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

Friday, December 5

Story Openings: Five Choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Criteria

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

1. Immediate Action

Chris Winkle writes:

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

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

a. Conflict within a character

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

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

b. Conflict between one character and another

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

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

c. Conflict between the protagonist’s allies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 3

Plot Wheels And The Tarot: Part 2 of 2

Plot Wheels And The Tarot: Part 2 of 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a comfortable, safe, cuddly card!

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

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

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

9. Final Situation: II of Cups.

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

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

10. Protagonist’s end state: The Empress

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 1

Plot Wheels And The Tarot

Plot Wheels And The Tarot

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

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

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

The Writer’s Tarot: A Character Arc

Choosing a protagonist

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

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

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

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

The Spread

(Click on the picture to enlarge)

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

The Cards

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

2. Initial Goal: IV of Pentacles

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

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

5. Stakes: Win: VI of Cups

6. Stakes: Lose: IV Wands

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

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

9. Final Situation: II Cups

10. Protagonist’s end state: The Empress

Choose the genre

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

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

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

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

Interpreting the spread

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

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

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

Stepping through the spread

1. The Ordinary World: VI of Swords 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary of the story so far

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 20

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Archetypal Openings

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Archetypal Openings

A well-written opening reflects the kind of story you’ve written. If it’s a horror then the opening should communicate this; similarly for romances, mysteries, westerns and so on. While many stories employ archetypes—in fact, I think that the very best stories always do—the level of involvement varies.

Before I discuss that, though, lets talk about the difference between archetypes and stereotypes.

Archetypes vs Stereotypes

I think of a stereotype as a solid unchanging but shallow impression, with the added sense that it doesn’t truly reflect the person portrayed. That is, it doesn’t accurately represent the humanity, the deeper truth, of the situation.

An archetype, on the other hand, is something we’re connected to on the basis of shared experience. For example, I think we’ve all had the experience of hearing something that shouldn’t go bump-in-the-dark go bump-in-the-dark. 

We have all been alone in the cold dark and felt things glide silently through the darkness, coming for us. When we write a story about such things, such shared experiences, even though we might not have the writing skill of, say, Gillian Flynn, our readers are there with us. They are inside our character’s skin and it is the reader’s awareness of being in similar situations, that archetypal awareness, that connects them to that character.

Now, I can hear you asking ...

Given that definition aren’t all openings archetypal?

 I believe that all effective openings are archetypal to some degree, but that some are more so than others. For example:

“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” (The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford)

Anyone who has ever been very sad (and who hasn’t?) can connect with this. In that sense, this is an archetypal opening. It would have also worked if instead of “saddest” the author had used “most horrific” or “bloodiest” or “most profane,” and so on. Choose your superlative ... though “most boring,” although archetypal, wouldn’t have the same punch.

Mythology, Urban Mythology and Archetypes

Carl Jung was one of the first to notice the archetypal nature of myth, folktales and what, today, we call urban legends. Take, for instance, one of my favorite folktales: Baba-Yaga and Vasilisa the Fair. Here’s how one version of that tale begins:

“A long time ago there lived a merchant and his wife; they had one child, a girl called Vasilisa. One day the mother placed a little doll in the child's hands, she said, ‘My child, I am dying. Take this doll as my blessing. Always keep it with you and never show it to anybody. If anything bad happens to you, give the doll food and ask her for guidance.’ Shortly afterwards the mother died.”

This opening got my attention. Yes, a question has been raised here (If the child feeds the doll will it give her guidance?) but I feel that the archetypal nature of the story is announced by the mother’s death. 

The death of those who raised us, who nurtured us when we were children, is (unfortunately) something that connects us all. It is something that, even though Vasilisa’s character is never really fleshed out, connects us to her and makes us care what happens to her.

Death As An Archetype

What I’m about to say doesn’t have anything to do with openings but since we’re discussing archetypes I think it’s relevant. Often at the middle or two-thirds point of a story a major character dies, or comes very near death (occasionally a character seems to die but is resuscitated).

One of the archetypes that runs through the fabric of human existence is our shared realization of life’s inevitable end. When a character dies we cannot help but be gripped by it. When a character almost dies and somehow finds a way back, we cannot help but be moved by the experience. 


By weaving these archetypal experiences and events into our stories we increase the reader’s involvement in that story. (And, yes, of course, this involvement would be helped along by creating rounded characters.) (See: Crafting Interesting Characters; Creating Vivid Characters for NaNoWriMo; Preparing to write a story: characters.)

And that’s it for archetypal openings! Granted, much more can be said about this, but not much more can be said in under 1,000 words! If you’d like to read more about archetypes in the human experience (and you haven’t already) pick up a copy of Carl Jung’s “Man And His Symbols.” Although you may not agree with everything Jung says it is an interesting read.

This is the last, the final, post in my Six Ways To Begin A Story series (click on the link to go to the first one which contains a handy-dandy index), I hope you enjoyed it.

If you have any questions, or any suggestions for future posts, please leave a comment or contact me.

Photo credit: "Love is in the Air..." by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, November 13

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Character Driven Openings

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Character Driven Openings

The Character Opening

The character story opening is my favorite kind of opening, though it’s arguably the trickiest to pull off. 

At the moment I’m on a Gillian Flynn reading jag. Her books, all but the first, start out with strong, shocking, character descriptions. 

Here’s the first few lines of her second book, Dark Places:

“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it.”

Dark Places is (or so it seems to me, I’m about 25% of the way through) a mystery wrapped in a horror story. But not supernatural horror, not the kind one can laugh off after leaving the theater. This is about something that feels real, the sort of thing we hear about on the news and are enraged by, or crushed by, for a few hours or days until the ebb and flow of our daily lives draws us back and makes us forget the evil that lurks beneath the skin. 

Gillian Flynn smashes off a chunk of that evil and forms her all-too-human characters with it.

But perhaps horror isn’t your cup of tea. (It would make a nasty cuppa, black and bitter and deadly.)

His jaw was long and bony ...

Here’s one of my favorite first paragraphs:

“Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.”

Yes, this is also a descriptive opening, but it gives us a peek (if I may put it like this) into the protagonist’s soul. It gives us a broad hint at exactly how difficult Sam would be to manipulate and how far he might take things. 

Why Do These Openings Work?

I want to write a longer post on why certain openings are effective but, here, I’d say that both openings surprise (perhaps even shock) the reader. Also, both openings have an intimate tone. And both these protagonists are, let’s face it, strange.

Most importantly, though, each opening raises questions.

In Dark Places the question is one of nature vs nurture. One asks: Why does the protagonist (Libby Day) have a meanness inside her? Is she correct, is it a matter of who she is, a matter of her blood? Is it the case that there’s something wrong with her and it doesn’t matter what she does, it’s always going to be there? Or perhaps something, something horrible, happened in her past, something that changed her, that warped her. Something that, perhaps, can be at least partially undone. And if so, what was it?

This is a terrific opener for the book because those questions form the core, the irregularly beating heart, of the story. They never go away, they just become more and more urgent. 

Character openings are infrequent

There are good reasons to not start a story off by looking into the soul of the main character. Many folks need their curiosity peeked first, they need to know a bit about the underlying story before they can be interested in a particular character.

The power of plot vs the power of characterization

I don’t believe there is any tension between characterization and plot; one can’t have strong characters without plot because plot flows naturally from the conflicts between strong characters. That said, I do think a story can be suspenseful in the absence of strong characterization. 

Don’t believe me? Read Stephen King’s retelling of “The Hook” (found in Danse Macabre), an urban myth that has a strong plot (that has narrative drive, suspense, etc.) but hardly any characterization. I wanted to reproduce it here but it was too long. If you do, imagine you and your friends are leaning forward into the warmth of a dying fire while one of you tells the tale. 

(Here is a link to The Hook over at Wikipedia; it’s not as good as Stephen King’s retelling but it will give you an idea what the story is if you’ve never heard it before.)

Here’s King’s comment:

“The story of The Hook is a simple, brutal classic of horror. It offers no characterization, no theme, no particular artifice; it does not aspire to symbolic beauty or try to summarize the times, the mind, or the human spirit. [...] No, the story of The Hook exists for one reason and one reason alone: to scare the shit out of little kids after the sun goes down.” (Stephen King, Danse Macabre)

And I think Stephen King would agree that the same could be said for most urban myths.

Why does The Hook work? Call it whatever you want, dramatic tension, narrative drive or suspense. 

My point (yes, there is one!) is that we often need whatever it is that the story of The Hook possesses, we need it at the beginning of the story to seduce readers into caring about the characters, to get the story rolling. 


I’m not putting this forward as a rule (there are no rules in writing) and as we’ve seen, some authors are brilliant at character introductions, so I would never try and discourage someone from starting their story off this way. It’s just, depending on the story and the style of the writer, more difficult to grab readers from the very first sentence.

Often writers reach for something shocking or contradictory or, failing that, something that frustrates our expectations and makes us think, something that gets us turning pages, something that gets us to care about the characters. Because, ultimately, it’s all about the characters.

So. That’s my take on why most openings are plot oriented rather than character oriented. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at humorous openings and try to pin down what makes something funny.

Photo credit: "Chihuahua" by kenichi nobusue under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, November 10

Writing And The Three Secrets of Magic

Writing And The Three Secrets of Magic

I’m going to take a break from my series on story openings (I’ll come back to that on Wednesday) to look at what Ferdinando Buscema calls the three secrets of magic. I want to look at how these principles might help you as a writer.

Before I do that, though, let me tell you why this subject interests me. When we write—at least, when we write fiction—we create. We create entire worlds and populate them with continents and people and cultures and social norms and ... well, everything.

In doing so—the purpose of all this creation—is to create a reality for our readers. Yes, sure, it’s a reality you can’t hold in your hand or react with in any sort of physical way, but it does, still, have a certain sort of shadowy (or not so shadowy) existence. 

Since Ferdinando Buscema’s three secrets of magic are about how imagination can create reality, I thought they might be interesting to writers.

Ready? Here they are:

Ferdinando Buscema’s Three Secrets of Knowledge

1. “Reality is not always what it seems to be.”

I would agree with that. Gestalt psychology teaches us that what we see depends as much upon our mind as it does our eyes. Take, for example, the rabbit-duck illusion.

When one first sees this image one sees either a rabbit or a duck (or, if you’re like me, a mass of nonsensical squiggles). After a while though, if one looks at it long enough and concentrates upon the lines of the drawing, one can often come to see the lines as forming both a rabbit and a duck. 

At this point you might be wondering: Who cares? The point is that our mind, our expectations, influence what we see as much (or perhaps more than) what is ‘out there.’ And that’s ... well, mind-blowing!

Ferdinando Buscema writes:

“[For all of] history men questioned [...] the nature of reality. Is reality only what we can see with our own eyes and touch with our hands? Or is there more than meets the eye? Maybe there are things that exist even if we don’t perceive them directly. Over the ages, mankind created many narratives, different stories to explore the concept of reality. Be it Plato’s Myth of the Cave, or the Veil of Maya of Eastern philosophies, or modern cinema renderings of The Matrix or The Truman Show, these different narratives point their finger towards the same conclusion: our perceptions are limited and any model of reality we design is a pale representation of what’s “out there”. Explicitly, the function of art and the role of the artist is to interpret reality through his own point of view, showing novel slices of reality that others might not get through their limited eyes. In the words of Paul Klee ‘Art does not reproduce what is visible, it makes things visible.’”

2. “Imagination creates reality.”

When I first read this I was skeptical. For me reality—external reality—is filled with kickables (like this table I’m writing on) that are made of atoms which combine to make molecules, and so on. 

Though I do absolutely believe that, for example, one’s reactions to another person, what one imagines they’ve said, or their imagined motivations, can decide what will follow. It could be a fight. It could be a reconciliation. It could be complete indifference depending upon the mindset of each individual. 

In that sense, I believe how we perceive the world, how we imagine it to be, can create reality. Which is one reason it’s often a good rule of thumb to assume the best (but still prepare for the worst).

Ferdinando Buscema writes:

“I believe that every artist, of every school and at any time, agrees with this. [Our imaginations] [...] shape reality and navigate through the multiplicity of planes. In the wonderful words of musician Peter Gabriel, “All of the buildings and all of the cars, were once just a dream in somebody’s head.” In other words, all that surrounds us, before manifesting in the material and objective reality, was born in the form of an idea, an intuition, a thought or a vision in someone’s mind. And so, believing in magic – which sounds like an outdated superstition – means believing in the supreme power of the imagination to shape reality. As neurosciences has validated, to a great extent, we are and we become what we think.”

Just the other day as I was reading about Amazon’s latest gadget, the Echo, it struck me how many things we have in todays society that wouldn’t be there except for someone’s idea, someone’s imagination. For me, the Echo is very much like the communicator on Star Trek. Yes, Amazon Echo is much bigger—one can’t pin it on one’s shirt—but its mind is the cloud; the device itself is just a fancy speaker. 

That’s just one example. When I first saw the iPad I thought: that’s Picard’s tablet!

In this sense (and likely many others) what we think, what we imagine, most definitely shapes reality. (Or perhaps we could say that it shapes our future reality.)

3. “Reality is made of words.”

This is the statement I had the most trouble with. My table is not made up of words, it’s made up of atoms which form molecules, and so on. But I think I was being too literal. Here’s what Ferdinando Buscema has to say about it:

“Magic is the art of the word that enchants and has concrete effects upon the world. The words that we speak shape our reality more deeply than we generally acknowledge. [...]  Nowadays, along with the traditionally known languages, we have witnessed the emergence of a new breed of codes whose effects on reality are absolutely concrete. I’m talking about computer programming languages. These nomad codes are the new esoteric languages, which are totally obscure and mysterious to whoever is not initiated into the technology. [...]

“Be it words or computer codes, reality is ultimately made of symbols. We navigate in a forest of symbols, which are abstract entities, whose effects upon reality are absolutely concrete, as anyone who is working in branding or advertising knows very well.”

Certainly I think this is true for one’s perceptions of reality, or perhaps (to put it another way) one’s internal reality. (Which would seem to imply that one can separate the observer from the observed, but I’m okay with that.)

Keri Smith and her book, “The Imaginary World of ___.”

I read about Ferdinando Buscema’s three secrets of magic in Keri Smith’s wonderful book, Keri Smith’s wonderful book, “The Imaginary World of ___,” which, in a way, is all about change and the art of creation.

Creation and Change

Change is good, right? Certainly if you’re writing a story you want things to happen. Without change there’s no movement, without movement, there’s stasis. And that’s just dullsville.

How do we instigate change? Change in ourselves, change in the world? To paraphrase Keri Smith:

One instigates change by imagining something different.

It doesn’t matter what is imagined, as long as it’s something new.

Viewed this way we can see that being a writer is the most profoundly powerful and exciting profession possible.

Think about it. If Keri Smith and Ferdinando Buscema are correct about imagination creating reality then we would have the power “to transform society and culture at large with our words and ideas.”

As Keri notes, if we really got behind this idea we would be be modern alchemists. She writes: “Just by documenting our ideas, we can begin the process of change.”

What are you waiting for?

Note: At the end of my last post I promised my next one would be about how to use the Tarot to get ideas for writing a scene. I’m still going to write that post! Probably next week, either Wednesday or Friday. Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "... itty-bitty living space." by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, November 8

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Puzzle Openings

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Puzzle Openings

On the 31st I began a series on Story Openings and claimed—boldly—that there were six. Well, more or less six; I suppose it depends on how one looks at it. Today I’d like to examine what I’m calling the Puzzle opening. (Here is the first post in this series: Six Ways to Begin a Story.)

Puzzle Openings

 I think of a puzzle opening as any kind of opening which isn’t primarily a description or that doesn’t primarily communicate conflict but which has been constructed to disorient and intrigue the reader.[1]

This can be done in a number of ways. For instance, by mentioning something impossible (or very unlikely) so the reader wonders, “What’s going on here, how can that be?” and reads on.

Example 1: 1984

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984 by George Orwell)

When I first read this sentence the mention of the clocks striking thirteen immediately got my attention. I was curious. What? Striking thirteen? It’s not an expression I had heard before.

“Thirteenth stroke of the clock or "thirteen strikes of the clock" is a phrase, saying, and proverb to indicate that the previous events or "strokes to the clock" must be called into question.” (Thirteenth Stroke of the Clock, elaborates:

“The thirteenth stroke here doesn't refer to military time but to an old saying. References to a thirteenth stroke of the clock indicate that some event or discovery calls into question everything previously believed. Put another way, the thirteenth stroke of the clock calls into question not only the credibility of itself but of the previous twelve.

“But notice in this opening line that it isn't just one clock malfunctioning, but the clocks. Presumably all of them. In this world, the clocks striking thirteen is not an aberration, but a normal way of life.

“In this way, Orwell subtly alerts the reader that statements of truth in this fictional society should be called into question.”

Here’s another opening I think of as a puzzle opening ...

Example 2: City of Glass

“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” (City of Glass by Paul Auster)

Here the protagonist gets a call from a stranger, a call that was intended for someone else. But this event sets the events of the book in motion. The question: How could a wrong number do this? Did he know the caller? Did the caller not believe him when he denied being who the caller believed he was? What was the call about? And so on.

Or (and this is my favorite) ...

Example 3: Peter Pan

“All children, except one, grow up.” (Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie)

The question raised: Why doesn’t this child grow up? What is special about him? I found the idea fascinating and tragic. (Tragic because, at the time, there was nothing I wanted more than to grow up. Oh how things change. ;)

Of course there’s a certain amount of overlap. To me the first line of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is more about conflict than it is a puzzle but it also contains a puzzle: How on earth did this happen? Though, of course, the story is more about what happens than why it happened or even what kind of critter Gregor Samsa became.

That’s it! We’ve covered descriptive openings, conflict filled openings, puzzle openings. In the not too distant future I’ll cover archetypal openings, character driven openings and humorous openings. I think, though, that in my next post I’ll explore the tarot and how writers can use it to get inspiration for a scene.


1. I want to stress that when I say an opening is of a certain kind, say a descriptive opening, I don’t mean to imply it doesn’t, for example, contain elements of conflict.

photo credit: "SuperFolie" by Joan Sorolla under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.