Showing posts with label clarity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label clarity. Show all posts

Monday, February 18

Story Craft: Five Important Questions

The most useful advice I've ever read was Stephen King's admonishment in On Writing that, above all else, one's writing must be clear.

But how can we cash this out? How can we ensure that our writing paints a vivid picture?

C.S. Lakin, in her recent article, 5 Key Questions to Ask as You Write Your Novel, talks about the importance of asking questions.

Questions Create Story

Why are questions important? C.S. Lakin replies: because questions create story. After all, what is a novel except one huge "what if" question?

Here are 5 questions that C.S. Lakin asks whenever she writes a novel.

1. Where is the scene taking place?

One thing I love about Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series are his descriptions. I don't think I've ever had the feeling of being 'blind' when reading about one of Harry's adventures. The first time JB takes us to a new location we get a detailed description, after that a few well-chosen words suffice to reorient/remind us where we are.

Don't forget to include smells, sounds, textures, and so on, in your description.

I find that doing a short warm-up exercise before I begin writing for the day can help put me in the right frame of mind. I try and describe a place using information from at least 3 senses.

2. How much time has passed?

Whenever a change of place occurs so does a change of scene, but a change of place often coincides with a time jump as well. Make sure it's clear whether 5 minutes or 5 days have elapsed.

3. What is your character feeling?

The goal of writing--at least, why I write--is to entertain. In order to entertain readers with a story they need to care about the characters our story is about. How do we accomplish this? By showing the reader our character's emotions.

Yes, absolutely, the characters thoughts are important, but we need to know how story events affect our characters emotionally.

Think of the last movie you saw. How many times was the main character afraid? Worried? Happy? Vengeful?

Let me put it another way. Why would your readers care about the antagonist's eventual defeat (or victory) if the main character doesn't seem to?

Show what your character is feeling, show their reactions.

C.S. Lakin writes:
For every important moment, your character needs to react. First viscerally, then emotionally, then physically and finally, intellectually. Often a writer will show a character reacting with deep thought about a situation, when their first natural reactions are missing.

If you get hit by a car, you aren’t going to first think logically about what happened and what you need to do next. First, you scream or your body slams against the sidewalk and pain streaks through your back.

Keep this adage in mind: for every action, there should be an appropriate, immediate reaction. That’s how you reveal character.

4. What is the point of the scene?

How does this scene move the story forward?

Your point of view character has a goal. Chances are, they're not going to accomplish this goal, or if they do, they'll have to defeat various obstacles in their way. If the protagonist never has to struggle to get what he wants we aren't going to care very much when he,  eventually, gets it (or fails to).

We need to see character under stress, we need to see them improvising, scheming, hoping, developing other ways to achieve what they want, a way that might not work.

A terrific example of the hero being blocked and improvising ("Yes, but .../No, and") happens in Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark: 
Conflict: Do Indie and Marion survive the pit of snakes?
Setback: Yes, they use torches to keep the snakes at bay BUT the torches are about to burn out.

Conflict: Do Indie and Marion escape the pit of snakes before their torches burn out?
Setback: Yes, Indie crashes a pillar through a wall providing them a way to escape BUT the room they enter is filled with skeletons that--for Marion at least--seem to come alive.

Conflict: Will Indie and Marion escape from the ancient burial vault they've been entombed in?
Setback: Yes, BUT the bad guys have the ark and Indie needs to get it back. (Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive).
Bottom line: If the point-of-view character doesn't have a goal, or the goal is unrelated to the story goal, then the scene can't move the narrative forward.

5. What is your protagonist's main external goal?

Your protagonist needs a goal. No goal, no story.

The protagonist's goal will likely change over the course of the story. For instance, Mitch McDeere's goal in The Firm changes midway through from making partner at of Bendini, Lambert & Locke to staying free and not getting disbarred.

C.S. Lakin writes:
That goal [the protagonist's main external goal] should drive the story and be the underpinning for all your scenes. That goal is the glue that holds your novel together. It may not be a ‘huge’ goal, and in the end your character may even fail to reach that goal—you’re the writer; you decide. But have a goal.
These aren't the only questions to ask, there are many, many, more. One book I find immensely useful is Donald Maass' Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook. For instance, here are the questions at the end of his first chapter:
Step 1: Who are your personal heroes? Write down the name of one.
Step 2: What makes this person a hero or heroine to you? What is his or her greatest heroic quality? Write that down.
Step 3: What was the moment in time in which you first became aware of this quality in your hero/heroine? Write that down.
Step 4: Assign that quality to your protagonist. Find a way for he or she actively to demonstrate that quality, even in a small way, in his or her first scene. Make notes, starting now.
When you write, what questions do you ask yourself about each scene?

Other articles you might like:

- Joe Konrath Made $15,000 dollars over 7 days using Amazon Select
- Screenwriting Software: Adobe Story
- Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge: Write What You Know

Photo credit: "buh buh buh baby" by Vato Bob under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, November 26

Editing: Make Sure Your Story's Bones Are Strong

Editing: Make Sure The Basics Are Clear

For my second post I wanted to talk about the craft of writing since my first one had to do with editing but it seems I'm obsessed with editing today. (See: 11 Steps To Edit Your Manuscript. Edit Ruthlessly & Kill Your Darlings)

I read somewhere that clarity is not only the King and Queen of storytelling, but the whole darn court as well! I agree.

If we don't get the bones, the skeleton, of the story right then no matter how wonderful, how stunning, our prose, the story will sag. (Ugh. Not a good visual. Perhaps think of a tent without tent-poles instead.)

Here are a few things you might look for while re-writing your first draft.

1. Increasing Conflict

It may seem as though writers are fixated on conflict, but it is the engine that drives the story. No conflict, no readers. That's probably an exaggeration, but not by much. Of course, not everyone would agree. (See: Plot Without Conflict)

1a. How can you increase the conflict between your protagonist and your antagonist?

1b. How can you increase the conflict between your protagonist and his/her helper?

1c. How can you increase the conflict between your protagonist and his/her love interest? (Assuming they aren't the antagonist.)

1d. How can you increase the conflict between your secondary characters? If this is a romance, do you have other characters vying for the heroes, or heroines, hand? Or perhaps two secondary characters hate each other but both are essential if your protagonist's plan is to succeed.


1e. Is the conflict increasing throughout your story? There should be MORE conflict in the second half, especially toward the end, than in the first half.

2. Make Sure The Basics Are Clear

2a. Is your protagonists external goal clearly identified?

For instance, in The Firm, in the first half of the movie Mitch's external goal was to get rich and in the second half of the movie it was to escape the firm with his life, his wife and his ability to practice law, intact.

It helps if you can represent your protagonist's external goal by something visual. For instance, the Maltese Falcon in the film of the same name. (See: The MacGuffin: A Plot Device From Screenwriting)

2b. Is your mid-point marked by an identifiable point of no return? 

Different writers have different names for the mid-point but, generally, your protagonist will suffer a setback.

Often, there will either be a death at the mid-point or a symbolic death. In The Firm Mitch found out he had a choice: rat the firm's clients out to the FBI and break his professional obligation--not to mention having a hit taken out on him by the mob--OR throw in with the firm and have the FBI come after him. Either way his goose would be cooked.

2c. Is your 3/4 point marked by a major setback?

I know this can seem formulaic, but it's not easy creating a major setback (sometimes called the 'all is lost' point) that the majority of your readers would be surprised by! Just because there's a formula doesn't mean the story isn't complex and enjoyable. Take the Indiana Jones movies, for instance. Or the original Star Wars trilogy.

2d. Is the protagonists external problem clearly resolved at the end? 

Even if there are aspects of your story that aren't resolved and are intended to carry on into future books, (I think) your protagonists external goal has to have some sort of resolution. If it doesn't your readers will get cranky. (I know I do. :-)

Well, that's it for now! I'll be revisiting this topic again, soon. If you have any tips you'd like to share, please do!

#  #  #

NaNoWriMo will soon be over but I liked the little update I gave at the end of my posts so I'm going to try an experiment. I'll continue it but instead talk about what I'm reading. My current addiction (that's how I read, in great uncontrolled gulps) is Jeaniene Frost's Night Huntress series. I'm on book number two: Halfway To The Grave. Isn't Bones great? Jeaniene's books are paranormal romance, but with a strong action/adventure backbone. Great storytelling.

Other articles you might like:
- 11 Steps To Edit Your Manuscript. Edit Ruthlessly & Kill Your Darlings
- How To Become More Creative: Nurturing Your Muse
- Using Pinterest To Help Build Your Fictional Worlds

Photo credit: "Flamingos Partying" by szeke under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.