Showing posts with label structure. Show all posts
Showing posts with label structure. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 8

Murdoch Mysteries: A Specific Structure in Six Acts

Murdoch Mysteries: A Specific Structure in Six Acts


Before we talk about the general structure of a Murdoch Mystery let's look at the specific structure on one murdoch mystery. I want to pay special attention to how finding a body is used as a twist—something that spins the story off in another direction—right at the end of an act.

Number of Murders


The overwhelming majority of episodes opens with either finding a body or a murder being committed. Further, most (but by no means all) episodes have more than one murder.

What follows is loosely based on an episode of Murdoch Mysteries—“This One Goes to Eleven” from season 3, episode 6[link].  I haven’t looked at the script but it seems to me that this episode is most easily split up into 6 acts. Let’s take a look at the main points.

As you can see, "This One Goes to Eleven" has a whopping 4 murders and 5 bodies! That's a bit on the high side for a Murdoch Mystery but I thought this episode nicely illustrated how to end an act with a bang. Or, rather, with a twist that will hopefully keep the viewer watching.

This One Goes to Eleven, Season 3 Episode 6


Act One (1%)


The Inciting Incident: This event makes the change in the world that gets the story going. Often the Inciting Incident is a murder but in this episode it was the theft of Mrs. Sally Pendrick’s painting: "Bathsheba at her Toilet," by Rembrandt. (This was the first episode featuring Pendrick.)

The painting is stolen and a body is found in the elevator. No one can figure out how the murdering thieves pulled off the crime.

End of Act One: First body is found and it’s clear the detective is on the case.

Act Two (17%)


Doctor Julia Ogden examines the body at the crime scene.

Constable George Crabtree discovers how the murdering thieves might have gotten away.

Murdoch talks to Inspector Thomas Brackenreid at the police station about the case and they discuss who could be involved.

Brackenreid and Murdoch talk to an art expert (who also happens to be the murderer).

Murdoch interviews Mr. James Pendrick in the man’s office.

Murdoch meets Mrs. Pendrick (Mrs. Pendrick is the relationship character for this episode). Murdoch is very embarrassed because she is posing, nude, for a painting.

Murdoch meets Julia in the morgue and she gives Murdoch information about the body.

Murdoch revisits crime scene. He’s figured out how the painting was stolen and the guard murdered.

End of Act Two: Two more bodies are found seemingly murdered in the same way as the first.

Act Three (34%)


Julia Ogden is in the morgue examining the new bodies and gives Murdoch her report.

George Crabtree is in Murdoch’s office. He reports on what constables have found at the crime scene. Then George (as he does) goes on and on about the grisly nature of the crimes. Murdoch finds out the thieves are from Chicago.

Murdoch reports to Brackenreid about the thieves. He has discovered their identities.

Murdoch talks to Pendrick about the insurance policy and why he insured it for such an amount. Pendrick says that he, unlike his wife, sees art as an investment.

Murdoch searches for painter Luca Carducci, the fellow Murdoch is using as an art expert (Carducci is also the killer) and so goes to the place where artists hang out in Toronto. When Murdoch arrives he finds that Mrs. Pendrick is already there.

Mrs. Pendrick gifts Murdoch her painting.

Back at the station, Murdoch, Brackenreid and George Crabtree stand around the painting to figure out what it represents completely unaware it is intended to represent a nude woman. A humorous scene.

End of Act Three: Another body is found. It is Burt Lightman, the artist of the painting they were admiring.

Act Four (51%)


Burt Lightman was killed the same way as the thieves.

Murdoch searches Bert Lightman’s home. They find that in addition to being a modern painter he was also a talented classical painter. Which meant he was likely a forger.

Murdoch, in his lab, analyses the pigments Lightman used.

Murdoch consults Carducci again. Carducci tries to send Murdoch off on the wrong track but Murdoch overwhelms him with logic.

Murdoch talks to Mrs. Pendrick and tells her of his suspicions. She says she is shocked that Bert Lightman had taken advantage of her. (Later we find out she was likely behind the theft and murders.)

Back at the office Julia Ogden is gazing at Mrs. Pendrick’s painting. They talk about the case. Julia makes it plain she knows what the painting depicts—she is amused.

Murdoch and George Crabtree talk about the case. Murdoch discovers the clue he needs to find the stolen Rembrandt along with four copies.

Act Five (68%)


Murdoch is in his lab doing research.

Murdoch talks to Brackenreid. He has discovered that one of the five paintings recovered is the original. They discuss the murderer’s plans and motivations.

Murdoch returns the original painting to Mr. Pendrick. This is a trap. His expert—Luca Carducci—lies and says that the original is a copy.

Just as Carducci, the killer, is in the act of checking his purloined painting to see whether it's the original, Murdoch walks in. Murdoch accuses Carducci of being the murderer and asks him who he was working for. Carducci is about to kill Murdoch when Mr. Pendrick comes in and shoots Carducci dead.

Act Six: Wrap Up (85%)


Murdoch wraps up the case. Murdoch talks to Brackenreid and Julia Ogden about the case, the solution as well as the questions that remain open. He tells them he suspects Mr. Pendrick  of masterminding the theft.

Murdoch wraps up the relationships. Murdoch visits the significant characters—Mr and Mrs Pendrick—and either resolves the conflicts or shows where the relationships now stand, how they have changed.


So! That's season 3, episode 6. I think it breaks down nicely into six acts, but it doesn’t have to be six. Sometimes writers prefer six acts because they have to work with five commercial breaks!

As novel writers—and this is, ultimately, a blog about novel writing—we don’t have to worry about commercial breaks; at least not yet! So I think in my next post, when I go over a detailed general structure, I’ll use a four act structure with only two murders.  Stay tuned! :-)



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

The Murdoch Mysteries originated as a book series by Maureen Jennings, the first being Except the Dying.

From the blurb: “In the cold Toronto winter of 1895, the unclad body of a servant girl is found frozen in a deserted laneway. Detective William Murdoch quickly finds out that more than one person connected with the girl’s simple life has something to hide.”



I'll talk to you again on Friday. Until then, good writing!

Notes:


1. Murdoch Mysteries.

2. There is no such thing as a “normal” episode there are episodes which differ more than others. For example, the last episode of a season (these might, for example, place Murdoch himself in mortal danger). Also, though I love it when shows do quirky one-offs that appeal to die-hard fans (the characters go back in time, they find out that ghosts are real) these can be very different kinds of stories.

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. :-)

Tuesday, March 17

Kurt Vonnegut On The Relationship Between Plot And Literature


“When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do.”
— Kurt Vonnegut

By now you’ve likely heard about Matthew L. Jockers and his program (Syuzhet) designed to reveal the underlying plot structure of stories by analyzing sentiment. Jockers writes that he got this idea from Kurt Vonnegut and Vladimir Propp:

“After seeing the video and hearing Vonnegut’s opening challenge (“There’s no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers”), I set out to develop a systematic way of extracting plot arcs from fiction. I felt this might help me to better understand and visualize how narrative is constructed. The fundamental idea, of course, was nothing new. What I was after is what the Russian formalist Vladimir Propp had defined as the narrative’s syuzhet (the organization of the narrative) as opposed to its fabula (raw elements of the story).” (Revealing Sentiment and Plot Arcs with the Syuzhet Package)

Well! That combines two of my favorite things: storytelling and programming. I spent some time yesterday reading about MJ’s program as well as the lively debate between himself and Annie Swafford. (If you’d like to read more about this I recommend: A Fabula of Syuzhet.)

But I’m not going to talk about any of that today, at least not directly. After I finished reading “A Fabula of Syuzhet,” I decided it was time to re-read what Kurt Vonnegut had to say about plot. That’s what I’d like to share with you today.

Kurt Vonnegut On Story Structure


Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t seem to have been at all snobbish when it comes to admitting the need for some sort of plot, some sort of story structure. For instance, during an interview, published in The Paris Review, he said:

“VONNEGUT: I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaningless of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now, there’s an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are—

“INTERVIEWER: And what they want.

“VONNEGUT: Yes. And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. “Modern life is so lonely,” they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.” (Kurt Vonnegut, The Art of Fiction No. 64, The Paris Review)

Kurt Vonnegut’s Plot Shapes





(Click to enlarge.)



1. Boy In Hole


Here someone gets into trouble and then gets out of it. The protagonist starts out just above average. They aren’t depressed about life. Not yet. 

KV says: “You will see this story over and over again. People love it and it is not copyrighted. The story is “Man in Hole,” but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole. It’s: Somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again [draws line A]. It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers.” (From: A Man Without A Country)

2. Boy Meets Girl


This plot starts off with average people on a day like any other. There’s nothing exceptional here. Then something wonderful happens, followed shortly by a reversal of fortune. So this could be described as: The protagonist didn’t have much of anything, then got something, lost it and, finally, got it back.

3. Cinderella’s Story


KV remarks that this is the most popular story in western civilization. We love to hear this story. “Every time it’s retold someone makes a million dollars, you’re welcome to do it.”

A little girl is the protagonist. Her mother has died and her father has remarried. Her step-mother is a vile tempered ugly woman with two nasty daughters. 

There’s a party at the palace but she can’t go. “She has to help her two stepsisters and her dreadful stepmother get ready to go, but she herself has to stay home. Is she even sadder now? No, she’s already a broken-hearted little girl. The death of her mother is enough. Things can’t get any worse than that. So okay, they all leave for the party. Her fairy godmother shows up [draws incremental rise], gives her pantyhose, mascara, and a means of transportation to get to the party.

“And when she shows up she’s the belle of the ball [draws line upward]. She is so heavily made up that her relatives don’t even recognize her. Then the clock strikes twelve, as promised, and it’s all taken away again [draws line downward]. It doesn’t take long for a clock to strike twelve times, so she drops down. Does she drop down to the same level? Hell, no. No matter what happens after that she’ll remember when the prince was in love with her and she was the belle of the ball. So she poops along, at her considerably improved level, no matter what, and the shoe fits, and she becomes off-scale happy.”

4. Franz Kafka’s Story


Franz Kafka’s Story isn’t shown in the four minute clip, above. KV says:

“Now there’s a Franz Kafka story [begins line D towards bottom of G-I axis]. A young man is rather unattractive and not very personable. He has disagreeable relatives and has had a lot of jobs with no chance of promotion. He doesn’t get paid enough to take his girl dancing or to go to the beer hall to have a beer with a friend. One morning he wakes up, it’s time to go to work again, and he has turned into a cockroach [draws line downward and then infinity symbol]. It’s a pessimistic story.”

What Does Plot Have To Do With Literature?


Then KV asks the question, the question that, arguably, this has all been leading up to. KV asks: 

“The question is, does this system I’ve devised help us in the evaluation of literature?”

And that is, indeed, the question. KV’s answer seems to be that it doesn’t. Why? Because these kinds of gains and ills aren’t what makes a story great literature. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with having them, but they’re irrelevant. What makes Hamlet great isn’t that it has one of these structures, it’s that it told the truth. KV says:

“But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.”

So, what’s Kurt Vonnegut saying? He’s not saying throw away the plot, he’s saying use the plot to keep an audience’s attention—even if the plot is simply whether or not the protagonist will get an errant piece of dental floss out from between her teeth! Give the audience something that will keep them reading, keep them entertained, while you tell them your truth.

And that’s what storytelling, great storytelling, is all about.

At least, IMHO.

That’s it! Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, March 10

A Structure For Short Stories

A Structure For Short Stories

I was going to take a break from talking about story structure but I came across a fabulous post by Chris Winkle over at Mythcreants, “Outline a Short Story in Seven Steps,” that I have to share.

I encourage you to head over to Chris Winkle’s site and read his article for yourself, what follows is what I’m going to call ‘a creative summary.’ Inevitably, I’ve filtered his ideas through my own point of view. One of the results of this is that CW’s seven points have blossomed into nine.

1. Create a problem


This problem will be the central conflict of the story. I like to think of this as ‘the engine’ since this is what drives the story forward, as well as what will initially grab the reader's curiosity. Additionally, this problem is what propels the protagonist to action.

CW advises writers to make this problem neither too easy nor too complex. He writes:

“... if you choose something trivial, you’ll work harder to make it meaningful, and if you choose something daunting, you could struggle to find a solution.”

Instead: “Look for a significant problem that can be solved by one person, in one scene.”

Great advice! I’m realizing why so many of my short stories morphed into novellas or novels: I have the habit of using problems that are much too big.

2. Create a character (the protagonist) to have this problem


CW (wisely) advises us to follow KISS (keep it simple ... silly). We’re trying to write a short story, so don’t describe anything that isn’t integral to the story.

CW also advises that the protagonist be consistent, distinctive, driven, complex, deep and evolving. (To read more on this see CW’s article: The Six Traits of Strong Characters. Jim Butcher has also written about this on his Livejournal account: Characters.)

3. Answer the question, Why does this problem matter to this character?


CW writes: 

“The more important the problem is to the character, the more important it becomes to the reader. Come up with a solid reason why this character cares; this goes double if your problem is trivial. Raise the stakes until it has emotional impact.”

Humans are ruled by their curiosity. Yesterday I was watching a recording of a live performance and the only thing I remember about it is that one of the people in the balcony had his jacket draped over the edge. I kept wondering, Will it fall? 

I know, this was completely trivial. It was just a silly old jacket. Even if it did fall the stakes were infinitesimal. Imagine how captivated I would have been if, say, the President of the United States were to pass underneath?

This also illustrates an important principle: How does a problem become important? By raising the stakes. (Also, by showing the character’s motivation to win the goal.)

4. Introduce an obstacle that prevents the protagonist from achieving his/her goal


If the problem is solved too soon, there is no story. So an obstacle has to be introduced, something that will keep the protagonist from quickly and easily achieving their goal.

Character is revealed in adversity, so throwing a bunch of trouble at your protagonist is, all around, the best thing you could do for the story.

The protagonist’s external arc


Often the obstacle is introduced by an antagonist. That is, by someone who is very similar to the protagonist in that they have a strong, clear, goal. In the antagonist’s case, of course, this goal is in direct opposition to the protagonist’s goal.

Let’s say the protagonist wants to go off to a college in a far away state in order to study environmental management. Their goal is to, eventually, preserve a patch of wetlands near their childhood home, one that is threatened by a proposed development. If this were the case then the antagonist would want exactly the opposite.

The antagonist doesn’t have to be a villain. For example, the antagonist could be the protagonist’s mother, someone who wants to keep her child close, and safe, and cared for. Someone who doesn’t want them leaving for four long years. 

Or, if we wanted a villain, the antagonist could be an unscrupulous land developer who wants to build a shopping mall over the wetlands.

And so on. The crucial thing is for the protagonist’s goal and the antagonist’s goal to be mutually exclusive. If one attains their goal then it must be impossible for the other to. (Although they can both lose.)

The protagonist’s internal arc


What I’ve written about, above, concerning the wetlands, etc., would be part of the protagonist’s external arc. CW points out that if you want your protagonist to have an internal arc as well as an external one, to “make their obstacle a personality flaw.” (For example, Mr. Monk.)

5. Have the protagonist fail


CW advises us to include at least one try-fail cycle but no more than three. And be sure to show the consequences of this failure. That is, show the consequences for the protagonist and those he cares about. This is how one builds suspense. 

CW writes that “after every attempt, they should be worse off than when they started.” (This is usually done in a sequel. For more on this see, The Structure of a Short Story: The New Plan.) 

6. Build the solution to the problem into the protagonist’s failures


This is excellent advice, the kind that makes me want to pick up a pen and start scribbling! CW advises that we ...

“Give each failed attempt a small step toward the solution. It might be a clue, a tool, or a piece of advice that will help your character. That doesn’t mean they’ll recognize it right away. In fact, it’s better if they don’t.”

7. Create a critical turning point


After the last, biggest, most devastating defeat something happens—perhaps the protagonist has an epiphany—and the hints you scattered in (6) finally come together in the protagonist’s mind.

CW writes: “They have a stunning realization, a clever idea, or finally understand a piece of wisdom.”

Sounds happy, doesn’t it? If tragedy is more your cup of tea, CW has advice for you as well:

“If you’re planning an unhappy ending, the hero’s realization may be false or incomplete. Perhaps the hero latches on to the wrong solution to their problem.”

Note: Even if the protagonist will ultimately fail, your readers should still feel there’s hope.

8. Show the hero achieving (or failing to achieve) his goal


Whether the protagonist wins or loses should hinge upon a choice he makes. There isn’t much to write here because, to a large extent, what happens is determined by all that has gone before.

9. Wrap up


CW didn’t explicitly include this step, and perhaps it is implicit in the above, but I’ll mention it anyway. Here we show the stakes being cashed out. We show how the protagonist’s world changes because he achieved his goal. If there were other main characters, show what happens to them.

Also, if the antagonistic force was a character (sometimes it’s simply a ticking clock and time), show her receiving her just deserts.



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

Today I'm recommending a book I wrote about—fittingly!—story structure: The Structure of a Great Story: How to Write a Suspenseful Tale!



That’s it! If you haven’t, I recommend reading Chris Winkle’s article in it’s entirety. He scattered links throughout, links which lead, like magical breadcrumbs, deeper into a dense maze of captivating articles.

See you Wednesday!


Other articles you might like:


17 Ways To Write A Terrifyingly Good Horror Story
How To Write A 'Choose Your Own Adventure' Story
Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction

Wednesday, August 13

Robert McKee And Characterization vs Character

Robert McKee And Characterization vs Character



I’m reading “Story,” by Robert McKee and kicking myself for not doing this long ago. I’ve reached the part where McKee talks about the difference between character and characterization and says some eye-poppingly interesting things. Useful things.

If you haven’t read “Story,” get your hands on a copy. If you don’t want to shell out 40 dollars for a hardcover, take the book out from the library. You may end up disagreeing with what McKee says--and that’s fine, different strokes and all that--but it can help you grasp the essence of what makes a story absorbing: character and structure working together.

What Is Character? Characterization vs Character


McKee writes:

Characterization is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being, everything knowable through careful scrutiny: age and IQ; sex and sexuality; style of speech and gesture; choices of home, car, and dress; education and occupation; personality and nervosity; values and attitudes–all aspects of humanity we could know by taking notes on someone day in and day out. [...] This singular assemblage of traits is characterization ... but it is not character.” 

McKee goes on:

“TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure–the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

True character has to do with whether someone is loving or cruel, generous or selfish, strong or weak, and so on. In life as in art “The only way to know” whether someone is generous or selfish, kind or cruel, and so on, is to “witness him make choices under pressure [...]. As he chooses, he is.”

Yes!! That. What he said. I’ve felt this myself but hadn’t put it into words. Of course Dwight V. Swain, Jack Bickham and Jim Butcher have said much the same thing but for some reason when I read McKee’s “Story” the light went on. 

McKee goes on:

“Pressure is essential. Choices made when nothing is at risk mean little.”

Exactly! And these choices are made in sequels.

The importance of structure–and the reason why structure and character are two sides of the same coin–is that character can only be revealed over time through the choices a character makes. It is the unfolding of these choices we call structure.

For example ...

Character Arc


1. Beginning of story: Characterization


At the beginning of a story, in the setup, characters are described; characterized. Readers are told what the character’s gender is, approximately how old they are, and so on.

2. First choice: The Character’s deep nature is revealed through their choices.


I re-watched The Matrix yesterday. At the beginning of the movie Thomas Anderson (aka Neo) makes a number of choices. 

- He chooses to follow the white rabbit to a nightclub even though he knows he has to work the next day. 
- At work, he has a choice whether to trust Morpheus and do something dangerous or play it safe. 
- At the end of Act One he has to choose whether to take the blue pill and forget all about The Matrix or take the red pill and learn the truth, even though learning the truth will cost him everything.

Notice how these choices build on each other, becoming more difficult (the stakes increase) and, correspondingly, more revealing of Thomas Anderson’s deep nature.

3. Conflict between characterization and deep nature.


Here the writer shows that the character’s deep nature is at odds with his characterization.

McKee calls James Bond a lounge lizard. Bond wears expensive clothes and lurks around nice hotel lobbies chatting up and bedding beautiful, rich women. That’s all part of his characterization. But his character is quite different. The average lounge lizard wouldn’t risk his life to defend his country--he wouldn’t know where to begin.

McKee writes:

“[The character’s] deep nature is at odds with the outer countenance of the character, contrasting with it, if not contradicting it. We sense that he is not what he appears to be.”

4. The character’s choices become more difficult.


After a character’s inner nature, their deep nature, has been exposed they must be driven to make even more difficult choices.

5. End of story: The character--who they are at the deepest level--has been profoundly and permanently changed.


By the end of the story the character’s choices have “profoundly changed the humanity of the character.” 

McKee sums it up like this:

“Whether our instincts work through character or structure, they ultimately meet at the same place.

“For this reason the phrase ‘character-driven story’ is redundant. All stories are ‘character-driven.’ Event design and character design mirror each other. Character cannot be expressed in depth except through the design of story.”

That’s it for today! 

Photo credit: Untitled by Helmut Hess under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0.

Monday, July 28

The Structure of a Short Story: The Setup

The Structure of a Short Story: The Setup


Last time I broke the structure of short stories into six discrete parts: 

1. Setup
2. First Complication
3. New Plan
4. Major Setback
5. Climax
6. Wrap Up

Today, let’s discuss the first part: setting up the story. Here we need to introduce the story world, the characters and the story question, and we need to do it in a way that is so entertaining readers won’t be able to put it down.

1. The Setup


Traditionally, the setting and everything it includes is developed in the first quarter of a story. That means if we want to write a 4,000 word story that we must complete the task of introducing the setting in 1,000 words or less. That doesn’t seem like much! It’s even worse for flash fiction. A 1,000 word story would have only 250 words for introducing and developing the setting.

Whenever I write a short story I’m always tempted to give more than 25% to the setting. After all, it is, arguably, the most important part of the story. The first few paragraphs will hook a reader--or convince them to put the book down. Which means things must happen. Preferably exciting, remarkable, things. But a reader won’t care about your protagonist before they get to know him. If they don’t care about him then they won’t care about any of those exciting, remarkable, happenings. So one must first take time to set the story and properly introduce the characters. It’s a catch 22!

I think there are two general paths one can take here: the descriptive opening or the action opening.

Descriptive Opening


Paint-me-a-picture. Some writers start off with description. They strut their poetic prose and trust that their readers will hold on long enough, read on long enough, to be slowly drawn in and carried away by the story.

Action Opening


Describe-as-you-go. Other authors start out with action (not necessarily physical action) and insert dribs and drabs of description along the way. 

Which kind of opening you choose will depend both on what kind of opening you want to write, what kind of opening is best for your particular story and what genre your story fits into. There is no one right answer and neither opening (descriptive or active) is, of itself, better than the other. It is a matter of taste and the expectations of your readers.

I’ve noticed that descriptive openings are more common in certain genre--fantasy for instance. Action, mystery, adventure and thriller books tend to jump right into the action and insert just enough description along the way so that the reader isn’t confused. (No one likes a white room!)

Examples: Descriptive vs Active


I went to my reading library and, more or less at random, took out two short stories, one by Terry Brooks and the other by Agatha Christie. The first is a terrific example of a descriptive opening and the latter of an active one.

Terry Brooks, “Allanon’s Quest” (approx. 11,000 words)


“The storm clouds scudded across the night sky in roiling clumps that blotted out the half-moon and stars and enveloped the land beneath in heavy shadow. The woods surrounding the village of Archer Trace, fifty miles north and east of the city of Arborlon, stirred uneasily. The trees swayed, and their leaves shivered with a metallic rustling as wind tore at the branches in sharp gusts and rain pattered heavily against the leaves. A drop in the temperature had already announced the storm’s arrival, the air damp, chilly, and raw. Intricate patterns of lightning flashed, and bursts of thunder rumbled from across the eastern edge of the Sarandanon.”

Notice that there is nothing about the protagonist in the first paragraph; this is strictly world development. Here we see an author taking a great deal of trouble to set up the world and establish a mood.

Agatha Christie, “The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife” from “Parker Pyne Investigates”. (Approx. 4,000 words)


“Four grunts, an indignant voice asking why nobody could leave a hat alone, a slammed door, and Mr. Packington had departed to catch the eight forty-five to the city. Mrs. Packington sat on at the breakfast table. Her face was flushed, her lips were pursed, and the only reason she was not crying was that at the last minute anger had taken the place of grief. ‘I won’t stand it,” said Mrs. Packington. “I won’t stand it!’ She remained for some moments brooding, and then murmured: ‘The minx. Nasty sly little cat! How George can be such a fool!’”

Compared to our first paragraph this one moves with the pace of an explosion. At first I was tempted to think that Agatha Christie gave the reader less information than Terry Brooks, but after studying the openings I came to see that it was just information of a different sort.

Let’s list and compare the information these paragraphs give the reader.

Setting: What time of day is it?
TB: Night.  This is explicitly stated: “The storm clouds scudded across the night sky [...]”
AC: Morning. Stated. “[...] Mr. Packington had departed to catch the eight forty-five to the city. Mrs. Packington sat on at the breakfast table.”

Setting: What’s the weather like?
TB: There’s a storm bearing down on the land. So there are high winds, swaying trees, a drop in temperature, the air is damp and there’s thunder.
AC: No idea.

Setting: Where are we?
TB: The woods surrounding the village of Archer Trace, fifty miles north and east of the city of Arborlon.
AC: In a kitchen at a table laden with the remains of breakfast.

Character: How many characters?
TB: No human characters are introduced, though the world, the environment, the weather, may have equal importance to any of the characters.
AC: Two, but a third and fourth are implied:
- Mrs. Packington: the client. 
- Mr. George Packington: Mrs. Packington’s motivation.
- The minx: the complication. 
- Mr. Parker Pyne: The protagonist.

Character: What is the protagonist’s goal?
TB: No idea.
AC: One suspects it has to do with revealing the “sly little cat” to Mr. George Packington for what she is. 

And so on. I am amazed that such a great deal of information was given in just the first paragraph. Both Terry Brooks and Agatha Christie set up their respective stories brilliantly. One day I would like to step through a (very!) short story and systematically dissect how the author answered each of these questions.

All right, so. After we’ve gone through and written our story out, what questions should we have answered in the setup?

Questions for developing a setting:


What time of day is it?

Morning, afternoon, night?

Where are we?

Indoors or outdoors?

If we are outdoors, or near a window, what is the weather like?

What town, city, village, etc, are we in? Also, are we in a house, an apartment, a houseboat, a motorboat; are we in a forest or afloat on an ocean?

How many characters?

You’ll likely have a protagonist and antagonist. Also, it often helps to give the protagonist a helper or a mentor, someone he can talk to as well as someone who can help her out if she needs it. Speaking rather callously, giving the protagonist a helper (or mentor) also gives the writer someone to kill off in a highly an emotional way about 3/4 of the way through the story at the major setback. For example, Obi Wan Kenobi sacrificed himself near the end of the second act in Star Wars: A New Hope.

What is the protagonist’s goal?


The protagonist generally doesn’t get their story goal until about the 25% mark. Even so, they generally have an initial goal, something to get the story going.

What motivates the protagonist?


Whenever I think about a character's motivation and what distinguishes their motivation from their goal I think of a cartoon I once saw: a man in a rowboat, pursued by a shark, paddles for shore. Despite the man’s best efforts the shark gains on the rowboat. The man sees this and paddles harder, faster; he paddles until his lungs burn. Will he be able to reach land before the shark upends the rowboat and eats him?

In that scenario the shark is the man’s motivation to row for shore and the shore is the goal.

How does the protagonist intend to achieve his goal?


How the protagonist intends to achieve his goal probably won’t be remotely close to how he actually achieves his goal (if he does). Still, the protagonist should have something of a plan even if it’s along the lines of: We go there, raise hell, grab the thing and come home.

What are the protagonist’s stakes?


What will happen if the protagonist doesn’t achieve her goal? What will happen if she does?

Are the protagonist’s and antagonist’s goals mutually exclusive?


The answer to this question should be: Yes! This is why the antagonist and protagonist are at each other’s throats: if one gets what they want the other cannot. It is the immediate source of their conflict and, as such, forms the engine that drives the story forward.

Now, for each of the above questions that mentioned the protagonist, substitute “antagonist” for “protagonist.” Remember, the antagonist is the hero of his own story. 

At the end of the setup, does the protagonist take her first step toward achieving her goal? That is, does she begin to set her plan in motion?


This question is often answered at the end of the first act when the protagonist commits to her quest. She becomes “locked in” to a certain course of action and cannot go back to the way things were. Further, she does this of her own free will knowing what the stakes are.

That’s it! Next time we’ll look at the next stage, the next bone in the skeleton, of our short story The First Complication.

Photo credit: "Maria" by Daniel Zedda under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, July 25

The Structure of a Short Story

The Structure of a Short Story


Let’s talk about story structure. 

When I read a story or watch a film I always try to identify where I am in the story’s structure. It’s a compulsion. True story: I’ll be sitting on the couch with my friends watching a movie and suddenly exclaim: “That’s the lock in!” or “That was the major setback!”

Yes, they hate me.

Here’s how I think of it: regardless of length, structure is what organizes a story, what gives it lungs to breathe and feet to run. 

Just like human skeletons, no two story structures are exactly the same although there are going to be certain broad similarities. Most living humans have a head, upper body, two arms, two legs, two feet, five fingers and ten toes. Similarly, most stories have a beginning, middle and end, they have a protagonist and antagonist, and they have quirky, interesting, characters who have goals they are passionate about achieving.

Further, just like wee little tiny babies have the same basic bits as the tallest basketball player or the biggest weight lifter, so short stories have the same basic bits in the same places as longer stories.

At least that’s what I think. 

Here’s what I’m going to do. Over the next five posts, I’m going to talk about what I see as the five main parts of a short story’s structure:

The Parts of a Short Story


1. Setup 


This is where characters are introduced, the setting is established, and the one is hooked into the other. The protagonist has committed herself to achieving a particular, concrete, goal. Further, she has devised a plan, a way of overcoming the antagonist’s opposition to her achieving that goal.

2. First complication. 


The hero discovers that her plan isn’t going to work. Significant adjustments are needed. She is put into an unfamiliar environment, one to which she is particularly ill suited. She also meets new friends as well as new enemies. The stakes are raised.

3. New Plan


The hero has come up with a new plan for how she is going to overcome the opposition to her goal. She (and possibly her ally) now puts this plan into action. It does not go well. (Or, possibly, even though her attempt to achieve her goal is horribly bungled she succeeds! One might see this in a comedy; for example, one having to do with procuring a love potion.)

Even though the plan doesn’t go as expected, even though there is some bickering between the hero and his ally, they lick their wounds and regroup.

4. Major Setback


The protagonist goes about taking another run at the problem. She begins to devise another plan but then her world is turned upside down. Either something she was counting on having is taken from her (perhaps her magical powers are taken away or her mentor is killed) or something is added: an insurmountable difficulty. 

Either way, this is the start of an avalanche of bad that falls squarely on the protagonist. 

At this point, the protagonist will have an epiphany and realize how to defeat the antagonist and achieve her goal.

5. Climax


The hero prepares to put her plan into action and then confronts the antagonist. Often there is an element of deception involved. It seems as though the protagonist hasn’t learnt her lesson, it seems as though she has misjudged. But then we find out that was all part of her crafty plan. 

6. Wrap Up


Wrap the story up by cashing out the stakes. How did winning (or losing) affect the protagonist and her allies? When she goes back to the ordinary world how are things going to be different for her?

Differences between a short story’s structure and a novel-length story’s structure: 


Keep in mind that the structure I’ve just outlined is for a short story. There are differences between this and the structure for a novel, particularly in the middle. In a 2,000 word short story a writer can’t give the protagonist more than one or two failed tries at achieving their main goal. In an novel, though, the protagonist will likely have sub-goals, each of which will have it’s own try-fail cycle.

Also, stories of over 50,000 words often have a B-story (and possibly C- and D-stories as well). A 2,000 word short story generally doesn’t. 

Well, that’s it! Monday, I’ll talk about the structure of the first part of a short story.

Update: Here's an index to the articles in this series:

- The Setup
- The First Complication
- The New Plan
- Major Setback (upcoming)
- Climax (upcoming)
- Wrap Up (upcoming)

Photo credit: "Manoa" by Daniel Zedda 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.

Wednesday, April 30

Characterization Or Plot: Which Is Most Important To Readers?

Characterization Or Plot: Which Is Most Important To Readers?




The other day I watched a video of Lee Child talking about writing. It was a question and answer period and someone asked how he got in touch with his character, Jack Reacher. They asked how he knew Reacher's likes, wants, needs, fears, and so on.

Lee Child said something to the effect that Jack Reacher is a fictional character and, as such, had no likes or dislikes. It was the reader who had likes and dislikes. Child didn't care about what Reacher wanted he cared about what the reader wanted. And, he added, hopefully they'd want to turn the page![1]

This startled me. 

One of the first things I wondered in my budding career as a writer--I think I was about four at the time--was how to make my parents interested in my stories. Really interested, not just "Oh another story, how lovely." It was a challenge since my interests weren't their interests and vice versa.

Since then my audience has changed radically, but the question has remained the same: How can I write stories that make readers want to finish them, stories which drag readers from the first sentence to the last sentence?

From what I can tell, here's the standard answer:

You get a reader to care about the story by creating a round character, a 3D character, one with hopes and wants and needs and fears and then you break their hearts. 

You endanger what they care about most, you strip them of what they need, and then you give them a way to win it back, but the way is narrow and fraught with deadly peril. The environment opposes them, some of their allies oppose them, their all-too-human enemy opposes them. And the obstacles keep getting thornier and higher and eventually seem insurmountable. 

But the hero has heart. He's not giving up. He battles on. And he's clever. He's got skills. We, the readers, can't help but root for him and find it impossible to sleep until we know how it all turned out in the end. Did he achieve his goal or did he lose everything? (Which I think, really, equates to us wondering what kind of a universe it is. Fair or random.)

That was a (very) rough sketch, but you know what I'm talking about. That's the bones of the hero's quest.

But ... is that it? Is that right? Is that (the hero's quest, character identification, creating 3D characters, and so on) how we get people to care about stories?

Let me play devil's advocate:

"Characters don't have hopes or wants or needs or fears because they don't exist! They're fictional. Besides, they don't have any money so they can't invest in one's next book, so what writers should be concerned with are the hopes and wants and needs and fears of flesh and blood readers. And (in general) what matters to humans is mystery and puzzles and action."

Or something.

I think, in practise, readers read on because they care about both the characters and the bells and whistles of the plot; action and mystery and all that kind of thing.

I know I've used it as an example too many times, but it's one of my favorite movies, and it does illustrate my point beautifully. In Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, I did care whether Indy found the ark and it didn't have anything to do with me wanting Indy to achieve his goal (or because I cared about the character yada yada), it had to do with the ark itself. I was curious whether this really was the Ark of the Covenant and, if Indy or the Nazi's found it, what it would do. And would whatever it did be cool. (And it was!)

Something similar happened when I watched the first season of Game of Thrones. One of the questions that season was: Are dragons real? Is Daenerys Targaryen part dragon or is she just delusional? The last episode of that season answered the question beautifully. 

I did care about Daenerys and whether she salvaged something from the ashes of her life, but more than anything I wondered: Do dragons exist? Granted, I wouldn't have cared as much about the answer if Daenerys hadn't staked her life on it. And this only mattered because I'd come to care about the character. But still.

I think what I'm talking about, or gesturing toward, is the interaction of character and plot. Readers care about the plot, in part, because of the characters and we get interested in the characters, in part, because the plot spurred them on to do interesting things.

What do you think? Why do you read stories? Is it the plot? The characters? The interaction of the two? 

Links/References


1. I can't remember exactly where I saw this, I was going through Lee Child's interview page. I think I watched everything from 2012 on.

Monday, March 31

Parts of Story: The Structure of Genre

Parts of Story: The Structure of Genre

Every story has a unique structure; no one structure fits them all. That would be boring. Good writing, good stories, may be a lot of things--thought provoking, exciting, uncomfortable--but they aren't boring. 

That said, stories of the same genre have a structure in common. Which really is just another way to say that all stories within a certain genre follow certain broad, general, rules. That is, after all, an important part of what makes a genre story a genre story! 

Genre


I know it's obvious, but for a story to be a murder mystery it must have both a mystery and a murder. There will also be various clues as well as a sleuth who investigates them. Certain characters will be suspects and there will be at least one murderer. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the sleuth will, at the end, reveal not only the solution of the mystery but how he winnowed away the lies and subterfuge to arrive, finally, at the truth. As a result, order is restored.

But there are different kinds of murder mysteries, each with a more particular, more exact, set of requirements.[5] A cosy or whodunit (think Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers) should have all the above plus a logical, rational, solution. No hocus pocus, no unfounded intuitions, are allowed. Also, the focus is on the mystery of the murder (it seems impossible that the person was murdered yet they were) as well as how the sleuth goes about solving the crime. In these stories it is crucial that the storyteller play fair with the reader and tell them everything the sleuth learns as he (or she) learns it.[7]

A hardboiled detective story, on the other hand, often focuses less on the mystery and it's solution and more on action and gritty realism. Thrillers are different. Though they generally crank up the suspense, thrillers have about as much mystery as any other kind of story. 

Another popular genre is romance. Breaking that down further, there's contemporary romance, fantasy, erotica, gothic, historical, military, paranormal, regency, and more. 

The thriller genre, on the other hand, breaks down into legal, military, political, (my favorite) psychological, suspense and techno-thrillers. And many, many, more.

My point is that each genre--mystery, thriller, suspense, romance, horror, etc.--breaks down into sub-genres and each of these sub-genres have their own conventions, their own requirements. Their own structure.

If one writes a book and then markets it as a psychological thriller but doesn't talk about their characters' psychological states, if they don't do a study of their characters emotions and how they change over time in response to the (multiple) tensions in their environment (as exemplars of this see William Golding's Lord of the Flies or Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club), then while they may have written a thriller there really wouldn't be anything uniquely psychological about it. As a result, anyone who bought the book who wanted to read a psychological thriller would be disappointed no matter how good the book was.

As Lorenzo Semple Jr. said in his interview with Lee Goldberg, if he sat down in a restaurant and ordered fish but the server brought him, instead, a beautifully cooked steak he'd be upset no matter how good the steak was. Why? Because he wanted fish! He'd feel deceived. Ripped off.

If a reader feels mislead about the kind of books they've bought then they aren't going to be happy with the book or, most likely, the author. Personally, I think that's the reason for the lion's share of one star reviews: a reader's expectations were not only disappointed, they were taken out behind the barn and shot. 

Since there are so many different genres and sub-genres I won't even try to talk about a typical structure for every one. Though, that said, I do talk in some length about mysteries--whodunits in particular--and what the requirements of that form are.

Further Reading/Links/References


1. Write Your Own Murder Mystery, by Lindsay Price over at theatrefolk.com.
2. List of literary genres, Wikipedia.
3. Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James.
4. Mystery Fiction, Wikipedia.
5. It is often said that the primary distinction between genre and literature is that genre is plot/structure driven while literature is not (mainstream is often viewed as moodily occupying a no-man's-land between the two). Humbug! Literary stories simply don't have as rigid, or as much, of a structure, but they do have a structure. I love reading Ursula K. Le Guin on this subject and agree with her completely:

- Le Guin’s Hypothesis, by Ursula K. Le Guin over at Book View Cafe. In part she writes: "Plot is not the reason I turn to novels and is often the least interesting element to me in them. Story is what matters. Plot complicates and extends story; plot is indeed pure artifice. But Mr Krystal seems to say that only genre writers are aware that a certain level of artificiality must prevail in fiction. Does he mean that literary writers don’t use artifice? That they don’t know, just as as surely as genre writers, the absolute, imperative, marvelous artificiality of their art?" Yes. That. Exactly.
- On Serious Literature, by Ursula K. Le Guin. I found this gem on Ms. Le Guin's website (ursulakleguin.com). It is a piece of flash fiction (only 577 words). Marvelous. 

6. Storyville: What is Literary Fiction? by Richard Thomas over at litreactor.com.

Thursday, December 12

Using Index Cards To Outline A Novel



"The card system is your map and your guide; the Plot Points your checkpoints along the way, the 'last-chance' gas station before you hit the high desert; the ending, your destination." (Syd Field, Screenwriting)

I've been changing how I write. These days I use (virtual) index cards to create a detailed outline of my novel before I put pen to paper to create a first draft.

That said, I do write bits and pieces of scenes here and there, as the ideas come to me, so I have a feeling for my main characters' voices while I'm doing the cards.

Filling out index cards--approximately 56 index cards--will be familiar to just about anyone who has written a screenplay.  

Writing A Novel Using Index Cards


The first question I was asked after I explained this method to a friend was: That's too detailed. Are you nuts?!

But, hey, this is working for me (so far), maybe it'll work for you.

Before I go on, I'd like to mention that I'm not using physical index cards, I'm using the Index Cards app. I've been using this app for a few months now and can't recommend it highly enough. But one word of warning. I've had the program crash on me a few times, so I've learnt (the hard way) to back up my outlines. Be thou warned.

The Structure of a Novel


Although I love writing novellas--they are so much quicker--my first love is the novel, and I think this is also true for many readers. For my purposes, a novel is 80,000 (or so) words.

I've structured my current novel as follows:

First Act:
Trailer: 4 cards
First sequence: 5 cards
Second sequence: 5 cards

Second Act:
Third Sequence: 7  cards
Fourth Sequence: 7 cards
Fifth Sequence: 7 cards
Sixth Sequence: 7 cards

Third Act:
Seventh Sequence: 7 cards
Eighth Sequence: 7 cards

Total: 56 cards. That comes out to about 1,400 words per card (/per scene).

Those numbers are approximate. At the moment I have more than 56 cards, and the scenes are going to vary in length. When I roll up my sleeves and get writing I'm confident that not all scenes are going to be between 1,400 and 1,500 words! Some are going to be longer--much longer--and some much shorter.

These cards aren't meant to act as a straight jacket, just an approximation. After all, I'm writing a novel not a screenplay. They are a tool I can use to expose the bones of my story and let me suss out the gaps, the enormous gaping plot holes. As many, many, writers have said, it's much easier to change an outline than to change a completed first draft!

The Three Act Structure


I've written about the three act structure here: Story Structure.

Sequences


Each sequence, like the story itself, will have a beginning, middle and end. In the beginning we introduce the characters and setting. Also, we might foreshadow at least a few of the conflicts to come. 

In the middle we have conflict and try-fail cycles. Characters strive to achieve their goals and are thwarted. They devise new strategies and try again. They are thwarted again, and so on.

At the end there is a resolution. Either the character achieves their goal or they don't. Usually they don't. Stakes are raised (and clearly spelt out).

Scenes


Each scene is a lot like each sequence. Each has a beginning, a middle and an end. In the beginning we establish the characters and setting, in the middle conflict is generated by characters striving for goals and falling short. And, at the end, though there is a resolution of sorts, most commonly the hero will not reach their goal, the stakes will be raised, and they'll have to try, try, and try again.

Elements of an Index Card: Scenes


Each index card is either a scene or a sequel. (Here are two excellent articles by Jim Butcher which explain scenes and sequels.)

If the index card is a scene, then here are the categories I use:

Who

Who is in the scene? List each character.

Character's goal

For each main character in the scene, list his/her goal for this scene. Each character's goal should be concrete/specific enough to take a picture of. (Each character's goal will tie into their goal for both the sequence and the story as a whole.)

Character's stakes

For each main character in the scene, if the character wins/achieves her goal, what will he/she win?
If the character fails to achieve his/her goal, what will he/she lose?

What

What happens in this scene?

Where

Where does it happen? Indoors? Outdoors? 
Is this setting interesting on its own? Does it have any significance to any of the characters? To the theme?

When

When does the action in this scene take place? What time of day or night is it? What date is it?

Urgency

Why must this goal me accomplished now? If there is no sense of urgency, conflict is undermined.

Opposition

What opposes the character's acquisition of their goal? 

Elements of an Index Card: Sequels


Dwight V. Swain in his invaluable text, Techniques of the Selling Writer, writes that:

"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."

Swain goes on to note that the functions of a sequel are threefold:

a. "To translate disaster into goal."
b. "To telescope reality."
c. "To control tempo."

I'm only going to touch on the first of these functions--turning disaster into goal--here.

So, if a particular scene is a sequel, then these are the questions I ask:

Emotion/Reaction

How does the viewpoint character--as well as the other main characters--react to the resolution of the previous scene? If the hero achieves his goal is he happy or is he devastated because it's not what he thought it would be? If he didn't achieve his goal, is he angry, resigned, depressed, emotionally devastated, etc, etc, etc?

Remember, this is unfiltered emotion. The hero is just reacting. (Although how a character reacts can tell readers an awful lot about your character.)

Review hero's situation and enumerate his/her options

After your POV character (which for the sake of brevity I've been assuming is your hero/protagonist) stops reacting they need to figure out what to do. So they'll need to review their situation (what were the stakes?) and think of several things they could do next. For each possibility make sure the goal is clear, as is the opposition and the new stakes.

The main thing: Make the goal for each possible alternative scenario crystal clear.

Decision/Choice

The hero must decide. Which option the hero picks should be consistent with their strengths and weaknesses, who they are as a person. Which is just another way of saying that it should be plausible.

Miscellaneous


That's almost it. As I go through my cards I try to remember to ask myself these questions:

- Have I shown that the protagonist is clear and resourceful?
- Have I given readers a clear idea of what the hero's wound is?
- Have I shown the hero's special talent?
- Have I shown the hero's primary strength and weakness?
- Have I shown the hero's quirk?
- Have I demonstrated the hero's guiding principle?
- Is the protagonist pursuing justice?
- Is the hero active? Does he/she act of her own volition or is she pushed into action by plot events?

That's it! Good writing.

PS: I just listened to The Narrative Breakdown podcast and picked up these tips:

1. Surround your hero with characters that lack his/her particular strength.
2. Give the hero three rules to live by, whether stated or implied.
3. A catchphrase (Poirot: I do not approve of murder) can go a long way to communicating character.

Photo credit: "Index card pic" by Karen Woodward under Creative Commons Attribution.