Wednesday, April 30

Characterization Or Plot: Which Is Most Important To Readers?

Characterization Or Plot: Which Is Most Important To Readers?

The other day I watched a video of Lee Child talking about writing. It was a question and answer period and someone asked how he got in touch with his character, Jack Reacher. They asked how he knew Reacher's likes, wants, needs, fears, and so on.

Lee Child said something to the effect that Jack Reacher is a fictional character and, as such, had no likes or dislikes. It was the reader who had likes and dislikes. Child didn't care about what Reacher wanted he cared about what the reader wanted. And, he added, hopefully they'd want to turn the page![1]

This startled me. 

One of the first things I wondered in my budding career as a writer--I think I was about four at the time--was how to make my parents interested in my stories. Really interested, not just "Oh another story, how lovely." It was a challenge since my interests weren't their interests and vice versa.

Since then my audience has changed radically, but the question has remained the same: How can I write stories that make readers want to finish them, stories which drag readers from the first sentence to the last sentence?

From what I can tell, here's the standard answer:

You get a reader to care about the story by creating a round character, a 3D character, one with hopes and wants and needs and fears and then you break their hearts. 

You endanger what they care about most, you strip them of what they need, and then you give them a way to win it back, but the way is narrow and fraught with deadly peril. The environment opposes them, some of their allies oppose them, their all-too-human enemy opposes them. And the obstacles keep getting thornier and higher and eventually seem insurmountable. 

But the hero has heart. He's not giving up. He battles on. And he's clever. He's got skills. We, the readers, can't help but root for him and find it impossible to sleep until we know how it all turned out in the end. Did he achieve his goal or did he lose everything? (Which I think, really, equates to us wondering what kind of a universe it is. Fair or random.)

That was a (very) rough sketch, but you know what I'm talking about. That's the bones of the hero's quest.

But ... is that it? Is that right? Is that (the hero's quest, character identification, creating 3D characters, and so on) how we get people to care about stories?

Let me play devil's advocate:

"Characters don't have hopes or wants or needs or fears because they don't exist! They're fictional. Besides, they don't have any money so they can't invest in one's next book, so what writers should be concerned with are the hopes and wants and needs and fears of flesh and blood readers. And (in general) what matters to humans is mystery and puzzles and action."

Or something.

I think, in practise, readers read on because they care about both the characters and the bells and whistles of the plot; action and mystery and all that kind of thing.

I know I've used it as an example too many times, but it's one of my favorite movies, and it does illustrate my point beautifully. In Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, I did care whether Indy found the ark and it didn't have anything to do with me wanting Indy to achieve his goal (or because I cared about the character yada yada), it had to do with the ark itself. I was curious whether this really was the Ark of the Covenant and, if Indy or the Nazi's found it, what it would do. And would whatever it did be cool. (And it was!)

Something similar happened when I watched the first season of Game of Thrones. One of the questions that season was: Are dragons real? Is Daenerys Targaryen part dragon or is she just delusional? The last episode of that season answered the question beautifully. 

I did care about Daenerys and whether she salvaged something from the ashes of her life, but more than anything I wondered: Do dragons exist? Granted, I wouldn't have cared as much about the answer if Daenerys hadn't staked her life on it. And this only mattered because I'd come to care about the character. But still.

I think what I'm talking about, or gesturing toward, is the interaction of character and plot. Readers care about the plot, in part, because of the characters and we get interested in the characters, in part, because the plot spurred them on to do interesting things.

What do you think? Why do you read stories? Is it the plot? The characters? The interaction of the two? 


1. I can't remember exactly where I saw this, I was going through Lee Child's interview page. I think I watched everything from 2012 on.

Tuesday, April 29

Parts Of Story: How To Create Suspense

What is suspense and how is it created?

Lee Goldberg once said that, "Suspense is an escalating sense of apprehension or fear, a building of pressure, heading either towards an uncertain conclusion or a horrifyingly certain one." Either way, the reader asks: What's going to happen next?

In what follows I look at what suspense is and then, in the next chapter, turn to examine the preconditions for suspense. Namely:

a) A real danger to the hero. 
b) The possibility that the hero will escape the danger. 
c) A finite amount of time, sometimes called a ticking clock.

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony can be used to increase the audience's sense of curiosity and concern for the hero.

There are many kinds of irony: verbal, dramatic and situational. Here, though, I'm only going to discuss dramatic irony.

Dramatic Irony And Suspense: An Example

Scenario 1: Imagine a hero inching along a darkened path, oblivious to the deadly shadow soundlessly creeping up behind him, poised to suck the lifeforce from his bones.

Scenario 2: Imagine that, as before, our hero inches along a darkened path anticipating a threat just round the bend. He doesn't know whether there's a monster there, but there could be. Unlike before there's no deadly shadow stalking him ... at least, not that we know of.

The first scenario creates suspense, in part, by giving the reader/audience more information than the hero possesses. We see the danger creeping up on him and want to scream: Turn around!

In the second scenario there is no such disparity of knowledge. We know what the hero knows and, with him, we cringe as he rounds every corner, every bend in the twisty road. 

Some Aspects of Dramatic Irony

a. Surface meaning vs underlying meaning

Dramatic irony occurs when the surface meaning of an utterance is at variance with its deeper meaning. 

Meanings don't exist in a vacuum. It's people who understand utterances, it's people who understand meaning, whom things matter to. 

Dramatic irony depends upon certain people knowing more than others. Some who hear the utterance will be stranded at the surface while others will understand the deeper meaning.

Let's look at the possibilities.

a.i. The audience knows less than one or more of the characters.

For instance, tension, suspense, can be generated when we see a character's reaction to, for example, the contents of a suitcase even though we never find out what it contained.

This example comes from Pulp Fiction. Vincent Vega looks into the suitcase, it's eery illumination playing over his face. For a moment he seems lost in whatever he sees. Stunned. Overwhelmed. The viewer doesn't know what's in the suitcase, but Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield do. Vega is looking right at it and, damn him, he's not telling! 

a.ii. The audience knows more than one or more of the characters.

I think this is the far more common scenario. It happens on almost every show I watch, nearly every episode.

A character knows less about something than another character or the audience, and they don't know they know less.

For example, a couple of months ago I re-watched the scifi/horror classic Alien, a movie that has aged remarkably well. At one point one of the characters--Brett--searches for Jones the cat. Everyone on the ship is going back into stasis and that includes Jones, but Brett needs to catch him first. Yes, sure, the alien is on the loose too, but in this scene Brett isn't overly worried about meeting the alien since he knows Jones is in the area and, therefore, attributes any weird noises to the spooked feline.

Brett hears a noise, looks beneath nearby machinery, and spots the recalcitrant feline. Brett tries to coax the cat out of his hiding spot but, just as the cat walks toward him, we see a tentacle unfurl behind the man. Jones hisses and darts away. Brett is stunned. He thinks the cat hissed at him. Puzzled, he keeps calling Jones, trying to coax the cat out of hiding. While Brett does this we see the alien slowly, silently, unfurl behind Brett. 

At this point in the movie, if you're anything like me, you gripped the cushion you had a strangle hold on and screamed: Turn around!

And, of course, Brett does but it's too late. He's monster chow.

This is the kind of thing we mean when we say that in dramatic irony "the implications of a situation, speech, etc, are understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play." In this scene both the cat and the alien had more information than Brett did and, as so often happens in horror movies, Brett paid for that inequality with his life.

b. Unwise behavior.

When a passage contains dramatic irony, the character from whom information is being kept usually reacts in a way that is inappropriate and unwise.

In the example from Alien, running away and hiding would have been both appropriate and wise. Standing in front of the alien calling out "kitty, kitty," ... not so much.

Summary: Irony occurs when there is an incongruity, or contrast, between what the expectations of a situation are and what is really the case.

(Note: This post is from one of the chapters of my upcoming book, Parts of Story.)

Monday, April 28

Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Fourth And Final 1,500 Words

Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Fourth And Final 1,500 Words

Here we are at last. This is the last post in a five part series on how to write a short story the Lester Dent way. (Here's a link to the first article in this series: Lester Dent's Short Story Master Formula.)

Today we're going to finish talking about Dent's master plot formula for how he wrote a 6,000 word short story.  

The Final 1,500 Words

If you read my other posts you'll notice a familiar progression:

- A complication is introduced.

The complication can be anything that makes it difficult for the hero to attain her goal, or that outright prevents her from attaining it. 

In The Princess Bride, the Man in Black's goal is to rescue Princess Buttercup, but there are complications. First he has to fight Inigo, a master swordsman, then Fezzik throws a massive boulder at him. Finally, the Man in Black must match wits with Vizzini. But then—surprise!—there's a reversal and the Princess is taken away from him again. Now, though, things are truly dire for all involved. Westley is taken away to a dungeon and strapped into (cue ominous music) the Machine.

But, again, it is the initial complication that kicks off the action. It's like a tiny snowball being rolled down a mountain heavy with snow. That tiny snowball, given time, can create an avalanche. 

- The hero overcomes the complication. 

The hero often doesn't overcome the initial complication right away. It could take several tries. It is usually only at the very end of the story that the hero has a flash of insight and wrenches victory from the jaws of defeat. (see: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive)

- The hero, using his skill and intelligence, rescues himself.

It's important that the hero isn't helped, that he gets himself out of the fix he's in himself. After all, that's what heroes do! Even when they're so weak they can barely stand, they have to subdue their enemies themselves. If not with their brawn, then with their wit and a good bluff.

- The hero and the villain face off. This is it, the climax. This is where things will be settled one way or another.

Although both the hero and the villain probably have helpers, no one else can be involved at this stage. The hero must win—or lose—under her own steam.

- As part of the climax we learn the solution to the main mystery: How was the victim killed? We learn how the deed was done, who did it and why.

As you'll recall, what started this all off was a mystery. In Dent's case, it was usually a murder mystery. He wrote:

"A different murder method could be—different. Thinking of shooting, knifing, hydrocyanic, garroting, poison needles, scorpions, a few others, and writing them on paper gets them where they may suggest something. Scorpions and their poison bite? Maybe mosquitoes or flies treated with deadly germs?"

In other words, introduce a mystery in the beginning. (Every time I think of the importance of introducing mystery into a story, or the importance of mystery in creating suspense, I think of J.J. Abrams' wonderful TED talk: The Mystery Box.)

Here, at the end of our 6,000 word story, we pull the curtain back and explain the mystery.

- The villain pulls something out of his hat, something that surprises the hero. 

Here we have another All Is Lost moment, but then the hero turns things around. Perhaps the hero only pretended to be taken off guard, perhaps the hero had been deceiving the villain, playing him. Our hero turns things around to win the day.

- Final twist. 

The final twist should come as a big surprise to your reader. If you've kept the villain's identity a secret—perhaps he has been wearing a mask, perhaps the battle is taking place long-distance, perhaps one of his minions has been standing in for him—now is the time to reveal it. The shock value is sometimes increased if, earlier, the hero met the villain under another guise.

- Wrap things up. 

Make sure there are no unintended loose ends. If you intend this short story to be the first part of a series then it's fine to leave one or two minor threads unresolved. But do check your threads/arcs and make sure you've closed off all the ones you intended to.

- Close with a punch line. Have the hero say something snappy.

Dent, in his Doc Savage books, generally closed with something funny. An inside joke.

A Caveat

This was how Lester Dent wrote a 6,000 word short story he intended to sell to the markets of his day. This is an outline, probably a great outline, of how to write a pulp story. Dent wrote in the 30s, 40s and 50s and, naturally, the markets have changed a lot in the intervening 60 or so years. That said, great fiction is great fiction. I think that to the extent Dent caught on to something lasting with his formula it will be as helpful in our day as it was in his.

It's up to you how to, as well as whether to, use Dent's formula. Dent never claimed that his formula was the only way of writing a story, only that it was his way. And, to his credit, he did sell a lot of short stories and during a very tough time--the Great Depression. 

Sometimes when I'm stuck for an idea, sometimes when I just don't know what's going to happen next, it helps me to approach things from another perspective. If you are in that situation it is my hope that the simple act of reading these posts may help shake something loose and get you writing again. As long as Dent's guidelines are applied with thoughtful awareness, their use isn't going to turn an interesting story into an uninteresting one. On the other hand, it just might give a drab story a bit of life. (Also see Deborah Chester's post, Moon Alligators, for ways of spicing up a story.)

If a story works, it works. It doesn't matter how it was put together. 

Previous posts in this series:

Photo credit: "2014-116 - lines" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, April 27

Stakes: How To Make Goals Matter

I've already discussed conflict and the importance of having goals, but a goal is useless without stakes.

Stakes are the possible consequences of a course of action. What will happen if the protagonist achieves her goal? What will happen if she doesn't?  

Stakes generate tension. Conflict. They create suspense.

For example, let's say we have a character, Bob. Bob is on a diet, he wants to lose 20 pounds before his brother's wedding. Here are two possible versions of the story:

a. Bob lost 20 pounds in time for his brother's wedding.
b. Bob failed to lose 20 pounds.

Either way: So what? Why should we care?

How about this:

c. Bob makes a bet with his brother that if he can't fit into his tux in time for the wedding he'll pay for the wedding. But paying for the wedding would wipe out Bob's savings and he wouldn't be able to take his girlfriend on the dream vacation he has been promising her for the past four years. If Bob doesn't make good on his promise, his girlfriend will leave him. He knows he was an idiot to make the bet but what's done is done. He can't welsh. Will Bob be able to lose the 20 pounds before the wedding or will he fail, pay for his brother's wedding and die alone?

That's better. It's still not a terribly interesting story, but there's potential. As soon as Bob has something to lose and something to gain, we can begin to care about what happens to him.

The possible consequences of a course of action must be clear.

In order for the stakes to be clear, the goal must be clear.

A protagonist wants something. She can want more than one thing, but she must want one thing desperately and more than anything else. The thing that is desperately, passionately, wanted becomes the story goal. If the protagonist achieves the goal then she's succeeded, if not then she's failed.

For instance, in Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, if Indiana finds the ark and brings it back with him then he has succeeded. If not, he's failed.

What are the stakes? If Indy achieves his goal then he gets professional kudos and the opportunity to study a fascinating artifact. If he doesn't, then the Nazi war machine will use the ark to help turn the tide of war in their favor.

Of course, the goal can change along the way. In The Firm Mitch McDeere starts out wanting to be a rich lawyer then, about halfway through the story, his goal changes: he just wants to be free, he doesn't want either the FBI or the mob to own him.

The stakes must matter to the characters

If the stakes don't matter to the characters that's like creating a beautiful car but neglecting to put any gas in the engine. If the stakes don't matter to the characters there's nothing to drive the story. After all, if your characters don't care about achieving the goal, why would readers?

The other day I was walking through a fairground and one of the hawkers called out to me. "Hey! You want to play this game? I know you do. It's fun and you could win a great prize." 

"Oh?" I said. "What prize?" 

The boy-man held up a big stuffed pink and green elephant.

No thanks. It would be cheaper--a lot cheaper--for me to just go out and buy myself a stuffed animal. Though if he'd held up the promise of a critique by, say, Stephen King I'd have played. Heck, he wouldn't have been able to get rid of me!

This point, about the stakes needing to matter to your characters, is also about believability. When the going gets tough and your character is getting beaten up, whether literally or figuratively, they need a strong--in other words believable--reason for why they keep on keeping on.

The stakes must tie into your characters' wants and fears.

How do you, as a storyteller, make it plausible that your characters will go through hell to achieve their goal? We've just seen how. You make the stakes matter to the characters. How do you do that? You tie the stakes into your characters wants and fears.

I think this is one reason why stakes are often life and death. Whether or not a person continues living matters a great deal and it doesn't need explanation. If a burglar pulls out a gun and points it at your character as they're taking a shortcut through a dark alley, the reader understands their panic. 

A character's wants and fears should be unique. So should the stakes.

What does the character want? What drives him? What gets him up in the morning? If he won an obscene amount of money what would he do with it? 

What does the character fear? When he was a kid what kind of beasties lived under his bed? Everyone fears hunger, pain and death, give your character unique fears. One of the things I loved about Mr. Monk was that he was scared of milk. Milk! Who is scared of milk? Monk, that's who. That says something about a character.

A character's wants should reveal something unique about him.

Why a character's wants and fears are important.

Why, from a storytelling perspective, do a character's wants and fears matter? I've heard different answers to this question. Some say they matter because they tie characters to their goals, other say they matter because they tie characters to the story. And those answers are, I think, good answers. They're both correct. 

But I would also say that the stakes tie the reader to the characters and, in so doing, to the story.

For example, in William Goldman's incomparable story, The Princess Bride, why did Inigo Montoya devote his life to becoming a master swordsman? It was because the six-fingered man (Count Rugen) killed his father and Inigo had sworn to avenge his father's death. So yes, sure, Inigo's goal was to kill Rugen but I would argue that generally, he wanted to do right by his father. The love that Inigo had for his father was the glue that kept him focused on his goal. 

What are the stakes for Inigo? When Inigo finally fights Count Rugen it seems as though Inigo is dying, felled by a sneaky, dishonorable, blow meted out by Rugen. We understand from the very beginning: the stakes of this contest, this battle, are life and death and Rugen isn't going to fight fair.

All that is true, but I would argue that for Inigo the stakes that matter to him aren't life and death--his life and death--they are whether he succeeds in avenging his father. If he were to discover that avenging his father would mean his death he wouldn't hesitate. If Inigo doesn't succeed in avenging his father's death, it seems to me that Inigo wouldn't want to live. Inigo doesn't count his life as precious, he lives with one goal in mind: avenge his father's death.

Does the reader/viewer see it that way as well? I don't think so. I think we care much more than Inigo does about his life. Yes, absolutely, we want to see justice done. We want to watch Inigo complete his quest and kill the dishonorable Count Rugen. But it is also very important to us--much more important than it is to Inigo himself--that he survive.  
So all that has been building up to this: the stakes of the character aren't necessarily our stakes. We don't necessarily care about the same things the character cares about. 

When, at the end of the story, the stakes of the battle between Inigo and Count Rugen come down to life and death, I care more about Inigo's life than he does. 

Stakes: Internal and External

Just as characters have internal and external goals so there are internal and external stakes.

For instance, in the movie Shrek the protagonist's internal conflict, his challenge, was to risk rejection and let people in, to let others know how he really felt (for example, to tell Princess Fiona he loved her). Shrek needed to risk rejection so he could make connections with others and find true love.

Shrek's outer challenge was to rescue Princess Fiona so Lord Farquaad would remove the fairytale creatures from his swamp.

Different kinds of stakes accompany different kinds of goals. If Shrek failed to rescue Princess Fiona from the castle, Lord Farquaad would have had Shrek killed. If Shrek failed to lower his defences and let people in, he would have lost the love of Princess Fiona and endured a sad and lonely existence in his now vacant swamp. A pyrrhic victory.

It's not size, it's complexity

It's not the size of the stakes that count, it's their complexity. Complex stakes involve not just a character's internal or external goals, but both together. It's not just about saving the world, it's about overcoming one's fears to save the world. 

Escalate the stakes

Stories contain complications. The hero sets out to do one thing, a complication pops up and blocks him, he tries to get around the complication by doing something but that only makes things worse, and so on.

As I discussed in the chapter on Try-Fail Cycles, the stakes escalate throughout the story until everything comes to a fever pitch at the end.

Conflicting goals mean conflicting stakes

For instance, in Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, there's a terrific scene in the middle where Indy ducks into a tent to hide from the bad guys and comes across Marion tied to a tent pole. Indy begins to untie Marion then realizes that if the Nazis discover Marion missing they'll know he is in the camp looking for the ark. He can't give himself away.

What does Indy do? He ties Marion back up! She is furious with him. It's a great scene.

Lets take a look at the stakes at play in this scene. At the beginning of the scene Indy is trying to hide from a guard so he ducks inside a tent.

Indiana's stakes:

Goal: Escape the guard's notice and obtain the ark.
Success: Indiana doesn't get captured and is one step closer to his goal. 
Failure: Indiana is captured, possibly tortured. He fails to obtain the ark and the world is taken over by the Nazis.

Marion's stakes:

Goal: Get untied, sneak out of the Nazi camp, go to America.
Success: Marion gets her freedom.
Failure: Marion's future is unknown. She could be tortured, various nasty things could happen to her.

In the middle of the scene the stakes change when Indy realizes he has to tie Marion back up or risk losing the ark.

Indy's Goal: To NOT completely alienate the affections of Miriam.
Success: Marion's love and gratitude.
Failure: Her lasting wrath.

For Indy to succeed in winning Marion's affection--or just to avoid making her furious with him--he must help her escape. But he can't. If he helps her, then he risks his primary mission. So he fails to achieve this minor goal, accepts Marion's wrath, ties her back up, and exits the tent.

The point is that conflicting mini-goals with their own stakes often pop up within a scene. The scene between Indiana and Marion was especially interesting, I thought, because it highlighted their diametrically opposed interests. Marion would much rather just escape and forget all about the ark, but not Indy.

*  *  *

As we've seen, characters have goals. Depending upon whether they attain these goals different things come about. Good things will happen if they attain the goals, bad things if they don't. This--the space between where the character is and where the character could be; the possible future that awaits them--creates conflict and conflict is the engine that moves a story forward. Simple as that.

Saturday, April 26

Parts of Story: Try-Fail Cycles

One of the most useful tools or techniques for writing engaging prose is the try-fail cycle. The try-fail cycle lies at the heart of how to unfold a conflict in such a way that it generates suspense.

The nuts and bolts of the try-fail cycle.

For every conflict that comes up, a question can be asked: Will our hero succeed? There are four possible answers:

1) Yes
2) Yes, BUT
3) No
4) No, AND

Let's look at each of these.

1. Yes.

Although in real life we love it when we get what we want, this is boring for others. When families get together at Christmas what's the gossip about? It's all about who got divorced, who lost their job. It's about the bad things--or at least the sad things--that have happened to the people in our lives.

Being told that, yes, the hero will succeed won't generate conflict. It's not interesting. 

Imagine someone told you the following story:

Bob woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Bob promptly got up and took himself over to the nearest waffle house and ate a hot, flaky, buttery, waffle. The End.


Even if we give Bob some motivation, it still doesn't help matters:

Bob's wife, Cindy, woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Cindy was seven months pregnant and hadn't had any appetite for the last three days. Her doctor was worried. When Cindy woke up wanting waffles Bob was overjoyed. "You wait right here," he said, "I'll get you a stack of the fluffiest, most mouth watering, waffles you've ever had. Be right back." 

Bob jumped in his car, got the waffles, and gave them to his wife. She scarfed them down in no time and everyone was happy. The End.

See? Still boring.

I won't write it out, but what if we gave Bob a few obstacles? What if Bob jumped in his car and it wouldn't start? He investigates and discovers his battery is dead. Bob heads over to the neighbor's house hoping he'll help jump start his car but his neighbor isn't home.

Bob peers through the neighbor's window hoping the man just fell asleep on the couch. Instead of seeing his neighbor--an ancient relic who shuffles about, his underwear sagging dangerously--he sees an attractive young woman he doesn't recognize. She's moving around the living room putting valuables into a sack. His neighbour is being robbed!

Bob tries to call the police on his cell but can't get a signal. He wonders if he should bang on the window or say something to the intruder to scare her off. As Bob peers through the window wondering what he should do the woman turns and sees him. She screams something at him he doesn't understand (it's muffled by the glass), pulls a gun from her pocket and points it at him.

Bob, a spike of fear raising goosebumps along his arms ...

And so on.

That's not as boring. I might be able to do something with that. And it's all because we didn't give the hero what he wanted.

2. Yes, BUT ...

As we've seen, a hero needs setbacks because if what he desires were handed to him that would be dull.
With "Yes, BUT" we give the hero something he wanted but introduce a complication. For instance, in my story, Bob's goal was to drive to the waffle house and buy his wife some waffles. Is Bob able to get into his car? Yes! BUT his battery is dead. That's the complication. 

By setting up goals and obstacles and making Bob hop from one to the other, getting in more trouble each time he fails, the story becomes more interesting. Why? Because character is revealed through adversity.

3. No.

For fictional characters, answering the question, "Will the hero get what he desires?" with "No" is almost as bad as answering it with, "Yes." We don't want to see our heroes fail. We want to see them triumph over adversity, or at least make some progress toward triumphing. Imagine this scenario:

Bob woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Bob tried to drive to a waffle house but his car wouldn't start. Dejected and waffle-less, Bob climbed back into bed. The End.

Not interesting.

4. No, AND ...

This is very common. Not only doesn't the protagonist achieve what he set out to but another complication is thrown in his path. We saw it above. The question is: will he get a jump start from his neighbour? The answer: No, AND he has a gun pointed at him.
I'll talk more about this in a minute.

Conflicts & Setbacks

Your main character has goals, he wants things. But if he got everything he wanted right away then your story would be as entertaining as watching paint dry. The solution: be mean. Give your main character setbacks, lots of them. 

In Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones goes on a quest to find and bring back the lost Ark of the Covenant. About halfway through the movie he finds the ark but is captured and, along with Marion, sealed inside an ancient burial vault and left to die.

What follows is one of the best sequences of conflicts and setbacks I've come across. Let's start after Indy finds the ark. 

Question: Does Indy find the ark?
Answer: Yes.
Complication: BUT Indy is captured, thrown into a pit of snakes, and the antagonist takes the ark.

Remember that it has been established early on in the movie that Indiana hates snakes. Spiders and all manner of creepy-crawlies he's fine with, just don't bring him near a snake! (And, yes, I know that there's no logical reason why there would be that many snakes in an ancient burial vault, but the scene still works.)

Question: Do Indy and Marion survive the pit of snakes? 
Answer: Yes, they use torches to keep the snakes at bay.
Complication: BUT the torches are about to burn out.

Question: Do Indy and Marion escape the pit of snakes before their torches burn out?
Answer: Yes, Indy crashes a pillar through a wall providing them an escape.
Complication: BUT the room they enter is filled with skeletons that seem to come alive.

Question: Will Indy and Marion escape the ancient burial vault they've been entombed in?
Answer: Yes.
Complication: BUT the bad guys have the ark and Indy needs to get it back.

Notice that after every goal Indy achieves there is a setback.

Another fabulous sequence in the first Indiana Jones movie occurs a little after the midpoint when Indy decides he and Marion need to get on the plane that the German's will be using to fly the ark out of the country. 

Indy fails in the end (the plane blows up) but the sequence of goals and conflicts create a memorable scene. Let's take a look.

Question: Will Indy commandeer the plane?
Answer: No.
Complication: AND Indy is spotted crawling up the plane, toward the pilot.

Question: Indy and a bad guy fight. Will Indy win?
Answer: Yes.
Complication: BUT a much bigger man starts a fight with Indy (AND the pilot sees indy and knows he's trying to commandeer the plane).

Question: The pilot starts to take pot shots at Indy. Will Indy escape being hit?
Answer: Yes, Indy dodges the pilot's bullets.
Complication: BUT the pilot keeps shooting. 

Question: Indy is fighting a huge bad guy. It looks like he has no chance of winning. Will Indy, against all odds, win the fight against the Man-Mountain? 
Answer: No, Indy is not going to win a fist-fight with the Man-Mountain.
Complication: AND the pilot is still shooting at him.

Question: The pilot takes aim at Indy, from this angle he can't miss. Will Indy survive?
Answer: Yes, indy survives. Marion hits the pilot over the head and knocks him unconscious.
Complication: BUT as the pilot slumps over in the cockpit he hits some levers and starts the plane rolling forward while Indy fights the Man-Mountain on the ground below.

Question: Marion climbs into the cockpit to remove the pilot and stop the plane from moving. Does she succeed?
Answer: No.
Complication: AND Marion gets locked inside the cockpit.

You get the idea. The entire scene is well worth watching.

One thing I want to point out before I leave this chapter is that the stakes for our hero gradually escalate throughout the scene. At first Indy just wants to board the plane, then he gets into a fist fight, then there's an impossibly huge guy he has to fight, then someone starts shooting at him, then the plane begins to move, then there's a truckload of German soldiers who see him, then Marion explodes gasoline containers, then there's gasoline on the ground running toward the fire.

At the end of the scene an ocean of gasoline is rushing toward the burning remains of the gas canisters while the Man-Mountain continues to beat Indy to a pulp and, of course, the whole camp has noticed the gasoline barrels explode and is rushing to investigate. It's quite something.

Try-Fail cycles are present in every story. The next time you read a book or watch one of your favorite TV shows, look for the try-fail cycles.

Friday, April 25

George R.R. Martin On The Art And Craft Of Writing: 9 Tips For Writers

George R.R. Martin On The Art And Craft Of Writing: 9 Tips For Writers

Have you read George R.R. Martin's interview in Rolling Stone magazine? I was amazed and a little shaken by the depth of Martin's innate, intuitive, grasp of storytelling. All the more so because this wasn't an interview conducted with writers in mind. He didn't set out to give writing advice--at least, I don't think he did--but, nevertheless, the advice was there.

Here's what I've taken away from the interview:

1. Ideas are cheap, it's the execution of the ideas that's important.

Martin says:
"Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it's the execution that is all-important. I'm proud of my work, but I don't know if I'd ever claim it's enormously original. You look at Shakespeare, who borrowed all of his plots. In A Song of Ice and Fire, I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things, and all these things work around in my head and somehow they jell into what I hope is uniquely my own."

2. Prose writers can learn from screenwriters.

One thing I was surprised to discover about George R.R. Martin, though I discovered it some time ago, was that Martin had been a screenwriter. He had, as it turns out, worked on one of my mother's favorite series, one which we watched together: Beauty and the Beast (1987-1990).

When asked whether Martin feels his writing in A Song of Fire and Ice benefited from his time in Hollywood, Martin replies:
"I do. The big secret about writing screenplays and teleplays is that it's much easier than writing a novel or any kind of prose. William Goldman said everything that needed to be said about it in Adventures in the Screen Trade: It's all structure, structure and dialogue. Being there improved my sense of structure and dialogue. I'd spent so many years sitting alone in a room, facing a computer or typewriter before that. It was almost exhilarating to go into an office where there were other people – and to have a cup of coffee, and to talk about stories or developments in writers' meetings."
Martin adds that he got into trouble with the network for wanting to make The Beast a darker than they were comfortable with. Martin says,

"But CBS didn't want blood, or for the beast to kill people. They wanted us to show him picking up someone and throwing them across the room, and then they would get up and run away. Oh, my God, horrible monster! [Laughs] It was ludicrous. The character had to remain likeable."

Which brings us to the third point:

3. Don't worry about your characters being likeable.

Martin excels at writing the kind of characters readers--and viewers--love to hate and he does it by being ruthless; ruthless to the characters and, to a certain extent, to his readers, but we'll get to that later.

4. Massacre your darlings.

Martin says:
"The more I write about a character, the more affection I feel...even for the worst of them. Which doesn't mean I won't kill them. Whoever it was who said "Kill your darlings" was referring to his favorite lines in a story, but it's just as true for characters. The moment the reader begins to believe that a character is protected by the magical cloak of authorial immunity, tension goes out the window. The Red Wedding was tremendously hard to write. I skipped over it until I finished the entirety of A Storm of Swords, then I went back and forced myself to write that chapter. I loved those characters too much. But I knew it had to be done. The TV Red Wedding is even worse than the book, of course, because [GoT creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss] turned it up to 11 by bringing in Talisa, pregnant with Robb's child, none of which happened in the book. So we get a pregnant woman stabbed repeatedly in the belly."

5. How George R.R. Martin does worldbuilding: don't build the world first, build it as you write.

Martin says: 
"It all occurs at the same time with me. I don't build the world first, then write in it. I just write the story, and then put it together. Drawing a map took me, I don't know, a half-hour. You fill in a few things, then as you write more it becomes more and more alive."
That's how George R.R. Martin does it. Different strokes and all that. But I find it interesting that--although I'll have ideas about the setting in advance of sitting down and putting pen to paper--the bulk of world development (and character development) gets worked out as I scribble that first zero draft.

Martin had this to say about The Wall:
"The Wall predates anything else. I can trace back the inspiration for that to 1981. I was in England visiting a friend, and as we approached the border of England and Scotland, we stopped to see Hadrian's Wall. I stood up there and I tried to imagine what it was like to be a Roman legionary, standing on this wall, looking at these distant hills. It was a very profound feeling. For the Romans at that time, this was the end of civilization; it was the end of the world. We know that there were Scots beyond the hills, but they didn't know that. It could have been any kind of monster. It was the sense of this barrier against dark forces – it planted something in me. But when you write fantasy, everything is bigger and more colorful, so I took the Wall and made it three times as long and 700 feet high, and made it out of ice."

6. Surprise your readers.

Throughout Martin's interview I felt that one of its themes was that the key to good writing--no, to great writing--is surprise. The ability to surprise your reader. In response to the interviewer's mention of Jaime pushing Bran Stark out a window, Martin says:
"I've had a million people tell me that was the moment that hooked them, where they said, "Well, this is just not the same story I read a million times before." Bran is the first viewpoint character. In the back of their heads, people are thinking Bran is the hero of the story. He's young King Arthur. We're going to follow this young boy – and then, boom: You don't expect something like that to happen to him. So that was successful [laughs]."
Later in the interview Martin says:
"I knew right from the beginning that Ned wasn't going to survive. Both as a writer and as a reader I like stories that surprise me. Hitchcock's Psycho has tremendous impact because Janet Leigh is the movie's star: She's stealing, traveling across country – are the cops going to get her? – and all that. The next thing is, she's being knifed in the shower – you're only 40 minutes into the movie. What the hell is happening? The star just died! After that, you really don't know what the hell is going to happen. It's great; I loved that. That's what I was going for with Ned: The protector who was keeping it all together is swept off the board. So that makes it much more suspenseful. Jeopardy is really there."

7. Explore the deep issues.

George R.R. Martin uses his writing as a medium to explore the deeper issues, the deeper questions, of life. Questions such as "Is redemption possible?" Martin says:
"One of the things I wanted to explore with Jaime, and with so many of the characters, is the whole issue of redemption. When can we be redeemed? Is redemption even possible? I don't have an answer. But when do we forgive people? You see it all around in our society, in constant debates. Should we forgive Michael Vick? I have friends who are dog-lovers who will never forgive Michael Vick. Michael Vick has served years in prison; he's apologized. Has he apologized sufficiently? Woody Allen: Is Woody Allen someone that we should laud, or someone that we should despise? Or Roman Polanski, Paula Deen. Our society is full of people who have fallen in one way or another, and what do we do with these people? How many good acts make up for a bad act? If you're a Nazi war criminal and then spend the next 40 years doing good deeds and feeding the hungry, does that make up for being a concentration-camp guard? I don't know the answer, but these are questions worth thinking about. I want there to be a possibility of redemption for us, because we all do terrible things. We should be able to be forgiven. Because if there is no possibility of redemption, what's the answer then?"

"Does the Queen of Thorns need redemption? Did the Queen of Thorns kill Hitler, or did she murder a 13-year-old boy [King Joffrey]? Or both? She had good reasons to remove Joffrey. Is it a case where the end justifies the means? I don't know. That's what I want the reader or viewer to wrestle with, and to debate."
Martin also brings up Jaime and his attempts on Bran's life. He reminds us that "Jaime isn't just trying to kill Bran because he's an annoying little kid. Bran has seen something that is basically a death sentence for Jaime, for Cersei, and their children – their three actual children." Martin asks fans of the series whether, if they were in Jaime's position, would they try to kill Bran? The fan will say, "No. Never!" Then Martin will ask, "What if killing Bran would save your family? What if killing him would save your children?" Then, often, people hesitate. The answer doesn't seem as clear.

The point is--my point at least--that these questions don't have an easy answer (if, indeed, they have an answer at all). But they are questions that, when incorporated into a story, make great fiction.

8. Write great characters, not great heroes--there's no such thing.

Martin says: 
"[...] I do think there are things worth fighting for. Men are still capable of great heroism. But I don't necessarily think there are heroes. That's something that's very much in my books: I believe in great characters. We're all capable of doing great things, and of doing bad things. We have the angels and the demons inside of us, and our lives are a succession of choices."

9. Write for yourself rather than others.

Martin mentions that he has gotten a lot of mail, much of it critical, from both readers and viewers concerning The Red Wedding. He seems to understand as well as sympathize with his fans reactions, but is not apologetic. He says:
"One letter I got was from a woman, a waitress. She wrote me: "I work hard all day, I'm divorced, I have a couple of children. My life is very hard, and my one pleasure is I come home and I read fantasy, and I escape to other worlds. Then I read your book, and God, it was fucking horrifying. I don't read for this. This is a nightmare. Why would you do this to me?" That letter actually reached me. I wrote her back and basically said, "I'm sorry; I do understand where you're coming from." Some people do read...I don't like to use the word escape, because escapism has such a pejorative aspect, but it takes you to another world. Maybe it is escape. Reading fiction has helped me through some bad times in my own life. The night my father died, I was in Michigan and I got word from my mother. I couldn't get to a plane until the next day, so I sat around thinking about my father, the good and the bad in our relationship. I remember I opened whatever book I was reading, and for a few hours, I was able to stop thinking about my father's death. It was a relief. [...] I understand where the other people are coming from. There are a lot of books out there. Let everyone find the kind of book that speaks to them, and speaks to what they need emotionally."

A wonderful interview, both informative and strangely moving. Highly recommended. Once again, these quotations were from George R.R. Martin: The Rolling Stone Interview.

Photo credit: "There is a House in Infrared" by Ian Sane under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, April 24

Parts of Story: The Importance of Sequels

Parts of Story: The Importance of Sequels

In the previous chapter we discussed the structure of a sequel. Now lets talk about what a sequel does and how it does it.

Jim Butcher, author of the bestselling Dresden Files series, writes:

"Sequels, frankly, are what really make or break books. How you choose to show your reader your character's reactions determines everything about the reader's response to the events of the story."

Sequels have four main roles:

- Readers identify with characters. Sequels are where your readers bond with your characters; they are where, hopefully, readers will come to empathize with them. This is where the bulk of a character's development occurs.

- Time can move rapidly. Scenes are time-unified. If you want to skip forward, say, a week, that should happen in a sequel.

- Pacing. We use sequels to control the pace of a story. Long sequels slow down the pace while short ones speed it up.

- Fine tune your novel. By varying the amount of time you spend of each of a sequels parts, by varying your emphasis, you can change a flighty character into a brainy one or make a despicable character likeable. 

Lets take a look at each of these points.

1. Readers Identify With Characters

In Dwight V. Swain's book, Creating Characters, he writes that emotion is what gives a character direction. If, at the end of a scene, a bully has just kicked sand in your protagonist's face--or murdered their spouse--that character is going to be in pain and, consequently, motivated to make sure the killer pays for his actions. In short, strong emotion gives a character direction.

Further, in a sequel we get to show the kind of things the character dwells on, the sort of things he responds to. 

As characters reflect on the events of the previous scene each will focus on what, given their specific nature, was important to them. If a character is bloodthirsty she will recall her kills with gusto or longing. If a character is especially concerned with the welfare of others--perhaps overly so--she will focus on the harm she allowed to come to an innocent, perhaps ignoring the harm she herself suffered, or the reasons why the harm occurred.

2. Time Passes Quickly

A scene is time-unified; there are no breaks, no huge gaps. One thing happens, then another, then another, until the scene is over and the protagonist's goal has been attained--or not. Sequels are places where time can be disjointed and move quickly. 

3. Using Sequels To Control Pace

Character development tends to slow the pace of a story while action speeds it up. If you read a book and it seems as though you never got to know any of the characters, not enough to really care about them, chances are there were very few sequels in the book, or the sequels were short and insubstantial. 

On the other hand, if a book seems to drag, if it seems to explore the relationships between the characters ad nauseum, if there are short sprints of action followed by endless second-guessing and rumination, then chances are you'll find that it has long involved sequels and short scenes.

4. Sequels Help You Fine Tune Your Novel

Jim Butcher writes: 

"This basic structure for sequels is pretty much the ENTIRE secret of my success. I do it like this in every freaking book I write. I know it works because check it out. People like my books. They like them for some of the special effects, sure, and for some of the story ideas sometimes--but mostly it's because they find themselves caring about what happens to the characters, and that happens in sequels."

I think Jim Butcher is underestimating the appeal of both his unique voice and his wit, but that's still a powerful recommendation of sequels. I encourage you to read Jim Butcher's discussion of sequels in it's entirety. I'm not going to go into it in any depth here, but one of the most valuable things sequels can do for you is assist you in fine-tuning your novels during rewrites.

For instance, if you're writing a romance novel and there isn't enough pathos, enough passion, make the sequels longer and focus on your characters' emotional reactions. If the pace is lagging, make the sequels shorter. 

Here are a few character types Jim Butcher mentioned, types that can illustrate how sequels can help you shape a character.

Brainy characters:

- Emotional Reaction: Normal
- Cognitive Reaction: Heavy
- Anticipation: Light
- Decision/Choice: Normal or Light depending on what you want to do in the next scene.

It's no surprise that brainy characters will have more substantial Cognitive Reaction sections. Jim Butcher adds, though, that it's a good idea to play up the anticipation part. Build suspense, tension, around what is going to happen when the protagonist makes her move.

The result? In Sir Conan Arthur Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories the great detective hates explaining his method because then his amazing conclusion seems like a cheap trick, it seems as though anyone could have done it. It's the same here, by veiling exactly how the protagonist came to their conclusion the feat looks more impressive and generates curiosity in the reader: How'd he know that? 

Characters trying to pick a side:

- Emotional Reaction: Normal
- Cognitive Reaction: Normal
- Anticipation: Heavy
- Decision: None

This helps build suspense. By withholding a character's final decision from the reader, when that character goes into action in the next scene you know they've made a choice and you know what the stakes are but you don't know what their decision was. That makes a reader curious, and that curiosity will make them want to turn the page.

How to make a character's motivations clear:

If your character's motivations aren't clear then make sure that the stages of your sequels are in the right order (Emotional Reaction then Cognitive Reaction then Anticipation then Decision) and that his choices are consistent. 

For instance, if your protagonist is a hero's hero type (lawful good) he probably wouldn't choose to endanger the life of someone else even if it meant his death, except in extraordinary circumstances. I just finished reading George R.R. Martin's interview in Rolling Stone and he reminds us that even the best character can do horrible things given the right (or wrong) circumstances. Martin asks: If you could save the lives of your lover and your children by killing another man's child, would you? It's an excellent interview.

Sequels in a murder mystery:

- Emotional Reaction: Light
- Cognitive Reaction: Heavy
- Anticipation: Normal
- Decision/Choice: Light or None

In a murder mystery novel, the cognitive reaction part will receive a lot of space and each possible murderer is going to be given a lot of attention. But, as Jim Butcher points out, writers usually veil the "choice" aspect and keep their sleuth's best guess about the identity of the killer as surprise for the reveal at the end. That's when the sleuth explains his methods and how he came to figure out the identity of the murderer.


- Emotional Reaction: Heavy
- Cognitive Reaction: Light
- Anticipation: Normal
- Decision/Choice: Normal or Light

It isn't that heroes and heroines in romance stories are any less brainy than those in murder mysteries, but readers of romances are more interested in the interpersonal relationships than are readers of murder mysteries. Take, for example, a whodunit. As the name suggests, what the reader cares about is figuring out who did the crime. In such a mystery romantic connections that don't have anything to do with solving the crime would be an irritating irrelevance.

Those are just a few of the many, many, ways sequels can be used to shape your characters and, thus, your readers reactions.

Since writing these chapters I've begun seeing sequels everywhere, not just in books; TV shows and movies use them as well.

In the next chapter we'll look at the stakes of the hero's quest.

(Note: This post is from one of the chapters of my upcoming book, Parts of Story, which I usually publish separately. But this particular chapter proved to be a bit thorny and was taking so much time I decided to post it as one of my three weekly posts. I'm sorry if that creates any confusion. Thanks for your patience as I (slowly) blog my book. Cheers!)

Chapter Length And Genre

Chapter Length And Genre

The other day I wrote about James Patterson (see: 7 Tips From James Patterson For Writing Suspenseful Prose). I learned a lot about the man, things I had known but hadn't thought too much about. For example, Patterson sells more books than anyone else and has done so since 2001; one out of every seventeen hardcover books sold has Patterson's name on it.

Now, granted, Patterson doesn't write all these books himself. Some believe that whenever he writes a book with another author that Patterson's sole contribution is his name on the cover.

While I wouldn't be the least surprised if Patterson left the bulk of writing to his co-authors I think he contributes one very important thing: the outline.


Whether are not to outline can be a contentious subject. Some writers feel outlines sap a story of its life, of its artistic worth. Others feel that without an outline they could waste valuable time going down dead ends, doing rewrite after rewrite after ... well, you get the idea.

One thing that I have heard from every writer who has used an outline is that it saves time. Sometimes a lot of time.

It came as no surprise that James Patterson uses a detailed outline. The extent to which it changed during the writing did come as a surprise. I believe that sometimes writers think of an outline as something set in iron, but it's not. It just gives you a detailed account of where you've been and where you intend to go. You can always change your mind.

I think the great advantage of an outline is that, like a map, it lets you know where you are.

Since Patterson's chapters are short, averaging about 600 to 700 words, even one paragraph of chapter summary composes a significant amount of the book. If his book is 60,000 words long, the outline would be about 1/6th the length of the manuscript!


A few months ago I began listening to the podcast Under The Influence, by Terry O'Reilly. The podcast is all about how advertising affects ordinary people. 

One of my favorite episodes is Advertising Alumni, about famous people who began their careers in broadcasting. When I heard James Patterson's name mentioned, it took me off guard. Here's an excerpt from the program:
"Patterson took a job as a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson in 1971. He went from being a writer to Creative Director to running the ad agency in only two and a half years, and was later named CEO at the age of 39.

"While there, he penned the slogan, "I'm a Toys 'R Us Kid" for the toy retailer, and "Aren't you hungry for Burger King now" for the fast food giant.

"He wrote his first book on the side, called, The Thomas Berryman Number in 1976, but it was turned down by over 30 publishers.

"When it was eventually published, it would win Patterson the Edgar Award for Crime Fiction.

"But his breakthrough book came in 1992, when he published Along Came A Spider.

"Against all opinions in publishing, Patterson insisted the book be promoted with television commercials. He wrote, produced and paid for the commercial himself, and aired it in the three most influential book cities in America - New York, Washington and Chicago.

"When the ads went on, the book jumped onto the best seller list immediately.

"In 1996, James Patterson would leave the advertising world, and focus on novel writing full-time.

"Unsatisfied with the publishing industry's informal approach to marketing, he handles all his book advertising - from the design of covers, to the timing of releases, to the placement in retail stores. And he demands to see market share data and sales trends.

"Stephen King once called James Patterson, "a terrible writer."

"Patterson just shrugged it off, saying that thousands hate his stuff, millions like it.

"He has written over 100 novels in the past 30 years, 47 of which topped the NY Times best-seller list, making him a Guinness Book of World Records holder. And he has sold more books than Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown combined." 
My takeaway from this is that James Patterson has a goal: he wants to sell a lot of books. 

How is he doing that? By writing the kind of books people want to read. 

Of course, that's the trick, isn't it? Figuring out what people want to read, what kind of stories they'd like to hear. One aspect of this, one that I've overlooked until recently, is chapter length.

Chapter Length

I was in a drugstore yesterday and stopped by the rows of books they have at the back of their magazine section. Right on the end was one by Mary Higgins Clark (incidentally, Clark, like Patterson, used to be a copywriter)[1]. 

For my article on James Patterson I had gone through various books of his and calculated the average length of his chapters, which turned out to be around 640 words. As I stood in the drugstore isle, I opened one of Clark's books and looked at the length of her chapters. 

They were about the same length as Patterson's. 

When I got back home I checked and found that her latest book (published April 1, 2014), I've Got You Under My Skin, has an average chapter length of 768 words. I'll Walk Along (published May 12, 2011) has an average chapter length of 1,021.

You may be thinking: so what?

I mentioned these chapter lengths to a friend who doesn't read anything on the bestseller list and they were surprised. "That's short!" they said.

And it is. Very short. But that's only when you compare these books to books from other genres.

My Research

Here are the chapter lengths of two of the top sellers in the Amazon Kindle Store:

The Target, by David Baldacci. 
- Published: April 22, 2014
- Currently #1 on the Kindle Store.
- Around 1,555 words per chapter.
- Genre: Thriller, Assasination thrillers

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
- Published: Oct 22, 2013
- Won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
- Currently #2 on the Kindle Store.
- Around 24,767 words per chapter.
- Genre: Literary Fiction.

Now, of course, that's not even close to being representative, but what a difference! The Target's average chapter contains 1,600 words while The Goldfinch's average chapter contains 25,000 words. That's a novella! That said, of course the books couldn't be more different. Baldacci writes light entertainment; a literary snack if you will; while Tartt's book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. 

I looked at a few more books and found that, as one would expect, there are trends within genre. Romance books tend to have longer chapters (about 3,000 words or so), as do science fiction novels. Thrillers, though, tend to have shorter chapters of around 600 or 800 words. 

I would like to write another post about this sometime, about the average chapter lengths of the bestselling books in each genre and how that has changed over time.

In Summary

It sounds simple, perhaps even simplistic, but I think that the key to James Pattersons phenomenal success has been, at least in part, his focus on creating stories readers want to read. I think he approaches writing with marketing in mind and uses his talent for catching the public's interest to write books that will entertain them.

Part of crafting a book that will entertain is knowing the expectations genre readers have when they open a book. For instance, thrillers are supposed to be, above all else, suspenseful. Page turners. Romance books are supposed to be about the emotions, the ecstasy of love won and the agony of its loss. And so on.

It may sound silly, trivial, but readers of a particular genre or sub-genre also expect chapters to be a certain length.

Common sense might tell us that a chapter can't be 600 words long. But Patterson shows us that it can. 

What genre do you write in? What is the average length of your chapters?


"Before beginning the actual writing of her books, Higgins Clark prefers to develop an outline and perhaps detailed character biographies. Each chapter is continuously revised as she writes, so that when she is ready to move on to the next chapter, the current chapter is considered done and is sent directly to her editor. By the time the editor receives the last chapter, the book is primarily done." (That information comes by way of A Conversation With Mary Higgins Clark.)

Photo credit: "Far de Capdepera" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, April 21

Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Third 1,500 Words

Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Third 1,500 Words

This is the third in a series of articles I'm writing on Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula. Even though Dent wrote his formula down in, I believe, the 50s, it is still great advice for anyone wanting to write a fast paced action yarn. Here are the first few instalments:

Lester Dent writes:
a) Shovel the grief onto the hero.

b) Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:

c) A physical conflict.

d) A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words.

DOES: It still have SUSPENSE?
The MENACE getting blacker?
The hero finds himself in a hell of a fix?
It all happens logically?

These outlines or master formulas are only something to make you certain of inserting some physical conflict, and some genuine plot twists, with a little suspense and menace thrown in. Without them, there is no pulp story.

These physical conflicts in each part might be DIFFERENT, too. If one fight is with fists, that can take care of the pugilism until next the next yarn. Same for poison gas and swords. There may, naturally, be exceptions. A hero with a peculiar punch, or a quick draw, might use it more than once.

The idea is to avoid monotony.

Vivid, swift, no words wasted. Create suspense, make the reader see and feel the action.

Hear, smell, see, feel and taste.

Trees, wind, scenery and water.

Lester Dent gives basically the same advice for the second and third quarters. It's the same, only different.

Here's the structure of the third 1,500 words:

1. Introduce a complication for the hero. Either the villain makes a move the hero wasn't expecting or something the hero was counting on falls through.

2. Despite the complication/setback the hero has a minor achievement and comes closer to attaining his goal. 

3. The hero's plan looks like it's succeeding. The important thing here is that the hero brings the fight to the villain and that the hero is active. He doesn't have to get into a fistfight with the villain--they don't even have to be in the same room--but there should be some kind of active confrontation.

4. Throw in another complication/plot twist. Either something happens that the hero had no way of either knowing about or preventing, or something he was counting on falls through. Perhaps someone he was relying on turned out to be a traitor or perhaps the villain has been luring the hero into a trap. 

As a result of the plot twist the hero seems done for. Finished. He'll never achieve his goal. Not only that, it turns out we were wrong about what would happen to him if he failed. It's much, much, worse than we thought.

So, there you have it. We end the third section of 1,500 words with the hero in so much trouble there's no possible way he'll ever win. He's doomed.

The Essence of A Pulp Story

Dent sets out the essential elements of a pulp story; those things he felt define the form:

a. Physical conflict.

I think the key here is including conflict one could see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Conflict so concrete and particular you could film it. One can't film an emotion, only the effect of an emotion.

b. 2 or 3 plot twists. 

In at least two or three places reverse the readers expectations. You, the storyteller, have set them up to think that a certain something is going to happen. For instance, the villain is playing video games in his parent's basement and the hero is creeping down the stairs to apprehend him. 

Writers need to subvert the readers expectations. In the case of my example I might have the thing the hero took to be the villain really be nothing but a lifelike simulacrum put there to trick the hero into entering the villains lair. As soon as he does the doors slam close and locks and a foul smelling gas fills the room. The hero tries not to breathe but, eventually, is forced to. He slumps, unconscious, to the ground.  

c. Suspense. 

Suspense begins with a question: Will the hero escape the machinations of the villain? If so, how? 

Readers know that the villain is setting the hero up for a big fall; the villain is able to anticipate the hero's every move, or at least he seems to be. Is the hero clever enough, resourceful enough, to spot the villain's evil trap before it's too late? 

Dramatic irony is only one way of generating suspense. Here are a few articles I've written on the subject:

d. Menace. 

A menace continues to build/intensify right up to the final confrontation between hero and villain. 

Although I'm not sure they're synonymous, the way Dent uses the word "menace" makes me think of stakes. The stakes, as well as the conflict between the hero and the villain, need to keep increasing right up until the end, right up until the hero defeats the villain (or vice versa).

Descriptions: Keep them simple.

In an action-packed, suspense filled, short story, descriptions need to be kept to a minimum. One needs to choose one's words carefully. In a book one can, perhaps, include a beautiful description that doesn't have anything to do with anything and get away with it. That's not the case in a short story.

That's it! If you're writing along with this then you've finished the third quarter of your short story. The end is in sight. How will the hero save himself and defeat the villain's dastardly plans? Stay tuned. 

Photo credit: "remember last holiday" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.