Showing posts with label nanowrimo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label nanowrimo. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 19

Story Structure: A Refresher

Story Structure: A Refresher

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

1. Inciting Incident (0 to 12.5%)

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

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

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

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

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

2. Crossing the Threshold (25%)

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

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

Inner and Outer Goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trials and Tribulations/Fun and Games

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


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


Wednesday, December 7

Editing Your Zero Draft

Editing Your Zero Draft

NanoWriMo is over! If you participated and wrote more than you would have otherwise, you’re a winner. If you ended up writing 50,000+ words, that’s awesome!

It’s been a week since NaNoWriMo ended so you’ve had a chance to distance yourself a little bit from the story. If you don’t have sufficient distance from your writing the danger is that when you read your Zero Draft you won’t be able to be objective. What I try to do is put my manuscript away for a week or two so I can come back to it with new eyes.

In any case, after enough time has passed rescue your manuscript from the drawer and read it from start to finish. There’s only one rule: don’t edit until you’ve read the whole thing. This is torture for me, but it’s important to re-load the whole story into your mind without changing anything.

When I read something that’s not right, a misspelling, etc., I want to go into the file and fix it but if I were to do that then I’d start adding sections that didn’t need to be added and deleting material that was necessary for the development of a future event.

I find one way to lessen the temptation to edit is to print a hardcopy of the manuscript and, if I must make notes, then at least I can’t change the electronic file. By the way if you want to save paper and load your manuscript into an app that allows you to mark up a file I recommend GoodNotes, it’s the app I use.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you read:

- Does a character’s name change halfway through the story? Is the name spelled the same way throughout the manuscript? Do all the names you use begin with a different letter? Are all the names sufficiently distinct from each other?

- Is each character absolutely necessary to advance the plot? Can two (or more) characters be merged into one? Or are there too few characters?

- Do NOT worry about grammar or spelling (other than for names) at this stage. If you’re anything like me, you’re going to end up not using a lot of the text in your Zero Draft. Fiddling with grammar and spelling would just waste your time.

->After your first read through.

After you’ve read your story through try to answer these two questions:

(a) What state of affairs represents happiness to your protagonist? Being together with friends and family? Winning the lottery? Retiring from their job? Going into business for themselves? Traveling the world?

(b) What danger threatens to keep the protagonist’s dream from becoming reality?

Now try and answer these questions:

What is the protagonists external goal? That is, what concrete thing or state of affairs does the protagonist desire to bring about? For example, in Die Hard John McClane wants to protect his wife and the other hostages and defeat the terrorists.

Is there a physical object that represents this goal? For example, in Raiders of the Lost Ark Indiana Jones wanted to bring the Ark back to the United States.

In the recent movie “Arrival” the protagonist’s external goal is to understand why the aliens arrived on earth, to understand the alien language.

Make sure you know what the protagonist’s goal is—it will form the spine of your story.

Story Structure

I’ve written quite a few posts about story structure (link and link) so I won’t go into that here. But be sure that your protagonist’s external and internal goals are what drives the key scenes of the story.


Another thing to focus on at this stage is that the protagonist has a suitably strong antagonist. You want the antagonist and protagonist to have the same goal and for it to be impossible for them both to achieve the goal. Also, it tends to work well if the protagonist and antagonist are alike in many ways.

If the antagonist is the protagonist's nemesis then he/she will be quite a bit like the protagonist but differ in at least one important respect.

In Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Beloq is Indy’s nemesis. Both men are archaeologists and are driven to procure relics. But they operate by very different moral codes and view the relics they hunt for very differently. Indy appreciates the relics for themselves while Beloq is primarily interested in what the relic can do for him in terms of wealth or power.

The number one thing that you need to keep in mind as you re-read your Zero Draft is to be kind to yourself. There are going to be awful bits and there are going to be glorious bits. Don’t stress about the disastrous passages, focus on the good, focus on what works. Stay positive.

If you’re anything like me there are going to be a LOT of drafts between now and your final one. It’s a process of weeding out what doesn’t belong and gradually shaping the story. It’s early days still. If you keep at it you’ll end up with a story you love.

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. 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 I am feeling whimsical so what better book to recommend than Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling. From the blurb: "When Magizoologist Newt Scamander arrives in New York, he intends his stay to be just a brief stopover. However, when his magical case is misplaced and some of Newt's fantastic beasts escape, it spells trouble for everyone…"

That's it! I'll talk to you again on Friday. Till then, good writing. :-)

Wednesday, November 2

(NaNoWriMo Day 2): 2nd Key Scene: The Climax

(NaNoWriMo Day 2): 2nd Key Scene: The Climax

I find that when I write, as in life, I need to know where I’m going in order to get there. Yesterday I tackled the first key story scene, now I’ll leapfrog to the second to last: the Climax.

What happens at the Climax will determine everything else in the story, at least in terms of which goals feature in the preceding scenes, sequences and acts.

Subplots: An Aside

I’m not going to go into subplots in any detail today, but I thought I would at least mention them. A subplot has the same structure as any storyline (this sequence is from Shawn Coyne's book The Story Grid): Inciting Incident, Escalating Complications, a Midpoint Crises, a Climax and a Resolution.

In a main arc, all or most of the key story scenes must be onstage—think of a murder mystery where you don’t actually get to ‘see’ the body, you only hear about it after the fact through dialogue or narration, but you don’t get to see it through the viewpoint character’s senses. That would be FRUSTRATING!

In a subplot, on the other hand, omitting key scenes—especially minor ones—is absolutely necessary. After all, if a subplot and the main story arc each have equal weight then you would be writing two stories rather than one. [1]

Depending on the length of your final manuscript you’ll have at least one subplot. The key thing is that the ending of each subplot should integrate back into the main story line in such a way that it ratchets up the stakes and propels the story forward.

For example, in The Matrix Cypher betrays Morpheus to the Machines in exchange for being reinserted into the Matrix. That’s the subplot. (The story question in that movie was: Is Neo the One?) In the first of the three big setbacks, Cypher betrays the resistance and kills Switch.

Cypher is about to kill Neo when he says something to the effect, “If Neo really is the One then I won’t be able to kill him, some kind of miracle will have to happen to stop me.” Right then someone I thought was dead gets up, grabs a weapon and kills Cypher. This closes out the subplot AND ties into the main arc by adding weight to the idea that, despite the Oracle’s denial, Neo is indeed the One.

Let’s test the subplot: 

a. Were the stakes raised because of the resolution of the subplot? Yes! Agents have captured Morpheus and are torturing him for the codes that, if surrendered, will snuff out the last spark of human resistance.

b. Does the resolution of the subplot advance the main plot? Yes! The Oracle has told Neo he will have to choose between his life and Morpheus’ life. Neo decides Morpheus must live and goes to save him. This launches us into the last long and wonderful action-packed race to the finish. Terrific subplot!

c. Was the subplot itself well-formed? Yes, though I won’t step through its structure here.

The Story Question

The story question is simply: Will the protagonist succeed in achieving her goal? For example, here is the story question for Jim Butcher’s novel Storm Front:

“When a series of grisly supernatural murders tears through Chicago, wizard Harry Dresden sets out to find the killer. But will he succeed when he finds himself pitted against a dark wizard, a Warden of the White Council, a vicious gang war, and the Chicago Police Department?” [2]

Now, let's focus on what this post is really about, the climactic scene of your story.

The Climax: Breaking It Down

Yesterday I said that the Inciting Incident was the most important scene in your story—and it is. If the Inciting Incident falls flat, readers will become bored and stop reading. The Climax, though, is the second most important scene in a story. As someone once said to me: the first few pages of a novel sell that novel, the ending of the novel sells the next novel.

What is it?

The Climax answers the story question. It unambiguously shows the reader whether the protagonist won or lost the final confrontation with the antagonist.

The Climax should be unexpected. The best climaxes surprise us in the moment and then, upon reflection, seem inevitable.

The Climax should unfold because of the choices the main characters (especially the protagonist and antagonist) have made throughout the story.

Where is it?

The Climax usually occurs at some point in the last ten or five percent of the story. After the story question is answered the story is over. All that is left to do is wrap things up and cash out the stakes.

How is it connected to the protagonist’s desires?

Since the Climax unfolds from the choices the main characters make in the story—especially the choices the protagonist makes—and since the protagonist’s choices are driven by their external (and possibly internal) desire, ultimately, it is the protagonist’s desires that drive the action at the Climax.

How is it structured?

I’m not normally going to break down the structure of a key scene, but the climax strikes me as the most persnickety of the key scenes. (Here I draw from Jim Butcher’s article, Story Climax.)

a) Specific and Vivid

A specific, vivid, concrete event should mark the start of the Climax.

b) Protagonist is Alone

The protagonist needs to meet the antagonist by herself, alone, without backup.

c) Protagonist is Active

The protagonist needs to be active, she must bring the fight to the antagonist rather than the other way around.

d) False Failure

There should be one last gut-wrenching moment where your readers think (again!) that all is lost (e.g., Neo dies at the end of The Matrix; he gets back up, but the death itself is an gut-twisting ‘oh no!’ moment.).

e) Actions Must be Voluntary

The hero needs to make one last choice. Jim Butcher 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.” [2]

Further, this choice should be one that any rational person would consider completely insane. Why would anyone turn away from the only thing that has any hope of working to do thing that can’t work! But sometimes your protagonist has to turn away from the sure thing, from the way things are done, and do the apparently irrational thing that takes faith, that draws on their special skill, their special talent, their special way of seeing the world. Trust yourself Luke, use the force.

f) Dramatic reversal 

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.” [2]

In other words, the solution your protagonist comes up with, why she wins the final confrontation, has to stem from your protagonist’s character, her strengths and weaknesses, his internal and external desires.

For more on this see: Jim Butcher On How To Write A Suspenseful Story Climax

The Climax: Examples

At the climax of The Matrix Neo becomes the One and transcends the Matrix. He lives in it but is not of it, he is no longer bound by it. Neo’s transformation reaches back to the desire he had at the beginning of the movie, to know the answer to the question, “What is the Matrix?” In general, Neo wanted to know the truth about the world around him and his place it in. You know, the simple stuff. ;)

Also, notice that Cypher tells Neo (and it seems as though he’s genuinely trying to help) to just do what they all do when they see an agent: run away. And Neo does this. Even after he fights Agent Smith in the penupulate fight of that movie, Neo is forced to flee. Agent Smith is operating on a higher plane, one no human has ever reached. It is only when Neo is forced to stop running (by being shot in the chest several times!) that something entirely illogical happens. After Trinity tells Neo she loves him and gives him a kiss he comes back to life. He has achieved his goal and now transcends the Matrix. Essentially, love played the role here that faith/trust played in the Matrix.

I’ll give you another example just because I loved the ending so much! In Edge of Tomorrow the protagonist, Cage, is branded a coward. This is because when given a choice between fighting and fleeing Cage displayed a decided preference for fleeing. By the middle of the movie, though, Cage has gained some courage and he is learning to care about the good of the group and not just his own personal good. By the end of the movie he is willing to lay down his life for his team and for the greater good. There is a very clear, consistent, entertaining progression from cowardice to courage.

Testing The Scene Example

Does the climax of The Matrix answer the story question, “Is Neo the One?” Yes! We get to see (as much as such a thing can be seen) Neo transform into the One. We also see his power in action when he destroys Agent Smith.

Did the climax of The Matrix surprise us? It surprised me. Even though I was fairly sure Neo was the One it did make me reconsider when Smith shoots and kills Neo. At that moment I honestly thought Neo was going to die and fail in his quest. So I was surprised when, after suitable prompting by Trinity, he gets up and obliterates Smith.

Does the Climax unfold because of the choices of the main characters? Yes. Neo chose to rescue Morpheus, and he did this believing that he wasn’t the One. He did this believing his fate would be to simply die but that his death would ensure Morpheus would live.

How the Climax is implemented in three genres: Action, Romance & Mystery

Action Genre

The Climax Scene is the ultimate confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist. In the action genre—as, indeed, in all genres—the protagonist and antagonist come into direct and final opposition. There can be no ambiguity that, this time, only one of them will walk away from the fight.

Romance Genre

The Climax is where the lovers get back together.

We haven’t looked at this scene yet, but the All Hope is Lost point in a romance is where the lovers break up, and this breakup seems final. Irrevocable. There is no possible way these two people can have any future with each other. The Climax settles whether their breakup really is forever. In the overwhelming majority of romance stories, they join together.

It’s important to note, though, that when the lovers reconcile it is because something deep within one or both of them has changed. They were incompatible because of something essential to each of them—or something they thought was essential. Often this happens in the Proof of Love scene. One or both of them do something selfless for the other even though there is no hope of reconciliation. This act of selflessness demonstrates the change that has occurred, or is occurring, within.

Murder Mystery Genre

In a mystery story the Climax is the big reveal. Here the sleuth goes over each person's motive, means and opportunity for committing the crime. In so doing, all the clues are trotted out and the sleuth explains how each relates to the murder. Most of the clues will prove to either be about crimes (or, possibly, titivating embarrassments) that have nothing to do with the murder.

I’ve written a number of articles on the topic of writing a murder mystery. If you’d like to give them a look I've listed them here along with a brief summary: How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery. (At some point next year I hope to publish the information contained in those many, scattered, articles into a medium sized book.)

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. 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 I'd like to recommend a book that's on my desk right now. I love it! It's basically a writing prompt generator that's also a pulp-and-paper book. Just now I opened it at random and here's the prompt I got: Upon winning the lottery, a gold prospector develops short-term memory loss. Here's another: On vacation for the first time in years, a night watchman goes on a blind date. If you're a story geek or you love playing around with writing prompt, this book will make you happy! Here's the link: The Amazing Story Generator: Creates Thousands of Writing Prompts.

That's it for today! Thanks for reading and I'll talk to you again tomorrow, when I talk about another key story scene.

Word count so far: 1678
Word count for this article: About 2,100 words.
Word count so far: 3,778 words.


1. This does happen. Some stories are told from the viewpoint of multiple characters, the aptly named viewpoint characters. For example, the lovers in a romance are often viewpoint characters, each finding their voice every other chapter. Sometimes this is effective, sometimes not. But if this is the first long-form story you’ve written don’t worry about subplots. At least, hold off on thinking too much about them until you’ve got the main arc hammered out.

2. Story Climax, Jim Butcher.

Tuesday, November 1

(NaNoWriMo Day 1) First Key Scene: The Inciting Incident

(NaNo Day 1) First Key Scene: The Inciting Incident

I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose. —Stephen King

Welcome to NaNoWriMo madness! Every day this month my plan is to blog about a key scene, one that pretty much any story of any genre has to include. Then I’ll take a closer look at how this scene, this structure, this general idea, is implemented in three popular genres: Action, Romance and Mystery.

Today I'm going to talk about the Inciting Incident.

The Inciting Incident

What is it?

Exciting. The Inciting Incident—or the Exciting Incident as it is sometimes called—is the most important event of your story.

Shatters the status quo: The Inciting Incident shatters the protagonist’s status quo and sets events in motion. Everything before this event, this scene, is stasis. Equilibrium. After the Inciting Incident the story has a trajectory, a direction.

Necessary.  If this event did not happen there would be no story.

To sum up: the Inciting Incident does two things; it has two functions. First, it excites the attention of the audience and, second, it draws the main character (either immediately or after a chain of actions and reactions) into the story.

Where is it?

Although the exact position of this event will vary depending on the genre and the particular story, it generally occurs in the first ten percent of your manuscript. It’s not going to be the first thing you use to capture your reader's attention (so not on the first few pages) but since there’s really no story without this event, it needs to happen soon.

How is it connected to the protagonist’s desires?

Note: Most characters have an internal desire and an external desire but all have an external desire.

Whatever genre you are writing in, this event needs to be connected to your protagonist’s desires, to her goal. For example, as we’ve seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark the Inciting Incident has to do with Indy’s lifelong dream of finding the Ark.

At this moment in the story the protagonist probably has no idea what achieving her goal will cost her, or even whether she will actually want her object of desire if and when she claims it.

Before I move on to look at the form Inciting Incidents take in various genres, let’s look at an example.

The Inciting Incident: An Example

The Silence of the Lambs by Robert Harris is one of my favorite books, one of my favorite movies and, IMHO, one of the more successful adaptations of a book to the big screen. I’m pretty sure you’ve either read the book or watched the movie so, before you read on, think about it. What do you think is the Inciting Incident?

(* elevator music *)

(* theme from Jeopardy *)

Ready? Okay. The Inciting Incident occurs right after Clarice Starling is pulled off her training run by someone who looks official and who Starling calls “Sir.” She is told that Crawford wants to see her in his office. This creates a question in the reader/viewers mind: What does Crawford—a person who can send other folks on errands and who has an office—want with this cadet? Is she in trouble?

The Inciting Incident occurs when Jack Crawford offers Starling the assignment to get Dr. Hannibal Lector to take a survey and, while she’s at it, to attempt to get as much information from him as she can.

Here's another example, this time from Star Wars IV: A New HopeAlthough there doesn't seem to be consensus on the point, I'm one of those who think that, in A New Hope, the Inciting Incident was when Darth Vader, seeking the plans for the Death Star the Resistance 'acquired,' attacks and boards Princess Leia's shuttle.

When Darth Vader attacks Princess Leia's diplomatic craft Vader introduces an imbalance that initiates a chain of events that eventually involves Luke's family and lead to Luke's Call to Adventure.

Granted, the Call to Adventure doesn't come till much later, but the Inciting Incident (Darth Vader boarding the shuttle) has set in motion a series of events which will culminate in the Call to adventure (Obi-Wan Kenobi asks Luke Skywalker to help him deliver the plans for the Death Star to the resistance base on Alderaan).

Testing the Scene

Is it necessary for the other scenes to happen: Yes! If Starling hadn’t accepted the assignment (her acceptance of the Call to Adventure) then none of the other events in the story would have occurred.

Is it exciting? Sure, though not as exciting as the scene where Starling meets Dr. Lector for the first time (that was one of the most riveting scenes in the movie).

Does it connect to Starling’s external desire? Yes! As you will recall the antagonist in SoTL is Jame Gumb, the serial killer who has been dubbed “Buffalo Bill.” Starling has two overriding desires in this story. The first, internal, is to silence the lambs. The second, external, is to catch the serial killer. You’ll notice that it’s here that we first learn of Buffalo Bill and his crimes—news clippings line the wall behind Crawford’s desk. Also, this is the first time the suggestion of a connection between Dr. Lector and Buffalo Bill is made.

How the Inciting Incident is implemented in three genres: Action, Romance & Mystery

Action Genre

Action stays very close to what I’ve just said, but it the excitement needs to be cranked up. (For more on this see Shawn Coyne’s book The Story Grid.) In an action story this event really does have to reach out and grab the reader’s imagination by the short and curlies.

For example, In Raider’s of the Lost Ark this was the scene where Indy finds out the Nazi’s have discovered Tanis, the resting place of the Ark. For me, that was a great hook.

Romance Genre

The Inciting Incident in a love story is the event that initially throws the two characters together and into conflict. Typically this occurs when they meet for the first time.

Generally, two things are communicated to the reader.

First, there is something special between these two characters. They’ve never felt quite this way about anyone before. Sometimes the attraction is purely sexual and sometimes there is more, it depends on the genre and subgenre of the story.

Second, they can’t stand each other. He’s too proud, she’s too prejudiced. He rich and titled, she is poor and a nobody. He is the warden of a prison, she is an escaped prisoner. He is a vampire, she is a vampire hunter. The list goes on. The important thing is that there is, baked into who these two characters are, an inherent incompatibility, a reason why it would be pure foolishness to even think these two people could ever be together.

Mystery Genre

We saw that with an action story we want to ratchet up the excitement, well in a mystery we want to ratchet up the (wait for it ...) mystery. We want to emphasize the strangeness of the event. Imagine that your pen starts to glow a brilliant emerald green or your cat gives you dating advice.

If you’re writing a murder mystery this is usually where the murder happens. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t have to be where the murder happens, but it almost always is. And that makes sense. After all, who-dun-it is the central question! Investigation cannot begin until a body is found.

I’ve found that often when the murder mystery is included as a subplot then the discovery of the body will either be combined with the Inciting Incident of the main plot or the body will be discovered later on in the story.

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. 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 I want to recommend a book that transformed how I thought about storytelling, Robert McKee's Story. Granted, Story was written primarily for screenwriters, but anyone interested in story structure will find this information indispensable. From the blurb: "In Story, McKee expands on the concepts he teaches in his $450 seminars (considered a must by industry insiders), providing readers with the most comprehensive, integrated explanation of the craft of writing for the screen."

That’s it! Tomorrow we will go over another key story scene. Stay tuned and good writing! Please share your word counts, if that would help motivate you. :-)

My word count: 1,678 words written, 1210 published. That’s it so far! I’m going to continue writing and I’ll update my wordcount tomorrow. :-)

Monday, October 31

Preparing For NaNoWriMo

Every day in November I’m going to lay out the structural bones of a crucial story scene.  I'll then break this scene down for three genres: Action, Romance, and Mystery. Then I'll talk about the different requirements of each. Today I'm kicking things off by talking about what we can do to prepare for the insanity that is NaNoWriMo.

At least, that’s the plan! This is going to be an adventure for me as well since, over the month of November, I’ll be blogging a book, only a non-fiction one. That’s something I’ve never done before!

My hope is that my daily blog posts will provide you with a seed, a start, something to hang your story ideas around—if you want it. Folks have been writing stories for millennia without all this explicit talk of story structure, so if you don’t feel you want or need it, that’s great! Go you!!

But, if you’d like to get an idea regarding what you might want to write on any particular day, or if you want to read something that might help get you started, then please drop by, pull up a seat and let’s write! :-)

Planning for NaNoWriMo

Here are a few things to consider as we head into the month of November (I expand on each of these, below):

1. What is your writing plan? How many words would you like to write a day?
2. What point of view will you write from? First, second or third?
3. What is the core of your story?
4. What is the essence of your protagonist and antagonist?
5. What genre, or genres, will you write in?
6. What is the setting?

1. Designing a Writing Plan.

How many days per week do you want to write?

For instance, you might want to plan on writing six days a week so you can have one day of wiggle room. Life has a way of derailing even the best laid plans, so giving yourself one day off a week isn’t a bad idea. That would give you 26 days to write 50,000 words which means your word count per writing day would be 1,924 words. This is what I did when I participated in NaNoWriMo and it worked out well.

On the other hand, if you plan on writing every day, your word count per day would only be 1667 words.

2. What Point of View Will You Write From? 

Will you write from the first, second or third person perspective? If you choose the first person perspective (which is my favorite!) then, although there are exceptions, you will likely have one viewpoint character throughout. Many of the first person perspective narratives I’ve read include short chapters written from a third person perspective featuring an important secondary character, but this is the sort of thing we’re not going to worry about on the zero draft.

If you choose to write from the third person perspective, then although one character will be the protagonist/hero, you will often have multiple viewpoint characters. For instance, many romance stories involve two viewpoint characters—the two lovers—and alternate their viewpoints every second chapter. Generally speaking, the point of view you open your story with will be that of your protagonist.

3. What is the Core of Your Story?

Generally speaking, a story is about a person (the protagonist) who wants something desperately but is repeatedly prevented from acquiring it by a person/force (the antagonist). Finally the matter comes to a head and the protagonist and antagonist face off in a final confrontation that will settle things once and for all.

If you would like to read more about story structure, here are a few articles:

A Story Structure In Three Acts
STORY STRUCTURE: 10 Simple Keys to Effective Plot Structure
Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction
Short Stories And Their Structure

4. Character Development

Let’s start thinking about our characters:

  • Who is your protagonist?
  • What does he/she do for a living? What would he/she like to do for a living?
  • Is he/she romantically involved with anyone? Does he/she want to be romantically involved with anyone?
  • Does he/she have children? If so, how many and what are their ages?
  • What is his/her biggest fear?
  • What is his/her darkest secret?
  • Is he/she an optimist or a pessimist?
  • Does he/she have a hobby?
  • Is he/she obsessed with anything?
  • What does he/she fear above all else? What does he/she love above all else?
  • Is he/she religious? Superstitious?
  • Does he/she own a vehicle? If so, what kind?
  • What special skill or talent does he/she have?
  • What could he/she NOT do, even if their life depended on it?

Here’s the most important question of all: What does this character want more than anything else? This is important because it determines the story question that everything else revolves around.

The character's main desire could be something your character doesn't know they want. For example, in the movie Titanic, Rose wanted freedom more than anything else, though I'm not sure she was aware of this at the beginning of the story. On the other hand, Frodo knew exactly what he wanted: to return the One Ring to Mordor.

After you’ve answered these questions with reference to the protagonist, try to answer them with reference to the antagonist.

Keep in mind that the goals of the protagonist and antagonist must be mutually exclusive: if the antagonist gets what he wants then the protagonist can't. Similarly, if the protagonist gets what he wants then the antagonist can't.

Here are additional questions that can help you get to know a character:

Character Question List
Character Checklist
Writer’s Digest: A Checklist for Developing Your Hero and Heroine

5. The Genre

Let's take a look at what Shawn Coyne has to say about genre:
"A Genre is a label that tells the reader/audience what to expect. Genres simply manage audience expectations. (The Story Grid)"
If you're writing a love story then your readers are going to expect a first meeting between the lovers, a confession of love, a first kiss, a break-up, and so on. (See: 6 Scenes Any Love Story Must Have)

In this sense a genre is a bit like a promise you give your readers. If your title is, "Murder at Whitemill" and the back blurb identifies it as a cosy then no matter how inspired your prose your readers are going to come for you with pitchforks if, say, no murder occurs or no one is brought to justice for the crime.

This is why it's important to know which genre, or genres, you are writing in and what the conventions of that genre are. That is, what readers of that genre will expect of your story.

6. The Setting

What is the setting? Where do the events of the story take place?

For instance, in The Matrix the Ordinary World is an illusion—an illusion of cities and office jobs and juicy steaks—and the Special World (reality) is one of human batteries and war between humans and machines. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone the Ordinary World is (roughly speaking) England and the Special World is Hogwarts.

The world of the adventure (this includes both the Ordinary and Special Worlds) is sculpted by the writer to provide a crucible for the protagonist. The setting is a cauldron, a crucible, designed to test the main character’s strengths and force him to face, and overcome, his weaknesses. Or, if it’s a tragedy, to fail and die.

Rather than go into this now, here's a post I wrote on this topic: Mind Worms and the Essence of Drama.

See also:
How To Give Your Character Meaningful Flaws
The Key To Making A Character Multidimensional: Pairs of Opposites

Just Breathe

If thinking about all this makes you hyperventilate, don’t worry about it! NaNoWriMo is about writing a zero draft, so it is about creativity and discovery.

I think the object of NaNoWriMo is to get as much of your story developed as possible in the month of November.

For some of us, that will involve writing 50,000+ words. For others, it will mean writing 40,000 or 30,000 or 20,000 or 10,000 or 5,000 or even just 1,000 words. And that’s okay!

If you develop a plan for your story, and begin implementing that plan, then you’ve won in the sense that you've pushed your story forward. If participating in NaNoWriMo gets you to write even one word more than you would have otherwise then, in my books, you’ve won!

For tomorrow: Try to figure out what it is your protagonist wants more than anything. Try to figure out the story goal.

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

For a different perspective on NaNoWriMo here is the excellent, No Plot, No Problem!, by Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo. From the book blurb: "Chris Baty ... has completely revised and expanded his definitive handbook for extreme noveling. Chris pulls from over 15 years of results-oriented writing experience to pack this compendium with new tips and tricks, ranging from week-by-week quick reference guides to encouraging advice from authors, and much more."

That's it! Enough preliminaries and preparation! Got your writer's cap on? Awesome! Know what your character wants above and beyond all else? Excellent! I'll talk to you tomorrow. :-)

Saturday, October 25

How To Coax Story Ideas Out Of Hiding

How To Coax Story Ideas Out Of Hiding

Ever been stuck for a plot? You wanted to write something but all your ideas fled, leaving you with what seemed like an infinite white field of nothing? I have! 

Here’s my theory: I think ideas tend to flee when we’re anxious or tense or feeling stressed. So something—anything—that helps us relax and not take our writing quite so seriously can be a gift from the gods. I’ve found idea generators can help me get into a playful mood and fill the idea-void.

NaNoWriMo & Idea Generators

In the early part of last century the only idea generators in existence were plot wheels; these days we click buttons rather than twirl disks, but it’s the same idea. (see: NaNoWriMo, Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason and Plot Wheels)

Personally, I think random idea generators have their place. Though I practically never use their suggestions, idea generators can help coax out our own ideas, ones that have been hiding in our unconscious mind.

The FIG Idea Generator

The FIG Idea Generator is based on William Wallace Cook’s book, Plotto. Published in 1928, Plotto was billed as “The master book of all plots.” (Unfortunately, FIG is only available through the Apple Store, but there is a site, Writing Exercises (, that has basically the same functions.)

FIG: An Example

Let’s take FIG for a twirl and see what kind of story skeleton we can create. FIG’s main screen presents one with a choice between selecting a random Masterplot, Plot, Character, Word, 1st Sentence, Emotion, Item or Location. Let’s go through most of these.


Here’s what I got for the masterplot: “A person influenced by the occult and the mysterious, seeking to demonstrate the powers of love by a test of courage, faces a guilty plotter and defeats a subtle plot.”

I like that! I see many different possibilities. Let’s see what we get for the rest. 


Tense: Present
Narrator: Alternating person
Period: During the Gulf War
Situation: Enemy of kin
Protagonist: A male dance teacher who is languid.
Supporting character: A male geophysicist who is mature.
Their relationship: Broken.

I’m less enthusiastic about these choices. While I’ve always wanted to try writing a short story using the present tense I’m less thrilled about having a dance teacher for a protagonist. Mostly because I know nothing about dance and even less about dance teachers!

I decided to roll until I found something I wanted to work with (after all, the object here is to have fun and get our creative juices flowing).

Here’s what I came up with in the end:

Tense: Present
Narrator: Alternating person
Period: Three days ago.
Situation: Enemy of kin/Disputed inheritance
Protagonist: A glamorous male movie director.
Supporting character: A hostile, male, occupational therapist.
Their relationship: Broken.

We’re not done! Now we move on to character.


I wasn’t sure how this fit into the other categories, or if it was supposed to, but here’s what I came up with:

“An enthusiastic, female, butcher who is Scottish and goes by the name of Kelsey Graham.”

I got this description on about the 5th try and love it! I can see her, my proper Scottish lass with a enormous cleaver in her hand and a bloody apron. She gives me a look that sends a chill through me and says, “Yea? Whad’ya want?”

But, what do do with her? We already have a protagonist and supporting character, so Kelsey could be our protagonist’s nemesis. Not a villain, simply someone working in opposition to the protagonist’s goal.

Which brings us to ...

The Goal

FIG doesn’t have a random goal generator, neither does Writing Exercises, so I went in search of a list of popular goals. I found this one, 100 popular goals, so all we have to do is head over to and pick a number between 1 and 100 (or think of one) and we’re set!

My choice is number 15: To save money.

The Location

What will our setting be? It took a few tries but I liked the idea of a cliff. I take this to mean that one of the significant locations in the story should involve a cliff.

The Item

I chose: A mirror.

Story Summary

So, putting it all together, our story skeleton is as follows:

Write about a glamorous male movie director who is influenced by the occult and who seeks to demonstrate the power of love by a test of courage. As he does so, our brave director will defeat a subtle plot (perhaps one set in motion by his nemesis the Scottish butcher).

 The situation (see above) was that of a disputed inheritance so perhaps the butcher is his sister. They are normally close, but they each want a certain something, the same certain something, from their father’s estate. (Perhaps a mirror?)

Since this is about the occult, let’s say the director thinks this something, this artifact, holds the key to unlocking a mystery that has fascinated him, driven him, his entire life.

His sister, though, is much more pragmatic. She is going through a bad patch financially and wants to sell the mirror. The brother is incensed by this suggestion. “If you would allow me to use the artifact we would be wealthy.”

You can see that the goal has shifted a bit, from saving money to acquiring money, but I think the important thing is to be willing to ignore random choices and make the story one’s own.

That’s it! That was an example, if anyone feels inspired and would like to write this story, please do! I’d love to know how it all turns out. Is the director simply insane or is the mirror a portal to something more? How far will each character go to get what they want?

Photo credit: "Early morning sunshine" by Caroline under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, October 22

NaNoWriMo Is For Everyone, Even Rebels!

NaNoWriMo is almost upon us!

What is NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo (or NaNo for short) is a terrific way to help kickstart a creative project.

During the month of November many people don writing hats (mine is a well-worn dark blue baseball cap), sequester themselves within the lonely depths of their writer’s cave, and attempt to complete the first draft of a 50,000 word novel.

Is NaNo For Writers or Non-Writers?

NaNo is for everyone! 

Granted, many writers pen/type more than 1,600 words per day so NaNo wouldn’t be very much of a challenge for them, but even so I think there’s something to be said for joining thousands of other writers all over the digital world and sharing a common experience. 

And, let’s face it, if you publish your word count every day that’s one more reason to stick with one’s story and do one’s best. When I write, when I’m in the bowels of a project, sometimes I feel isolated, sometimes I feel that no one else cares what I’m doing. When those feelings seep in it’s a lot easier to slack off instead of keeping my nose to the grindstone—metaphorically speaking, of course. That would be a terribly uncomfortable position, like something one might see in the Tower of London!

NaNo Is For Rebels

I’ll talk about the official rules of NaNo in a moment, but I want to stress that NaNo really is for everyone, even if you’re not keen to follow the official rules. 

Instead of writing X number of words a day, would you like to create a picture? If so, you won’t officially be participating in NaNo, but the sites invites you to join with them in November and be a rebel.

NaNo can be used for editing as well as writing 

This November I’m going to be a rebel!

That’s right. Instead of writing 2,000 words a day (my usual NaNo goal) I’m going to edit 14 pages a day. Since I’ve come back from my (marvelous!) vacation it’s been difficult for me to get back into the swing of things and I’m a wee bit behind on my WIP. So! This is an excellent opportunity for me to benefit from some of the glorious momentum that NaNo creates and channel it into something I need (yet dislike) to do.

The Rules of NaNo

* “Write one 50,000-word (or longer!) novel, between November 1 and November 30.

* “Start from scratch. None of your own previously written prose can be included in your NaNoWriMo draft (though outlines, character sketches, and research are all fine, as are citations from other people's works). [NOTE:] While this is no longer a hard-and-fast rule, it is still very strongly recommended, ESPECIALLY for first timers. 

* “Write a novel. We define a novel as a lengthy work of fiction. If you consider the book you're writing a novel, we consider it a novel too!

* “Write more than one word repeated 50,000 times.

* “Upload your novel for word-count validation to our site between November 25 and November 30.”

If you don’t want to upload the first draft of your novel to the official website you won’t be an official winner, but you will still have won. I’ve never uploaded the first draft of any of my novels simply because I hate the thought of anyone being able to see my first draft. (And yes, I know my NaNo account is password protected but I can think of far too many ways that could go wrong.)

I know some people, Stephen King for example, write first drafts (he includes an example in his book, “On Writing”) that are very close to the final draft. I don’t. One of the bloggers I follow once quipped that she didn’t write her first drafts, she vomited them. Yep. That’s me too. Not pretty. Not something I would ever willingly share. 

(Thinking about it now, it might be kind of fun to write a program which randomized the positions of all the words. That is, which kept the number of words in each sentence the same, which even kept the punctuation the same, but which swapped each word with another found elsewhere in the manuscript. Were I to do that the word count would stay the same but the text would be gibberish. Hmmm ...)

NaNo Resources

In the coming days I’m going to write more about how to prepare for NaNo, how to defeat writers block, how to pry oneself free from a dead end, and so on. For now, here are a few articles:

My previous articles on NaNo, what it is and tips on how to prepare:

Photo credit: "Don't drop the Ball..." by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, October 28

NaNoWriMo, Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason and Plot Wheels

NaNoWriMo, Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason and Plot Wheels

In this article I explore several plot wheels and examine how they can be used to generate ideas during NaNoWriMo (or anytime!). But, first, some background.

Stephen King on Plot Wheels

Stephen King in On Writing credits Edgar Wallace with creating plot wheels. King writes:
"An amusing sidelight: the century’s greatest supporter of Developing the Plot may have been Edgar Wallace, a bestselling potboiler novelist of the 1920s. Wallace invented—and patented—a device called the Edgar Wallace Plot Wheel. When you got stuck for the next Plot Development or needed an Amazing Turn of Events in a hurry, you simply spun the Plot Wheel and read what came up in the window: a fortuitous arrival, perhaps, or Heroine declares her love. These gadgets apparently sold like hotcakes."
I don't want to mislead anyone into thinking King approves of such plot-generating devises. Earlier in that same chapter he wrote:
"You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer—my answer, anyway—is nowhere. I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible."
Stephen King is a well-known pantser (or, if you prefer, a discovery writer). He doesn't plot. He crafts realistic characters and then sets them lose on an unsuspecting story world; or perhaps it's the other way around. He creates realistic characters, characters we identify with, and then places them in a world, one much like our own, but with sharper edges.

King writes:
"I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course). (On Writing)"
I'm going to argue that, even if one holds the above view, there's still a place for plot wheels. Not for generating plot, but for generating ideas.

It's sort of like watching clouds on a warm summer day. You're lying in the grass, the warmth of the sun baking into your skin, the hard, cool, earth at your back. You're absently chewing a piece of grass and looking up at the clouds, watching them transform into all manner of things. A bear, a mountain, a heart, a rose. Anything.

My point: we get ideas in all sorts of ways. Why not plot wheels? During NaNoWriMo anything that can help you generate ideas is a good thing.

Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason and Plot Wheels

Erle Stanley Gardner wrote 119 Perry Mason novels. In Lawyer Turned Detective, we find out at least part of the secret to his success:
"Key to Gardner's remarkable output was his use of the plot wheels invented and patented by another of his successors, a British crime novelist named Edgar Wallace. By using different combinations of possible twists and turns for both major and minor characters, Gardner was able to construct narratives that held his readers rapt for several decades."
I've taken the liberty of transcribing four of Edgar Wallace's plot wheels.

(Thanks to Kim Aippersbach for sending me the link and to Silvia Moreno-Garcia for originally passing along the information.)

Erle Stanley Gardner's Plot Wheels

Erle Stanley Gardner used four wheels to help him generate plots for his Perry Mason stories: the wheel of blind trials, the wheel of hostile minor characters, the wheel of solutions, and the wheel of complicating circumstances. (He may have used others, but those are the four I've seen.)

(Caveat: As you can see from the picture of the wheels some of the words are difficult to make out. I did my best. Also, Gardner used abbreviations and omitted certain words due to space constraints. I've expanded a few of them in an effort to make the meaning clearer.)

The Wheel Of Hostile Minor Characters Whose Function Is Making Complications For The Hero

These folks put obstacles in the hero's way, make it difficult for her to reach her goal.

1. Hick detective.
2. Attorney.
3. Newspaper reporter.
4. Detective.
5. Business rival.
6. Rival in love.
7. Father of heroine.
8. Blackmailer.
9. Gossip.
10. Meddlesome friend.
11. Suspicious servant.
12. Hostile dog.
13. Spy.
14. Incidental crook.
15. Hotel detective.
16. Thickheaded police.

B. Wheel Of Complicating Circumstances

1. Hero is betrayed to villain by spies.
2. Every move the hero makes takes him from the frying pan and puts him into the fire.
3. Heroine's maid is a spy.
4. Father of heroine is hostile to the hero.
5. Detective believes the hero is guilty and tries to arrest him/her at a critical time.
6. Hero commits an incidental crime. For example, he/she is caught speeding and is arrested.
7. Witness mistakes hero for villain.
8. Hero violates the law and is sought.
9. Heroine's mind is poisoned against the hero.
10. Some character is not as represented.
11. Rival in love tries to discredit the hero.
12. Zeal of hick cop upsets plans.

C. The Wheel of Blind Trials By Which The Hero Is Mislead or Confused

1. Witness lies.
2. A document is forged.
3. A witness is planted.
4. A client conceals something.
5. A client misrepresents something.
6. A friend pretends to betray the hero.
7. The villains assistant pretends to betray the hero.
8. A vital witness refuses to talk.
9. False confessions.
10. Genuine mistakes.
11. A witness takes flight.
12. A witness is kidnapped.
13. A witness commits suicide.
14. A witness sells out.
15. Planted clues.
16. Impossible statements.

D. Solution Wheel

How the hero surmounts the obstacles thrown in his way.

1. Gets villain to betray himself through greed.
2. Gets the villain to, of his own free will, plant additional evidence.
3. Plants fake evidence to confuse the villain.
4. Fakes circumstances so the villain will think he/she has been discovered.
5. Tricks the hero's accomplice into confessing.
6. Villain is hoist by his/her own petard.
7. Villain killed while he/she is trying to frame someone.
8. Gets villain to overreach himself/herself.
9. Meets trickery with horse-sense.
10. Squashes obstacles by sheer courage.
11. Turns villains against each other.

12. Traps [tricks?] villain into betraying a hiding place. Hero either a) creates a fake fire, or b) gives him/her something else to conceal, or c) makes it necessary for the villain to flee (and so must take something out of the hiding place).

This idea can be adapted to any area. I think I'm going to put together a list of professions as well as a list of things a character could plausibly lose.

I've had fun writing about plot wheels. I hope they'll provide an idea, or three, for you just when you need it whether or not you're going through NaNoWriMo.

Here's an app, The Brainstormer, that does something similar to a plot wheel. I haven't used it, but it looks interesting.

Note: My next post will be about Dan Wells' 7-Point System.

Photo credit: "Every holiday brings new bokeh" by kevin dooley under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, October 4

Getting Ready For NaNoWriMo

Getting Ready For NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo is just around the corner and I'm getting excited.

November is the national novel writing month (NaNoWriMo) when scads of odd folks (like me!) forgo human contact, regular meals, good hygiene and sleep to write a novel in 30 days.


Far from it!

In 2011, 256,618 writers participated in NaNo and 36,843 of them, a little over 14%, crossed the 50K finish line.  I'm boggled! 37 thousand people wrote a novel in a month last year. Sure, we're talking about first drafts and first drafts need a LOT of work: editing, feedback, professional editing, and so on, but when you've got the first draft done you've got it! You've caught the tale of the story-dragon. You're a winner!

NaNoWriMo: The Rules

Here's how NaNoWriMo works:

1. Write a 50,000-word (or longer!) novel, between November 1 and November 30.

2. Start from scratch. None of your own previously written prose can be included in your NaNoWriMo draft (though outlines, character sketches, and research are all fine, as are citations from other people’s works).

3. Write a novel. A novel is a lengthy work of fiction. If you consider the book you’re writing a novel, the folks over at NaNoWriMo consider it a novel too!

4. Be the sole author of your novel. Apart from those citations mentioned two bullet-points up.

5. Write more than one word repeated 50,000 times.

6. Upload your novel for word-count validation between November 25 and November 30. [1]

Daily Word Count

50,000 words sounds like a lot. And it is! But you've got 30 days to finish, so here's how the word count breaks down:

Write every day:
50,000/30 = 1,667 words per day

Take one day off a week:
50,000/26 = 1,923 words per day

Two days off a week:
50,000/22 = 2,273 words per day

I try to do a minimum of 2,000 words a day. That way I can have the odd day off if I need it.

Getting Signed Up For NaNoWriMo

It's easy, and free, to get involved. Just head on over to the official NaNoWriMo website and sign up. If you want to work on your own that's great, but the site can help put you in contact with NaNo-ers in your area.

Preparing For NaNoWriMo

You may think one or more of these suggestions are loopy, but they've helped me complete the challenge two years in a row.

1. Starting now, write 2,000 words a day.

No, I'm not crazy!

I think practically all writers find some form of writing easy, whether it's fiction, non-fiction, journalling, whatever. Pick the form that's easiest for you and increase your daily writing so that when the first of November comes along you're already writing 2,000 (or so) words a day.

One way to help yourself do this is by blogging. One of the benefits of having a blog is that you can practise writing regularly, writing faster, writing more.

But if you don't feel like blogging you don't have to. Write flash fiction, short stories, guest blog posts, articles, letters to the editor. Whatever strikes your fancy.

2. Work on the structure of your story

You're allowed to outline your story before November 1st and I think it's a fabulous idea. Here are a few links:

The structure of a story

Orson Scott Card & The MICE Quotient: How To Structure Your Story
Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction
How Plotting Can Build A Better Story
How To Write A Story
Chuck Wendig On Story Structure
The Basics of Good Storycraft: 5 Tips
A Perfect Plot In 6 Easy Steps
Chuck Wendig on Plot, Complication, Conflict and Consequence

The structure of a scene within a story

Making A Scene: Using Conflicts and Setbacks to Create Narrative Drive


Kim Harrison's Character Grid
4 Ways Outlining Can Give A Writer Confidence

3. Prepare meals in advance

Eating right and getting enough sleep are important. You, your health, are much more important than writing 50,000 words in a month. Prepare nutritious meals beforehand and freeze them so when you're in the writing trenches all you have to do is pop the meal in the microwave and give yourself a high-five for being awesome!

4. Find a place to write

Some writers like to be in the midst of the hustle and bustle of a coffee shop, or embedded in the soft, cushioned, quiet of their home office, or reclining in a La-Z-Boy.

Some writers find they work best if they write in one and only one spot while others like to move around (one day at the coffee shop, one day in their office, one day sitting on the couch, and so forth).

Do whatever works for you and if you're not sure what does, experiment! This is another thing it's good to find out before November 1st.

5. Tell your friends and family you're going to write 50,000 words in 30 days.

It's important your friends and family know what you're doing and support you.

If you tell them what you're up to, they'll (hopefully) understand why you can't spend as much time with them. Also, you'll likely feel a bit more pressure to win so that, when Uncle Dan asks you at Christmas whether you finished, you'll be able to say, "Of course!" rather than trying to hide behind the mint jelly.

Your family will understand why you've turned into a zombie, someone who nips out from her writing cave to pop food in the microwave or use the facilities. They won't freak out when they see the black circles under your eyes or the way your clothes hang looser or the way you're mumbling to yourself about "plot".

Or something.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? If so, how are you preparing for it?

1. I wanted to give you a link for these rules, and tell you where to get your manuscript validated, but none of my previous links worked. Chris Baty, the one who started NaNoWriMo in 1999, stepped down as Executive Director in January last year to become a full-time writer. On top of that, the website is being redesigned and moved from Drupal to Ruby-on-Rails. I think that explains the missing links. (Wikipedia)

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

Sunday, April 14

Larry Brooks On The Structure Of Short Stories

Larry Brooks On The Structure Of Short Stories

I'm excited! For months I've been looking for a really good sink-your-teeth-in analysis of short story structure.

Today I found it in Larry Brooks' post: The Short Story on Structuring Your Short Story.

"short stories are harder to wrap your head around than a novel"

It's so true!

And that seems strange. A novel is 80,000 or so words while a short story can be as brief as 1,000. It would seem that a short story would be easier, not harder, to write.

Larry Brooks writes:
For every famous short story writer out there, there are 100 famous novelists.  That’s no accident.

To help explain this – as much to myself as for those reading this – consider this analogy: we get about two decades to raise our children.  We have that long, give or take, to send them out into the world with a shot at success and happiness.

A lot has to happen.  Sometimes two decades isn’t enough.

Try doing it in six months.  Or even a year.

 The Elements of Any Story

Larry Brooks lists the following as essential elements in any story, regardless of length:

- Conflict
- Stakes
- Need
- Journey
- Opposition
- Characterization
- Setting
- Arena
- Sub-text
- Voice

Your story is like a canvas laid out before you. Perhaps the canvas is huge and populated with dozens of characters (+120,000 word novels). Perhaps the canvas is tiny as a postage stamp (flash fiction).

It's up to you what size you want the canvas to be (/how maybe words you want to use) but you still have to communicate the same elements, though you have far less space and opportunity to do so.

If you're looking at this list wondering how the heck you can get all that into a 1,000 word piece of flash fiction, here's what Larry Brooks says is the trick: One or more of the above can be implied.

(By the way, Stephen King talks about his book, Under The Dome, and compares its scope to the size of a painter's canvas. The video clip is 4 minutes 11 seconds long.)

Know Your Theme

Writers need to be crystal clear about their objective for the story. Larry writes:
To pull this off, the short story writer needs to be perhaps even better at one specific aspect of the storytelling craft than the novelist.

The short story writer needs to be mission-driven.  The writer’s intentions – which implies a clear understanding of why this story needs to be written – requires a clear, concise objective before it can work.
 In other words, while this isn't always true for novels, for a short story you need to know your theme before you set pen to paper.

Once you understand the mission of the story--the work you want it to do--then you can decide on what structure you want the story to have.

Larry writes:
And for that [the story's structure], you can use the four-part structure for novels (set-up, response, attack, resolution, each part separated by specific plot points) to put a fence around your short story intentions.

The Structure of a Short Story

The question: Does a short story have to be structured like a novel? Does it have to have three acts, two plot points (/reversals), pinch points, and so on?

Larry says no, it's up to you.

Imagine a novel as a house. An 80,000 word novel would be like a 2,500 square foot family home. Perhaps we can compare a 120,000 word high fantasy novel to a sprawling 6,000 square foot manor house.

In larger works, you show the whole house while in a short story you have a choice. You can show a very very small house (friends of mine lived in a 500 square foot thimble of a house while they were going to university) or you can choose to only show one room of a larger house.

Larry writes:
Yes, you can create a four-part short story that is, in essence, a condensed version of the classic structural paradigm.

Or, you can hone in on any specific moment or segment of the four-part structure – such as, a single plot point element or a single scene from within any of the four contextually-defined parts – and have that become your architecture.

It’s like building a one room addition next to your house.  The end product might be intended to accommodate anything and everything that could go in inside the house, and when it’s done it needs to blend into the aesthetics and structural design of the bigger house.

Even if, in a picture or a drive-by, nobody gets to actually see the larger house.
 Brilliant analogy.

The Elements Of Any Story

I'm writing a 1,000 word piece of flash fiction for Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge and it's difficult! So much has to be included but even more has to be left out.

Here, though, are the elements I think any riveting story has:
- At least one character who wants something desperately.
- Clear stakes, what will happen if he succeeds and what will happen if he fails. And not just generally, personally. To him, to the people he loves.
-  Made the protagonist's motivation clear. (e.g., motivation vs goal: Frodo took the One Ring to Mordor because he wanted to, basically, save the world from destruction. That was his motivation. His goal was to destroy the ring.)
- One way in which your main character is strong
- One way in which your main character is very weak
- A character who takes decisive action to achieve his goal.
I think the key here is, in the case of flash fiction, that you can show more than one thing at the same time (for example, show a character's weakness at the same time as you show what he wants most in the world).

Story Structure: The Essentials

Jack went to the corner grocery store, lit it on fire, and came home. 

That is kinda, sorta, a story. Not a very good one, though. Why did Jack light the store on fire? What did he hope to gain? Was he trying to prevent something? Who is Jack anyway?

There is no cause and effect structure, the events of the story--Jack going to the store, setting the store on fire, and coming back home--seem completely independent of each other; unrelated.

There are certain elements every story should have, which is not to say that every story should have the same structure.

I think Chuck Wendig is right, every story is unique and so, unsurprisingly, has it's own unique structure. That said, there are certain things gripping stories, riveting stories, the kind of stories that keep you up reading till 3am even when you have an important meeting the next morning ... there are certain elements those stories have in common. For instance, one of the characters will always want something and there will be something preventing him/her from achieving it.

But, still, the structure of every single individual story will be unique.

1. A Set-Up/Ordinary World

Call this part what you will, but there needs to be something that came before the inciting incident, even if that something is never shown in the story. Some stories have the action begin at the inciting incident or after it, but at some point we need to get a peek at what the protagonist's life was like before the call to adventure.

2. Inciting Incident/Call To Adventure

Something happens to break the status quo and offers the hero/protagonist a challenge, a goal to pursue. A course of action which has an endpoint and clear stakes. We need to see:

- How the protagonist reacts to this incident. Is he scared, elated, cocky? What actions does he take in response to this change?

- What are the stakes? What will happen to the hero if he takes up the challenge and achieves the goal/prize? If he fails? (Often there's a sequel after the scene in which the inciting incident occurs in which the hero discusses his options.)

- What is the heroes goal?

- What is the heroes motivation?

3. Midpoint

Something big needs to happen. This could involve explosions and hand-to-hand combat but it needn't. The essential thing is that the hero confronts or experiences something profound, something that will fundamentally change him or her.

This realization doesn't have to be something big. For instance, sometimes these revelations are like the last domino falling, they can be triggered by gazing out the living room window after the first snowfall of the year. (But of course that will have been built up to.)

When I write/edit, I strive to make it clear how this event, whatever it is that happens at the midpoint, changes the protagonist's goal--if it does. How it changes the stakes. How it causes the opposition to increase.

4. Reversal/All Is Lost/Complications (approx 3/4 mark)

After the midpoint and before the resolution there's probably going to be a big setback or at least a surprising, unexpected, change that complicates things, that makes it much harder--if not impossible--for the hero to attain his goal.

The stakes have been clearly spelled out in the other sections of the story so, here, the hero is staring failure in the face. Whatever plans the hero has, whatever progress they've made, is wiped out--or seems to be wiped out--right at the moment of victory.

But wait! It's so much worse than he thought it would be.

The negative consequences of failure aren't changed, not really, but they are intensified. Whatever the hero was anticipating, the negative stakes are now 10 times worse. If, in the beginning, only the hero's life was in danger, now the lives of his companions (if any), his tribe, and indeed the entire planet (perhaps the galaxy!), hang in the balance.
Now comes the really tricky part, getting the hero out of the mess he's in!

The hero as phoenix

One way of pulling the hero out of both the fire and the frying pan is to use his weakness. By overcoming his weakness, his great flaw, he will discover a way around the obstacles before him, a way to achieve his goal.

Or perhaps your hero has a special strength. For example, Indiana Jones had both knowledge and control--he knew not to look at the Ark when the Nazis opened it and, because (unlike Pandora) he could control his curiosity, he survived their fate.

The important thing is that if the hero does save himself at the 11th hour how he does it should come as a surprise, but one the audience feels they should have seen, or at least one that they could have worked out for themselves if they'd had more time to think about it.

5. Resolution

This is the climax, the final confrontation. This is where the hero either achieves his goal or fails.

Whichever outcome, we need to show the aftermath.

- The hero realizing the stakes, either victory or defeat. We needed to see Frodo back on The Shire. We need to see the One Ring slip into the liquid fire.

- Show the effect of victory or defeat on whatever it was that motivated him.

- Show what happened to whatever opposed the hero in his quest.

And in flash fiction you have to try and do the essential bits in the above in under 1,000 words!

Challenge: I'm taking up Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction challenge this week. Join me! Which sentence would you pick as the first line of your 1,000 word story?

Other articles you might like:

- How To Get Honest Book Reviews
- What Slush Pile Readers Look For In A Story
- Is Writing Rewriting?

Photo credit: "verde amarelo" by alexdecarvalho under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.