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

Monday, October 19

Writing: A Support System for Life

"... the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies ...", Stephen King

What is writing? Stephen King has a very simple answer: It’s the art and craft of telling stories on paper. But what is “the art and craft of telling stories on paper” and can it be learnt?

King believes that, if you’re a writer, then you can get better, but if you’re not a writer then, Sorry, it’s not gonna happen. 

King writes,

“I don’t believe writers can be made, either by circumstances or by self-will (although I did believe those things once). The equipment comes with the original package. Yet it is by no means unusual equipment; I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened. If I didn’t believe that, writing a book like this would be a waste of time.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

Personally, I believe that anyone with sufficient interest in writing can learn to get better. But, of course, not everyone is going to have sufficient interest. Stephen King, like Ray Bradbury, wrote millions of words before he was published. It takes perseverance. And those who don’t love writing probably won’t persevere. 

By the way, I'm going to talk quite a bit about Stephen King in this article because he has, more than any other writer, helped me write better. That's my goal: to be better today than I was yesterday. (I'm not saying I achieve that! But it's a goal.)

What is writing?

In order to talk about how to become a better writer one needs, I think, to say something about what writing is.

Is there any one thing that writing is? Perhaps. According to Stephen King, writing is telepathy. That is, it is the sharing of thoughts and ideas.

Perhaps, though, there is just what writing is for me, what writing is for you, what writing is for Stephen King, what writing is to Neil Gaiman, and so on.

I don’t see anything wrong with looking at writing like this, but I think that what writing is for any one particular writer is going to have something in common with all writers. What is that thing? 

Writing as manipulation.

I agree with King that writing is the sharing of thoughts and ideas with a reader, but I sometimes wonder if that goes far enough. We are communicating ideas to the reader, but with a desire to achieve a certain end. For example, when a writer creates a book of jokes, his intention is to make his readers laugh. When a writer pens a thriller, she wants her audience to be curious, apprehensive, frightened, and generally caught up in the suspense.

In this view, writing has to do with the manipulation of a reader's emotions. I hate to put it like that because I don’t want anyone to think of writing as Machiavellian. If one accurately communicates a certain idea or set of ideas, it is usually going to be the case that certain thoughts and emotions follow. For example, when Luke’s family's farm is burnt to the ground in Star Wars IV: A New Hope one can’t help but feel Luke’s horror as he sees his relatives’ smoking corpses.

Writing is different for each of us.

As I said, writing is a bit different for each of us. For me, ‘being a writer’ means turning my thoughts, ideas, emotions, wishes, peeves, hatreds, and loves into something shareable. For me, writing is sharing an experience with my reader.

King writes:

"Book-buyers aren’t attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages. This happens, I think, when readers recognize the people in a book, their behaviors, their surroundings, and their talk. When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story. I’d argue that it’s impossible to make this sort of connection in a premeditated way, gauging the market like a racetrack tout with a hot tip." (Stephen King, On Writing)

I really like what King says here. Yes, I can't help but be the kind of writer I am. 

In my everyday life certain things make me happy or sad, certain things make me angry, certain things make me laugh like a lunatic. I'm unique, and that this-ness is and should come out in my work. But, at the same time, that doesn't mean I can't improve my writing. Since writing is the communication of thoughts and ideas, there are better and worse ways of expressing them. And we, each of us, can get better.

So! That leads me to: 

Nine things you can do to become a better writer:


1. Read.

Stephen King believes that in order to write one must read.

“You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones. (Stephen King, On Writing)


2. Don’t write for anyone but yourself.

Just the other day I was talking to a writer about writing. I do that occasionally, and I always come away looking at the craft a bit differently. 

Sometimes it’s just the realization that not every writer thinks about writing the way I do. Some writers write with the desire to communicate certain thoughts, certain ideas, perhaps even certain emotions to their reader. Other writers write because they are telling themselves a story. If they like the story, good. If other people like the story … Well, great, but that’s not the point. The story will sell or it won’t. Selling is better than not selling but that doesn’t change what they write.

I guess, thinking about it now, I would say that the latter kind of writer -- one who writes what they like and their only concern is the story itself -- is more of an artist than I am. I chew my fingernails and pace the floor when my story is read by others. My first question is a breathless, “What did you think?” But, really, it would be much healthier to just write the story for myself, edit it for the world and then let it go. If readers take to it, great! If they don’t … Well, I should already be working on my next story.


3. Edit for the world.

There are two things here. First, write the first draft for yourself but write the second draft for the world. Second, the first draft will tell you what the story is and what it isn't. On your second draft, take away all those bits that don't belong. (Yes, this is where another bit of King's advice comes in: kill your darlings.) [1]

King writes:

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he [John Gould] said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

“Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it. If you’re very lucky (this is my idea, not John Gould’s, but I believe he would have subscribed to the notion), more will want to do the former than the latter.” (Stephen King, On Writing)


4. Backstory

“The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest. Long life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

Whenever I think about backstory I think of Aaron Sorkin’s advice:

“A song in a musical works best when a character has to sing—when words won’t do the trick anymore. The same idea applies to a long speech in a play or a movie or on television. You want to force the character out of a conversational pattern.” (Aaron Sorkin, from Aaron Sorkin On How To Write A Gripping Monologue)

You want to only give a reader background information when they want the information. The background information needs not only to be relevant, but you want the reader to be sitting on the edge of their seats eager to know the information.


5. Be brutally honest

“The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are things you get ashamed of, because words make them smaller. When they were in your head they were limitless; but when they come out they seem to be no bigger than normal things. But that's not all. The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried; they are clues that could guide your enemies to a prize they would love to steal. It's hard and painful for you to talk about these things ... and then people just look at you strangely. They haven't understood what you've said at all, or why you almost cried while you were saying it.” (Stephen King, The Body)

Writing isn’t easy. It requires bravery. I believe that the very best writing needs honesty the way humans need oxygen. That said, no uncomfortable admissions or confessions are required, just be honest about how things seem to you and try to say them clearly. That’s usually awkward enough.

And if that is accompanied by a bit of poetry, by a bit of style, so much the better.


6. Art is there to enhance our lives, not the other way around.

“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

I love this. The purpose of life isn't to create great art, the purpose of great art is to create a good life. Art enhances life, it helps us understand ourselves as well as others. If we're really lucky art helps us come to grips with this great nebulous thing that we sometimes gesture toward by mumbling about “the human condition.”


7. You will have critics. Ignore them.

“Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

“I have spent a good many years ...—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all. I’m not editorializing, just trying to give you the facts as I see them.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

Tell yourself a story, a story that is unique to you, and enjoy yourself. If no one else likes the story, that’s fine. It will happen. Start writing your next story.

Stephen King knows more than I ever will about writing but, for what it’s worth, I’ve found that my best stories were written quickly, in the heat of the moment. Yes, that initial draft was followed by a number of others, but the story itself, the first draft, was written quickly. And I think that’s key. Checking on a date, or the spelling of a name, etc., is important, but it can break the flow and let doubt in. And, who knows, whatever it is you wanted to research may be a detail that is nixed in the next draft.


8. You will fail. Shake it off and keep writing.


If you try your best to succeed at something, anything, one thing is inevitable: failure. The key to living a moderately happy life is not to let the failure paralyse you. Shug, learn what you can from the failure, and move on. If you send a story to a magazine and it isn't bought, if a book you publish sells only the one copy that you bought, accept that and move on.

"Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as “good” and other sorts as “bad,” is fearful behavior." (Stephen King, On Writing)

"What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like (or love, the way I loved those old ECs and black-and-white horror flicks) in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues. What’s equally wrong is the deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money. It’s morally wonky, for one thing— the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies, not to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck. Also, brothers and sisters, it doesn’t work.

"When I’m asked why I decided to write the sort of thing I do write, I always think the question is more revealing than any answer I could possibly give. Wrapped within it, like the chewy stuff in the center of a Tootsie Pop, is the assumption that the writer controls the material instead of the other way around. The writer who is serious and committed is incapable of sizing up story material the way an investor might size up various stock offerings, picking out the ones which seem likely to provide a good return. If it could indeed be done that way, every novel published would be a best-seller and the huge advances paid to a dozen or so “big-name writers” would not exist (publishers would like that)." (Stephen King, On Writing)

Don't measure your own success or failure by what other people do. Measure it by where you are today compared to where you used to be.

Above all, don't let fear of failure stop you from doing what you love.


9. The adverb is not your friend.

Stephen King makes no secret of it, he does not approve of adverbs. And for good reason! As he points out:

“Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is the voice of little boys wearing shoe polish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

“Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?” (Stephen King, On Writing)

I’ve thought about this a great deal over the years, more than is decent. And the more I ponder it, the more I agree. No matter how much you would like to be on congenial terms with all parts of speech the truth is clear: adverbs are traitors. It seems they’ll help you express yourself more clearly but they won’t. If I need an adverb to explain things to a reader then I haven’t done it right.

For example:

a) She looked at him, puzzledly. 

b) Squinting at him, she frowned.

I like to see things when I read. “The man walked down the street.” I see this, and in seeing it I understand it. If I squint at someone and frown, there’s something I’m trying to figure out. 

The first sentence, (a), tells us that someone is puzzled and asks us to do the imaginative work. What would happen if we took “puzzledly” away? We would have no idea that she (whoever she happens to be) is puzzled.

Now, I’m completely positive (and, yes, I did that on purpose!) that you will find my own work (as is King’s work) riddled with adverbs. The point is not to excise them from one’s speech, but to make sure they’re not doing the heavy lifting. (And, yes, definitely, this is a “do as I say, not as I do” moment. ;)


That's it!

Thank you for reading! If I have written something that encourages you to write, I will consider this time well spent. I hope you have a wonderful day, and I’ll talk to you again soon. 😀👋

My home on Twitter: @woodwardkaren


Notes:

1. Stephen King on killing one's darlings:

"... it’s all on the table, all up for grabs. Isn’t that an intoxicating thought? I think it is. Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, “Murder your darlings,” and he was right." (Stephen King, On Writing)

"Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)." (Stephen King, On Writing)

2. I thought this was a good article: 22 lessons from Stephen King on how to be a great writer, by Maggie Zhang.


Saturday, December 14

Deborah Chester: How to Structure a Scene

Deborah Chester: How to Structure a Scene


I’ve been reading Deborah Chester’s excellent book on Story Structure: The Fantasy Fiction Formula.

Have you ever read any of the books in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files series? Butcher’s books usually find their way to the number one position on the New York Times Bestsellers list. Well, Deborah Chester was Jim Butcher’s writing mentor. Butcher wrote the first book in his series, Storm Front, while he was taking a class from her, a book he also dedicated to her.

Butcher also wrote the forward for Chester’s book:

“So, aspiring writer, let me do you the favor I wish someone had done me. Let me tell you what you need to hear.

“Shut up and do what Debbie tells you to do.
….
“Who am I to tell you that?

“I’m the guy who took the principles of story structure which she taught me and built a career on them. As I type this, I have published twenty-four novels, the last five of them #1 New York Times bestsellers. …

“And to this day, I still occasionally refer to my notes, taken in her classroom at the University of Oklahoma …” (The Fantasy Fiction Formula, Deborah Chester; Foreword by Jim Butcher)

Also, as Jim Butcher mentioned elsewhere in his foreword, Deborah Chester has also published 40 novels of her own.

What are stories?


I write popular fiction so that’s the sort of story I’m talking about here. The overwhelming majority of popular novels have the kind of structure I’m going to talk about. Why? Because it works. People find books with this structure difficult to put down.

What’s the secret to writing an immersive story?


Stories are made up of Scenes and Sequels. In this post I’m going to concentrate on scenes, I’ll talk about sequels in another post. My apologies in advance for the point form of this post, but there’s SO MUCH information to communicate that I can’t spend very much time on any one point.

What are scenes?


Scenes are the basic units of fiction.

Deborah Chester writes, “If a scene’s going to succeed, it’s because it serves up a CLEAR GOAL, STRONG STAKES, and INTENSE CONFLICT.” [emphasis mine]

In a scene, the protagonist confronts the antagonist in disagreement over a specific, concrete, objective.

What is the function of a scene?


Scenes:

- Push a story forward.
- Reveal character.
- Raise the stakes.
- Intensify suspense.
- Produce consequences later in the story, consequences that are related to the story goal.

What are the elements of a scene?


There are three main parts to a scene:

a. Every scene begins with a goal.
b. Every scene has conflict.
c. Every scene ends in a resolution.

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

a. Every scene begins with a goal


In the beginning of every scene the reader needs to know three things:

i) The characters. Who is the protagonist? Who or what is the antagonist?
ii) The setting. Where is the scene taking place? Could the action taking place as easily take place in another setting? If so, perhaps make the setting more relevant to the scene goal.
iii) The mood. Does the mood match the genre? For example, the setting in a horror story doesn’t always have to be dark and spooky, but that would help it cultivate the right mood.

Scene Goal:


The scene goal provides a scene with direction and organization. If you’re not sure what the scene goal is, ask yourself: What is your protagonist trying to do?

EVERYTHING in a scene revolves around the scene goal. Deborah Chester writes: “If a scene doesn’t change the protagonist’s situation, however slightly, or if it has no impact on later story development, cut it.”

A scene doesn’t start until the protagonist either THINKS, STATES or ACTS on a scene goal.

The scene goal needs to be both specific and attainable now.

Stakes:


- For each scene, ask yourself what is at stake?
- Stakes connect to your protagonist and antagonist's motivations.
- The stakes/conflict determine HOW LONG a scene will run.

b. Every scene has conflict.


The conflict is between the protagonist and antagonist.

(a.) Every scene has a protagonist.
(b.) Every scene has an antagonist and the antagonist is usually a person.
(c.) Every protagonist has a clear, concrete, goal for that scene. This goal is distinct from the story goal.
(d.) The protagonist’s scene goal must clearly relate to the story goal.

Kinds of Scene Conflict:


Deborah Chester writes, “There can be no progression of events unless the protagonist hits opposition. The stronger the opposition, the better the story.”

Conflict can be either internal or external.
- Internal conflict comes from either two desires clashing (for instance, a desire to eat chocolate and a desire to lose weight) or from a desire being affected by an event in the external world (for instance, a desire to eat chocolate and aliens coming to Earth and gobbling up every single last piece of chocolate).
- External conflict comes from a clash between two visible, external, events. For instance, if one character says to the other, “Give me all your money” and the other character says, “No!” then we’ve got external conflict. The conflict in a SCENE must be external. (The conflict in a SEQUEL can be internal.)

What conflict must do in a story:


- Conflict must advance the story.
- Conflict creates CHANGE in the protagonist’s situation.
- Conflict raises the stakes.
- Conflict makes the story outcome less certain.
- Conflict heightens suspense. We want readers to worry about how things will turn out for the protagonist.

Deborah Chester notes that there are two kinds of conflict in scenes: SCENE CONFLICT (which I’ve written about, above) and ADVERSITY. While scene conflict is about “two characters in opposition over a clear, specific goal,” adversity is random bad luck. There is a place for random bad luck in a story -- for instance, it can play a role in the protagonist getting into trouble during the beginning -- but only a very small role. The overwhelming majority of the time the conflict is scene conflict.

Conflict types:


Here are the various types of conflict you'll see in a story: Combat, Verbal disagreement, Interrogation, Evasion and Bickering. Deborah Chester goes into each of these in her book, but I will just mention something about bickering: don't let your primary characters bicker. This is fine for secondary characters -- it can help the reader get a peek into their respective characters -- but primary characters need more robust sorts of conflict to act as a crucible.

c. Scene endings: every scene ends in a resolution.


I've gone into this above, but there are certain things that can't be emphasized enough:

- A scene must end in such a way that things are WORSE for the protagonist.
- Solutions are eliminated, options are taken away. At the end of the story the protagonist has no choice but to face the villain in the story’s climax.
- The protagonist’s trouble is increased.
- The stakes are raised.

Note: There should be no narration in a scene!

Deborah Chester writes, “... scenes should end in complete or partial failure for the protagonist.” “You want your readers surprised, astonished, shocked, perhaps even crying.”

Setbacks


Here are some reasons why the protagonist might suffer a loss, a setback:

- The protagonist is outgunned by the antagonist.
- The protagonist is outsmarted by the antagonist.
- The protagonist is outmaneuvered by the antagonist.

Further, the setback the protagonist suffers must be partly because of something about him or her. For example, in The Princess Bride Inigo Montoya loses a fight because he has less experience and skill than the six fingered man. The six fingered man then goes on to murder Inigo's father and steal a sword. In no way is his father's death Inigo's fault -- we do not expect an untrained child to win a dual with the best swordsman in the land.

The pattern of a setback: the possibilities (yes; no; yes but; no and furthermore)


Every scene has a goal. For example, Jane wants to find a way out of the dungeon the villain has trapped her in. That’s the scene goal. Since that’s the goal, the scene question would be: Will Jane find a way out of the dungeon the villain has trapped her in?

(I've written more about this here: Parts of Story: Try-Fail Cycles)

There are four possible try-fail cycles:

i) Yes, Jane will find a way out of the dungeon. (Success)

ii) No, Jane will not find a way out of the dungeon. (Failure)

iii) Yes, Jane will find a way out of the dungeon BUT as she walks toward the human sized crack in the wall she finds herself surrounded by skeletons shrouded in cobwebs.

iv) No, Jane will not find a way out of the dungeon AND FURTHERMORE the air begins to run out and she starts to suffocate.

Cashing out Try-Fail Cycles


The first possibility (Yes) usually doesn’t happen until the last scene … and sometimes not even then! I say usually because you may write one or more scenes from the point of view of the antagonist, in which case he will win the contest between him and the protagonist.

The second possibility (No) also doesn’t occur very often. The protagonist needs to progress, needs to change. Staying the same is boring, and if the protagonist fails to attain her goal, she’s right back where she began.

The third possibility (Yes, but) is the most common outcome. The protagonist will achieve the scene goal (and so she gets stronger, better, she grows as a person), but something will go wrong, something that plunges her into even more danger.

The fourth and last possibility (No, and furthermore) isn’t used often and is best left for major turning points. This scene ending is a disaster for the protagonist.

BTW, there is a fifth version I’ve heard of: No, BUT … Here the protagonist fails to achieve the scene goal but she manages to do something to get her a bit closer to what she wants. For example, Jane will not find a way out of the dungeon BUT she fill find a candle and some matches.

The Sequel: When the scene is over, the protagonist ...


When the scene is over we often have a sequel, but I'm not going to talk about that here,  I'll eventually do another post on it. But, briefly, in a sequel we'll see the protagonist recover, dust himself off, pick up the pieces of his thwarted attempt to do something.

The protagonist will respond emotionally -- we'll see that he's angry. We'll see him vow to do whatever it takes to never let anything like that happen again. Given all this it will seem reasonable for the protagonist to take greater risks to achieve his goal in the next scene.

Protagonist and Antagonist


The scene’s antagonist needs to work in DIRECT OPPOSITION to the scene’s protagonist.

The antagonist doesn’t have to be the story villain, the Big Bad. Of course, it could be! But it might also be a friend, or ally or even the protagonist’s sidekick. For example, the two could disagree on how to achieve a common goal.

In Lord of the Rings Sam and Frodo fought over whether Golem could be trusted. Ask yourself:

- Why does the scene goal matter to the protagonist?
- Why does the scene goal matter to the antagonist?

Explaining the logic of a scene


Allow the protagonist to encounter serious, continually escalating trouble. This ensures that your protagonist is miserable most of the time (I talk about why this is important, below).

Use action/reaction units. Unless you’ve read Bickham or Swain this likely won’t make any sense to you. No worries, I talk more about it, below.

1. Keep your protagonist miserable by continually escalating/intensifying the trouble they get into.


DC writes that you do NOT want your protagonist to be successful or happy. You need them to be:

- Worried
- Stressed
- Suffering

Change is difficult. We don’t want to change. That means we need to force the protagonist (and perhaps her allies) to do things they normally wouldn’t. We need to force them to do things that will make them uncomfortable, that will even terrify them. Why? This is the only way humans can change: by doing what is difficult, by entering the forest where it is darkest, we get stronger (if we survive!)

Think of a blacksmith. Pure iron is stronger than impure iron. How does one get rid of the impurities? They are burned away in a crucible. The hottest fire yields the purest/best product. What is true for iron is also true for our characters, we must put them in a crucible to get rid of their weaknesses, to force them to change and grow.

As Deborah Chester says, “Your protagonist needs to run full-tilt into terrible trouble, fight her way through, and hit worse trouble, fight her way through, and hit worse trouble." And so on.

The protagonist must take risks the other characters won’t. She must stand and face problems to help her friends, or anyone she cares about.

2. The hero must fail.


Before the very end, the villain, the bad guy, will continually outmaneuver the protagonist.

DC writes, “Whatever matters most in the world to her [the protagonist] should be endangered so much that she can’t sit passively, crying and doing nothing. She must take action. She must become -- by stages, and through failures, and as a result of confrontations -- a hero.”

3. Use Action/Reaction Units (A/R Units)


A/R units are all about cause and effect. They have to do with an action and its immediate reaction.

There are two types of units: SIMPLE and COMPLICATED.

3a. Simple A/R unit.


What makes the simple A/R unit simple is that it includes, basically, one sentence (or one clause) that is an external, visible, action. This action is followed immediately by a reaction.

There must not be a gap or interruption between an action and its reaction.

For example: The girl threw a snowball at Mark. Mark ducked.

I’m not saying that's an eloquent example! But you get the idea.

3b. Complicated A/R units.


In a complicated A/R unit at least one of the characters involved in a complex scene won’t be fair or honest. There are two things here:

i) There is what the protagonist and antagonist are saying and doing, their dialogue and actions. (External)
ii) What the protagonist -- the viewpoint character -- is actually thinking and feeling. (Internal)

In other words, there needs to be tension between what the viewpoint character is saying versus what she’s feeling inside.

Here is an example Deborah Chester gave:

"Hello," Michael said.
Screeching, the pixie flew at Michael's face, trying to jab his eye with what looked like a sewing needle.
What the hell? Baffled by the tiny creature's rage, Michael swatted it away. "What's wrong with you?" he shouted.

Chester goes on to say that, "Michael's puzzlement about the pixie's behavior will mirror reader confusion." That's important because if the reader is confused but the character isn't then there's a problem with the writing.

That's it!

What I'm reading:


Last night I stayed up way past my bedtime because I had to finish Orphan X by Gregg Hurwitz. I thought about starting the next book in the Orphan X series, The Nowhere Man -- I know I'd love it -- but variety is good. I'm going to start either Lee Child's thriller, Blue Moon, or Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch which is the first book in his Rivers of London series.

What are you reading, I'd love to know! 😀

If you would like to support my blog ...


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

Today (no surprise!) I’m wholeheartedly recommending The Fantasy Fiction Formula, by Deborah Chester.

Wednesday, November 27

Free Indirect Discourse: Its Advantages

Free Indirect Discourse: Its Advantages


When I began writing, I wrote from the first person perspective. Lately, though, I’ve been experimenting with free indirect discourse.

What's so great about free indirect discourse? I hear you ask. Well, with free indirect discourse, the narrator can float between the third person and the first person.

Because you're writing in third person, your narrator can be in any scene, but because you're using free indirect discourse your narrator can plunge into the viewpoint character’s consciousness.

If you're a bit dubious, please let me try to unpack what I just said! 😀 (BTW, if you want to read more about this topic, I've put links to a few articles on the subject at the end of this post.)

The Benefits of Free Indirect Discourse


Here are a few examples:

Direct discourse:


Alice sensed something fly by her cheek. Heart pounding, she thought, “That bullet came altogether too close!”

Indirect discourse: 


Alice sensed something fly by her cheek. Heart pounding, she thought that the bullet had come too close.

Free indirect discourse: 


Alice sensed something fly by her cheek. Her heart pounded. The bullet had come too close.

As you can see, free indirect discourse draws only a hazy distinction between the character’s thoughts and the narrator’s voice. Perhaps you feel differently (and, if so, I’d love to hear from you!), but I feel that the free indirect discourse version of the sentence is more immediate.

I think that free indirect discourse is the key to good writing. Here's why:

Intimacy 


One of the reasons why Stephen King, one of the most successful writers of all time, is so successful is that he is able to create an intense sense of intimacy, and, as a result, gets his readers to bond with the characters.

How is intimacy created? 


Of course, free indirect discourse isn’t going to be enough to write a great story, but it is a very powerful tool to have in your writer’s toolkit. (By the way, if you’ve never read Stephen King’s wonderful book On Writing, please do! If I could have just one writing book as a reference, I would choose that one.)

Anyway, back to intimacy.

As I’ve said, free indirect discourse creates intimacy because it allows the reader to dip into (and out of) a character’s consciousness like the first person does, but it doesn’t restrict the narrator. Let me try to unpack that.

Access to a character’s thoughts 


I know I’ve given this example before, but here is my favorite example of free indirect discourse. It is from The Shining:

“Jack Torrance thought: Officious little #$@^&.” [2]

Instantly we know three things:

a. Jack is an angry person 


We have a pretty good idea what Jack Torrance is like: he is prone to anger. Of course, we can’t know that for certain from just the one line, but as we continue to read we discover anger is one of Jack Torrance’s core characteristics and that it drives his alcoholism. In turn, Jack’s alcoholism is a large part of what makes him vulnerable to the malign spirits within the Overlook.

And, thanks to free indirect discourse, this is all set up in the first, very short, sentence! I truly believe this is a big reason for the popularity of The Shining (as a book). The first line grabs the reader's attention from the very first line and sets up the major themes early.

b. Jack hates the person he is talking to. 


The first line also tells us that, whoever Jack is talking to, he hates them. The next two paragraphs unpack this. IMHO the following two paragraphs are writing at its best.

“Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.

“As he listened to Ullman speak, Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk-under the circumstances.” [2]

c. Jack realizes he is being unfair.


In the second paragraph, we find out that Jack isn’t being fair to Ullman. We also find out that Jack is self-aware enough to admit this to himself.

Jim Butcher: Comparing the first person perspective to the third 


Here’s what Jim Butcher, New York Times Bestselling author of the Dresden Files has written about the first person perspective in his livejournal blog:

“First person offers the novice writer an intuitive advantage in writing a strong, emotional central character. It creates a few problems for your plot, but nothing that can't be gotten around. It's best suited to a story focused upon a single central character, and as such is most often found in mysteries and thrillers, with occasional appearances in fantasy/sf.

“Third person is far more flexible and offers you a wider range of options, dramatically speaking, but it's also considerably more difficult to learn to handle well--but if you learn to do it, you can really go to town, creatively speaking. Third person is found in every genre, but is particularly prominent in romance, on account of most of the romances like to present the story from the perspective of the two principal characters at the very least.” [1]

Disadvantages of the third person perspective 


While it is true that in the third person it is possible to convey the thoughts, emotions and opinions of a character, the first person is more intimate because we have access to the character’s actual thoughts.

There is a big difference between:

“Jack Torrance thought: Officious little #$@^&.” [2]

and

“The man sitting in front of Jack Torrance was officious.”

Disadvantages of the first person perspective 


The first person perspective is restrictive. You are confined to your protagonist’s mind. That means your protagonist has to be in every scene. I have read books which introduce two or more characters who are written from the first person perspective, this can be confusing for the reader.

But! Good news! There’s a solution to this problem. Yep, you guessed it: free indirect discourse.

Free indirect discourse is flexible 


I used to write everything in the first person, in part because of the (excellent!) advice Jim Butcher gives about this[1], but now I use the third person and free indirect discourse.

With free indirect discourse you have the benefits of the third person without the drawbacks. For example, you can have a viewpoint character other than the protagonist. That’s a huge advantage!

Of course, there are workarounds for authors who write in the first person. For example, In the past I’ve had to change the plot so my protagonist could be in a particular scene. Some Science Fiction and Fantasy authors have given their protagonist special powers so they can send their consciousness elsewhere. In this way they are able to observe what is happening in a space the viewpoint character doesn’t occupy.

For example, the viewpoint character could be locked in a wizard's high tower, but she has the power to concentrate and send her consciousness downstairs to spy on the wizard. She can see who he talks with and overhear their conversations.

That’s it! I hope you try out free indirect discourse. Perhaps write some microfiction. If you do, please share!

Support the Blog


Thanks for reading! Each blog post takes me a few hours to complete. If you like this content, please consider making a small contribution. Ways to support the blog:
Thanks!


Notes: 


1. Jim Butcher, his Livejournal
2. Stephen King, The Shining

Helpful Articles:


  • Narration -- Everything you never wanted to know about first, second and third person!
  • Free indirect speech -- I haven't covered everything about free indirect discourse/speech. If you want to read more, this is a good starting point.
  • The Benefits of Free Indirect Discourse -- "Free Indirect Discourse is essentially the practice of embedding a character’s speech or thoughts into an otherwise third-person narrative." If you're interested in the topic, I can't recommend this article highly enough.

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


Saturday, November 2

Truth in Fiction: The Importance of Honesty

Truth in Fiction: The Importance of Honesty


Today I want to explore the importance of honesty in writing. First, though, let's look at dishonesty and its effects. That's right! We're going to talk about politicians.

An Example of the Importance of Truth-Telling: Politics


I’m a politics nerd and, over the years, have watched many politicians evade reporters’ questions. To a certain extent, this mild dishonesty goes with the territory. You’ve probably heard the old joke:

Question: How do you know if a politician is lying?
Answer: Are their lips moving?

But, occasionally, a politician's evasiveness, their disingenuousness, goes over the top and voters lose faith. Let me give you a couple of examples of the kind of evasiveness I mean. (In a moment I'll talk about how dialing up a character's honesty or dishonesty can influence how readers feel about them.)

Example 1 out of 2


I’m not going to mention the politician’s name because that’s not important. Let’s call him Joe.

Joe was asked an obnoxious question. I’m paraphrasing here, but he was asked if he had been inappropriate with any of the young people who had been in his charge before he entered public life.

There is absolutely no reason to think this was the case, so it was a cheeky question, an offensive question, and the way Joe answered made it clear he was hostile to the questioner. And, absolutely, it would be difficult NOT to be hostile to someone who implied that you were using your position to exploit the children who were in your care.

That said, I found myself not liking Joe as much. The fascinating thing, to me, was that even though I believed Joe and thought the reporter's question was obnoxious, the reporter somehow came out looking better than Joe. After all, just as politicians are often less than candid, reporters ask insulting questions, it's part of their job.

The Takeaway: Applying this to Writing


Even though I one hundred percent believe Joe answered the reporter’s question honestly, the WAY he answered it made him seem dishonest.

Why was this?

Here’s what I think. Putting this in terms of Story the reporter was the protagonist of that particular scene.

As you know, the protagonist is the person who the reader or viewer identifies with, So the question is: Why did I view the reporter as the protagonist? What made me do that?

I think it was because the reporter was the most active one in the exchange between the two men. Also, I viewed the reporter as having a clear goal; namely, to 'encourage' the politician to be candid, to say what he really thought, so that his fellow citizens could figure out who to vote for.

After all, if I don't know what a person thinks, what goals they have, what ideals we share, then I don't really know THEM, the person. All I know is their mask, the persona they have crafted.

Example 2 out of 2


The same anonymous politician, Joe, was asked another question, one much less obnoxious than the first.

Joe was asked whether he had tried to set right a particular wrong, one he had admitted to committing. Joe didn't answer the question, instead he made a completely unrelated political statement.

Joe’s response made him seem dishonest. Why? Because I thought he COULD HAVE answered the question without any major political fallout. He could have said, “No, because …” and given his reasons for not doing it. Or he could have said, “Yes, I thought it was important for me to do that because …”

Joe probably would have gotten some flack either way, but I think he suffered MORE for not being open and honest.

The Takeaway: Applying this to Writing


If you want readers to be drawn to your character, to think he or she is the kind of person the reader could respect and be friends with, keep these two things in mind:

a. Have the character tell the truth.

b. Have the character tell the truth in an extremely difficult situation.

(b) is the key. Anyone can tell the truth if there are no consequences for doing so. But if, at least in your character’s mind, there could be a terrible price to pay, then it really means something when they refuse to lie.

Conversely, if you want another character -- perhaps your antagonist -- to look shady, untrustworthy, then have him or her tell the truth in easy situations but lie when the stakes go up.

The Truth in Fiction


Stephen King, in On Writing, tells us that even in fiction, there is a core of truth.

Sure, the town you're writing about doesn’t exist. Sure, the characters are imaginary but, at the story’s core, is a truth.

For instance, in Stephen King’s IT, I would say that the core truth is that we -- humans -- are stronger together. We can best the human bullies as well as the monsters that lurk in the darkness. We need to be our authentic self, we need to trust each other and work together. We need to accept each other in all our weird wacky messiness and cooperate to accomplish a goal.

If we do all that we MAY succeed ... occasionally.

Be Honest


This is the most important thing and, really, what this post is all about. Remember: No one is going to see your Zero Draft (I sometimes call this the vomit draft[link]).

Honesty is difficult because it makes us uncomfortable, it exposes who we are and so opens us up to the possibility of rejection. That fear of rejection causes anxiety.

If I tell my friend that she does something that irritates me (for example, showing up late) my friend may become angry and end our relationship. Despite the risks I think that telling the truth in real life is worth it.

But you might think: Karen, you're talking about fiction here, isn't it different?

I think the same principle applies. I think that telling the truth in fiction AS YOU SEE IT is absolutely essential.

Why is this? Here's my explanation: Truthfulness meshes with the world in a way that its opposite does not. If I am honest about what makes me happy, sad, angry, frustrated, and so on, then -- because we are all much like each other -- my readers can relate to these experiences. This is what Stephen King refers to as the truth within the lie.

I'd be interested what you think about this. Do you agree? Disagree?

NaNoWriMo


If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, good luck!

How many words have you written so far? I have 14 pages of (longhand) notes where I wrote ... how can I describe it? Word jazz. I brainstormed arcs, main characters, how the arcs intersect, and so on.

Today I need to sit down and write about 5,000 words. I'll check back in with you in my next post.

Thanks for reading, and good writing!

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

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

Monday, September 30

How To Write a Good Blog Post

How To Write a Good Blog Post


I'm trying something new. I've released a YouTube video today. What follows is more or less the script for it.

My Story


My Dad was a wonderful storyteller, and I was in awe of him. I wanted to tell stories the way he did but I couldn’t tell an entertaining story to save my life so, to get better, I read a lot about writing.

I’ve improved. I’m not sure I’ve ever told a story as well as my father, but I’ve gotten better over the years.

When I was in school, one of my teachers told me that to truly learn something I had to teach it. About a decade ago, I began a blog about writing. And, as you would expect, over the years I’ve learned a few things about writing. I’ve certainly written a lot!

I started a video blog because the things I’ve learnt have made my life better, and I would like to share them in another medium.

So, for better or worse, here is one of my more popular blog posts, one I wrote a few years ago about how to write a blog post! Actually, though, this advice applies to any writing that isn’t fiction.

As you read this, please keep in mind that what works for me may not work for you, so take what seems right to you and discard the rest.

Here it is.

The Essential Structure of a Blog Post:


1. Tell the reader what you are going to say.
2. Say it.
3. Tell the reader what you said.

That’s it!

It sounds too simple, doesn’t it? But it helps create prose that readers find easy to read and understand.

Before we get into that, let’s talk about the title:

The Title


Titles are important, especially for a blog post. The title is the first thing your reader sees. If the title doesn’t grab them, they won’t continue reading.

Make sure the title accurately represents your article. After a reader finishes your article, you don’t want them to feel deceived. Chances are they came across your article because they were looking for a particular kind of information. If, at the end, they don’t have the information they wanted they will feel deceived. Tricked. In that case they will not leave a comment and they will not share your article with their friends.

Perhaps this is just me, but I find that if I can’t create a clear, succinct title then I haven’t thought through what the essential idea of the blog post is. There should one one idea that sums up what I’ve written.

(BTW, don’t worry if you don’t have a title before you start writing. Sometimes what the article is about will come to you as you write your rough draft. But be careful. For myself, if I can’t come up with a title, then that tells me my ideas are jumbled. And that’s bad.)

So let’s break this down:

1. Tell the reader what you are going to say.


1a. Include a hook in your first paragraph.


When I write things like this, I hurry to look at my first paragraph to see if there is a hook. Perhaps this is a case of do what I say and not as I do!

Hooks are good. In both fiction and nonfiction.

BTW, if you’re not familiar with the concept of a hook, it is basically the idea that you need an idea, a thought, that will capture a reader's interest quickly. The example I usually give is of any James Bond movie ever made.

Or, here is the opening line of Stephen King’s novel, IT:

“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.”

Who wouldn’t be curious after reading a line like that? When I read that sentence I wanted to know more about the terror and why it might not end. (BTW, IT is one of my favorite stories.)

2. Say what you have to say.


As a practical matter, I find this the easiest part.

You know what you want to say. Say it.

I find it often helps to break my ideas up into the simplest possible points.

In my original blog article I give the example of writing about why a writer would want to podcast.

For example:

a. You can introduce your work to more people
b. You can introduce your work to people with different kinds of interests, to a different audience.
c. Variety is good. Doing one kind of thing to earn money is fine, but two is better. Why? Because it makes you more financially stable. Financial stability for a freelancer is a very good thing. It lowers anxiety levels.

These points are bare bones. In the article I would expand each one, but this wouldn’t be terribly difficult. I could give examples from my own experience, I could give examples from the experiences of other writers (obviously, cite them), I could talk about advice other podcasters have given. There are MANY options.

By the way, don’t be shy about using another writer’s work as long as you cite and link to it. It helps drive traffic to their blog post. A number of people have done this with my blog posts and I’m thrilled as as long as they cite me and provide a link.

3. Summarize what you’ve said.


When it comes to summarizing what I’ve said, sometimes it seems artificial. I’ve said what I was going to say and then I’ve said it. Why should I summarize what I’ve already said?

My advice is to use your own judgement. Keep in mind, you don’t have to summarize EVERYTHING you’ve just said. Perhaps close with what you think is your strongest point, especially if the post is short.

4. Be Honest.


This is actually the most important thing.

I think for everyone it might be different, but -- especially in the beginning -- I imagined I was sitting at a sunny corner table, having coffee with a writer (my audience) at my favorite coffee shop. Then I just, honestly, told her/him what my research or experience made me think about a particular topic.

And try to be brief. (I’m not sure I’ve ever succeeded in that.)

It’s great to have a blog post that is one or two thousand words long, but you don’t want a blog post one word longer than it absolutely has to be. And that’s a dark art, and we all fail at it, but it is a worthy goal.

That's it for today! Good writing and I'll talk to you again soon.