Showing posts with label jim butcher. Show all posts
Showing posts with label jim butcher. Show all posts

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.

Monday, August 11

The Structure of a Short Story: The New Plan

The Structure of a Short Story: The New Plan



So far our story has set a fairly quick pace. We’ve introduced the setting and the protagonist. We’ve introduced the protagonist’s allies and enemies. We know what the protagonist’s goal is as well as the obstacles to her achieving it. We have seen the protagonist devise a plan to make her goal a reality, act on it and fail miserably. Now it’s time to react to this failure, come up with a new plan and put it into motion.

Sequels


Now the pace is going to slow. The protagonist needs time to react to all that has happened. She needs to sit down, take a breath, regroup and reflect. 

Show the protagonist’s reactions to this loss, show her emotions--or lack of them. What happened? What didn’t go according to plan? Why? Going forward, what are the options? What are the outcomes/stakes for each option? 

Each of the protagonist’s allies might argue for a different course of action but, ultimately, the protagonist must choose between them or, even better, put forward a plan of her own, one that is bolder, more daring, than all the others.

In other words, now’s the time for a sequel. (BTW, for more about scenes and sequels see: Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts & Jim Butcher on Scenes and Sequels.)

Scenes Like a Funhouse Mirror


Short stories often reflect the macrocosm as though in a warped funhouse mirror, speeding through certain parts--or only implying them--to dwell on others. (I think I picked the metaphor of a funhouse mirror because I’m reading Stephen King’s “Joyland.” Wonderful story.)

In my previous posts in this series I mentioned that short stories are different from novels but that they have the same important bits. And that’s true, but sometimes these important bits occur offstage: either before the story began or in the time after it ends.

For example, one of my favorite stories, Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” is (or so I would argue) basically a sequel. There are two courses of action being discussed and the girl, the protagonist, must choose between them. 

I think that, often, literary short stories are sequels. The protagonist reacts to an event that occurred before the story began and the reader tries to figure out what the event was, as well as its significance, from how it affects the characters.

A note about the structure of a short story and how it often differs from that of a longer work


The crisis of the last section (First Complication) occurred more or less at the Midpoint of our short story, though if we were writing a novel this would occur earlier at around the 30% mark. 

 Note that the Midpoint isn’t a point, it’s a sequence that consists of several short fast-paced scenes, each scene running into the next with little pause for reflection. In each scene the protagonist tries to achieve her goal (the story goal) and in each something happens to deflect her. (see: Try-Fail Cycles)

In this sense, a short story is condensed. Where in a novel there would be ample time between the failure of the protagonist’s first attempt and her gearing up for her main assault, this span of time is telescoped in a short story. The protagonist of a short story has to adjust to the conditions of the special world, make friends and allies--as well as enemies--in a few short paragraphs rather than chapters.

Formulate a New plan


What follows are some of the stages/events that often occur after the protagonist’s first big failure. 

This list is not meant to be in any way canonical--when it comes to stories there’s no such thing--but thinking about these points has often helped me figure out why a certain part of my story isn’t working as well as I’d like.

 a. Emotion


At the beginning of the sequel, show the protagonist’s emotions. Show her emotional reaction to the failure at the end of the previous scene. Is she sad? Angry? 

b. Thought/Review


The protagonist reviews the situation and focuses on one or two aspects of the attempt as significant. These are the aspects the writer wishes the reader to dwell upon. This is where much of the protagonist’s character development will occur. 

For example, who does the protagonist blame? Herself? Her friends? The antagonist? I've found that heroic protagonists tend to blame themselves. Especially if one of their companions is injured in her attempt to achieve her goal. 

c. Anticipation/Reason


Show the protagonist anticipating what is to come. What can she do now? Have the protagonist--or her allies--think of two or three ways of achieving her goal. For each goal reveal what the outcome would be; what the new stakes would be.

d. Decision


Have the protagonist decide on a new path of action. The important bit here is that the writer clearly communicates to the reader why the protagonist picked one course of action over another. 

For example, continuing my example from last time, let’s say the protagonist’s goal is to stop her grandmother’s house from being repossessed by the bank. Let's say that our protagonist comes up with these three options:

i. Go to the mob and borrow the money. 

ii. Plunder the trust fund her father set up for her so she could go to college and become a doctor.

iii. Beg her cousin to let grams live with her. (The protagonist absolutely hates her cousin and the feeling is mutual.)

If the protagonist chooses (iii) then it shows the reader that she is willing to swallow her pride. That would tell us a lot about the protagonist's character. We would see that she would rather do something she absolutely hated rather than let someone she loved come to harm. 

If the protagonist doesn’t choose option (iii) that also tells us something about her. For example, if she chooses (ii) then she will achieve her goal--her grams house will be saved--but she will have sacrificed both her dream and her father’s dream to make it happen.

The question is: How much does the protagonist’s pride mean to her? Is she willing to give up her dream to save her pride?Her decision will tell us a lot about her. This, right here, is the nuts and bolts of character development. 

e. Action


Show the protagonist begin to act on her new plan. For example, let’s say that the protagonist has chosen to save her grans house by plundering the trust fund her father set up for her. At the end of the sequel we could show her getting in her car and leaving for the bank.

Next time we’ll look at the Major Setback and talk more about how the second half of a story differs from the first. Cheers!

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

Saturday, June 28

Jim Butcher On How To Write A Suspenseful Story Climax

Jim Butcher On How To Write A Suspenseful Story Climax


Someone once said to me: The first few pages of a novel sell that novel, the ending of the novel sells the next novel.

I believe that.

Endings are important. If I like a book but hate the ending I probably won't read another book by the same author. 

How does one create an exciting, satisfying, ending?


Yesterday, as I worked on the ending for my WIP, I wondered: Is this any good? Is it interesting? Exciting? How can I tell? What makes an ending good? Bad? Indifferent?

So I did what I usually do at times like those, I went to my digital library (also known as the internet) and re-read Jim Butcher's essay, Story Climax. It's an informative, easy, read. And it's funny. (Sometimes I think humour is like the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.)

Jim Butcher is a funny, brilliant and wildly successful author--a #1 New York Times bestseller--so I'm going to try and dip into his well of wisdom and talk about a few of his thoughts about what goes into creating an exciting, couldn't-stop-reading-if-you-wanted, ending.

What do readers want?


I think that the key to success in writing is to figure out what your readers want and give it to them. So, what do readers want? 

The ending should be vivid.

Jim Butcher writes that if you've gotten your readers emotionally invested in the story 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."

The ending should be satisfying.

Jim Butcher writes:

"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."

We can see that a lot is riding on writing a vivid, satisfying, exciting, climax. This just intensifies my need for an answer to the question: How does one go about doing that?!

1. A specific, concrete, event should mark the start of the climax.

It's all about dominos. 

About two-thirds of the way through a story, right after the great swampy middle, there's an event that is akin to the first domino dropping, an event that sets in motion a cascade of rising action that sweeps the reader inexorably on toward the conclusion of the story.

2. The conclusion, the climax, of a story has six parts.


Jim Butcher writes:

"The actual climax itself, the absolutely peak of it, though, is what I generally refer to as the Showdown or the Throwdown or the Beatdown, depending on my mood and testosterone levels at the moment. The most dramatic point is the actual confrontation between your protagonist and antagonist, where they are directly contending with one another, and where both of them know that the story question is about to be answered.

"For THAT confrontation, there several structural components that you can use to organize it that will be really helpful, much like the components used in a Sequel [...]."

These are:

a. Isolation
b. Confrontation
c. Dark moment
d. Choice
e. Dramatic reversal
f. Resolution

Let's go over each of these in turn.

a. Isolation


At the end, the hero should meet the villain by himself without backup. Jim Butcher writes:

"At the end of the day, your protagonist stands alone. That's why that character is the protagonist. Oh sure, there can be other people around, but the one who really COUNTS is your protagonist. The more alone he is, the higher the tension levels are going to be, and the more satisfying the climax is going to be for the reader."

b. Confrontation


Your hero, your protagonist, should bring the fight to the antagonist. He or she confronts the Big Bad, the Nemesis. Butcher uses Inigo Montoya as an example: 

"Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

Best. Scene. Ever!

c. Dark moment


As Butcher writes, the confrontation between hero and villain "Does Not Go Well." The hero finds out he's completely outclassed and, moreover, that what he thought was the worst possible outcome wasn't. The cost of losing is actually much, much, worse.

Jim Butcher doesn't use this name, but this beat has also been called "All hope is lost." He writes:

"In the recent Narnia movie, that moment was at the death of Aslan. The Great Lion is gone, the White Witch has made fashion accessories out of his mane, the bad,guys have them outnumbered and outgunned, and there's just no way to win the fight that's coming the next day--but the folk of Narnia need Peter to lead them."

d. Choice


Here's where Jim Butcher's books really shine (IMHO). It's all about choice. He writes:

"Your protagonist has to CHOOSE whether or not to stay true to his purpose or to let himself be swayed by fear, by temptation, by weariness, or by anything else. In that Dark Moment, he has to make the call that ultimately reveals who your protagonist really is, deep down. And the choice has GOT to be a BAD one. If it's an easy choice, there isn't any drama to it--no tension, no release for the reader."

The first time I read that I was thrown. Bad choice? What did Jim Butcher mean by that? Should my protagonist go to the dark side and start torturing kittens? 

No. Of course not. A bad choice is a choice that any rational person would consider crazy. Insane. Here's Butcher's example:

"'Use the Force, Luke,' urges ghost-Kenobi's voice. 'Let go, Luke!' Luke visibly makes a choice, turning off his targeting computer, putting his faith in the Force to make the shot that the whole galaxy is literally riding on, the way a Jedi should. He's alone, with the baddest guy in the movie hot on his tail, and even his friends are telling him he's nuts. 'His computer's off. Luke, you've switched off your targeting computer! What's wrong?' 'Nothing!' 
says Luke. 'I'm all right!' Not ONLY is he about to get blown out of the air by Vader, but he might miss the shot, too. Luke is about to do something INSANE. He's about to sacrifice his life to take a literal shot in the dark."

Luke's choice wasn't a bad choice, it's the only choice that would have worked, but it seemed completely crazy, insane, to all his friends and allies.

By the way, here's where all that character development you've done comes in handy. Your readers need to know the hero well enough--their personality, their traits, their quirks--that taking the crazy high road is believable. At the end of Butcher's Dresden File books I often shake my head and think, "That's insane. That's so Harry." 

e. Dramatic reversal


When I pick up a new Dresden Files book I know one thing: Harry's going to wipe the floor with some bad guys and he's going to come out of it okay. (Yep, Ghost Story threw me for a bit of a loop.) So we know that the crazy thing the hero does--the bad/insane choice he makes--is going to pay off in the end.

You'd think that that certainty would leech the story of its suspense. You'd think the certainty would make the eventual rosy outcome less than satisfying. But it doesn't. Why? 

I think there are several things involved here. 

First, although we strongly suspect the hero is going to come out of this just fine no matter what risks he takes, others might not. 

Second, we don't know exactly how the hero will triumph. (Often there's a bit of mystery involved.)

Third, poetic justice. Jim Butcher writes:

"The intrinsic nature of the story or of the protagonist's character influences or causes the events of the confrontation to be changed in an unexpected way, causing an outcome that is in harmony with the principles of poetic justice."

Great storytelling is all about developing believable characters readers care deeply about, putting them in jeopardy and then, as in a magic trick, making it all work out in the end--or not.

f. Resolution


This is where everything gets wrapped up. Butcher writes:

"Time to hand out the medals, kiss the girl, go to the wedding, put the star on the Christmas tree, raise the curtain on the rock concert, attend the funeral, or otherwise demonstrate that with the conclusion of the story, some kind of balance has been restored. The catharsis is complete, the tension eased, and the reader can catch their breath now.

"My advice to you on resolutions: Keep it short. Once you've gotten through the Showdown, write as sparingly as possible to get to the end, and don't draw anything out any more than you absolutely must. You've already kept your poor reader up until 3:30, you heartless bastard. Let them get some sleep before they have to rush off to their shift in two hours!

"Then you get to type the most satisfying words in any book you'll ever write: T H E  E N D"

I urge you in the strongest possible terms to read Jim Butcher's articles over at Livejournal.com if you haven't already. Not only is the advice sterling, but his articles are easy to read and delightfully funny.

Photo credit: "Falmouth" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, May 28

Writing Enthusiasm: 5 Ways To Coax It Back

Writing Enthusiasm: 5 Ways To Coax It Back



Jim Butcher talks about the great swampy middle of despair (maybe he didn't say "despair," I might have put that in) that is the center-slog of every book.  

I find that, every project I do, I get a fit of the 'blahs.' That first white-hot passion I had for it has evaporated like the morning dew after the sun glares at it for a bit.

In my case the sun would be the scorching light of reason--not a terribly helpful thing when you're belching (vomiting?) out a zero draft.

When I get an entrenched case of the blahs--when I feel singularly unenthusiastic about my WIP and start dreaming about how lovely it would be to write a short story, or a piece of flash fiction, or perhaps paint a picture or begin a gardening project or do absolutely anything unrelated to my WIP--then I know I'm in trouble.

For me, here's the key: Don't give in. This is butt-in-chair time.

Besides, to be honest, I've already spent the last day or two cleaning, gardening, puttering--doing anything but what I need to be doing.

Writing Enthusiasm: 5 Ways To Coax It Back


So. Here are five things I've tried in the past that helped me regain a sense of excitement, of enthusiasm, for my WIP:

1. Change the medium.


If I have been typing, I'll switch to writing longhand, or vice versa.

It doesn't work for me, but some authors like to pace and speak their story into a voice recorder.

Programs such as Dragon Dictate can (after training) transcribe even a lengthy audiofile in minutes.

For the dragon averse, it can be an interesting (though time-consuming) experience to transcribe the file yourself. (Elizabeth S. Craig writes about this here: Voice Recording as a Writing Tool.)

2. Change the location.


I'm fortunate. I have an office and, though it's a sliver of a room with a desk barely deep enough to fit my laptop, it provides a sanctuary, a respite, from the rest of the world. When I close my door I'm sequestered and free to write. 

(Theoretically. My cats see it differently. They think of my office time more as quality nap time. My kitty insists on either lying atop me or my chair. My choice. These days I'm using one of the hard plastic kitchen chairs while my furry overlord naps on an ergonomic miracle of science. But I digress.)

As wonderful as a writing space may be, writing in the same place day after day can be confining. Stultifying. Stagnating.

Sometimes the simple act of moving--even just getting up from my chair and walking through the empty rooms of my apartment, drinking in the small sounds that hide behind the silence, can help. The hum of electronics, the babble of the neighbour's six month old as she plays on the lawn, the rattle of pots as lunch is prepared, the throaty whir of the fridge as it clicks on beside me, these sounds become a chorus.

I've moved from my office to the kitchen table and that simple act seems to have roused my muse. (Perhaps. * Knock on wood. *)

3. Change of style.


Sometimes I'll start a project with a certain feeling and then--perhaps as I find more out about the story, as it grows within me--the story will assert itself and that feeling shifts, changes. The writing no longer feels alive. Vibrant. The story demands changes. I find that if I don't heed this demand the writing can grind to a halt.

For example, perhaps I've (once again) been seduced by Ray Bradbury's language in Something Wicked This Way Comes and--though spring unfolds around me, bursting with life and possibility--I live in the fall and see red and yellow leaves dancing with the wind and feel the electricity of change, of death, prickling along my skin, making me want to laugh and take long walks through oceans of night.

And then things change. I find out more about my story. My hero loses her love of night and dead leaves and starts cracking jokes.  She's hard-as-nails and long soulful descriptions--though at times irresistible--feel out of place.

4. Do (another) outline.


If you're anything like me, sometimes the vanishing of enthusiasm heralds the emergence of a plot hole. Or, generally, something that's not right with the story. Your muse knows this but your brain is playing catch-up.

I find that sometimes putting aside my current outline and re-doing it from scratch helps. Sometimes I've changed something and muddled the logical flow but haven't realized it yet.

Or, if you haven't created an outline for your story--even a bare bones one--perhaps now is the time!

5. Write.


When I began this post I had the writing blahs but now feel energized. The simple act of writing something (Anything!) has the power to crack through the ice of disenchantment and help one fall in love with their project again. 

Or, failing that, at least allow you to keep on keeping on.

I'll end with my favorite writing aid, created by Jim C. Hines:

From post Comic Amusement by Jim C. Hines.
The illustration is also by Jim C. Hines.

Good writing!

(By the way, Jim Butcher's latest book Skin Game--from his incredibly awesome Dresden Files series--went on sale yesterday. I'm a huge Harry fan, so thought I'd mention it. And, yes, pun intended. ;)

Photo credit: "flying" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, April 24

Parts of Story: The Importance of Sequels

Parts of Story: The Importance of Sequels


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

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

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

Sequels have four main roles:

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

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

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

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

Lets take a look at each of these points.

1. Readers Identify With Characters


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

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

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

2. Time Passes Quickly


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

3. Using Sequels To Control Pace


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

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

4. Sequels Help You Fine Tune Your Novel


Jim Butcher writes: 

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

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

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

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

Brainy characters:


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

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

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

Characters trying to pick a side:


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

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

How to make a character's motivations clear:


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

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

Sequels in a murder mystery:


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

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

Romance


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 20

Parts of Story: The Structure of Sequels

Parts of Story: The Structure of Sequels


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

Here is the skeleton of a sequel:

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

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

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

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

a. Reaction
b. Dilemma
c. Decision

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

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

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

a. Emotional reaction


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

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

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

b. Cognitive reaction


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

Let's unpack that.

i. Review what happened.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ii. The Possibilities + Logic


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

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

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

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

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

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

iii. What now? Possible Courses Of Action


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iv. Stakes + Anticipation


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

c. Anticipation


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

d. Choice/Decision


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 10

How To Create An Entertaining Protagonist: A Story Checklist

How To Create An Entertaining Protagonist: A Story Checklist


What do you have over your writing desk? Mine is littered with pieces of paper on which I've scribbled bits of (what I think is) sage writing advice. I'll let you be the judge. (grin)

By the way, your protagonist doesn't have to have all these characteristics. I like to look at this list every once in a while and double-check that my protagonist has a fair share of them and, also, to make sure I haven't forgotten anything.

1. Protagonist


Your protagonist should:

a. Have a special talent.
b. Have a strength.
c. Be clever and resourceful.
d. Be wounded.
e. Be pursuing justice or at least have a guiding principle.
f. Have a catch phrase.
g. Have likeable qualities.
h. Be quirky.

1a. Give the protagonist a special talent (/unique ability).

Give the protagonist an ability that no one else has. This doesn't have to be something earth shattering. It can be something trivial such as being able to tie a cherry stem with one's tongue.

1b. Give the protagonist a strength.


The following list is from Character Strengths and Virtues by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman.

i. Wisdom allows one to acquire and use knowledge. Creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective and wisdom.

ii. Courage allows one to accomplish goals in the face of opposition. Bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality.

iii. Humanity allows one to befriend others. Love, kindness, social intelligence.

iv. Justice helps build community. Active citizenship, loyalty, fairness, prudence, self control.

v. Temperance protects against excess. Forgiveness & mercy, humility.

vi. Transcendence helps forge connections to others and provides meaning. Appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humor & playfulness, spirituality.

1c. Make the protagonist clever and resourceful.


It seems to me that most good protagonists are both clever and resourceful. They are intelligent and can fix things, both little and big. They can come up with inventive solutions others would never think of. 

Clever characters are quick-witted. They can come up with a blindingly clever retort but without, perhaps, thinking through all the ramifications of what they've just said. (It can, occasionally, be smart not to say something clever.)  

1d. Give the protagonist a wound


Make sure that, in romance writer Terrel Hoffman's words, "In a hero’s character arc, she is missing something so essential that, if she doesn’t find it by story’s end, she’ll fail to achieve her story goal." (For Great Characters it's All About the Wound)

1e. Give the protagonist a guiding principle.


What is your protagonist's guiding principle? What rule do they live by? Turn this into a saying. Almost a tag line for the character.

For example, Poirot's guiding principle is "I do not approve of murder."

1f. Give the protagonist a catch phrase.


For example, two of Poirot's catch phrases are: "My little grey cells," and "I do not approve of murder."

Monk's catch phrase is "It's a gift and a curse."

1g. Give the protagonist likeable qualities.


I've already listed some strengths a character--or, indeed, a person--could have. I think most of these would go toward making a character likable. 

Another thing that works is to show a character being liked by other characters. 

You can also show your character doing something selfless for someone else. Save a cat!

1h. Give the protagonist a quirk


Give your protagonist a reason to be concerned about something, their clothes for instance. Then give your protagonist a reason to continually pay attention to it.

For example, lets say your protagonist, Zoe, buys an expensive dress she can't afford. She plans to wear it once then return it. Her date takes her out for dinner, but at a place that features mud wrestling! Zoe continually worries about staining the dress.

If you can manage it, the silly quirk should contradict the character's strength. For example, Indiana Jones' strength is courage and his silly quirk is fear of snakes.

2. Stakes


Stakes must be clear. What will the protagonist get if she achieves her goal?  What will she lose if she fails to achieve it? 

Also, the stakes must matter to the protagonist.

3. Motivation


The protagonist's motivation must be clear.

Although it seems not everyone draws a distinction between a protagonist's motivation and his desire I find doing this often helps. 

Here's how I look at it: a protagonist's motivation explains why he desires what he does and his goal is a concrete expression of that desire. 

For example, a child might want to win a spelling bee because the school bully taunts him and calls him stupid. In that case, the character's wish to silence the bully would be the protagonist's motivation. His overriding desire, on the other hand, is for people to think he is smart, and the concrete expression of that desire--his goal--is to win the upcoming spelling championship.

4. Goal


The protagonist needs to solve a well defined problem
The protagonist must take decisive action to get what she wants.
The protagonist must want something desperately
Finally, the thing the protagonist wants should be something so concrete that you could take a picture of her doing it.

5. B-Story


The solution to the B-story often provides the protagonist with the solution she needs to finally resolve her dilemma and achieve her goal. (I talk about the b-story a bit in my article on narrative setting.)

6. Antagonist's Goal


The antagonist's goal should be such that if he achieves it the protagonist cannot. For instance, in Lord of the Rings, if Frodo succeeded in destroying the One Ring then Sauron's quest to destroy Middle-earth would fail. On the other hand, if Sauron got the One Ring back then Middle-earth would be destroyed and Frodo would have failed.

The best article on creating an antagonist I've read so far is Jim Butcher's, "How To Build A Villain." If you read that article, don't forget to take a look at JB's comments in the comments section.

Question: What writing advice do you have tacked on the wall above your writing desk? Please share!

Photo credit: "2014-038 this way up" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, October 15

Writing A Scene That Works

Writing A Scene That Works


Deborah Chester was one of Jim Butcher's writing teachers (she's still a professor over at the University of Oklahoma), one he credits with giving him the writing tools he needed to sell his first novel, Storm Front; a book which became the first novel in his popular (and kick-ass!) Dresden Files series.

I've recently begun reading DC's blog, Chronicles of the Scribe, and can't recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in the craft of writing.

For example, in a recent post DC wrote of logical conflict. As I read, I found myself taking notes--I have a notebook I set aside for these scribbles, I call it my "craft notebook"--and then I thought: Wait! This would make a fantastic blog post.

I hope Deborah Chester will forgive me for posting about the content of her blog. I find that in order to learn something it helps to say it again in another way, to associate new ideas with old.

Planning Out A Scene's Conflict


Step 1: Digging Up The Bones


Lately whenever I sit down to write I think of Stephen King's analogy of writing as archeology. The bones of the story are there within us, we just have to dig for them.

In this first step we try to uncover the following:

a. What is the protagonist's goal in this scene?
b. What is the antagonist's goal in this scene?

Note: The goals MUST clash. If the protagonist achieves his/her goal then the antagonist cannot and vice versa.

c. What is the protagonist's motivation?
d. What is the antagonist's motivation?
e. Outcome: how does the scene end? Does the protagonist achieve his/her goal? Does the antagonist? Do they both fail?

Step 2: Map out the key points of the scene


Generally a character will achieve some goal in a scene, even if it's not the goal they started off with. Write down this goal. What goal did the character start off with? Does the goal change partway through as a result of the action of the antagonistic force? How does the character defeat this new challenge? Plot out the key points of the scene.

Recall the scene in Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy tries to commandeer the plane after breaking out of the Well of Souls? Although parts of the scene were improvised most of the key elements had already been established in the script (which you can download here and a few pages of the shooting script are here).

Indie doesn't achieve his goal in that particular scene, he doesn't succeed in commandeering the plane; partway through his goal switches from, "commandeer the plane," to, "get out of here alive."

(I realize that my liking for that particular scene likely amounts to an unnatural geeky affection, but whatever. (grin))

You get the idea. List the ways your hero is going to defeat the obstacle(s) and either achieve his goal or figure out a third option--something achievable that brings him closer to what he seeks.

Step 3: Mind-meld with the antagonist


Deborah Chester put it this way, "Determine the key points in the antagonist’s strategy".

The antagonist, the villain, the Big Bad--whatever you want to call it--by definition is going to want to thwart your hero. Further, they might just be smart enough to anticipate that your hero will be able to defeat their first efforts in which case they might have a backup plan. Perhaps they're even going to try and trick your hero into doing something that makes him vulnerable.

Perhaps your antagonist will cheat. DC asks, "How far will she go?" Excellent question. Donald Maass once said that the difference between a hero and a villain is often not what they want but how far they'll go to get it.

I'm going to pick up the pace now.

Step 4: Who will shoot first?


(Certainly not Han Solo!) Who is going to make the first move? 

Step 5: Write out the conflict-setback or action-response pairs.


It would take too long to go into this here, but I talk about conflict-setback pairs in my article, Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive.

Step 6: Think linearly, logically.


Events take place in order and for reasons. (This seems to have quite a bit in comment with the Principle of Sufficient Reason.)

Step 7: As the conflict intensifies, slow down and zoom in.


Step 8: Don't lose track of the goals your characters walked into the scene with.


Step 9: Logic first, poetry second.


Step 10: Make your character's act one at a time.


Cause --> Effect
Deeds/Behavior --> Reward

If everyone is acting at the same time it's easy for readers to lose track of the cause-effect structure you're weaving.

That's it! Once again, Deborah Chester's blog, Chronicles of the Scribe, is well worth reading and this blog post was based around and inspired by her article, Logical Conflict.

Good writing!

Photo credit: I thought this photo would provide a visual counter-point to the discussion. "not everything has a reason" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.