Showing posts with label Dwight V. Swain. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dwight V. Swain. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 21

Creating Effective Transitions

Creating Effective Transitions


Transitions are tricky. In a scene you write in the moment, recording your character's thoughts, feelings, actions and—most important of all—desires. In those times when you're immersed in the scene writing can seem effortless.

Transitions, not so much.

I'm not saying it's unclear what I need to do in a transition. At least, speaking generally. I know where I need to start (the disaster that ended the previous scene) and where I need to end (the viewpoint character's new goal) and what I need to do in between these two points (emotion --> thought --> decision --> action). But, still, these are general guidelines that allow for a LOT of flexibility.

Today I'm going to talk about how to create effective transitions between scenes.

(BTW, if you’re wondering what a sequel is I talk about them in Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts.  For more about scenes and sequels I also recommend Dwight V. Swain's book, Techniques of the Selling Writer and Jack Bickham's Scene & Structure.)

Simple Transitions and Sequels


Jack Bickham tells us there are two kinds of transitions: simple transitions and sequels.

I talk more about simple transitions, below, but basically simple transitions are what they sound like, one or two lines that takes you from one place/time to another place/time. For example, "At 10:30 Sarah was eating ice cream, three hours later she was dead."

Sequels are longer more complex transitions that link scenes together. At the beginning of a sequel the protagonist has been humiliated and defeated. Not only has he NOT achieved his goal, he has lost whatever progress he made. The question is: What does he do now? What is his next goal?

Transitions are about emotion.


All transitions should show the viewpoint character's emotion. (Scenes, on the other hand, are about CONFLICT.) Dwight V. Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer states that emotion “unifies sequel and holds it together.”

During a sequel your protagonist is preoccupied with the emotional and physical aftermath of whatever disaster ended the previous sequel. Swain writes that for a character to be preoccupied in this way is “actually to be preoccupied with a particular set of feelings. If your girl runs out on you ... you feel hurt and angry. If your boss fires you, you feel angry and panicky. If your friend betrays you, you feel grieved and confused.”

“... until you decide what to do about the situation, your feelings can’t help but be the thing uppermost in your mind.”

In a transition you summarize, skipping anything that doesn't help communicate the viewpoint character's dominant emotion, that doesn't help show his or her reaction to the disaster at the end of the preceding scene.

The Dominant Feeling


Let's talk a bit more about that last point. Think about the particular transition you’re writing. What is your character’s dominant feeling? Is it hate? Love? Fear? Desperation? Dread? Whatever it is, this will give you the unifying theme. For example:

Lily blinked at her computer and cringed. She would rather have a root canal than try to string words together coherently. Perhaps her ideas would flow more easily tomorrow. But when tomorrow came even the thought of writing felt like the blade of a knife.

In the above example I attempted to communicate the feeling of dread I've felt a time or three at the prospect of having to commit words to (virtual) paper. Lily was also dying for a big juicy hamburger and tired after a night of troubled sleep, but I didn't say anything about that because it wouldn't help express her feeling of dread.

Simple Transitions


Let's take a deeper look at simple transitions. As Jack Bickham writes in Scene & Structure, simple transitions cover either a change in time, a change in place or a change in viewpoint.

a. A change in time


Example: “It was the following Tuesday when they met again.”[1]

Example: Ruth flung her head back, closed her eyes and faced the sun, letting the heat dance over her skin. She wanted it to stay sunny forever. Alas, she lived in the Pacific Northwest. Fifteen minutes later it started to rain.

Transitions generally come between scenes and compress time. Chances are the protagonist has lost and lost big at the end of the previous scene. She must now figure out what to do and, as part of this, she will likely need to travel to different places, talk to different people. If we followed our protagonist around second-by-second our story would be very boring. So we need to summarize, condense. We need to figure out her dominant emotion and let that guide our choices.

b. A change in place 


Example: “At about the same time Joe met Billy another meeting was taking place on the other side of town.”[1]

Just as transitions compress time they generally compress space as well. When your protagonist goes to visit his friends you're not going to want to describe the car, the heat, etc. You only want to bring in what’s important for your story.

c. A change in viewpoint


Example: Dan smiled hoping his girlfriend, Jan, wouldn’t find out he’d made it to second base with her best friend. [New chapter] “Bastard!” Jan thought, looking at Dan, seeing his guilty smile.

Changes in viewpoint are straightforward. First you were telling the story through one character's eyes and now you've switched and are telling the story through another character's eyes.

Just make sure it's clear to the reader that the viewpoint has changed as well as whose viewpoint the story is now being told from. The writer doesn't want to confuse the reader so it's a good idea to do this in the first sentence and certainly in the first paragraph.

Transitions and Time


Recall that scenes happen in the moment, time unfolds second after second. Sure, time can slow down but there are no jumps, no gaps.

But if you wrote a story that detailed every single second of your protagonist's life you'd end up with a story bored any reader to tears!

We need to see characters live moment-by-moment when there is a burst of purposeful activity (i.e., a scene) but then we need to transition to the next burst. How we do this greatly affects the pace of a story.

Controlling Pace


New writers tend to write stories that need speeding up rather than slowing down, but here are the a few pointers for doing both. (Most of these points were drawn from Jack Bickham's book.)

How to speed up the pace of a story:


  • Where possible, remove sequels from between scenes.
  • Where it’s not possible to remove a sequel see if it would be just as effective if you used a simple transition rather than a sequel.
  • Can you cut some descriptions of emotion from your sequels?
  • Check the motivations and goals of your characters in the scenes your transition links. Is it clear what motives your main characters? What their goals are?
  • Can you raise the stakes in one or more of the scenes?
  • Can you make the disasters at the end of your scenes more dramatic?

How to slow down the pace of the story:


  • Cut one or more scenes.
  • Shorten one or  more scenes.
  • Reveal more of the viewpoint character’s thoughts.
  • Expand the sequels.

That's it for today! I'll talk to you again on Friday. Till then, good writing!



Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put 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.

I've talked about Jack Bickham and Dwight V. Swain in my article and can wholeheartedly recommend their books. Yes, they say basically the same thing but I love reading authors who the same topic but from different perspectives. If you're wondering which book to start with I'd recommend Jack Bickham's Scene & Structure

Here's a quote from Scene & Structure:
MENTION WORDS SUCH AS STRUCTURE, form, or plot to some fiction writers, and they blanch. Such folks tend to believe that this kind of terminology means writing by some type of formula or predetermined format as rigid as a paint-by-numbers portrait.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, a thorough understanding and use of fiction’s classic structural patterns frees the writer from having to worry about the wrong things, and allows her to concentrate her imagination on characters and events 


Note:


1. The example for (a) and (b) were from Jack M. Bickham’s book, Scene & Structure.

Friday, December 30

Blake Snyder and the Six Things that Need Fixing

Blake Snyder and the Six Things that Need Fixing


In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder writes:

“The first 10 pages is also where we start to plant every character tic, exhibit every behavior that needs to be addressed later on, and show how and why the hero will need to change in order to win. She's an isolated writer who lives in a make-believe world (Romancing the Stone); he's a hip, slick, and savvy foreign-car importer who's as glib as he is cold (Rain Man); she's a ditzy airhead who doesn't appear to have much substance (Legally Blonde).

“And when there's something that our hero wants or is lacking, this is the place to stick the Six Things That Need Fixing. This is my phrase, six is an arbitrary number, that stands for the laundry list you must show — repeat SHOW — the audience of what is missing in the hero's life. Like little time bombs, these Six Things That Need Fixing, these character tics and flaws, will be exploded later in the script, turned on their heads and cured. They will become running gags and call-backs. We, the audience, must know why they're being called back! Look at Big and its primary set-up: "You have to be this tall to go on this ride." On the list of Six Things That Need Fixing there are other needs besides a height requirement. The kid in Big can't get the girl, have any privacy, etc. But in Act Two he gets all those things when he magically turns Big. And those call-backs only work because we have seen them in the set-up.”

I had heard about this idea of Things that Need Fixing before I read Save the Cat—Dwight V. Swain talks about tags and traits in his book Techniques of the Selling Writer—but I like the way Blake Snyder spells it out.

A Thing that Needs Fixing


1. A tag or trait the protagonist has and wants fixed, or ...
2. A tag or trait the protagonist doesn’t have but wishes he did.
3. Something that needs to be shown in Act One and then ...
4. Used as a running gag or call-back in acts two and three.
5. Resolved in Act Three.

(If you're unfamiliar with a three act structure, see: A Story Structure in Three Acts.)

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

1. A tag or trait the protagonist has and wants fixed.


Blake Snyder mentions Big and that movie does contain terrific examples. The protagonist wants to be taller, wants to be able to talk to girls, wants to have privacy, and so on. During the course of the movie he has each of these desires fulfilled but things don’t turn out quite they way he thought they would. The end result of experiencing these changes is, toward the end of the movie, a renewed appreciation for being a kid.

2. A tag or trait the protagonist doesn’t have but wishes he did.


In The Matrix Neo wants to meet Morpheus and learn the truth about The Matrix. Throughout the rest of the movie Neo has this wish fulfilled on various levels. At the Lock-In he learns, physically, what The Matrix is—it spews his physical body out and, in the process, nearly kills him. At the next level Neo enters The Matrix and learns, in a limited fashion, how to control it. Then, at the end of the movie, Neo transcends the matrix and can alter it in any way he wishes.

3. Something that needs to be shown in Act One and then ...


When the protagonist—or any main character for that matter—is introduced, they are introduced doing something (even if this is just talking to someone), they are introduced with some sort of initial goal, and we give them tags and traits. In this opening scene we somehow manage to show the audience, get them to understand, the protagonist’s deep desires. (Generally a main character will have an internal and external desire, but one will take precedence over the other in the plot.)

4. Used as a running gag or call-back in acts two and three.


In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes. It’s a character tic, and it’s called back in Act Two when he’s thrown into the Well of Souls along with a few hundred snakes.

5. Resolved in Act Three.


Continuing from the last point, Indy’s fear of snakes is never (to my knowledge) resolved, but I wouldn’t want it to be! It is a minor weakness in an otherwise courageous character, something that makes him more human. In Big, though, the protagonist realizes that, despite all the things that irritated him about being a kid, he wants to go back. Now, because of his adventure, he sees himself in a new light.



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

Today I’m recommending the beautiful Moleskine Classic Notebook. I’ve written before about how I write my Zero Drafts in longhand. I know this won’t work for everyone, but I find that ideas come to life easier when I have a pen in my hand and write longhand (see: The Benefits of Handwriting). Of course a Moleskine notebook isn’t a requirement for that! But if you want to treat yourself I can wholeheartedly recommend this journal. I buy myself a Moleskine if I’m celebrating something, or treating myself for reaching a long anticipated milestone.



That’s it! I hope you have have very merry and safe Happy New Year! I’ll talk to you again on Monday. In the meantime, good writing! :-)

Friday, November 25

Turning An Idea Into A Story

Turning An Idea Into A Story


I know I’ve touched on this in a couple of previous posts. To be honest, there’s an old story I’ve written, one I love, but I know the structure is wrong. While I’ve become much better at spotting structural defects in the works of others, when it comes to my own work it’s devilishly hard because I’m so close to it.

I think that this is, at least in part, because I don’t need to read the words to grasp my story, it’s already in my head.

What I want to think about today is how to take an idea and treat it a bit like a piece of knitting or crochet that needs to be blocked. By this I mean, just as I would stretch a crocheted snowflake over a mould so that it would take on the appropriate shape, so a story idea can be positioned within a structure to see how well it fits, where it’s thin as well as where it bunches.

True, I wrote about this last time, but today I want to approach it from a different angle. Last time I talked about a writer’s audience and how this can influence the content of the work. Today I want to focus on shaping the story idea itself.

As always, I would love to know what you think! Are you getting a bit worn out by NaNoWriMo? What kind of articles would you like to read? If you feel that you haven’t achieved your writing goals, what would you say was the single biggest thing holding you back?

The Beginning of a Story Hypothesis


“(1) A state of affairs, present or projected, that symbolizes happiness to your hero.

“(2) A danger that threatens his chances of achieving or maintaining that state of affairs.”[1]

What I try to do is imagine each of these states of affairs as vividly and concretely as I can. Then I write them down. This serves as a foundation for my story.

Example: Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.


What state of affairs symbolized happiness to Clarice Starling?

As the title of the movie suggests, the lambs being silent.

Let me unpack that. Clarice was abandoned by her mother after the death of her father. She was angry. How could her mother abandon her own child? But then Clarice abandoned the lambs because it was out of her control. Like her mother, she couldn’t do anything to help. By the time we meet FBI trainee Starling, though she is still angry with her mother on some level, she’s more angry with herself.

What danger threatens Clarice’s chances of achieving or maintaining the said silence? Two threats: the serial killer Jame Gumb and the FBI. The serial killer because he’s the one killing the girls, Clarice’s lambs. The FBI because they care more about politics and advancement than about saving a life.

Example: Raiders of the Lost Ark


The state of affairs that symbolizes happiness to Indiana Jones is taking the Ark back to the university’s museum.

The danger that threatens Indy’s chances of achieving this state of affairs is, primarily, Belloq, his nemesis. Belloq is also an archeologist, one who keeps stealing the relics Indy recovers.

Now it’s your turn. I’d like you to think of two things and creative a vivid mental picture of each of these situations:

1. What state of affairs, present or projected, symbolizes happiness to your hero?
2. What danger threatens your hero’s chance of achieving or maintaining this state of affairs.

Five Elements In Every Story


Swain writes that the following five elements are in every story (see below). In what follows I use Raiders of the Lost Ark as an example.

1. A Protagonist


A protagonist is the person who the world pushes on, the one who is threatened by a specific danger. He is also the person who, eventually, pushes back.

Example: Indiana Jones, relic hunter.

2. A Situation/The Inciting Incident


This is the “backdrop of trouble that forces him [the protagonist] to act.”[1]

Example: Two men from army intelligence visit Indiana Jones and tell him that the Nazi’s have discovered Tanis, the resting place of the Ark.

3. The Objective/Protagonist’s Goal


The concrete thing or state of affairs the protagonist desires.

Example: The Ark ensconced in the university’s museum back in the USA.

4. An Antagonist


The antagonist not only resists the protagonist, he fights against him.

Example: Whenever Indiana Jones finds a significant relic, Dr. RenĂ© Belloq is there to snatch it away from him. Now, Belloq is working for the Nazi’s and he uses his knowledge of Indiana Jones’ character against him.

5. The Disaster


If there is nothing at stake the story isn’t as exciting. Further, the stakes must be personal, they must endanger the people and things the protagonist cares about most. Also, the stakes must increase until, at the climax, the protagonist is faced with a disaster that is “Something Unutterably Awful.”[1]

Example: The Nazi’s have not only found the Ark, they open it releasing the raw power of God.

The Story Question


The story question is formed by fitting two sentences together.

Sentence 1: This is a statement and it should establish the PROTAGONIST, SITUATION and OBJECTIVE.[1]

Sentence 2: This is a question and it should establish the ANTAGONIST and the DISASTER.[1]

Here are a few different forms a Story Question could take:


Dwight V. Swain:

First form: “Will this focal character defeat his opponent, overcome his private danger, and win happiness?”[1]

Will Indiana Jones defeat Dr. René Belloq, overcome the Nazi war machine and avert global disaster?

Second form: When [Situation/Inciting Incident] [Protagonist] wants [Protagonist’s Goal/Thing That Makes Her Happy]. Will she lose her chance for happiness because [Antagonist] [Disaster]?

Example: When Indiana Jones learns that Nazi archaeologists are close to recovering the Ark of the Covenant, he sets out to claim the ark for the United States and her allies. Will he lose his chance to avert global disaster because Dr. Rene Belloq once again snatches Indy’s prize away from him?

Jim Butcher:

*WHEN SOMETHING HAPPENS*, *YOUR PROTAGONIST* *PURSUES A GOAL*. But will he succeed when *ANTAGONIST PROVIDES OPPOSITION*? [3]

Or: When [Inciting Incident occurs] [Protagonist] [Protagonist’s Goal]. But will he succeed when [Antagonist Opposes Protagonist]

Example: When Indiana Jones learns that Nazi archaeologists are going after the Ark of the Covenant he sets out to claim the Ark first. But will he succeed when Dr. Rene Belloq discovers Indiana’s plans?

Whatever form your story question takes it should be answerable with a “yes” or “no.”

Other Ways of Structuring a Story


These really aren’t other ways, they are different ways of representing or thinking about the same way. If you’re writing a short story or even a piece of flash fiction, these might be of a bit more help:

a. The Three O System: Objective, Obstacle, Outcome.[1]


Example: Indiana Jones wants to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to the USA. Unfortunately, Indy’s nemesis, Dr. Rene Belloq, is set on getting the Ark for the Nazi’s and he has no qualms about playing dirty. If Belloq succeeds the world as we know it could be destroyed.

b. Who, What, Why: WHO wants to do WHAT and WHY can’t he?[1]


Example: Indiana Jones wants to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to the USA. Unfortunately Dr. Rene Belloq and the Nazi war machine are set on taking the Ark for themselves.

The Secret Sauce: Linking this in with the protagonist’s character


I’m a fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. A BIG fan!

Every time Butcher releases a new book I block off a few hours of my day, curl up in my favorite chair and read the book cover to cover. Sure, I’ll go back later and re-read it. The second time will be slower, more careful. I’ll look at the structure of the story and try to analyze how Butcher created certain effects in the reader. But the first time through is pure unadulterated pleasure.

One thing I’ve noticed about the books of the Dresden Files series is that the main character, Harry Dresden—though clever and able to think well in the moment—isn’t the brightest bulb. Which is convenient since Dresden is uncompromisingly committed to doing the right thing (a.k.a. the moral thing).

What’s the right thing? It’s the unselfish thing. In other words, “Adherence to principle despite the temptation to self-interest.”[1]
What’s the wrong thing? It’s the selfish thing. In other words, “Abandonment of conviction for the sake of personal advantage.”[1]

This should really come through at the climax. Make sure that the moral issue is brought into play. The hero (and this is a big part of what makes a character a hero) does what he does for unselfish motives while the villain does what he does from selfish motives. I’m not saying it’s quite as clear cut as this, but (thinking about the books I’ve read and the movies I’ve seen) self-interest seems to be a dominant trait in most antagonists.[2]

As a result, though, often heroes are more good than bright. I’ve just mentioned Harry Dresden. It’s not that he’s stupid, far from it! But there are many people who are more intelligent than him in one way or another. That said, he excels at three things. First, he can think well under pressure. Second, he can think well in the moment, making a split-second decision that will (usually!) turn out to be the correct one. Third, he’s a planner, able to think of multiple possibilities and planning for them. He’s not brilliant but he can be exceptionally clever.



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. 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’d like to recommend Master Lists For Writers by Bryn Donovan. The author goes over setting, various plot types, how to write action as well as dialogue—and that’s for starters! From the blurb: “Whether you’re writing novels or short fiction, screenwriting, or any other kind of storytelling, MASTER LISTS FOR WRITERS is a rich source of inspiration you’ll turn to again and again.”



That’s it! I hope NaNo is going well for you. Remember, as long as you’ve written more than you would have otherwise, you’re a winner! I’ll talk to you again on Monday. In the meantime, good writing!

Notes:


1. Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.

2. It is also true that every antagonist is the hero of his own story. The antagonist might see himself as a savior, unselfishly sacrificing himself—as well as, perhaps, those he cares about—for a greater good. Of course it could also be the case that he’s lying to himself!

3. Fundamentals—Story Skeletons by Jim Butcher.

Thursday, December 11

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: Bringing Characters To Life

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: Bringing Characters To Life



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

The Goal of Writing


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

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

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

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

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

Tags and Traits


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

Using tags and traits to bring a character to life


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

How does one do this? One word: uniqueness

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

Why is uniqueness important?

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

Swain writes:

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

“Why?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question: What is your protagonist’s dominant impression?

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

Monday, May 12

Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts

Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts


I finally published the first episode of my book on writing: Parts of Story: Plot!

To celebrate, and to say a big, huge, massive thank you! to my readers, if you subscribed to my email list before today then you should have received an email telling you how to download a free copy. You don't have to sign anything, there are no strings. I just want to give you the book for free. (Because all good things come to an end, this offer will expire May 26, 2014.) 

If you hadn't subscribed to my newsletter before today you can still get Parts of Story: Plot for free. Just subscribe to my newsletter and then contact me and ask for the book. 

Back to writing about writing ...


A couple of weeks ago I received feedback from one of my beta readers about my manuscript for Parts of Story. He said, "Great book! But I don't understand how scenes and sequels are related to overall story structure."

Oops! I corrected that before I published my book, but the more I thought about the subject, the more I wanted to expand on what I wrote. So ... blog post!

Jack Bickham: Scene & Structure


I just finished reading a terrific book on writing. I almost said "the best book on writing I've ever read" but there are so many great books on writing I couldn't possibly pick a favorite. At the moment, Jack Bickham's Scene & Structure and Stephen King's On Writing are definitely at the top of my favorites list, though for different reasons.

Although both Scene & Structure and On Writing seem to have been written with beginning writers in mind (though they have a lot to offer writers of every level of experience) the authors approach their topic—how to write—in very different ways. King focuses more on the art of writing while Bickham focuses more on the craft of writing. 

The Craft Of Writing


Let's get the definitions out of the way.

A scene is:


"A scene is a unit of conflict, of struggle, lived through by character and reader. It’s a blow-by-blow account of somebody’s time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition." (Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer)

A sequel is:


"A sequel is a unit of transition that links two scenes, like the coupler between two railroad cars. It sets forth your focal character’s reaction to the scene just completed, and provides him with motivation for the scene next to come." (Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer)

You may think it's odd that I raved about Jack Bickham's book and then used definitions from Dwight V. Swain's. Swain was Bickham's teacher, his mentor and his friend. Bickham is expanding on what Swain said, he's filtering it through is own understanding and experience, but it's the same system.[1]

A sequence is:


A daisy chain of scenes and sequels that has a beginning, middle and end and which is unified by an idea. 

An act is:


A daisy chain of sequences. Just like each scene and sequence has a beginning so does every act. A beginning, a middle and end. Acts, in turn, combine to form the major structural bones of a story.

The Three Act Structure


As we've just seen, scene-sequel pairs make up sequences, sequences compose acts and acts form the skeleton of a story.

How many acts? It doesn't matter. Three acts, four acts, two acts, one act, six acts, you name it. One of the most popular--and most useful--structures is the three act structure (or the four act structure that simply chops the second act down the middle to yield four equal parts). 

I'm not going to go over this structure in detail since I've stepped through it in my post: Story Structure (I've updated that post in my book).

Sequences and Acts


Typically, there are two sequences in the first act, four sequences in the second act and two sequences in the third act. (For more about sequences see, The Eight Sequences, over at ScriptLab.com.)

That's it! That's how scenes and sequels fit into acts. Of course that's the bare bones, the basics. In the future I want to go over the structure of scenes and sequels in more detail, as well as how scenes flow into sequels and vice versa. At the end of Scene & Structure Jack Bickham gives the structure of a complete (hypothetical) 50,000 word suspense novel. I won't go that far, but if you're interested I would encourage you to get ahold of his book and study it.

Good writing!

References/Notes/Links


1. Jack Bickham wrote: "This book is dedicated to the memory of Dwight V. Swain: writer, teacher and friend. Without him, I would have had no career as a novelist."

Thursday, April 24

Parts of Story: The Importance of Sequels

Parts of Story: The Importance of Sequels


In the previous chapter we discussed the structure of a sequel. Now lets talk about what a sequel does and how it does it.

Jim Butcher, author of the bestselling Dresden Files series, writes:

"Sequels, frankly, are what really make or break books. How you choose to show your reader your character's reactions determines everything about the reader's response to the events of the story."

Sequels have four main roles:

- Readers identify with characters. Sequels are where your readers bond with your characters; they are where, hopefully, readers will come to empathize with them. This is where the bulk of a character's development occurs.

- Time can move rapidly. Scenes are time-unified. If you want to skip forward, say, a week, that should happen in a sequel.

- Pacing. We use sequels to control the pace of a story. Long sequels slow down the pace while short ones speed it up.

- Fine tune your novel. By varying the amount of time you spend of each of a sequels parts, by varying your emphasis, you can change a flighty character into a brainy one or make a despicable character likeable. 

Lets take a look at each of these points.

1. Readers Identify With Characters


In Dwight V. Swain's book, Creating Characters, he writes that emotion is what gives a character direction. If, at the end of a scene, a bully has just kicked sand in your protagonist's face--or murdered their spouse--that character is going to be in pain and, consequently, motivated to make sure the killer pays for his actions. In short, strong emotion gives a character direction.

Further, in a sequel we get to show the kind of things the character dwells on, the sort of things he responds to. 

As characters reflect on the events of the previous scene each will focus on what, given their specific nature, was important to them. If a character is bloodthirsty she will recall her kills with gusto or longing. If a character is especially concerned with the welfare of others--perhaps overly so--she will focus on the harm she allowed to come to an innocent, perhaps ignoring the harm she herself suffered, or the reasons why the harm occurred.

2. Time Passes Quickly


A scene is time-unified; there are no breaks, no huge gaps. One thing happens, then another, then another, until the scene is over and the protagonist's goal has been attained--or not. Sequels are places where time can be disjointed and move quickly. 

3. Using Sequels To Control Pace


Character development tends to slow the pace of a story while action speeds it up. If you read a book and it seems as though you never got to know any of the characters, not enough to really care about them, chances are there were very few sequels in the book, or the sequels were short and insubstantial. 

On the other hand, if a book seems to drag, if it seems to explore the relationships between the characters ad nauseum, if there are short sprints of action followed by endless second-guessing and rumination, then chances are you'll find that it has long involved sequels and short scenes.

4. Sequels Help You Fine Tune Your Novel


Jim Butcher writes: 

"This basic structure for sequels is pretty much the ENTIRE secret of my success. I do it like this in every freaking book I write. I know it works because check it out. People like my books. They like them for some of the special effects, sure, and for some of the story ideas sometimes--but mostly it's because they find themselves caring about what happens to the characters, and that happens in sequels."

I think Jim Butcher is underestimating the appeal of both his unique voice and his wit, but that's still a powerful recommendation of sequels. I encourage you to read Jim Butcher's discussion of sequels in it's entirety. I'm not going to go into it in any depth here, but one of the most valuable things sequels can do for you is assist you in fine-tuning your novels during rewrites.

For instance, if you're writing a romance novel and there isn't enough pathos, enough passion, make the sequels longer and focus on your characters' emotional reactions. If the pace is lagging, make the sequels shorter. 

Here are a few character types Jim Butcher mentioned, types that can illustrate how sequels can help you shape a character.

Brainy characters:


- Emotional Reaction: Normal
- Cognitive Reaction: Heavy
- Anticipation: Light
- Decision/Choice: Normal or Light depending on what you want to do in the next scene.

It's no surprise that brainy characters will have more substantial Cognitive Reaction sections. Jim Butcher adds, though, that it's a good idea to play up the anticipation part. Build suspense, tension, around what is going to happen when the protagonist makes her move.

The result? In Sir Conan Arthur Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories the great detective hates explaining his method because then his amazing conclusion seems like a cheap trick, it seems as though anyone could have done it. It's the same here, by veiling exactly how the protagonist came to their conclusion the feat looks more impressive and generates curiosity in the reader: How'd he know that? 

Characters trying to pick a side:


- Emotional Reaction: Normal
- Cognitive Reaction: Normal
- Anticipation: Heavy
- Decision: None

This helps build suspense. By withholding a character's final decision from the reader, when that character goes into action in the next scene you know they've made a choice and you know what the stakes are but you don't know what their decision was. That makes a reader curious, and that curiosity will make them want to turn the page.

How to make a character's motivations clear:


If your character's motivations aren't clear then make sure that the stages of your sequels are in the right order (Emotional Reaction then Cognitive Reaction then Anticipation then Decision) and that his choices are consistent. 

For instance, if your protagonist is a hero's hero type (lawful good) he probably wouldn't choose to endanger the life of someone else even if it meant his death, except in extraordinary circumstances. I just finished reading George R.R. Martin's interview in Rolling Stone and he reminds us that even the best character can do horrible things given the right (or wrong) circumstances. Martin asks: If you could save the lives of your lover and your children by killing another man's child, would you? It's an excellent interview.

Sequels in a murder mystery:


- Emotional Reaction: Light
- Cognitive Reaction: Heavy
- Anticipation: Normal
- Decision/Choice: Light or None

In a murder mystery novel, the cognitive reaction part will receive a lot of space and each possible murderer is going to be given a lot of attention. But, as Jim Butcher points out, writers usually veil the "choice" aspect and keep their sleuth's best guess about the identity of the killer as surprise for the reveal at the end. That's when the sleuth explains his methods and how he came to figure out the identity of the murderer.

Romance


- Emotional Reaction: Heavy
- Cognitive Reaction: Light
- Anticipation: Normal
- Decision/Choice: Normal or Light

It isn't that heroes and heroines in romance stories are any less brainy than those in murder mysteries, but readers of romances are more interested in the interpersonal relationships than are readers of murder mysteries. Take, for example, a whodunit. As the name suggests, what the reader cares about is figuring out who did the crime. In such a mystery romantic connections that don't have anything to do with solving the crime would be an irritating irrelevance.

Those are just a few of the many, many, ways sequels can be used to shape your characters and, thus, your readers reactions.

Since writing these chapters I've begun seeing sequels everywhere, not just in books; TV shows and movies use them as well.

In the next chapter we'll look at the stakes of the hero's quest.

(Note: This post is from one of the chapters of my upcoming book, Parts of Story, which I usually publish separately. But this particular chapter proved to be a bit thorny and was taking so much time I decided to post it as one of my three weekly posts. I'm sorry if that creates any confusion. Thanks for your patience as I (slowly) blog my book. Cheers!)

Sunday, April 20

Parts of Story: The Structure of Sequels

Parts of Story: The Structure of Sequels


As Dwight V. Swain says in Techniques of the Selling Writer, sequels take the protagonist from the disaster of one scene to the goal of the next one. The protagonist reacts to the disaster, reviews the courses of action which are open to him and then picks one. This sets the goal for the next scene.

Here is the skeleton of a sequel:

a. Emotional reaction
b. Cognitive reaction
c. Anticipation
d. Choice/Decision

Those points more or less mirror Jim Butcher's categories:

a. Emotional reaction
b. Review, Logic & Reason
c. Anticipation
d. Choice

For good measure, here is how Dwight V. Swain saw the structure of sequels:

a. Reaction
b. Dilemma
c. Decision

As you can see, the basic structure is the same, Jim Butcher just makes explicit a stage--anticipation--that was implicit in Swain's list. 

Before we examine each of these points; each of the 'ribs' of the skeleton of a sequel; it will help to have an example. Let's create a character. I'll call her Sue Lynch. Sue is giving a talk at a computer security conference tomorrow. The talk will be about her research into developing a promising, though controversial, new encryption technology. Sue is on her way to the airport when she realizes she forgot to upload her powerpoint presentation. She would ask Tom, her husband, to bring the thumbdrive to her at the airport but he is out of town for the weekend on a business trip.

When Sue opens the door to the apartment she sees her husband lying on the floor surrounded by a pool of blood. One look tells her he's dead. The room is in shambles. Bookcases have been emptied, drawers pulled out, cushions slashed. 

a. Emotional reaction


The first thing Sue does is have an emotional reaction. She doesn't think anything, not right away. She just feels. But what does she feel?

Paul Ekman holds that the basic human emotions are excitement, tenderness, fear, anger, sadness and happiness. Depending on the kind of character Sue is, she might have any of these emotions. But keep in mind that the kind of reaction she has is going to tell readers a lot about her. 

Continuing my example: When Sue sees her husband's body she feels as though someone doused her with a bucket of cold water. She staggers and sits on the floor. A kind of static numbness drives her thoughts away. Then the grief hits and she's physically sick.

b. Cognitive reaction


At some point the emotional shock is going to begin to fade and the character is going to begin to think. Specifically, she is going to pick out what, to her, are the salient points of the situation and use logic and reason to figure out her options, look at different courses of action, and then reach a decision.

Let's unpack that.

i. Review what happened.


We've already discussed the character's emotional reaction. Now the character focuses on making sense of the disaster she suffered.  

The character starts to make sense of the disaster by reviewing what just happened. This shows the reader what sorts of things are important to her and, therefore, what kind of pseudo-person she is. It opens a window to her soul.

Let's unpack this. How does this work? Let's go back to my example. Let's say that the following are the salient features of the setting:

i.a) The bullet holes. There are two bullet holes in her late husband's chest but, otherwise, his body seems unmarked. 

i.b) Nearly all their valuables are accounted for. Sue does a quick search of the apartment. As far as she can tell, the only thing taken was her home laptop (she has her work one with her), her iPad and the thumb drives she kept in her desk.

i.c) Her husband wasn't supposed to be home, he was supposed to be in another city consulting on a case with a colleague. He is wearing his lucky tie and smells of his favorite cologne.

i.d) The murderer destroyed her late husband's collection of baseball cards. He ripped them from their plastic cases and tore them to bits.

i.e) A bottle of wine and what look like the remains of two glasses lie near an overturned table. 

First thing. What is going through Sue's mind?

As Sue searches the apartment she is reacting to her husband's death. What does she remember? What does she dwell on? This will tell us several things. First, it will tell us what kind of pseudo-person Sue is (does she concentrate on the bad times or the good?) as well as show us what kind of relationship they had. Had the love between them dimmed? Were they fighting? Was he resentful of her success? Or perhaps he wanted her to work less so they could spend more time together?

Let's give Sue another big emotional reaction. It would be natural for her to value something she kept in the apartment. As she surveys the devastation, it occurs to her that this thing--whatever it is--may have been stolen. As soon as this thought occurs to her she will run to wherever she kept it.

We're the storyteller, so let's have it that Sue and Tom store their valuables in a safe. This is where she runs. The safe contains the normal stuff--important papers, deeds, their marriage licence and so on--but there are two other things here that interest us. One is something of great emotional value but not much monetary value while the other is something of great monetary value but not much emotional value. Which will Sue be more concerned about? Which would she most grieve the loss of? Her choice will tell us about the kind of pseudo-person she is.

ii. The Possibilities + Logic


Given Sue's situation and the things she has noticed, what will she infer?

From (i.a) I would have Sue infer that there wasn't a struggle. Further, from the placement of the bullets, two to the heart, Sue would believe that the killer was a good shot.

From (i.b) I would have Sue infer that the burglar was after something tiny. Something about the size of a thumb drive. Or perhaps something that could be stored on a thumb drive, something like the latest version of her experimental encryption program.

From (i.c) and (i.e) I would have Sue infer that her husband was having an affair.

From (i.d) I would have Sue not infer anything in particular, though she might wonder whether the murderer was looking for an optical memory strip hidden within the cards.  After learning her husband was having an affair she might feel a twinge of glee at their destruction.

Taking all the evidence together, I would have Sue doubt that this was the work of a burglar. Perhaps someone who wanted access to her research had seduced Tom. Once in the apartment this mystery woman had killed him and done a thorough search.

iii. What now? Possible Courses Of Action


The protagonist, Sue, has suffered a crushing defeat (her husband's death), she has reviewed the situation, explored the possibilities and formed some conclusions. At this point the question is: What now? This defeat needs to be translated into a goal that the protagonist can pursue in the next scene. 

In our example, Sue could do any of the following:

iii.a) Sue could call the police and turn the matter over to them. 

If Tom surprised a burglar then time is of the essence and Sue should call the police. There is also the possibility that, if her husband was having an affair, whoever killed Tom abducted this girl. The killer could have wounded her, she could be dying. 

How Sue responds to this will show us her character. It would be natural for her to hate the other woman, but I would have Sue be compassionate. She may dislike the other woman on principle, but she doesn't want her to die.

iii.b)  If Tom's death wasn't the result of a burglary gone wrong then perhaps calling the police wouldn't be the best thing to do. The killer would soon discover that none of the data storage devises he'd taken contained her program. As it stood, he would think she was on an airplane heading to the conference. That's where he'd go to look for her. That could give her a head start. 

She could run away. Hide. If she called the police, he would know where she was. Yes, she could hide the program but that would just mean that instead of killing her he'd torture her for its location.

She could destroy the program. But that wouldn't solve anything. No one would believe her.

No. Her only hope was to remain hidden. She had enough money to leave the country and maintain a decent standard of living in a country which lacked an extradition treaty with the US.

iii.c) Sue could attempt to find out who killed her husband and why. 

If the intruder wasn't a random burglar, if he wanted her encryption program, then Sue would feel responsible for her husband's death. She would feel she owed it to him to make his killer pay. Also, she doesn't understand why anyone would want her encryption program badly enough to kill. Yes, she developed an encryption algorithm that is unbreakable, but why would anyone kill for that? Perhaps what they wanted was to prevent it from being used.

At some point Sue will realize someone else is in danger. If she doesn't show up at the conference, the killer will target the only other person who worked on her encryption program: her assistant, Mark Fleming. If the killer searches Mark's room and he doesn't find the program, what then? Would he kill Mark? Torture him for information? How far would the killer go to possess her program? 

iv. Stakes + Anticipation


Each of these three courses of action has its own stakes. 

If Sue follows path (iii.a) then she will grieve the loss of her husband but, otherwise, her life will carry on as normal. Her job will remain unchanged, she will continue with her research and will give speeches at other conferences.

If Sue follows path (iii.b), though, her life will be radically changed. She will have to go into hiding, which would mean she couldn't work. She would lose her job and the security it provided. Also, if she disappeared after visiting the apartment the police are likely to think she killed her husband. If Sue makes it to another country and hides there for the rest of her life she would be safe. She would be alive and have enough money to live out her days with a reasonable standard of living. Who knows, one day she might even be able to move back to the US.

If Sue follows path (iii.c) her life will change most of all. She will have to face her fears and follow the killer to the conference. Taking this path would require that Sue take risks but she is naturally conservative. Careful. 

Sue phones her assistant and warn him of the danger he could be in but when she calls his cell he doesn't answer. She calls Mark's hotel--he was supposed to arrive a day early--and is told he hasn't checked in yet. Is Mark dead already? Or perhaps Mark is working with whoever broke into her apartment searching for the program.

Sue decides to attend the convention, but under another identity. She will hide in plain sight and try to find the killer who tearing her life apart.

By now the stakes of each path, each choice, are clear. Readers know not only what Sue's so-concrete-you-could-take-a-picture-of-it goal is, but what will happen if she fails to achieve it as well as what will happen if she does.

As the story progresses and Sue's goal becomes more difficult to attain, the pressure for the protagonist to quit increases. For her continued pursuit of her goal to remain plausible the stakes must increase over time, especially the negative stakes.

c. Anticipation


Sometimes I think of this step as part of a character's cognitive reaction, but Jim Butcher points out that in a horror story the anticipation aspect of the sequel is of primary importance.

In Joss Whedon's and Drew Goddard's movie The Cabin in the Woods there is a part where the characters have gathered in the basement of a cabin. One of the characters, Dana, has found an old journal and reads aloud from it. The group learns that a latin spell has been written in its pages, one that will restore--bring back from death--the family of the girl who wrote it.

The fool, who is really the only sane person here, says, "No! Don't read the spell."

A disembodied voice whispers: Read it, read it out loud.

At this point--even though I knew she was definitely going to read the spell--I was sitting on the edge of my seat screaming at the television: Don't read the spell!

Of course she read it, it's a horror movie after all! Still, there was anticipation. What would happen after she read the spell?

Notice that there isn't a lot of reasoning going on here, the sequel skips that part, but it draws out anticipation. This is typical of a horror movie since a big part of making a movie terrifying is anticipating the horrors to come.

d. Choice/Decision


Which course of action the character chooses has a lot to do with the kind of pseudo-person she is. Does she care about the welfare of others more than her own? Will she risk her own welfare to save others pain? Either answer, yes or no, shows us a lot about her.

In the end, Sue realizes she needs to find out who killed her husband and make them pay. She also needs to find out why her assistant, Mark, didn't check in. Is he dead? Is he in league with her husband's killer? She needs answers and the only place she's going to find them is at the convention.

Now we've got the general goal for the next scene (find out who killed her husband and why) as well as a specific one (get into the conference undetected). 

The character has made a choice, they know what to expect--or at least they think they do. Now it is time to act. This leads us into the next scene.

In this chapter I've looked at the structure of a sequel. In the next I'll examine why sequels lie at the heart of good storytelling.

Friday, February 14

A Pattern of Character Emotion



Every day I complete a writing exercise to help stretch my writing muscles. Lately, I've been thinking about sharing these exercises with you folks. On YouTube. 

The thought of getting behind both a mic and a camera is scary, but I've decided to experiment, to stretch myself and try it out. At the very least, I might become more comfortable behind a mic! I've embedded the result at the top of this page. What follows is more-or-less a transcript of the video/podcast, above. It is the first time I've tried something quite like this so ... be warned! (grin)

Writing Exercise: A Pattern of Emotion


Today, I decided to try and create an emotionally compelling character in 500 words or less. But that's not all, I wanted to create the character according to the steps Dwight Swain talks about in his book.

So, for better or worse, here are a few of the steps I'm going to use to try and create an emotionally compelling character.

The Pattern of Character Emotion


How do we create an emotionally compelling character? 

1. The stimulus. Something external, observable, happens to a character.


This stimulus should be something external and observable.

Perhaps someone asks your character to marry him or perhaps she's in a car accident or maybe she learns a wildfire is about to engulf her home--and just yesterday she paid off the mortgage! What would she take? What would she leave behind? What would she be glad to leave behind?

Or perhaps someone is going to ask your character for a divorce.

It could be, though, that something nice happens, perhaps your character discovers she's won the lottery! 

2a. This change in your character's state of affairs causes a change in their state of mind.


The main point is that the stimulus doesn't just create a change in the story world, it creates a change in your character. The focal character. 

For example, if the stimulus is a man pointing a gun at your character's chest then focus on how this affects your character. And, initially, your character is going to react emotionally, internally.

Given that your character understands the situation, what would they feel? That will depend on what kind of a person they are. It depends on your character's character. (I wish there were another way of writing that!)

What will her first thought be? Of her child, her pet, of the things she hasn't done. 

2b. External change. The stimulus creates a change in your character's state of affairs.


Continuing my example, folks in real life might have various different reactions depending on the kind of homo fictus they are. A policeman or soldier might attempt to disarm the attacker. A mother with a young child might plead for mercy. A diplomat might try to negotiate.

The important point is that you show a change in the focal character's situation. 

3. Make sure that you show that the character's status quo has been irrevocably changed.


Not all changes in your character throughout the course of the story will be big, life-altering changes. But the change in your character's story world, the change that breaks the character's status quo at the beginning of the story (and here I'm talking specifically about genre stories) should be big, huge, life-shattering. 

Or at least it should be for this exercise!

4. Show the character's status quo before the change and then again after. 


How does one show change? 

A horror movie I watched yesterday showed change in a family's life by showing a child playing with a beloved family pet--a beautiful, friendly, loyal, dog. Something creepy happened that the dog (but none of the humans--silly humans!) reacted to. The dog refused to come into the house that night and was found dead the next morning. We then see the children and their parents reacting to the loss.

It was effective in illustrating a change in the status quo.

Here's another example. Let's say our character is a child waiting in line with her mother at a bank. A man pulls out a handgun, yells for everyone to be quiet and lie on the floor, then he shoots a bullet into the ceiling for emphasis.

That, the man pulling out a gun and shooting it, is the stimulus our character--the child--will react to. Before the man pulled the gun out, the child was bored. Now she's terrified.

Her observable reaction: she hugs her mother, buries her face in the woman's waist, and sobs.

The Exercise


Attempt to create an emotionally compelling character and do this by going through the steps we've just talked about.

1. The stimulus. Have something external, something observable, happen to a character.

2. Show your character react to this stimulus. 

2a. Internal change. Your characters first reaction will be a change of feeling, a change in her state of mind.

2b. External change. The stimulus will also create a change in your character's state of affairs.

3. Make the change a big, irrevocable, change. Make sure your readers know that your character's status quo has been irrevocably changed.


4. Show the character's status quo before the change and then again after. 

Good writing!

Question: What kind of change did you show? 

Wednesday, November 20

How To Write A Gripping Scene

How To Write A Gripping Scene


This material is drawn from Chapter Four of Dwight Swain's book Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Dwight Swain writes:

"What I offer here is merely a beginning. [...] Once you've mastered the elements of the form; experience and study of published copy will teach you how to vary it in terms of your own taste and judgement."

In other words, this is just a beginning, a hasty sketch. In the end, you are your own best teacher. As in writing, so in life: as you come upon new information extract what resonates with you and ignore the rest. 

Today, I'm going to share my notes from Techniques regarding scenes. The next post in this series will be about sequels, and how scenes and sequels work together to create a story.

What is a story?


A story is a chain of scenes and sequels. 

Scenes are units of conflict, of struggle.

Sequels are units of transition that daisy chain scenes together.

Today I'm going to talk about scenes, what they are and how to make them more gripping.

What is a scene?


A scene is the powerhouse of conflict and struggle that moves your story forward.

As Dwight V. Swain writes:

"[A scene is a] blow-by-blow account of somebody's time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition."

And, of course, by "somebody" we mean the focal character.

What does a scene do? What are its functions? 

a. To provide interest for the reader.
b. To move your story forward.

Let's take these in turn.

a. A scene captures the readers attention.


How does a scene capture a reader's attention? Glad you asked!

A scene pits the hero--or at least the point of view character--against an opposing force.

DS holds that each and every scene must provoke this question in the reader: "Will the character win against the opposition?"

b. A scene moves the story forward.


DS writes that each and every scene you write should change your character's situation. Note, though, that change doesn't always constitute progress toward the character's goal. (But progress always involves change).

Time


A scene is unified by time. There are no pauses, no breaks, in its flow.

Scene Structure


Here is the skeleton of a scene:

a. Goal
b. Conflict
c. Disaster

Boxing Example


This is DS's example.

Goal: Our protagonist wants to knock out the other boxer.

Conflict: Wary circling, "feinting, punching, counterpunching".

The protagonist lands a blow, the other boxer goes down. 
The protagonist slips up, the antagonist lands a knockout punch. 
The protagonist goes down.

Disaster: The protagonist tries to rally but he can't. He loses the fight.

The three parts of a scene:


a. Goals

In a scene your hero will want one of three kinds of things.

a. Possession of
Possession of something. A girl, a job, a jewel. Possession of treasure, of something desired.

b. Relief from
Relief from blackmail, domination by others, fear, and so on.

c. Revenge for
Revenge for a slight, a lost, a betrayal, and so on.

Goals are concrete


i. "A goal is not a goal until it's specific and concrete and immediate enough for you to take some sort of action toward achieving it."

"Ideally, this decision should focus on a target so explicit that you might photograph your hero performing the act to which he aspired."

ii. Your character must decide to act.

He can't be forced into action. Even if the hero is being blackmailed, they have to decide to purse the goal of their own free will (or so it must appear).

Goals: Explicit and Implicit


There are two kinds of goals:

- Goals of achievement (explicit)
- Goals of resistance (implicit)

This example is courtesy of DS:

John, our focus character, is on a date with Suzy, the girl he wants to ask to be his wife. (Keep in mind Techniques was originally copyrighted in 1965.)

George, John's rival for Suzy's affections, breaks up John's date and tells him never to see Suzy again.

Immediately, John acquires a goal: to prevent George from taking Suzy from him. This goal is implicit. It is one of resistance. 

George, John's nemesis, has a goal of achievement: to win Suzy's hand. 

Goals of achievement and goals of resistance complement each other.

Whenever the villain acquires a goal of achievement the hero acquires a goal of resistance, and vice versa.

b. Conflict


DS repeats this several times: Conflict is opposition.

Conflict implies "two entities struggling to attain mutually incompatible goals. For one to win, the other must lose."

The hero struggles against the antagonistic force that opposes him, or her, attaining the goal. This opposition between the hero and the antagonistic force, this clash, provides the opposition that represents the engine of a story, it is the fuel that generates narrative drive

Clarity


When a character meets with opposition the hero must state his case. Your readers need to know what your hero is going to attempt.

If your hero lets the opposition get the better of him, if he walks away when he meets resistance, then we conclude either:

i. The hero didn't really have that goal.
ii. The hero lacks strength of character. In this case, the reader will lose interest.

After the initial opposition has played out, additional difficulties must be brought into the situation to keep up the momentum.

- More hindrances
- More obstacles
- More complications

Make it harder for the hero to win his goal.


How is this accomplished?

The difficulty level must be increased and the stakes must escalate.

DS writes: "Emphasize the strength of the opposition. Build up the forces that block ... [your hero]."

For example, let your hero "receive new and unanticipated information that makes the situation worse."

c. Disaster


Disaster is a hook.

"A hook is a devise for catching, holding, sustaining, or pulling anything--in this case, a reader."

Here's the question we want the reader to ask when he/she is presented with a new obstacle to the hero achieving his/her goal: What will the focal character do now?

Also, a disaster is a "[s]udden and extraordinary misfortune; a calamity."

The end of a scene must "raise an intriguing question for the future--a question designed to keep your reader reading. / To that end, no better device has ever been conceived than the confrontation of your focal character with disaster."

(DS notes that the disaster doesn't have to be actual, it can be potential.)

A reverse disaster


A reverse disaster is where your focal character launches "some diabolically clever scheme to do in his foes," one that you just know is going to backfire in some way.

In this case the hooks you use to pull along the reader will be through questions like:

- "Are things really going to work out this well, this easily, for Hero?"

- "Will Villain fall for such a stunt? Or has he some trick up his sleeve with which to turn the tables?"

Disadvantages of the reversed disaster.


- It takes "initiative away from your focal character and gives it to the opposition. This forces your hero to wait [...] passively to see how said opposition is going to react."

The Scene: A Summary


Whatever you do, always conclude your scene with the story "pointed into the future: some issue raised that will keep your reader turning pages, ever on the edge of his chair as he wonders just what's going to happen now!"

That's it for scenes. In the next post in this series we'll look at sequels and then, finally, turn to how scenes and sequels fit together in such a way that they generate a story with just the right amount of narrative drive.

Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "Its Big Country" by Zach Dischner under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, November 15

How To Evoke Emotion In Readers: The Focal Character

How To Evoke Emotion In Readers: The Focal Character


Today I'm going to talk about focal characters. I'm doing this because I want to examine how a focal character can be used to evoke reader identification and, therefore, emotion. The concept of the focal character is fundamental for a number of others--scenes and sequels for example--so I'm giving it a post of it's own.

My purpose here is to explore tricks and tips--methods--we as writers can self-consciously use to craft characters, strong vivid interesting characters, that will 'hook into' our readers emotions.

This post continues my exploration of Dwight V. Swain's marvellous book The Techniques of the Selling Writer

What do we want our stories to do?


We wish to manipulate the emotions of readers through our stories.

Sounds cold-blooded, doesn't it? But think of it this way. You go to a horror movie. What would happen if you weren't scared? You wouldn't give the movie a good review--or at least I wouldn't. 

What if you saw a romance movie and never felt the pang of love lost? Or an adventure movie and never once found yourself on the edge of your seat, breathless, wondering how the hero would get out of the fix he'd found himself in?

Given this--given that stories are all about the evocation and manipulation of emotion--the question for writers is: how does one evoke and manipulate emotion?

Answer: through characters. Specifically, one manipulates the emotions of our readers through manipulating the circumstances of our focal character.

So, really, what we need to know is how to create a focal character that has the capacity to evoke emotion in others. 

Evoking Emotion


As DS writes, "Feeling is a thing you build through manipulation of motivation and reaction."

(Note: For more information on motivation-reaction pairs see the post: How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion.)

1. Recognize that events by themselves lack meaning or emotion.


DS uses the example of a rainstorm. Let's say you're a farmer and your crops are languishing during a drought. In that case a rainstorm would be welcome. Ecstatically welcome.

On the other hand, imagine you're in light summer clothing and you've just paid a couple of hundred dollars to have your hair done. Also, you aren't wearing a coat or carrying an umbrella. Then it starts to rain. In this case the rainstorm would be most unwelcome.

The point is that events only begin to matter when they matter to someone. (And not just any someone. Your focal character. But we'll get to that in a minute.)

Instances/events have to be specific.


Take the example of the rainstorm. How much rain was there? Was it a drizzle or did the rain come down in a torrential downpour? What was the wind like? Strong? Weak? When did the rainstorm occur? Where? And so on.

Be specific. Added together all these details create the specific instance and bring the rainstorm to life, make it real.

You need a yardstick.


DS writes: 

"A thing matters only insofar as it relates to and affects and is judged by people. [...] We decide how significant a thing is by the way a particular somebody behaves when faced with a specific instance./In other words, a thing isn't just significant. It's significant to somebody."

Whether an event is perceived as good or bad depends on how your focal character reacts to it. 

The yardstick needs to be a character.


"The bombing raid is rated by whether we or our enemies are on the receiving end. [...] Chocolate bars are good, if I'm hungry; bad, if I'm trying to reduce; and so on."

Someone needs to feel, to think, to judge. This can only be a character.

Judgements are made with FEELING rather than LOGIC or REASON.


"Pure water is clear," is a fact. So is "the number two is even". Here's another one: The cat is on the mat.

Generally speaking, a fact matters to a person to the degree it affects them. If the fact affects them positively they'll feel positively about it ("Our company is giving out bonuses this year!") and vice versa. 

As Dwight Swain writes:

"Seven inches of rain in a night is a fact, so long as you merely see an item about it in the paper. Let it wash through your living room and ruin two thousand dollars' worth of furnishings, and it takes on true meaning and significance for you."

2. Your Focal Character is your reader's emotional compass.


I included the material, above, because it emphasizes the importance of feeling and judgement--of a yardstick--but all that has simply been to lead up to this discussion of the focal character. 

A story isn't about something out there in the external world, it's about the reactions of the characters you've created. It's about what happens to them and how they react to it.

Your story world is going to be filled with facts. These facts will only matter to your reader to the extent they effect someone, a character. The focal character.

A story concerns the focal character's reactions to what happens, to the facts and events of the story. A story is about "his feelings; his emotions; his impulses; his dreams; his ambitions; his clashing drives and inner conflicts."

How do you make the focal character care about what's going on within the story world you create? (And, by extension, make the reader care?)

You give the focal character a goal, and you spell out what forces oppose him/her reaching that goal. You also spell out the stakes; that is, what will happen if the focal character achieves his goal, as well as what will happen if he fails to achieve it. Further, when you're spelling out the stakes, focus on what the focal character would win or lose emotionally

Facts are just facts, we're interested in emotions. Feelings.

The three main functions of the focal character:


i. "To provide continuity."

However much time passes, or places visited, the focal character gives your story continuity. It unites its disparate elements into a unified whole.

ii. "To give meaning."

It is your focal character's reactions that will determine whether a reader sees a certain event, a certain happening, as important or inconsequential. 

DS writes:

"Meaning ... is always a conclusion you and I draw about something from the way a particular somebody behaves when faced with a specific instance." 

For example, The reader's "attitude toward the rainstorm we cited earlier will be determined by whether the rain helps or handicaps the focal character".

In Indiana Jones and Raider's of the Lost Ark we have a trailer scene where the focal character, Indiana Jones, struggles to win a dangerous prize. We see him save a man's life only to be betrayed. We see his prize, a golden statue, taken from him and his life unjustly endangered. And we see his vulnerability--his fear of snakes. 

This is the context in which we view Dr. Bellog taking the golden idol from Indy. Everything Indy did before this point gave that event its meaning and shaped/determined our reactions to it.

iii. "To create feeling."

The focal character creates feelings in your reader. DS writes, "The biggest single reason that a focal character exists is to evoke them [emotions]."

Here's how it works:

Your reader needs a focal character, someone to either approve or disapprove of. Without an emotional compass your reader will have no feeling either way--either that or they'll be confused.

Take away: Your reader exists within the story by identifying with your focal character. It is this identification that sucks him into the story world.

3. Focal Character versus Viewpoint Character


The focal character is not the viewpoint character. Further, the focal character need not be the hero/protagonist.

Viewpoint character:
"A viewpoint character is someone through whose eyes we see all or part of a story. In effect, we get inside his skin."

Focal Character:
"... the person around whom the yarn revolves ..."

The focal character "will be the central and most important character, because he's the one who determines your reader's [emotional] orientation."

For example, "Sherlock Holmes is a focal character; the viewpoint is Watson's. In Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade is the focal character .... the viewpoint, author-objective."

I'd say that in Bram Stoker's Dracula the viewpoint is first-person and floats between characters, depending on which journal or piece of correspondence is being read, but the focal character--the person whose story it is--is Dracula. 


Okay! So much for focal characters. The next post in this series will be on how to craft a scene your reader won't be able to put down. Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "Untitled" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.