Showing posts with label scene. Show all posts
Showing posts with label scene. Show all posts

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.

Wednesday, July 2

How To Turn Story Ideas Into A Novel

How To Turn Story Ideas Into A Novel


Today I discuss Jack Bickham's advice about how to transform your story ideas into a novel. All quotations are from Mr. Bickham's excellent book, Scene & Structure.

The Game Plan: How to develop your story ideas into a novel


Let's dive right in.

1. "Consider your story materials as presently imagined. Look for and identify, in terms of days, weeks or months, that briefer period of time when 'the big stuff happens.' Plan to eliminate virtually everything else."


I've had these kinds of big-picture ideas. Not only do you know what's going to happen to your protagonist--what she wants, what opposes her, her motivation, and so on--but you know the history of the entire story world! The hard part: Where do you start? Where do you begin telling the story?

Jack Bickham says: Start when 'the big stuff' starts happening to your character.

For example: 

In Star Wars IV the big stuff started happening when Darth Vader boarded Princess Leia's shuttle while she was on a diplomatic mission.

In American Beauty the big stuff starts to happen when Lester Burnham sees his daughter's friend, Angela Hayes, shake her pom-poms (literally!).

In Breaking Bad the big stuff starts to happen when Walter White discovers he's dying from cancer.

2. "Think hard about your most major character and what makes him tick – what his self-concept is, and what kind of life he has built to protect and enhance it."


In Star Wars IV Luke Skywalker wanted to travel, to see the galaxy, and to become a pilot; he loved flying. In Luke's case what was notable was the contrast between the life he lived (a life of duty) and the life he dreamt of living.

In American Beauty Lester used to see his life through the eyes of his wife, his friends, his boss, his neighbors, his colleagues. He bought the kind of house they would envy, he has the kind of job that lets him fit in well at dinner parties and barbecues. 

Then something happens, a crazy event that shatters everything. It's as if a mischievous cherub shot him through the heart and he does something massively inappropriate, he falls madly in love with his daughter's friend, Angela. 

As a result of this intoxicating experience, Lester's life re-orients. No longer does he see himself through the eyes of his wife or his neighbours, or his friends. No. He sees himself and everyone else through the eyes of his beloved: a sixteen year old child. As a result he sets about destroying his old life and erecting a new one in its place, one that he hopes will meet with Angela's approval.

At the beginning of Breaking Bad Walter White is the guy with the enormous brain and the small life. Other people make his decisions for him. He's safe. Predictable. Then Walter White discovers he's dying and he, in his words, "wakes up." Rather than passively accepting money for his treatments he gets the money himself. His way. 

3. "Identify or create a dramatic situation or event which will present your character (and your reader) with the significant, threatening moment of change."


Everyone is going to have their own opinions about this, but in Star Wars IV I think this moment of change came when Luke stood in front of the smouldering ruins of his uncle's home and saw the charred skeletons of his aunt and uncle. That was the moment of change, the moment that Luke went from child to adult and took up his own quest.

In American Beauty the moment of change was bizarre: Lester fell head-over-heels in love with his daughter's teenage friend. It seemed like a perfectly ordinary moment in a perfectly ordinary day. And then, wham! Lester's life changes forever. There's no smoking skeletons, but his old life, his old world view, is just as thoroughly transformed.

In Breaking Bad their was more than one moment of change, but, arguably, the big moment happened in the oncologist's office as Walter White was told he had a short time to live.

#  #  #

I'm going to end here but Jack Bickham continues to list another five points, but I encourage you to pick up a copy of his book, Scene & Structure, or get it out of the library. 

All the best to you as you work diligently on your WIP!

Photo credit: "The Jet Pack Pack" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, May 12

Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts

Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts


I finally published the first episode of my book on writing: Parts of Story: Plot!

To celebrate, and to say a big, huge, massive thank you! to my readers, if you subscribed to my email list before today then you should have received an email telling you how to download a free copy. You don't have to sign anything, there are no strings. I just want to give you the book for free. (Because all good things come to an end, this offer will expire May 26, 2014.) 



Back to writing about writing ...


A couple of weeks ago I received feedback from one of my beta readers about my manuscript for Parts of Story. He said, "Great book! But I don't understand how scenes and sequels are related to overall story structure."

Oops! I corrected that before I published my book, but the more I thought about the subject, the more I wanted to expand on what I wrote. So ... blog post!

Jack Bickham: Scene & Structure


I just finished reading a terrific book on writing. I almost said "the best book on writing I've ever read" but there are so many great books on writing I couldn't possibly pick a favorite. At the moment, Jack Bickham's Scene & Structure and Stephen King's On Writing are definitely at the top of my favorites list, though for different reasons.

Although both Scene & Structure and On Writing seem to have been written with beginning writers in mind (though they have a lot to offer writers of every level of experience) the authors approach their topic—how to write—in very different ways. King focuses more on the art of writing while Bickham focuses more on the craft of writing. 

The Craft Of Writing


Let's get the definitions out of the way.

A scene is:


"A scene is a unit of conflict, of struggle, lived through by character and reader. It’s a blow-by-blow account of somebody’s time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition." (Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer)

A sequel is:


"A sequel is a unit of transition that links two scenes, like the coupler between two railroad cars. It sets forth your focal character’s reaction to the scene just completed, and provides him with motivation for the scene next to come." (Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer)

You may think it's odd that I raved about Jack Bickham's book and then used definitions from Dwight V. Swain's. Swain was Bickham's teacher, his mentor and his friend. Bickham is expanding on what Swain said, he's filtering it through is own understanding and experience, but it's the same system.[1]

A sequence is:


A daisy chain of scenes and sequels that has a beginning, middle and end and which is unified by an idea. 

An act is:


A daisy chain of sequences. Just like each scene and sequence has a beginning so does every act. A beginning, a middle and end. Acts, in turn, combine to form the major structural bones of a story.

The Three Act Structure


As we've just seen, scene-sequel pairs make up sequences, sequences compose acts and acts form the skeleton of a story.

How many acts? It doesn't matter. Three acts, four acts, two acts, one act, six acts, you name it. One of the most popular--and most useful--structures is the three act structure (or the four act structure that simply chops the second act down the middle to yield four equal parts). 

I'm not going to go over this structure in detail since I've stepped through it in my post: Story Structure (I've updated that post in my book).

Sequences and Acts


Typically, there are two sequences in the first act, four sequences in the second act and two sequences in the third act. (For more about sequences see, The Eight Sequences, over at ScriptLab.com.)

That's it! That's how scenes and sequels fit into acts. Of course that's the bare bones, the basics. In the future I want to go over the structure of scenes and sequels in more detail, as well as how scenes flow into sequels and vice versa. At the end of Scene & Structure Jack Bickham gives the structure of a complete (hypothetical) 50,000 word suspense novel. I won't go that far, but if you're interested I would encourage you to get ahold of his book and study it.

Good writing!

References/Notes/Links


1. Jack Bickham wrote: "This book is dedicated to the memory of Dwight V. Swain: writer, teacher and friend. Without him, I would have had no career as a novelist."

Saturday, April 12

Parts of Story: What Is A Scene?

Parts of Story: What Is A Scene?


Jim Butcher describes a scene as the place "where all the plot in your book happens. Any time your character is actively pursuing his goal [...] he is engaged in a SCENE."[2]

Dwight V. Swain writes in Techniques of the Selling Writer that a scene is a "blow by blow account of somebody's time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition."[1]

Jack Bickham in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes gives us a warning. He holds that one of the most important aspects of a scene is its continuous nature. A writer develops the "action between the characters moment by moment, with nothing left out; you follow the rules of cause and effect, stimulus and response. To put this another way: you make sure that you never summarize during a high point of conflict in your story."

What elements do these three descriptions have in common? I think it's this: a scene centers around an uninterrupted conflict between two opposing forces. One very important thing: in a scene there is no exposition. No flashbacks. No information dumps. The action is uninterrupted.

The goal of the scene is to draw your readers into the story, to capture their interest, to get them to ask not only what happens next but to wonder why it happened.

Here's how Dwight V. Swain sums up the core, the essence, of a scene: 

Goal --> Conflict --> Disaster

Let's look at each of these.

Goal


Every scene needs two opposing forces, a protagonist and an antagonist (or, more generally, an antagonistic force).[3] Each scene needs someone who wants something desperately as well as someone, or something, who is just as desperate to stop them getting it. 

The goal should be specific.


The protagonist should have a goal so specific you could take a picture of it. A desire for riches isn't a good goal because it's too general, too abstract. Wanting to win next month's million dollar lottery, though, is a fine goal. It even suggests ways to bring it about: buy lottery tickets! Or, if you're writing a crime story, perhaps the protagonist figures out a way to rig the lottery.

Instead of a character wanting to be rich, have them dream of graduating from Harvard Law at the top of their class. Instead of a character wanting love in her life, have her daydream of marrying Ernest Watly, the eccentric librarian who moved to town last year. Instead of a character wanting to travel, have postcards from locations all over the world taped to her walls and give her an abiding desire to see the Nazca Lines in Peru.

The goal should be clearly communicated at the beginning of the scene.


The protagonist's goal should be clearly spoken or demonstrated at the beginning of the scene. There are two things here: first, the goal should be clearly and simply expressed and, second, such expression should occur at the beginning of the scene. As I wrote that sentence it seemed too obvious to state but then I remembered all the stories languishing under my bed in which I didn't follow that advice. 

The scene question.


Every scene should, implicitly, ask the question: Will the protagonist succeed in achieving their goal?

In a scene, any scene, the protagonist sets out to do something. Something specific. Something concrete. But his efforts are opposed. The antagonist has a goal too, and she can't achieve that goal if the protagonist does. So there's a problem. There's conflict.

This is good because now we've created uncertainty. The reader is (hopefully) wondering whether, and how, the protagonist will circumvent the opposition and get closer to achieving their goal.  If so, we've created suspense. It is this opposition between the major characters, this uncertainty, that will create suspense and keep readers turning pages.

The protagonist (and antagonist) must want something desperately.


Dwight V. Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer notes that characters, like people, have three kinds of wants: to possess something, relief from something or revenge for something.

P.D. James in her marvellous book, Talking About Detective Fiction, writes that "All motives can be explained under the letter L: lust, lucre, loathing and love."

Whatever the character wants, they must be willing to sacrifice quite a lot for it; possibly everything. Their sanity, even their life. Why? Because as a story progresses the opposition the protagonist faces must increase. At a certain point the protagonist's pursuit of their goal will lack plausibility unless they have a strong desire, and a strong motive, to achieve that goal. 

This is where character development is so very important. If what the character wants grows out of who the character is, out of their deepest desires and drives, then--when these drives are linked up to the goal--it will be plausible that the character will be willing to sacrifice anything to achieve that goal.

I'm going to leave off here. On Monday I'll finish this post and talk about the roles of both conflict and disaster in creating a scene.

(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!)

Links/References


1. Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer.
2. Jim Butcher, Scenes, on Livejournal.com.
3. I didn't want to launch into an in-depth explanation of terminology at the beginning of this article since that would be akin to giving an information dump at the beginning of a scene! But I do have a few things to say. In my book this part will likely end up in a glossary. 
- "Protagonist" comes to us from the Greeks and simply means "chief actor." Today, we use the word to indicate the primary character in a story or the main actor in a play. That said, many stories are told through different points of view (POV). Each of these POV characters is the protagonist of their own story. In this way we could talk of a "story protagonist" and a "scene protagonist." I tend to shy away from using these terms as I think they could be confusing. 
- Like "protagonist," the word "antagonist" comes to us from the Greeks and means "opponent, competitor, enemy, rival"[4] and is used to refer to the nemesis or main rival of the protagonist; the character who stands between the protagonist and his goal. The antagonist often isn't evil or even bad (if they are then the antagonist is often called a villain). Strictly speaking, the antagonist is just someone who stands between the protagonist and their goal.
- The phrase "antagonistic force" refers to anything that gets in the way of the protagonist achieving his goal, whether human or not. Tornadoes, diseases, and so on, are examples of natural phenomena that have been used as antagonistic forces.
4. Antagonist, Wikipedia.

Sunday, April 6

Parts of Story: What Is Narrative Setting?



What do we mean by "narrative setting"? It's simple: the setting is where the events of the story take place. The story world includes the physical environments the characters encounter as well as the cultural groups they interact with. You can create these environs from nothing but your imagination or you can set the story in the actual world. 

Conjuring a story world from nothing but the materials of your imagination may save long hours of research, but it must be consistent and plausible. A happy medium between these two is to set the tale in a fictional world but to use the actual world as a starting point. By changing aspects of the actual world one can often produce a setting that is both unique and plausible.

However you go about crafting your story world, the most time consuming, intricate and important aspect of a character's environment is their social environment.

What are the rules of your world's societies, both written and unwritten? What sorts of pair bonds are sanctioned? What are their norms, their unwritten rules? Are certain practices, certain actions, sanctioned but discouraged? 

Getting finer grained, what kinds of groups, or sub-groups, does the society contain? By this I mean any kind of group: political, recreational, medical, artificial, criminal, natural, sanctioned and unsanctioned. And if you see fit to give your world something like the internet, don't forget online groups!

Arguably, the most important environment for social creatures such as ourselves is our social environment; our family, our friends, the groups we belong to. But, of course, your protagonist need not be like us! Let your imagination run wild. Anything is fair game as long as it's believable.

Above all, think about ways to introduce opportunities for conflict when creating a story world.

The Elements of Setting: Time


What time of year is it in the story? Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter? If this is a fictional world, does it have seasons? How much time passes in your story? Hours? Days? Months? Years?

Is there anything unusual about the flow of time in your narrative? Is your story written as a stream of consciousness? Does your novel employ time-jumps for flashbacks to convey the story? 

The Elements of Setting: Place


Where does your story take place? What is its geography? Is it an unexplored wilderness or is it well populated? Does the story take place in a town? A city? A tropical jungle? A rainforest? Is the place barren? Lush? Isolated? Densely populated?

Is there much water nearby? Is the air dry or wet? Is there snow at Christmas time? What sports or hobbies could a person easily engage in given the features of the area? Snowboarding? Skiing? Swimming? Surfing? What sports couldn't your characters do? For example, could your characters swim without risking hypothermia in December?

The Elements of Setting: Circumstances


What social groups is your character involved in? Are they religious? Spiritual? Politically involved? Do they have a large family? Small family? No family? If they're a loner, do they have a network of friends online? What kind of social groups is your character a part of at work? Are they self-employed? Unemployed? Are they the first one at the water cooler in the morning, gossiping, or do they keep to themselves? Do they get along with their boss? 

What are the signs of group inclusion? Do your characters have an accent? Do they wear a uniform, or some sort of special clothing? Do they have markings that identify them as part of a particular group?

Do different groups, different societies or cultural groups, have different accents? Different ways of speaking?

How do these marks of social inclusion, these accents and languages, differ from those which existed a century ago? A millennium ago? Also, what will these groups, these societies, be like a century--or a millennium--from now?

Setting As It Relates To Each Scene


I've touched on some of this information, above, but let's get specific. Stories are made up of scenes and most scenes occur at a place and a time. 

For each scene, in addition to knowing what season it is, know (if outdoors) what the weather is like, what characters are in the scene, what happened just before the scene started and what will happen just after the scene ends, and know what time of day it is. Is it high noon? Nighttime? Twilight? The witching hour? 

What associations do the main characters have about this time? What memories might it provoke? For instance, a character might wake during the witching hour and remember a nightmare they had as a child. (This introduces conflict: the character would like to sleep but the nightmare, and now the memories invoked by it, trap them in the waking world.)

Place: Indoors? Outdoors?


If the scene takes place outdoors what's the weather like? Is the sun hidden behind clouds turning day into night? Is it nighttime, yet lightning flashes make the landscape bright as day? Is it snowing? Raining? Is it sunny, with the unbearable heat of the desert baking everything to a brittle hardness? Are the characters in the Antarctic? Are they isolated by distance and the unbearable, bitter, cold? What associations might they have to snow? How about rain? Lightning? 

For example, while an adult might hate to wake up to a winter wonderland, a child would likely be overjoyed--especially if it means a snow day!

If the scene takes place indoors, what are the characters' surroundings like? Are they lavish? Poor? Shabby? Drab? Colorful? Ostentatious? Is it a human-made structure or natural, something like a cave. If man-made, were they invited here? Are your characters comfortable here? Does it make them feel at home or are they unsure how to act? 

A room could be lavish and yet make a character uneasy because, while they have always desired it, they are unused to such luxury. Another character, one equally uncomfortable in such surroundings, might feel the urge to destroy it while yet another might relax and feel at home. This touches on the topic of how setting can be used to develop character, but before we examine that let's briefly look at the importance of being able to use setting to generate conflict.

Conflict


I've mentioned this before but it bears repeating. One thing all stories must have, whatever the story world, is conflict. Political parties battle each other. Countries go to war. Social groups hold diametrically opposed yet strongly held views about what constitutes appropriate conduct.

What do your characters believe? Where in this ever shifting maze of interconnectedness do they fit? What groups do they belong to? What do they believe about the world? Which social practices, which social institutions, do they embrace? How do these preferences generate conflict both within a character and between characters?

It is one thing for a character to understand what sort of behavior a particular society expects from its members, and quite another whether, and to what extent, they will go along with it.

Writing Challenge


Select one of your favorite books and try to answer the following questions: 

- What is the setting for the story? 
- Does the world have seasons? If so, during what season--or seasons--does the story take place? 
- How much time elapses during the story? 
- What is the geography like? 
- How many distinct social groups exist and what characteristics distinguish one from another? 
- Which aspects of the setting created the most conflict and how was it generated? 

Here's the sort of thing I mean. Imagine two societies are remarkably similar but one--Lakehonor--helped defend the surrounding region against an enemy while the other--Broomoward--did nothing. As a result, many citizens in Ladehonor despise Broomoward. It's winter, food is scarce, and a fire has ripped through Broomoward destroying its food reserves. Many in Broomoward accuse Lakehonor of setting the fire. One thing is certain, unless Broomoward gets food many of its citizens will starve to death. What will Broomoward do? Attack the city that defended it? What will Lakehonor do? Share it's food reserves with the city that not only didn't help defend against the enemy but that now accuses them of sabotage?

Given this setting, who would be your protagonist? I think I would choose a child from Broomoward who discovers evidence that their food reserves were destroyed by the enemy they thought Lakehonor had defeated. But will he be believed?