Showing posts with label Deborah Chester. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Deborah Chester. Show all posts

Friday, October 25

How to Succeed: The Importance of Clarity





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

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

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

Cause & Effect: Order Matters


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

Example 1


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

Hearing the shot, Joe turned.

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

Example 2


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

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

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

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

Example 3


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

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

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

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

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

Two Plain Facts about Feelings


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Motivation and Reaction


How and Why


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

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

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

Here’s the logic.

1. decide what is good and what is bad


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

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

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

1a. How society sees things


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

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

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

1b. Relative to a goal


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

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

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

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

1c. Be specific.


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

1d. Introduce a yardstick.


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

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

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

Events


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

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

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

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

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

Give your character a moral compass


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Focal Character


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

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

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

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

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

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

But none of that made for a good story.

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

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

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

2. Create a story world.


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

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

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

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


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

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

4. Motivation and Reaction


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

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

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

5. Motivation and Reaction Units Shape Emotion


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

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

I expand on this, below.

The Order of Events Should be Clear


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

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

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

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

Note the order here.

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

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

Here’s the structure Swain gives:

Motivation Reaction Units (M-R Units)


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

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

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

Exercise


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

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

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


Thursday, April 13

4 Reasons to Write Fan Fiction

4 Reasons to Write Fan Fiction


Fan fiction, for many people, is ... a gateway drug to all other fiction writing.”
—Emma Lord

Before Amazon came out with Kindle Worlds I never seriously thought about trying my hand at writing fan fiction. This blog post was inspired by a podcast I listened to a couple of days ago: NPR 1a: Fans And Fan Fiction (I've also embedded the podcast, below). It got me wondering: can fan fiction help writers hone their skill and, if so, how?



Why write fan fiction?


We’ve all heard of fan fiction, or fanfic. Fan fiction is just what it sounds like, fiction written in an established universe which features characters and settings from that universe.

For example, the TV show Supernatural has a LOT of fans. I’m one of them, but certainly not the most hardcore. Over at fanfiction.net Supernatural has the biggest community in the TV show section. Supernatural has acknowledged their fans by making fanfic the subject for a couple of episodes (my favorites!).

But, why write fan fiction? 

4 Reasons to Write Fan Fiction


1. Personal fulfillment.


You love a particular narrative world and there are stories you’d like to read which aren’t being written.

Have you ever wanted characters to do something that you know can’t happen on the show? For example, you want to tell a story about the main character’s death or you would like two characters (possibly the protagonist and antagonist!) to begin a romantic relationship. Or perhaps the stories being spun in a particular universe are strictly PG and you want to take things in a more NC-17 direction. 

2. Change part of a story


You might love a particular story but hate the ending. For example, I’ve always LOVED Bram Stokers Dracula. If any of you haven’t read the original, please do. But I’ve never been a fan of the ending. I’ve always wanted to take Stoker’s story, put it in a modern setting, and—while  leaving the beginning more or less the same, change the ending. 

3. The series is finished


No more shows are being produced, no more books are being written. The only way you’re going to get a new story is if you write one.

4. Mashup


You want to mash two narrative worlds together. For instance, Buffy wakes up in Mordor and takes on Sauron.

The Advantages of Writing Fan Fiction


Writing fanfic has definite advantages for new writers—I wish I had written fanfic when I was a kid; I think most of my stories would have been set in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia!

Another advantage for new writers is that they don’t have to create everything—the characters, the world—from scratch. They can work with fully developed characters that work and they can draw from LOTS of examples. It’s a bit like being an apprentice writer.

That said, I don’t mean to suggest fanfic is ONLY for new writers! 

The Rhythm of Story


Just today I was listening to an interview with one of Stephen King’s children, Joe Hill (10 Minute Writer's Workshop: Workshop 18: Joe Hill). He mentioned a time when he was blocked. To push through he wrote out, longhand, great chunks of a story by one of his favorite authors. It helped him internalize those story rhythms. (Incidentally, several best selling authors have also given this very same advice; it’s what they did at the beginning of their careers.) I think fanfic can help writers in a similar way. By trying to write in the same voice (or a similar one) as a more experienced writer we can internalize the rhythms of successful storytelling.

Tags and Traits


Established characters generally have well-defined tags and traits and seasoned writers deftly weave them into character introductions and reintroductions. This, however, is one of the things it is sometimes difficult for a beginner to pick up, even though it's one of the most important. There are several TV shows that do this exceptionally well. In my opinion, one of the best shows for this is Archer (<-- NSFW). That show continually amazes me! See also: The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Supernatural

Watch or rewatch an episode of one of these shows and pay attention to how the characters are introduced, how tags and traits are used to define the characters and hook viewers, as well as how they hook into the story arc for that season. Also (and this isn’t specific to tags and traits) notice how these shows get right to the inciting incident with minimal preamble.

Where to publish fan fiction?


The legalities are beyond me but if you would like to read about this I suggest the wikipedia article on Fan Fiction.

Non-commercial


It seems as though copyright holders will not prosecute if a work of fan fiction is published on a site devoted to that purpose, for example fanfiction.net.

Commercial 


In the case of commercial fiction things are much different. Generally speaking, without some sort of prior understanding between you and the copyright holder, one cannot write in another author’s universe and get financial remuneration. But some authors do allow others to write in one of their fictional worlds AND receive compensation for their efforts.

For instance, Kindle Worlds offers writers a place to publish fan fiction inspired by popular books, shows, movies, comics, music, and games. Of course there are conditions and restrictions which you can read about here.

Tips for Writing Fan Fiction


Voice. If your goal is to write in the voice of the original author then you must get the atmosphere right. In this context Ian Sansom’s positive review of The House of Silk (a Sherlock Holmes novel) might be of interest: The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz.

Characterization. Even if your goal isn’t to write in the voice of the original author and even if you intend to transform the characters in some way or other, be careful to make your characterizations are consistent. Of course this applies to ALL writing but chances are your readers will already be fans of the characters and may be even more sensitive to inconsistencies. Further, if you change any of a character’s traits be careful that the characterization you settle on doesn’t ‘break’ the character.  

For example, in the 1992 retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula on the big screen, Lucy was depicted as more sexually inquisitive than in the book. Even so, she was recognizably Lucy. I’m not suggesting that each character has a core set of characteristics that any fan fiction must adopt—I rather doubt this—but that’s part of what makes writing a deliciously dark art. Keep in mind that IMHO no matter what you do, no matter what decisions you make in writing (as in life), there are going to be folks who vehemently disagree with you.

List of Fan Fiction Sites and Resources


Fanfiction.net. This is a huge site that serves the interests of a vibrant community. If you’re at all interested in writing fan fiction I encourage you to wander down its highways and byways.

The Writers’ Area. This is a master list of miscellaneous resources devoted to fan fiction. 

Harry Potter Fanfic Resources. There are many sites devoted to all things Harry Potter and this is by no means the only fan fiction resource for that universe but it’s a place to start. 



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 wholeheartedly recommending The Fantasy Fiction Formula, by Deborah Chester. DC taught Jim Butcher in university and he dedicated his first book, Storm Front, to her. I’ve read DC's blog for years and love it!

From the blurb: “There's more to writing a successful fantasy story than building a unique world or inventing new magic. How exactly is a plot put together? How do you know if your idea will support an entire novel? How do you grab reader attention and keep it? How do you create dynamic, multi-dimensional characters? What is viewpoint and do you handle it differently in urban fantasy than in traditional epics? What should you do if you're lost in the middle? How do you make your plot end up where you intend it to go? / From the writing of strong, action-packed scenes to the handling of emotions, let award-winning fantasy author Deborah Chester guide you through the process of putting a book together.”



I’m curious, do you write fan fiction? If so, when did you start? Do you also write original fiction? What do you love most about writing fan fiction? Is there anything you don't like about it? I’d love it if you posted your comment for all to read but if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, you can also contact me directly. I’d love to hear about your experiences! 

Reference:



Monday, April 13

Classic Design vs Minimal Design: Part 2 of 2

Classic Design vs Minimal Design: Part 2 of 2

This article continues yesterday’s post on Deborah Chester’s notions of classic design. All quotations, below, are from her article Fighting for Story.

Have A Proper Protagonist


Protagonists should be heroic, strong and admirable. They should be depicted in such a way that readers will like them. Further ...

Make The Protagonist Active


Chester writes that the protagonist should initiate confrontations “in order to accomplish a specific objective.” Further, each confrontation should cause a chain reaction. It should set other events in motion, events that “lead to bigger complications for the protagonist.”

Key point: There is a human being causing these difficulties for the protagonist. A good old-fashioned hand wringing, mustache twirling, villain. (Okay, not so much hand wringing or mustache twirling, but you get the idea.)

Have A Proper Villain


Deborah Chester admonishes us to make our good guys good and our bad guys bloodcurdlingly evil—or at least devious, ruthless and driven. They should be depicted in such a way that readers will not like them. She writes:

“It’s become unfashionable to label fictional characters as the good guy or the bad guy. To consider someone a villain means you must make a judgment. You must gauge this person against your standards, ethics, and principles, and find him or her lacking.”

And, when it’s put like that, I can understand the disinclination to do so. If one measures other people against one’s own code of ethics and then judges them if they don’t measure up ... well, that’s caused quite a lot of nastiness in the world.

In real life folks have a variety of tastes and predilections. In my book, that’s just fine. 

But as DC mentions:

“Fiction is art, and art makes order of reality. The story protagonist must become heroic in order to prevail over an opponent who chooses expediency enough to become a villain.”

I agree. That goes to the heart of the perception of villainy, of evil: choosing what is expedient over what is right. 

In the end I think it depends on the kind of villain you want to create. As Jim Butcher and Donald Maass have said, most antagonists, even villains, see themselves as the good guy. They believe themselves to be the hero of their own story. 

Perhaps perspective is the key. Readers see the story world through the eyes of the viewpoint character. In a single viewpoint novel this is (naturally) going to be the protagonist. As long as the protagonist has reason to view the antagonist as someone who is more concerned with expediency than with what is right, readers are going to see the antagonist as a proper villain.

Linear Plotting And Viewpoints


No flashbacks. Deborah Chester writes:

“Classic design unfolds a story in a logical, cause-and-effect chronology. It begins with the catalytic moment of change in the protagonist’s circumstances that forces him or her to take action. Thereafter, it moves in a linear direction toward the finish where the story’s climax will resolve the protagonist’s problem one way or another.”

When there are no flashbacks the order of events is crystal clear and confusion is minimized.

One viewpoint. Classically designed stories tend to have one viewpoint character rather than several. (For example, all the books in The Dresden Files.) Deborah Chester writes:

“It [webbed plotting] involves several viewpoints, which in turn requires the story to present each viewpoint as directing a subplot. Strict chronology of story events is deemed less important than a character’s feelings or perspective. Although web plotting can generate more depth of characterization, if handled poorly it can result in a split focus in the story and much difficulty in achieving effective story resolution.”

I agree. Which, of course, isn’t to say that multiple viewpoint stories aren’t engaging—just look at the popularity of George R.R. Martin’s books. But, of course, Mr. Martin is a skilled writer. What he has pulled off is epic. I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that a single viewpoint novel is much easier to write. So, all things being equal, if you’re setting out to write your first or second book, go easy on yourself (and your beta readers!) and stick to one viewpoint character.

How To Create A Suspenseful Scene


Deborah Chester mentions two things that help keep a scene on track and suspenseful:

1. Every scene should focus on a clear character goal.

2. Every scene should end in a setback for the central character.

Further ...

Character Creation: Be Bold. Be Vivid. 


Exaggeration is your friend. Each character should have one, or a few, qualities which define them (see: Tags & Traits: Characterization And Building Empathy). Deborah Chester advises us to “Exaggerate that quality. Own it. Flaunt it. Build it bigger.” Make your protagonist—make all your characters—vivid. She writes:

“When I read fiction, I want to follow a viewpoint character through tough problems right into the heart of conflict and see that character meet the challenge or be temporarily flattened by it.”

Mr. Monk wasn’t just quirky, he was downright strange. People are afraid of a lot of things, but he was afraid of pretty much everything. Including milk!

Harry Dresden isn’t just a wizard—which is pretty darn cool as it is—he’s the first and only wizard to announce himself as such and make himself available for hire. 

Scenes: Maximize Conflict


One of the best ways to create suspense is to create conflict. Chester writes:

“Every scene is focused around conflict, which is created by the clash between the protagonist’s goal and the antagonist’s goal.”

Also ...

“[...] scene-based conflict focuses a confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, brings an issue out into the open, pits the two characters against each other, and drives one or the other into victory or defeat.”

Beware Ending A Story On A Cliffhanger


Deborah Chester writes that the danger of ending a story on a cliffhanger “is that readers — and inexperienced writers — lose touch with how stories should be resolved, how [...] readers should be taken through a cathartic experience of anticipation, suspense, emotion, and satisfaction at the story’s conclusion.”

You might be thinking: But that’s not how it is in real life! To that DC says:

“Fiction isn’t supposed to be realistic. It’s art, and art focuses on the message its creator wants to convey. Story is contrived by writers to transport readers to a different place and time, to put them vicariously through tremendous challenges and difficulties, and to let them survive, prevail, and grow as individuals.”

As Stephen King has said, fiction is the truth inside the lie.

That’s it! Next time I’ll continue my series on Dan Harmon’s unique take on story structure. Till then, good reading and writing.

Sunday, April 12

Classic Design vs Minimal Design

Classic Design vs Minimal Design

I know I said this blog post would either be about Part 7 of my series on Dan Harmon’s unique take on the structure of stories or I would delve into the beautiful dark heart of the gothic genre.

I’m going to do neither, because I came across a wonderfully informative post about story structure written by Deborah Chester. You can read it on her blog, Chronicles of the Scribe. It’s called Fighting for Story.

By the way, if you don’t know who Deborah Chester is, in addition to having written over 35 science fiction and fantasy books she holds the John Crain Presidential Professorship at the University of Oklahoma. In fact, she was Jim Butcher’s writing teacher back in the day and he dedicated his first book, Storm Front, to her. 

Classic Design


Unless otherwise indicated, everything I talk about, below, has been drawn from DC’s post, “Fighting For Story.” I urge you to head over to her blog and read it for yourself. It’s stuffed to bursting with insights on how to write suspenseful prose. 

Before we get going I want to talk a bit about what DC calls classic design. She writes:

“It [classic design] follows this pattern:  a protagonist pursues a goal despite the active opposition of an antagonist until the conflict escalates to an ultimate showdown and the protagonist prevails or loses.”

Also, in a classically designed story, there is an inciting incident that is the “catalytic moment of change in the protagonist’s circumstances that forces him or her to take action.” Further, at the end of the story, the “climax will resolve the protagonist’s problem one way or another.”

Classic vs Minimal Design


Chester’s object in writing “Fighting for Story” is to compare and contrast classic design with what she calls minimal design. She writes that “Minimal story design is where the protagonist is facing a problematic story situation but is reactive to it and may not necessarily be facing a direct foe.”

I’m acquainted with stories that use minimal design and—I won’t lie—I loved many of them! To each their own.

From what I can tell, the stories that DC refers to as minimally designed also (more or less) follow Joseph Campbell’s story structure. In what follows I’ll use American Beauty and Pulp Fiction as examples of minimally designed stories. One of the differences between these stories and, say, The Matrix (a classically designed story if there ever was one), is that the stakes seem to be handled a bit differently. 

From the first scene of American Beauty we know Lester Burnham is going to die, we just don’t know who will kill him or how the deed is done. Or, really, why anyone could possibly be passionate enough about Lester Burnham to kill him. Aside from those not insubstantial questions, a large part of the appeal of American Beauty is voyeuristic (or so I would argue). We hover about the family unseen. Fascinated, we watch them implode.

A Longish Aside


In American Beauty no one person is a Big Bad, if anything fits that description it is the inevitability of endings and failure and death. It is the constant awareness of our own inevitable mortality. Wonderful movie. It’s one of my top 10 favorites. Pulp fiction as well. It’s a brilliant story that made me laugh and gasp in surprise and, yes, cry. And all the while being ever so slightly ironic. (Or maybe not ever so slightly.)

Pulp Fiction and American Beauty are two very different movies but, from what I can gather from “Fighting for Story,” both would be examples of minimal design. My own take is this: If that’s the sort of story that lives inside you—go for it! Write it.

Alan Ball wrote and produced American Beauty and then went on to create and write the hit HBO series Six Feet Under. Quentin Tarantino hasn’t had a bad career either. ;)

Now, I’m not saying that if anyone employs minimal design in their stories then stardom (as much as stardom is possible for writers!) is guaranteed. Quite the opposite. I believe that it is much more difficult to write a compelling story if one employs a minimal design. Ultimately, I don’t believe one kind of story is superior to the other. We as people—as readers and writers—need both. I read and enjoy both, but I do have a soft spot in my heart for a good classically designed story, a story such as Deborah Chester and Jim Butcher (and many, many others) write.

Sorry for the long aside, but I wanted to make it clear that I don’t think minimal design is in any way bad. Jim Butcher has had a few things to say about the difference between classically and minimally designed stories—even though he never, to my knowledge, used those exact terms. And, as usual, he puts it far better than I could. Although in this quotation JB’s focus is narrower than DC’s, I believe the general point comes through. Jim Butcher writes:

“Sticking with the purely craft-oriented standpoint, we'll start with a basic question: what makes a good character?

“FIRST AND FOREMOST, FICTION WRITERS, YOUR CHARACTERS MUST BE INTERESTING.

“I mean, come on. Who is going to want to read about boring people? I can do that in the newspaper, or in any history class. Increasingly, as our society moves into the MTV-Information-broadband-instant-gratification age, reader tolerance for the dull and the plain is going to go down.

“Bottom line: without interesting characters, your book is already dead. You can write something that flies in the face of this if you like, and people the story town of Plainsville with John Smiths, and who knows, maybe you'll create an immortal piece of literary art. But for poor slobs like me whose sons are suddenly wearing larger shoes than them, and who are looking with mild panic at the costs of a college degree, there are a couple of basic principles to think about which could really help you in all kinds of ways.” (Characters)

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s see how we can employ Classic Design in our stories.

Ack! I’m at a thousand words. Well, I’ll leave the rest of this post till tomorrow. On Monday I’ll write about Deborah Chester’s tips on how to craft a compelling story your readers won’t be able to put down. Till then, have a great day, and good writing.

Monday, March 10

Two Ways To Introduce Setting Quickly And Effectively

Two Ways To Introduce Setting Quickly And Effectively




When I first started writing, I had no idea how important a well-developed setting was for enabling a reader to imagistically enter into a story and wrap it about them as one would a warm blanket. I knew the importance of characterization and 'hooking' characters into the setting, but not setting itself. I didn't yet view setting as almost a character in its own right.

For example, here's a passage from P.D. James's short, wonderful, book on the writing of detective fiction:

"[...] I was on a visit of exploration in East Anglia, standing on a deserted shingle beach. There were a few wooden boats drawn up on the beach, a couple of brown nets slung between poles and drying in the wind, and, looking out over the sullen and dangerous North Sea, I could imagine myself standing in the same place hundreds of years ago with the taste of salt on my lips and the constant hiss and withdrawing rattle of the tide." (Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James)

Wow. I'm there, I taste the salt, feel the wind, hear the ocean.

Of course I always had known, even if I was unable to articulate it, that the author's description of the setting was a large part of my reading experience, but knowing is one thing and being able to articulate exactly what it is about a piece of prose that causes a location to become so real to one's imagination it seems one is transported there ... well, it's difficult. I've become better at it lately, but it has not been easy.

Still from the first episode of Sherlock, season three: The Empty Hearse.
I wish I could be like Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch's interpretation) and instantly spot which elements of story contributed to my immersive reading experience. But, alas, in this I am often more like Watson.

I have a tendency to shortchange setting and go right to the action--perhaps because I'm worried readers won't find my description of setting terribly interesting and will move onto more engaging pursuits. Which is why I found Deborah Chester's recent blog post, Setting on the Run, so encouraging: she talks about two ways of introducing setting that won't bore the pants off readers.

Weaving Setting Into Narrative


To recap. The problem is that a storyteller must describe setting even though doing so will slow the pace; and slowing the pace isn't the best thing to do at the beginning of a story when we're trying to hook a reader's interest. 

Deborah Chester puts it this way: "Description is notoriously slow going. It basically puts the action on 'pause' while the author inserts whatever details of the locale are deemed important."

Here are DC's two solutions to this problem:

1. The Dominant Impression


DC writes:

"Now, I was trained to use dominant impression when describing a place or person. Dominant impression is simply selecting the primary detail or information that you most want the reader to absorb and focusing on that in a brief, vivid paragraph."

I looked around for an example of this and finally chose the following. It doesn't describe a physical characteristic, but it does describe an aspect of character:

"I don't call people for help. It's not because of the way I was raised, at least I don't think so; it's the way I was made. Johanna once said that if I was drowning at Dark Score Lake, where we have a summer home, I would die silently fifty feet out from the public beach rather than yell for help. It's not a question of love or affection. I can give those and I can take them. I feel pain like anyone else. I need to touch and be touched. But if someone asks me, 'Are you all right?' I can't answer no. I can't say help me." (Bag of Bones, Stephen King)

2. Deborah Chester's Method


DC says the following is effective in fantasy, but I think it generalizes to other genres.

a. Tell "readers where they are--for example Dickensian London or the fire pits of Ustan."


b. Plunge "the viewpoint character into immediate trouble–either in scene action, conflict, or peril" and present "the dialogue and character reactions true to their particular locale."


Why this works:

"The reader, reading quickly to stay with the story action, has to keep up, orient himself to the locale, and envision the kind of place where characters would speak and behave in this particular manner." DC comments that this method of introducing setting is "quick, engaging, and anything but boring. Avoid the temptation to explain and embroider. Give it a try, and see how it works for you.

DC recommends "The Anubis Gates" by Tim Powers as a book with examples of this technique.

Question: How do you communicate a sense of place quickly and effectively?

Photo credit: "Sunrise under scrutiny" by Loco Steve under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, December 5

How To Build Vivid Characters

How To Build Vivid Characters


Deborah Chester, in her latest blog post, "Writing with Flair" argues that we should not attempt to make our characters true to life. Instead our characters need to be:

Sharp
Vivid
Bold
Exaggerated
Unpredictable

No real-life individual could possibly exemplify all those traits. Nevertheless, our characters--especially our main characters--need to.

DC writes:

"When I sit down to read fiction, I don’t want characters that are modeled closely on real life. Real life is boring, mundane, filled with endless banal tasks, the drudgery of chores, and meaningless small talk."

The task of the writer is to craft characters that make an impact on readers. She writes:

"How does one of your characters enter the story? How does she exit a scene? What does she do while she’s [...] on the page, involved in the story’s action?

"Is she making ANY impression on readers?

"If not, why not?

"One of my favorite old-movie actresses is Bette Davis. You may or may not have seen any of her films, but you’ve probably heard of her.

"Even in her earliest films, when she was just a studio player and miscast in little roles of flighty society girls, she carried a presence with her. She knew how to walk, how to carry herself, how to move about so that she held the audience’s eye. That’s stagecraft, and she learned her acting from the stage before she ever went to Hollywood.

"All actors of that era were trained to do that. They weren’t trying to be natural or realistic. They were driving the story action forward and doing their best to make you remember them.

"One of my favorite film entrances of a character is in the William Wyler film, THE LETTER, based on a short story by Somerset Maugham. The audience is shown the moonlight shining down on a peaceful rubber plantation. All is quiet. The workers are sleeping in hammocks under thatched sheds. Then a pistol shot rings out. A man bursts from the bungalow and staggers down the porch steps. Bette Davis follows him.

"She’s wearing an evening gown. She holds a pistol in one hand. Her arm is extended and rigid. She fires into his back. And fires again, emptying the revolver into his dying body. As she shoots, she descends a porch step, then another, until she’s standing over him.

"The camera zooms in on her face. She’s intent, cold-blooded, lethal. There’s no hesitation in her, no fear, no regret. She knows exactly what she’s just done, and it was precisely what she intended to do. She has shot this man down the way I might destroy a rabid dog.

"Then, as the plantation workers wake up and run toward her in alarm, the predator in Bette vanishes. She pulls on a mask of teary weakness and begins to lie about what just happened and why.

"But the audience has seen the truth and can settle in to watch what she does next in trying to trick the police and the prosecutors.

"'Realistic?' Not at all. Vivid and effective? You bet!"

Deborah Chester writes that "Characters have to be exaggerated in order to ignite readers' imaginations."

. . . .

"The desire to avoid the bold, seemingly unnatural character is understandable. It’s also fatal to a story’s success."

. . . .

"Stories–particularly genre fiction–are not realistic. They are entertainment, and they are structured in certain ways to fulfill that function.

"That’s why fictional characters need to be exaggerated into creatures that are weird or wild or zany or colorful or predatory or just more darned courageous than anyone else."

. . . .

"Just ask Janet Evanovich, who creates old ladies who carry Glocks strapped to their walkers and monkeys that escape research laboratories wearing little hats made from aluminum foil.

"Silly? You bet.
"And she laughs all the way to the bank."

Writing with Flair is a terrific article, and just what I needed to read at this point in my WIP. Cheers! Good writing.

Photo credit: "Breaking through..." by Vinoth Chandar under Creative Commons Attribution.

Tuesday, October 15

Writing A Scene That Works

Writing A Scene That Works


Deborah Chester was one of Jim Butcher's writing teachers (she's still a professor over at the University of Oklahoma), one he credits with giving him the writing tools he needed to sell his first novel, Storm Front; a book which became the first novel in his popular (and kick-ass!) Dresden Files series.

I've recently begun reading DC's blog, Chronicles of the Scribe, and can't recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in the craft of writing.

For example, in a recent post DC wrote of logical conflict. As I read, I found myself taking notes--I have a notebook I set aside for these scribbles, I call it my "craft notebook"--and then I thought: Wait! This would make a fantastic blog post.

I hope Deborah Chester will forgive me for posting about the content of her blog. I find that in order to learn something it helps to say it again in another way, to associate new ideas with old.

Planning Out A Scene's Conflict


Step 1: Digging Up The Bones


Lately whenever I sit down to write I think of Stephen King's analogy of writing as archeology. The bones of the story are there within us, we just have to dig for them.

In this first step we try to uncover the following:

a. What is the protagonist's goal in this scene?
b. What is the antagonist's goal in this scene?

Note: The goals MUST clash. If the protagonist achieves his/her goal then the antagonist cannot and vice versa.

c. What is the protagonist's motivation?
d. What is the antagonist's motivation?
e. Outcome: how does the scene end? Does the protagonist achieve his/her goal? Does the antagonist? Do they both fail?

Step 2: Map out the key points of the scene


Generally a character will achieve some goal in a scene, even if it's not the goal they started off with. Write down this goal. What goal did the character start off with? Does the goal change partway through as a result of the action of the antagonistic force? How does the character defeat this new challenge? Plot out the key points of the scene.

Recall the scene in Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy tries to commandeer the plane after breaking out of the Well of Souls? Although parts of the scene were improvised most of the key elements had already been established in the script (which you can download here and a few pages of the shooting script are here).

Indie doesn't achieve his goal in that particular scene, he doesn't succeed in commandeering the plane; partway through his goal switches from, "commandeer the plane," to, "get out of here alive."

(I realize that my liking for that particular scene likely amounts to an unnatural geeky affection, but whatever. (grin))

You get the idea. List the ways your hero is going to defeat the obstacle(s) and either achieve his goal or figure out a third option--something achievable that brings him closer to what he seeks.

Step 3: Mind-meld with the antagonist


Deborah Chester put it this way, "Determine the key points in the antagonist’s strategy".

The antagonist, the villain, the Big Bad--whatever you want to call it--by definition is going to want to thwart your hero. Further, they might just be smart enough to anticipate that your hero will be able to defeat their first efforts in which case they might have a backup plan. Perhaps they're even going to try and trick your hero into doing something that makes him vulnerable.

Perhaps your antagonist will cheat. DC asks, "How far will she go?" Excellent question. Donald Maass once said that the difference between a hero and a villain is often not what they want but how far they'll go to get it.

I'm going to pick up the pace now.

Step 4: Who will shoot first?


(Certainly not Han Solo!) Who is going to make the first move? 

Step 5: Write out the conflict-setback or action-response pairs.


It would take too long to go into this here, but I talk about conflict-setback pairs in my article, Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive.

Step 6: Think linearly, logically.


Events take place in order and for reasons. (This seems to have quite a bit in comment with the Principle of Sufficient Reason.)

Step 7: As the conflict intensifies, slow down and zoom in.


Step 8: Don't lose track of the goals your characters walked into the scene with.


Step 9: Logic first, poetry second.


Step 10: Make your character's act one at a time.


Cause --> Effect
Deeds/Behavior --> Reward

If everyone is acting at the same time it's easy for readers to lose track of the cause-effect structure you're weaving.

That's it! Once again, Deborah Chester's blog, Chronicles of the Scribe, is well worth reading and this blog post was based around and inspired by her article, Logical Conflict.

Good writing!

Photo credit: I thought this photo would provide a visual counter-point to the discussion. "not everything has a reason" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.