Wednesday, December 31

10 Most Popular Posts of 2014

10 Most Popular Posts of 2014

Happy New Year! I’m going to celebrate the upcoming new year by looking back at my most popular posts of 2014.

Coming in at number ten we have:

10. How To Write Like Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time and one of my favorite authors. I've spent many a night curled up in front of a roaring fire, cocoa close at hand, reading her familiar tales. 

Although no one can write exactly like she did—nor would we want to. The goal of each writer is to develop their own voice—time and again I have wondered which elements of her stories contributed to her phenomenal success. I'm not suggesting she employed any sort of formula, but I believe there must have been certain characteristic regularities to her work that contributed to her becoming the most read mystery writer in the world. (Continue reading: How To Write Like Agatha Christie.)

9. How Michael Moorcock Wrote A Novel In Three Days

Yes! Moorcock actually did write many short novels (45,000 words to 60,000 words) in only three days. (Continue reading: How Michael Moorcock Wrote A Novel In Three Days.)

I had intended to continue this article on Moorcock, to make it a series, but that didn’t happen. That said, I think Moorcock’s method was similar to Lester Dent’s and I did write a five part series on Dent’s Master Story Formula. Here are the links:

8. How To Write a Terrifyingly Good Horror Story, Parts One and Two

Want to write a story chalk full with thrills and chills? A few months ago I reached a point in my WIP where I had to kill off one of my antagonist's minions and was curious what tips other writers had for creating a gross out scene. Then I thought: Hey! I should blog about this. That's how this post began, but it turned into a series on how to write a terrifyingly good horror story. Here are the links:

7. 7 Tips From James Patterson For Writing Suspenseful Prose

Did you know that, since 2001, James Patterson has sold more books than any other writer? Apparently 1 out of every 17 hardcover books sold has Patterson's name on it.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of Patterson's writing, there is no arguing with his popularity. So, how does he do it? Here are Patterson’s tips for writing suspenseful prose. (Continue reading: 7 Tips From James Patterson For Writing Suspenseful Prose.)

6. 4 Ways To Write Every Day

After years of writing, I've noticed certain things about myself, my writing routine, and I thought I'd pass them on in case you're one of those people who's a bit like me. Here are suggestions for ways to write every day: (Continue reading: 4 Ways To Write Every Day.)

5. How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery

Lets revisit one of my favorite topics and examine how to write an engrossing murder mystery. To do this I’m going to take an in-depth look at a classic: "The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict," by W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden. Auden writes that the "basic formula is this: a murder occurs; many are suspected; all but one suspect, who is the murderer, are eliminated; the murderer is arrested or dies." 

Generally speaking, mystery stories conform to the overall structure of a genre story, which is ... (Continue reading: How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery.)

Other articles in this series:

4. Jim Butcher On How To Write A Suspenseful Story Climax

Someone once said to me: The first few pages of a novel sell that novel, the ending of the novel sells the next novel.

I believe that.

Endings are important. If I like a book but hate the ending I probably won't read another book by the same author. (Continue Reading: Jim Butcher On How To Write A Suspenseful Story Climax.)

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

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

Here's what I've taken away from the interview ... (Continue reading: George R.R. Martin On The Art And Craft Of Writing: 9 Tips For Writers.)

2. Best Fonts For Genre Book Covers

One of the most difficult things about creating a book cover is selecting a font. I'll try Impact and maybe Engravers MT and then reach for Lucida and then ... you get the idea. It's a hodgepodge of guesswork. Eventually I'll trip over something that works, but there's got to be a better way.

Derek Murphy has come to the rescue. (Continue reading: Best Fonts For Genre Book Covers.)

1. How To Write A 'Choose Your Own Adventure' Story

Choose Your Own Adventure stories are making a modest comeback thanks to tablets and smart phones. Let’s look at the structure of a Choose Your Own Adventure story and examine how to write one. (Continue reading: How To Write A 'Choose Your Own Adventure' Story.)

That’s it! I’m looking forward to another year of blogging about writing. Have a happy, and safe, New Year!

Photo credit: I altered the photo and added text. The photo I used was: "Cannes - Firework 2014 (China)" by ludovick under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, December 17

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: Tailoring Your Cast of Characters To Your Protagonist

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: Tailoring Your Cast of Characters To Your Protagonist

Yesterday we saw that character traits don’t come singly but in pairs. If a character is, say, one angry SOB then, all things being equal, this should be balanced out by tenderness. 

This balancing can happen in one of three ways. First, the character can go from anger to tenderness over time. Second, the character can appear angry but it’s really all bluff and bluster, they’re a softie on the inside. Third, the character can be a barely contained raging storm of emotion and this quality is contrasted by tenderness in another character. (For more on this see my last post: The Power of Paradox. To read this series from the beginning, here is a link to the first post: Story Openings: Five Choices.)

In what follows, I’ll examine this third way of expressing opposing pairs of character traits, paying special attention to how this can be used to tailor our cast of characters to the protagonist.

4. How to fit the protagonist to the cast of characters and the cast of characters to the protagonist.

Both Dwight V. Swain and Robert McKee agree that one’s cast of characters should be created with the goal of using them to tease out all the various dimensions of our protagonist. In “Techniques of the Selling Writer,” Swain writes:

“Each person [character] should make a different dominant impression. If three characters all pulse dignity at every turn, each will detract from the impact of the others. What you want is variety, not sameness.”

McKee, in “Story,” goes on to extend this notion by telling us how to make each of our characters dramatize—hook into—the various dimensions of the protagonist. McKee writes:

“In essence, the protagonist creates the rest of the cast. All other characters are in a story first and foremost because of the relationship they strike to the protagonist and the way each helps to delineate the dimensions of the protagonist’s complex nature. Imagine a cast as a kind of solar system with the protagonist as the sun, supporting roles as planets around the sun, bit players as satellites around the planets—all held in orbit by the gravitational pull of the star at the center, each pulling at the tides of the others’ natures.”

That’s the analogy, the idea. Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty. (What follows is from McKee’s example in “Story.” The only things I’ve added are the names and situations.)

Let’s say our protagonist, Donald McTaggert, has the following dimensions:

i. Amusing -- Morose
ii. Optimistic -- Cynical
iii. Compassionate -- Cruel
iv. Fearless -- Fearful 

Since we’ve given Donald four pairs of opposing traits we say that he’s four dimensional. Now, what sort of characters should we build to flesh out, to dramatize, each of Donald’s dimensions? 

Creating characters to connect with each of the protagonist’s dimensions.

Following the pairs of characteristics McKee gives us in “Story” let’s fashion a cast of characters that ‘hooks onto’ our Protagonist.

Character A: Angie Wilkes, Donald’s ex-wife. 

Donald’s interactions with his ex-wife show us his morose (i) and cynical (ii) sides. Angie, on the other hand, is amusing (i), optimistic (ii), and completely out of contact with reality. She’s convinced that she and Donald have merely hit a speed-bump and that, any day now, he’ll forgive her for having an affair with his best friend. 

Character B: Henry McTaggert, Donald’s son. 

Henry is Donald and Angie’s only child. Even though Donald is often cruel (iii) and fearful (iv) when he is with others, when he is with his son he is both compassionate (iii) and fearless (iv)—or at least that’s the front Donald tries to put on for Henry’s sake.

Character C: Greta Kettles, Donald’s co-worker. 

Donald is secretly in love with Greta. Whenever he’s around her his stomach rumbles and he feels light headed. In those moments he is optimistic (ii) and even amusing (i).

Character D: Fred Danger, lurker.

One day Fred, a man of indeterminate age who has been hanging around Henry’s high school, comes into the boy’s classroom wielding a gun. Henry manages to use his cell phone to text his dad. After reading the text Donald is terrified (iv). His son could be killed, other children could be killed. Donald’s fear is quickly transformed into anger (--> fearlessness (iv)). His lip curled, Donald jumps into his SUV muttering, “How dare you threaten my son. I’ll show you what it is to be afraid.”

I put that example together in a couple of minutes, but hopefully you get the gist. All things being equal, the best way to dramatize one characteristic is by pairing it with its opposite. 

Which isn’t to say that a single character can’t be both, for example, fearful and fearless if we show them at different points in time or we contrast appearance and reality (they only appear terrified, they’re really not) but, since we’ve been interested in creating a cast of characters that teases out our protagonist’s dimensions, we’ve been focusing on pairing his characteristics with those of other characters.

As McKee writes, this is how to not only make characters multidimensional, but to show those dimensions to the reader.

Next week we’ll go into more depth about how to create a cast of characters that teases out the inherent complexities we’ve been at such pains to give our protagonist.

Photo credit: "Dark lemur on the branch" by Tambako The Jaguar under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0.

Monday, December 15

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: The Power of Paradox

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: The Power of Paradox

This post is part of a longer discussion on tags and traits and how we can use them to craft unique and interesting characters. Here is the first post in the series (it contains links to subsequent articles): Story Openings: Five Choices.

3. Use tags and traits to modify the picture: The core of character.

The adjective of description that we looked at previously is all about the surface. All about appearances and first impressions. 

For example, let’s take a look at Agatha Christie’s sleuth, Miss Marple. Miss Marple comes across as being nothing more than a slightly doddering sweet little old lady. In a word she is harmless. But, really, she’s not. She’s Nemesis with white hair and knitting needles.

In the case of Miss Marple, we can say that two of her defining tags are “harmless” and “dangerous.” Notice how they seem to directly contradict each other?

Dwight V. Swain writes:

“Consider the dignified person. Is he really dignified—or is the appearance of dignity merely a mask he’s adopted to hide stupidity? Is the cruel man totally cruel ... cruel to certain people only ... or [is he] using the appearance of cruelty to hide the fact that he’s really so sentimental as to be a pushover for any appeal? [...] Is the boy’s rowdiness a mask for shyness?

“All of us are, in truth, a maze of inconsistencies and contradictions. That’s what makes man interesting. Capture the paradox in print, and your characters will be interesting also.”

Paradox. As we have seen with Miss Marple, there is a clash between appearance and reality, between the surface and the soul. This is appropriate. Each of us is a living, breathing, mass of conditions, a web of paradox. Like it or not, it’s part of what makes us human, and it’s a big part of what makes a character feel real.

I’m going to leave Swain’s discussion of character building for a moment to look at how Robert McKee develops this idea of contrasting characteristics (/tags). Then we’ll examine their role in creating unique and interesting characters.

Robert McKee on Dimensionality and Paradox

The contrast between inner and outer qualities is what McKee talks about when he speaks of the difference between characterization (the “sum of all observable qualities of a human being”) and true character. McKee writes:

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

This leads us into McKee’s discussion of dimensionality.

I’ve written about this elsewhere (see the links below) but, briefly, McKee holds that the key to rounded, realistic, engaging characters is exactly the quality Swain mentioned (see above): Paradox. Contradiction.

McKee: There is no such thing as ONE dominant trait.

McKee takes issue with the idea that “fine character’s are marked by one dominant trait.” He sees traits not as solo qualities but as pairs of opposing qualities. The more pairs (/dimensions) one has the deeper and more well-rounded—the more interesting—one’s character will be. He writes:

Dimension means contradiction: either within deep character (guild-ridden ambition) or between characterization and deep character (a charming thief).”

So, according to McKee, rather than looking for adjectives of description we should be seeking, instead, pairs of contrasting adjectives.

It’s not enough to say that a character is tidy, we must see how that trait is opposed either within the person (appearance versus reality), over time (then vs now), or person vs person.

The last way traits can be contrasted with each other—person vs person—is something I’ll pick up next post where I’ll argue that contrasting traits between people is the key to creating a cast of characters that not only ensures the uniqueness of your protagonist but that fits the supporting characters of a story to the protagonist like a key fits a lock.

In other words, we can use contrasting traits to create the rest of the cast from the protagonist. Which, incidentally, is Dwight V. Swain’s fourth way to make a character unique: 

4. Match the protagonist to the the cast of characters and the cast of characters to the protagonist.

More about that next time. Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "Mother and daugher : a love story!" by Tambako The Jaguar under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0.

Friday, December 12

Story Openings: Tags, Traits and Tropes

Story Openings: Tags, Traits and Tropes

Yesterday I began a discussion of Tags and Traits and talked about how they can help bring a character to life. Today I’d like to extend that discussion by talking about ... 

2. How tags and traits can help us fit a character to their role in a story.

In this section we’re going to talk about the various roles a character can play, so let’s confront the elephant in the room: stereotypes.

Stereotypes are boring, but certain kinds of stereotypes—tropes—have gotten a bad rap. (If you think this is an outrageous view, please hear me out.)

Stereotypes vs Tropes

The way I’m using the word here, a trope is “a significant or recurrent theme; a motif.”

A stereotype, on the other hand, is “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”

For example, what’s the detective stereotype? When I say ‘detective’ what comes to mind?

Is the image of a man or woman? What are they wearing? How old are they? Are they a professional detective or do they moonlight? Do they have a Watson? On Saturday night, are they more likely to frequent a lady’s tea circle or a run-down bar? Do they have an arch-enemy?

My guess is that each of you has a radically different image of a detective. Why? Because there really isn’t any one stereotype of a detective, there are many, one for each sub-genre of detective story.

For instance, if you thought of a man who is a private detective, one who has a helper/sidekick and an arch-enemy then according to (a truly wonderful site) you’re thinking about the trope of the Great Detective (e.g., Sherlock Holmes). 

Or perhaps you thought of the Defective Detective (e.g., Monk) or of a Detective Drama (e.g., Death in Paradise).

Or perhaps, like me, you thought of a fluffy old lady who knits and seems scattered but has a brain like a scythe (the Little Old Lady Investigates trope). But, then, you could be more the Hardboiled Detective type.

My point in mentioning all these tropes is to show that ‘the stereotypical detective’ doesn’t exist. We—I—talk about ‘the mystery genre’ but there’s really no such thing, not if what we mean by that is something concrete enough to actually produce a trope. No, there are a plethora of tropes, each unique to its sub-genre—or so I would argue.

We’re almost ready to explore the question of whether tropes can be a writer’s friend. But, first, let’s look at ...

The role of the trope

Let me approach this by example. Let’s say we want to write a tea cozy mystery, or “cozy” for short. (This is from the Little Old Lady Investigates trope.)

- The sleuth is usually female.

- The sleuth is older, usually in the second half of her life.

- The sleuth doesn’t get paid for solving the murder. Perhaps she is retired or perhaps, like Jessica Fletcher (Murder, She Wrote), she writes murder mysteries and sleuths on the side.

- The sleuth is a Cool Old Lady. She is clever; witty. She stands up for what she thinks is right. She is practically always polite and takes the high road. (Most people completely discount the ability of the Little Old Lady to solve a crime because, well, she’s a little old lady!) 

Okay, that about does it. Those traits won’t hold true for every case but—since this is the trope—they should capture the more important qualities of most of the sleuths in this sub-genre.

The big question: Should you cast to type or against type?

If you write a cozy would you cast to type and embrace the trope or would you cast against type and create something new, fresh, surprising? 

If I wanted to cast against type then perhaps I’d create a young male police officer, a rookie, who is a bit of a dweeb and couldn’t knit a scarf if his life depended on it.

This could work. My character would be fresh, new, unexpected. On the other hand, I would be throwing away one of the biggest assets a genre writer has: all those folks who love reading traditional cozy mysteries. Even worse, if a reader of traditional cozy mysteries were to pick up my book they’d likely be expecting a sleuth cast to type so, chances are, they’d be disappointed. Disappointed readers often give one star reviews and return books. 

I’m not saying this is a reason not to write against type, but it’s something to keep in mind when making your decision. 

My point here is simply that it’s the authors choice. Just as there’s nothing in the least wrong with writing against type (though there are consequences) there’s nothing wrong with embracing a trope. Doing so will give you a character cozy readers will immediately recognize and, hopefully, love. But you can’t use the type as-is, it needs a twist.

Tweaking A Trope

The danger with writing to type is, as you know, that your character will be exactly what the reader expects and so she’ll be bored silly. We need to tweak the trope so that our character stands out from the crowd.

For example we could keep practically everything the same but make our protagonist male rather than female. Or we could make the protagonist young rather than middle-aged. Or perhaps our granny has been uprooted from her life in the village and must brave the mean streets of the big city. Or instead of being sweet and kind she’s grumpy and selfish (the Agatha Raisin mysteries). Or perhaps the sleuth is a teenager visiting his grandmother. He solves the crimes but, because the police won’t listen to a kid, his gran takes the credit.

So, in short, if you choose to write to type (a) know the trope of the sub-genre you’ve chosen and (b) give it a twist. Above all, make sure your character is unique.

A Digression: Write What You Know

I think this is one reason folks say “Write what you know.” Even if you’ve never been a detective, even if you’ve never even met a detective, put parts of yourself—as well as folks you know well, folks you have strong feelings about for good or ill—into your character. 

Writers are a bit like Dr. Frankenstein. We take bits from our souls, bits from the souls of others, stitch them together and hope to make our creatures’ hearts beat, to make them live and breathe. I think once you reach that level of intimacy and specificity you can’t help but create something unique.

Putting it all together: Tags, Traits and Tropes

It’s taken us a while to get here, but we’ve done it. Now we’re ready to start using Tags and Traits to hook our character up to the role they’ll play in the story.

Once again, let’s do this by example. Let’s say we’ve decided to write a cozy mystery and we’re going to write to type. Yesterday we discussed the importance of tags and traits in breathing life into a character, to make them memorable, to make them the kind of artificial person readers will empathize with, the kind they will either love or loathe.

As we’ll see in a later post, Dwight V. Swain holds that there are four kinds of tags:

i. Tags of appearance
ii. Tags of speech
iii. Tags of manner
iv. Tags of attitude

I’m only going to use tags of appearance in this article but I will go into each of these categories in some detail in a later post. 

Let’s say that our sleuth has moved from a quaint English village into the hustle and bustle of London. She’s gotten to the stage where she needs a bit of help and her wealthy nephew invites her to stay with him in his spacious penthouse.  

Given the trope for this sub-genre, what tags and traits might we give our character? 

Tags of Appearance

What we want to do is choose characteristics which will make our little old lady sleuth memorable AND which will connect her to the trope.

Ball of yarn

Glinda Ellison, my sleuth, is going to crochet rather than knit but, like Miss Marple, a crochet hook and ball of yarn will be her near constant companions. 

How this hooks into the trope: Crochet reinforces her ‘harmless old lady’ feel and balls of yarn can roll all sorts of interesting places—behind couches, doors, into private bathrooms and all manner of restricted areas—thus providing our sleuth with a credible excuse to snoop.

Something fluffy 

She will always wear at least one thing she has crocheted and it will be something pastel colored and fluffy. 

How this hooks into the trope: The puffy frilliness reinforces her ‘harmless old lady’ feel.

Butterfly necklace

I want something that ties my sleuth to her nephew (Richard Fox), and I want this something to indicate how well off he is. At first I thought of having Richard give Glinda an emerald broach. I did a search on “emerald broach” and ended up at Tiffany & Co. looking at this lovely butterfly pendant. Butterflies are critters of air, which I associate with intellect. Sharp wit, though, can be like a two-edged sword, injuring both the prey and the huntsman, bringing them both to ruin. Perfect!

The other day I wrote about how the tarot can be used to help develop characters, so let’s see if it can help us fill in Glinda’s character information. Keeping with the butterfly motif, I’m going to say that Glinda was born in an air sign. Gemini, ruled by Mercury (quick intelligence), seems perfect. 

Richard is wealthy, so he’s going to be an earth sign, Virgo. I chose Virgo because I want him to be bright like his favorite aunt (Virgo, too, is ruled by Mercury) but I need to give him a weakness. The fall of Virgo is Venus, which is perfect! He’s going to be too smart for his own good and unlucky in love.

I’m going to stop there. Hopefully that gives you an idea how a character’s tags and traits can tie them to their story role and, in so doing, both make them unique and give them a simulacrum of life.

My apologies for the long post. I’ll continue this discussion on Monday when we chat about how tags and traits can help us build a character’s arc. Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "Roaring lion" by Tambako The Jaguar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, December 11

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: Bringing Characters To Life

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: Bringing Characters To Life

I know I said I would write about how to create a great story opening by introducing a minor mystery. I’m still going to write about that, but not today! Instead, I want to go back to the topic of my last post—creating, and introducing, characters. There are a few things I want to mention.

The Goal of Writing

Let’s go back to basics. What is our goal in creating characters? And, beyond that, why do we write? What is our objective? Here’s Jim Butcher’s answer: To make characters interesting and, in so doing, to get readers to empathize with the characters. He writes:

“If you can manage to create a vivid character in a reader's mind, then establish him as someone believable, you have a real shot at the Holy Grail of character design. If you do your job, you will create a sense of empathy in your reader for your characters. This is what makes people burst out laughing while reading. It's what makes readers cry, or cheer, or run off to take a cold shower.

“[...] empathy takes time to build and it relies heavily upon the skilled use of sequels. But if you can get the reader to this point, as an author, then you WIN. Big time. This is the ENTIRE GOAL of all this character work, because the reader's emotional involvement is the single most important factor in how well your story is going to fly.

“Or put another way, if you can make people love who you want them to love and hate who you want them to hate, you're going to have readers coming back to you over and over again.” (Characters)

How do we make characters interesting? Jim Butcher mentions a few ways in his post (and I urge you, if you’ve never read it—or if you haven’t read it recently—to do so) but I think these all, more or less, fall under the heading of tags and traits, two of the most important tools in character creation.

Tags and Traits

As we’ve seen, we want our characters to be interesting. We want them to catch and hold the reader’s attention. How do we do this?

Using tags and traits to bring a character to life

Dwight V. Swain in “Techniques of a Selling Writer” asks: How is a character brought to life? His answer: You make them (a) vivid and (b) credible.

How does one do this? One word: uniqueness

The first step in making vivid, credible, characters lies in distinguishing each character from every other character. It is through the very process of rendering your characters unique that they begin to live and breathe. 

Why is uniqueness important?

In order to have a story with range and depth it needs to, at various times, provoke a wide range of emotions in the reader. How do we do that? Through creating characters that span the emotional spectrum.

Swain writes:

“Liking characters is vital to your reader. So is disliking, and feeling pity and contempt and respect and tenderness and sexual excitement.


“Because without such variations of emotional reaction, the reader can’t care what happens to your people.

“If he doesn’t care, he can achieve no sense of inner tension when they’re endangered.”

Swain goes on to list five things that can make a character unique. I'm going to go through each of these points in the next few days. Today, let's begin with a discussion of the dominant impression.

1. Determine the dominant impression (also called an adjective of description)

When you meet someone new, they make a certain impression on you. One fellow I met, I’ll call him John, went on to become one of my best friends, but when I first met him I thought he was dangerous. Specifically, I thought he was a perpetually scowling, six-foot-four-inch mountain of very intimidating muscle. I couldn’t ever see myself getting into a car alone with him and, say, driving along a lonely stretch of highway. 

As so often happens, my first impression was WAY off, but, then, first impressions often are.

Dwight V. Swain urges us to ask ourselves what image we want our readers to receive. What’s the first impression you want your character to make on the reader? Do you want the reader to think a character is tidy, dignified, cruel, sweet, old, beautiful, slim, smart, angry, touchy, tranquil, shy or something else entirely. (Here’s a page with a great many adjectives of description.)

Keep in mind that the first impression is just that, a first impression. First impressions are often misleading and we go on to revise them. (In murder mysteries first impressions are almost always false, though rarely completely so. I’ll talk more about this in a later post on writing a cozy mystery.) But that’s good! The first impression is merely the beginning of that character’s arc.

When you’re devising a character’s first impression keep in mind that characters don’t have to be likable, just memorable

For example, recall Sherlock’s introduction in the series of the same name. He whipped a corpse! NOT a likable character—not initially—but very interesting. Also, recall Jim Moriarty (played by Andrew Scott). Moriarty was one of my favorite characters but I didn’t think he was likable.

That’s it for today! I’ll pick up this series on Friday when we’ll examine the pros and cons of sculpting a character that plays to type.

Question: What is your protagonist’s dominant impression?

Photo credit: "Oskar running in the snow II" by Tambako The Jaguar under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0.

Monday, December 8

Story Openings: Throwing Trouble at the Protagonist

Story Openings: Throwing Trouble at the Protagonist

As you’ve likely heard again and again, to be commercially competitive in today’s market your story’s opening has to shine.

Although an opening can be good—even great—without each of the five characteristics we began discussing on Friday, it’s not a bad idea to know what they are and to try and include as many as your story will allow (more on that in a later post).

On Friday we looked at one of these characteristics: immediate action. (If you would like to take a look at that article, here’s the link: Story Openings: Five Choices.) Which is to say that something interesting and memorable should happen right off the bat.

Today let’s look at the second characteristic of a great opening: meeting the protagonist as soon as possible and throwing some trouble at them.

2. Seeing the protagonist in a pinch

If you read the first article in this series you’ll know that these five points are from Chris Winkle’s wonderful must-read article: The Keys to a Great Opening Scene.

Chris Winkle writes:

“Think of it this way: you get +2 to audience attachment if you open the story from the viewpoint of your protagonist. Don’t give that up easily.”

I agree! In principle.

As a reader I’m going to be sticking with the protagonist through the lion’s share of the story, after all, the story is an account of how this person overcomes obstacles to achieve their goal. I don’t want to read about a minor character who dies after a few pages only to discover that I don’t much care for the protagonist and that I’m completely unsympathetic with her goal.

That’s NOT time well wasted!

As a writer I want to hook readers early. I want them to care about the protagonist and whether she can overcome the obstacles in her way and achieve her goal. If they become attached to a minor character who dies I’ve lost all the momentum I’ve built up. Also, often Chapter One, in addition to having all new characters, will take place in a different setting. It’s like beginning over from scratch. Not optimal.

We’ve seen that there are substantial drawbacks associated with not opening a story with the protagonist. You might wonder why, given this, it’s such a common way of beginning a story! CW answers this question when he writes:

“What I don’t recommend is the common practice of highlighting the villain in the opening instead of the protagonist, through the eyes of a redshirt. This is done to allow action and set tension, while keeping the main character in a state of blissful ignorance about the big problem at hand. It does that effectively, but it keeps writers from [introducing the protagonist at the earliest possible moment].

Exactly. Opening scenes—I think of them as trailers but they’re often called prologues—are used when we need action at the beginning but we’re not going to introduce the Big Bad until later on in the story. For example, George R.R. Martin uses the prologue of “A Game of Thrones” to introduce the threat that lies beyond the Wall, the white walkers.

Also, occasionally we want to show our readers what the antagonist is capable of without informing the protagonist of the antagonist’s abilities. When we show what atrocities the antagonist is capable of, we acquaint the reader with the stakes of the contest. We’ve shown the reader what will happen to the protagonist if he/she fails. (Of course, when the protagonist meets the antagonist the stakes will have escalated.)

For example, recall the first few scenes of The Matrix where Trinity runs from the Agents. I’d bet that no one, after watching that incredible, impossible, opening sequence, went: “Meh. I don’t know; same old, same old.” 

I read an article about the psychology of flow a couple of days ago, “that state of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger.” Yes. That. When I watched the opening of The Matrix I think I forgot to breathe. 

From a story perspective, I thought the trailer worked because it allowed us to meet the antagonist (even though the Matrix itself was the ultimate antagonist, its agents were the embodiment of that force) and still watch Neo’s journey from ignorance to knowledge, something that wouldn’t have been possible if he was forced to confront the antagonistic force himself.

But Chris Winkle has an excellent point. When I realized Neo rather than Trinity was the main character I was a wee bit disappointed, but in that case it didn’t matter. After the first half hour the story had swallowed me whole; there was no way I was leaving the theater until the credits started rolling.

And, yes, The Matrix was a movie but the same principle applies to stories told in novel form. If you present the average reader with a captivating story they’ll stick around. If the author pens a fabulous trailer/prologue they’ve demonstrated what they’re capable of, what the gist of the story will be, and, based on that, readers can decide whether they want to stick around.

When a prologue/trailer can lose readers.

Now, I’ll admit, that strategy doesn’t always work. Sometimes I’ll stop reading. But I’ve found that when I put the book down three things are usually true of the story:

a. There’s been a radical change of setting. 

If I’m introduced to a uniquely interesting setting, if that’s a part of what interested me, then if the setting changes and changes in such a way that I think the change is permanent, my disappointment might be enough for me to set the book aside.

b. There’s a complete change of characters. 

By this I mean that the character one reads about in the introduction seems to be in no way related to the characters that come after. The characters in Chapter One aren’t connected to the person in the trailer by family or profession or ... well, anything!

As we’ll see later when we discuss specific story openings, “Relic” by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child avoids this by making the connection between the redshirt of the trailer and the main characters obvious from the beginning. They are all anthropologists and we know the redshirt has found and sent back something mysterious and dangerous that will form the core of the novel. As a result, the trailer feels like an integral part of the story.

c. The goal of the main character in the trailer/prologue is not related to the goal of the main character in Chapter One.

I think it’s a good idea to show the connection between the redshirt and the protagonist as soon as possible. That is, within the first few pages of Chapter One. The connection doesn’t have to be spelled out in minute detail, but there has to be some connection, no matter how tenuous. But, well, maybe that’s just me!

I’ll take this topic up again on Wednesday when we look at point number three: being introduced to a mystery. Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "The Court of Disney Captains" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, December 5

Story Openings: Five Choices

Mythcreants is fast becoming one of my favorite blogs. Chris Winkle’s articles have the enviable quality of being both witty and informative.

I started off the day today by feeding Twitter. I comb through various blogs I’ve subscribed to (I use and love it; and, no, I don’t have an affiliate relationship with them!), read the articles and then tweet links to those I found myself wishing I’d written.

Well, you know how it is, I started reading one article, followed a link to another and then fell down the social media version of the rabbit hole.[1]

Happily, though, I found “The Keys to a Great Opening Scene” over at Mythcreants. “The Keys” is the kind of post I look for, the kind of thing I love to read then keep in the back of my mind as I review my recent reads.

Then I thought, this is a blog post! I can use CS’s five-keys-to-writing-a-great-opening and go through the last few books I read, books that I enjoyed, to see how they score. (The books I look at will also be best sellers; I add that qualification as a kind of objective measure. That way you’ll know it wasn’t just me and three other people who thought these books were fabulous.)

Before I get started I’d like to make it clear that I agree with CW. Each of his five keys do (IMHO) make for a stronger opening. But, that said, many wonderful books, books that have sold fabulously well, lack one or more of these features. In that light I want to stress that if a book’s opening doesn’t receive a perfect score it’s not meant to reflect negatively on the book. No. I mention it to embolden nervous writers to try out different things, to experiment.

The Criteria

First, let’s take a quick look at the criteria Chris Winkle puts forward in his article The Keys to a Great Opening Scene. (I urge you to read CW’s article and to allow yourself to follow his rabbit warren of links. His site has some of the best articles on writing I’ve come across.)

1. Immediate Action

Chris Winkle writes:

“[...] surprising them [readers] with action and conflict in your opening scene is the single most effective way to keep them reading.”

CW links to another of his articles, one in which he discusses conflict in-depth (see: Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story). I’m not going to go into the kind of depth CW has, but I’ll just mention ...

a. Conflict within a character

The protagonist has conflicting desires. Part of him wants to find the buried treasure of the ancients even if it kills him while another part wants to stay at home with his family and watch his children grow up. 

Or the protagonist wants to become partner in the leading law firm in New York but she also wants to be there for her spouse who was recently diagnosed with a potentially deadly disease. Unfortunately, she can’t do both.

b. Conflict between one character and another

There’s goal centered conflict where the protagonist and antagonist each want the same thing but only one of them can have it. If Indiana Jones brings the Ark back to America then Dr. RenĂ© Belloq can’t bring it to Hitler, and vice versa. 

But there’s also conflict between ideals. Again drawing from Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones cared about the artifacts themselves while Belloq was only interested in what the artifact could do for him. (The same could be said regarding their views of people, especially Marion.)

c. Conflict between the protagonist’s allies

Strictly speaking this is a subdivision of (b), but it feels different enough to warrant it’s own point. As before, this conflict could be internal or external. 

Internal: For example, a personality conflict. One person is loud and likes telling off-color jokes while another despises off-color jokes and just wants quiet so they could, I don’t know, read, sleep, write or merely hear oneself think. (Not, of course, that I’ve ever been in that situation personally. Of course not.)

External: Not all of the merry band of adventurers have the same goal. for example, in The Matrix, Cypher regrets taking the red pill and—far from wanting to destroy the matrix—wants to reenter it.

Again, I urge you to read CW’s article, “The Keys to a Great Opening Scene.”

Looks like I’m going to have to pick this up on Monday! Next time I’ll explore the pros and cons of beginning a story with a trailer or prologue.

Update: Here is an index to the posts in this series:

- Story Openings: Five Choices (the current post)
- Story Openings: Throwing Trouble at the Protagonist
- Story Openings: Tags and Traits: Bringing Characters to Life
- Story Openings: Tags, Traits and Tropes
- Story Openings: The Power of Paradox (upcoming)


1. I want to share something with you that made me chuckle. Science Fiction and Fantasy author Tim Powers recently said:

“[...] you go to Wikipedia for some virtuous reason, because you need to find out about something. Except there’s those words in blue and you click on those and oh gee what is that, and pretty soon you’re eight levels in and you can’t find your way back to the page you started out wanting to look at. And then there’s a little sidebar that says ‘two-headed dog,’ and you think, well, jeez, what the hell’s that.

“And then if anything leads you to YouTube, you’ve had it.”

That’s from Mitch Wagner’s interview with Tim Powers: Interview With a Secret Historian. It’s a great read. Thanks to +Andy Goldman for recommending it.

Photo credit: "spence" by greg westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, December 3

Plot Wheels And The Tarot: Part 2 of 2

Plot Wheels And The Tarot: Part 2 of 2

On Monday I wrote about using the tarot as a kind of plot wheel, something to help spark ideas, to help create a structure for a story. (see:  Plot Wheels And The Tarot) This structure would simply be a starting point, an intuition pump not a straight-jacket. 

Also, as I said Monday, don’t worry too much about the meanings traditionally associated with the cards. Look at the artwork and let your imagination go. (For this exercise it helps to have a richly illustrated deck such as the Rider-Wait deck illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith.)

As we saw yesterday, our protagonist—let’s call her Regan—wants material success (IV of Disks); that’s her initial goal. Which is going to be difficult. She has good intentions but, like Hamlet, has the tendency to overthink things (VIII of Swords). If she doesn’t get over this and act when the time is right then her dreams will die (X of Swords).

Let’s forge ahead now and look at the stakes, at what Regan will get if she wins and what she’ll lose if she doesn’t.

5. The Stakes: What the protagonist could win: VI of Cups

The VI of Cups signifies pleasure. The way I read this card, this pleasure isn’t quite the kind of pleasure that comes from acquisition of material things, this is the kind of pleasure found (hopefully) at the end of life; the Greeks called it eudaemonia. It involves looking back on one’s past and feeling a quiet kind of contentment, perhaps even of pride. To my mind, this is close to the ultimate happiness.

But the VI of Cups comes with a warning. The way I read this card, there is the possibility of illusion creeping in, one seeing one’s past the way one would like it to have been rather than how it actually was.

How this card applies to the spread: Regan could win more than she knows. She could gain far more than the fleeting happiness that comes from acquiring baubles, if only she can stay focused.  

6. The Stakes: What the protagonist could lose: IV of Wands

We’ve seen what Regan could win, now let’s look at what she could lose. The IV of Wands speaks of completion. This card in the Rider-Waite deck reminds me of a wedding, of nuptials. 

As in the Princess Bride, what is at stake is nothing less than true love. If Regan can stop overthinking things and muster the strength of will to meet the obstacles before her head on then, like Princess Buttercup, she has a chance at true happiness. But if she falters she could lose everything: her shot at true love, her job and even her life.

7. A tool or gift that could help the protagonist defeat the opposition and attain her goal: III of Cups.

The three of cups is about abundance. In this context, it seems to me that the card signifies generosity. There are times to be frugal and then there are times to let out all the stops. In order to overcome the obstacles before her, Regan must give 110 percent. If she holds anything back, if she falters, then ruin (X of Swords) awaits her.

8. A person, situation or personality trait that the protagonist must overcome (/integrate) if they are to achieve their goal: The Tower.

Even though, as I said Monday, I don’t believe tarot cards are magical, whenever The Tower comes up in a spread I catch my breath. To me, The Tower signifies a stripping away of the (generally false) securities we have surrounded ourselves with. The Tower speaks to a ripping away of masks, an unraveling of our personal armor.

The tower destroys our safe place, it overwhelms us and strips us of our (often dysfunctional) ways of coping. There is no safe place.

Not a comfortable, safe, cuddly card!

In in the context of our spread—of the protagonist’s arc—what could The Tower mean? I think it refers to the antagonist. This is just the function of the antagonist in the story. At some point the hero/protagonist comes to her lowest point. Everything has been stripped away from her, all her clever ways of coping. 

This process is painful but, in the end, it can prove to be a good thing. Some of those ways of coping might have been destructive (overeating, drug use, filling one’s life with work so one doesn’t have to think, and so on). 

In order for the protagonist to meet the antagonist head on and leave victorious Regan must ditch her old, harmful, ways of coping. She must die to her old self, her old ways, and come back transformed.

9. Final Situation: II of Cups.

The II of Cups is one of my favorite cards. For me, it signifies not only true love, but a blended, harmonious, enlightened, life. This is the card of the Renaissance man/woman. 

Since we decided this was to be a love story, this card tells us we’ll have a happy-ever-after ending.

10. Protagonist’s end state: The Empress

But Regan is about much more than her relationships. In the end, living happily-ever-after is a consequence of the changes in herself. The lovers come together in the end because of the growth and changes in Regan.

I see The Empress, in the context of our story, as signifying creation. We saw that Regan’s main internal flaw was her hesitancy, her anxiety, her inability to choose one course of action and stick with it (VIII of Swords). By the end of the story her defenses were stripped away (The Tower) forcing her to be decisive or face ruin (X of Swords). she has overcome this and, now, is equipped to bring about (/create) her version of the world. She is able to focus on her dreams, her plans, and make them reality.

That’s it! This was a general analysis, a template that can be realized in many different ways. If something in it inspired you, please take it and use it!

I’m curious, have you ever used tarot cards when trying to create a character? Have you ever pulled a few cards in an effort to kickstart your creativity and spin a story? 

Photo credit: The Healing Process by Sean McGrath under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, December 1

Plot Wheels And The Tarot

Plot Wheels And The Tarot

Ever since I first saw the tarot—it was my friend’s mother’s Rider-Waite deck—I’ve been interested in the history of the tarot. Recently I’ve been thinking about how I could use tarot cards as a kind of plot wheel. (see: NaNoWriMo, Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason and Plot Wheels)

But, first, a disclaimer. For me tarot cards, though beautiful and thought provoking, and though they have a rich history, are simply cards: rectangles of paper printed with colorful inks and published by U.S. Games Systems Inc. They are no more intrinsically magical than a box of Cheerios.

But there’s no reason why we can’t use the Tarot as a creative aid. So, in that spirit, I put together a card spread intended to help writers prime their idea pumps. 

The Writer’s Tarot: A Character Arc

Choosing a protagonist

I was thinking—keeping with the theme of the tarot—of talking about the Decans and using Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s descriptions to help generate a character, but I’ve decided to go with a more modern approach. has a number of terrific random generators, you might want to try out the one for characters. Also, check out the character generator, as well as the skills and abilities generator, over at Seventh Sanctum. (Warning! These sites are time sinks.)

Remember, we don’t have to make all our decisions about the character right away. Her outlines will likely become clearer once we start thinking about the shape of the story.

The character I’ve picked for this example is as follows:

“A fun-loving 27 year-old woman, who comes from a wealthy background, lives in a country cottage and tends to worry a lot.”

The Spread

(Click on the picture to enlarge)

That’s not terribly informative so I’ll do an example spread and step through it card by card.

The Cards

1. The starting state in the Ordinary World: VI of Swords

2. Initial Goal: IV of Pentacles

3. The internal obstacle to the initial goal: VIII of Swords

4. The external obstacle to the initial goal: X of Swords

5. Stakes: Win: VI of Cups

6. Stakes: Lose: IV Wands

7. A tool or gift that could help the protagonist defeat the opposition and attain her goal: III of Cups

8. A person, situation or personality trait that the protagonist must overcome (deal with/integrate) if they are to achieve their goal: The Tower.

9. Final Situation: II Cups

10. Protagonist’s end state: The Empress

Choose the genre

I think part of the key to success here is to let your own creativity take the lead and not to be too concerned with the meanings that have been associated with the cards. Remember, we’re just using the cards as a guide, as an intuition pump. If you would like to completely ignore the traditional meanings and come up with your own based on the card itself and what those images suggest to you, please do!

There are two kinds of cards in tarot decks: majors (or trumps) and minors. In most modern decks there are 21 trump cards which reflect universal themes and minor cards which reflect personal themes. The minor cards are divided into four suits: wands, cups, swords and disks (or pentacles). 

Although you can make up whatever meanings you like for the suits, here are a few commonly accepted associations:

Wands --> Work, Business
Cups --> Love, marriage, pleasure
Swords --> Trouble, loss, scandal, quarreling
Pentacles/Disks --> Money, goods & purely personal matters

Interpreting the spread

First, let’s look at the general distribution of cards:

Wands: 1
Cups: 3
Swords: 3
Disks: 1
Trumps: The Tower, The Empress

When I look at this spread I see cups. Yes, there are the same number of cups as swords, but the II of Cups in the 9th position combined with The Empress as the protagonist’s end state suggests (to me at least) a love story.

Stepping through the spread

1. The Ordinary World: VI of Swords 

The first card indicates the starting state of the character. What is the single biggest influence on them?

Here we have the six of swords. This is the Science card or, alternatively, the Lord of Learned Success. It indicates that our protagonist’s intelligence as well as her sense of right and wrong is balanced. She can see the solution to a problem and also has the guts to do the right thing. But her intelligence and courage are about to be put to the test.

What this means: The protagonist’s life, her world, is in balance. She’s at a good place, all systems normal, and she’s grown comfortable coasting along. 

(Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter to me if my imagination carries me away from the traditional meaning of the card. This is all about generating ideas. The cards are only starting points.)

2. The protagonist’s initial goal: IV of Pentacles

The four of pentacles has to do with material gain, with wealth maintained by law and order.

In our spread this card has to do with the protagonist’s initial goal. This card tells us what she’s shooting for. She wants riches, wealth, the American Dream. This card also reminds us that her success, if achieved, may be fleeting.

3. The main internal obstacle to the protagonist’s success: VIII of Swords.

In most stories there is both an internal and external obstacle to the protagonist achieving her goal. The card we’ve drawn for the internal obstacle is the eight of swords.

The protagonist is anxious. I’m going to say that the protagonist has trouble with anxiety. She either feels paralyzed and can’t make up her mind or else keeps changing her mind, trying out one new thing then another. If she continues like this, she won’t be able to attain her goal.

Since we saw at the beginning that the protagonist’s life was in balance, we can infer that something has occurred since then to shatter this balance. This something is the Inciting Incident. (Information about the Inciting Incident isn’t included in the current spread.)

4. The main external obstacle to the protagonist’s success: X of Swords.

This is the external obstacle to the protagonist’s goal of living the good life; that is, of filling her life with material riches.

Many people see the death card, the 13th trump, as indicating the end of life when, actually, it only indicates a profound change. Unfortunately, if one wants to welcome something new into one’s life—a new job, a new outlook on life—one often needs to first get rid of the old job, the old way of thinking. One thing needs to die for another to be born.

The ten of swords, though, indicates ruin. And, yes, sometimes death. This is not a feel-good card. 

So—thinking about how this card could fit into our love story—I’m going to take it that the external obstacle to our protagonist’s dream of material success is something that could either kill her or kill her dream by permanently cutting her off from her goal.

Summary of the story so far

This post is a bit long, so I’ll complete my analysis in the next one. Here’s what we have so far:

This is a love story so the antagonist/nemesis is the man (or woman) the protagonist will fall in love with. But this can’t happen right away; if the protagonist and antagonist aren’t kept apart there will be no story. (Girl and boy see each other, fall madly in love, and ride off into the sunset together isn’t going to keep anyone turning pages!) So, although the protagonist feels irresistibly drawn to the antagonist, she needs to realize he is all kinds of wrong for her. She thinks: Whoever I end up with, it’s not going to be him.

The protagonist wants material success so let’s have it that the man she’s drawn to isn’t wealthy. Perhaps he’s a scientist. Although he makes a decent wage he’s too focused on, say, developing a cheap, biodegradable fuel that will save the environment to worry about money. 

That’s it for today! I’ll pick this up in my next post.

Update: The next and final part of this two part series is here: Plot Wheels And The Tarot: Part 2 of 2.

In this post I’ve played fast and lose with the traditional meanings assigned to tarot cards but if you’d like to learn more about the traditional meanings, the origins of the tarot, and so on, I would recommend  Robert Wang’s book “The Qabalistic Tarot.”

Photo credit: "I_Ching" by Cristian C under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.