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

Monday, January 27

How To Write Killer Crime Stories

Here are seven excellent tips for writing killer crime stories from Luke Preston.

1. "Don’t be boring"

Like many great writing tips, this is true for any kind of writing. If readers get bored, they'll stop reading. LP's advice: 

"... write what excites you. You do that and that excitement will come across on the page and excite the reader."

2. "Grab the reader by the throat on the first page and don’t let go"

LP advises readers to "Start your story off like a shotgun blast in the middle of the night."

I love these kind of openings in both film and literature. Think of the opening to The Matrix. A tiny woman, Trinity, bests several police officers by using very cool, surreal, martial arts moves.

LP breaks this kind of roller coaster opening into five sub-types:

a. The Action Opening
- Hero is being menaced, either physically or emotionally.

b. The Flashback Opening
- Take a moment of drama from later on in the novel and place it at the beginning.

c. The First Day on the Job Opening
- Hero arrives in a new, stressful, setting. New job, new town, etc.

d. The Everyday Hero Opening
- Could be called the Red opening, from the movie of the same name. The hero is going about his routine when something happens to irrevocably change his life ... like groups of assassins trying to kill him.

e. Outside Action
- Something actiony happens that doesn't involve the hero.

3. There must be a crime

Makes sense, right? You're reading a crime novel so there has to be a crime. But don't make it just any crime. And this goes for murder mysteries as well. LP writes:

"Give your criminals unique and conflicting reasons to be criminals. The bad guy in a story never knows he’s the bad guy. In his story, he’s the good guy. Your protagonist is only as strong as the forces of antagonism they are up against. Give them something to go up against."

4. Don't write likeable characters

If you're like me, this point made you go, "Errr ... what?" I've always thought that, while one doesn't have to write a likeable character, it does help readers identify with him (or her).

LP disagrees. He writes:

"Nobody likes likable characters. They may think they do and they may believe they do, but they really don’t. What they like are interesting characters. Characters that make mistakes, characters that think fast and think badly, flawed characters [...]  Crime novels are littered with sons of bitches, wild men, dubious women and double crossing bastards.  Given the questionable nature of the characters that populate the pages of a crime novel, the question is how do you capture the hearts of the readers and keep them turning the page?"

Good question. LP's answer: Empathy.

Here's LP's advice on how to create empathy in the hearts of your readers:
a. Make the hero funny
b. Make the hero a victim
c. Show the hero in a dilemma
d. Show the hero being highly skilled
e. Show the hero being selfless 
Makes sense. Sherlock, from the TV show of the same name, often refers to himself as a high functioning sociopath. Generally speaking, sociopaths aren't likable. Sherlock--and, make no mistake, I love the character; Sherlock is hands down my favorite show right now--is a bit of an ass. But, somehow, the writers have made what is usually an irksome trait a part of his charm.

5. "Endings that slap you in the face"

LP writes:

"Great endings give the reader what they want but not in the way they expect it. [...] Think of the ending as a mini three-act structure with twists and turns, reversals, setbacks and new plans."

Good advice. You know how I know? Jim Butcher has said basically the same thing but in a different way. In writing, if a number of terrific writers agree on a certain point I think they're probably onto something.

LP goes on to say that once your main story arc is closed out, once the hero has killed the villain (or lost to the villain), the story is over. Show how the ending affected the other characters, how it affected the ordinary world of the hero, then end the story.

6. Shake things up

LP advises writers to "hit the street and start a fight." That is--and this is a point I was trying to get across when I wrote about setting--hook your characters, especially the hero, into the world.

Have your characters experience the story world's " disappointments and triumphs, anger and heartbreaks and put it all on the page."

7. What is your story about?

What is your story's theme?

This is something else I've written about lately and I couldn't agree more with what LP says here. Asking what a story's theme is, is equivalent to asking:

"What are you saying about the world with your story?"

What is your story saying about--not the story world--but the real world? What do you want to say?

For example, I think that the main theme of The Mummy was, as Evelyn said, "snivelling little cowards like you [Beni] always get their comeuppance." Or, put another way, cowards and liars always get theirs in the end.

Find something you want your story to say about the world in which you live and then say it--through your story.

Luke Preston can be found online over at Luke's latest book is Out of Exile.

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

Tuesday, January 15

The Starburst Method: Summarizing Your Story In One Sentence

The Starburst Method: Summarizing Your Story In One Sentence

This is the final chapter in The Starburst Method. It has been quite a journey!

Our goal has been to work from an initial concept to produce a one sentence description that communicates who the protagonist is, what she wants, as well as the central conflict of the story.

For some reason this has been the most difficult of all the posts to write, but the idea here is simple enough. We're going to take the five paragraphs we crafted over the last few days, take the ideas we developed, and use those ideas to craft one gloriously concise sentence that describes the essential concepts in our story. (For an earlier discussion of this see: The Structure Of Short Stories: The Elevator Pitch Version)

Last time, in The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 3, I gave an example of the hero's journey using The Firm as an example. Here I'll extend that example and summarize it using one sentence.

A One Sentence Summary Of The Firm

Mitch McDeere is a smart, motivated, young lawyer living in Boston. But when he gets a job with a group of crooked lawyers, Mitch must thread his way between the dual threats of the FBI and the mob in order to preserve both his life and his law degree.
Here's how I came by this (by the way, this is all thanks to Nathan Bransford):
[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist's quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist's goal]. (Query Letter Mad Lib)
Let's look at one more example, this time using The Matrix.

A One Sentence Summary Of The Matrix

1. Protagonist's name:

2. Description of protagonist:
Office worker by day, hacker by night

3. Setting:
The Matrix, which appears to be North America in the late 1990s. Neo senses some of this, he wants to know the truth, but has trouble believing.

4. Protagonist's goal:
To expose the Matrix and defeat the machines.

5. Antagonist's name:
The machines. The main minion of the machines: Agent Smith

6. Description of antagonist:
Agents are protectors/servants of the machines that built the matrix and enslaved the human race.

7: Antagonist's goal:
To protect the matrix.

Notice some of my answers are long and rambling, that's okay. We're still at the brainstorming stage. Now we take this information and plug it into our formula:
Neo is an office worker by day, hacker by night, who hates his job and is looking for something more: The Truth. When Trinity, an infamous hacker, introduces Neo to Morpheus and the truth of human existence Neo must decide whether to embrace the bitter pill of truth or go back to the comfortable reality created by the machines who ensnared humanity. 
The way I've written this up The Matrix looks like a Character Story. At the beginning we have a character, Thomas Anderson, who is dissatisfied with his role in society and at the end our character, Neo, has found a new role: he is The One.

This Character Story is also, to a lesser degree, a Milieu Story as well as a love story. The other stories are either closed out first or at the same time as the Character Story.

Getting Our Description Down To One Sentence

Now let's be brutal and get our description down to one sentence. No rambling allowed!

What is the main element? Since this is a Character Story the main element is that the protagonist, Thomas Anderson, is dissatisfied with his role in society and, at the end, succeeds in changing it.

Since I don't want to give any spoilers--this is the description you'd give to anyone who asked what your book is about; telling them the ending wouldn't be friendly--I'm not going to talk about the ending.

I'm sure you could do better but here's what I came up with.

My one sentence summary of The Matrix:

When Thomas Anderson, an office worker by day and rebel by night, meets infamous hacker Trinity and learns the true nature of reality--the we are all trapped in an illusion--he wants to free himself and others, but can he defeat the machines?
If I thought this was a Milieu Story I would have summarized the movie this way:
When Thomas Anderson discovers the strange new world of the Matrix he learns humanity has been enslaved by intelligent machines and he is the only one who can save the world.
You know what? I like the second way better! Even though I don't think this is a Milieu Story, that's the version I'd tell folks. Besides, the goal is to craft a single sentence that describes the story and both of the above give one an idea of the main theme of the Matrix: The One--Neo--will save humanity from the machines and the prison they have created for us.

Want to try summarizing your work in progress? Please do! Why not share it in the comments.

Other articles you might like:

- F. Scott Fitzgerald On The Price Of Being A Great Writer
- Using Public Domain Characters In Your Stories
- Link Mashup: The Million Follower Fallacy, Showing Not Telling, Goals Not Dreams

Photo credit: "Shanghai Rollercoaster." by @yakobusan Jakob Montrasio 孟亚柯 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, January 9

Chuck Wendig On Writing: How He Writes A Novel

Chuck Wendig On Writing: How He Writes A Novel

The Terrible Mind of Chuck Wendig

Late yesterday I wrote a short post about Chuck Wendig's fun writing challenge and someone joked I should write about how he works his writerly magic.

I LOL'd back and didn't think much more of it until I saw Chuck had written an article on editing. Oh! I thought. This will be interesting. THEN I found out he'd written about ... drum roll ... how he writes a novel!

It was like the sky split open and trumpets sounded. How could I not write about that?

(All quotations, unless stated otherwise, are from Chuck's blog post: How Chuck Wendig Writes A Novel.)

1. The Right Idea

Every story begins with an idea. But not just any idea. It has to be the right idea.

How do you know which one is right?

Chuck puts his ideas through a kind of interrogation. I'm not sure what he does with the ones that don't make it and I'm sure it's better that way.

The right idea will be:
a) interesting to me beyond the moment in which they are conceived
b) potentially interesting to other humans who are not me
c) potentially interesting to the giant amorphous blob known as the “publishing industry”
d) about a character in a world and not just a world
e) and de actionable, meaning, an idea that suggests a book I’m actually capable of writing
The idea that makes it through the final inerview goes on Chuck's "idea list". He writes:
[L]ater I dump it into a file I’ve created that’s meant to be a storehouse of such potential ideas. For the record, this dump file now looks like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Shelves and shelves of crates and boxes, each a mystery container whose story remains untold.
If I could make a humble suggestion: Dropbox and Google Drive are your friends.

If you keep your important lists in the cloud, you're guaranteed to have an updated version of the lists on your computer(s) as well as in the cloud (wherever that is) so even if the worst happens and all your electronic devises spontaneously combust you'll still have your ideas, your stories and your Excel worksheets.

2. Barf Up A Blob Of Incoherent Thoughts

I love Chuck's headings. I mean, right off, you knew that was his, right?

Anyway, the second step is to get your thoughts out of your head and out into the world: put them on a sheet of paper, virtual paper, spreadsheet programs, mind-maps, whatever works for you. As Chuck writes:
The notes taken at this stage are almost stream-of-consciousness. Sentence fragments, mis-spelled words, grocery list thoughts interspersed in the middle, whatever. It’s just to ruminate on the idea. And it’s also to test the idea in a way. Is there more here than than initial idea? A great many ideas are dead seeds planned in fallow ground — they won’t grow a good goddamn thing. So, this stage of the game is very much about seeing if this thing has legs. Will it walk? Can it run?

3. Get To Know Your Characters

Chuck calls characters "The way through every story". You need to know who a character is in the same way you need to know what the story is about (we'll get to that in a moment).

a. Name your characters

Names have power. I find it difficult to write about a character before I have some idea what her first name is. Last names are the trickiest, often they won't come to me until I'm working on my second or third draft.

Naming resources:
- Websites for baby names
- Google Map street names
- Scrivener
- US census data
- Movie credits
- The names of characters from other books, mixed and matched.

b. Take your characters out for dinner and get to know them

For each character ask:
- What are his wants? (Both conscious wants and unconscious.)
- What are his needs?
- What are his fears?
- Why does he need to keep going?
- What goal will drive him as he progresses through the story?
- What obstacles are in his path? Which obstacles will prevent him from reaching his goal?

Some of these obstacles MUST be bound up with what the character fears.

c. Create a simple character arc: Beginning, middle, end

Chuck writes:
Finally, I do a little three-beat character arc for the character. Three words or sentences that are meant to indicate the state of the character across the story — beginning, middle, and end.

Poor cat down on his luck wants to see a change in this country –> elected president, way over his kitty head –> once again a poor cat but now knows the intimate details of the democratic process and oh did I mention he nuked the middle of our own country into oblivion.

d. The test: Are your characters compelling?

Some writers want their characters to be likable. Chuck doesn't. He wants characters that are interesting, readable and, above all, compelling.

Why do you find your character compelling? What are they good at? What have they failed at? What events have made them who they are?

4. Ask The Foundational Question: What Is Your Story About?

Answering this question will help you begin to not only lay the foundation of your story, but it will also test your story idea to make sure it's really one you want to spend months of your life with.

Here is the big question:

What is your story about?

I love examples, don't you? So, before we go any further, here are examples of what Chuck means when he asks: What is your story about?
“This is about how you can’t escape your past.”
“This is about just how fucked up people can be.”
“This is about how the education system fails its kids by adhering to antiquated ideals and stats that don’t mean anything and notions of ‘learning’ that remain separate from notions of ‘humanity.’”
“This is about the coming of age of MONKEY SQUID DEATH WOMBAT. Raaaaar!”
I tend to think of stuff like this as THEME. Just the other day someone asked whether he should know the theme of his story before he started to write or if it could be worked into the story later.

If I remember what he wrote in On Writing, Stephen King often doesn't know what his story is about until the second draft. The theme is there, but he hasn't discovered it yet.

Chuck Wendig is definitely a know your theme first kinda guy and I do see his point.

Why you want to know what your story is about before you begin writing

In his article Before You Start Writing, Ask: “What Is This About?”Chuck points out that knowing your theme before you start writing has a number of benefits.

i. It will tell you why you are writing this story

Answering the question, What is this story about?, will tell you what you want to say.

In order for the story to work you need to write about something more than what interests you, you need to write about what compels you, what haunts you.

ii. Binds your story elements together

Knowing what the story is about will tell you why you're writing it and THAT is the mortar which binds your story elements together. Chuck writes:

Point is, the web, the structure, the whole recipe comes together when you have this answer. You can look at the whole picture, nod, and just say, “Ohhhh.”

iii. Gives you a thread

Knowing what your story is about is like being handed a magical thread that will help you find the way through the labyrinth of your story. It will help you decide what to do.

Just as in a labrynth you need to decide, "Do I go right, left or straight?" when you write you're going to be presented with choices. How does a particular character react to such-and-such? How does she respond when she fails to achieve one of her goals?

Knowing what the story is about will help you understand what needs to happen next, where to turn, how to proceed.

iv. The test: How you know if you've found out what your story is about

If the answer to, "What is your story about?" doesn't get you excited, if it doesn't connect with you emotionally, then that's not your answer. Keep excavating. Chuck writes:

If you don’t love the answer, and that answer doesn’t get you all jizzity-jazzed about the process of writing this thing, then ... that’s not your answer. The answer needs to engage you. It needs to excite you. It needs to give you purpose and be the lash on your ass-cheeks to spur you forward. (Before You Start Writing, Ask: “What Is This About?”)
Now let's move on to talk about how we can discover what our story is about, how we can discover our story's theme.

5. The Marvels Of Mind-Mapping

At this point we've got some character sketches and, maybe, a vague idea of what our theme is but nothing we can pin down. What we need is a much clearer idea of what brings all these disparate elements together. We need a handle on what our story is about. What is its theme?

We need to create a mind-map.

What the heck is a mind-map?

Chuck has written an excellent article on this: Who The Hell Are These People? Mind-Mapping Your Story’s Characters. In that article he has embedded an image of a mind-map he created. You can get there through Chuck's article or you can click here. Here's how Wikipedia describes a mind-map:
A mind map is a diagram used to visually outline information. A mind map is often created around a single word or text, placed in the center, to which associated ideas, words and concepts are added. Major categories radiate from a central node, and lesser categories are sub-branches of larger branches. Categories can represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items related to a central key word or idea. (Mind map)

Why use a mind-map?

- It's easy, fun, gives you a lot of information at a glance.
- It is simple to do and can be done anywhere (you can do it on your smartphone).
- It helps you explore character without locking you into anything. It doesn't feel as serious, as written in stone, as when you're sitting at your desk typing away.
- It can help you spot themes, a deeper storyline.

It's this last point I want to spend a moment on. Chuck writes:
I was going through the characters [using a mind-map], and I started to see some similar elements pop up: elements of legacy, of family, of blood. And I was like, holy shit, I just figured out what this whole story’s *about.* I mean, I had the story in mind. I know a rough sequence of events for the plot. But I didn’t really have a deeper throughline.

And in the mind-map, the character’s exposed themselves (tee-hee) and showed me the theme of the piece.

Just through the act of dicking around with fun little word bubbles and connective tissue, I suddenly stumbled upon one of my great unanswered questions, a question I didn’t think I’d answer so soon.

That’s the joy of the preparation process. It’s like preliminary archaeology. You dig and dig and uncover things you never expected to find. (Who The Hell Are These People? Mind-Mapping Your Story’s Characters)
Sounds great!

I've never used a mind-map before but after reading Chuck's articles I'm going to give it a try.

One of the benefits of using a mind-map is that you can get an app for your phone and do it anywhere. Chuck even recommends an app: SimpleMind.

6. Write A Pitch

I was excited when I read this, because it's what I've been saying in my Starburst Series! 

a. Write a logline/elevator pitch

Sum your entire novel up in a single sentence. Chuck uses his 'cat for president' story idea as an example:
A cat is elevated from poverty and is elected president only to learn that cats shouldn’t ever serve in public office because cats are assholes.

b. Write a blurb

Write a longer pitch of under 500 words. Basically you want a longer version of the blurb for the back cover of your book without giving spoilers. But this should be easy since you don't know exactly what's going to happen.

7. Build A World, But Be Like Scrooge

Chuck cautions that writers should do only as much work as you have to in order to begin writing. You don't know what material is going to get cut so only do the bare minimum.

For instance, in one story I'm working on I knew I needed a slow moving mammal but I didn't know what kind would fit so I just wrote <slow moving mammal> in my first draft and moved on.

8. Know Your Beginning And Your End

Figure out how your story begins as well as how it ends. Chuck writes:
Here’s why I like to have the beginning and the ending in mind: because as I write, my eventual outline will fail me. It just will. No plan survives contact with the enemy and eventually I’ll be somewhere in the middle of the book, spinning wildly in the swampy mire of my own fiction not sure exactly what to do next. And when that happens I will look to the ending and I will say, “I need to go there,” and then I will march the story toward that point and eventually get the outline (which by now may require modification) back on track.

Make sure there is an element that links your beginning and your ending

This element could be elemental, thematic or physical. For instance,
In the Mookie Pearl short story, “Charcuterie,” it begins and ends with him pulling up at the bar with his friend and boss, Werth.

9. Outline

Chuck Wendig uses a four act structure. Christopher Vogler uses four as well but Michael Hauge uses three. TV has gone to a six act structure. It's up to you, whatever works.

Write the key scenes first

Chuck figures out what needs to happen in the story (something which is much easier to do if you have an ending!) and then writes those key scenes.

Write the dramatic scenes second

Also, there may be a few different kinds of scenes you want to enclude such as a:

- reversal of fortune
- a key betrayal
- a battle scene
- a moment of shock or, as Chuck puts it:
I’m also always on the look out for at least one HOLY SHIT NO HE DIDN’T moment — some jaw-dropping pants-crapping event or revelation in the narrative that sticks you in the ribs with a story shiv. I like those moments. One of my favorite things is obliterating reader expectations in one fell swoop.

10. Let It Sit

At this point you've got a fat-ish folder, either physical or electronic, and you may need to let the story sit for a bit before you nail yourself to your chair and write it.

11. Spreadsheets Are Your Friends

Chuck Wendig keeps his writing schedule in an Excel spreadsheet. He writes:
One spreadsheet I particularly require is the one that keeps all my writing schedule on it. I don’t use a calendar — I use Excel. I have the whole year planned out in terms of when my deadlines are and where the books slot in. (Then I also identify gaps and, ideally, figure out how to best use those gaps.)
Mark down when your writing projects need to be completed then write down how much you know you can finish per day (underestimate a little to give yourself a bit of wiggle room) and figure out how much time you'll need to complete each one.

For me, it's not so much the writing that takes time, it's the editing. My rule of thumb is that for every hour writing I reserve 4 hours for editing. (Of course I never edit what I just wrote! Gah! The very thought burns!) I'm learning--or trying to learn--how to juggle multiple projects at different stages of completion.

Also, on your spreadsheet keep track of both your projected and your actual word count.

12. Write

Chuck writes:
I write. I write with my head down. I write linearly, first page to the last page. I write without listening to the doubting voice that tells me I’m a total asshole for even trying this. I write without regard to safety or sanity. I write with the freedom to suck and the hope that I don’t. I write to finish the shit that I started.

That's (basically) it! Chuck Wendig has written another article on how he edits his stories and you can find that here: How Chuck Wendig Edits A Novel.

This was a gargantuan article! Sorry about that. I try to keep my blog posts to 1,000 words or less but I'm in the process of writing three different series and I didn't want to add a fourth, so I wanted to get this post done today.

I'll be briefer tomorrow. :-)

Other (much shorter!) articles you might like:

- Using Excel To Outline Your NaNoWriMo Novel: Defeating the sprawl
- Mary Robinette Kowal and The Mysteries of Outlining
- The Starburst Method of Writing

Photo credit: "Free Old Converse All Stars Creative Commons" by Pink Sherbet Photography under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, September 12

Writing Resources

Writing Resources

Writing Resources

I thought I'd try something different and share a few links. Originally I was going to share 5 or 6 but I kept finding more!

 1. The Hero's Journey: giving your story structure
- Blake Snyder's beat sheet. A fabulous explaination of Blake Snyder's beat sheet is here: Save The Snyder – The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet of Structure.
- Michael Hauge's hero's journey. I had the pleasure of hearing Michael Hauge talk about the Hero's Journey. Excellent! He also explains it here: The Five Key Turning Points Of All Successful Scripts.
- The inner journey. Janice Hardy has a terrific article going into more depth about what Michael Hauge has to say about the inner journey: The Inner Struggle: Guides for Using Inner Conflict That Make Sense.
- Your story: where to begin
- The hero's journey: an interactive illustration
- The hero's journey: summary of the steps
- Story structure: What is it and why should I care?
- Jim Butcher: how to write a story

2. Outlining
Dan Wells On Writing A Short Story
- Outline your novel in 30 minutes
- Novel Outlining 101
- Chekhov's Gun
- How to write a romance novel

3. Character Building
- Here are 10 ways of building your characters
- Web Resources for Developing Characters. Dozens of personality tests you can use for character building.
- A character sheet. Another character sheet. Do you know your character's eye color? Their favorite desert?
- Build your character! Here you'll find there quizzes. See how well you know your character.
- Interview your character: Interviewing Characters: Follow the Energy
- Different kinds of antagonists: Villains are people, too, but ...
- Character writing exercises

4. Dialog
- Robert J. Sawyer, Speaking of Dialog
- All Your Characters Talk The Same — And They’re Not A Hivemind!

5. Names
- Medieval Names Archive
- Behind the Name: the etymology and history of first names

6. Idea generators
- 36 dramatic situations
- 200 plot ideas

7. Conflict
- Does your story have enough conflict? Give it a conflict test.
- Plot without conflict

Miscellaneous Links:
- 102 Resources for Fiction Writing
- The Uncomfortable Pantser: When Your Method Doesn't Fit Your Personality.

Are there any links you'd like to add?

Other articles you might like:
- Five steps to better proofreading
- Writing: The Starburst Method, Part 1
- Thinking of becoming an indie author? Some tips

Photo credit: Macskafaraok

Tuesday, June 19

Jim Butcher: How To Write A Story

Jim Butcher is a writer I have a lot of respect for. Not only because I love his stories, but because time again he demonstrates a level of skill in his writing I can only aspire to. Thankfully, Mr. Butcher has been generous, penning many articles about the writing process and giving folks just starting out--or perhaps even well on their way!--many useful tips.

I'd like to talk a bit of about one of Mr. Butcher's articles, "Putting It All Together: How to get your story started," or "Organizing this frikin' mess."

Honestly, when I read this article I felt he was writing to me, this was just what I needed. So I thought I'd pass it along.

So, what are we waiting for? Let's write a story! Here's what we'll need:

1) A story question

2) A protagonist and antagonist

3) A turning point in the middle

4) A story climax

Sure, we need a lot of other things too, but this should help us get started.

1) The story question/The Story skeleton
 Jim Butcher writes:
The story skeleton (also called a story question) consists of a simple format:


For instance, look at Storm Front. (Yes, I'll use my own books as examples, because I'm just that way. ;) Also, I'm more familiar with them than I am with almost any other writer.) Storm Front's story question:

When a series of grisly supernatural murders tears through Chicago, wizard Harry Dresden sets out to find the killer. But will he succeed when he finds himself pitted against a dark wizard, a Warden of the White Council, a vicious gang war, and the Chicago Police Department?
Why does it seem so easy when he does it?

2) Protagonist and Antagonist
Jim Butcher writes:
Simply put, a story is a narrative description of a character (the protagonist/hero) struggling to attain an important goal. In general, the protagonist is opposed by another character (the antagonist/villain).

The protagonist sets out to achieve his goal and faces problems and opposition to his intentions along the way. His risk of loss increases as the narrative proceeds, and casts an element of doubt over whether or not the protagonist will attain his goal. Then, in a final confrontation of some sort (the climax), the protagonist either succeeds or fails, based upon his own choices and actions.
Jim Butcher gave an interview not long ago in which he spoke about how to build a villain, so I'm going to let you follow that link and not talk a whole lot about the antagonist. Kristen Lamb also has an excellent post about this: Spice Up Your Fiction–Simple Ways to Create Page-Turning Conflict.

3) The Great Swampy Middle: Turning point
Jim Butcher writes:
Here's the nutshell concept: Plan a great big freaking event for the end of the middle. You want it to be a big dramatic confrontation of whatever kind is appropriate to your genre. The fallout from your big bad Big Middle event should be what boots the book down the homestretch to reach the story's climax. Really lay out the fireworks. Hit the reader with everything you can. PLAN THE BIG MIDDLE EVENT. Then, as you work through the middle, WORK TO BUILD UP TO IT. Drop in the little hints, establish the proper props and motivations and such. Make sure that everything you do in the middle of the book is helping you build up to the BIG MIDDLE.

(I've used the Big Middle concept in EVERY book I've ever published. It works. It ain't broke. It ain't the only way to do the middle, either, but it's one way.)
I love Jim Butcher's name for the often amorphous middle part: The great swampy middle.

4) Story Climax
Jim Butcher writes:
A story climax is, in structure terms the ANSWER to the STORY QUESTION that we talked about earlier.

There, see how tidy that is? Simple! Again, not EASY, but simple!

For example, the overall Story Question of Lord of the Rings:

When Frodo Baggins inherits the Ring of Power from his Uncle Bilbo, HE SETS OUT TO DESTROY IT before its evil can wreak havoc upon Middle Earth. BUT WILL HE SUCCEED when the Dark Lord Sauron and every scary evil thing on the planet set forth to take the ring and use it to turn the entire world into the bad parts of New Jersey?

And the story climax of the Lord of the Rings:


See? ANYBODY could have written Lord of the Rings!

.  .  .  .

Remember earlier, how we talked about ways to hook your readers and get them emotionally involved in the story? Well, if we've done that right, then when you reach story's end, they are INVESTED in its outcome. They want to SEE what happens, preferably as vividly as they possibly can. By the time you've reached the end of a story, a good writer has got their readers on the edge of their seats, at 3:30 in the morning, and the pages are tearing every time they turn because the reader is so excited.

You've made an implicit promise by getting your reader so bound up in the story. You've /got/ to deliver on it, or that reader is going to freaking /hate/ you for doing that to them. They are gonna go away from that ride all hot and bothered and frustrated as hell. That's what catharsis is: the release of all that tension and sympathetic emotion that the reader has built up because of the writer's skill at weaving the story. Done right, your readers will cheer and cry and laugh out loud and dance around their living room.

EVERYTHING YOU DID IN YOUR BOOK LEADS UP TO THIS. Deliver on the climax or die as a working writer. Simple as that.
Okay? Got it? Ready to write that story? Well then, what are you waiting for!

Oh, and if you want to read some of the best writing on writing--that just so happens to be free--head on over to Jim Butcher's livejournal. All the excerpts on this page are from

Monday, April 30

Writing: The Starburst Method, Part 8: The Rough Draft & Narrative Drive

In the final installment of the Starburst Writing Method we're going to take the scenes we created in the last two installments and use them to write our rough draft. We want to be true to the characterization and plot we have so lovingly developed over the past few weeks, while being careful to maintain and develop narrative drive.

So, first things first. Let's discuss narrative drive.

Narrative Drive
What is narrative drive? Larry Beinhard in How To Write A Mystery says it best:
Narrative Drive is what sells books: To agents, publishers, readers. We all know near-illiterate, insultingly dumb books that (a) have made the bestseller list to our incredulous envy; and (b) have had us reading them even as we say to ourselves, "My God, why I am reading this brain-damaged idiocy?"

What is narrative drive? The best way to discover narrative drive is to read material that you can't put down, but you don't know why. It should not have literary merit (whatever that is) or have real and fascinating characters or be informative about subjects that interest you.
I think of narrative drive as that indefinable something that grabs you by the throat and pulls you -- at times kicking and screaming -- through a book. For me Stephen King's Misery is a prime example of this. Please don't misunderstand, I think King is a fabulous writer and Misery was probably one of his best works. It's just that I hate the particular kind of psychological terror he portrayed in the book and yet I couldn't stop reading. It was the last horror story I read for a good long while.

Now we know what Narrative Drive is, let's move on to the important bit: How do we infuse our stories with that quasi-magical quality that will keep good folks up far past their bed-times?

I don't think there's any recipe for imparting narrative drive to ones story, but one of my writing instructors had this to say:
Begin and end each scene with a question that the reader will be compelled to answer and they will be hard pressed to put your book down.
 An Example
Here's the opening sentence of J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:
Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
For me that sentence raises the questions: Who is it that Mr and Mrs Dursley are comparing themselves to? Who is it that isn't normal and what is it about them that makes them this way?

Here's the last sentence of that same chapter:
He [Harry Potter] couldn't know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: 'To Harry Potter -- the boy who lived!' 
 I'm left wondering why people need to meet in secret, what happened to Harry Potter and why he is so important to so many people.

Not a bad way to start a book!

Wrapping Up
By now, if you've been following along, you should have a rough draft of a story and I find that's often the hardest part. The next hardest part is finishing the darn thing!

I think the real trick of being a professional writer is simply finishing what we start. We all feel at a certain point that what we're writing is complete drivel but the professional writer battles through the feeling, revises, rewrites and ends up with something they're proud of where the rest of us (and I'm too often in this camp!) become discouraged and  bury our effort in the bottom drawer of a desk drawer, or under our bed, where it will languish for the next few decades.

This series of articles on the Starburst Method has been a rough draft for a book I'm putting together. The book will include more material -- for instance, I'd like to have said something about pacing.

 The Starburst Method, Part 1: A one sentence summary
The Starburst Method, Part 2: Developing our one sentence summary
The Starburst Method, Part 3: Creating a five paragraph summary
The Starburst Method, Part 4: Developing characters
The Starburst Method, Part 5: Creating a five page summary
The Starburst Method, Part 6: Developing scenes
The Starburst Method, Part 7: The character grid
The Starburst Method, Part 8: The rough draft

Further Reading:
Writers Despair
Writers: Don't Despair

"Writing: The Starburst Method, Part 8: The Rough Draft & Narrative Drive" copyright© 2012 by Karen Woodward.