Wednesday, November 27

Free Indirect Discourse: Its Advantages

Free Indirect Discourse: Its Advantages


When I began writing, I wrote from the first person perspective. Lately, though, I’ve been experimenting with free indirect discourse.

What's so great about free indirect discourse? I hear you ask. Well, with free indirect discourse, the narrator can float between the third person and the first person.

Because you're writing in third person, your narrator can be in any scene, but because you're using free indirect discourse your narrator can plunge into the viewpoint character’s consciousness.

If you're a bit dubious, please let me try to unpack what I just said! 😀 (BTW, if you want to read more about this topic, I've put links to a few articles on the subject at the end of this post.)

The Benefits of Free Indirect Discourse


Here are a few examples:

Direct discourse:


Alice sensed something fly by her cheek. Heart pounding, she thought, “That bullet came altogether too close!”

Indirect discourse: 


Alice sensed something fly by her cheek. Heart pounding, she thought that the bullet had come too close.

Free indirect discourse: 


Alice sensed something fly by her cheek. Her heart pounded. The bullet had come too close.

As you can see, free indirect discourse draws only a hazy distinction between the character’s thoughts and the narrator’s voice. Perhaps you feel differently (and, if so, I’d love to hear from you!), but I feel that the free indirect discourse version of the sentence is more immediate.

I think that free indirect discourse is the key to good writing. Here's why:

Intimacy 


One of the reasons why Stephen King, one of the most successful writers of all time, is so successful is that he is able to create an intense sense of intimacy, and, as a result, gets his readers to bond with the characters.

How is intimacy created? 


Of course, free indirect discourse isn’t going to be enough to write a great story, but it is a very powerful tool to have in your writer’s toolkit. (By the way, if you’ve never read Stephen King’s wonderful book On Writing, please do! If I could have just one writing book as a reference, I would choose that one.)

Anyway, back to intimacy.

As I’ve said, free indirect discourse creates intimacy because it allows the reader to dip into (and out of) a character’s consciousness like the first person does, but it doesn’t restrict the narrator. Let me try to unpack that.

Access to a character’s thoughts 


I know I’ve given this example before, but here is my favorite example of free indirect discourse. It is from The Shining:

“Jack Torrance thought: Officious little #$@^&.” [2]

Instantly we know three things:

a. Jack is an angry person 


We have a pretty good idea what Jack Torrance is like: he is prone to anger. Of course, we can’t know that for certain from just the one line, but as we continue to read we discover anger is one of Jack Torrance’s core characteristics and that it drives his alcoholism. In turn, Jack’s alcoholism is a large part of what makes him vulnerable to the malign spirits within the Overlook.

And, thanks to free indirect discourse, this is all set up in the first, very short, sentence! I truly believe this is a big reason for the popularity of The Shining (as a book). The first line grabs the reader's attention from the very first line and sets up the major themes early.

b. Jack hates the person he is talking to. 


The first line also tells us that, whoever Jack is talking to, he hates them. The next two paragraphs unpack this. IMHO the following two paragraphs are writing at its best.

“Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.

“As he listened to Ullman speak, Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk-under the circumstances.” [2]

c. Jack realizes he is being unfair.


In the second paragraph, we find out that Jack isn’t being fair to Ullman. We also find out that Jack is self-aware enough to admit this to himself.

Jim Butcher: Comparing the first person perspective to the third 


Here’s what Jim Butcher, New York Times Bestselling author of the Dresden Files has written about the first person perspective in his livejournal blog:

“First person offers the novice writer an intuitive advantage in writing a strong, emotional central character. It creates a few problems for your plot, but nothing that can't be gotten around. It's best suited to a story focused upon a single central character, and as such is most often found in mysteries and thrillers, with occasional appearances in fantasy/sf.

“Third person is far more flexible and offers you a wider range of options, dramatically speaking, but it's also considerably more difficult to learn to handle well--but if you learn to do it, you can really go to town, creatively speaking. Third person is found in every genre, but is particularly prominent in romance, on account of most of the romances like to present the story from the perspective of the two principal characters at the very least.” [1]

Disadvantages of the third person perspective 


While it is true that in the third person it is possible to convey the thoughts, emotions and opinions of a character, the first person is more intimate because we have access to the character’s actual thoughts.

There is a big difference between:

“Jack Torrance thought: Officious little #$@^&.” [2]

and

“The man sitting in front of Jack Torrance was officious.”

Disadvantages of the first person perspective 


The first person perspective is restrictive. You are confined to your protagonist’s mind. That means your protagonist has to be in every scene. I have read books which introduce two or more characters who are written from the first person perspective, this can be confusing for the reader.

But! Good news! There’s a solution to this problem. Yep, you guessed it: free indirect discourse.

Free indirect discourse is flexible 


I used to write everything in the first person, in part because of the (excellent!) advice Jim Butcher gives about this[1], but now I use the third person and free indirect discourse.

With free indirect discourse you have the benefits of the third person without the drawbacks. For example, you can have a viewpoint character other than the protagonist. That’s a huge advantage!

Of course, there are workarounds for authors who write in the first person. For example, In the past I’ve had to change the plot so my protagonist could be in a particular scene. Some Science Fiction and Fantasy authors have given their protagonist special powers so they can send their consciousness elsewhere. In this way they are able to observe what is happening in a space the viewpoint character doesn’t occupy.

For example, the viewpoint character could be locked in a wizard's high tower, but she has the power to concentrate and send her consciousness downstairs to spy on the wizard. She can see who he talks with and overhear their conversations.

That’s it! I hope you try out free indirect discourse. Perhaps write some microfiction. If you do, please share!

Support the Blog


Thanks for reading! Each blog post takes me a few hours to complete. If you like this content, please consider making a small contribution. Ways to support the blog:
Thanks!


Notes: 


1. Jim Butcher, his Livejournal
2. Stephen King, The Shining

Helpful Articles:


  • Narration -- Everything you never wanted to know about first, second and third person!
  • Free indirect speech -- I haven't covered everything about free indirect discourse/speech. If you want to read more, this is a good starting point.
  • The Benefits of Free Indirect Discourse -- "Free Indirect Discourse is essentially the practice of embedding a character’s speech or thoughts into an otherwise third-person narrative." If you're interested in the topic, I can't recommend this article highly enough.

Tuesday, November 19

Story Structure: A Refresher

Story Structure: A Refresher



I put the following together for my own use (I'm doing #NaNoWriMo this year), but I thought others might be interested as well so I decided to share it.

1. Inciting Incident (0 to 12.5%)


Here we establish the Ordinary World. We establish the protagonist’s ordinary routine, we establish how the protagonist relates to other people, those who like them as well as those who hate them. The writer lays bare the protagonist's strengths and weaknesses. The story world is established; what is normal, what isn’t. What is considered moral, what isn’t. All this is in service to showing the reader the protagonist’s place in the world.

We also show a significant change in the story world, one without which we would not have the Call to Adventure or the protagonist’s Acceptance of the Call.

Clear as mud? Let me give you an example. In Star Wars: A New Hope I would argue that the inciting incident was Darth Vader boarding Princess Leah’s spacecraft and imprisoning her. That event broke the status quo: diplomatic vehicles should not be forcibly boarded. Because of that change Luke bought the droids. Because Luke bought the droids his aunt and uncle were murdered and their farm burned down. Further, these events brought about both the Call to Adventure and Luke's Acceptance of the Call.

The Inciting Incident usually occurs quite early in the story, within the first 5%. The Call to Adventure generally occurs around the 12% to 15% mark. Usually the Call is refused and then, after talking with a mentor, or after certain things about the protagonist’s life changes, the Call is accepted.

After the Call is accepted, some sort of plan is formulated and put into motion. This culminates in ...

2. Crossing the Threshold (25%)


You could also look at this event, Crossing the Threshold, as the first of three disasters for the protagonist, the others being the first Pinch Point and the All Hope is Lost point. I’ll talk more about these other two points, below.

Before I continue, let me say a word or two about the protagonist’s inner and outer goals.

Inner and Outer Goals


The protagonist’s outer goal will have to do with something external, something in the story world. The goal could be slaying a dragon and claiming its treasure, or bringing back a lost ark, or extracting a spy, or robbing a bank. You get the idea.

The inner goal, on the other hand, has to do with the development of the protagonist’s character. It has to do with them becoming a better person. There is a moral dimension to the inner goal. Perhaps, as in Edge of Tomorrow, the protagonist goes from cowardice to courage. In The Matrix the protagonist, Neo, goes from lacking faith to having faith -- his challenge was to believe.

Now that we’re on the same page regarding inner versus outer goals, let’s ask: What happens when the protagonist crosses the threshold and enters the Special World of the Adventure?

Generally, there isn’t any progression toward the protagonist’s inner goal but there is a lot that happens regarding the protagonist’s progress toward her outer goal. Commonly, there is an actual change in the setting. The protagonist travels to another town, another country, another planet.

Also, the transition between the Ordinary World and the Special World of the Adventure is generally not a smooth transition. The protagonist suffers a tragedy.

For instance, in Get Out the protagonist (Chris Washington) crosses into the Special World when he goes to visit his girlfriend’s (Rose Armitage's) parents and allows Rose’s mother to hypnotize him.

The mother sends his consciousness into a place called the “sunken place.” Get Out is a horror movie so, needless to say, the sunken place is not a happy place filled with kittens and puppies, it’s a slice of hell. The important thing is that this incident — Chris being hypnotized and tortured — divides the story into two: what came before this event and what came after.

Similarly, when in Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke sees the smoking corpses of his Aunt and Uncle, when Luke realizes that their farm has been destroyed, this one event divides his life into before and after. That one event completely changed the trajectory of his life.

Trials and Tribulations/Fun and Games


The Special World is very different from the Ordinary World. After the protagonist crosses the threshold and enters the Special World she is like a fish out of water. She needs to learn how things are done here and, as a result, makes mistakes.

B-Story


The B-Story is where the protagonist bonds with allies. Sometimes this is a love story. The B-Story is where the protagonist makes progress toward her internal goal.

3. First Pinch Point (37.5%)


The first pinch point is the second disaster for the protagonist. Here we get to see the antagonist up close and personal or we see the direct effects of the antagonist’s actions. At this point the antagonist isn’t concerned about the protagonist, he or she isn’t a serious threat.

The Plan


As a result of the antagonist’s attack, the protagonist’s energy is redirected. Before, she was focused on understanding the Special World and trying to fit in. Now she is focused on attacking the antagonist. Often there is a scene where the protagonist and her allies meet in a bar and make a plan. A journey is often involved.

The Sacrifice


In order for The Plan to work, the protagonist will have to make a big sacrifice.

4. Midpoint (50%)


The Midpoint is all about the protagonist’s inner journey, her inner goal.

Generally, there is a confrontation at the midpoint, either between the protagonist and antagonist or between the protagonist and one of the antagonist’s minions.

For me, the essential thing about the Midpoint is that the hero learns something crucial about the Special World that helps her understand how truly dire her situation is. Further, this understanding causes her to change tactics.

For example, in Edge of Tomorrow, Cage discovers that his visions aren’t real, that they have been sent to him to lure him into a trap. As a result, he no longer has a plan. He doesn't know how to beat the villain. Because of this he changes his tactics and, at the same time, the stakes are raised.

The important thing here, though, has to do with the Inner Journey. Something important changes inside the character. Cage realizes that, even though he loves Rita, he must let her go. This is the first time he has moved from thinking about himself and his wants and needs to thinking more about the wants and needs of the larger group.

The inner journey can be summed up in a Moral Premise. In Cage’s case perhaps this would be: Being cowardly will kill your soul. Being courageous can save you and your community.

5. Second Pinch Point (62.5%)


Because of the change in the character’s internal motivation, the protagonist begins to make progress. This spooks the antagonis, causing him to personally intervene and attack the protagonist or put obstacles in her way. But this is a personal intervention on the part of the antagonist. The protagonist pays a BIG PRICE.

6. All Hope is Lost (75%)


This is the third and final disaster. The protagonist suffers a major defeat at the hands of the antagonist. In fact, it is such a stunning defeat that it seems as though the antagonist has defeated the protagonist.

This ultimate defeat will likely be the last defeat in a three-beat try and fail cycle.

Resurrection. Epiphany


Protagonist realizes something, something internal, something moral, that finally, completely, takes her from her weakness into her strength.

7. Race to the Finish (87.5%)


At this point she has entered the forest where it is darkest (accepting the call to adventure) and defeated the opposition. She has climbed the hierarchy and is almost at the top. Now there is anew entering the forest where it is darkest. The protagonist has changed, grown. After each disaster the protagonist has entered the forest where it is darkest.

This, now, is the darkest point and the highest stakes.

At this point the protagonist has almost completely transformed. She has become much more physically and mentally skilled and has become well adapted to the Special World. Also, she has begun her inner transformation. Now she pulls out all the stops. She and her allies make a plan. This plan will fall part before the final confrontation but they make a plan and it works for awhile.

8. Climax/Final Confrontation (98%)


The protagonist and antagonist battle. The protagonist wins or loses. If she wins then antagonist loses and that’s that. If the protagonist loses, then the antagonist might win or lose. (They can both fail.)

During the battle, the antagonist seems weaker than the antagonist. It seems that she’s losing. But then she draws on a lesson she learned in the Special World of the Adventure. This catches the antagonist off guard and the protagonist defeats the antagonist.

 Wrap Up


Show the changes in the protagonist’s life, how her friends, family and community benefited.


Recommended Articles:


Quora article: If the 2nd pinch point is known as the 'darkest hour' or the 'all is lost' point what is the nickname of the 1st pinch point? My favorite answer to this question is the first, and much of this article is patterned after it.

The Inciting Incident vs The Call To Adventure

Books


Saturday, November 2

Truth in Fiction: The Importance of Honesty

Truth in Fiction: The Importance of Honesty


Today I want to explore the importance of honesty in writing. First, though, let's look at dishonesty and its effects. That's right! We're going to talk about politicians.

An Example of the Importance of Truth-Telling: Politics


I’m a politics nerd and, over the years, have watched many politicians evade reporters’ questions. To a certain extent, this mild dishonesty goes with the territory. You’ve probably heard the old joke:

Question: How do you know if a politician is lying?
Answer: Are their lips moving?

But, occasionally, a politician's evasiveness, their disingenuousness, goes over the top and voters lose faith. Let me give you a couple of examples of the kind of evasiveness I mean. (In a moment I'll talk about how dialing up a character's honesty or dishonesty can influence how readers feel about them.)

Example 1 out of 2


I’m not going to mention the politician’s name because that’s not important. Let’s call him Joe.

Joe was asked an obnoxious question. I’m paraphrasing here, but he was asked if he had been inappropriate with any of the young people who had been in his charge before he entered public life.

There is absolutely no reason to think this was the case, so it was a cheeky question, an offensive question, and the way Joe answered made it clear he was hostile to the questioner. And, absolutely, it would be difficult NOT to be hostile to someone who implied that you were using your position to exploit the children who were in your care.

That said, I found myself not liking Joe as much. The fascinating thing, to me, was that even though I believed Joe and thought the reporter's question was obnoxious, the reporter somehow came out looking better than Joe. After all, just as politicians are often less than candid, reporters ask insulting questions, it's part of their job.

The Takeaway: Applying this to Writing


Even though I one hundred percent believe Joe answered the reporter’s question honestly, the WAY he answered it made him seem dishonest.

Why was this?

Here’s what I think. Putting this in terms of Story the reporter was the protagonist of that particular scene.

As you know, the protagonist is the person who the reader or viewer identifies with, So the question is: Why did I view the reporter as the protagonist? What made me do that?

I think it was because the reporter was the most active one in the exchange between the two men. Also, I viewed the reporter as having a clear goal; namely, to 'encourage' the politician to be candid, to say what he really thought, so that his fellow citizens could figure out who to vote for.

After all, if I don't know what a person thinks, what goals they have, what ideals we share, then I don't really know THEM, the person. All I know is their mask, the persona they have crafted.

Example 2 out of 2


The same anonymous politician, Joe, was asked another question, one much less obnoxious than the first.

Joe was asked whether he had tried to set right a particular wrong, one he had admitted to committing. Joe didn't answer the question, instead he made a completely unrelated political statement.

Joe’s response made him seem dishonest. Why? Because I thought he COULD HAVE answered the question without any major political fallout. He could have said, “No, because …” and given his reasons for not doing it. Or he could have said, “Yes, I thought it was important for me to do that because …”

Joe probably would have gotten some flack either way, but I think he suffered MORE for not being open and honest.

The Takeaway: Applying this to Writing


If you want readers to be drawn to your character, to think he or she is the kind of person the reader could respect and be friends with, keep these two things in mind:

a. Have the character tell the truth.

b. Have the character tell the truth in an extremely difficult situation.

(b) is the key. Anyone can tell the truth if there are no consequences for doing so. But if, at least in your character’s mind, there could be a terrible price to pay, then it really means something when they refuse to lie.

Conversely, if you want another character -- perhaps your antagonist -- to look shady, untrustworthy, then have him or her tell the truth in easy situations but lie when the stakes go up.

The Truth in Fiction


Stephen King, in On Writing, tells us that even in fiction, there is a core of truth.

Sure, the town you're writing about doesn’t exist. Sure, the characters are imaginary but, at the story’s core, is a truth.

For instance, in Stephen King’s IT, I would say that the core truth is that we -- humans -- are stronger together. We can best the human bullies as well as the monsters that lurk in the darkness. We need to be our authentic self, we need to trust each other and work together. We need to accept each other in all our weird wacky messiness and cooperate to accomplish a goal.

If we do all that we MAY succeed ... occasionally.

Be Honest


This is the most important thing and, really, what this post is all about. Remember: No one is going to see your Zero Draft (I sometimes call this the vomit draft[link]).

Honesty is difficult because it makes us uncomfortable, it exposes who we are and so opens us up to the possibility of rejection. That fear of rejection causes anxiety.

If I tell my friend that she does something that irritates me (for example, showing up late) my friend may become angry and end our relationship. Despite the risks I think that telling the truth in real life is worth it.

But you might think: Karen, you're talking about fiction here, isn't it different?

I think the same principle applies. I think that telling the truth in fiction AS YOU SEE IT is absolutely essential.

Why is this? Here's my explanation: Truthfulness meshes with the world in a way that its opposite does not. If I am honest about what makes me happy, sad, angry, frustrated, and so on, then -- because we are all much like each other -- my readers can relate to these experiences. This is what Stephen King refers to as the truth within the lie.

I'd be interested what you think about this. Do you agree? Disagree?

NaNoWriMo


If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, good luck!

How many words have you written so far? I have 14 pages of (longhand) notes where I wrote ... how can I describe it? Word jazz. I brainstormed arcs, main characters, how the arcs intersect, and so on.

Today I need to sit down and write about 5,000 words. I'll check back in with you in my next post.

Thanks for reading, and good writing!

Friday, October 25

How to Succeed: The Importance of Clarity





It doesn’t matter how well a story is structured, or how clever the writing is, if it isn’t clear to readers what the text is meant to express.

Ask yourself, What is writing? Here’s my experience: I sit at my writing desk and have a thought. I write down that thought. When someone reads that sentence I want them to grasp the same thought I had when I wrote the sentence. If that happens, my prose is perfectly clear. Goal accomplished! But thoughts can be garbled in various ways.

In this article I write about how to communicate thoughts and emotions clearly as well as how this can go wrong.

Cause & Effect: Order Matters


In Jack M. Bickham’s excellent book Scene & Structure, he gives several examples of a garbled thought and how to fix it.

Example 1


Take the sentence:
“Joe turned after hearing the gunshot.”
Grammatically, there is nothing wrong with this sentence, but the stimulus and response are backward. It should be:

Hearing the shot, Joe turned.

That’s the psychologically correct order of events. As a result, not only is the sentence clearer and easier to read but it is more emotionally engaging.

Example 2


Here’s another example Bickham gives:
“Having been angry for days, Joe punched Sam.”
When I first read this sentence I thought, “Well, that’s okay!” But it isn’t. You likely saw it right away. Joe has been angry with Sam for days, so why punch him now? What happened? There is no motivating stimulus, no trigger.

Years ago I had long hair that fell past my waist. After a particularly rough breakup, I told my hairdresser to cut it all off. She had wanted me to let her cut my hair for years, so I expected her to be happy. She wasn’t. She frowned and asked, “Why? What has happened?” That was insightful. Why should I cut my hair NOW? Something in my life must have changed.

Bickham doesn’t give this example but -- even though it’s far from perfect -- even this construction would work better:
Having been angry for days, Joe said, “You have some nerve!” to Sam.
Joe punched Sam.
That’s better! At least we have a trigger. Sure, there are still questions. For instance, why is Joe angry with Sam? However, maybe you want your readers to be curious, to ask themselves, What did Sam do to Joe?

If we wanted to make things clearer we could add an internalisation between the stimulus and the response:
Having been angry for days, Joe said, “You have some nerve!” to Sam.
Sam wondered if Joe had found out he’d slept with his wife.
Joe punched Sam.
That’s not great literature, but you get the idea. We now understand Joe’s motives and the progression of action and reaction makes sense.

Example 3


Here’s another one of Bickham’s examples. And, again, when I first read this I didn’t see anything wrong:
“Rick hit Bill. Bill was surprised.”
It’s boring, but it seems like an okay sentence, right? If I walk up to someone and they hit me, I’d be surprised! But, more than that, we seem to have a stimulus (Rick hit Bill) and a response (Bill was surprised).

To show you what’s wrong, let’s change the sentence a bit:
“Rick hit Bill. Bill was surprised. Bill hit Rick.”
Again, I am NOT saying this is great literature, but on some deep level the second sentence is more satisfying than the first. Why? Because it is complete. Here the response is VISIBLE. Rick hit Bill and Bill was surprised, the surprise is internal, invisible.

How do we know Bill was surprised? Did he stagger back, put his hand over his cheek and yell at Rick, “Why’d you do that!?” That would have been okay.

To sum up: Clarity depends on the correct presentation of cause and effect. The punch (a physical thing) is thrown, there is a moment of confusion, or perhaps of expectation (internalization), and then the punch lands (physical) and then there is an internal response to this and then another physical action, and so on.

That’s the pattern: ACTION - INTERNALIZATION - RESPONSE. Both the action and response need to be EXTERNAL. Visible. The internalization is optional. But for every action there MUST BE a response, and for every response there must have been an action.

Two Plain Facts about Feelings


You’re a writer. You’ve grasped the basics of grammar, word choice, sentence structure, and working with five hours of sleep. You can craft a sentence that communicates a clear thought. However, none of this has anything to do with how to craft an entertaining story, and that’s your goal.

There are two things here. Actually, it's the same thing on two different levels.

a. Create a world full of meaning: Give the hero a goal


You want to create a world filled with meaning. But how? Easy. Give the protagonist a goal, set her upon a quest. Then order everything else in the story according to this final goal. (This is one reason why knowing your ending in advance helps.)

This is an aside, but I want to say something about the usefulness of free indirect discourse. You want your reader to identify with your hero, you want your reader to see through your hero’s eyes. When you use free indirect discourse, your reader sees the character’s thoughts laid bare and this helps the reader sink into his perspective. The reader feels as though (temporarily and only in this imaginary world) she shares the same goal.

(If you want to read more about free indirect discourse, I've written an article, "Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul," where I include examples.)

That’s one level, that’s a 20,000 foot view of Story and why we love them so much. But there is another level, one lower down. This one has to do with the mechanics of creating meaning.

b. It’s all about the reader’s feelings


Our tools are words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. How does one thing -- a reader hanging off your every word -- come about from reading words arranged one after the other?

Dwight V. Swain in Chapter 3 of his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, writes that (I’m paraphrasing) the manipulation of your reader’s feelings is the foundation stone on which your story will succeed or fail.
Question: WHAT should you try to communicate to your readers?
Answer: Feelings.
Question: How does one go about communicating feelings to your readers?
Answer: Through motivation and reaction. 
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It’s actually quite complex. I can’t cover all of Dwight V. Swain’s ideas about this here, but I want to touch on how he views motivation and reaction.


Motivation and Reaction


How and Why


I’ve read stories where the writer has mastered the basics of storytelling, their dialogue was great, the bones of the general story and how it hooked into the setting was good, but the way the character was introduced confused me. And there is NOTHING more important than introducing your protagonist, at least in terms of keeping your reader turning the pages.

I think this is one of the many places where Dwight V. Swain shines.

By the way, New York Times Best Selling author Jim Butcher studied under Deborah Chester and she, in turn, studied under Jack M. Bickham who in turn studied under Dwight V. Swain. They have all made their living writing stories. This works.

Here’s the logic.

1. decide what is good and what is bad


Easy, right? But a lot of writers don’t do this! Let’s say I’m writing a fantasy story and I give the protagonist the power of generating electricity from her fingertips. Well, so what? What difference does that make in the context of the story?

In order for a reader to know how to feel about our wonderful protagonist developing this new power we need context. How would her family feel about her developing this power? How about her friends? How about her society?

For example, if her family thought her gift was a gift from god then they would feel proud. On the other hand, if they thought it was a curse -- if they believed she had done something dispicable to bring this on herself -- then they might be hostile toward her, they might disown the protagonist or even try to harm her physically.

1a. How society sees things


I've touched on this, above, but let's go into it in more depth.

Having developed her new power, would the average person, or even the state, think the protagonist was a demon and attempt to burn her at the stake?

Would the average person greet the protagonist as a potential hero, as someone who could defend them from a potential threats? That matters! That is going to shape not only how the protagonist feels and reacts toward her new power, but how the other characters react to her.

1b. Relative to a goal


Continuing with the example, another thing for a writer to ask her/himself is whether this new power will help the protagonist achieve her goal. (Let’s say the hero’s goal is to save the world from an asteroid set to crash into it in 31 days.)

Let’s say the hero becomes a vampire and needs to drink human blood to survive. This is time consuming, she’s not crazy about the whole blood drinking thing, there are ethical considerations about procurement of blood, and so on.

On the other hand, our hero is super strong, has preternaturally good hearing, sight, and so on. Is this good or bad?

It depends on whether it helps her or hurts her in attaining her overall goal. Perhaps it turns out that there really is no asteroid set to crash into the earth and Nemoth the Numbnut had made it appear so because he wanted to create a panic. He wanted to rob a few banks and decided that in all the confusion caused by everyone believing the world was going to end would be useful.

1c. Be specific.


I think this is what is behind the admonition to avoid sentences like, “It was a dark and stormy night.” I’ve used the example of Stephen King’s first line from IT several times. Like all of Stephen King’s first lines it grabs the reader and shows them something specific about a character pursuing a goal.
“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” (Stephen King, It)
How great is that! There’s something about King’s writing that sucks me in from the very first sentence. And I really do believe it has to do with specificity. The general is vague, the specific is clear.

1d. Introduce a yardstick.


I’ve touched on this a bit, above, but let’s go into it in greater depth. A writer needs to introduce something which tells the reader that, within the story world, one thing is better than another. A hierarchy of values (think of a pyramid) needs to be implemented. The highest value is at the top, and everything in the story world is sorted according to that.

As far as what exactly this ultimate good is, that is going to vary from story to story, from hero to hero. The occupation the hero has (engineer vs doctor vs psychologist vs politician) can also influence what that character's highest good is. For example, Indiana Jones’ ultimate good was recovering and preserving the artifacts of ancient (or alien) civilizations. He believed they had intrinsic worth.

In each Indiana Jones movie, in each story, it was a different specific artifact, a different goal, but the general goal never changed.

Events


As in real life, the important thing is never the event itself. Graduation is important because you’ve accomplished a goal and are now heading out into the world to start life.

In fiction, there are two ways a thing can matter. First, it matters if it relates to your main character and whether it helps or hinders him accomplish his goal. Second, a thing also matters if it affects the other characters achieve their goals.

In the beginning, the hero is faced with a specific instance of tragedy. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle were murdered by Stormtroopers operating under the orders of an evil Emperor. Luke came home from his visit with Obi-Wan Kenobi and saw their skeletal, smoking, corpses. That’s traumatic!

Luke’s aunt and uncle had raised him since he was first born, he loved them and was grateful for what they had done for him, although it was time for him to go off on his own.

Swain writes that (I‘m paraphrasing) something is meaningful to the reader only if it is meaningful to one of your characters. That sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But I’ve gone through many of my old stories and, in the beginning, I sometimes narrated events that should have been enacted. I needed to show how events changed my character’s lives.

Give your character a moral compass


While this is related to the previous point, I thought it deserved a section of its own. A character’s moral compass is usually expressed through a character. For example, in Pinocchio Jiminy Cricket was the wooden puppet’s conscience. Introducing a moral compass also has the advantage of introducing conflict.

When your main character is going to do something morally dubious and likely self-destructive the moral compass (often a best friend or sidekick, for example, Donkey in Shrek) warns the hero against it. An argument, which introduces conflict (and that’s good!) usually begins.

Swain writes that, “All reactions, all feelings, boil down to ‘This is good’ or ‘This is bad.’ You like chocolate or you don’t. You like your job or you don’t. And as I’ve said, whether you like these things changes from time to time based on associated factors like whether you’re hungry, whether you’re tired, whether your boss has yelled at you for no reason, and so on.”

I have a mild disagreement with Swain. He believes that a fact, a story, an event, cannot provoke an emotion in a READER if a character does not react to it. I see his point and I think that's mostly true. And I don't want to throw any shade on Swain, he was a master storyteller.

But honestly, I’m not sure I believe that everything of significance needs to be shown, filtered through, a character. I think that some descriptive writing builds a picture and can be moving.

To sum up this point: You need to know where your hero stands in relation to everything else in the story because everything is set in relation to him or her. The hero’s greatest goal, greatest desire, becomes the greatest good and stands at the top of the hierarchy of values.

The Focal Character


This phrase isn’t used often: The focal character. Think of Sherlock Holmes stories. Watson was the narrator but everything, the whole story was about Sherlock Holmes. If the reader could have seen inside Sherlock Holmes’ mind there would have been no suspense. They were mystery stories, after all!

Many of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories were like this as well. We saw the world through Watson’s eyes, he was the viewpoint character, but clearly the entire story was about the powers of deduction of Hercule Poirot and so he was the focal character.

So, to put this in my own way, the focal character is the one who orders the story world and gives it meaning or significance.

The focal character needs to constantly be put in situations -- both large and small -- where he stands to win or lose. This will illicit feeling within the reader.

So it’s VERY IMPORTANT that, at all points of a story, at every moment in every scene, you strive to orient the reader in relation to your hero as he acts in a specific situation.

But this is more difficult to do than it may seem. It is easy to confuse the reader. I’ve been guilty of this time and time again, especially when I was a kid. I would write about THINGS, about a beautiful sunset, about a meandering stream, about a mysterious glade I happened upon. I would sit (literally!) on the steps of the art gallery and write vignettes about how the crowd swirled around me.

But none of that made for a good story.

Stories are about a CHARACTER’S reactions to a series of specific situations. Yes, there are Things in these scenes but a thing is only included if it relevant to a character achieving their goal.

I’m paraphrasing Dwight V. Swain here: The story is about the hero’s reactions to what happens. It is about the hero’s feelings, emotions, impulses, dreams, ambitions, drives and inner conflicts.

Again, things are only important inasmuch as it helps depict the hero’s reactions.

2. Create a story world.


Remember that your reader has never been in the world of your story. Make it memorable, make it easy to grasp. It can be alien and complex, but make it easy for your reader to fall into. Make sure to use all the focal character’s senses when describing it.

Show the reader, your reader, the hero’s mind, his thoughts, his feelings. Remember, your hero is becoming something. He is going from cowardice to courage, from incompetence to mastery. He changes, and he changes by DOING things.

How does a writer accomplish this? Shape external developments. The outcome of each scene must have a significant effect on the rest of the story. It must be linked to the hero eventually getting or losing his final goal, whatever that is. The final goal could be to keep his license to practise law, to kill the dragon, to rejuvenate his community, or whatever.

3. Each cause must have an effect and every effect must have a cause.


Dwight V. Swain writes, “People like the idea that there’s a reason behind everything that happens … a cause for every effect …” And that’s true! Readers -- people -- do like that idea. It’s likely not true, but we want it to be. So, in our story world, every event needs to have a cause and every cause needs to have an effect.

Please note that when I talk about cause and effect I mean more than that there has been a change. We aren’t just saying that something has happened. We are saying that something has happened because of something else, and that if that something else hadn’t happened, then the current event wouldn’t have either.

4. Motivation and Reaction


For each motivating stimulus there is a character reaction. Someone spritzes your character in the face with perfume (motivating stimulus) and the focal character sneezes (character reaction). This is a one-to-one relation.

First there is a change in a physical, visible, state of affairs. Then (this is optional) there is a change in a character's state of mind. Finally the character physically responds to the change in affairs that just occurred.

A story -- or at least a scene -- is a chain of these motivation -- response units.

5. Motivation and Reaction Units Shape Emotion


I’ve belonged to various critique groups. In all of these, writers had different levels of skill. Some were professionals while others were just starting out and so shared their first stories.

Sometimes a beginning writer would create a captivating story, but it was difficult for me, as a reader, to get into the story. Why? Because what the protagonist wanted, what her goal was, was either unclear or it didn’t make sense.

I expand on this, below.

The Order of Events Should be Clear


In order for readers to become attached to the protagonist. The focal character must be presented with a problem. In Swain’s example (I've used the same example in a previous post) when a man gets home from work he finds a note from his wife on the hall table. He reads it. She has left him for someone else.

So that’s the problem, that’s the break in the status-quo, the change in his state of affairs.

Now the reader needs to know how the character responds to that change.

The man doesn’t believe it. He’s numb. His state of mind has changed. Then shock washes through him, shock and horror and rage and, finally, grief.

Note the order here.

a. Something happened. An event. The man found and read the goodbye letter.
b. The man had an internal reaction to that event.
c. The man does something, he physically reacts. He slumps, boneless, shaking, into a nearby chair.
d. The chair is broken -- his wife kept nagging him to fix it -- and it crumbles beneath him.

Event causes event that causes event that … You get the idea.
Let’s break this down chronologically

Here’s the structure Swain gives:

Motivation Reaction Units (M-R Units)


First: Motivating stimulus.
Second: Character reaction. He divides this into three parts:
a. Feeling
b. Action
c. Speech

First we have the motivating stimulus. Next we have the character’s reaction. The character’s reaction has three parts and each of these parts has to occur in a particular order: feeling, action and speech. Note, though, that not all of these must be used in each motivation reponse pair, you can skip one or two depending on the situation. For instance, in dialogue, we often only have speech.

That said, motivation ALWAYS precedes reaction. Recall that the goal of all of this is to help writers create clear prose and in so doing create stories that are eminently readable. If you can do that and ignore one or more of these steps, awesome! But if readers have trouble imaginatively entering into your story world, if they have trouble understanding your characters, then this is something you could try.

Exercise


Go through a scene in your work in progress and rewrite it so that the motivating stimulus and the character reaction are explicit. Do this for the viewpoint character. Make sure the character reaction includes feeling, action and speech, in that order.

Done? Now read both scenes, is the re-written one easier to read? Please tell me what you think in the comments, I’m really very interested in whether this worked for you.

In a future post I’ll go over the motivating stimulus in more depth. If you’ve gotten something out of this article and would like to support my writing, here is a link to my patreon account.


Friday, October 18

Creating Emotion Through Action and Reaction

Creating Emotion Through Action and Reaction


Good Writing Patterns: Creating Emotion


Hello! Welcome. Yesterday I talked about the importance of getting cause and effect right for creating characters that feel real. In that article I broke cause and effect into: stimulus -- internalization -- response.

Today I want to focus on how to use that basic idea to sculpt a character, and to put that character in a situation, one that will create a specific emotion in your reader.

That sounds manipulative, doesn’t it? And it is! But when a reader picks up a book they want to be entertained AND maybe learn something. That would be a bonus. The image I keep coming back to is of a group of people huddled around a campfire. It is cold and dark and they will soon go back to their damp tents and try to sleep. It is the storytellers job to tell the group a story that will make the darkness less scary, the cold less miserable, and the prospect of a night in their damp tent almost bearable. At least, that’s how I think of it.

But in order to do that, we need to know how to create characters, and put these characters in particular situations, ones that will elicit certain emotions in our audience. For example, the emotion of hope. Why do you think single women (I am saying this from personal experience!) like to read romance stories? Enough said.

BTW, in what follows I’m drawing from Dwight V. Swain’s excellent book, Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Motivating and Reaction Sentences


We’re going to get to the good stuff in a minute -- I don’t want this to feel like you’re back in school! -- but we need to have these concepts under our belt for the rest of what I have to say to make sense.

So, briefly, motivating and reaction sentences are cause and effect pairs. I’ll explain this in detail in a moment, but let me give you an example so it will make more sense when I do.

Motivating sentence: “The car raced down the dangerously narrow road.”
Reaction sentence: “Joe gripped the steering wheel with sweaty hands, hoping he would be in time to see his daughter born.”

Here we set up the general situation, there is the event and then the character's reaction to the event.

These are their characteristics:

Motivating Sentence


The motivating sentence is one sentence.


Swain believes that if you’re not familiar with writing in motivating and reaction sentences that it will work best if the motivating sentence really is just one sentence. He writes:

“Yet though extra sentences may sharpen up your copy, there still are virtues to the one-sentence rule. When you’re just learning, for example, you tend to kid yourself that you need a lot more verbiage than really is essential. Given half a chance, some of us would feel it necessary to mention that fury seethed within Brad; that his blue eyes grew bleak; that muscles knotted at the hinges of his jaws; that his nostrils flared and his fists tightened and his face flushed. As the saying goes, the kitchen sink would be there too if we could only figure out a way to get it through the door!” (Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer)

He’s not wrong!

The motivating sentence contains no mention of the focal character.


The motivating sentence does NOT contain any mention of the focal character. For example, even this won’t work: “Kim saw the car speed away.” It would need to be, “The car sped away,” we need to keep Kim’s internal states out of it.

BTW, the focal character is usually the protagonist, but not always. The focal character is the character that the story revolves around. For example, in Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories the great detective was the focal character even if the story itself was written from Watson’s first person perspective.

This sentence describes the way the world is. 


This is what my english teacher called third person, fly-on-the-wall perspective. I love the expression “fly-on-the-wall” because I ask myself: What would a fly see?

This sentence must be specific.


I’ve said this before, but I think that one of the reasons why a writer these days should never use, “It was a dark and stormy night” as an opening line is that it’s too general. Instead:

“Lightning flashed, slicing open the darkness, as rain beat a soothing staccato rhythm on the canvas tarp.”

I probably should break that into two shorter sentences, but I think it works. Again, my example isn’t meant to be great literature, I just want to illustrate the principle. The sentence expresses a much more specific picture than “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Reaction Sentence


One sentence


I went over this point, above.

This sentence is all about the character’s reactions.


In the motivating sentence the focal character couldn’t be mentioned, not even by pronoun! In the Reaction Sentence it is all about the focal character and how they are reacting. I’m going to talk a lot more about this either below or in a separate post.

Keep in mind that the character’s reactions should reflect who they are.

For example, let’s say a character is generally fearful (as opposed to angry, happy, clueless, observant, and so on). So, for example, if Jim is a fearful sort and he’s inside the canvas tent mentioned in my earlier example, I could write, “Shaking, Jim pressed his eyes shut -- the storm will pass in a few minutes, it will pass in a few minutes, it will … -- and inched further inside his sleeping bag.”

Include the focal character’s dominant attitude.


Swain writes that the reaction sentence should communicate your character’s state of mind. To do this you use their DOMINANT ATTITUDE.

I’ll talk about what Swain meant by the dominant attitude or feeling of a character more in another post, but I just touched on this idea when I said that a character will have one distinctive primary way of reacting to things.

For instance, in my example I gave above, Jim’s dominant attitude was “fearful.” Whenever he encounters a stormy night, an unexpected bill, someone asking him for the time, he filters what he sees/feels/smells/hears through his general attitude of fearfulness.

Using different dominant attitudes for each of your characters helps make them each unique.

The Significance of the Motivating Stimulus


Recall that the motivating stimulus can’t involve the focal character. But we want to craft the motivating sentence in such a way that it will grab the interest of the focal character.

Of course, all your characters are different, they have different interests, different capacities. For each main character, a different set of motivating stimuli will be important.

For example, if two people -- Joan and Adam -- go to a racetrack, different things are going to be significant to them based on their past history, interests and dominant attitude. Joan is a mechanic, she is egotistical (that’s her dominant attitude), and has had a lifelong interest in cars. So what does she notice first? Yes! Cars. But, specifically, she notices the fastest car driven by the best team. Joan completely ignores the drivers.

Adam, though, is a timid limousine driver who shuffles around rich clients at moderate speeds, but he has always dreamt of racing. HE notices the drivers and looks at them with envy. Adam would really like to go and talk to the drivers but he has trouble summoning up the courage.

Again, the idea of SIGNIFICANCE is that, based on a character’s interests, different characters will notice different things about the environment based upon how important -- how significant -- those features are to that character.

Creating an Environment


At this point, you might think, Well, that’s fine, but how do I create an environment that will interest a particular character? Swain has this covered, but this post is already going to run a bit long, so I’m going to go into detail about it in another post. (I think it will have a title like: bringing a character to life.) However, here's a brief overview:

Ask yourself: What is the effect you want to create by using this stimulus? For example, a car racing down a road or a thunderstorm in the dead of night. Remember you want to do two things: You want to MOTIVATE your focal character in such a way that that character will have the desired reaction. At the same time, you want to get your reader to FEEL for the focal character.

An Example


Let’s say that Jim, a timid insurance salesperson, is your focal character and you want your audience to bond with him. To do this, you need to let your audience watch Jim struggle with big challenges, and you need him to suffer big setbacks.

Let’s have Jim’s wife run off with another man. (Writers really are horrible people, the things we do to our characters!)

a. Pick something -- a person, thing, event -- to create this effect.


This is Swain’s example, more or less: Jim comes home from a hard day at the office and finds a note on the hall table. His wife has left him and he reacts to this.

So that's the idea. In what follows, I'm going to try and break sentences up into Motivating and Reaction pairs.

b. Get specific. Zoom in. 


What is it about the motivating stimulus that will evoke the particular character reaction you want your character to have? Well, being specific helps.

In the following, as Jim reacts I'll try and convey the impression that Jim is timid, passive. I'm sure this could be done better, I'm just trying to illustrate the ideas I've been talking about.
There is a note on the side table.  (Motivating sentence)

Jim sees the note soon as he walks in the door. Startled, he looks around for his wife but the house is silent and cold. Jim reaches for the note with a trembling hand. He reads: (Reaction sentences)

I’ve left you darling, there’s meatloaf in the fridge.  (Motivating sentence)

Jim slumps against the table, his mind racing. It must be a mistake. He’s in the wrong house, or this is an elaborate, cruel, joke. (Reaction sentences)

One of the table’s legs, damaged during a particularly good New Year's Eve party his wife had organized, breaks. (Motivating sentence)

John falls to the floor and sobs. (Reaction sentence)
Poor guy!

Here, reading the note was the stimulus, we then have an internalization -- we see his pain, his puzzlement -- and finally the response, he slumps against the table. This response is a bit anemic, I could put a vase of flowers on the table that he could throw, a vase he had given her as a gift for their first anniversary. Or something. But you get the idea.

c. Trim away anything unnecessary.


Okay, you’ve written your scene. Look at it. What do you NEED to motivate your character’s reaction, his response? Got it? Okay, good. Now throw away everything else.

There is a note on the side table.

Jim sees it as soon as he gets home and reaches for it with a trembling hand. He reads:

I’ve left you darling, there’s meatloaf in the fridge.

Jim slumps against the table. It must be a mistake. He’s in the wrong house, or this is an elaborate, cruel, joke.

One of the table’s legs, damaged during a particularly rowdy New Year's Eve party his wife had organized, breaks.

John falls to the floor and sobs.
I prefer the stripped down version!

d. Make your character unique.


Now take things to the next level. Describe the cause, the motivation, in a way that reflects your focal characters attitude.

There is a note on the side table. It is folded in half and has the name, "Jim," neatly written across it. Jance, Jim's wife, loved writing notes; she refused to text. She wrote notes to plumbers to tell them their work was subpar, she wrote to her only sister to tell her how she could fix her life. She had never, ever, written a note to her husband. Until now.

John sees the note as soon as he gets home ... etc etc

As you can see, I completely disregarded the one sentence rule! I tried to keep the sentences free of any mention of the focal character, Jim, and the experience demonstrated to me how much I really wanted to write the sentence: Jim saw the note on the table.

I think that trying to write in M-R units could be a very good exercise for me. I just re-read the beginning of Stephen King's The Shining, and King seems to more or less follow this. Although, that said, he doesn't begin with a motivating sentence, he begins with a reaction sentence. And that reaction sentence is one of the best opening lines I've ever read because it takes the reader inside the focal character's head IMMEDIATELY: Jack Torrance thought: Officious little [expletive].

Writing Challenge


I'm going to rewrite a scene from my work in progress and put Dwight V. Swain's tips to work. I challenge you to do the same. I'd love to know what you think of the re-written scene. Is it better? Worse? How much of Dwight V. Swain's tips do you think you'll incorporate into your work?

If you've enjoyed this article and would like to help me keep doing this, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks! :-)

Links


Dwight V Swain On How To Write A Novel

Wednesday, October 16

Good Writing: Cause and Effect



Suspension of disbelief is crucial to crafting an immersive story. If readers don’t believe in the story, they won’t keep reading. So how do we do this? How do we wave our pen and make readers fall under our spell and into our world of words?

In my opinion, the answer has to do with patterns. Patterns of action and reaction.

Patterns of Reality


There is a pattern to how we humans react to things.

For example, when I work, I’m off in a world of my own, if someone creeps up behind me and yells, “Boo!” (and, yes, this has happened!) I’ll scream like a little girl, only it’ll be louder and more embarrassing. And then everyone laughs. Well, I’m glad that I was entertaining!

Let’s say (as I just did) I were to write about this event and I described it like this: I screamed and someone said, “Boo!” and everyone laughed. Confusing, right? Of course! It’s out of order. Or if I left out the part about my screaming and just wrote: Someone said, “Boo!” and everyone laughed. Readers would be left scratching their heads.

Writing a good story is all about being true to REAL patterns of action, it is about understanding how we react to stimuli. And being true to this has everything to do with cause and effect.

I’m going to come back to this, below, but first let’s take a brief look at what a story is.

Stories Aren’t Real Life, They’re Better


Stories must make more sense than real life. In real life our loved ones become ill for no reason -- at least no reason anyone understands. But if this happens in fiction, readers become grumpy. After all, there is a very human intelligence behind the story: you! You’ve created the story world so you should know all the whys and hows of anything that significantly affects your characters. You don’t have to write all that information into the story -- readers should only be told what they want to be told -- but you need to know it.

Keep in mind that the kind of fiction I’m talking about is the sort that one would tell around a campfire. You want listeners to hang on your every word and leave satisfied, you want to give them something to beat back the darkness that lies in wait for us all. They need something to hope for, something to aspire to.

Of course, there are MANY other kinds of stories -- there are tragedies, and those are, unfortunately, equally true of human experience, but that's NOT the kind of story I'm talking about. That’s not the kind of story I tell my friends to keep the existential darkness at bay.


Cause and Effect


Every plot development must have a cause and each cause must have an effect. Although, sure, sometimes this cause occurs off the page in the deep background of the story.

In fiction, one thing must lead logically into another. You can make anything happen in your story, you just have to figure out a cause for it. In fiction, unlike life, there is no blind luck. Yes, your hero can begin an adventure because of a coincidence, but they can never ever achieve any of their goals because of a coincidence. (I think perhaps the only exception to this is in a comedy when the hero adopts the persona of The Fool.)

Recreating, respecting, the patterns of real interactions is part of what allows readers to suspend belief. This is part of what makes the story world make sense. It is part of what makes the story world believable. Only believable story worlds grab readers -- it can be as insanely futuristic or fantastic as you like, but if the characters don’t react, don’t behave, in a credible, believable way, your story won’t grab them.

Stimulus and Response


Let's drop down a level. Bob and Joe are fighting. Bob throws a punch and Joe ducks. Joe throws a punch and his fist connects with Bob’s face. Bob falls to the floor and is out for the count. Now, that’s not great literature (I’ll leave that to you!) but it’s understandable. You don’t have trouble picturing what’s going on.

Walking through this: There’s an observable stimulus -- Bob’s fist -- Joe has a reaction to this stimulus, he ducks. Then there’s a response, Joe’s fist -- Bob reacts to this by getting hit in the face and falling to the ground.

A scene consists of linked stimulus-response pairs. I’ll go into this more, below, but before we do that let me touch on the topic of internalizations.

Let’s do this using the simple example I just gave. Let’s say that Bob is a LOT bigger than Joe. Bob tries to hit Joe (stimulus). Joe knows that if Bob hits him he’s going down and never getting back up, which is why he decided to cheat and put weights in his gloves (internalization). Joe ducks the punch (response). Joe tries to punch Bob (stimulus). Bob chuckles to himself and thinks, This is so cute, like I would be worried about this mosquito (internalization). Joe’s (illegally) weighted fist connects with Bob’s head and he goes down for the count.

Again, not great literature, but it makes sense. You can visualize what’s happening. Here, there’s an observable stimulus, Bob’s fist flying through the air toward Joe’s head. Joe has an internal reaction to the stimulus, he reflects that this is life or death and that more-or-less explains why he has resorted to cheating. Then there is an observable response, Joe knocks Bob out.

That was just an example -- yes, it’s great for action scenes -- but the pattern applies to everything. Honestly, this is one of the most useful principles I’ve ever studied.

Tips for Writing Prose That Feels Real


We’ve covered some of this above, but I’m going to spell it out, so it will be easy for us to reference, later:

1. Stimulus


- A thing that causes something else
- The stimulus must be external
- The stimulus can be a physical action, like throwing a punch.
- The stimulus can be something spoken.

2. Internalization


- What the character thinks or feels in response to the stimulus.
- Sometimes this is deep narration -- which is intimately related to Free Indirect Speech or Discourse -- but sometimes it is just a sentence or two in the narrators voice that communicates how the character is feeling or thinking. The essential thing is to show how the character responds internally.
- This reaction doesn’t have any physicality, we can’t see or hear or touch it. We must rely upon the narrator.
- Internalizations are optional. If you’re writing from a strict third-person perspective and you don’t want to dip into any of your character’s minds, you might not use them. (You could write something like: Bob hit Joe. It seemed like Joe cringed in pain. Joe hit Bob.)

3. For every stimulus, there must be a response


- If there are any hard and fast rules in writing -- and there really aren’t many other than “Writers must read and write” -- it is that every cause must create an effect and every effect must have a cause. You’ve heard of Chekhov’s Gun? This is the admonition that a gun in the first act must be used in a subsequent act. This is the same idea. If you introduce something that seems significant, there has to be a payoff, otherwise, why have it in the story? Everything in a story must pull its weight, everything must create some sort of (significant) effect. And an effect is only significant if it affects a character in pursuit of a goal that is linked (in some way, however tenuous) to the protagonist’s main goal.
- The response must be caused by a stimulus.
- The response, like the stimulus, must be external.
- Generally, the response must be IMMEDIATE. As soon as Bob throws a punch, Joe needs to either get hit in the face or duck.

Internalization


As I’ve said, every action is really STIMULUS -- INTERNALIZATION -- RESPONSE, although the internalization is optional.

I’ll write more about internalization in another post, but for now just think of it as anything your character thinks or feels. So, for example:
Diane glared at Jill. (Stimulus)

Scared, Jill stiffened. I wonder if she found out I kissed her boyfriend, she thought. (Internalization)

Diane stalked up to Jill -- if she’d been a cartoon character, steam would have been coming out of her ears -- and punched Jill in the jaw. (Response)
That’s it for now! If you liked this post, please consider supporting me over at Patreon.

As always, keep writing!

Notes


The material in this post was inspired by two authors: Jack M. Bickham's excellent book Scene & Structure and Dwight V. Swain's incredibly useful book, Techniques of a Successful Writer. I can't recommend both of these books highly enough.

Sunday, October 13

Finding the Theme of Your Story: The Vomit Draft

Finding the Theme of Your Story: The Vomit Draft


Hi! Welcome back. A short post today. I’m not being lazy, I’m working on three much longer ones, but that’s for next week. Today, I thought I might update one of my more popular older posts: 22 Ways to Tell a Great Story. But then I read tip number three and realized I needed to do a post about the virtues of writing a vomit draft/zero draft.

Three Reasons to Write a Vomit Draft


1. A vomit draft will show you what your story is about, it will reveal the theme


This list of 22 tips comes from the fabulously creative brain of Emma Coats who used to work for Pixar. A few of these points jumped out at me. They communicate a certain picture of how to create a story, one that I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically agree with. Here are the tweets in question:

“3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.”

Yes! (3) had me hopping up and down. I totally agree. This is what I’ve been saying about the advantages of a vomit draft or Zero Draft (I didn’t invent that name!).

(The Zero Draft: How To Beat Writer’s Block)

I keep a writing journal and I always write my first draft out longhand. There’s something about the motion of my hand skimming along the rough surface of the paper, the feeling of cradling the pen between my fingers, the feeling of the jaggedness of the pen’s contact with the page.

Anyway. That’s not what I want to talk about, what I want to talk about is ONE of the benefits of writing a vomit draft, one that Emma Coats touches on: It will help you find your theme.

Let me try to unpack that.

I remember watching one of John Green’s videos where he discussed the writing of his marvelous and immensely popular book: The Fault in Our Stars. As you probably know, this book reached the number one spot on the New York Times Bestseller list, as well as various others. It was also TIME Magazine’s number one fiction book pick for 2012. AND it was made into a movie. It’s safe to say it was successful. I think we’d all settle for that kind of response to our work!

I mention this because John Green said -- in a YouTube video I can’t find the link to! -- that essentially nothing in his first draft made it into his final draft. It was simply a place to start from, it was something that helped him figure out what his book was about.

2. Flawed Ideas on Paper Beat Perfect Ideas in Your Head

“11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.”
That’s really why I’m such a big fan of writing a vomit draft, it gives you space and time to flush your ideas out of your brain and get them out into the world where they can be examined, played with. You can’t improve nothing. Start with whatever scrawled idiotic nonsensical blather you can come up with and then make it better! (And, whatever you do, NEVER show anyone your vomit draft. I like to ritually burn mine.)

3. Endings Matter

“7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.”
Perhaps this doesn’t belong in an article about the advantages of writing a vomit draft, but IF you have a general idea about how your story ends -- you don’t have to! -- it helps. And of course your idea regarding how the story ends can change as you write. This is a vomit draft, that’s okay! There are no rules EXCEPT: just write.

And that’s it! Thanks for reading, and if you’d like to help keep this blog going head over to my Patreon page. You can donate as little as one dollar a month and have my eternal thanks as well as the knowledge that you are unconditionally awesome. Also, if you’d like to send me a story or a portion of your WIP for me to critique, head on over to my Patreon account or just contact me.

Articles you might like:


How Many Drafts Does It Take To Write A Novel?
The Zero Draft: How To Beat Writer’s Block
Pixar: 22 Ways To Tell A Great Story

Monday, October 7

Writing Prompt: Who, What, Where, When, and Why

Writing Prompt: Who, What, Where, When, and Why


When I’m putting together a writing prompt I think of the five Ws: Who, What, When, Where and Why.

Who


When you look at this beautiful, inspiring, photo created by JD Hancock ask yourself, who is the creature? I’ve named her Penny the Purple, but of course you can call her whatever you like. Is Penny sentient? Does she have thoughts and hopes and dreams and fears? Where does she come from? Who is Penny emotionally connected to? Who does she love? Who does she hate?

What


What is happening? Is Penny the Purple going into the refrigerator or is she leaving? What kind of fridge is it? Is it a normal fridge with milk and nutella inside or is it a time machine like Dr. Who’s TARDIS?

Where


“Where?” might seem like the least interesting question, but what if this scene were occurring back in the Cretaceous? Perhaps a time-travelling alien ripped a 1950s house out of its foundation and plopped it down in a field somewhere, sometime 100 million years ago and one of the creepy crawlies got in.

When


Is Penny the Purple crawling into the fridge to go to bed for the night, or is she emerging in the morning?

Why


This is the big question. Why is Penny creeping in/out of the fridge? This is about her goal, about what she wants. Is she hungry? Is she seeking a mate? Or perhaps she is an interdimensional hit person, slithering out from her interdimensional fridge?

Photo credit for "leftovers" goes to the incredibly awesome JD Hancock and his creative, beautiful photographs.

I'd love to see what you write! Please do leave a link in a comment. :-)

Saturday, October 5

5 Necessary Characters in a Romance Novel

5 Necessary Characters in a Romance Novel


Yesterday, I posted about the six scenes every romance novel needs. Today I'm going to write about the five characters every romance novel needs.

There are certain characters that show up in, for example, an adventure story. There is usually a love interest, a sidekick and a mentor (to name a few).

Similarly, in a romance story there are certain characters a writer needs to help keep the plot moving, to keep the tension escalating.

1. The Rival


If we just had the protagonist meet and fall in love with the antagonist, we wouldn't have much of a story! We need a third person to come in and break this up, to introduce conflict.

The rival is someone who is either in love with either the protagonist or antagonist or who pretends to be (perhaps they aren't truly in love, he just wants the protagonist's money, or he desires the influence such a union would bring). He or she is there to create discord, for reasons of his or her own.

I don't think that every romance novel must have a rival, I think there can be enough conflict without this, ALTHOUGH I do agree that practically every romance novel has a rival of some sort, but they can be a minor character.

2. Best Friend/Horrible Friend


Characters can be divided into ‘helpers’ and ‘harmers’ based on how they relate to the protagonist.

You want a character who is close to the protagonist and who encourages her to give the antagonist a second chance, this gives her a reason to tell her friend all the reasons why they could never be together. The friend can also comfort the protagonist when she is in relationship agony, give her a shoulder to cry on.

Similarly, you want someone in the protagonist’s life to say: He’s not good for you, kick him to the curb! Keep in mind, though, that the worst friend and the best friend can be the same person -- as so often happens in real life. Though often the character who tells the protagonist that the antagonist isn't any good for her is a family member, often a mother or sister.

3. The External Need


The External Need provides the impetus for the initial action, it could be -- often is -- what compels the protagonist to act, what initiates the Call to Adventure and brings the protagonist and antagonist together.

Granted, External Need itself isn’t a character, but a character can embody, can represent, the external need.

In jane Austen's, Pride and Prejudice, the external need is embodied in Elizabeth Bennet's father. Elizabeth and her sisters need to marry before their father dies. If they don’t, they will be penniless. That sets up the impetus, the external need for Elizabeth to find a husband. He is the ticking clock that drives the story. By the way, if you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice I would encourage you to! It is a lovely story.

Here’s another example: Let’s say our protagonist and her best friend are in a bar. The best friend bets the protagonist she can get the phone number of a cute guy, first. It’s a competition. That's a mild external need, but it sets up a reason for why our lovely protagonist would go in search of companionship.

4. Secret Keeper/Truth Teller


People lie to each other all the time and also to themselves.

I hope that’s not too negative! But, you know we do! I know I need to exercise more but I tell myself: You’re having a good writing day, you can exercise tomorrow. Instead, go for a long walk, that's almost the same thing. (It isn’t.)

In a lot of stories -- especially romance stories -- there is a secret keeper and a truth teller. These can be the same person.

Often this is the protagonist's best friend, but sometimes it is her worst enemy, sometimes it is the protagonist’s mentor.

You need someone your protagonist can tell her secrets to -- or thinks she can. You could add conflict to the story by having the friend betray the protagonist's trust. This could be intentional, coerced or a complete accident.

You also need someone who -- maybe around the All Hope is Lost point -- is going to tell the protagonist the truth. The protagonist -- like all of us, lies to herself about something -- something important.

(See my article: A Story Structure In Three Acts.)

The Truth Teller doesn’t destroy the protagonist's illusions lightly, but at some point she tells the protagonist the truth. And, as hurtful as that can be, it helps the protagonist get beyond the All Hope is Lost point. By the way, that's just an example, you could do this at any major turning point in the novel.

5. The Mentor


The Mentor is often someone who has memories of someone dear to the protagonist who has passed away.

For instance, and I KNOW I use this example more than I should, but in, Star Wars: A New Hope, Obi Wan Kenobi has memories of Luke’s father.

Memories are important, especially if they are shared. It is difficult to have a better mentor than Gandalf. And Gandalf shares many memories with Bilbo and Frodo, and -- because of his great age -- has memories of many who have passed away.

Because of this, the mentor can remind the protagonist who she really is and who she could be, the mentor can tell her how they have changed, both for better and worse.

Moral Progression


This isn't a character, but -- whatever kind of story this is -- the protag and antag need to become better people by the end of it. For example, at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, the lovers both have pronounced flaws. Elizabeth was prejudiced and Darcy was prideful.

At the end of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth was less prejudiced and Darcy was less prideful.

Simple, right? Simple is good! If a story is simple, clear, concise it is also easy to understand and read.

If you like my content please consider supporting me on my Patreon account. If you support the blog for just one dollar a month I'll send you my book, "The Structure of a Great Story."

BTW, I've combined this post and the previous one (The Structure of a Love Story) into an ebook: The Structure of a Love Story.

Thanks for reading and I'll talk to you again soon! :-)

A book you might be interested in:

How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters, by Karen Woodward


Blog posts you might be interested in:

How To Write Characters Your Readers Will Love: Character Checklist


If you'd like to listen to this blog post, I've started reading them out and posting over on YouTube: Karen Woodward on YouTube

Friday, October 4

The Structure of a Love Story

The Structure of a Love Story


Love is love, but there tends to be a certain pattern to how it progresses, both in fiction and real life.

I’m going to go over three different kinds of love stories and pivot to examine six scenes any romance story must have.

Before I do this, though, I would like to thank Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl for their podcast, the Story Grid, a lot of the material for this blog post came from these podcast episodes:

The Most Important Genre
How to Write a Great Love Story

Okay, let’s get into it:

What is a love story?


That’s an odd question, isn’t it. We know when we are in love. But when we create a character, it’s a good idea to break these things down.

Shawn Coyne defines it like this: The protagonist pursues or runs away from an intimate bond with another human being.

As for the goal of the protagonist, it is to have an intimate relationship with that person.

That may seem like it is too simple to be stated, but if you’re like me it's a big help to have everything spelled out, especially when I'm in the weeds.

The Lovers: Protagonist and Antagonist


Romance stories are different from all other kinds of stories.

Of course the protagonist DOES NOT LIKE the antagonist and vice versa. In fact, they quite often hate each other and want to kill each other.

In a romance, on the other hand, the protagonist and antagonist often end up married. (I know there's a joke in there, but I'm leaving it alone.) Even when the lovers are hating on each other, there is a bond of potential love between them. And that's not generally true of protagonists and antagonists.

But it makes sense. There is a symmetry between the protagonist's and antagonist's goals. Whatever the protagonist's goal is, she will not be able to accomplish it if the antagonist achieves his goal. Similarly, whatever the antagonist's goal is he will not be able to accomplish it if the protagonist achieves her goal. That's true for any kind of story.

In a romance, the protagonist's goal is to form a meaningful relationship with a particular person she is attracted to: the antagonist.

The antagonist is very attracted to the protagonist but for some reason he cannot return her affection. Perhaps he can't reciprocate because the antagonist is scared of commitment, or perhaps he is a crown prince and cannot marry a commoner, or perhaps because he is a reclusive billionaire and she wouldn't fit in, or perhaps he is a vampire and cannot form that kind bond with a human. Be creative.

The key thing is that, initially, there has to be some sort of absolute incompatibility. But, regardless, they are insanely attracted to each other.

When I first started looking at the structure of a romance story it was slightly off-putting to think of the lovers as protagonist and antagonist, but that's what they are.

Make it Clear Why the Protagonist and Antagonist Can't be Together


I've covered this, a bit, above, but it's worth repeating. Make it clear why the lovers, the protagonist and antagonist, can’t be together. So, for instance, in Beauty and the Beast -- one is a beautiful human, and one … well, isn’t human! But, hey, every relationship has its problems.

Also, as for any story, ask yourself:

What are the protagonist’s biggest strengths?
What are the protagonist’s biggest weaknesses?
What are the antagonist’s biggest strengths?
What are the antagonist’s biggest weaknesses?

Okay, so, let's look at the three kinds of love stories.

Three Kinds of Love Stories


For each of these stories, we need to answer a different question.

1. Obsession


Obsession stories are, I think, the least common kind of romance story.

Obsession stories are about DESIRE.

We’ve all known a relationship like this, one person is crazy in love with another, they are both attracted to each other, but they are just too different and the outcome is tragic.

Here’s the pattern:

Question: Will the protagonist and antagonist overcome their extreme differences and transform their relationship into a loving bond?

At the beginning of the story: The lovers despise each other. BUT the lovers are also profoundly attracted to each other. Each acknowledges that being together would be a bad idea.

At the end of the story: One or both of the lovers are dead.

Not my favorite type of story, but there it is!

2. Courtship


I love a good courtship story. Especially after a breakup. Some port, a little chocolate ...

It will come as no surprise to you that the overwhelming number of stories are courtship stories.

Courtship stories are about COMMITMENT.

Question: Will the protagonist and antagonist commit to each other?

At the beginning: The protagonist and antagonist haven’t made any commitment to each other.

At the end: The protagonist and antagonist are committed to each other and to their relationship.

3. Intimacy


In this kind of story, the protagonist and antagonist are already a couple at the beginning. One or both of them will be tempted to cheat on the other. There is a challenge here: will the couple remain faithful, will they remain together?

There are two concepts here: TRUTHFULNESS and FAITHFULNESS.

Question: Will the protagonist and antagonist remain faithful to each other?

At the beginning: The protagonist and antagonist are in a committed relationship. Perhaps this commitment has begun to wane because of whatever trials and tribulations they've gone through over the years.

At the end: The couple have re-committed to each other.

One more thing before we get started ...

The Protagonist's Secondary Arc


We know the protagonist's main desire (this will be her desire deep, deep down, although she will likely be in denial in the beginning) is to form a loving bond with the antagonist, but she needs a desire apart from this, she needs an arc apart from her connecting with the antagonist. And, of course, there has to be an obstacle to her completing this arc and achieving her goal.

Let me give you an example:

Don't laugh, but I personally think Die Hard is a romance story; specifically, an Intimacy story.

John McClane's main desire is to reunite with his estranged wife. It just so happens that at the beginning of his journey to do this, someone took his wife and all her coworkers hostage. At that point, McClane’s secondary desire becomes to defeat the terrorists. For most of the movie we are watching Willis's secondary arc unfolding.

As soon as the terrorists are defeated and his secondary goal is achieved, McClane goes right back to trying to reunite with his wife.

I would say this is a romance story because as a general rule the protagonist's highest level goal (in this case reuniting with his wife) sets the genre of the story. 

Anway! Now that we've got all that sorted out, let's look at the essential scenes in a romance novel.

The 6 Scenes All Romance Stories Need


Stories generally have three or four acts. That's not written in stone, they can have six or eight or how ever many you want -- it is just a matter of how you want to structure the events of the story. In what I write, below, I have a three act structure in mind. (see: A Story Structure In Three Acts)

1. The Protagonist and Antagonist Meet


Of course, right? This is a love story, if the lover’s never meet, there is no story.

When the protagonist and antagonist meet for the first time, it needs to be a BIG SCENE. You need to communicate to the reader the essence of each character, you need to communicate that the protagonist really quite likes the antagonist AND that she believes the two of them would absolutely, totally and in all other ways NEVER work as a couple.

Of course the reader knows it probably will work, but this should be a journey FROM lack of hope and lack of love TO hope reborn and love reborn.

But, naturally, before the protagonist and antagonist meet, you need to introduce the main character. And this really is the most important scene. Because, face it, if you don’t get your readers to connect with your protagonist they aren’t going to keep reading. In what follows I’m going to assume the protagonist is female and the antagonist is male. (And, yes, this may have something to do with the port and chocolate mentioned, above)

Unless you are writing a novel that is being told from two viewpoint characters, the protagonist is introduced at the beginning and then the antagonist is introduced at around between the 10% and 25% mark.

Things may have changed since the last time I read a romance novel -- I’m going to have to read another one soon. (I would love it if you would recommend your favorite romance novel!)

Onto the next point!

2. Confession of Love


Whenever anyone says, ‘I love you’ for the first time it is an intense moment. In a love story the person on the receiving end might be scared because they haven’t had the best experience with that sort of thing.

For example, I am a big fan of the TV show Big Bang Theory, Penny broke up with Leonard when he told her he loved her. She was scared because she wasn’t ready for commitment.

Or the thing that initially comes between protagonist and antagonist is, as I’ve talked about above, an inherent incompatibility. He is the crown prince, she is a penniless commoner -- and his mother hates her.

Or perhaps the thing that breaks them apart is the jealousy of one of the protagonist’s friends. The protagonist's bestie could lie to her and tell her that the antagonist is lying to her -- perhaps the best friend tells the protagonist that he has been unfaithful. Or perhaps the protagonist breaks up with the antagonist because she thinks that NOT being with him would be best for him.

By the way, this confession doesn't have to be, literally, "I love you!" It could be a look that the antagonist gives the protagonist, it could be him saying, "I really like you, I would like you to meet my family." And so on.

IN ANY CASE! We’ve come to the end of the first act. It’s time for the …

3. First Kiss


This usually occurs at the midpoint.

The protagonist and antagonist do not have to kiss here, but their relationship goes to the next level. Maybe they have an intense conversation, maybe they hold hands, maybe they kiss -- maybe they make love.  It all depends on the spiciness level of your story. Although, if they make love at this point, you have to figure out a way to kick things up a notch at the end.

4. The Lovers Breakup


This is the All Hope is Lost point (for more about this see A Four Act Structure). Something -- perhaps the protagonist's mean mother -- has forced them apart. There are two things here:

a. The thing that breaks the lovers apart is something neither of them has control over.

b. The breakup seems final.

For example, in the case of the prince and the pauper, the king has died. The prince must choose between taking the throne and his love for the protagonist, a penniless waitress. She sees that the situation is impossible and breaks up with him because she loves him and wants him to fulfill his destiny.

Another thing that is often done at this point is to have the breakup happen over a misunderstanding. For me, personally, this is less satisfying.

For example, the protagonist believes the antagonist has killed someone and, because she loves him and wants to save him, she takes the blame. Of course the antagonist didn’t commit the murder, but now he believes his one-true-love is a murderer and so he breaks up with her, possibly to protect her so she will receive less scrutiny.

At this point we are about 75% of the way through the story.

5. Proof of Love


At the beginning of the scene, both the lovers believe that any further contact between them is impossible. They can not spend their lives together.

But there is something each of them has overlooked. Or the antagonist does something exceptional to show the protagonist that she is mistaken, he really does love her. Or he discovers his love did not commit the murder he believed her guilty of, perhaps the true murderer was her oh-so-negative best friend. Perhaps the popper takes a bullet for the crown prince and this endears her to the citizens of his nation and so now they can get married.

In Die Hard John McClane saved his wife's life and the lives of many of her colleagues. And he did it because he was a good police officer and that was one of the things that had come between them.

Whatever the proof of love is, it needs to be something big, important. And it needs to be foreshadowed.

The Proof of Love often occurs about halfway through the third act.

6. The Lovers Reunite


This is the climax of the story.

As we have seen, the issue -- whatever it was -- that was keeping the lovers apart has been obliterated; it has gone away, it is no more.

This is a big scene. This is the payoff of all the struggle the lovers have been through. Emotionally, just as the All Hope is Lost point was the low point of of the journey this is the highpoint.

If anything is left between the lovers to be set right this is the place to do it. Have them forgive each other and do something to solidify their relationship, something that will make it stronger.

At the end of the story they are happier and more committed than ever.

That's it! By the way, I wrote about a lot of this in an earlier post, 6 Scenes Any Love Story Must Have.

If some of the information I have shared has been useful to you and you would like to support this blog I just opened up a Patreon account! If you support the blog for just one dollar a month I'll send you my book, "The Structure of a Great Story."

BTW, I've combined this post and the next one (5 Necessary Characters in a Romance Novel) into an ebook: The Structure of a Love Story.

Thanks for reading and I'll talk to you again, tomorrow! :-)