Showing posts with label how to write a story. Show all posts
Showing posts with label how to write a story. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 19

Story Structure: A Refresher

Story Structure: A Refresher



I put the following together for my own use (I'm doing #NaNoWriMo this year), but I thought others might be interested as well so I decided to share it.

1. Inciting Incident (0 to 12.5%)


Here we establish the Ordinary World. We establish the protagonist’s ordinary routine, we establish how the protagonist relates to other people, those who like them as well as those who hate them. The writer lays bare the protagonist's strengths and weaknesses. The story world is established; what is normal, what isn’t. What is considered moral, what isn’t. All this is in service to showing the reader the protagonist’s place in the world.

We also show a significant change in the story world, one without which we would not have the Call to Adventure or the protagonist’s Acceptance of the Call.

Clear as mud? Let me give you an example. In Star Wars: A New Hope I would argue that the inciting incident was Darth Vader boarding Princess Leah’s spacecraft and imprisoning her. That event broke the status quo: diplomatic vehicles should not be forcibly boarded. Because of that change Luke bought the droids. Because Luke bought the droids his aunt and uncle were murdered and their farm burned down. Further, these events brought about both the Call to Adventure and Luke's Acceptance of the Call.

The Inciting Incident usually occurs quite early in the story, within the first 5%. The Call to Adventure generally occurs around the 12% to 15% mark. Usually the Call is refused and then, after talking with a mentor, or after certain things about the protagonist’s life changes, the Call is accepted.

After the Call is accepted, some sort of plan is formulated and put into motion. This culminates in ...

2. Crossing the Threshold (25%)


You could also look at this event, Crossing the Threshold, as the first of three disasters for the protagonist, the others being the first Pinch Point and the All Hope is Lost point. I’ll talk more about these other two points, below.

Before I continue, let me say a word or two about the protagonist’s inner and outer goals.

Inner and Outer Goals


The protagonist’s outer goal will have to do with something external, something in the story world. The goal could be slaying a dragon and claiming its treasure, or bringing back a lost ark, or extracting a spy, or robbing a bank. You get the idea.

The inner goal, on the other hand, has to do with the development of the protagonist’s character. It has to do with them becoming a better person. There is a moral dimension to the inner goal. Perhaps, as in Edge of Tomorrow, the protagonist goes from cowardice to courage. In The Matrix the protagonist, Neo, goes from lacking faith to having faith -- his challenge was to believe.

Now that we’re on the same page regarding inner versus outer goals, let’s ask: What happens when the protagonist crosses the threshold and enters the Special World of the Adventure?

Generally, there isn’t any progression toward the protagonist’s inner goal but there is a lot that happens regarding the protagonist’s progress toward her outer goal. Commonly, there is an actual change in the setting. The protagonist travels to another town, another country, another planet.

Also, the transition between the Ordinary World and the Special World of the Adventure is generally not a smooth transition. The protagonist suffers a tragedy.

For instance, in Get Out the protagonist (Chris Washington) crosses into the Special World when he goes to visit his girlfriend’s (Rose Armitage's) parents and allows Rose’s mother to hypnotize him.

The mother sends his consciousness into a place called the “sunken place.” Get Out is a horror movie so, needless to say, the sunken place is not a happy place filled with kittens and puppies, it’s a slice of hell. The important thing is that this incident — Chris being hypnotized and tortured — divides the story into two: what came before this event and what came after.

Similarly, when in Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke sees the smoking corpses of his Aunt and Uncle, when Luke realizes that their farm has been destroyed, this one event divides his life into before and after. That one event completely changed the trajectory of his life.

Trials and Tribulations/Fun and Games


The Special World is very different from the Ordinary World. After the protagonist crosses the threshold and enters the Special World she is like a fish out of water. She needs to learn how things are done here and, as a result, makes mistakes.

B-Story


The B-Story is where the protagonist bonds with allies. Sometimes this is a love story. The B-Story is where the protagonist makes progress toward her internal goal.

3. First Pinch Point (37.5%)


The first pinch point is the second disaster for the protagonist. Here we get to see the antagonist up close and personal or we see the direct effects of the antagonist’s actions. At this point the antagonist isn’t concerned about the protagonist, he or she isn’t a serious threat.

The Plan


As a result of the antagonist’s attack, the protagonist’s energy is redirected. Before, she was focused on understanding the Special World and trying to fit in. Now she is focused on attacking the antagonist. Often there is a scene where the protagonist and her allies meet in a bar and make a plan. A journey is often involved.

The Sacrifice


In order for The Plan to work, the protagonist will have to make a big sacrifice.

4. Midpoint (50%)


The Midpoint is all about the protagonist’s inner journey, her inner goal.

Generally, there is a confrontation at the midpoint, either between the protagonist and antagonist or between the protagonist and one of the antagonist’s minions.

For me, the essential thing about the Midpoint is that the hero learns something crucial about the Special World that helps her understand how truly dire her situation is. Further, this understanding causes her to change tactics.

For example, in Edge of Tomorrow, Cage discovers that his visions aren’t real, that they have been sent to him to lure him into a trap. As a result, he no longer has a plan. He doesn't know how to beat the villain. Because of this he changes his tactics and, at the same time, the stakes are raised.

The important thing here, though, has to do with the Inner Journey. Something important changes inside the character. Cage realizes that, even though he loves Rita, he must let her go. This is the first time he has moved from thinking about himself and his wants and needs to thinking more about the wants and needs of the larger group.

The inner journey can be summed up in a Moral Premise. In Cage’s case perhaps this would be: Being cowardly will kill your soul. Being courageous can save you and your community.

5. Second Pinch Point (62.5%)


Because of the change in the character’s internal motivation, the protagonist begins to make progress. This spooks the antagonis, causing him to personally intervene and attack the protagonist or put obstacles in her way. But this is a personal intervention on the part of the antagonist. The protagonist pays a BIG PRICE.

6. All Hope is Lost (75%)


This is the third and final disaster. The protagonist suffers a major defeat at the hands of the antagonist. In fact, it is such a stunning defeat that it seems as though the antagonist has defeated the protagonist.

This ultimate defeat will likely be the last defeat in a three-beat try and fail cycle.

Resurrection. Epiphany


Protagonist realizes something, something internal, something moral, that finally, completely, takes her from her weakness into her strength.

7. Race to the Finish (87.5%)


At this point she has entered the forest where it is darkest (accepting the call to adventure) and defeated the opposition. She has climbed the hierarchy and is almost at the top. Now there is anew entering the forest where it is darkest. The protagonist has changed, grown. After each disaster the protagonist has entered the forest where it is darkest.

This, now, is the darkest point and the highest stakes.

At this point the protagonist has almost completely transformed. She has become much more physically and mentally skilled and has become well adapted to the Special World. Also, she has begun her inner transformation. Now she pulls out all the stops. She and her allies make a plan. This plan will fall part before the final confrontation but they make a plan and it works for awhile.

8. Climax/Final Confrontation (98%)


The protagonist and antagonist battle. The protagonist wins or loses. If she wins then antagonist loses and that’s that. If the protagonist loses, then the antagonist might win or lose. (They can both fail.)

During the battle, the antagonist seems weaker than the antagonist. It seems that she’s losing. But then she draws on a lesson she learned in the Special World of the Adventure. This catches the antagonist off guard and the protagonist defeats the antagonist.

 Wrap Up


Show the changes in the protagonist’s life, how her friends, family and community benefited.


Recommended Articles:


Quora article: If the 2nd pinch point is known as the 'darkest hour' or the 'all is lost' point what is the nickname of the 1st pinch point? My favorite answer to this question is the first, and much of this article is patterned after it.

The Inciting Incident vs The Call To Adventure

Books


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.


Friday, October 18

Creating Emotion Through Action and Reaction

Creating Emotion Through Action and Reaction


Good Writing Patterns: Creating Emotion


Hello! Welcome. Yesterday I talked about the importance of getting cause and effect right for creating characters that feel real. In that article I broke cause and effect into: stimulus -- internalization -- response.

Today I want to focus on how to use that basic idea to sculpt a character, and to put that character in a situation, one that will create a specific emotion in your reader.

That sounds manipulative, doesn’t it? And it is! But when a reader picks up a book they want to be entertained AND maybe learn something. That would be a bonus. The image I keep coming back to is of a group of people huddled around a campfire. It is cold and dark and they will soon go back to their damp tents and try to sleep. It is the storytellers job to tell the group a story that will make the darkness less scary, the cold less miserable, and the prospect of a night in their damp tent almost bearable. At least, that’s how I think of it.

But in order to do that, we need to know how to create characters, and put these characters in particular situations, ones that will elicit certain emotions in our audience. For example, the emotion of hope. Why do you think single women (I am saying this from personal experience!) like to read romance stories? Enough said.

BTW, in what follows I’m drawing from Dwight V. Swain’s excellent book, Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Motivating and Reaction Sentences


We’re going to get to the good stuff in a minute -- I don’t want this to feel like you’re back in school! -- but we need to have these concepts under our belt for the rest of what I have to say to make sense.

So, briefly, motivating and reaction sentences are cause and effect pairs. I’ll explain this in detail in a moment, but let me give you an example so it will make more sense when I do.

Motivating sentence: “The car raced down the dangerously narrow road.”
Reaction sentence: “Joe gripped the steering wheel with sweaty hands, hoping he would be in time to see his daughter born.”

Here we set up the general situation, there is the event and then the character's reaction to the event.

These are their characteristics:

Motivating Sentence


The motivating sentence is one sentence.


Swain believes that if you’re not familiar with writing in motivating and reaction sentences that it will work best if the motivating sentence really is just one sentence. He writes:

“Yet though extra sentences may sharpen up your copy, there still are virtues to the one-sentence rule. When you’re just learning, for example, you tend to kid yourself that you need a lot more verbiage than really is essential. Given half a chance, some of us would feel it necessary to mention that fury seethed within Brad; that his blue eyes grew bleak; that muscles knotted at the hinges of his jaws; that his nostrils flared and his fists tightened and his face flushed. As the saying goes, the kitchen sink would be there too if we could only figure out a way to get it through the door!” (Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer)

He’s not wrong!

The motivating sentence contains no mention of the focal character.


The motivating sentence does NOT contain any mention of the focal character. For example, even this won’t work: “Kim saw the car speed away.” It would need to be, “The car sped away,” we need to keep Kim’s internal states out of it.

BTW, the focal character is usually the protagonist, but not always. The focal character is the character that the story revolves around. For example, in Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories the great detective was the focal character even if the story itself was written from Watson’s first person perspective.

This sentence describes the way the world is. 


This is what my english teacher called third person, fly-on-the-wall perspective. I love the expression “fly-on-the-wall” because I ask myself: What would a fly see?

This sentence must be specific.


I’ve said this before, but I think that one of the reasons why a writer these days should never use, “It was a dark and stormy night” as an opening line is that it’s too general. Instead:

“Lightning flashed, slicing open the darkness, as rain beat a soothing staccato rhythm on the canvas tarp.”

I probably should break that into two shorter sentences, but I think it works. Again, my example isn’t meant to be great literature, I just want to illustrate the principle. The sentence expresses a much more specific picture than “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Reaction Sentence


One sentence


I went over this point, above.

This sentence is all about the character’s reactions.


In the motivating sentence the focal character couldn’t be mentioned, not even by pronoun! In the Reaction Sentence it is all about the focal character and how they are reacting. I’m going to talk a lot more about this either below or in a separate post.

Keep in mind that the character’s reactions should reflect who they are.

For example, let’s say a character is generally fearful (as opposed to angry, happy, clueless, observant, and so on). So, for example, if Jim is a fearful sort and he’s inside the canvas tent mentioned in my earlier example, I could write, “Shaking, Jim pressed his eyes shut -- the storm will pass in a few minutes, it will pass in a few minutes, it will … -- and inched further inside his sleeping bag.”

Include the focal character’s dominant attitude.


Swain writes that the reaction sentence should communicate your character’s state of mind. To do this you use their DOMINANT ATTITUDE.

I’ll talk about what Swain meant by the dominant attitude or feeling of a character more in another post, but I just touched on this idea when I said that a character will have one distinctive primary way of reacting to things.

For instance, in my example I gave above, Jim’s dominant attitude was “fearful.” Whenever he encounters a stormy night, an unexpected bill, someone asking him for the time, he filters what he sees/feels/smells/hears through his general attitude of fearfulness.

Using different dominant attitudes for each of your characters helps make them each unique.

The Significance of the Motivating Stimulus


Recall that the motivating stimulus can’t involve the focal character. But we want to craft the motivating sentence in such a way that it will grab the interest of the focal character.

Of course, all your characters are different, they have different interests, different capacities. For each main character, a different set of motivating stimuli will be important.

For example, if two people -- Joan and Adam -- go to a racetrack, different things are going to be significant to them based on their past history, interests and dominant attitude. Joan is a mechanic, she is egotistical (that’s her dominant attitude), and has had a lifelong interest in cars. So what does she notice first? Yes! Cars. But, specifically, she notices the fastest car driven by the best team. Joan completely ignores the drivers.

Adam, though, is a timid limousine driver who shuffles around rich clients at moderate speeds, but he has always dreamt of racing. HE notices the drivers and looks at them with envy. Adam would really like to go and talk to the drivers but he has trouble summoning up the courage.

Again, the idea of SIGNIFICANCE is that, based on a character’s interests, different characters will notice different things about the environment based upon how important -- how significant -- those features are to that character.

Creating an Environment


At this point, you might think, Well, that’s fine, but how do I create an environment that will interest a particular character? Swain has this covered, but this post is already going to run a bit long, so I’m going to go into detail about it in another post. (I think it will have a title like: bringing a character to life.) However, here's a brief overview:

Ask yourself: What is the effect you want to create by using this stimulus? For example, a car racing down a road or a thunderstorm in the dead of night. Remember you want to do two things: You want to MOTIVATE your focal character in such a way that that character will have the desired reaction. At the same time, you want to get your reader to FEEL for the focal character.

An Example


Let’s say that Jim, a timid insurance salesperson, is your focal character and you want your audience to bond with him. To do this, you need to let your audience watch Jim struggle with big challenges, and you need him to suffer big setbacks.

Let’s have Jim’s wife run off with another man. (Writers really are horrible people, the things we do to our characters!)

a. Pick something -- a person, thing, event -- to create this effect.


This is Swain’s example, more or less: Jim comes home from a hard day at the office and finds a note on the hall table. His wife has left him and he reacts to this.

So that's the idea. In what follows, I'm going to try and break sentences up into Motivating and Reaction pairs.

b. Get specific. Zoom in. 


What is it about the motivating stimulus that will evoke the particular character reaction you want your character to have? Well, being specific helps.

In the following, as Jim reacts I'll try and convey the impression that Jim is timid, passive. I'm sure this could be done better, I'm just trying to illustrate the ideas I've been talking about.
There is a note on the side table.  (Motivating sentence)

Jim sees the note soon as he walks in the door. Startled, he looks around for his wife but the house is silent and cold. Jim reaches for the note with a trembling hand. He reads: (Reaction sentences)

I’ve left you darling, there’s meatloaf in the fridge.  (Motivating sentence)

Jim slumps against the table, his mind racing. It must be a mistake. He’s in the wrong house, or this is an elaborate, cruel, joke. (Reaction sentences)

One of the table’s legs, damaged during a particularly good New Year's Eve party his wife had organized, breaks. (Motivating sentence)

John falls to the floor and sobs. (Reaction sentence)
Poor guy!

Here, reading the note was the stimulus, we then have an internalization -- we see his pain, his puzzlement -- and finally the response, he slumps against the table. This response is a bit anemic, I could put a vase of flowers on the table that he could throw, a vase he had given her as a gift for their first anniversary. Or something. But you get the idea.

c. Trim away anything unnecessary.


Okay, you’ve written your scene. Look at it. What do you NEED to motivate your character’s reaction, his response? Got it? Okay, good. Now throw away everything else.

There is a note on the side table.

Jim sees it as soon as he gets home and reaches for it with a trembling hand. He reads:

I’ve left you darling, there’s meatloaf in the fridge.

Jim slumps against the table. It must be a mistake. He’s in the wrong house, or this is an elaborate, cruel, joke.

One of the table’s legs, damaged during a particularly rowdy New Year's Eve party his wife had organized, breaks.

John falls to the floor and sobs.
I prefer the stripped down version!

d. Make your character unique.


Now take things to the next level. Describe the cause, the motivation, in a way that reflects your focal characters attitude.

There is a note on the side table. It is folded in half and has the name, "Jim," neatly written across it. Jance, Jim's wife, loved writing notes; she refused to text. She wrote notes to plumbers to tell them their work was subpar, she wrote to her only sister to tell her how she could fix her life. She had never, ever, written a note to her husband. Until now.

John sees the note as soon as he gets home ... etc etc

As you can see, I completely disregarded the one sentence rule! I tried to keep the sentences free of any mention of the focal character, Jim, and the experience demonstrated to me how much I really wanted to write the sentence: Jim saw the note on the table.

I think that trying to write in M-R units could be a very good exercise for me. I just re-read the beginning of Stephen King's The Shining, and King seems to more or less follow this. Although, that said, he doesn't begin with a motivating sentence, he begins with a reaction sentence. And that reaction sentence is one of the best opening lines I've ever read because it takes the reader inside the focal character's head IMMEDIATELY: Jack Torrance thought: Officious little [expletive].

Writing Challenge


I'm going to rewrite a scene from my work in progress and put Dwight V. Swain's tips to work. I challenge you to do the same. I'd love to know what you think of the re-written scene. Is it better? Worse? How much of Dwight V. Swain's tips do you think you'll incorporate into your work?

If you've enjoyed this article and would like to help me keep doing this, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks! :-)

Links


Dwight V Swain On How To Write A Novel

Wednesday, October 16

Good Writing: Cause and Effect



Suspension of disbelief is crucial to crafting an immersive story. If readers don’t believe in the story, they won’t keep reading. So how do we do this? How do we wave our pen and make readers fall under our spell and into our world of words?

In my opinion, the answer has to do with patterns. Patterns of action and reaction.

Patterns of Reality


There is a pattern to how we humans react to things.

For example, when I work, I’m off in a world of my own, if someone creeps up behind me and yells, “Boo!” (and, yes, this has happened!) I’ll scream like a little girl, only it’ll be louder and more embarrassing. And then everyone laughs. Well, I’m glad that I was entertaining!

Let’s say (as I just did) I were to write about this event and I described it like this: I screamed and someone said, “Boo!” and everyone laughed. Confusing, right? Of course! It’s out of order. Or if I left out the part about my screaming and just wrote: Someone said, “Boo!” and everyone laughed. Readers would be left scratching their heads.

Writing a good story is all about being true to REAL patterns of action, it is about understanding how we react to stimuli. And being true to this has everything to do with cause and effect.

I’m going to come back to this, below, but first let’s take a brief look at what a story is.

Stories Aren’t Real Life, They’re Better


Stories must make more sense than real life. In real life our loved ones become ill for no reason -- at least no reason anyone understands. But if this happens in fiction, readers become grumpy. After all, there is a very human intelligence behind the story: you! You’ve created the story world so you should know all the whys and hows of anything that significantly affects your characters. You don’t have to write all that information into the story -- readers should only be told what they want to be told -- but you need to know it.

Keep in mind that the kind of fiction I’m talking about is the sort that one would tell around a campfire. You want listeners to hang on your every word and leave satisfied, you want to give them something to beat back the darkness that lies in wait for us all. They need something to hope for, something to aspire to.

Of course, there are MANY other kinds of stories -- there are tragedies, and those are, unfortunately, equally true of human experience, but that's NOT the kind of story I'm talking about. That’s not the kind of story I tell my friends to keep the existential darkness at bay.


Cause and Effect


Every plot development must have a cause and each cause must have an effect. Although, sure, sometimes this cause occurs off the page in the deep background of the story.

In fiction, one thing must lead logically into another. You can make anything happen in your story, you just have to figure out a cause for it. In fiction, unlike life, there is no blind luck. Yes, your hero can begin an adventure because of a coincidence, but they can never ever achieve any of their goals because of a coincidence. (I think perhaps the only exception to this is in a comedy when the hero adopts the persona of The Fool.)

Recreating, respecting, the patterns of real interactions is part of what allows readers to suspend belief. This is part of what makes the story world make sense. It is part of what makes the story world believable. Only believable story worlds grab readers -- it can be as insanely futuristic or fantastic as you like, but if the characters don’t react, don’t behave, in a credible, believable way, your story won’t grab them.

Stimulus and Response


Let's drop down a level. Bob and Joe are fighting. Bob throws a punch and Joe ducks. Joe throws a punch and his fist connects with Bob’s face. Bob falls to the floor and is out for the count. Now, that’s not great literature (I’ll leave that to you!) but it’s understandable. You don’t have trouble picturing what’s going on.

Walking through this: There’s an observable stimulus -- Bob’s fist -- Joe has a reaction to this stimulus, he ducks. Then there’s a response, Joe’s fist -- Bob reacts to this by getting hit in the face and falling to the ground.

A scene consists of linked stimulus-response pairs. I’ll go into this more, below, but before we do that let me touch on the topic of internalizations.

Let’s do this using the simple example I just gave. Let’s say that Bob is a LOT bigger than Joe. Bob tries to hit Joe (stimulus). Joe knows that if Bob hits him he’s going down and never getting back up, which is why he decided to cheat and put weights in his gloves (internalization). Joe ducks the punch (response). Joe tries to punch Bob (stimulus). Bob chuckles to himself and thinks, This is so cute, like I would be worried about this mosquito (internalization). Joe’s (illegally) weighted fist connects with Bob’s head and he goes down for the count.

Again, not great literature, but it makes sense. You can visualize what’s happening. Here, there’s an observable stimulus, Bob’s fist flying through the air toward Joe’s head. Joe has an internal reaction to the stimulus, he reflects that this is life or death and that more-or-less explains why he has resorted to cheating. Then there is an observable response, Joe knocks Bob out.

That was just an example -- yes, it’s great for action scenes -- but the pattern applies to everything. Honestly, this is one of the most useful principles I’ve ever studied.

Tips for Writing Prose That Feels Real


We’ve covered some of this above, but I’m going to spell it out, so it will be easy for us to reference, later:

1. Stimulus


- A thing that causes something else
- The stimulus must be external
- The stimulus can be a physical action, like throwing a punch.
- The stimulus can be something spoken.

2. Internalization


- What the character thinks or feels in response to the stimulus.
- Sometimes this is deep narration -- which is intimately related to Free Indirect Speech or Discourse -- but sometimes it is just a sentence or two in the narrators voice that communicates how the character is feeling or thinking. The essential thing is to show how the character responds internally.
- This reaction doesn’t have any physicality, we can’t see or hear or touch it. We must rely upon the narrator.
- Internalizations are optional. If you’re writing from a strict third-person perspective and you don’t want to dip into any of your character’s minds, you might not use them. (You could write something like: Bob hit Joe. It seemed like Joe cringed in pain. Joe hit Bob.)

3. For every stimulus, there must be a response


- If there are any hard and fast rules in writing -- and there really aren’t many other than “Writers must read and write” -- it is that every cause must create an effect and every effect must have a cause. You’ve heard of Chekhov’s Gun? This is the admonition that a gun in the first act must be used in a subsequent act. This is the same idea. If you introduce something that seems significant, there has to be a payoff, otherwise, why have it in the story? Everything in a story must pull its weight, everything must create some sort of (significant) effect. And an effect is only significant if it affects a character in pursuit of a goal that is linked (in some way, however tenuous) to the protagonist’s main goal.
- The response must be caused by a stimulus.
- The response, like the stimulus, must be external.
- Generally, the response must be IMMEDIATE. As soon as Bob throws a punch, Joe needs to either get hit in the face or duck.

Internalization


As I’ve said, every action is really STIMULUS -- INTERNALIZATION -- RESPONSE, although the internalization is optional.

I’ll write more about internalization in another post, but for now just think of it as anything your character thinks or feels. So, for example:
Diane glared at Jill. (Stimulus)

Scared, Jill stiffened. I wonder if she found out I kissed her boyfriend, she thought. (Internalization)

Diane stalked up to Jill -- if she’d been a cartoon character, steam would have been coming out of her ears -- and punched Jill in the jaw. (Response)
That’s it for now! If you liked this post, please consider supporting me over at Patreon.

As always, keep writing!

Notes


The material in this post was inspired by two authors: Jack M. Bickham's excellent book Scene & Structure and Dwight V. Swain's incredibly useful book, Techniques of a Successful Writer. I can't recommend both of these books highly enough.

Sunday, October 13

Finding the Theme of Your Story: The Vomit Draft

Finding the Theme of Your Story: The Vomit Draft


Hi! Welcome back. A short post today. I’m not being lazy, I’m working on three much longer ones, but that’s for next week. Today, I thought I might update one of my more popular older posts: 22 Ways to Tell a Great Story. But then I read tip number three and realized I needed to do a post about the virtues of writing a vomit draft/zero draft.

Three Reasons to Write a Vomit Draft


1. A vomit draft will show you what your story is about, it will reveal the theme


This list of 22 tips comes from the fabulously creative brain of Emma Coats who used to work for Pixar. A few of these points jumped out at me. They communicate a certain picture of how to create a story, one that I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically agree with. Here are the tweets in question:

“3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.”

Yes! (3) had me hopping up and down. I totally agree. This is what I’ve been saying about the advantages of a vomit draft or Zero Draft (I didn’t invent that name!).

(The Zero Draft: How To Beat Writer’s Block)

I keep a writing journal and I always write my first draft out longhand. There’s something about the motion of my hand skimming along the rough surface of the paper, the feeling of cradling the pen between my fingers, the feeling of the jaggedness of the pen’s contact with the page.

Anyway. That’s not what I want to talk about, what I want to talk about is ONE of the benefits of writing a vomit draft, one that Emma Coats touches on: It will help you find your theme.

Let me try to unpack that.

I remember watching one of John Green’s videos where he discussed the writing of his marvelous and immensely popular book: The Fault in Our Stars. As you probably know, this book reached the number one spot on the New York Times Bestseller list, as well as various others. It was also TIME Magazine’s number one fiction book pick for 2012. AND it was made into a movie. It’s safe to say it was successful. I think we’d all settle for that kind of response to our work!

I mention this because John Green said -- in a YouTube video I can’t find the link to! -- that essentially nothing in his first draft made it into his final draft. It was simply a place to start from, it was something that helped him figure out what his book was about.

2. Flawed Ideas on Paper Beat Perfect Ideas in Your Head

“11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.”
That’s really why I’m such a big fan of writing a vomit draft, it gives you space and time to flush your ideas out of your brain and get them out into the world where they can be examined, played with. You can’t improve nothing. Start with whatever scrawled idiotic nonsensical blather you can come up with and then make it better! (And, whatever you do, NEVER show anyone your vomit draft. I like to ritually burn mine.)

3. Endings Matter

“7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.”
Perhaps this doesn’t belong in an article about the advantages of writing a vomit draft, but IF you have a general idea about how your story ends -- you don’t have to! -- it helps. And of course your idea regarding how the story ends can change as you write. This is a vomit draft, that’s okay! There are no rules EXCEPT: just write.

And that’s it! Thanks for reading, and if you’d like to help keep this blog going head over to my Patreon page. You can donate as little as one dollar a month and have my eternal thanks as well as the knowledge that you are unconditionally awesome. Also, if you’d like to send me a story or a portion of your WIP for me to critique, head on over to my Patreon account or just contact me.

Articles you might like:


How Many Drafts Does It Take To Write A Novel?
The Zero Draft: How To Beat Writer’s Block
Pixar: 22 Ways To Tell A Great Story

Thursday, December 22

The Structure of Change

The Structure of Change


The Hero’s Journey and Change


Ages ago Chuck Wendig wrote an article about story structure [1], focusing on the Monomyth. It’s one of my favorite articles on the subject. I bring it up here because of one of the many compelling points he made: each story has its own unique structure.[2]

I agree! 'Breaking' your story and seeing how it compares to a universal structure such as the monomyth can be a terrific way to help writers check whether their plot has gaps, to see if their main characters could be more fully fleshed out, and so on. But it is vitally important to take any talk of universal structure as a guide, a suggestion, and NOT as rules carved into stone.

No one writes a story because they want to manifest a universal structure, the point is for each story to incorporate a CHANGE on a fundamental level. Keep in mind that the idea of a universal structure for a story is an abstraction. It’s like saying the average resident of New York owns 1.2 dogs. The statement is meaningful but we’ll never see 1.2 dogs peeing on a fire hydrant!

Editing


I’ve found it’s often best to save thinking about story structure for the editing process. I need to first let my creative self have it’s way with the story (which, for me, means writing a Zero Draft) and then, when I sit down to transform my Zero Draft into a First Draft, I break the story and to where the plot holes are, where it’s misshapen, and so on.

I find that puzzling out a particular story’s structure is an invaluable editing tool. (Shawn Coyne talks about this in his wonderful book, The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know.)

What do I think about when I’m actually writing a Zero Draft? I think about change. That’s what I try to keep in the front of my mind and (hopefully!) by so doing, incorporate change into the story on a fundamental level.

To sum up. In my view it is important to understand the Monomyth. Not because you’re going to incorporate all—each and every one—of its twists and turns, but because you will, inevitably, incorporate some.

Zero Draft: The Structure of Change


So what does this look like? What is the structure of change?

Most importantly—and Dwight V. Swain and Jack M. Bickham picked up on this in their (wonderful!) books on writing—the protagonist must do something. Which means the protagonist must WANT something. Which means there must be obstacles—both internal and external—that keep the protagonist from achieving what she desires. (After all, if she wanted something then immediately got it, that wouldn’t be interesting!)

In any case, from my recent perusal of scripts, especially TV scripts, most particularly screenplays from Supernatural, here is the story progression that occurs:

Teaser


In the beginning of the story the characters are introduced. The audience sees their pain points, their desires, their flaws, their strengths, and so on. But how does this happen? In TV often the first glimpse we get of the characters is in the teaser.

In the case of Supernatural, a monster attacks someone; sometimes this person is killed, sometimes they are just taken. There is usually darkness, fear and a lot of blood. The Teaser often sets the concrete goal: hunt and kill the monster that did this.

Protagonist’s larger problem


The protagonist has a problem, a thorn in the flesh, something that runs deep, something that can’t be shrugged off. Perhaps she feels responsible for the death of a loved one, perhaps she feels wronged—betrayed—by a loved one and those ill feelings are festering. Often a deep dark secret is involved with the protagonist’s problem, a secret she actively protects for whatever reason. Perhaps the secret is of something embarrassing, perhaps the secret is simply something she wants for her own. Letting go of the secret, opening up about it, is often necessary for true healing.

State the story’s thematic premise


We’ve seen, above, that the protagonist has a problem. Because of this problem he wants something. Granted, this want can be somewhat nebulous (e.g., to be loved, to get justice for the death of a loved one, and so on). This want becomes the theme of the story. For example, in the first episode of Supernatural after the pilot (Wendigo), Sam feels guilt over his girlfriend’s death. In a dream, he visits his girlfriend’s grave and says, “I should have protected you, I should have told you the truth.” He deals with his guilt by throwing himself into his search for her killer. In the process Sam becomes uncharacteristically angry when Dean wants to help folks along the way.

In “Wendigo” the theme was explicitly stated when Dean asks Sam: What are we supposed to do? What does Dad want us to do? The answer: hunt monsters.

In “Skin,” Sam wants to keep in touch with his friends from Stanford but Dean tells Sam that’s just not possible in their line of work; his friends wouldn’t be able to understand what they do or why they do it.

In each of these episodes (Wendigo and Skin), Sam’s desire (and, perhaps, Dean’s reaction to it) sets the theme. Although, again, not every story needs an explicit theme (for example, the episode “Hook Man” isn’t as strongly themed as some of the others).

Have a specific, concrete, goal


Have what the character wants be specific. To solve a specific murder, to win first prize in the pie eating contest, to demonstrate your best friend’s innocence, and so on.

Throw obstacles, internal and external, into the protagonist’s path


An example of an external problem would be: the evil critter locked Sam and Dean in a cell. If they don’t find a way out they will die. An internal obstacle might be that, because of Sam’s guilt over his girlfriend’s death, he’s vulnerable to a certain kind of monster who is attracted to people who carry around a lot of emotional baggage.

Plan 


Make it clear how your protagonist’s actions are intended to bring about achieving the concrete goal. The reader may see that what the protagonist is doing is extremely unlikely to yield the result the protagonist wants—other characters in the story may see this as well—but as long as the protagonist is convinced he will (and as long as this conviction makes sense for the character in the context of the story) it's okay.

Stakes


Make it clear how your character's plan could go right as well as how it could go completely, terribly, wrong. In other words, make the stakes clear to the reader. Spell it out. Also, raise the stakes at least twice, preferably three times. And make it clear whenever the stakes are raised. Right before the climax the stakes should be the highest in the story and it should—at least for a moment—seem completely hopeless.

Synthesis


Often the protagonist will overcome his great flaw with the help of synthesis. By this I mean the synthesis of the theme and the B Story.

The synthesis is not something that occurs in every story; it can be tricky to pull off. Sometimes a flaw is just a flaw and the protagonist fails because of it. This failure can work well in a series where another character can save his bacon, giving the protagonist time to work out his issues. In a later story you can have the protagonist finally synthesize the moral from the B Story with the theme and emerge victorious.

If you can setup a satisfying synthesis then, in my opinion, you can construct an ending your readers will love and remember.

Climax


There needs to be an element of finality about this conflict. Perhaps the protagonist and antagonist have fought previously and both walked (or limped, as the case may be!) away, but that’s not possible this time. This time one of them is going down.



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to you. 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. :-)

I’ve seen the movie The Big Short (starring Christian Bale and Steve Carell) and loved it so much I wanted to read the book: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis. I have it and it has been on my To Read list for ages. Perhaps that will be one of my New Year's resolutions: read The Big Short! Have you read it? If so, what did you think? Was it as good as the movie? Better?



That’s it!

Notes:


1. NSFW --> 25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure, by Chuck Wendig.

2. Another wonderful point Chuck Wendig made was that structure should adapt to the story, not the other way around. I agree! That’s something I don’t stress enough.

Monday, June 16

8 Elements Of A Gripping Tale

8 Elements Of A Gripping Tale


This is a question I've asked a time or three: How does a writer keep readers turning the page?

1. Tell a gripping tale.


The best way to keep readers interested, to keep them reading/watching/listening, is the obvious one: Tell a gripping tale, one that connects with universal themes such as sacrifice, redemption, transformation, and so on; themes which readers/watchers/listeners can understand since we tend to go through similar life experiences. 

We want the people we love to love us back (as opposed to ditching us for more attractive, younger, versions) and we want the people who hate us to get the strange syphilis (but not Xander, never Xander). 

2. Tell a gripping tale filled with interesting characters.


The main characters of a riveting tale will be interesting and so we, the readers, will care what happens to them. 

A character (generally speaking) can't be interesting if they aren't believable. And part of a character acting in believable ways; that is, making believable choices; is their choices flowing from the kind of pseudo-people they are. Or, rather, the kind of pseudo-people we perceive them to be.

3. Tell a gripping tale filled with interesting characters who want things.


The characters of a gripping tale will have strengths and flaws and they will want things. Some of the things they want will be insignificant and silly, perhaps even embarrassing, but some of them--at least one of them--will likely be big and important and difficult to attain. 

4. Tell a gripping tale filled with interesting characters who want something that is difficult to attain.


Although in real life it would be wonderful to buy a lottery ticket the day before the big draw and then find out that, yes, you picked the winning number, it wouldn't make for an exciting story. 

"Jane wants to win the lottery. Jane buys a lottery ticket. Jane wins the lottery."

Boring.

"Jane wants to win the lottery. Jane buys a lottery ticket with the last of her savings. Jane discovers she's won the lottery. Excited, she goes to get the ticket from her wallet but ... it's not there!"

Still boring, but better.

5. Create interesting and believable opposition


There needs to be some sort of opposition to prevent the protagonist from getting what he wants too easily. The opposition should be strong and produce a credible threat to the protagonist's goals.

This means that the protagonist has to be better--more skilled, more intelligent, or perhaps just luckier--than the forces that oppose him. 

6. Surprise your reader.


But in a good way. Jumping out from behind a potted plant as your mother gets to the part where the cat morphs into a hideous man-eating monster doesn't count. 

(Major spoilers about American Beauty coming up in three, two, one ...)

I think one of the tensest scenes I've watched was in American Beauty, toward the end, when the protagonist, Lester, is working out in his garage. His daughter's boyfriend's homophobic father, the Colonel, comes over and we--the audience--are sure that something bad is going to happen. We know the protagonist is going to die and we know the Colonel suspects Lester is in a homosexual relationship with his son.

The stakes are life and death, we're just not sure whodunit. Will the next door neighbour be the one to kill Lester?

Then (surprise!) the next door neighbour, the homophobe, kisses Lester! I was stunned. It was a great twist but one that, looking back, made sense. 

That said, this scene wouldn't have been as tense as it was if the audience didn't know what the stakes were.

(To read more about the importance of surprise I recommend 7 Tools to Hook Your Reader by Monica M. Clark. )

7. Make the stakes clear.


In American Beauty the stakes were life and death. Yes, we knew the protagonist was going to die from the beginning, but we didn't know how he would die or who would kill him.

I've mentioned the scene where the Colonel kisses Lester, that scene wouldn't have been tense if we didn't know the stakes. Yes, we knew that Lester died at the end, but that fed the suspense.

8. Write the story you would love to read.


A writer's emotions bleed through into the story. 

To write a good horror story, one that makes the reader too scared to go to sleep and necessitates the use of a night light, the writer needs to be a little horrified. To write a good mystery, the writer needs to construct a puzzle that's interesting to her. 

Above all, if the writer is bored by the story then, chances are, the readers will be as well. 

#  #  #  #

The attribution is contested, but Ernest Hemingway is said to have once muttered: Writing is easy, you just sit down at the typewriter and bleed. That's the key: Sit down and connect with your emotional core then transfer some of that to your characters. 

Good writing!


Monday, April 28

Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Fourth And Final 1,500 Words

Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Fourth And Final 1,500 Words


Here we are at last. This is the last post in a five part series on how to write a short story the Lester Dent way. (Here's a link to the first article in this series: Lester Dent's Short Story Master Formula.)

Today we're going to finish talking about Dent's master plot formula for how he wrote a 6,000 word short story.  

The Final 1,500 Words


If you read my other posts you'll notice a familiar progression:

- A complication is introduced.


The complication can be anything that makes it difficult for the hero to attain her goal, or that outright prevents her from attaining it. 

In The Princess Bride, the Man in Black's goal is to rescue Princess Buttercup, but there are complications. First he has to fight Inigo, a master swordsman, then Fezzik throws a massive boulder at him. Finally, the Man in Black must match wits with Vizzini. But then—surprise!—there's a reversal and the Princess is taken away from him again. Now, though, things are truly dire for all involved. Westley is taken away to a dungeon and strapped into (cue ominous music) the Machine.

But, again, it is the initial complication that kicks off the action. It's like a tiny snowball being rolled down a mountain heavy with snow. That tiny snowball, given time, can create an avalanche. 

- The hero overcomes the complication. 


The hero often doesn't overcome the initial complication right away. It could take several tries. It is usually only at the very end of the story that the hero has a flash of insight and wrenches victory from the jaws of defeat. (see: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive)

- The hero, using his skill and intelligence, rescues himself.


It's important that the hero isn't helped, that he gets himself out of the fix he's in himself. After all, that's what heroes do! Even when they're so weak they can barely stand, they have to subdue their enemies themselves. If not with their brawn, then with their wit and a good bluff.

- The hero and the villain face off. This is it, the climax. This is where things will be settled one way or another.


Although both the hero and the villain probably have helpers, no one else can be involved at this stage. The hero must win—or lose—under her own steam.

- As part of the climax we learn the solution to the main mystery: How was the victim killed? We learn how the deed was done, who did it and why.


As you'll recall, what started this all off was a mystery. In Dent's case, it was usually a murder mystery. He wrote:

"A different murder method could be—different. Thinking of shooting, knifing, hydrocyanic, garroting, poison needles, scorpions, a few others, and writing them on paper gets them where they may suggest something. Scorpions and their poison bite? Maybe mosquitoes or flies treated with deadly germs?"

In other words, introduce a mystery in the beginning. (Every time I think of the importance of introducing mystery into a story, or the importance of mystery in creating suspense, I think of J.J. Abrams' wonderful TED talk: The Mystery Box.)

Here, at the end of our 6,000 word story, we pull the curtain back and explain the mystery.

- The villain pulls something out of his hat, something that surprises the hero. 


Here we have another All Is Lost moment, but then the hero turns things around. Perhaps the hero only pretended to be taken off guard, perhaps the hero had been deceiving the villain, playing him. Our hero turns things around to win the day.

- Final twist. 


The final twist should come as a big surprise to your reader. If you've kept the villain's identity a secret—perhaps he has been wearing a mask, perhaps the battle is taking place long-distance, perhaps one of his minions has been standing in for him—now is the time to reveal it. The shock value is sometimes increased if, earlier, the hero met the villain under another guise.

- Wrap things up. 


Make sure there are no unintended loose ends. If you intend this short story to be the first part of a series then it's fine to leave one or two minor threads unresolved. But do check your threads/arcs and make sure you've closed off all the ones you intended to.

- Close with a punch line. Have the hero say something snappy.


Dent, in his Doc Savage books, generally closed with something funny. An inside joke.

A Caveat


This was how Lester Dent wrote a 6,000 word short story he intended to sell to the markets of his day. This is an outline, probably a great outline, of how to write a pulp story. Dent wrote in the 30s, 40s and 50s and, naturally, the markets have changed a lot in the intervening 60 or so years. That said, great fiction is great fiction. I think that to the extent Dent caught on to something lasting with his formula it will be as helpful in our day as it was in his.

It's up to you how to, as well as whether to, use Dent's formula. Dent never claimed that his formula was the only way of writing a story, only that it was his way. And, to his credit, he did sell a lot of short stories and during a very tough time--the Great Depression. 

Sometimes when I'm stuck for an idea, sometimes when I just don't know what's going to happen next, it helps me to approach things from another perspective. If you are in that situation it is my hope that the simple act of reading these posts may help shake something loose and get you writing again. As long as Dent's guidelines are applied with thoughtful awareness, their use isn't going to turn an interesting story into an uninteresting one. On the other hand, it just might give a drab story a bit of life. (Also see Deborah Chester's post, Moon Alligators, for ways of spicing up a story.)

If a story works, it works. It doesn't matter how it was put together. 

Previous posts in this series:



Photo credit: "2014-116 - lines" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, January 29

The Goal of Writing

The Goal of Writing


What is the goal of writing?

I mean by this not only why do we, as individuals, write, I mean what is it we hope to do, to accomplish, by our writing.

From my reading, I would say that one of the most common answers is: to entertain.

And that makes sense. I think we've all had the experience of coming home from a hard day and wanting nothing more than to sit down and relax with a cup of steaming hot cocoa--or other beverage--and a book guaranteed to take your mind off the cares and troubles of the day.

That said, I think it might matter what kind of story you're writing. For instance, someone who writes a literary story might be more interested in focusing on a particular aspect of the human condition than on entertaining their readers. I think all writers care about entertaining readers, it's just a matter of emphasis.


So, tentatively, let's say that the goal of genre fiction (perhaps mainstream too, but certainly genre) is to entertain. But let's see if we can't narrow it down a bit more.

First, though, let's take a look at what a story is at it's most fundamental level.

Story: A Definition


John Truby in "The Anatomy of Story" gives the following definition:

"A speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what he wanted and why."

Truby views a story as essentially interactive, something that passes from a storyteller to one or more listeners.

There are two parts to this:

1. Emotional knowledge: reliving the life


Truby writes:

"Good storytelling lets the audience relive events in the present so they can understand the forces, choices, and emotions that led the character to do what he did. Stories are really giving the audience a form of knowledge--emotional knowledge--or what used to be known as wisdom, but they do it in a playful, entertaining way."

2. Figure out the puzzle: a verbal game


Truby calls stories verbal games. The storyteller constructs "a kind of puzzle about people" and asks the listener to figure it out.

There are two parts to this:

a. Give certain information about the characters to the audience.

b. Withhold certain information about the characters from the audience.

It is the interplay of (a) and (b) that keeps readers guessing up until the end.

Question: What do you think the goal of storytelling is? 

Photo credit: "♥ The Drongo Love ♥ Happy Valentine's Day ♥" by Vinoth Chandar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.