Showing posts with label the craft of writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the craft of writing. Show all posts

Monday, February 16

About Words

About Words



I’ve been obsessed. That’s my excuse for not posting anything for the past week or so. Like Dr. Frankenstein, I’ve been busy creating (in my case, programming) my own personal monster.

Yes, this is the very same writing analysis program I began creating months ago as a way to figure out whether Stephen King was taking his own advice when it came to adverbs.

Writing: An Art or a Science?


Lately I’ve become interested in, perhaps even obsessed with, the question, “What is this thing we do, writing, and is it an art (a dark one!) or a science?”

If writing is an art—which it undoubtedly is in certain respects—then we wouldn’t expect there to be objective criteria for success or failure in the same way there are in, say, engineering or physics.

Engineers know the tensile strength of various substances. They know how they react when exposed to various conditions. If a beam breaks when it encounters a specific force then we expect that whenever a beam composed of the same material in such and such conditions is exposed to that very same force it will break as well.

This is, of course, not true when it comes to writing. The very same story will have the power to reduce one person to a puddle of tears but will leave another cold. And, yes, certainly, this has a great deal to do with these individuals’ different life histories, as well as their differing temperaments, but the fact remains that we cannot predict the effect a story will have on someone in the same way we can predict the effect a blow will have on, say, a pane of glass.

Further, in science we have objective measures regarding whether various statements are true. What lies at the heart of the scientific method is testing two hypotheses against each other, two statements that make contradictory predictions concerning observable phenomena.

In art, though, no such rules apply. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

When you write, you are free to write about whatever you choose in whatever manner you choose. I love that about this peculiar form of expression. As Stephen King has said, writing is an extension of our souls; it is a way to reach across space and time to share our thoughts and emotions with others.

So there IS a kind of measure of success. Did you communicate what you intended? If so, you succeeded.

The Craft of Writing


I’ve always, somewhat stubbornly, held that there must be a quantifiable difference between strong and weak writing.

To quantitatively define this difference is the purpose of my program. (Yes, I know. Tilting at windmills. ;)

Two Qualifications


1. I’m not saying that some writing is good and some bad.
2. I’m not talking about story, just about prose.

At one of the writing conferences I attended, a workshop on pacing, we were urged to read (or re-read) the Da Vinci Code with an eye to plot and pacing. Sure, when it comes to prose my taste runs more to Neil Gaiman or Margaret Atwood, but Dan Brown is no slouch when it comes to setting a brisk pace.

And James Patterson, while he did win the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel, has purposefully, self-consciously, changed his style. He uses short sentences made up of short, easy to understand, words. He is, in many ways, every bit the craftsperson other writers are, but his focus is on producing easy to read, fast paced, suspenseful prose. Stephen King may not care for Patterson’s prose but it is the way it is through effort as opposed to inexperience or inattention.

Groups A and B


I don’t want to use the terms “good books” and “bad books” because I view these terms as shorthand we all use, myself included, to talk about books which we like as opposed to those which we don’t. Instead, I’m going to talk about literary books versus non-literary ones.

Group A

These books are National Book Award winners as well as finalists and semifinalists for various prestigious book awards.

Group B

“Fifty Shades of Grey” is in group B as is “Atlanta Nights” by Travis Tea. You get the idea.

There are other books, Stephen King’s “Needful Things,” for instance, that occupy a no-man’s land between the two groups. I love King’s writing. He is a skillful writer, but there is a difference between, say, “Under The Dome” and “The Goldfinch.” I’m not saying one is better than the other, or even that one is more skillfully done. But there is a difference.

The Point


So, where am I going with this?

For me, writing is fundamentally about the communication of thoughts and feelings. Certain types or kinds of writing can do that better than others. That itself is something objective, something publicly observable.

Yes, of course, good grammar has a part to play in this, but there are more subtle factors at work. At times, the writing itself can be distracting. For instance, an over-reliance on “-ly” adverbs can distract one from the thoughts the writer is attempting to express, as can overuse of verbs ending in “-ing.”

Similarly, liberal use of “very” and other modifiers can make one’s text feel bloated and difficult to read.

Yes, the thought expressed by two sentences, one bloated, the other not, can be the same, but folks are much more likely to skip the former (tl;dr) and read the latter.

In any case, what I’ve been spending every spare nanosecond on is looking at the words that have been used to express various stories and seeing if there’s some sort of a … well, a regularity. I’ve been hoping to pick up on something objective, something that could help me figure out whether a certain book is closer to Group A or Group B.

So, really, I guess I’m looking for an objective measure for a subjective impression.

In any case, I’ve gotten my analysis program to the point where it assigns a book a number that represents whether it’s closer to Group A or Group B.

A Result


In part, I began this program as a reaction against claims that certain words are inherently weak and, therefore, shouldn't be used.

It can make sense that certain words, for example, “things,” are inherently weak because they are so vague and, as such, should be shunted aside in favor of more concrete terms. Instead of “things” talk of seashells and clouds, cats and alligators. Trade in the nebulous for the specific.

Sounds good, doesn't it?

But what would you say if I told you that Group A books have a higher frequency of use of “things” than do Group B books? They do!

That particular result knocked my proverbial socks off!

For example, Margaret Atwood uses “things” 153 times per 100 thousand words in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Similarly, Marilynne Robinson uses it 214 times per 100 thousand words in “Lila,” a National Book Award winner. In contrast, E.L. James in “Fifty Shades of Grey” uses it only 30 times per 100 thousand words.

In Conclusion


What does this mean? I’m not sure it means a whole lot, but it is a reminder not to take admonitions, especially when it comes to writing, at face value.

I’m not saying that just because, for instance, a National Book Award finalist used a certain word in her book that you should go and do the same. Not at all! I’m just saying that, clearly, one can use “things” quite a bit and still write a hell of a book!

As I continue to measure my expectations against reality I hope I will continue to be amazed. Thanks for reading!

Photo credit: "random" by Robert Couse-Baker, CC BY-2.0.

Wednesday, February 4

Pens ’n Prose

Pens ’n Prose

I’m always looking for a new, better, kind of pen. Perhaps you’ve heard the quip about the writer who owns enough pens and journals to open their own stationery store. That’s me.

I’ve written about how I began my practice of writing all first drafts longhand as a way to defeat writer’s block. I’m not sure why this works for me, perhaps a different part of the brain is engaged while writing longhand versus typing? Or perhaps it’s simple association: I write my first drafts longhand therefore I feel more comfortable doing so.

As a result, I’m always looking for new and better pens! I’ve tried pricey pens (Montblanc, etc) but find them too heavy. After even 20 or 30 minutes of writing, my hand begins to cramp. Gel pens write well, but I’ve found—while they start off gloriously smooth—the ink jams while the cartridge is less than halfway used. (Grrrrr!)

After years of buying and using just about every kind of pen known to humankind, I’ve found one that is, unambiguously, hands down, my favorite:


I swear to you, I don’t have an affiliate deal with Bic! This is the smoothest writing, most comfortable pen I’ve ever used.

Now, I do realize my love affair with this particular Bic could be the result of some quirk of my temperament. Your taste in pens could be completely different. That said, if you’re at a stationary store, and you have the opportunity to try one out, I encourage you to. 

Well, that’s it for today! An oddly practical blog post, especially if you’re a scribbler, like me, who fills up her journals with rough drafts. (And, yes, this blog post began its life as scribblings in my journal.)

I’ll leave you with a link to something else practical, Joanna Penn’s excellent blog post: Productivity For Writers: 5 Ways To Become More Productive.

Good writing! I’ll see you on Friday.

Photo credit: Original picture: "Miss Omija writing time" by Raheel Shahid, CC BY 2.0.

Monday, February 2

Storium: Collaborative Storytelling

Storium: Collaborative Storytelling



You’ve probably heard of Storium by now. Chuck Wendig, a creator of one of it’s 59 worlds, describes it this way:

“Storium [...] aims to circle back to the old way of telling stories — collaboratively, around a campfire. Except this campfire? It’s digital. This is old-school storytelling given a 21st century upgrade. It’s a story world you can play in. A novel you can live inside.” (Read the rest here: The Storium Kickstarter)

What Is Storium?


Storium is fun! I’m currently playing a few games with writers I’ve met on Google+ and am having a blast. 

My first attempt at playing Storium, at indulging myself on the meat of communal story telling, on the collaborative creation of an imaginary universe, went horribly, devastatingly, wrong. 

I’d just contributed to Storium’s Kickstarter—it was the week after—and was chomping at the bit to try it out. That’s when I made a huge mistake: I joined a group of complete strangers. (I think this is fine if you’ve played a few games and have a grip on how things work, but if you don’t ... well ... “recipe for disaster” comes to mind.)

I don’t think any of us were familiar with how to play, and the narrator—Storium’s version of the dungeon master—made Joseph Stalin look positively huggy feely.

Not fun.

I didn’t give up on Storium, though, and have gone on to have wonderful experiences with it.

I’m sure there are many people who have spent longer enjoying the wonderfully imaginative ecosystems enabled by Storium, but here are my observations. Keep in mind that these come from someone who has always wanted to indulge in role playing games but never before had the opportunity. So, in other words, a complete newbie.

1. Friends are A Good Thing.


Especially if the narrator is brand spanking new and has no more idea how the game works than you do!

If a group of friends go in together and view the first game as a learning experience—if, that is, the group goes in to have fun, help each other, and not worry about winning—then your first experience in Storium is guaranteed to be memorable ... and in a Krispy Kreme kind of way, rather than a day old boiled spinach kind of way.

2. Discover new and previously unsuspected possibilities for your plot.


Storium gives you the chance to prototype characters and plot ideas. Also—and this is probably one of the most awesome things about Storium—other people, the friends you’re playing with, will come up with completely unexpected solutions to the problems you pose. (And if you didn’t anticipate them, chances are your readers won’t, either.)

It’s awesome! And enormously fun.

3. Narrators: Don’t Take It Personally.


With Storium your fellow players will occasionally have the ability to take over a scene; effectively, they elbow you aside and become the narrator. This means they can finish the scene any way they choose.

Sometimes how a scene finishes might not be how you wanted—or needed—it to finish. Relax! You’re the narrator which means you’re the god of the story world you and your friends are traipsing around in. You’ll have plenty of time to do what you want down the road.

4. Keep It Simple


I’ve only recently become a narrator—I was bamboozled into it!—and if I had one piece of advice to pass onto other narrators it would be this: Resist the temptation to plan out every scene in immaculate detail. For the most part this is wasted. Storium is a game. Unexpected, unpredictable, events will happen—that is, after all, half the fun! So rather than plot out every scene as you might in a book ...

a. Have an idea of the theme.


Is this going to be a horror story? Fantasy? Cyberpunk? A space adventure? Urban Fantasy? Storium helps you here by predesigning certain worlds filled with card suggestions. (BTW, for a wonderful article about the mechanics of the game, see: Tell Cool Social Stories Today.) 

b. Have an idea about the outline.


Know how the story begins, what happens in the middle as well as a possible ending or two. (You could have different outcomes depending on how the players chose during the game.)

Most of all, have fun!

One of the benefits of Storium, for me, was that it’s helped make me less self-conscious about my writing.

The snippets you write during gameplay are first drafts, but you get immediate feedback. Not on sentence structure, and so on, but on the story itself.

Thanks for reading! Happy writing.

Wednesday, January 28

Unintuitive Findings About Weak Words And Their Use In Strong Writing




Today I’m not going to talk about the structure of stories! We’re taking a break from that for a while. Today, rather than look at the macrocosm—the structure of an entire story—I would like to examine the microcosm: words. Specifically, whether there are any words we shouldn’t use.

Eight Weak Words


Recently, thanks to Pinterest, I came across this article: 8 Words to Seek and Destroy in Your Writing). The author, Bobbie Blair, selected eight words that writers are better off not using. That is, words which don’t add anything to a sentence; words which are just so much meaningless padding: [1] 

1. Suddenly
2. Then
3. Very
4. Really
5. Is
6. Started
7. That
8. Like

I’d like (doh!) to note, here, that Blair’s view of these words is widely held. These words are often singled out as examples of weak words, filler words, words that one is better off not using. I say this because I don’t want to make it seem as though I’m singling out Mr. Blair. He’s written a wonderful article that a lot of skilled writers would wholeheartedly agree with.

Further, I agree with him. These are words I tend not to use—or try not to use—in my own writing, and for the reasons he gives.

 But what I want to look at here is, do in fact writers of books I think are wonderful—books I would be proud to have written—avoid the use of these weak words?

In what follows, I’ve looked at three books I think are well-written and compared them to a book widely regarded as poorly-written. What I want to find out is which book uses the (above) weak words the most. 

It turns out the well-written books use seven of these eight weak words more than the poorly written one. That was a result I was not prepared for.

The Test: The Books Used


Here are three books I consider good examples of strong writing:

1. “Gone Girl,” by Gillian Flynn
2. “Under The Dome,” by Stephen King
3. “American Gods,” by Neil Gaiman

(This is a very small sample set so I’m not saying my results are statistically significant. This is just for fun.)

Here is a book I consider a good example of weak writing:

“The Eye of Argon,” by Jim Theis

“The Eye,” was, I believe, Jim Theis’s first book, written at the tender age of 16. I’m sure that many of us have unpublished manuscripts of similar quality safely tucked under our beds or hidden in trunks, never to see the light of day. Unfortunately for Jim Theis, his book was published.

SFX Magazine called Theis’s book "one of the genre's most beloved pieces of appalling prose.” Lee Weinstein, writing for the The New York Review of Science Fiction, called it "the apotheosis of bad writing.” (For more information on this sadly fascinating book, see “The Eye of Argon” over at Wikipedia.org.)

I hope I’ve convinced you that “The Eye of Argon” is an acceptable representative of weak writing. If you’d like to read the book and make up your own mind—always a good idea—you can find it here: The Eye of Argon.

The Test


If you’re not interested in reading about how I arrived at the following numbers, then skip down to “The Results,” below.

The frequency of a word has to do with how many times that word was used in a particular book. For instance, Gillian Flynn used “suddenly” 33 times in “Gone Girl.” That’s the frequency of that word in that book. But all the books are different lengths, so it’s difficult to compare frequencies across books. For instance, Stephen King uses “suddenly” 55 times in “Under The Dome,” but that’s a much larger book than “Gone Girl.” 

What I needed was a number that represented how often a certain word was used, independently of the length of the book.

I solved this problem by converting the frequency into a percentage. So, for instance, if we look at the frequency of “suddenly” as a percentage of all the words used in “Gone Girl” then we come up with a number: 0.022. Let’s call this the total percentage for that word. Now we’re ready to look at the numbers.

1. Suddenly.
The Eye of Argon: 0.026
Gone Girl: 0.022
Under The Dome: 0.016
American Gods: 0.014

2. Then
American Gods: 0.412
Under The Dome: 0.364
Gone Girl: 0.285
The Eye of Argon: 0.158

3. Very
Gone Girl: 0.128
Under The Dome: 0.065
American Gods: 0.062
The Eye of Argon: 0.026

4. Really
Gone Girl: 0.136
Under The Dome: 0.052
American Gods: 0.046
The Eye of Argon: 0.00

5. Is
Gone Girl: 0.618
American Gods: 0.428
Under The Dome: 0.372
The Eye of Argon: 0.193

6. Started
Under The Dome: 0.052
American Gods: 0.033
Gone Girl: 0.033
The Eye of Argon: 0.009

7. That
American Gods: 1.04
Under The Dome: 1.0
Gone Girl: 0.95
The Eye of Argon: 0.483

8. Like
Gone Girl: 0.53
American Gods: 0.327
Under The Dome: 0.303
The Eye of Argon: 0.088

The Results


As you can see, it was only for the first word, “suddenly,” that “The Eye of Argon” came out on top. For each of the other weak words, “The Eye” used the word the least. (And, again, that result is a percentage so it doesn’t matter that “The Eye” is much shorter than the other books.) 

A Possible Explanation: Dialogue


Honestly, I wasn’t expecting this result. One possibility is that the majority of weak words were used in dialogue. After all, giving a character a corny saying, or having them consistently misuse the word “literally” or “inconceivable” can help to tag them as well as reveal their character. 

Unfortunately, I can’t go through all the words in all the books and check whether the weak word in question was used in dialogue, but I did do it for one word in one book, Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods.” Here’s what I found:

Of the 28 times “suddenly” was used in “American Gods” 5 of those times it was used in dialogue.

So, most of the time “suddenly” was used it wasn’t used in dialogue. I don’t have any idea whether this pattern of use is true for the other weak words on the list, I’d have to check each book for each word manually, and I just don’t have time to do that.

In any case, I thought this was an interesting, counterintuitive, result and thought I’d share it with you.

Thanks for reading!

Notes:


1. In the original article there were eight words and phrases. I’ve changed things slightly. “Very” and “really” were grouped as one point and the author included a phrase—“in order to”—that I haven’t examined.

(This blog post was first published on karenwoodward.org under the title: Unintuitive Findings About Weak Words And Their Use In Strong Writing.)

Photo credit: Original photo: Untitled by Thomas Leuthard, CC BY 2.0. Altered by Karen Woodward.

Sunday, January 25

Three Kinds of Micro Fiction: The Drabble, 55 Fiction and The Twabble

Three Kinds of Micro Fiction: The Drabble, 55 Fiction and The Twabble



Today I want to do something different. I’ve just finished a five part series on the structure of genre stories and want to turn to the other end of the spectrum: micro fiction.

Why Micro Fiction Is Awesome


Let’s talk about the shortest possible kinds of fiction: Drabbles, 55 Fiction and Twitfic (also known as Twabbles). I’ll discuss what those are in a moment, but first let’s look at why writing short fiction is A Good Thing: 

There’s value in finishing a story and it’s much easier to finish a 100 word story than it is a 120,000 tome of fantasy fiction. (G.R.R. Martin’s works are magnificent but those suckers double as paperweights!)  

On the subject of the value of finishing a story, John Ward posted a link to a wonderful video made by Scott Sigler about how to get started writing—or, perhaps, what it takes to become an author. It’s excellent.

Not only does a micro story take less time to write but the structure is, of necessity, much simpler. Often there’s only one character, the protagonist. This strips a story’s structure down to its simplest elements and exposes it in a way that a longer story can’t, and it lets us play with it, tweaking the Inciting Incident, the protagonist’s response, and so on, and seeing how that changes the emotional impact.

Here is a structure I’ve noticed in some micro fiction:

1. Inciting Incident. Something happens.

2. Protagonist Acts. The protagonist reacts to the thing that changed their world.

3. Consequences. The protagonist and her world is changed because of her actions.

Kinds of Micro Fiction


As I mentioned, there are various kinds of micro fiction. In fact, I’m sure there are more kinds than I’ve heard about! But here’s three:

The Drabble


Although definitions differ, the general consensus seems to be that a Drabble is a short work of exactly 100 words. 

The history. Drabbles were inspired, in a roundabout kind of way, by Monty Python. Wikipedia tells us that “the 100-word format was established by the Birmingham University SF Society, taking a term from Monty Python's 1971 Big Red Book. In the book, "Drabble" was described as a word game where the first participant to write a novel was the winner. In order to make the game possible in the real world, it was agreed that 100 words would suffice.” (Drabble)

Drabbles are also popular in fan fiction (just google Drabble and Draco, or Drapple, if you don’t believe me.)

Below is an example of a Drabble. This story was first published as a response to one of my daily writing prompts.

Fossil,” by Brian Holt Hawthorne


She was twelve when she found the box with the golden watch. The instructions read: "To stop time, press and hold the red button. This function may only be used once."

She almost pressed the button, but decided not to waste the chance.

She kept the watch with her always, waiting for the moment when stopping time would enable her to save the world or obtain her heart's desire.

She had a career and a husband and children and a happy life.

She lay alone on her death bed and held the watch. She pressed the red button.

Time stopped.

I love that story! And I owe Brian a big thank you, not just for giving me permission to publish his story on my blog, but for introducing me to the terms “Drabble,” “Twabble” and “Twitfic.” Although I’ve been reading and writing micro stories for a while, Brian introduced me to their names. 

55 Fiction


An even shorter form of micro fiction is known as 55 Fiction where, you guessed it, the story must be exactly 55 words long. (Although sometimes any story of 55 words or less is thought to fall within the form.)

55 Fiction originated with a contest organized by the New Times of San Luis Obispo, California, in 1987. For that contest a story had to:

- be composed of fifty-five, or fewer, words.
- have a setting.
- have one or more characters.
- have some conflict.
- have a resolution. (Drabble, Wikipedia)

Further, the title could not exceed seven words, but was not part of the overall word count.

Here’s an example. I wrote this in a few minutes, hopefully it will give you the idea:

Awakening


I woke surrounded by darkness. Mother wept. Slow organ music. Voices murmured.
I tried to sit up and hit my head. Hard.
“What was that?” someone said.
Silence.
I rolled over and slammed into a velvety barrier.
My bed teetered.
Mother screamed.
Footsteps approached.
A creak of hinges.
Startled eyes.
“You’re not dead,” someone said.

Twitfic


An even more abbreviated form of micro fiction is the Twitfic or Twabble. Drabblecast.org, defines a Twabble as a short story of exactly 100 characters not counting spaces or punctuation. (Though I think that, more generously, a Twabble might be anything you can fit into a tweet.) For example:



Here’s a challenge: Take the next 15 minutes and write a complete story of 100 words or less. It should have a protagonist, a challenge and an ending. Then post it (or a link to it) as a comment! I’d love to read it.

That’s it! Have a great weekend and good writing.

Thanks for reading.

Photo credit: Original photo: "Journal Entry" by Joel Montes de Oca under CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo altered by Karen Woodward.

Thursday, January 22

A Three Act Story Structure: The Final Conflict (Part 5 of 5)

A Three Act Story Structure: The Final Conflict (Part 5 of 5)



This is the final post in my series on the Three Act Structure for genre stories. Yes! (I always get a bit excited when I write the last post in a series, it’s not the same as finishing a short story, but it’s still good.) Here’s an index to the rest of the posts in this series:


Endings Are Important


In many ways the final bit of your story, the Final Conflict, is the most important part. If the ending isn’t satisfying then, chances are, your readers won’t be waiting on pins and needles for your next story. 

I’ve written about story endings elsewhere (see here and here) but what I want to concentrate on today is everything that happens after the protagonist goes through the All Hope Is Lost moment and has her epiphany. (I’m not going to talk about this moment here because I covered it in my last post, see above.)

The Plan


Things are now looking up. Sure, nothing has actually changed. The protagonist is still in the deep dark pit with no way out and his allies are about to be killed in the most brutal of ways, but, still, things aren’t as bleak because the hero has an idea. 

Right now at this moment, the protagonist is everything we wanted her to be. She has struggled, she has failed, she has learned from her mistakes and the scales have just fallen from her eyes. She is aware of the lie she’s told herself. She has (partially at least) healed her deep inner wound. As a result, the protagonist is whole; she has come into her power.

Now the protagonist makes a new plan. Often she is alone at this point, her allies having been sidelined. But, even if she has allies, she often won’t reveal the specifics of her plan. (The writer  may not want her readers to be too informed at this point since not knowing exactly how the protagonist plans to pull things off can help build suspense.) 

Story reasons for the protagonist keeping her plan to herself could include the following:

- The protagonist knows that one of her allies is really a spy.
- The protagonist knows her allies would try to prevent her from doing what she must since she believes doing so will mean her death.

In any case, the protagonist advances, alone, to the place where the final conflict will take place. (Though, her being alone isn’t the crucial bit. She could have one or two allies come with her, the crucial bit is that she faces the Big Bad all by herself without any help.)

The Penultimate Conflict


There is often a confrontation with the antagonist’s minion, a confrontation that the protagonist will win, now, without too much trouble. The minion would have beaten her before her revelation—before the epiphany she had at the end of the All Hope Is Lost moment—but now the tables are turned.

Also, this confrontation with a minion shows how far the protagonist has come. She has overcome her weaknesses, she has healed her wound, and it’s time to let the audience see this. 

One way of accomplishing this is to have the protagonist wipe the floor with a bad guy that gave her a sound beating earlier in the story, around about the time she entered the Special World and was still figuring out how things worked.

Often this bad guy is the Big Bad’s second in command. He sees that the protagonist is in pretty bad shape, she’s beaten up, and he thinks she’ll be easy to obliterate. What ensues now is what I think of as fun, satisfying, violence, the sort of thing you see in the trailer to a James Bond flick. She will win the fight with the minion fairly easily (though the protagonist may fake an injury to build a moment or two of tension) and he’ll die with an incredulous expression on his face.

After this fight things get serious. Often, one way the protagonist can win is by sacrificing her life. This would be noble and a perfectly good ending, but we want her to live, so there’s suspense, tension.

The Final Conflict


Riding high from trouncing the minion the protagonist often walks into a trap. Or she is ambushed. Perhaps our protagonist has gotten a little cocky, perhaps a vestige of her former, scarred, self rears its head. Whatever the case, the protagonist gets into trouble.

This could happen right as the protagonist goes to engage the antagonist, or it could happen after the fight is well on its way and the antagonist is starting to realize he may not win the fight (or confrontation). Whatever the case, there’s a moment when it looks as though we were wrong—really really wrong—about the protagonist now being as good as it gets. She’s in trouble again and this could be the end of her and her quest. 

But it’s not. She faked the injury to get an advantage.

It sometimes happens here that the antagonist ups the stakes one last time by daring to do what no one else would. Perhaps he alters himself in such a way that he is now the walking dead but he’s going to be godly for the next ten minutes, which is more than enough time to destroy the protagonist. This pushes the protagonist to excel in a way we’re truly not sure she’s capable of and, once again, the audience is (hopefully!) on the edge of their seats.

- At this point the antagonist has no secrets.


At this point in the story all of the antagonist’s cards should be on the table. True, you don’t want an information dump where the protagonist, strapped across railway tracks, pleads for her life while the black cloaked villain rubs his gloved hands together, twirls his mustache, and tells her about the brilliance of his scheme.

But, still, no secrets. Perhaps the antagonist will taunt the protagonist by filling in the last little bit of the puzzle that lets the protagonist see how very high and dire the stakes are. Instead of simply the world being destroyed, he’s taking the galaxy out too! 

Yes, I’m exaggerating, but at this point it isn’t just the protagonist that is going to win or lose it’s also every single one of her allies, and perhaps her family and extended community. Also, the protagonist may have allies the antagonist has killed and who need avenging. Not to mention that by this time we’ve become emotionally attached to the protagonist and those she cares about.

- On with the fight.


After the antagonist shows us his last card we’re all on the same page. We now know the antagonist’s true power as well as his true agenda.

We, the audience, quake. Even our new punched up self-aware protagonist can’t possibly beat this guy, he’s just too badass.

Then ... why does the protagonist seem so confident?

Seeing the protagonist’s newfound confidence, the antagonist’s composure is shaken for a moment but then he laughs. “You’re faking,” the antagonist says and calls the protagonist’s bluff. Perhaps he even knocks the protagonist down. The Antagonist is now sure he’s won and sneers at the protagonist, ready to deliver the knock-out punch.

The audience is now worried that perhaps the protagonist was bluffing after all, that perhaps she really is all flash and no substance.

But, then, the protagonist shows the audience she wasn’t bluffing and shows the antagonist what she’s capable of. And wins. Since the antagonist was the thing that prevented the protagonist from achieving her goal, that’s it, we’re done.

The story question has been answered. (The story question is basically: Will the protagonist achieve her story goal? Jim Butcher has written a wonderful article on this.)

- Other kinds of endings.


Of course the story doesn’t have to end with the protagonist winning. 

a. She could fail to defeat the antagonist and die. 
b. Or she could fail to defeat the antagonist and live the rest of her life with the knowledge that she’d failed. 
c. Or she could beat the antagonist but still die. 
d. Or she could partially beat the antagonist and ... Well, there are many, many, possibilities.

Keep in mind, though, that each genre usually has pretty clear conventions about how stories will end. 

In a mystery story, if the sleuth doesn’t discover who committed the murder—or they do discover whodunit, but no one is ever brought to justice for the crime—then chances are that you’ll have plenty of grumpy readers who will make it a point of never ever reading another one of your mystery books.

In a Harlequin-type romance story, if the romantic leads do not live happily ever after (HEA) there will be hell to pay. A senior editor at Harlequin once told a conference I attended that they did break this rule once, and both the writer and publisher received hate mail. I kid you not!

The Wrap Up


The final conflict concluded, we wrap up the story by cashing out the final stakes. We do this by showing how the lives of each significant character have been changed because of the protagonist achieving the story goal.

Then, at the very end, the protagonist goes back to the Ordinary World and we see how the adventure changed her. Now, transformed, she does with ease tasks which were impossible before. For example, the protagonist can now best a bully, make difficult decisions, be a leader in the community, gain the elder’s respect, and so on.

Closing Thoughts: The Importance of Change


Let me stress that, although I do often talk about THE Three Act Structure, there’s really no such thing. There is no one monolithic structure that each and every genre story will exemplify. What I’ve written about is my own personal understanding of, distillation of, a structure I see in the overwhelming majority of popular genre stories.

Further, no single story will touch all these bases, and that’s fine. If I had to boil all the advice I’ve given over the years down to just one thing, it would be this: change is necessary.

Situations change, characters change. The mood of a scene changes. Readers—the audience—go from ignorance (Who is the villain?) to knowledge (It’s—drumroll—the mayor!). Without change, nothing dramatic can happen. And whatever else genre stories are, they should be dramatic.

Though, that said, there are only two actual rules in writing:

1. Write regularly. 
2. Read regularly.

If you’re looking for places to share your writing, or encouragement to write every day, I publish a daily writing prompt here, here and here, and the folks over at Critters.org have helped many writers hone their craft.

That’s it! Thanks for reading. 

Note: While the version of the Three Act Structure I’ve presented here does agree with that put forward by many screenwriters, I’ve noticed some put the break into Act Three after the All Hope Is Lost point. I think the take-away from this is to, as always, do what seems right for you. For me, it seems most natural to have the break into Act Three come just after the Major Setback but before the All Hope Is Lost moment, so I’ve placed the Major Setback at just before the 75% mark. 

I’d also like to note that, often, the Third Act will be quite short compared to the First Act. That way, once the hero breaks into Act Three it feels like one incredibly fast race to the Story Climax.

Photo credit: Original photo: "The Lonely Vacuum Of Space" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, January 19

A Three Act Story Structure: Act Three

A Three Act Story Structure: Act Three



Today I continue my series on the Three Act Structure for genre stories. 


In this post I’m going to examine a special kind of Try-Fail Cycle, what I call the All Hope Is Lost Try-Fail Cycle. It begins with the Major Setback, carries us into Act Three and ends with the Story Climax (or Final Conflict). I had hoped to get through the Final Conflict today, but that didn’t happen. I will do that Wednesday.

Act Three: The Rush to the Finish (75%)


Endings are important. It’s said that the first few pages of a story sell that book while the last few pages sell the next book. I believe that.

The ending plays out in Act Three so, ideally, the third act will build the tension of the first two acts into a crescendo of suspense, rushing into The Story Climax, where the Story Question will be decided.

All Hope Is Lost: An Odd Try-Fail Cycle


What I’m calling the All Hope Is Lost Try-Fail Cycle contains three events.

First Time. Often the first try-fail in this threefold cycle is the Major Setback (I talked about the Major Setback in my last post so I won’t go into it again here). 

Second Time. After that devastating, plot-twisting, defeat, the protagonist comes up with a new plan, but this new plan fails as well. 

Third Time (All Hope Is Lost). Undeterred, the protagonist forms a new plan and, though it seems impossible it will succeed, there’s nothing else to try. The stakes, now, are the highest they have ever been and the chance of success the smallest it has ever been. At the end of this sequence the protagonist seems to fail, totally and completely. 

Sometimes (for example, in “Edge of Tomorrow”), this seeming failure lasts only a few seconds and then, immediately following, we get the resolution, the conclusion, of the tale. Other times it is more drawn out. Both kinds of stories, though, usually have the same general structure:

1. (Major Setback) Try --> Obstacle --> Fail 
- Stakes increase.
- Likelihood of success goes down.

2. New Plan --> Try --> Obstacle --> *Fail*
- Stakes increase.
- Likelihood of success goes down.

3. New Plan --> Try --> !!!!!**FAIL**!!!!!
- Stakes turn out to be much bigger than at first thought.
- All Hope is Lost Point: No chance of success whatsoever.

1. The first try-fail sequence


Often the first try-fail is the Major Setback (I talked about the Major Setback in my last post so I won’t go into it again here). 

2. The second try-fail sequence.


After the devastating, plot-twisting, defeat of the Major Setback, the protagonist comes up with a new plan, but the new plan fails.

The consequences of the failure turn out to be very much worse than anyone imagined. The protagonist is unprepared for this and sometimes loses hope. Often an ally or a mentor figure will come onstage and give the protagonist a pep talk. Or perhaps the antagonist will push the protagonist past endurance and she’ll snap only to find a core of strength to her being she never suspected.

3. The third try-fail sequence


The protagonist comes up with another plan but this plan, too, fails, or appears to fail. 

This final try-fail sequence ends with the All Hope Is Lost beat, also known as the Dark Night of the Soul. 

As bad as things seemed at the end of the second sequence, it will turn out that what the protagonist thought was the true bottom—the worst things could possibly get—was only a way-stop on the way to complete and total ruin. 

Now the protagonist is at rock bottom. This is the lowest point of the movie, both for the protagonist and for the story quest as a whole. There is no possibility the protagonist is going to get out of this. No rabbits in this hat. Her quest is over and it’s all her fault. 

The Third Try-Fail Cycle and the Ray of Hope


The trick here is the protagonist’s mindset, what she thinks of as possibilities. A shift now occurs. I’ve said that there was no possibility the protagonist was going to get out of this, but what that means is the protagonist can see no way out of her predicament.

The last stop of her journey from darkness to enlightenment is for the protagonist to make a radical—and much needed—change to her worldview.

This is where all the messy touchy-feely stuff, all the character building, the talk of internal goals, scars, and so on, comes into play.

Also, though I haven’t mentioned it (I’ve only been concentrating on the A-Story) this is where the B-Story pays off big-time.

The B-Story


The B-Story is all about—is essentially about—the protagonists inner change. There’s something she is blind to about herself (with Shrek, it was that he was lonely and needed to let people in; both literally (into his swamp) and figuratively.)

The B-Story Hooks Into The A-Story


Here, at the final All Hope Is Lost point, at the very end of this cataclysmic try-fail cycle, we need the scales to fall from the protagonist’s eyes and for her to see things in a new way.

This often leads to the protagonist discovering what I think of as the ‘good trick.’ Since she is no longer deceiving herself, she sees what was right under her nose the whole time! (Or, at least, in a bolt of inspiration thinks of the problem in a new way and devises a new plan.)

Or, perhaps, now she sees the truth about herself, and this epiphany, this revelation, heals her inner wound.

Obviously, what happens now will depend on your story. Sometimes the new plan quickly leads to the final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist, sometimes not. If not, perhaps the group of adventurers needs to re-assemble—or at least the core group. Perhaps one or two of the protagonist’s allies go off on their own mini-quest. If so, these quests will be very short and the focus will still be on the protagonist and her final approach.

I’ll talk about the Final Conflict—the climax of the story—in the next post.

An Example of the All Hope Is Lost Try-Fail Cycles: Edge of Tomorrow


Spoilers ahead! If you haven’t yet watched “Edge of Tomorrow” I would advise you to stop reading now and watch it. It was, hands down, my favorite action flick of 2014. If you haven’t watched it and don’t plan to, here’s a summary of the movie.

Here are what I see as that story’s “All Hope Is Lost” sequences.

1. (Major Setback) Try --> Obstacle --> Fail 


The Major Setback occurs when Cage goes off on his own to confront the Omega (if you haven’t seen the movie, the Omega is the Big Bad and must be killed). At least, that was Cage’s plan. The obstacle was that ... surprise! ... the Omega wasn’t there. Instead of battling the Omega, Cage was ambushed by a couple of mimics who tried their best to kill him permanently. 

Cage escapes, but his failure to find the Omega knocks him and his allies back to square one. He now has no idea how he’s going to locate the Omega. And if he can’t locate the Omega he can’t kill the Omega. And if he doesn’t kill the Omega that will mean curtains for humanity. 

Things are bad.

2. New Plan --> Try --> Obstacle --> *Fail*


One of Cage’s allies tells him about a device that can be used to locate the position of the Omega. The problem is it’s in General Brigham’s office, and the general isn’t about to give it to Cage. Still, what other choice is there? Cage tries to convince the General of the truth of his story. At first it seems he has succeeded. The General gives cage the artifact, but that turns out to be a ruse and Cage and his ally must flee for their lives. While fleeing, Cage uses the device to locate the Omega. 

Unfortunately, Cage is wounded and taken to a hospital where he is given a blood transfusion. As a result, he can’t reset the day anymore. That was the only edge Cage had, that was his superpower.

Things are very bad.

3. New Plan --> Try --> !!!!!**FAIL**!!!!!


Cage comes up with a new plan, it’s the only option left. He convinces his squad to go with him to attack the Omega. After suffering heavy losses—his entire team has died—Cage swims toward the Omega intending to plant an explosive device on it. 

Unfortunately, before he can do this, a Mimic swims up behind him and thrusts one of it’s tentacles through Cage’s chest. Cage lets go of the explosive which drifts down toward the Omega, getting caught up in the thing’s gills. Still, this means nothing. Cage has failed. He didn’t arm the explosive charge before it drifted away. 

Cage has lost, finally, totally, completely. He is moments from death. The woman he loves is dead. All his allies are dead. His plans have failed. Humanity is about to be driven extinct and the Earth stripped of its resources. 

This is the All Is Lost beat. 

A moment before Cage dies he opens his hand revealing several trigger pins and we realize that he has armed the explosive, after all. Cage smiles in triumph and the next moment we see the Omega explode. Cage has won.

All Hope Is Lost: Summary


“Edge of Tomorrow” is just one example of how the All Hope Is Lost sequences were handled (though I think it’s an especially good example), but each story is different. For instance, there don’t always have to be three beats in this sequence. Also, the first beat doesn’t have to be the Major Setback. 

There is no one way of doing this, just like there’s no one right way of telling a story. (“He slept and then she slept,” is a story, though not a riveting one.) 

That’s it for today! Next time we’ll finish up this series and examine the Story Climax. Till then, happy writing, and thanks for reading.

(This blog post was first published on karenwoodward.org under the title: A Three Act Story Structure: Act Three.)

Photo credit: Original photo: "Get Off My Lawn!" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Photo altered by Karen Woodward.

Friday, January 16

The Second Half of Act Two: A Story Structure In Three Acts (Part 3 of 5)

The Second Half of Act Two: A Story Structure In Three Acts (Part 3 of 4)



For the past two posts I’ve been stepping through what I’m calling The Three Act Structure. (Which is slightly misleading since there really is no one three act structure, but I’ve discussed that in my first two posts, so, moving on ...)


Today I’m going to talk about the second half of Act Two, including the Midpoint and Major Setback. In the next post I’ll conclude this series by discussing Act Three. 


Act Two: The Midpoint


As I mentioned in the last post, the protagonist and her allies will often have to journey to the place where the protagonist will confront—or at least make some sort of contact with—the Big Bad. 

Often, though, this contact isn’t of the up-close and personal variety. The protagonist can be tricked and, rather than tackling the Big Bad, is ambushed. 

(Spoiler alert!) At the Midpoint, Cage in “Edge of Tomorrow” thinks he will confront the Omega, the Big Bad, but instead is ambushed by mimics (one could argue that this is actually the first setback in the sequence of setbacks that leads to the dark moment of the soul moment, but it seems more like a delayed Midpoint to me). 

In “Die Hard” John McClane talks to the Big Bad (Hans Gruber) on the telephone. The contest is of wits and John McClane comes away with a better understanding of the situation.

Of course, there are lots movies that have a good old fashioned, no-holds-barred, fight between the protagonist and the Big Bad—or at least the minions of the Big Bad. Often, the spectacular and satisfying part of the midpoint comes before the confrontation with the antagonist. Generally the confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist is less than spectacular.

After all, if the protagonist confronts and defeats the antagonist at the midpoint then, since the antagonist is the force preventing the protagonist from attaining her story goal, the story would be over. 

The Protagonist Goes From Passive To Active


Although it’s a generalization, I’ve found that, before the midpoint, protagonists are often more led by their circumstances—reacting rather than acting—while after the midpoint they are more active. After the midpoint, rather than reacting to the actions of the antagonist they actively pursue the antagonist and his minions.

For example, at the midpoint in “Edge of Tomorrow” Cage turns the corner from frightened newbie to battle-hardened warrior.

A New Understanding


At the Midpoint the protagonist’s understanding of the Special World undergoes a sea change. She understands the antagonist’s goal, his powers, in a new way. Generally this understanding, this lifting of the veil of ignorance, extends to the very nature of the Special World, it’s dangers and potential. The protagonist now has a much better, though likely still imperfect, understanding of how things are done in this strange new place that is fast becoming home. 

For example, in “Edge of Tomorrow” when Cage goes to confront the Omega on his own, he learns that the visions that drew him there were a trap. He and his allies are, in many ways, back at square one. 

Act Two: Part Two (60%)


Regrouping


After the confrontation at the midpoint the protagonist will regroup with her allies. This could be as simple as getting back in touch through the telephone or they could physically meet to reassess the situation and decide where to go from here. If there is a celebration then it’s likely going to be the last feel good moment before the end of the book. 

Use this moment to show the protagonist and the other characters reacting to what’s happening. (This is a sequel.) Highlight disagreements among the group, disagreements that could drive the adventurers apart, handicapping the hero and perhaps even leading one of her allies to betray him.

The Protagonist’s Reaction To The Revelation At The Midpoint: Bigger Stakes


Even though the protagonist has survived her confrontation at the midpoint, she has learned that her assumptions were almost completely wrong. As a result, the old stakes no longer apply. The true stakes, she now knows, are much, much, bigger. 

The protagonist holds firm. There’s a chance. One slim chance. Still, the protagonist hasn’t lost hope. She believes they can do it. (The protagonist might have to be helped into this place of hope by one or more of her allies. If there is a romance, the romantic interest could play a role.)

Act Two: End of Part Two: The Major Setback (75%)


The protagonist and her allies make a plan, they’re going to attempt to achieve the story goal, whatever the cost. Since this point in the story is called the Major Setback you can guess that things aren’t going to work out well; they’re going to fail and fail big. Further, the failure, though not a surprise in itself, should come in a way the audience won’t foresee. Though, looking back, it should make perfect sense.

Before the Major Setback there’s going to be a planning and ‘suiting up’ scene. (After all, your readers need to be clear about what the plan is and all the ways it can go wrong!) 

Further, before the protagonist and her allies go into danger, before they engage with the enemy, we need to spell out the stakes. (Of course, when things go south and the stakes get cashed out, the consequences of failure are going to be worse, much worse, than we thought they would be. I’ll talk more about this in my next post.)

Once the stakes are clear and the plan has been spelled out, the protagonist and her allies—or, often, just the protagonist—travel to the place of confrontation. (BTW, the plan could be as minimal as: Let’s go in, kick ass, get what we came for and leave.) This is similar to what we did before the midpoint, only now the stakes are much bigger and the chance of success much smaller. 

Exactly how the protagonist’s attempt to achieve the story goal fails is, of course, up to you. Often, the protagonist is counting on something or someone. For whatever reason—the person was captured, killed or injured, they turned traitor, or whatever—this person doesn’t come through. Whatever the critical something is, it will fail, and it will fail in a way the protagonist couldn’t have anticipated. (e.g., Cypher in “The Matrix”) 

That’s it! In the next post I’ll conclude this series by looking at Act Three and discussing the All Hope Is Lost moment (or, rather, culminating series of crises that bring the protagonist to her darkest hour) as well as the most exciting scene of the story: The Climax.

Thanks for reading!

Photo credit: Original photo: "This Is The Construct" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Alterations by Karen Woodward.

Wednesday, December 17

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: Tailoring Your Cast of Characters To Your Protagonist

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: Tailoring Your Cast of Characters To Your Protagonist



Yesterday we saw that character traits don’t come singly but in pairs. If a character is, say, one angry SOB then, all things being equal, this should be balanced out by tenderness. 

This balancing can happen in one of three ways. First, the character can go from anger to tenderness over time. Second, the character can appear angry but it’s really all bluff and bluster, they’re a softie on the inside. Third, the character can be a barely contained raging storm of emotion and this quality is contrasted by tenderness in another character. (For more on this see my last post: The Power of Paradox. To read this series from the beginning, here is a link to the first post: Story Openings: Five Choices.)

In what follows, I’ll examine this third way of expressing opposing pairs of character traits, paying special attention to how this can be used to tailor our cast of characters to the protagonist.

4. How to fit the protagonist to the cast of characters and the cast of characters to the protagonist.


Both Dwight V. Swain and Robert McKee agree that one’s cast of characters should be created with the goal of using them to tease out all the various dimensions of our protagonist. In “Techniques of the Selling Writer,” Swain writes:

“Each person [character] should make a different dominant impression. If three characters all pulse dignity at every turn, each will detract from the impact of the others. What you want is variety, not sameness.”

McKee, in “Story,” goes on to extend this notion by telling us how to make each of our characters dramatize—hook into—the various dimensions of the protagonist. McKee writes:

“In essence, the protagonist creates the rest of the cast. All other characters are in a story first and foremost because of the relationship they strike to the protagonist and the way each helps to delineate the dimensions of the protagonist’s complex nature. Imagine a cast as a kind of solar system with the protagonist as the sun, supporting roles as planets around the sun, bit players as satellites around the planets—all held in orbit by the gravitational pull of the star at the center, each pulling at the tides of the others’ natures.”

That’s the analogy, the idea. Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty. (What follows is from McKee’s example in “Story.” The only things I’ve added are the names and situations.)

Let’s say our protagonist, Donald McTaggert, has the following dimensions:

i. Amusing -- Morose
ii. Optimistic -- Cynical
iii. Compassionate -- Cruel
iv. Fearless -- Fearful 

Since we’ve given Donald four pairs of opposing traits we say that he’s four dimensional. Now, what sort of characters should we build to flesh out, to dramatize, each of Donald’s dimensions? 

Creating characters to connect with each of the protagonist’s dimensions.


Following the pairs of characteristics McKee gives us in “Story” let’s fashion a cast of characters that ‘hooks onto’ our Protagonist.

Character A: Angie Wilkes, Donald’s ex-wife. 


Donald’s interactions with his ex-wife show us his morose (i) and cynical (ii) sides. Angie, on the other hand, is amusing (i), optimistic (ii), and completely out of contact with reality. She’s convinced that she and Donald have merely hit a speed-bump and that, any day now, he’ll forgive her for having an affair with his best friend. 

Character B: Henry McTaggert, Donald’s son. 


Henry is Donald and Angie’s only child. Even though Donald is often cruel (iii) and fearful (iv) when he is with others, when he is with his son he is both compassionate (iii) and fearless (iv)—or at least that’s the front Donald tries to put on for Henry’s sake.

Character C: Greta Kettles, Donald’s co-worker. 


Donald is secretly in love with Greta. Whenever he’s around her his stomach rumbles and he feels light headed. In those moments he is optimistic (ii) and even amusing (i).

Character D: Fred Danger, lurker.


One day Fred, a man of indeterminate age who has been hanging around Henry’s high school, comes into the boy’s classroom wielding a gun. Henry manages to use his cell phone to text his dad. After reading the text Donald is terrified (iv). His son could be killed, other children could be killed. Donald’s fear is quickly transformed into anger (--> fearlessness (iv)). His lip curled, Donald jumps into his SUV muttering, “How dare you threaten my son. I’ll show you what it is to be afraid.”

I put that example together in a couple of minutes, but hopefully you get the gist. All things being equal, the best way to dramatize one characteristic is by pairing it with its opposite. 

Which isn’t to say that a single character can’t be both, for example, fearful and fearless if we show them at different points in time or we contrast appearance and reality (they only appear terrified, they’re really not) but, since we’ve been interested in creating a cast of characters that teases out our protagonist’s dimensions, we’ve been focusing on pairing his characteristics with those of other characters.

As McKee writes, this is how to not only make characters multidimensional, but to show those dimensions to the reader.

Next week we’ll go into more depth about how to create a cast of characters that teases out the inherent complexities we’ve been at such pains to give our protagonist.

Photo credit: "Dark lemur on the branch" by Tambako The Jaguar under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0.

Monday, December 15

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: The Power of Paradox

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: The Power of Paradox



This post is part of a longer discussion on tags and traits and how we can use them to craft unique and interesting characters. Here is the first post in the series (it contains links to subsequent articles): Story Openings: Five Choices.

3. Use tags and traits to modify the picture: The core of character.


The adjective of description that we looked at previously is all about the surface. All about appearances and first impressions. 

For example, let’s take a look at Agatha Christie’s sleuth, Miss Marple. Miss Marple comes across as being nothing more than a slightly doddering sweet little old lady. In a word she is harmless. But, really, she’s not. She’s Nemesis with white hair and knitting needles.

In the case of Miss Marple, we can say that two of her defining tags are “harmless” and “dangerous.” Notice how they seem to directly contradict each other?

Dwight V. Swain writes:

“Consider the dignified person. Is he really dignified—or is the appearance of dignity merely a mask he’s adopted to hide stupidity? Is the cruel man totally cruel ... cruel to certain people only ... or [is he] using the appearance of cruelty to hide the fact that he’s really so sentimental as to be a pushover for any appeal? [...] Is the boy’s rowdiness a mask for shyness?

“All of us are, in truth, a maze of inconsistencies and contradictions. That’s what makes man interesting. Capture the paradox in print, and your characters will be interesting also.”

Paradox. As we have seen with Miss Marple, there is a clash between appearance and reality, between the surface and the soul. This is appropriate. Each of us is a living, breathing, mass of conditions, a web of paradox. Like it or not, it’s part of what makes us human, and it’s a big part of what makes a character feel real.

I’m going to leave Swain’s discussion of character building for a moment to look at how Robert McKee develops this idea of contrasting characteristics (/tags). Then we’ll examine their role in creating unique and interesting characters.

Robert McKee on Dimensionality and Paradox


The contrast between inner and outer qualities is what McKee talks about when he speaks of the difference between characterization (the “sum of all observable qualities of a human being”) and true character. McKee writes:

“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.”

This leads us into McKee’s discussion of dimensionality.

I’ve written about this elsewhere (see the links below) but, briefly, McKee holds that the key to rounded, realistic, engaging characters is exactly the quality Swain mentioned (see above): Paradox. Contradiction.


McKee: There is no such thing as ONE dominant trait.


McKee takes issue with the idea that “fine character’s are marked by one dominant trait.” He sees traits not as solo qualities but as pairs of opposing qualities. The more pairs (/dimensions) one has the deeper and more well-rounded—the more interesting—one’s character will be. He writes:

Dimension means contradiction: either within deep character (guild-ridden ambition) or between characterization and deep character (a charming thief).”

So, according to McKee, rather than looking for adjectives of description we should be seeking, instead, pairs of contrasting adjectives.

It’s not enough to say that a character is tidy, we must see how that trait is opposed either within the person (appearance versus reality), over time (then vs now), or person vs person.

The last way traits can be contrasted with each other—person vs person—is something I’ll pick up next post where I’ll argue that contrasting traits between people is the key to creating a cast of characters that not only ensures the uniqueness of your protagonist but that fits the supporting characters of a story to the protagonist like a key fits a lock.

In other words, we can use contrasting traits to create the rest of the cast from the protagonist. Which, incidentally, is Dwight V. Swain’s fourth way to make a character unique: 

4. Match the protagonist to the the cast of characters and the cast of characters to the protagonist.

More about that next time. Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "Mother and daugher : a love story!" by Tambako The Jaguar under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0.

Friday, December 12

Story Openings: Tags, Traits and Tropes

Story Openings: Tags, Traits and Tropes



Yesterday I began a discussion of Tags and Traits and talked about how they can help bring a character to life. Today I’d like to extend that discussion by talking about ... 

2. How tags and traits can help us fit a character to their role in a story.


In this section we’re going to talk about the various roles a character can play, so let’s confront the elephant in the room: stereotypes.

Stereotypes are boring, but certain kinds of stereotypes—tropes—have gotten a bad rap. (If you think this is an outrageous view, please hear me out.)

Stereotypes vs Tropes

The way I’m using the word here, a trope is “a significant or recurrent theme; a motif.”

A stereotype, on the other hand, is “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”

For example, what’s the detective stereotype? When I say ‘detective’ what comes to mind?

Is the image of a man or woman? What are they wearing? How old are they? Are they a professional detective or do they moonlight? Do they have a Watson? On Saturday night, are they more likely to frequent a lady’s tea circle or a run-down bar? Do they have an arch-enemy?

My guess is that each of you has a radically different image of a detective. Why? Because there really isn’t any one stereotype of a detective, there are many, one for each sub-genre of detective story.

For instance, if you thought of a man who is a private detective, one who has a helper/sidekick and an arch-enemy then according to tvtropes.org (a truly wonderful site) you’re thinking about the trope of the Great Detective (e.g., Sherlock Holmes). 

Or perhaps you thought of the Defective Detective (e.g., Monk) or of a Detective Drama (e.g., Death in Paradise).

Or perhaps, like me, you thought of a fluffy old lady who knits and seems scattered but has a brain like a scythe (the Little Old Lady Investigates trope). But, then, you could be more the Hardboiled Detective type.

My point in mentioning all these tropes is to show that ‘the stereotypical detective’ doesn’t exist. We—I—talk about ‘the mystery genre’ but there’s really no such thing, not if what we mean by that is something concrete enough to actually produce a trope. No, there are a plethora of tropes, each unique to its sub-genre—or so I would argue.

We’re almost ready to explore the question of whether tropes can be a writer’s friend. But, first, let’s look at ...

The role of the trope


Let me approach this by example. Let’s say we want to write a tea cozy mystery, or “cozy” for short. (This is from the Little Old Lady Investigates trope.)

- The sleuth is usually female.

- The sleuth is older, usually in the second half of her life.

- The sleuth doesn’t get paid for solving the murder. Perhaps she is retired or perhaps, like Jessica Fletcher (Murder, She Wrote), she writes murder mysteries and sleuths on the side.

- The sleuth is a Cool Old Lady. She is clever; witty. She stands up for what she thinks is right. She is practically always polite and takes the high road. (Most people completely discount the ability of the Little Old Lady to solve a crime because, well, she’s a little old lady!) 

Okay, that about does it. Those traits won’t hold true for every case but—since this is the trope—they should capture the more important qualities of most of the sleuths in this sub-genre.

The big question: Should you cast to type or against type?


If you write a cozy would you cast to type and embrace the trope or would you cast against type and create something new, fresh, surprising? 

If I wanted to cast against type then perhaps I’d create a young male police officer, a rookie, who is a bit of a dweeb and couldn’t knit a scarf if his life depended on it.

This could work. My character would be fresh, new, unexpected. On the other hand, I would be throwing away one of the biggest assets a genre writer has: all those folks who love reading traditional cozy mysteries. Even worse, if a reader of traditional cozy mysteries were to pick up my book they’d likely be expecting a sleuth cast to type so, chances are, they’d be disappointed. Disappointed readers often give one star reviews and return books. 

I’m not saying this is a reason not to write against type, but it’s something to keep in mind when making your decision. 

My point here is simply that it’s the authors choice. Just as there’s nothing in the least wrong with writing against type (though there are consequences) there’s nothing wrong with embracing a trope. Doing so will give you a character cozy readers will immediately recognize and, hopefully, love. But you can’t use the type as-is, it needs a twist.

Tweaking A Trope


The danger with writing to type is, as you know, that your character will be exactly what the reader expects and so she’ll be bored silly. We need to tweak the trope so that our character stands out from the crowd.

For example we could keep practically everything the same but make our protagonist male rather than female. Or we could make the protagonist young rather than middle-aged. Or perhaps our granny has been uprooted from her life in the village and must brave the mean streets of the big city. Or instead of being sweet and kind she’s grumpy and selfish (the Agatha Raisin mysteries). Or perhaps the sleuth is a teenager visiting his grandmother. He solves the crimes but, because the police won’t listen to a kid, his gran takes the credit.

So, in short, if you choose to write to type (a) know the trope of the sub-genre you’ve chosen and (b) give it a twist. Above all, make sure your character is unique.

A Digression: Write What You Know


I think this is one reason folks say “Write what you know.” Even if you’ve never been a detective, even if you’ve never even met a detective, put parts of yourself—as well as folks you know well, folks you have strong feelings about for good or ill—into your character. 

Writers are a bit like Dr. Frankenstein. We take bits from our souls, bits from the souls of others, stitch them together and hope to make our creatures’ hearts beat, to make them live and breathe. I think once you reach that level of intimacy and specificity you can’t help but create something unique.

Putting it all together: Tags, Traits and Tropes


It’s taken us a while to get here, but we’ve done it. Now we’re ready to start using Tags and Traits to hook our character up to the role they’ll play in the story.

Once again, let’s do this by example. Let’s say we’ve decided to write a cozy mystery and we’re going to write to type. Yesterday we discussed the importance of tags and traits in breathing life into a character, to make them memorable, to make them the kind of artificial person readers will empathize with, the kind they will either love or loathe.

As we’ll see in a later post, Dwight V. Swain holds that there are four kinds of tags:

i. Tags of appearance
ii. Tags of speech
iii. Tags of manner
iv. Tags of attitude

I’m only going to use tags of appearance in this article but I will go into each of these categories in some detail in a later post. 

Let’s say that our sleuth has moved from a quaint English village into the hustle and bustle of London. She’s gotten to the stage where she needs a bit of help and her wealthy nephew invites her to stay with him in his spacious penthouse.  

Given the trope for this sub-genre, what tags and traits might we give our character? 

Tags of Appearance


What we want to do is choose characteristics which will make our little old lady sleuth memorable AND which will connect her to the trope.

Ball of yarn

Glinda Ellison, my sleuth, is going to crochet rather than knit but, like Miss Marple, a crochet hook and ball of yarn will be her near constant companions. 

How this hooks into the trope: Crochet reinforces her ‘harmless old lady’ feel and balls of yarn can roll all sorts of interesting places—behind couches, doors, into private bathrooms and all manner of restricted areas—thus providing our sleuth with a credible excuse to snoop.

Something fluffy 

She will always wear at least one thing she has crocheted and it will be something pastel colored and fluffy. 

How this hooks into the trope: The puffy frilliness reinforces her ‘harmless old lady’ feel.

Butterfly necklace

I want something that ties my sleuth to her nephew (Richard Fox), and I want this something to indicate how well off he is. At first I thought of having Richard give Glinda an emerald broach. I did a search on “emerald broach” and ended up at Tiffany & Co. looking at this lovely butterfly pendant. Butterflies are critters of air, which I associate with intellect. Sharp wit, though, can be like a two-edged sword, injuring both the prey and the huntsman, bringing them both to ruin. Perfect!

The other day I wrote about how the tarot can be used to help develop characters, so let’s see if it can help us fill in Glinda’s character information. Keeping with the butterfly motif, I’m going to say that Glinda was born in an air sign. Gemini, ruled by Mercury (quick intelligence), seems perfect. 

Richard is wealthy, so he’s going to be an earth sign, Virgo. I chose Virgo because I want him to be bright like his favorite aunt (Virgo, too, is ruled by Mercury) but I need to give him a weakness. The fall of Virgo is Venus, which is perfect! He’s going to be too smart for his own good and unlucky in love.

I’m going to stop there. Hopefully that gives you an idea how a character’s tags and traits can tie them to their story role and, in so doing, both make them unique and give them a simulacrum of life.

My apologies for the long post. I’ll continue this discussion on Monday when we chat about how tags and traits can help us build a character’s arc. Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "Roaring lion" by Tambako The Jaguar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.