting. Have the protagonist interact with different settings.
3. Time. Look at the protagonist at different times. (This is, I think, the most common way of exploring character.)

Let’s take a look at these one by one.

1. Pairs of Opposites: People

It would make the protagonist seem crazy to react one way one second and another way another second. Like Bill Murray in “What About Bob” when the titular character works up his courage to step onto a crowded elevator on the 40th floor but his fear, his terror, makes him turn away at the last moment. And he does this over and over and over and ... If we’re writing a character like Bob (or Mr. Monk) then, okay, but more often we demonstrate the opposites of a character—let’s call this a “character dimension”—by having them interact with different people.

So, for instance, with one character—perhaps a character who doesn’t have much money and is absent-minded (they’re always dropping things and forgetting where they left their glasses, their keys, etc.)—the protagonist is snippy and short. They’re rude. But with another character, perhaps one that is polished and who comes from a wealthy family, the protagonist goes to great lengths to be pleasant. This tells the reader much more than if we just showed him one side of the protagonist or the other.

Anyway, as many great books do, Gillian Flynn uses this technique in “Gone Girl” to create the kind of novel one can’t just read, one must consume it in great greedy gulps. It’s the kind of story I love to lose myself in, only surfacing—and, then, reluctantly—as I turn the last page. I’ll sit on the couch (or curl up like a pretzel on my bed) stunned, and wonder how long it will take her to write another.

Anyway, without giving anything away, “Gone Girl” is about two characters, Nick and Amy. Early on in the book Amy disappears and one wonders whether Nick had any part to play in that. What is Nick really like? What does he feel? One way Gillian Flynn teases out, fleshes out, Nick’s character is through his interactions with other characters, how he sees them. 

But Gillian Flynn doesn’t stop there.

We get both perspectives—Nick’s and Amy’s—from the first person. Nick is the narrator of the book but Amy talks to us through diary entries. To make matters more interesting still, Nick and Amy give us their very different perspectives on the same events. First we see things from Nick’s perspective and hear his gripes, then we peer into Amy’s diary and get her version of events.

In many ways Nick and Amy are opposites, but we don’t just see these characters through the eyes of a dispassionate narrator. We hear their own words, always aware that neither can be a hundred percent correct. We always see our lives through a filter and it’s the same with Nick and Amy. This leaves the reader to try and read between the lines and attempt to separate the truths from the lies. On top of it being a very well written book, “Gone Girl” is tremendous fun.

My point is that the more one layers in conflicting qualities, the more dimensions we create in a character, the more real, and the more interesting, they become.

2. Pairs of Opposites: Setting 

Think of a haunted house. The dark hallways, the creaking floorboards, the mysterious groans as the house settles. You turn a corner and a sticky cobweb stretches across your face and ... what’s that? Something long and thin and hard presses up against your cheek. You scream and fling it off you, not really wanting to know what it was but you can’t help it, you’re curious. You look at it. It’s long and thin, slightly curved, wrapped in silk. It looks just like a severed human finger! (Cue screaming violins.)

What would the normal response be to such a scenario? Like Gus on Psych the average person would scream and run away. At least, that’s what I’d do! But what would Indiana Jones do? He’d look at the finger, wonder who its previous owner was, and move on. Heroes, at least action heroes, tend not to be shaken by stuff like that. But what if, instead of a spider web, we’d dropped a snake on Indy? That would be a different matter. One of the most memorable things about Indiana Jones is his fear of snakes, something which is established early in the first film.

So there we have the opposing responses, fear vs courage—or at least calmness. And this is brought out by varying the setting.

3. Pairs of Opposites: Time

The most common way of a character exhibiting opposite traits is over time. We’re all familiar with this. The protagonist starts his journey as, say, a cringing milquetoast and, over the course of the story, gains confidence in his abilities, in himself. At the climax, he faces his fears and defeats the antagonist.

But, wait! We’re still not done. There’s one more element I’d like to discuss: how to create a supporting cast of characters that will draw out the multiple dimensions of a robust protagonist. I’ll get to that on Monday, stay tuned!

Photo credit: "cold hearted orb" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Story World As Crucible

Story World As Crucible

Yesterday we talked about the essence of drama and the key to developing character; namely, developing a story world which will test the main character’s strengths and force him to face, and overcome, his weaknesses. (Or, if it’s a tragedy, to fail and die.)

Everything in the story universe—setting as well as characters—is chosen with the protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses in mind.

It is in this sense that all story is about character. The plot is as it is because the writer believes certain goals will be best at helping reveal character, that they will be best at forcing the protagonist to reach beyond his limits. 


This way of looking at story (we could call it story-as-crucible) makes sense to me but I want to emphasize that not all stories are about a hero realizing his/her potential to the fullest.

Story as crucible is not, I would imagine, the way most writers think about their craft/art. That said, it’s not a bad way of looking at what we’re on about when we write a dramatic story. (Note: many stories aren’t intended to be dramatic stories.)

Thinking about the books I’ve read, the movies I’ve seen, the overwhelming majority of them fit the story-as-crucible idea. The story world and the events that unfolded within it, as well as the characters that enlivened it, can all be seen as tools used to put the main character through trials designed to burn away what is inessential. 

At the end of most dramatic stories, the main character either shatters like a flawed pot or emerges, reborn, with a realistic appraisal of both themselves and their environment. The  protagonist has come into their true strength, they have recognized and, for the most part, overcome their weaknesses. Or at least learnt how to work around them. 

Even action flicks—movies self-consciously plot oriented—bring the hero to a crises point. Think of any of the Indiana Jones movies or Die Hard.

In any case, I wanted to make the point that not all authors self-consciously sit down and decide to design a story universe as a crucible for their protagonist (nor should they). But, even when the author doesn’t, I believe that this story-as-crucible idea can still aid one’s analysis.

How to create a story world as a crucible for your main character

Well, that was a rather long summary of my previous blog post! I really just wanted to set things up for two concepts I wanted to write more about.

Now that we know what we’re on about—constructing a crucible for our main character—let’s talk about how to do this. That is, how to create a story world to serve as a crucible that will test, strengthen and transform your main character.

This is where McKee really shines, he doesn’t just talk about the importance of one’s story world being a crucible for the main character he tells you how to do it.

McKee gives the reader three techniques:

1. McKee discusses how to create a fully realized main character, one with many dimensions.

2. He also talks about how to create a supporting cast of characters, one that will force your main character reveal all his quirks, weaknesses, strengths and foibles.

3. Finally, McKee goes over how to double-check that your story world is a crucible for your protagonist. 

I wrote about (1) and (3) yesterday so tomorrow I’ll dive into how to create a cast of characters designed to put your main character through his paces.

Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "Stars and Sparks" by Zach Dischner under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Mind Worms And The Essence of Drama

Mind Worms And The Essence of Drama

Have  you ever watched the movie, “The Game”? Michael Douglas plays a person with every material advantage who is, nevertheless, precariously close to killing himself. Here’s the setup:

“Nicholas Van Orton (Douglas) is a wealthy investment banker, but his success has come at a cost. He is estranged from both his ex-wife and his only sibling, his younger brother, Conrad (Penn). He remains haunted from having seen his father commit suicide on the latter's 48th birthday. For Nicholas' own 48th birthday, Conrad presents Nicholas with an unusual gift—a voucher for a "game" offered by a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). Conrad promises that it will change his brother's life.” (The Game, Wikipedia)

If you’re wondering what this has to do with anything, hang on just a moment longer.

Mind Worms

In “Story” Robert McKee writes that in the Middle Ages scholars had the notion of a Mind Worm. He writes:

“Suppose a creature had the power to burrow into the brain and come to know an individual completely—dreams, fears, strength, weakness. Suppose that this Mind Worm also had the power to cause events in the world. It could then create a specific happening geared to the unique nature of that person that would trigger a one-of-a-kind adventure, a quest that would force him to use himself to the limit, to live to his deepest and fullest. Whether a tragedy or fulfillment, this quest would reveal his humanity absolutely.”

Consumer Recreation Services, from “The Game” is basically the modern equivalent of the Mind Worm! (BTW, if you’ve never seen the movie, Roger Ebert’s review of “The Game” was right on target and, as his reviews always were, beautifully written.)

I’ve talked about “The Game” and Mind Worms to lead up to what McKee says is the essence of dramatic storytelling: fully developed characters placed in a world designed to test their strengths and play on their weaknesses, to force them not only to face themselves as they are but to push past what they thought were their limits and be reborn, a new self. Or fail and die.

That’s dramatic storytelling in a nutshell. The question is: how does one do that? Today I’d like to talk about part of the answer to that question by discussing the difference between what McKee calls characterization and True Character. Let’s dive in.

The events a character experiences must fit the character.

Characters aren’t human. They aren’t persons. They’re better! Why? Because they are intentionally designed to be clear and knowable. It is possible for me to completely understand a character. I’ve never been able to say that of a flesh-and-blood person. Just when I think I have them pegged they will do something that completely bewilders me.

Character Design: Characterization vs True Character

You’ve likely heard this part before, but lets review it since we’ll be building on it in what follows:

1. Characterization

A fictional human’s characterization will include some or all of the following:

- physical appearance
- mannerisms
- style of speech
- gestures
- gender and sexuality
- age
- intelligence
- occupation
- personality
- attitudes
- values
- where he/she lives
- how he/she lives

A character’s characterization is the sum total of the observable qualities. They are what makes that character unique.

2. True Character

As we’ve seen, characterization is about the outer, the observable. True Character is about what is inside.

- Is the character loyal or disloyal?
- Are they honest or dishonest?
- Loving or cruel?
- Courageous or cowardly?
- Generous or selfish?
- Willful or weak?

True Character is expressed through choice necessitated by dilemma

McKee writes:

“How the person chooses to act under pressure is who he is—the greater the pressure, the truer and deeper the choice to character.”

The key to True Character is desire

What does the character want? McKee writes:

“A character comes to life the moment we glimpse a clear understanding of his desire—not only the conscious, but in a complex role, the unconscious as well.”

Which suggests a number of questions:

- What does the character want/desire?
- When do they want it? Now? Soon? Later?
- What is their overall desire, their chief desire?
- Does the character know he/she wants this?

What we mean by a “three-dimensional” character

But having a single, unitary, desire isn’t enough. McKee points out that truly great characters have one particular trait in common: they have contradictory desires.

Kinds of contradiction

This fundamental contradiction can take a couple of forms.

1. Contradiction deep within the character.

The character has contradictory desires. For example, Macbeth was torn between ambition and guilt.

2. Contradiction between characterization and True Character.

Another common kind of contradiction is that between the characterization—the character’s observable qualities, those that make her unique—and her True Character.

For example, a effusively complementary, gorgeous beauty queen might be seething with bitterness and anger.

That’s it! In my next post I’m going to pick up on Robert McKee’s contention that the entire story world is formed—or should be formed—as a kind of fiery forge or crucible to push the character to, and then past, his limits. That’s the heart of drama.
Photo Credit: "Love is in the Air..." by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Story Composition: Variety Within Unity

Story Composition: Variety Within Unity

I’m slowly worming (bookworming!) my way through Robert McKee’s epic book on life and writing, “Story,” and have come to what I think is one of the most valuable concepts he’s covered, as well as one of the most difficult: composition.

When I see that word, “composition,” I think of all the dreary elementary school writing assignments I had to endure. But this is different.

Story Composition

When we compose an essay or a diary entry—or a story—we make decisions about how to order and link events.

Composition is about “selecting what to include, to exclude, to put before and after.”

This sort of patient ordering is something I’m especially bad at. On my first draft, possible alternate story lines like to bubble up in my thoughts like mushrooms after a rain. But that just leads to chaos (at least, it has with me!). I must impose an organizing principle, I must be selective.

McKee lists various principles that can help with this selection process:

- Unity and Variety
- Pacing
- Rhythm and Tempo
- Social and Personal Progression
- Symbolic and Ironic Ascension
- The Principle of Transition

Don’t worry! I’m only covering one of these today.

Unity and Variety

Let’s tackle unity first.

A story must be unified. As in Highlander, “There can be only one.” Yes, we can weave in numerous sub-threads, but there should be one overarching plot/arc/story thread.

What is this story thread? It follows a very simple organizing principle:

“Because of the Inciting Incident the Climax had to happen.

In every story there’s an Inciting Incident. That incident changes the protagonist’s Ordinary World in such a way that, ultimately, it is impossible for him to go on with his life as normal.

McKee uses the movie “Jaws” as an example:

“Because the shark killed a swimmer, the sheriff had to destroy the shark.”

I would say that, in “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark”:

Because the Nazi’s were in search of the ark, Indiana Jones had to get to it first and bring it home.

McKee continues:

“We should sense a causal link between Inciting Incident and Story Climax. The Inciting Incident is the story’s most profound cause, and, therefore, the final effect, the Story Climax, should seem inevitable. The cement that binds them is the spine, the protagonist’s deep desire to restore the balance of life.”

Now, I’m not saying that this is true—or should be true—for every single story. As McKee points out, there are different kinds of stories. But it is interesting how many stories this applies to. Take, for instance, Margaret Atwood’s most recent book, “Stone Mattress” as an example.

Margaret Atwood wields her pen like a scalpel, honing her words, her meaning, to a sharp edge as she slices into her characters, revealing their still-beating hearts, their souls.

But I digress. One of the stories from “Stone Mattress”—The Freeze-Dried Groom—follows, or embodies, the principle McKee mentions. In this story, Sam, the protagonist, is a scoundrel who we meet the morning his wife finally wises up and gives him the boot. 

That event, that severing of ties, is the Inciting Incident and sends Sam hurtling toward, not only the end of the story but, we feel, the end of his life. Or at least that’s how it unfolded in my imagination. Atwood hides the climax of her story; it occurs after the last word. She invites the reader—literally as well as figuratively—to spin out the story for themselves. It’s the perfect lead-in to a fan-fiction contest.

I mention Atwood’s story because it demonstrates an important aspect of this principle of unity: The writer’s challenge is to finish the story in such a way that whatever ending is chosen, it will seem inevitable—and come as a surprise.

That’s tricky to pull off, but the stories that do often go on to become reader/viewer favorites. For example, the end of Empire Strikes Back, when Luke finds out that Darth Vader is his father. It came as a surprise but, afterward, when I thought about it, it seemed to fit perfectly. It seemed obvious. Inevitable.


McKee writes:

“Unity is critical, but not sufficient. Within this unity, we must induce as much variety as possible.”

Action/adventure stories are often also love stories—or contain within them this thread.

Yesterday I watched “22 Jump Street.” It was a comedy about two police officers who respond to the death of a girl by arresting a drug dealer, but it was also a bromance, a romance, and an action adventure.

McKee ends this section by writing:

“[...] we don’t want to hit the same note over and over, so that every scene sounds like every other. Instead, we seek the tragic in the comic, the political in the personal, the personal driving the political, the extraordinary behind the unusual, the trivial in the exalted.”

At some later date I’ll come back to a few of McKee’s other points, but that’s enough for today. Here’s my takeaway: Within unity, variety. 

Good writing! Have a terrific and productive weekend. 

By the way, I have been sending out writing prompts on my Google+ feed. If you would like to join in the fun, please do.

Photo credit: "quiet" by 55Laney69 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Freeze-Dried Fiction Contest with Margaret Atwood

The Freeze-Dried Fiction Contest with Margaret Atwood
I’m back!

My vacation was fabulous, but it’s equally fabulous to be back in my writers cave surrounded by my books and cats and dust and post-it notes.

This morning I read the most fabulous story by Margaret AtwoodThe Freeze-Dried Groom (currently free on Wattpad)and then discovered there’s a fiction contest associated with it.

Margaret Atwood leaves readers guessing about what will happen to the characters in the story. Will the protagonist, Sam, be the killer or the victim? (Or, perhaps, something else entirely.) Who is the mysterious woman he is romancing?

Instead of leaving readers guessing, she has invited them—invited us!—to continue the story and answer the questions ourselves. 

The Freeze-Dried Fiction Contest with Margaret Atwood

Here is a link to the rules and regulations on Wattpad: What you need to know and how to enter.

To be eligible, your story must be between 1,000 and 5,000 words. You need to use the tag #FreezeDriedFiction (or #Freeze-DriedFiction) and post it on your own Wattpad account between October 1 and October 31, 2014.

To learn more about the prizes, as well as who is eligible to apply, visit the link I gave above (“What you need to know and how to enter”). 

That’s it! Wow, a post under 300 words. I don’t expect this brevity will last, though. There are a number of writing related issues I want to chew over with you in the coming weeks and months. Cheers!

Photo credit: untitled by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Royal Order of Adjectives & Going On Vacation

The Royal Order of Adjectives & Going On Vacation

Lists are powerful.

I don’t know what I’d do without them. Lists of names for characters, lists of locations, lists of interesting words (like rutabaga).

Today I’m making lists of another kind, lists of items I must remember to take with me on vacation.

Yes, I’m leaving the country and won’t be back until the end of the month. I probably won’t post here again until I get back, though I may put a few vacation pics up over on my website and ramble about where I am and what I’m doing.

The Royal Road of Adjectives

Before I leave, I’d like to mention something I came across when I was doing research for my program: the Royal Order of Adjectives. I hadn’t heard of it before—maybe that doesn’t say a lot for the school system up here—but, apparently, there’s an accepted order that the various kinds of adjectives should adhere to.


Once I read a few examples it made sense; it’s something I’d like to convince my program to check for so that I can scan my own work to make sure my adjectives are standing to attention in the proper order. 

Here’s the handy-dandy graph, complete with examples. This is from’s page dedicated to adjectives. It’s the best primer on adjectives I’ve come across, highly recommended if you’re into that sort of thing ... which it seems I am. Now. 

The Royal Order of Adjectives (click to enlarge)

For example: A delicious little square vase of old red Italian silk roses.

It’s interesting to play around with the adjectives in the chart and see what sentences you can come up with!

While you’re doing that I’m going to slink off to parts unknown. I’ll miss blogging here, but it’ll be nice to have a short break. I’ll be back, with renewed vigor, at the end of the month. I might even have a few stories to tell! It’s amazing what crawling out of one’s writer’s cave every once in a while can do.

Photo credit: "Serpent" by Daniel Zedda under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Keeping A Writing Journal

Keeping A Writing Journal

“I have advice for people who want to write. I don’t care whether they’re 5 or 500. [...] [I]f you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair.”
Madeleine L’Engle
Today I want to talk about something a bit different: writing journals and whether writers should keep one.

I keep a writing journal and it has helped me enormously. That said, I suspect if you saw it my journal wouldn’t look like anything you’d classify as a writing journal. 

For the last few years I have scribbled, daily, in a book I keep ready-to-hand when I’m in the house. (When I go out I keep a pad of paper in my purse and transfer anything I write there into my daily journal.)

While this journal may contain the odd (and I do mean odd ;) insight into life, the world and everything, what mostly fills its pages are bits of writing that in years past I used to commit to random pieces of paper, pieces that would drift around my office. Inevitably, they would disappear and I would be left with the vague feeling that I’d written something important on one of them. 

I think what happened is that I’d grab a piece of paper and use the reverse side for a shopping list, or to take a message, or to dash off a to-do list, and then I’d forget there was writing on the back and recycle it.

After years of this I hit on the notion of keeping a notebook as a kind of—this is how I think of it at least—RAM. The book is, essentially, an extension of my memory. I write in it all the things I would like to remember a hour, or a day, or a year from now but absolutely won’t unless I record them.

And it’s much more difficult to misplace a book than unattached slips of paper!

My writing journal is also the place where I doodle, do math, sketch out cover ideas, program code, and first drafts of blog posts and stories.

Yes, it is a bit of a hodgepodge, a dogs breakfast (for some obscure and likely bizarre reason I love that phrase, “dogs breakfast”) but being-difficult-to-find is a step up from lost. To mitigate this problem I’ve developed a system of labeling that involves multi-colored highlighters and yellow post-it notes. My goal is to make it obvious what information each page contains, especially when that information is the first draft of a story.

After writing that I feel a bit naked! I’ve never discussed my writing journal before.

Anyway, there it is. I wish I had developed this system years ago, less of my writing would be lost and a (crude, confused) record would exist of what I’d written on a day to day basis. 

You might wonder: Would keeping this sort of life-in-a-bucket journal be of help to you? Maybe! If you regularly lament that you can’t find a short little note, or a writing sketch, you jotted down then, perhaps, an everything-in-a-tin journal might be helpful.

One thing I can guarantee you: after a year or two, seeing a couple dozen journals snuggled up beside each other on your bookcase will make you feel like a writer—because you are!

Either that or it’ll remind you of the movie, “Se7en.” Whichever. ;)

Photo credit: "Stargazin" by Zach Dischner under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.