Showing posts with label #writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #writing. Show all posts

Friday, March 5

How to Write a Genre Story: Characterization and Character Description



(Note: I'm starting a series of interviews with other writers. If you would like to discuss being interviewed, please contact me on Twitter (@WoodwardKaren) or via email: karenwoodwardemail@gmail.com. I would like to talk with you!)

The Importance, and Unimportance, of Character Description

I realize that opinions differ about this, but when I first started writing I thought that I needed to describe what the protagonist looked like in great and gory detail and preferably in the first few paragraphs. I thought the reader had to know the protagonist’s hair color, its length, the shape of her face, her height, her taste in clothes, and so on, as soon as possible.

Now, I believe that--while it’s good to let the reader know what your main character looks like before she gets too far into the story--you shouldn’t try to make it the first thing you describe. If you disagree with me let me make my case and then, share your view in the comments. I’d love to talk to my readers about this.

The Character of Characters

I don’t identify with a character because of her long luxuriant hair or cute dimples, I identify with her--or at least become curious about her--because of the kind of person she is (I’ll get more into this in a moment).[1] Yes, a character’s looks may have something to do with this, there are other qualities that are much more important. 

I do think it’s important to communicate what the character looks like (long or short hair, what color, and so on) before too long, otherwise the reader will form their own idea what the character looks like and when I tell them differently the reader will likely be grumpy about having to update their already formed image. [2]

Characters are the most important part of any setting

As anyone who has read my blog for any length of time knows, I admire the way Stephen King can draw me into his story world in a few paragraphs. I used to think dark magic had to be involved. Now I realize that King’s magic has to do with showing us the inner workings of his characters, of their contradictory souls.

I want to talk about this but, first, let’s look at the first few paragraphs from one of Stephen King's best books, The Shining (1977).

First Three Paragraphs

"Jack Torrance thought: Officious little [so-and-so].

"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." (Stephen King, The Shining) [1]

An Analysis

Right away, I noticed three things about these paragraphs. First, King uses them to describe the characters and not the room. We understand the characters and only then do we get to the physical setting. Second, the setting reflects the personality of one of the characters in the scene. (I go into how setting is linked to character development in my post, “dkdkdkd.”) Third, the setting increases conflict between the characters in the scene.

a. Character first, setting second.

The first time I read the above paragraphs I don't think I realized that Jack Torrance was in Ullman’s office or that he was there for a job interview. But that's okay, I was still drawn into the world of the story. So, obviously, that information wasn’t essential, at least not right away. Also, the question, “What, exactly, is happening here?” was important enough to me that I wanted to keep reading.

What is important is that we get to Jack and that Jack--and the situation he is in--makes us want to read on. I didn’t understand why Jack was so angry, why he hated Ullmann so much.

Notice, though, that after reading the first three paragraphs we don’t know the color of each man's hair, we don’t know if the walls are painted or wallpapered, we don’t know what kind of desk Ullman has, and so on.

We do know the important things, though. We DO know that Jack is an angry SOB and that he hates Ullmann. And we get it, right in the first sentence. Jack views Ullman as an individual deserving of contempt. But… Why? After all, in the third paragraph Jack admits to the reader that regardless of what Ullman said or did he wouldn’t have liked him because--if things worked out well--he was going to be Jack’s boss. And, right there, we see not only that Jack is capable of being honest with himself but that he has a problem with authority, and it isn’t a small one!

Let’s drill down into the nitty gritty of what the first three paragraphs tell us. In the very first sentence we are told that the protagonist’s name is Jack Torrence. We also have something of an idea how old Jack is, an age range because of the language used. For example, a child probably wouldn't have thought 'officious' and wouldn’t have the kind of interaction with Ullmann that Jack is having. It seems like something formal, something that a child’s parents would be present at. The word “officious” belies not just an adult's vocabulary but also either an educated person or someone who reads a lot. 

Also, a child who thought "officious little [so-and-so]" (depending on their temperament) might well have also said it. But Jack didn't. He's angry but controlling it. 

And, finally, that first sentence also gives us the point of view: third person, subjective.

"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."

From the second sentence (I'm only going to talk about the first two) we learn that Ullman is short and fat and that Jack thought he was prissy. It's interesting (interesting to me at least!) that while we're told how tall Ullman is, how he moves, that he's plump--quite a number of physical details--we aren't given any of this information about Jack Torrence, the protagonist.

But that makes perfect sense, doesn't it? After all, we're seeing all this from Jack's perspective, from the narrator's point-of-view which is firmly ensconced in Jack's mind. As a result everything Jack sees, everything the narrator tells us about the world, also tells us about Jack. And Jack--this character--couldn't care less about his hair color or how it's cut and styled. One feels Jack would label that as 'prissy,' something Ullman would be concerned about. 

It isn't until a few paragraphs later that we learn what we are watching is a job interview and that the characters are in Ullman's office:

"He slipped Jack’s application back into the file. The file went into a drawer. The desk top was now completely bare except for a blotter, a telephone, a Tensor lamp, and an in/out basket. Both sides of the in/out were empty, too.

"Ullman stood up and went to the file cabinet in the corner. 'Step around the desk, if you will, Mr. Torrance. We’ll look at the floor plans.' He brought back five large sheets and set them down on the glossy walnut plain of the desk. Jack stood by his shoulder, very much aware of the scent of Ullman’s cologne. All my men wear English Leather or they wear nothing at all came into his mind for no reason at all, and he had to clamp his tongue between his teeth to keep in a bray of laughter. Beyond the wall, faintly, came the sounds of the Overlook Hotel's kitchen, gearing down from lunch."

The second thing that jumps out at me is that ...

b. Intimate settings reflect the personality of the characters.

I went into this in great detail in my previous post, so I won’t belabour the point here.

When Stephen King--or, rather, the narrator--describes Ullman's desk (see the passage, above), he is describing Ullman. He is describing items--the desk, the chair, the in/out basket--that Ullman has impressed his personality upon. These setting details, therefore, are a reflection of Ullman's character, of who he is and how he wants the world to be. 

(See: How to Write a Genre Story: Setting: How to Show Not Tell)

It is only in the last paragraph that we are given the information that these characters are at the Overlook Hotel and that it's just after lunch. By this time we know that Jack was enduring a job interview ("He slipped Jack's application back into the file"). But I am only interested in these things because, now, I am interested in these men--particularly Jack--and the peculiar tension between them.

c. Use elements of the setting to introduce conflict.

As I’ve mentioned, Stephen King uses the setting--which largely consists of the two men, at least at the beginning--to inject a mammoth amount of conflict right from the first line: "Officious little [so-and-so]." But, as I mentioned above, Jack's thoughts tell us more about him than about Mr. Ullman:

"Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk--under the circumstances."

What are the circumstances? King doesn't answer this question right away. He lets the information unfurl, naturally, like we're perched on Jack Torrance's shoulder, riding along with him on this most disagreeable of days, a voyeur learning about Jack and his world. But notice what he’s done, he has gotten us to ask a question and now he’s making us wait for an answer. (For more about Lee Child and how to create suspense by asking a question, see these articles: Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense, Parts of Story: The Preconditions For Suspense, Lee Child On How To Write A Book Your Readers Can't Put Down.)

After those three paragraphs I was hooked.

Describe only those aspects of the setting that are relevant to the scene's purpose.


Keep description focused.

Each scene has a purpose: the protagonist wants to achieve some goal and they probably won't. At the same time, each scene must advance the overall plot and move the story closer to the final, inevitable, showdown between hero and villain. 

Here are elements each scene needs to communicate to the reader:

- Who is the main character, the FOCAL CHARACTER, in the scene?
Jack

- What is the focal character's GOAL? 
To get through the interview without insulting Ullman and in possession of a job.

- What must the focal character accomplish to ATTAIN that goal? 
Control his temper.

- What OPPOSING FORCE prevents the focal character from attaining their goal? 
Jack’s own temper. And Ullman.

- How does the focal character MEET THIS OPPOSITION? 
Jack contains his anger.

Once you answer these questions you'll know what information needs to be communicated in the scene. I’m not saying that no more than this information can be communicated, but unless this information is communicated the scene won’t make sense.

Make sure that each setting has been described in enough detail, and with enough emotion, to ground each turning point. Part of this is making it clear what has led up to these changes.

If a detail of setting doesn't contribute to answering any of these questions then it might not need to be included in the scene. Perhaps it would be better placed in another scene. Or another novel. 

I hope some of what I've written, above, is of help in deciding how much description is enough. In the final analysis I agree with Stephen King: It's all on the table. Use whatever you want, especially in the first draft. Experiment, try new things! After you've set your manuscript aside for awhile and come back to it, and read it with fresh eyes, then it will be easier to see which parts work and which don't, as well as where you've described too much or too little.

That’s it for today! I hope you’ve found something useful in this. If so, leave a comment. If not, and you’d like to tell me about it, please leave a comment! Whatever you do, good writing. Cheers.

Notes:

1. Notice that these paragraphs were written in third person and yet King seems to have achieved all the intimacy of first person. I've written a bit about how Stephen King might have achieved this--one of the techniques I think he makes use of--in this post: Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul.

2. The idea is that what interests me as a reader isn’t the length of a character’s hair. Take Jim Butcher’s character Harry Dresden, the only professional investigating wizard as an example. He has a proper wizard’s laboratory in his lodgings, it’s in a hidden basement no one knows about. Harry is unrepentantly snarky--a true curmudgeon--and yet can’t help himself when a beautiful woman asks him for help. Also, he collaborates with a spirit named Bob who lives in a human skull. After the first page of Butcher’s first Dresden book, Storm Front, I knew I wanted to know more about Harry. From reading what I’ve just written about him, do you have something of an idea who Harry Dresden is and whether you’d like to read more about him? If so, note that I haven’t said anything about what the character looks like.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
Good Storytelling: Give Your Characters Something to Die For (Part One)
Good Storytelling: Goals, Stakes and Consequences (Part Two)
Good Storytelling: Unique Stakes (Part Three)
Good Storytelling: Internal and External Stakes (Part Four of Four)
Writing a Genre Story: Try-Fail Cycles
Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense
How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict
How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)
Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)
How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Character (Part 3)
How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and the Hero's Journey (Part 1)
How to Write a Genre Story: Setting: How to Show Not Tell (Part 2)

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Saturday, February 27

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting: How to Show Not Tell (Part 2)



Summary: Setting is an essential part of good writing because a well developed setting helps a writer show rather than tell. Each object in a story has a function, a purpose, a goal. This implies that if we were to get a peek into the hero's--or villain's--lair, that simply by looking at the objects that are most important to him would allow us to, in a sense, read the character's mind. We would know who they really were, what they wanted as well as what their goals were. In what follows I unpack this idea.

Nothing is more important to character development than setting.

At least, that’s what I think. After you’ve finished reading this, let me know if I’ve convinced you.

Setting enables a character to become who they really are and, in so doing, shows what that character wants and why they want it. Setting puts the character’s passions on display, it reveals their loves, hates, fears, strengths and weaknesses.

Don’t believe me?

It will take me a few paragraphs to develop this idea, so hang in there. It’ll be worth it.

Things and Goals

Look around. You’re surrounded by things. I’m sitting cross legged in my black office chair typing on a keyboard. There are miscellaneous pens scattered in front of me, a coffee grinder, a pair of reading glasses, a magnifying glass, a box of sticky notes, a desk lamp and a cup full of steaming hot coffee. 

But… So what? What do any of these things mean

Well, why do I have any of them? I need my pens bcause without them I couldn’t scribble in my writing journal and that wouldn’t be good because that’s how I write most of my rough drafts. Now, I don’t always like writing rough drafts, but I do it because I like eating and having a roof over my head. 

Each object on my desk is like my pens in that each has a function and, as such, is tied to a goal. 

Here’s another example. When I was a teen one of my best friends, Carl, was always on a diet. His Achilles' heel was junk food, when he was stressed he couldn't resist it. 

One day we were meeting up with friends so, being kind, he drove by my place and picked me up so I didn't have to take the bus. When I climbed into his car the first thing I saw was a discarded Big Mac wrapper that had escaped the garbage. That discarded wrapper told me quite a lot about him: he was stressed and, because he'd had a Big Mac recently, he was feeling guilty for cheating.

Things and Goals

Okay, so far so good. Now let’s talk about goals. 

In a story, every object is tied to a goal via either it’s function or by what it represents. (If it isn’t tied to a goal, why have it in the story?)

I think that all things--and therefore all goals--could, more-or-less, be said to fall into one of three categories: things we need to SURVIVE, things we use to PLAY and (for lack of a better term) things associated with DEEP MEANING. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Survival 

In life we do certain things (for example, go to work at a job we hate) to get other things (like food and shelter) we need to survive. 

My example for this category is a briefcase. A briefcase isn’t wanted in and of itself, but only to the extent that it would help someone achieve their goal of helping them at their job. Now, this isn’t to say that everyone who owns a briefcase hates their job, but my guess is that if 100 briefcase owners were each given 10 million dollars they would quit their jobs and divest themselves of their briefcases. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. 

This goal is all about removing the negative--starvation and homelessness. There is nothing the person values in itself in pursuing their goal of being employed. I could imagine that some people, upon retiring, burn their briefcases!

Play

We do other things (for example, go fishing) to get things (for example, fish plus a feeling of tranquility) that we like. As with the above category, certain objects, certain ‘things,’ can be associated with this activity. For example, a fishing rod. A fishing rod isn't wanted in and of itself, but only to the extent that it would help someone achieve their goal of helping them catch fish. 

But, unlike the survival category, this goal is not just about removing the negative, it is also about introducing a positive, desired, emotional or mental state. Associated with this kind of goal is something a person values in itself (for example, a feeling of wellbeing). I could imagine that some people, upon retiring from fishing, still keep their fishing rods as a reminder of good times, or perhaps they gift it to a young friend.

I’ll talk more about this, below, but of course while we perhaps have a stereotype in our heads about what the ‘average’ fishing experience is or why people fish (I fished quite a bit as a child) of course not all people have positive experiences or mental states associated with fishing. In this case such a person might toss their fishing pole into the garbage (similar to the briefcase). BUT this would be unusual and so would (or so I think) make us curious WHY. We don’t need an explanation for why a person would enjoy fishing, but we do need one for why they hated it. Again, this is my claim, please feel free to disagree!

Deep Meaning

We do still other things (for example, get married) to get things (a family as well as a purpose in life) that we love, things that bring a deeper meaning to life, things that help us structure our life, things that provide a framework. I’ve called this category ‘deep meaning.’ 

Certain objects, certain ‘things,’ can be associated with states-of-affairs that bring our lives deeper meaning. For example, a wedding ring. Generally speaking, the ring isn’t wanted in and of itself, but only to the extent that it symbolizes the desired state-of-affairs of being married, of the commitment one spouse has made to another. This state-of-affairs is something the person values for itself and it will greatly change their life and how they move about in the world. 

I would expect that were the relationship to end suddenly that the nature of the relationship and the reason for its termination would affect one’s attitude toward one’s wedding ring. For example, if a beloved spouse passes on then I would imagine the ring would be treasured, kept. If John has a nasty divorce I wouldn’t be surprised were he to toss his wedding ring into the ocean or garbage can.

What we have so far:

There are certain objects (e.g., briefcases) that are stereotypically associated with negative things and others (e.g., wedding rings) that are stereotypically associated with deeply meaningful wonderful things (e.g., marriage). Still others (e.g., fishing rods and playstations) have some emotional valence that falls somewhere in between the two.

So, to recap. The idea is that objects have functions and that these functions imply particular goals. Therefore, when writing a story, in introducing an object with a particular function or one that represents a certain thing, you are also introducing a goal, one that might say quite a lot about the character. 

This is an essential part of showing not telling.

Using Setting to Show Not Tell

An example: Carl

Let’s go back to the example of my friend Carl. The Big Mac wrapper implied something about his goals and the extent to which he was achieving them. If I were writing a story about Carl, the discarded McDonald’s wrapper would say quite a lot about my friend’s success in achieving his weight loss goals. But, also, and more importantly, it would tell me he was under a lot of stress. He wouldn’t have to say anything to me in order to communicate this information, all I needed to see was that discarded wrapper. That’s a big part of showing and not telling.

So there are objects, and objects have a function, and objects are tied to goals via their function. Also, we have either positive or negative feelings about an object based on loosely two things: First, how we feel about the goal and, second, how efficiently the object gets us to that goal.

You can see where I’m going with this. Since the possession of an object can imply a goal, a desire, what objects your characters have in their homes, their private abodes, say quite a lot about first, what face they want to present to the world and, second, what they really care about. It can tell the reader what the character loves, what she wants, what she hopes to achieve. That goes to the essence of characterization.

But that’s not all.

Kicking it up a notch: Breaking Stereotypes

This is really what this post is about: How to use the juxtaposition of setting and character to create conflict and surprise. But before I talk about that let’s get more specific about desires and goals.

Mixing it up: Subversion of Expectation

Comedy

Comedy often results when an object that is used for play is used instead for survival. For example I can imagine a modern day Wednesday (from the Addams Family) being forced to play on a Playstation as though it were much loathed homework. This would tell us A LOT about Wednesday and the values of the Addams family.

One of the things that separates an entertaining story from a boring one is that an entertaining story will have a few of these surprises.

How do we do this? 

One way we can both surprise and intrigue the reader is to take an object that is commonly associated with one category--say a wedding ring--and have a character feel about it the same way we normally feel about a briefcase. 

Terror

Have you seen the 1987 movie Black Widow, the one starring Debra Winger? Here’s the description from IMDB: “A federal investigator tracks down a gold-digging woman who moves from husband to husband to kill them and collect the inheritance.” So, for Catherine, the murderer, her wedding ring had the same emotional significance as a new briefcase would have for the average person. When it comes to understanding such a person that’s a valuable piece of information! That sort of thing paints a powerful picture.

Or how about this: Imagine you have next a door neighbour who everyone thinks adores his wife. She passes after a lengthy illness. He seems devastated. A couple of days after she passes there is a bad windstorm and garbage cans are tipped over, their contents strewn about all over the block. On your way to the store you pass your bereaved neighbours home and see that the wind has tossed the contents of his garbage can all over the road. There, in front of you, is his wife's wedding ring. That would be a good opening for a mystery!

The Harry Potter stories used this device. There are two things here. First, school is more in the survival category, not many children are terribly excited about going to school or doing homework. But J.K. Rowling, first, made a character--Hermione--who loved doing homework like many people love football or hockey. 

Second, the entire school is one that many of Rowling’s readers dreamt of attending! She took something--schooling--that usually is in the “I need to do something I don’t like” category and put it in the “play” category by uniting it with the idea of wizardry, of learning how to control magic.

Show Don’t Tell

You might be thinking: well, Woodward, isn’t that all just a part of characterization? Yes! But to SHOW who a character is we want to have the character react to something important to them--to someTHING in the setting. In doing so, the character will be brought to life. 

(Jim Butcher has written about how to create an interesting character.)

Also, when we take a thing that normally belongs in one category and put it in another, our character is shown to be unusual. That’s a good thing because unusual characters are memorable characters, and memorable characters are fun to read about.

Finally, a thing that characterizes the fictional person is the relative proportion of, say, survival items to play items. Or play items versus deep meaning items. What would it say about a character if his man cave had NO deep meaning items, NO survival items but a lot of play items? He would seem to be a playboy, a dilettante, someone who was truly interested in nothing and lived only for the pleasure of the moment. But (putting a twist on this) what if (as in The Scarlet Pimpernel or Batman) our hero had a secret room that was full of objects from the survival and deep meaning categories? That would indicate that his playboy image was a ruse, a smokescreen.

Summary

It’s fun for me to think about objects this way, it helps me understand the characters I’ve loved in new ways. I hope you’ve gotten something from my ramblings, perhaps a slightly new way of thinking about something you’ve always instinctively known. I hope it was worth it. 😀

(By the way, if you write--you don't have to have anything published--and would like to be interviewed, tweet at me (@WoodwardKaren).)

Thanks for reading! This post took me a long time to write, I’m hoping to have my next blog post up next week. Good writing.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
Good Storytelling: Give Your Characters Something to Die For (Part One)
Good Storytelling: Goals, Stakes and Consequences (Part Two)
Good Storytelling: Unique Stakes (Part Three)
Good Storytelling: Internal and External Stakes (Part Four of Four)
Writing a Genre Story: Try-Fail Cycles
Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense
How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict
How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)
Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)
How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Character (Part 3)
How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and the Hero's Journey (Part 1)

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Thursday, January 28

How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict

How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict


How to Generate Conflict

Conflict results from the clash of two things: a character's goal and the opposition to that goal. It follows that every scene needs two opposing forces, in genre fiction these are usually a viewpoint character who wants something desperately and a force that prevents her from getting it. 

Specific Goals

The protagonist should have a goal so specific you could take a picture of it. A desire for riches isn't a good goal because it's too general, too abstract. Wanting to win next month's million dollar lottery, though, is a fine goal. It even suggests ways to bring it about: buy a lottery ticket! 

Instead of a character wanting to be rich, have them dream of graduating from Harvard Law at the top of their class. Instead of a character wanting love in her life, have her daydream of marrying Ernest Watly, the eccentric librarian who moved to town last year. Instead of a character wanting to travel, have postcards from locations all over the world taped to her walls and give her an abiding desire to see the Nazca Lines in Peru.

Opposition to the Goal

Something must oppose the hero reaching her goal.

What characteristics should the opposing force have? First and foremost, it must have the ability to prevent the hero from achieving his goal. Second, it must give the opposing force the ability to evoke the hero's deepest, darkest fears.

Indiana Jones’ antagonist, his opposing force, was Belloq. He managed to keep track of Indy’s activities and rob him of whatever artifact he sought. Also, when Belloq sealed Indy and Marion in with the Ark when they were in the Well of Souls, there were lots and lots of snakes, the creepy crawlies Indy was terrified of.

Luke Skywalker’s anatangost was his father, a sith, and his darkest fear was being seduced to the dark side of the force.

Stakes

I’ve written quite a lot about stakes in my “Good Storytelling” posts, I’ll leave links to them below. 

Anyway. Stakes. This part is easy: the hero must have something to lose and something to gain.

To create suspense, the stakes of a conflict should be clearly spelled out in advance, before the hero is menaced by danger. If the hero achieves his goal, how will his life change? If he loses, what difference will that make?

In The Matrix Neo would have lost the love of Trinity as well as his life if he had not achieved his goal and become The One.

In Star Wars IV, if the resistance had lost and failed to destroy the Death Star then the resistance would have been snuffed out. Of course, the resistance won, the resistance survived and went on to topple the Empire.

Ticking Clock

To build tension it helps if the hero is racing against a clock, though perhaps not an actual clock. They must be under pressure. This both sets a deadline and gives the character time to plan, to agonize and, finally, to fight. 

I know I’ve talked quite a bit about Star Wars IV but that was a good story. At the end Luke, and the entire resistance, are rushing against a ticking clock. The Death Star is powering up to destroy the planet that the resistance is based on. If the Death Star isn’t destroyed by then the resistance will blink out of existence.

Raise a Question

I’ve also talked about this in Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense.

When we talk about creating suspense we are talking about an emotional state that exists within a reader. We generally try to evoke this emotional state by getting our readers to identify with our characters, especially our hero. We make it clear what the hero needs, as well as what he fears, and then we force the hero to face his darkest fears as he struggles to attain his goal. 

Because the reader has identified with the hero they feel concerned for him and this keeps them turning pages to see whether the hero will succeed.

And it's effective. I've stayed up into the wee hours of the morning more times than I'd like to admit simply because I had to know what happened. 

Well, Lee Child is a proponent of another, easier, way of creating suspense: simply raise a question. He even goes so far as to say that it doesn't especially matter whether your readers care about your characters, there is something about a question being raised that makes readers want to know the answer.

Photo Credit

FRANK IN STEIN by JD Hancock.

(BTW, I also write about this in How to write a genre story: how to create suspense.)


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Wednesday, July 22

Jung and the Hero's Journey: The Disaster (Part 5)



In my last post I talked about The Call to AdventureToday I want to talk about a very important part of any story: the hero’s descent into hell, otherwise known as entering the Special World of the Adventure.

I should note, though, this isn’t the low point of the story. It IS, though, a point of stark contrast between the ordinary world and the strange new world he now finds himself in. Just think of Luke Skywalker in the Mos Eisley Cantina.


Why do I call this the descent into hell? Because—and this is where Jung’s insights into human psychology are so relevant—if the Special World doesn’t give your protagonist the equivalent of a panic attack then you’ve done it wrong! Okay, that’s hyperbole, but there’s truth in it.


The Special World is alien to the hero. It is inside out and upside down. The hero has no idea how things work there, what the social norms are, what sort of accomplishments are looked up to and which are despised. Yes, sure, eventually this shock will give way to a feeling of awe, acceptance and perhaps even (brief) happiness, but in the beginning it engenders terror -- and perhaps curiosity -- in the hero. All his senses are on fire. He is equally attracted and repulsed by this new world.


For instance, in the movie Collateral a hitman, Vincent, convinces Max, a cab driver, to drive him around off the books for the rest of the night. When a corpse falls on Max’s car and Max learns what Vincent does for a living, Max’s ordinary world dissolves into chaos. 


Max had a comfortable life. Like most of us, he had dreams, dreams that would likely remain just that. Then Vincent comes into Max’s life and everything is turned upside down. Put another way, Vincent shatters the fantasy world Max is living in and wakes him up.


Let me develop that analogy.


In a sense, the ordinary world is a dream. It is comfortable but it’s no longer true. In Collateral, Vincent plays the role of a devil, destroying Max’s carefully constructed world and, in so doing, forces him to face the truth: if Max continues as he is then his dreams will never come true. Why? Because Max is scared of change. He’s stuck in a rut and he’s too scared of the dark to risk shattering his nice comfortable world.


The Special World is, in a sense, a metaphor for the terror that comes from having our comfortable lies ripped away, it comes from our being forced to see the world as it is as instead of how we would like it to be. 


(If you are familiar with the Tarot, especially the Rider Waite deck, I see this journey from the Ordinary World into the Special World of the Adventure as nicely represented by the Tower card.)


If the hero has a chance to prepare for his journey into the Special World then things generally go better. But even then it’s going to be a rough ride (for example, Neo in The Matrix.)


That’s it for today! I’ll talk to you again in the next few days. In the meantime be well and good writing!


Say "Hi" on Twitter: @WoodwardKaren


Saturday, January 4

10 Ways to Develop Your Writer’s Voice

10 Ways to Develop Your Writer’s Voice


How to Develop Your Writer’s Voice


How would you go about developing your distinct voice?  And what is voice, exactly?[1] Obviously the way Stephen King tells a story, his use of language, is different from the way, say, Isaac Asimov told a story. And both of these are different from the way Margaret Atwood writes. For example:

Margaret Atwood


“On the eastern horizon there’s a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender. The offshore towers stand out in dark silhouette against it, rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of the lagoon. The shrieks of the birds that nest out there and the distant ocean grinding against the ersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble sound almost like holiday traffic.” (Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake)

Stephen King


“Halston thought the old man in the wheelchair looked sick, terrified, and ready to die. He had experience in seeing such things. Death was Halston's business; he had brought it to eighteen men and six women in his career as an independent hitter. He knew the death look.

“The house - mansion, actually - was cold and quiet. The only sounds were the low snap of the fire on the big stone hearth and the low whine of the November wind outside.” (Stephen King, The Cat from Hell)

Isaac Asimov


“He [Gaal] had steeled himself just a little for the Jump through hyper-space, a phenomenon one did not experience in simple interplanetary trips. The Jump remained, and would probably remain forever, the only practical method of travelling between the stars. Travel through ordinary space could proceed at no rate more rapid than that of ordinary light (a bit of scientific knowledge that belonged among the items known since the forgotten dawn of human history), and that would have meant years of travel between even the nearest of inhabited systems. Through hyper-space, that unimaginable region that was neither space nor time, matter nor energy, something nor nothing, one could traverse the length of the Galaxy in the interval between two neighboring instants of time.” (Isaac Asimov, Foundation)

I wanted to also give you a sample of Neil Gaiman’s work -- the first section of Neverwhere -- but that would have made this post too long! But, hopefully, from these three samples you can extrapolate what I mean by a writer’s voice.

Developing Your Writer's Voice


Of course I’m just gesturing toward the idea of a writer’s voice. You need to read many stories by the same author to be able to hear that author’s voice. Similarly, to understand what different SORTS of voices are possible it helps to read dozens, hundreds, thousands of books by various authors. And it helps enormously if your reading is eclectic, don’t just draw from one genre and don’t just read fiction.

For example, in the excerpt I gave from Stephen King’s short, The Cat from Hell (one of my favorites), he has a particular voice and he’s (of course) speaking through a specific narrator. King’s voice will change slightly from story to story in part because each will likely have a different narrator. That said, after you’ve read a few of Stephen King’s stories you get a sense of what-stays-the-same even across books.

Okay, so that’s what I have to say about a writer’s voice. Now I want to get to the real meat of this article: how to bring out the best in YOUR writer’s voice.

Let’s face it, some writer’s voices are more interesting, exciting, irreverent, funny, and so on, than others. Sometimes I would like to try and make MY writer’s voice more exciting. So … what could I do to kick things up a notch?

Chuck Wendig’s Voice


I’m writing this post because of Chuck Wendig’s blog, Terribleminds. I love this blog! CW has good advice for writers (except the part about eating bees) and I enjoy his strong writing style.

(BTW, Chuck Wendig’s blog, every inch of it, is NSFW because of adult language. You’ve been warned! Here’s the link: Terribleminds)

Okay? Onward!

10 ways to a bolder voice


Our keyboards have a delete button for a reason.

If you attempt to make a sentence better by trying out one of the techniques, below, and the sentence is so hideous it hurts your eyes, just delete it!

But, who knows? You might create something playfully creative, something that will make your readers laugh, something you wouldn’t have otherwise attempted. I think it’s valuable to try something new-ish or slightly uncomfortable (and, yes, I’m talking to myself right now!).

What I’m going to do is look at a few excerpts from Chuck Wendig’s work and then I’ll attempt to puzzle out what Chuck Wendig did to make me really like that bit of writing. (By the way, I’ve left links at the end of this article to every single article I quote from.)

Quotation 1


“Oh, and I still get bad reviews. I still get rejected. Writing is hard. Easier for me than many. But still hard. And publishing is harder. Publishing can be 'passing pumpkin seeds through your urethra' hard. It can be 'pushing a rock up a hill until the rock rolls back down onto you and then vultures eat your fingermeats but now it’s time to push the rock again, dummy' hard.” (Chuck Wendig, Writing Advice is Bull****)

Okay, so, here are a few things I noticed in this passage:

1. Take it over the top.


Take something innocuous, a nothingburger of a sentence or idea, and double-down on it. Then triple down. (“pushing a rock up a hill …”)

2. Be bold. Be honest.


To say that I’m shy would be like saying statues don’t move a lot. It’s true but something of an understatement. Writing requires boldness. Fearlessness. Honesty. (And pen names. Pen names are good!)

CW writes: “... I still get bad reviews.” This is honest. No one likes getting bad reviews, much less announcing the fact that one’s work has received bad reviews. But I think that truth, all sorts of truth (personal, moral, scientific, and so on), is crucial to good writing.

BTW, there is, occasionally, a price to pay for boldness and honesty. I think Chuck Wendig is insanely talented and brave, but I need to include this link to show that, while these qualities can be great for creating bingeable prose, bad things can happen.

3. Punch your reader in the face (Metaphorically!!)


As we’ve seen, CW writes: “Publishing can be ‘passing pumpkin seeds through your urethra’ hard.” This metaphor is in-your-face. It’s kinda uncomfortable. A little … gross? But that’s the point! CW’s writing isn’t tame. And it isn’t expected. I guess that’s another way of saying it’s creative. He ruthlessly mashes ideas that have nothing to do with each other together to create something new, interesting and -- if you actually did it -- possibly criminal!

Quotation 2


Chuck Wendig writes:

“What I mean is this: the things I say at this blog and in my writing books is just advice. It’s not right. It’s also not automatically wrong. It’s just advice. It’s like if you ask me about sneakers and I’m like, “I wear these sneakers called Hoka One Ones, and they’re really great.” They are a real sneaker. I actually own and wear and love them. They’re great for me. It’s true. It’s like walking on air. It’s improved my running. They’ve ended my plantar fasciitis and also ended other associated running pains. And they might be great for some of you. For others? You might f****** hate them. But these shoes are what I know and so I will recommend them if you ask. Hell, even if you don’t ask.” (Chuck Wendig, Writing Advice is Bull****)

I could have paired that quotation down, but I didn’t because it’s true and helpful.

4. Talk directly to your reader.


Notice that here, CW is talking right to the reader. He set up a mini-scene. The Reader has asked him a question about sneakers and he’s replying. And the reply makes a clear point in an entertaining way. I’ve noticed that this -- conversing with The Reader -- is a characteristic of CW’s blog posts. That is, he easily drifts into and out of using dialogue to communicate with The Reader. (Stephen King does this as well, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

ALSO, notice that when CW writes, “Publishing can be ‘passing pumpkin seeds through your urethra’ hard” he is talking to you, Dear Reader. Well, not really. I think he’s talking to a hypothetical reader. Most people write with some one person in mind, either real or imagined.

But still. When a flesh-and-blood person like yourself reads this, it feels more immediate, more personal.

Maybe I’m reading more into this than I should, but I think sometimes using dialogue is … Well, I think it’s understood that the writer is NOT talking to YOU per se, the writer is talking to a reader (Dear Reader) … when this happens I have in mind some one person who could be either real or imaginary. But still, it’s a little bit like you and I -- reader and writer -- are sharing a moment together. (But not in a weird way! Hopefully.)

Intimacy encourages interest.

Quotation 3


“But I present you with this to consider:

“I do not much care for Tolkien’s work.

“No, no, put down that broken beer bottle. Relax. I recognize that I’m the outlier there …” (Chuck Wendig, An Oubliette Of Unconventional Writing Advice)

5. Poke your reader.


This builds on my point, above, about talking directly to Your Reader to create more of a sense of intimacy.

Good writing evokes emotions in your reader. When I read CW’s writing, above, I smiled. I have to admit my first reaction when I read “I do not much care for Tolkien’s work” was, “What! That can’t be true,” but then I read on and instead of being grumpy with CW I smiled. Which is good! In general, if you can make your readers smile, you’re doing something right.

I don't want to take us too far afield, but I've noticed that many of the people I enjoy talking with at cocktail parties open with a good natured poke, something that evokes mild tension/conflict. For example, I walk everywhere and as I walk I listen to podcasts. My friends will often poke me about wearing ugly headphones (they truly are hideous but the sound is amazing). That poke, that friendly jab, sparkes friendly verbal sparring.

Of course readers can't poke you back, but I think that injecting mild tension into your prose can make it more readable. Conflict is king.

Quotation 4


“Junk can be wonderful. Have you ever been to a junkyard? An old-timey one with appliances and cars and secret treasures buried throughout? Have you ever eaten a cookie, or had ice cream? They’re junk, too. Ever seen a kid play with an empty box? An empty box is junk. But what they do with it — I mean, it’s a pirate ship, a boat, it’s knight armor, it’s an action figure base. Some junk is just trash, admittedly. But some junk is artful. Masterful. Just because it’s old — or cobbled together from various pieces — doesn’t make it bad. It just makes it junk.” (Chuck Wendig, The Rise Of Skywalker)

6. Ask Your Reader questions.


In the above quotation from his post, “The Rise of Skywalker …,” Chuck Wendig is talking to The Reader and he’s asking questions. “Have you ever seen a junkyard? An old-timey one …”, “Have you ever eaten a cookie, or had ice cream?” (And, yes, this is a good use of parallelism, but I’m trying not to get sidetracked!)

When I’m asked a question I perk up and pay attention. Now, of course, Chuck Wendig doesn’t know me, has never met me much less asked ME a question in real life. But, as someone who has read the above he kind of has. That is, as I read he is sharing his ideas with me -- and everyone else!

Remember the Holodeck on Star Trek? That's how I think our brains work. (See what I did there? lol) In the Holodeck you don't just see images, you're IN another reality. It is immersive.

We don’t just view ideas like images, we engage with them. They are us, we are them. Now that doesn’t mean that every time you think of pain you are in pain (that would be awful!) but if someone asks a question, even if it’s not directly to you, it's a bit like someone throwing a softball at you. Your hand automatically comes up and grabs it. (It's a little bit like saying, "Don't think of a white bear." You just did! Right? You can't read that sentence without, in some way, engaging with the idea of a white bear.)

Similarly, if someone asks 'you' a question, it engages you on another level. At least, that's what I think! Please let me know if you disagree.

7. Be vivid.


Staying with the same quotation from “The Rise of Skywalker …,” it is almost like Chuck Wendig is plucking images from his mind and popping them into ours. Take the sentences: “Have you ever been to a junkyard? An old-timey one with appliances and cars and secret treasures buried throughout?”

That’s vivid! You can SEE it. You can grasp that idea. Then, when you’ve both got (more-or-less) the same idea in mind, he can talk to you (The Reader) about it. It feels like you’re having something like a real conversation with the writer. (And no, I’m not encouraging readers to transition into stalkers!)

(BTW, Stephen King talks about this weird idea-sharing thing in his book On Writing. The chapter heading is “What Writing Is.” (For those who have already read the book, it’s where King talks about the white rabbit.))

Note: I thought about including this as a separate point but thought that might be dangerous. Here's what I want to say: If you have more-or-less mastered the basics of grammar, then don't get hung up on always writing grammatically correct prose. Before your manuscript goes out into the world, have a competent editor look it over, but when you're writing -- especially if it is informal writing -- don't be afraid of sentence fragments if you think one will help you to vividly communicate an idea or feeling. For example in the above quotation CW writes: "But some junk is artful. Masterful." And it works. (THAT's the ultimate criterion: Does it work?)

Quotation 5


(a.) “I see this meme every so often.

(b.) “‘You can’t teach writing.”

(c.) “That is a hot, heaping hunk of horseshit and you should get shut of that malodorous idea.

(d.) “Anybody who puts this idea forward is high-as-f*** from huffing their own crap vapors, because here’s what they’re basically saying to you:

(e.) “‘I’m a writer/artist/creative person and I’m this way by dint of my birth — I was just born naturally talented, a*******! — and it can’t be taught so if you’re not born with it as I most graciously was, then you’re pretty much f***** and f*** you trying to learn anything about it and f*** anybody who tries to teach it and you might as well give up now, you talentless, tasteless, cardboard hack. Now kiss the ring, little worm.’

(f.) “Writing is a thing we learn. Which means it is a thing people teach.” (Chuck Wendig, A Short Rant on the You Can’t Teach Writing Meme)

8. Vary the length of sentences.


There’s a lot to unpack in the above quotation. It is an excellent example of how to inspire emotion in readers, and I’m going to get to that in a moment.

Right now I’d like to focus on how Chuck Wendig varies the length of sentences. Really good writers (from what I can tell) tend to vary the length of their sentences. They will have one, two, three (etc.) long sentences in a row and then pepper the page with a few short ones that condense or funnel the energy of the text. The short sentences bring the point home -- pow! Like the knockout punch of a boxer.

In Quotation 4, look at paragraph (e.). That paragraph has only two sentences. The first is LONG and it is packed with inflammatory language. Then the second, much shorter sentence, drives the point home (‘Now kiss the ring, little worm’).

Of course, CW isn’t saying this, he’s saying that people who feel like this are insufferable, but through his use of language he does a very good job of inspiring The Reader to intensely dislike them. And inspiring strong emotions in our readers is a BIG part of writing.

9. Over the top insults.


As I just said, I love the way Chuck Wendig ended the dialogue: Now kiss the ring, little worm. That is so outrageous it makes me laugh. It’s effective!

This gives me ideas for my own work. If you create a bully and you would like The Reader to want your protagonist to give the bully a black eye, then give the bully a speech that ends like this.

Chuck Wendig is very good at creating emotional hooks -- even in non-fiction!

10. Swear words are emotional.


Okay, I feel like there’s an elephant in the room, so let’s discuss this. Chuck Wendig swears a lot and, by their very nature, swear words are emotional.

Many people (most people?) feel that swear words are naughty. For some people, the very act of reading a swear word can feel transgressive -- forbidden. And every interesting thing ever (e.g., the Forbidden Forest in the Harry Potter novels) is forbidden. Or … well, at least MOST are.

I don’t use swear words in my own work because, for me, that would be like trying to learn to juggle while using dynamite. For Chuck Wendig, it works. I love his blog posts and I try to learn from them.

You have your own style, something that is expressive of who you are as a person. And, as you continue to read and write you will change and so, naturally, will your style. And that’s very cool.

Thanks for reading! (If you are Chuck Wendig then … Thank you! I hope you’re not upset that I examined your non-fiction writing in this way. I’m a huge fan. 😀 I would be interested in your feedback, if you have any.)

In Closing ...


Many times I’ve tried to puzzle out how I could write with a bit more boldness, a bit more flare, a bit more color. That’s why I began writing this post. So I’d love to know what you think. Do you have a tip or three you could share about how to improve a writer's voice?

What I'm doing/reading:


Right now I'm not reading any fiction. Later today I'm going to study two blog posts (this one and this one) and work on a YouTube script (about something totally unrelated). BUT I should read more fiction. Does anyone have a book they could recommend?

Resources:


The following links lead to articles by Chuck Wendig and can be found on his fabulous NSFW blog, Terribleminds.

The Rise Of Skywalker, And How Star Wars Is Junk.

Writing Advice Is Bullshit.

An Oubliette Of Unconventional Writing Advice.

Tips On Horking Up Your Novel’s Zero Draft.

A Very Good List Of Vital Writing Advice — Do Not Ignore!

A Short Rant On The “You Can’t Teach Writing” Meme.

Become a Friend of the Blog


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 Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. I usually recommend novels, but a friend of mine told me it was very useful for him. I read it and I think, if you're going through couple trouble -- or even if you're not! -- it's a good read. Here is an excerpt:

"The 5 Love Languages is as practical as it is insightful. Updated to reflect the complexities of relationships today, this new edition reveals intrinsic truths and applies relevant, actionable wisdom in ways that work."

Twitter: @woodwardkaren
YouTube: Karen Woodward

Notes:


1. What is a writer’s voice?

I was going to talk about the difference between a writer’s voice and a writer’s style by giving their definitions. But I’m not going to do that. First, I don’t think the difference between them is important to the points I’m making. Second, understanding the difference between these two notions wouldn’t help anyone understand what a writer’s voice is.

Chuck Wendig and Stephen King each have a strong voice, and they are two of my favorite authors. As you read the quotations, above, you’ll be able to FEEL the between their voices. I think that a writer’s voice is more felt/experienced than thought about/understood. It has more to do with the heart than the head.

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."

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.