Monday, December 23

T.S. Eliot: Good Writers Borrow, Great Writers Steal



T.S. Eliot stated, “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” Aaron Sorkin’s version of this commandment is, “Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright.” (And, of course, neither writer was talking about plagiarism! That is 100% wrong and guaranteed to end a writer's career.)

Ralph Pezzullo expresses this idea well in his article, “How to Steal Like a Writer”:

“To my mind, it’s not a question of borrowing or stealing; it’s responding to the writing that turns you on, trying to imitate it, finding that imitation lacking, and in the process of striving to improve on it, stumbling upon a style of your own.”

Someone told me once -- I was at the Surrey International Writers Conference -- that the trick to good writing was to take the universal (some idea that we all have no trouble grasping) and making that idea specific. Make that idea personal. I think this is one of the reasons why reading the work of writers we admire is essential, because in doing so we see all sorts of different ways this can be done.

For example, take the idea of murder. Murder is the intentional, unlawful, killing of another person. We all find it easy to grasp the idea of murder in the abstract. But what a good horror movie does is make that general idea specific and personal. There is a specific murderer, victim, place and time. The reader doesn’t just understand the idea of murder, they feel terrified by a very particular murderer (Jason, etc.) who could be lurking in the dark for THEM.

The Universal and the Particular


Like many of you, I read before bed. Since I use a tablet I turn off the lights and read in the dark. The blackness pools around me and is only kept at bay by the dim glow of my iPad. When I read a good horror novel I become increasingly scared of the various slimy tentacled creatures I am increasingly convinced are lurking in the dark at the foot of my bed just waiting for me to go to sleep.

How an idea is personalized -- how something general is made specific -- is something unique to each writer, perhaps it’s a part of their style, but the trick itself is something all effective writers know how to do. Which is why Stephen King’s advice to read and write regularly is helpful.

Imitation


If I might be so bold, I would add to Stephen King’s advice. I would admonish writers -- especially beginning writers -- to practise imitating their favorite authors.

Which brings me to a couple of writing exercises I’d like to suggest.

A Writing Exercise


Here’s one of my favorite writing exercises:

a. Read a few sentences or paragraphs from one of your favorite books.
b. Ask yourself, How did the text make you feel? Curious? Horrified? Scared? Scandalized? Angry?
c. What words or clauses did the writer use to create this effect? Study their language.

For example:


“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.” (J.K. Rowling, The Sorcerer's Stone)

I love Rowling’s use of language! Mr. and Mrs. Dursley (no first names) were proud that they were not just normal but PERFECTLY normal. They seem like the kind of people who aspire to being as boring as possible. So, here, in the first few lines of her book, Rowling sets up a continuum of value: boring on the one end (and that definitely includes the Dursley’s) and strange and mysterious on the other (and that definitely includes Harry).

I think I need to read that book again!

So ...

How I felt after reading Rowling’s passage: I did NOT like the Dursley’s.

What caused this effect: “... perfectly normal, thank you very much.” I can imagine this, I can already start to see the characters. I hear the tone of voice it is said in, prim and proper. Cold. More interested in rules and what others think than in honest human connection.

And I just realized that Rowling, here, is using Free Indirect Discourse! Ha! Very effective. I’ve been experimenting with this in my own work. Anyway, moving on ...

Using Writing Exercises to Create an Outline


Let’s use this general idea of borrowing good ideas from other stories to write the outline for a novel.

a. Write down the main plot thread of one of your favorite stories.

Take one of your favorite books (you could also use a movie) -- it could be the same one you used for the previous exercise -- and, briefly, write down the main plot. Try to keep it as short as possible. Don’t worry about the side plots. For example, the main plot in The Matrix had to do with Mister Anderson becoming Neo, becoming The One. The side plots had to do with Neo and Trinity falling in love, Cypher betraying Morpheus to the enemy, and so on.

Okay. Clear as mud?

b. Now do the same thing with another book or movie, making sure the two are from different genres.

c. Make a new plot that draws from the events of both books. Be creative.

d. Using the events you’ve just created, assign each to a story structure of your choice. 

Here’s the story structure I use, but this is just one possible structure: Story Structure: The Hero's Journey. I use a three act structure, but you could go with four or six or twenty seven! Whatever makes sense to you.

About major turning points ....

Be sure to mark which events are the major turning points. Minimally, there will be ….

- A Call to Adventure at about the 12% mark,
- A reversal at around the 25% mark,
- The protagonist will come to a profound new understanding of the Story World at the midpoint (plus possibly a death),
- A reversal at around the 75% mark,
- A final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist beginning about 85% of the way through.

Those percentages are very flexible, what really matters is the order.

e. Use the above structure to write a story!

For instance, thinking about the structure of the main plot for The Matrix and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I could write a story about a girl, a vegetarian, who lives with her horrible aunt and uncle but who suspects that reality isn’t as she believes it to be. As a result of facing her fears and pushing herself to the breaking point, she grows into someone who can save the world.

What I'm reading:


I'm still reading Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch, the first book in his Rivers of London series. No scaly things have materialized at the foot of my bed ... yet.

If you would like to support my blog ...


Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending The Guardians by John Grisham. Here is an excerpt:

"Cullen Post travels the country fighting wrongful convictions and taking on clients forgotten by the system. With Quincy Miller, though, he gets far more than he bargained for. Powerful, ruthless people murdered Keith Russo, and they do not want Quincy Miller exonerated.

"They killed one lawyer twenty-two years ago, and they will kill another without a second thought."

Friday, December 20

Story Structure: The Hero's Journey

Story Structure: The Hero's Journey


The Hero's Journey


Over the years I've written quite a bit about story structure. So much in fact that I resolved not to do another post about it for a while! But then I began writing my NaNoWriMo novel and a few more things fell into place.

I would really like to know what you think of it. Do you agree? Disagree? Is there anything you would add?

A few random comments before we get started


I believe that, with few exceptions, each genre story is a version of the hero's journey. The specifics are different but the general progression is more-or-less the same.

Not all points, below, will be in every story. For example, sometimes the Inciting Incident and The Call to Adventure will occur at the same time.

Also, sometimes the hero doesn't reject The Call to Adventure.

Another way this structure can vary occurs at the Midpoint. Occasionally the important change to The Hero's life is that he receives information about the story world. Other times the important change comes about because of a physical confrontation between the Big Bad and The Hero. Sometimes (for instance, in a romance) the change occurs when the lovers (the protagonist and antagonist) take their physical relationship to the next level.

About the Midpoint ...


I talk more about this below but, for me, the essential thing about the Midpoint is a revelation the hero has, one that comes about because the Big Bad gives (either directly or indirectly) The Hero some information that makes him view the story world in a fundamentally different way. For example, Cage in the movie Edge of Tomorrow realizes that he is a better fighter than his teacher, who happens to be the woman he is in love with. He realizes he has a choice between saving her life and saving the world. He chooses the world and in so doing, he transitions from cowardice to courage.

Because of what happens at the midpoint, because of the The Hero's sacrifice and resulting growth, The Hero's becomes a threat to the Big Bad.

The Hero has an inner and outer goal. At the beginning of the Midpoint the hero hasn't yet made a lot of progress toward his inner goal. As a result, the hero isn't much of a threat to the Big Bad.

At the Midpoint Cage accepts that he will have to give up the person he loves the most in order to save the world. That moment of sacrifice marks a fundamental transition, reorientation, in The Hero's hierarchy of values. It is BECAUSE the hero makes this sacrifice that he becomes a true danger to the Big Bad.  Now -- if I may use this expression -- the hero is in it to win it. He is committed. It doesn't matter if he survives as long as he wins.

At the second Pinch Point the hero comes into conflict with the Big Bad. Because The Hero went through a fundamental restructuring at around the Midpoint, he survives the confrontation, and now the Big Bad is concerned. He realizes that now The Hero is a threat. This sets things up for the hero's race for the finish and the climax of the story.

In what follows please take the percentages with a grain of salt, it's the order that matters. Also, I've done all calculations assuming at finished length of 75,000 words.

Act One


1.  Inciting Incident (1% -- 750)


An event that changes the nature of the Ordinary World. It is a disaster that divides the time before from the time after.

2. Call to Adventure (10% -- 7,500)


Because of the Inciting Incident, because of the way it has changed the world, the hero is asked to take on a dangerous challenge for the good of both himself and his community.

Note: The call to Adventure and the Inciting Incident can occur within the same scene.

3. Refusal of the Call (12% -- 9,000)


The hero isn’t a hero yet and the Adventure that he is being asked to undertake is dangerous. The hero doesn’t think he’s up to the task, he’s never done anything even remotely like this before! Besides, the hero has so many responsibilities, he just can’t leave. Maybe next year.

4. Disaster (16% -- 12,500)


An event occurs, something connected to how the Inciting Incident changed the story world, that divests the hero of many of his responsibilities. This event pushes the hero into the adventure and then burns his bridges so there's no going back.

For example, In Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke said he couldn’t go with Obi Wan because he couldn’t leave his Aunt and Uncle; he was duty bound to help them run their farm. Then disaster hit. Stormtroopers killed Luke's Aunt and Uncle and burned their farm to the ground. Not only did this relieve Luke of his responsibilities but he was given a new motivation to take on the adventure Obi Wan offered: revenge.

5. Acceptance of the Call (20% -- 15,000)


The hero accepts the challenge being offered, usually by a mentor, to save both himself and his community. He does this even though he realizes that he is ill equipped for the task.

Act Two


6. Cross the threshold (25% -- 18,750)


The hero crosses over from the Ordinary World -- the world he’s used to -- to the Special World of the Adventure. Usually there is a journey involved. The Special World is very different from the Ordinary World and the hero has no idea how to act. His strengths are now weaknesses and perhaps at least one of his weaknesses is now a strength. The hero needs friends and allies to help him succeed in this strange new world.

The Hero will also make new enemies.

7. Tests and Trials (30% -- 22,500)


The hero is tested and found wanting (often this is played for laughs). The hero trains and gets better. Sometimes there is a series of scenes and sequels that ends in a minor competition that demonstrates the hero's progress.

8. The First Pinch Point (37% -- 27,750)


Since entering the Special World the hero has become sidetracked. He has been busy learning about the Special World and how to succeed in it. Now the hero's external goal becomes his primary focus.

It is here that the hero gets his first glimpse of the power of the Big Bad. At this point the hero has made some progress toward his external goal but not a lot of progress toward his internal goal. This means that the hero is not yet a strong threat to the Big Bad. Sometimes this attack is just the Big Bad playing with the hero like a cat with an injured mouse.

9. The Plan (42% -- 31,500)


The hero and his allies get together and make a plan to defeat the Big Bad. Often all The Hero's allies are present, there is eating and drinking, so this scene often takes place in a bar or great hall.

This is a lighter scene, perhaps there is a good natured argument. The allies bond.

Perhaps the hero has an ally that we think may be a traitor. This would be a good place to explore that.

10. The Approach (46% -- 34,500)


The Hero and his allies travel to the place of conflict.

11. The Midpoint Confrontation (50% -- 37,000)


Often, the hero confronts the Big Bad at the midpoint. The hero wins in the sense that he doesn’t get killed and escapes, but in all other ways he loses. As a result of his confrontation the Big Bad, either directly or indirectly, the hero is given a crucial piece of information. Something the hero thought was indisputably true about the Special World turns out to be false. Further, his attempt to defeat the Big Bad relied on this idea/thought/piece of information being true.

There isn't always a confrontation between the hero and the Big Bad at the midpoint. Occasionally The Hero confronts the Big Bad's minions, or sometimes -- if, for example, the Big Bad wants to recruit the hero -- they call a truce and talk. Occasionally the Big Bad calls a truce to get the hero out of the way so his minions can attack the hero's allies.

At some point after the First Pinch Point, and no later than the Midpoint, the hero makes significant progress toward his inner goal. This growth is usually in response to a significant failure or loss. For instance, in The Edge of Tomorrow Cage is presented with a choice: save the woman you love or save the world. He chooses the world -- Cage would never have done that at the beginning.

12. Escape (60% -- 45,000)


The hero escapes by the skin of his teeth. He reunites with his allies and tells them what he’s found out.

13. The Second Pinch Point (62% -- 46,500)


The hero gets his second experience of the full power of the Big Bad. This is the most powerful attack he and his allies have faced.

At this point the Big Bad is actually worried about the hero. Because of the progress he has made on his inner goal he has actually become dangerous. Here the Big Bad throws everything he has at The Hero in an effort to take him out.

14. The Plan (70% -- 52,500)


Because of the savage attack by the Big Bad, the hero and his allies realize they have to defeat him and now there is a ticking clock. It has to be done SOON.

Even though it is practically impossible to kill the Big Bad, if the hero is to save his friends, his community, the world and possibly the galaxy, he must confront the Big Bad and he must win. So the hero and his allies make a plan.

Note that the plan doesn’t have to be complicated. The hero’s sidekick could turn to the hero and ask, “So, what’s the plan?” The hero turns to her and says, “Don’t die.”

Act Three


After this point no new characters are introduced.

15. The Approach (75% -- 56,250)


The hero implements The Plan. Usually the hero has to travel to where the confrontation with the Big Bad will take place. At the end of the approach, there may be a confrontation between the hero’s sidekick and the Big Bad’s sidekick.

The Hero's Flaw


The Hero needs to face his inner flaw head-on. We want to expose his true nature. Perhaps, up until this point, The Hero has denied the existence of the inner flaw but now he admits it to himself and, as a result, becomes stronger. Strong enough to take on this nearly impossible task.

The Choice


Often The Hero is offered a choice by the Big Bad. He will have to decide between abandoning his outer/external goal (e.g., finding the ark, recovering the magical gem, etc.) and the life of someone he loves.

Often The Hero will abandon his external goal -- or at least make accomplishing it a LOT less likely -- to save the person he loves. But not always. For example, Cage in Edge of Tomorrow was given this choice at the Midpoint and he gave up the person he loved. 

The key here is that The Hero will choose to do the right thing, the courageous thing, at great personal cost.

In making this choice, The Hero should burn all his bridges. He is committed to whatever course of action he has decided on.

Ticking Clock


The Hero is often given a set period of time in which to decide which sacrifice he will make. In this way The Choice also sets up a ticking-clock which helps to increase suspense. Also, there should be some chance, however slight, that The Hero won't have to actually make The Choice.

16. All Hope is Lost (85% -- 63,750)


This is the lowest point in the story. It seems as though the hero has failed completely. There is no coming back from this. There is no more hope.

This is where the progress The Hero has made on his inner goal often becomes crucially important. If he were the same person who Accepted the Call in Act One, this setback, this disaster, would finish him off. But he's NOT the same person. He has grown. And because of this all hope is NOT lost.

Make this moment last, don't rush over it. This is where The Hero's true nature is revealed. (By the way, this point is from Deborah Chester.)

This is the final point of growth for The Hero. This is a bit like his death and resurrection. Here he lets go of everything he has been hanging on to, everything that has kept him from changing into the kind of person his community needs him to be, and becomes someone who can change the world.

17. The Climax (92% -- 69,000)


It seems as though The Hero has lost. As Deborah Chester writes:

"Although in the dark moment, the protagonist seems defeated ... and although the protagonist has sacrificed a goal -- the thing he thought he wanted most -- instead of his conscience or his principles .... and although the story question appears to be answered with a no ... and although the antagonist seems to have won ... that's not the way the story's going to end." (Deborah Chester, The Fantasy Fiction Formula)

The hero confronts the Big Bad.

Generally there will be at least three try-fail cycles and the hero will come to a point where it looks like The Hero has lost. But The Hero has grown because of his journey, because he accepted The Call to Adventure. He has become stronger.

Because he has changed The Hero is able to defy all the odds and win.

You might wonder, Well, okay, but exactly HOW does The Hero win? After all, it really looks as though the poor guy is finished.

Right. That is the tricky bit. Often writers call back to something cleverly planted earlier in the story. Perhaps two or three things that, when taken together and with a bit of luck will allow The Hero to do something exceptionally spectacular. And of course it doesn't hurt that the Big Bad is absolutely sure The Hero is finished and no longer a threat.

A couple of things to note: However The Hero ends up succeeding, it has to be from The Hero's own efforts. It's not that no one else can help him -- sometimes the Big Bad's abused Sidekick gives The Hero some help -- but the solution must come from The Hero.

Here's the message of this kind of story: If we take on challenges we will grow and become better than we are and, as a result of this growth, we could have a better life and be an asset to a community with which we are deeply connected. That’s why readers love these kind of stories, they echo a deeper truth.

At least, that’s my take on it! I’d be interested in knowing what you think.

18. The wrap-up (99% -- 74,250)


The Wrap-Up is crucial. It is perhaps the most important part of the book. Readers need to see the stakes being cashed out. How did the hero’s win affect his allies? His friends? His community? The world? How did his win affect his enemies and their communities?

The Wrap-Up can be very brief -- a couple of paragraphs. I try to keep it to under 1000 words. That said, some writers use an entire chapter for her Wrap-Up ... and it works!

Well, that's it! I'd love to hear what you think about this outline, especially if you disagree.

What I'm reading:


Right now I'm reading Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch which is the first book in his Rivers of London series. What book(s) is on your bedside table?

If you would like to support my blog ...


Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending Blue Moon by Lee Child. I haven't read this one yet, but it's at the top of my "to-read" list. Here is an excerpt:

"The city looked small on a map of America. It was just a tiny polite dot, near a red threadlike road that ran across an otherwise empty half inch of paper. But up close and on the ground it had half a million people."

Saturday, December 14

Deborah Chester: How to Structure a Scene

Deborah Chester: How to Structure a Scene


I’ve been reading Deborah Chester’s excellent book on Story Structure: The Fantasy Fiction Formula.

Have you ever read any of the books in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files series? Butcher’s books usually find their way to the number one position on the New York Times Bestsellers list. Well, Deborah Chester was Jim Butcher’s writing mentor. Butcher wrote the first book in his series, Storm Front, while he was taking a class from her, a book he also dedicated to her.

Butcher also wrote the forward for Chester’s book:

“So, aspiring writer, let me do you the favor I wish someone had done me. Let me tell you what you need to hear.

“Shut up and do what Debbie tells you to do.
….
“Who am I to tell you that?

“I’m the guy who took the principles of story structure which she taught me and built a career on them. As I type this, I have published twenty-four novels, the last five of them #1 New York Times bestsellers. …

“And to this day, I still occasionally refer to my notes, taken in her classroom at the University of Oklahoma …” (The Fantasy Fiction Formula, Deborah Chester; Foreword by Jim Butcher)

Also, as Jim Butcher mentioned elsewhere in his foreword, Deborah Chester has also published 40 novels of her own.

What are stories?


I write popular fiction so that’s the sort of story I’m talking about here. The overwhelming majority of popular novels have the kind of structure I’m going to talk about. Why? Because it works. People find books with this structure difficult to put down.

What’s the secret to writing an immersive story?


Stories are made up of Scenes and Sequels. In this post I’m going to concentrate on scenes, I’ll talk about sequels in another post. My apologies in advance for the point form of this post, but there’s SO MUCH information to communicate that I can’t spend very much time on any one point.

What are scenes?


Scenes are the basic units of fiction.

Deborah Chester writes, “If a scene’s going to succeed, it’s because it serves up a CLEAR GOAL, STRONG STAKES, and INTENSE CONFLICT.” [emphasis mine]

In a scene, the protagonist confronts the antagonist in disagreement over a specific, concrete, objective.

What is the function of a scene?


Scenes:

- Push a story forward.
- Reveal character.
- Raise the stakes.
- Intensify suspense.
- Produce consequences later in the story, consequences that are related to the story goal.

What are the elements of a scene?


There are three main parts to a scene:

a. Every scene begins with a goal.
b. Every scene has conflict.
c. Every scene ends in a resolution.

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

a. Every scene begins with a goal


In the beginning of every scene the reader needs to know three things:

i) The characters. Who is the protagonist? Who or what is the antagonist?
ii) The setting. Where is the scene taking place? Could the action taking place as easily take place in another setting? If so, perhaps make the setting more relevant to the scene goal.
iii) The mood. Does the mood match the genre? For example, the setting in a horror story doesn’t always have to be dark and spooky, but that would help it cultivate the right mood.

Scene Goal:


The scene goal provides a scene with direction and organization. If you’re not sure what the scene goal is, ask yourself: What is your protagonist trying to do?

EVERYTHING in a scene revolves around the scene goal. Deborah Chester writes: “If a scene doesn’t change the protagonist’s situation, however slightly, or if it has no impact on later story development, cut it.”

A scene doesn’t start until the protagonist either THINKS, STATES or ACTS on a scene goal.

The scene goal needs to be both specific and attainable now.

Stakes:


- For each scene, ask yourself what is at stake?
- Stakes connect to your protagonist and antagonist's motivations.
- The stakes/conflict determine HOW LONG a scene will run.

b. Every scene has conflict.


The conflict is between the protagonist and antagonist.

(a.) Every scene has a protagonist.
(b.) Every scene has an antagonist and the antagonist is usually a person.
(c.) Every protagonist has a clear, concrete, goal for that scene. This goal is distinct from the story goal.
(d.) The protagonist’s scene goal must clearly relate to the story goal.

Kinds of Scene Conflict:


Deborah Chester writes, “There can be no progression of events unless the protagonist hits opposition. The stronger the opposition, the better the story.”

Conflict can be either internal or external.
- Internal conflict comes from either two desires clashing (for instance, a desire to eat chocolate and a desire to lose weight) or from a desire being affected by an event in the external world (for instance, a desire to eat chocolate and aliens coming to Earth and gobbling up every single last piece of chocolate).
- External conflict comes from a clash between two visible, external, events. For instance, if one character says to the other, “Give me all your money” and the other character says, “No!” then we’ve got external conflict. The conflict in a SCENE must be external. (The conflict in a SEQUEL can be internal.)

What conflict must do in a story:


- Conflict must advance the story.
- Conflict creates CHANGE in the protagonist’s situation.
- Conflict raises the stakes.
- Conflict makes the story outcome less certain.
- Conflict heightens suspense. We want readers to worry about how things will turn out for the protagonist.

Deborah Chester notes that there are two kinds of conflict in scenes: SCENE CONFLICT (which I’ve written about, above) and ADVERSITY. While scene conflict is about “two characters in opposition over a clear, specific goal,” adversity is random bad luck. There is a place for random bad luck in a story -- for instance, it can play a role in the protagonist getting into trouble during the beginning -- but only a very small role. The overwhelming majority of the time the conflict is scene conflict.

Conflict types:


Here are the various types of conflict you'll see in a story: Combat, Verbal disagreement, Interrogation, Evasion and Bickering. Deborah Chester goes into each of these in her book, but I will just mention something about bickering: don't let your primary characters bicker. This is fine for secondary characters -- it can help the reader get a peek into their respective characters -- but primary characters need more robust sorts of conflict to act as a crucible.

c. Scene endings: every scene ends in a resolution.


I've gone into this above, but there are certain things that can't be emphasized enough:

- A scene must end in such a way that things are WORSE for the protagonist.
- Solutions are eliminated, options are taken away. At the end of the story the protagonist has no choice but to face the villain in the story’s climax.
- The protagonist’s trouble is increased.
- The stakes are raised.

Note: There should be no narration in a scene!

Deborah Chester writes, “... scenes should end in complete or partial failure for the protagonist.” “You want your readers surprised, astonished, shocked, perhaps even crying.”

Setbacks


Here are some reasons why the protagonist might suffer a loss, a setback:

- The protagonist is outgunned by the antagonist.
- The protagonist is outsmarted by the antagonist.
- The protagonist is outmaneuvered by the antagonist.

Further, the setback the protagonist suffers must be partly because of something about him or her. For example, in The Princess Bride Inigo Montoya loses a fight because he has less experience and skill than the six fingered man. The six fingered man then goes on to murder Inigo's father and steal a sword. In no way is his father's death Inigo's fault -- we do not expect an untrained child to win a dual with the best swordsman in the land.

The pattern of a setback: the possibilities (yes; no; yes but; no and furthermore)


Every scene has a goal. For example, Jane wants to find a way out of the dungeon the villain has trapped her in. That’s the scene goal. Since that’s the goal, the scene question would be: Will Jane find a way out of the dungeon the villain has trapped her in?

(I've written more about this here: Parts of Story: Try-Fail Cycles)

There are four possible try-fail cycles:

i) Yes, Jane will find a way out of the dungeon. (Success)

ii) No, Jane will not find a way out of the dungeon. (Failure)

iii) Yes, Jane will find a way out of the dungeon BUT as she walks toward the human sized crack in the wall she finds herself surrounded by skeletons shrouded in cobwebs.

iv) No, Jane will not find a way out of the dungeon AND FURTHERMORE the air begins to run out and she starts to suffocate.

Cashing out Try-Fail Cycles


The first possibility (Yes) usually doesn’t happen until the last scene … and sometimes not even then! I say usually because you may write one or more scenes from the point of view of the antagonist, in which case he will win the contest between him and the protagonist.

The second possibility (No) also doesn’t occur very often. The protagonist needs to progress, needs to change. Staying the same is boring, and if the protagonist fails to attain her goal, she’s right back where she began.

The third possibility (Yes, but) is the most common outcome. The protagonist will achieve the scene goal (and so she gets stronger, better, she grows as a person), but something will go wrong, something that plunges her into even more danger.

The fourth and last possibility (No, and furthermore) isn’t used often and is best left for major turning points. This scene ending is a disaster for the protagonist.

BTW, there is a fifth version I’ve heard of: No, BUT … Here the protagonist fails to achieve the scene goal but she manages to do something to get her a bit closer to what she wants. For example, Jane will not find a way out of the dungeon BUT she fill find a candle and some matches.

The Sequel: When the scene is over, the protagonist ...


When the scene is over we often have a sequel, but I'm not going to talk about that here,  I'll eventually do another post on it. But, briefly, in a sequel we'll see the protagonist recover, dust himself off, pick up the pieces of his thwarted attempt to do something.

The protagonist will respond emotionally -- we'll see that he's angry. We'll see him vow to do whatever it takes to never let anything like that happen again. Given all this it will seem reasonable for the protagonist to take greater risks to achieve his goal in the next scene.

Protagonist and Antagonist


The scene’s antagonist needs to work in DIRECT OPPOSITION to the scene’s protagonist.

The antagonist doesn’t have to be the story villain, the Big Bad. Of course, it could be! But it might also be a friend, or ally or even the protagonist’s sidekick. For example, the two could disagree on how to achieve a common goal.

In Lord of the Rings Sam and Frodo fought over whether Golem could be trusted. Ask yourself:

- Why does the scene goal matter to the protagonist?
- Why does the scene goal matter to the antagonist?

Explaining the logic of a scene


Allow the protagonist to encounter serious, continually escalating trouble. This ensures that your protagonist is miserable most of the time (I talk about why this is important, below).

Use action/reaction units. Unless you’ve read Bickham or Swain this likely won’t make any sense to you. No worries, I talk more about it, below.

1. Keep your protagonist miserable by continually escalating/intensifying the trouble they get into.


DC writes that you do NOT want your protagonist to be successful or happy. You need them to be:

- Worried
- Stressed
- Suffering

Change is difficult. We don’t want to change. That means we need to force the protagonist (and perhaps her allies) to do things they normally wouldn’t. We need to force them to do things that will make them uncomfortable, that will even terrify them. Why? This is the only way humans can change: by doing what is difficult, by entering the forest where it is darkest, we get stronger (if we survive!)

Think of a blacksmith. Pure iron is stronger than impure iron. How does one get rid of the impurities? They are burned away in a crucible. The hottest fire yields the purest/best product. What is true for iron is also true for our characters, we must put them in a crucible to get rid of their weaknesses, to force them to change and grow.

As Deborah Chester says, “Your protagonist needs to run full-tilt into terrible trouble, fight her way through, and hit worse trouble, fight her way through, and hit worse trouble." And so on.

The protagonist must take risks the other characters won’t. She must stand and face problems to help her friends, or anyone she cares about.

2. The hero must fail.


Before the very end, the villain, the bad guy, will continually outmaneuver the protagonist.

DC writes, “Whatever matters most in the world to her [the protagonist] should be endangered so much that she can’t sit passively, crying and doing nothing. She must take action. She must become -- by stages, and through failures, and as a result of confrontations -- a hero.”

3. Use Action/Reaction Units (A/R Units)


A/R units are all about cause and effect. They have to do with an action and its immediate reaction.

There are two types of units: SIMPLE and COMPLICATED.

3a. Simple A/R unit.


What makes the simple A/R unit simple is that it includes, basically, one sentence (or one clause) that is an external, visible, action. This action is followed immediately by a reaction.

There must not be a gap or interruption between an action and its reaction.

For example: The girl threw a snowball at Mark. Mark ducked.

I’m not saying that's an eloquent example! But you get the idea.

3b. Complicated A/R units.


In a complicated A/R unit at least one of the characters involved in a complex scene won’t be fair or honest. There are two things here:

i) There is what the protagonist and antagonist are saying and doing, their dialogue and actions. (External)
ii) What the protagonist -- the viewpoint character -- is actually thinking and feeling. (Internal)

In other words, there needs to be tension between what the viewpoint character is saying versus what she’s feeling inside.

Here is an example Deborah Chester gave:

"Hello," Michael said.
Screeching, the pixie flew at Michael's face, trying to jab his eye with what looked like a sewing needle.
What the hell? Baffled by the tiny creature's rage, Michael swatted it away. "What's wrong with you?" he shouted.

Chester goes on to say that, "Michael's puzzlement about the pixie's behavior will mirror reader confusion." That's important because if the reader is confused but the character isn't then there's a problem with the writing.

That's it!

What I'm reading:


Last night I stayed up way past my bedtime because I had to finish Orphan X by Gregg Hurwitz. I thought about starting the next book in the Orphan X series, The Nowhere Man -- I know I'd love it -- but variety is good. I'm going to start either Lee Child's thriller, Blue Moon, or Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch which is the first book in his Rivers of London series.

What are you reading, I'd love to know! 😀

If you would like to support my blog ...


Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today (no surprise!) I’m wholeheartedly recommending The Fantasy Fiction Formula, by Deborah Chester.

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.