Showing posts with label writing tips. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing tips. Show all posts

Monday, April 12

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Verisimilitude

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Verisimilitude



This post continues my mini-series about how to introduce a character. I’ve already written about Exaggeration, Unusual Position and introducing characters in Action. 

Today I’m covering Verisimilitude and later this week--I’m aiming for Thursday--I’ll close the series off by writing about Empathy. Here are links to my previous posts in this mini-series:

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Exaggeration
How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Unusual Position
How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Characteristic Entry Action

(Here is an index to all the blog posts in my soon-to-be written book: How to Write a Genre Story)

Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude. No, that’s not an exotic disease.

If a character has verisimilitude then they act believably which means that they act in a way that is consistent with who they are, with their core attributes. By the way, I’m getting much this information from Jim Butcher and his wonderful article, Characters. Jim Butcher calls verisimilitude the “V-factor.” 

He writes:

“The most exotic character in the world becomes nothing more than an annoying cartoon figure if he doesn’t behave in a consistent and believable manner.”

As an example, Butcher mentions Jar Jar Binks. As you likely know, Jar Jar was first introduced in the first of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace. 

It seems as though the character of Jar Jar checked most of the right boxes. He definitely had exaggerated and unusual traits and he was introduced in a way that helped make him memorable. But then WHY were Star Wars fans' reactions to him so mixed? Jim Butcher thinks that it is because, at least in part, Jar Jar didn’t have a consistent and believable manner. To paraphrase Butcher, the V-force was not with him. (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

How to give a character verisimilitude

I think there are two things that make a character feel real.

First, as we have seen throughout this mini-series, you give the character tags and traits that illustrate who they are. Further you make at least one or two of these traits exaggerated, unusual. 

Second, a character’s V-factor has to do with HOW you communicate a character’s emotional reactions. That’s what Jim Butcher focuses on and that’s what I’ll talk about, below. Here I just want to note that if this sounds similar to the pattern of a sequel, I would agree. This is the very same pattern. And it is enormously important.

Think of when you’ve encountered a sudden setback. What happens? Well, myself, I’m hit with a wall of pure, raw emotion. There’s no thought, not yet. It’s sort of like when I touch a hot stove (and, yes, I have been that idiotic, ‘Gee, I wonder if it’s hot yet.’) My hand started to move away from the burner before I felt the pain. Then I had a reaction which was, “Wow, touching a hot burner was a really bad idea.” Finally I made the decision to not do that again.

That’s perhaps a silly example but think of any sudden, negative, shock you’ve had. A significant other suddenly breaking up with you, hearing that you’ve been betrayed, and so on. Human beings have a reaction to those sort of things and it happens in a particular order. If that order isn’t right your readers probably won’t notice it but, still, it won’t FEEL right to them.

So. Jim Butcher lays out the three stages:

1. Emotions
2. Reactions
3. Decisions

In one of Jack Bickham's books he gives an example of a person coming home from work and, as they usually do, he calls out, “Honey I’m home!” But he is met with the silence of an empty house. Puzzled he looks around and spots a piece of paper on the hall table. He walks over and looks at it.

It’s a note from his wife. She tells him that she has been having an affair with the grocer for the past year and that she has left him.

What is his first reaction? EMOTION. A wave of emotion, of pain and regret. He’s not thinking about anything. There’s a chair nearby and he slumps into it because he doesn’t want to fall down. 

Then he REACTS. Then he’s angry. How could she? How could she lie to him like that? How could she betray him, deceive him? She had told him she loved him, and all that time…

But what should he do? He could try to get her back, try to track them down. He could hire a private detective to find them. Perhaps the grocer had pressured her, perhaps he had blackmailed her. Even if not, perhaps he could win her back. But does he really want to do that? Perhaps he should let her go her own way. 

The man presses bloodless lips together and makes a DECISION. To hell with her. He will scrub her from his life, from his memory, from his heart.

You see the pattern. If we had the decision before the emotion, it wouldn’t be credible or if the man had the reaction after the decision that wouldn’t make sense. You might be thinking, “Well, yeah… Did you really have to tell anyone that? Isn’t it obvious?” And, sure. On one level it is, but it is something that writers can get wrong and then the character doesn’t feel real.

Summary

When an event important to your character occurs, have your character react to it in a way that makes sense (see above) AND in a way that makes sense for them, that is true to their core characteristics. Those two considerations are equally important.

Well! That’s it for today. I’m trying to keep to a schedule of putting out a blog post on Monday and publishing my interview with a marvelously interesting writer on my YouTube channel on Tuesday. Tomorrow I will upload my chat with a singularly fascinating individual, Lydia Moore.

I hope you have a wonderful week, I'll talk to you again on Thursday. Good writing!

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Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter
YouTube: The Writer's Craft

Blog posts you might like:

Thursday, March 25

How to Write a Genre Story: A Character's Dominant Attitude



I’ve already gone over Swain’s idea of a character’s dominant impression, now let’s talk about their dominant attitude.

A character’s attitude

“Attitude is a matter of behavior patterns—a character’s habitual way of reacting to a particular kind of situation. Mary Poppins’s eternal cheeriness reflects an attitude, and so does Rambo’s macho stance.” (Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight V. Swain) 

Other examples of attitudes: sanctimony, ingrained suspicion, anxiety, discontent, and so on.

Like flesh and blood people, a character has more than one attitude. For example, a character can be both cheerful (like Mary Poppins) and sanctimonious, though at any one time one attitude will be stronger than the other. Overall, though, the character will have one attitude, aptly named the ‘dominant attitude’ that defines the character more than any other. I’ll go over a character's dominant attitude in a moment, but before I do let’s look at some examples.

Examples

I was at a party the other day and fell into conversation with someone I knew slightly. This wasn't the first time we'd met, but it was the first time we had a chance to exchange more than awkward pleasantries.

After a minute or so my impression of him was fixed: he was not a person who suffered fools gladly. It was an observation that didn't set me at ease since I was keenly aware that what constitutes a fool in someone's mind can be distressingly relative. Anyway, if he was a character I was writing, that would be his dominant attitude.

Keep in mind that our characters are pseudo-people and so tend to have less subtlety than their flesh-and-blood counterparts. For example, if a character's primary attitude is fearfulness, then that trait, that quality, will find a way to insinuate itself into everything that character does. 

Example 1: Mr. Midgley

If a character--Mr. Midgley--is, say, irascible then he might snap at other characters over minor slights or inconveniences. As a response to this, other characters might gossip about him. This character’s house would be the one school children are gently but firmly steered away from on Halloween. 

An irascible character can be kind or considerate, but there would have to be a reason. It would require an explanation. For example, perhaps one of the neighborhood children--Sarah--reminds him of his estranged daughter and so he has a soft spot for the child. He's sentimental. It's his daughter’s birthday so he bakes his daughter's favorite cookies--chocolate chip with extra chips. Then he sees Sarah creep hesitantly, fearfully, onto his back lawn to retrieve a baseball that has landed in his flowerbed. Something about the sight makes it hard for him to swallow and he wipes his eyes with a tissue. Rather than bawl her out for trespassing he goes out and gives the child a cookie. An unlikely friendship is forged.

Example 2: Monica Geller from Friends

Here's another example, this time from the TV show Friends. I would say that Monica Geller's primary attitude was obsessive compulsiveness when it came to cleaning. Informally, we would call her a neat freak. Everything had to be just so or she'd clean and scrub and rearrange until it was. Monica didn't need a reason to clean, no explanation was required. If she didn't clean up a mess, THAT would require an explanation.

Example 3: Mr. Monk

One last example: Mr. Monk from the TV show Monk. I would say that Mr. Monk's primary attitude was fearfulness. 

Mr. Monk was obsessive compulsive and he had an uncanny knack to remember even the most minute, irrelevant detail about his environment. He was also scared of just about everything. Even milk. Milk! One reason that show was a success was that, in practically every scene, the screenwriters demonstrated Monk's primary characteristic--fearfulness--and tied everything else to it. Then, at the end of nearly every show, the writers had Monk do something that for him was courageous. He had goals he was driven to attain--becoming a detective again, figuring out who killed his wife, protecting a friend--and was temporarily able to overcome his many fears. So, really, the most terrified man in the world was courageous.

Once you've picked a character's dominant attitude it should be reflected in some way in nearly every scene.

The Dominant Attitude

Dwight V. Swain writes, “...you’ll need to become aware of the special areas of mind and thought that your story brings into focus.

“You can do worse than to term this collective pattern your character’s dominant attitude.” (Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight V. Swain)

“Thus, in a romance, Female Lead’s dominant attitude very well may center on the way she sees—and, in action, reacts to and behaves towards—men. Are they dominating bullies, like her boss? Frail reeds, in the manner of her hopeless, helpless uncle? Eternal womanizers...? [Are they] [s]hadow images of her boastful, bragging brother?…. Stalwart partners for a lifetime of warmth and peace? (Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight V. Swain)

In a science fiction story the dominant attitude of the protagonist might be one of ingrained suspicion. In keeping with this attitude he might believe that the human race is doomed to extinction at the hands of an alien race. He feels/thinks that, because of the aliens’ technological superiority, that our only hope is to ‘acquire’ their technology before they have the opportunity to crush us.

In a suspense novel, perhaps the protagonist’s dominant attitude is one of distrust. He looks at his fellow humans either as perpetrators--those who take advantage of others--or victims--those who are taken advantage of by others. Because of this belief he becomes withdrawn, leaves society and goes to live all by himself in the hills.

In a mainstream novel, the protagonist might have the dominant attitude of cheerfulness, she believes that there is good in everyone, even the most hardened murderer. Because of this belief she becomes a psychologist and opens a rehabilitation center for hardened criminals.

So you see the pattern. A character has an attitude which, in conjunction with a belief, contributes to the character having a goal. The conjunction of the attitude with the belief might even suggest a way of achieving the goal. 

Attitudes and beliefs

Above, I’ve mentioned a belief. 

I haven’t written much about what this belief is, where it enters into things. It seems as though the belief encompasses that character's view of what the best way to live one’s life is. Perhaps the character’s attitude stems from this belief, or perhaps the belief is a result of their attitude. Who knows!

In my last example the belief (or worldview) the protagonist had was that, "Good is in everyone," and the course of action she took based on that view was to get a degree in psychology and open a rehabilitation center.

Dominant Attitude and Theme

At some point I would like to write a blog post about a story’s theme, what it is and its importance to making a story riveting. It seems to me that a character’s dominant attitude would tie them into the theme of the story, or--to put it another way--set the theme of the story. I need to think about that some more. 

That’s it! As always, I’d love to know your thoughts. 😀

Good writing. I’ll talk to you on Monday.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter
YouTube: The Writer's Craft

Blog posts you might like:

Monday, March 8

How to Write a Genre Story: Characters: Homo Fictus

How to Write a Genre Story: Characters: Homo Fictus


Characters--Homo Fictus--are the raw material from which stories are created, but who are these entities who populate our stories and how do they differ from flesh-and-blood people?

Homo Fictus

Characters can be viewed as a pseudo-species of humans that differ from their flesh-and-blood counterparts in at least three respects.

1. Characters are fathomable, understandable. Humans aren't.

I'm not suggesting that great characters, outstanding characters, don't have contradictory desires or goals. All the best characters do.

One of the most interesting characters I've come across is Walter White from Breaking Bad. What are his two main drives? To take care of his family and to make is mark on the world. He wants to unleash his intellect and, no matter the consequence, show the world what he can do. 

These two desires--to provide for his family and to be remembered--often come into conflict and drive the story forward. And we easily understand this clash of motivations.

Humans, though, can be truly unfathomable. We want one thing one minute and then the opposite the next. I’ve gone into an ice cream shop with a friend convinced that regardless of what my friend wanted I was not going to buy an ice cream cone...and walked out with an ice cream cone.

Humans can be flaky, their goals can and do change on a whim and they make bad decisions in silly ways that aren't interesting. 

How well do you know your friends and neighbours? If you think you know them pretty well, think about how many times you've heard the neighbors of a serial killer say, "He seemed like such a nice man."

The key point here is not that characters shouldn't have contradictory drives or desires--they should!--it is that readers must be able to understand them. As a story progresses we need to see more of a character’s layers. Although I may revise my initial judgement about a character, by the end of the story I must feel that I understand her. Not necessarily approve or condone, but understand. I must be satisfied that the kind of choices a character made were a result of the kind of person she was.

For a character to be interesting and memorable she must be fathomable. If she isn't, the reader will become bored, turn away from the story and find something more engaging to do.

2. Characters are exceptional; most humans aren't.

Granted, not all characters are exceptional, but every character I've fallen in love with, every character that has lingered with me after the page on which they were introduced, has been. 

To understand the importance of this let's look at what Dwight V. Swain calls a trait, or a tag of attitude (for more about this read Swain's book, Techniques of the Selling Writer). A tag of attitude is a behavioural quirk or disposition. He writes:

"The key thing to remember about tags is that their primary purpose is to distinguish . . . to separate one character from another in your reader’s eyes."

For example, on the show Monk, the lead--Mr. Monk, played by Tony Shalhoub--is a former police detective with an obsessive-compulsive disorder whose main goals in life are to find his wife's killer and to get back on the police force. As a character, Mr. Monk is mostly unexceptional. His wardrobe is bland, his culinary tastes are bland, and his personality is bland. 

So, why did so many people--myself included--love the show? Mr. Monk is exceptional in two ways: he is fanatical about cleanliness (as well as orderliness) and he is the best detective in the world. His core skill (or trait/tag of attitude) is that he notices absolutely everything in his environment regardless of whether it's important, something that is both (and this is Mr. Monk’s catchphrase) a gift and a curse.

3. Humans are infinitely complex, characters aren't.

Fictional human beings are simpler and more goal-oriented than ordinary flesh-and-blood people. As E.M. Forster writes in Aspects of the Novel:

"But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed. And this is why they often seem more definite than characters in history, or even our own friends; we have been told all about them that can be told; even if they are im­perfect or unreal they do not contain any secrets, whereas our friends do and must, mutual secrecy be­ing one of the conditions of life upon this globe."

I used to have a gal pal I went to go see movies with, I'll call her Rachel. In general, we had the same taste in movies. After awhile we got to know each other well. I could tell which parts of a movie she'd find funny, which parts she'd roll her eyes at, which parts would make her cry, and so on. 

But she continually surprised me. Occasionally, she wouldn't laugh at something I thought she'd think was hilarious or she thought the hero who sacrificed it all for his true love was an idiot, or...well, you get the idea. No matter how well I think I know someone they can surprise me. But this isn't true of a character. 

If a character surprises us--for instance when I learnt Keyser Söze's true identity at the end of the movie The Usual Suspects--I looked back through the movie and realized that I'd missed, or misunderstood, quite a few things. The ending made perfect sense. If it hadn't then it wouldn't have been a good ending. In real life, though, endings often don't make a great deal of sense but, hey, that's why we tell ourselves stories! ;)

-- --

Humans are complex. We do unexpected things with unsatisfying results in ways that make little or no sense. That's boring. Or maddening. Often both. Compared to humans, our characters are blessedly simple. They have fewer desires, fewer goals, and the needs they have are more exaggerated and more intense than yours or mine. 

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Saturday, February 6

Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)

Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)


(FYI, this post is part of my How to Write a Genre Story series. By rights I should have titled it How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Mood (Part 2), but I couldn't resist the more evocative title: "How to scare the pants off someone!" There are links, below, to other articles in this series, but you don't need to have read any of them to understand what follows.)

Setting does many things in a story. 

First, it helps establish the mood. Do you want your reader to be horrified (horror/thriller)? Do you want your reader to be curious (mystery)? Do you want your reader to be excited to explore a society dramatically different from their own (fantasy)? And so on.

Second, the setting brings the story world to life through the senses: smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing. 

Finally, the setting of a story is used to introduce, and increase, conflict.

Today I'm going to chat about the first of these, setting and mood. I'll address the second and third points in the very near future.

1. Setting And Mood

Mood draws the reader into a story. Since one of the reasons to tell a story would be to produce a particular emotion in the reader, creating the right sort of mood is crucial.

An Example

How can setting affect mood? 

I think the best way to illustrate this is by talking about horror, both the mood and the genre. So let's say that you’re writing a horror story. Naturally, you want to horrify your readers.

It is so obvious I hate to say it (well, type it), but a person isn't going to be horrified if they aren't afraid. What has to happen for a person to be afraid? They need to perceive a threat and feel vulnerable to that threat. 

For example, imagine that you're walking down your front path to get your mail from the cute letterbox your kids got you for Christmas. You hear a noise, perhaps a footstep, to your right. Out of the corner of your eye you see something pink and frilly. "Oh that's Mrs. Jones," you think. Mrs. Jones is your relentlessly friendly nextdoor neighbour who walks around in a poofy pink dressing gown. You turn to wave but then you see that Mrs. Jones has turned into a shambling, half decayed zombie. And she's heading right for you!

Perhaps you're made of sterner stuff than me, but I would be horrified! I would promptly forget all about getting the mail and, fearing for my life, run inside. Why? Because (of course!) I would be afraid of being turned into the thing my grey haired, slipper-wearing, absent-minded next door neighbour had become. 

I think that fear is, fundamentally, an acknowledgement of, or recognition of, my vulnerability in the face of imminent danger. 

Here is a partial list of what I think evokes a feeling of horror:

- Recognition of the imminence of my death or the deaths of family/friends.
- Recognition of the imminence of my pain or the pain of family/friends.
- Recognition of the imminence of the unknown (or unknown unknowns).
- Recognition of the imminence of my disfigurement or the disfigurement of my family/friends. (Think of slasher films like Saw.)
- Recognition of the imminence of disillusionment or the imminence of destructive revelation.

Now ask yourself: What sort of setting would help communicate these sort of feelings/thoughts to the reader? What would its characteristics be? 

I had intended this post to be about how to evoke more moods than just horror, but here are a few things that I think would contribute to evoking that particular mood.

4 Things that Evoke Horror

The Dark

The dark hides things, it makes the familiar alien, it contains unknown unknowns. Chaotic things lurk out there beyond the light of the bonfire.

I know that observation isn’t original, but the dark is used in (I’m rifling through my memories) every single horror story for a reason.

Isolation

When the hero confronts the Big Bad they can’t receive any help, they have to confront the antagonist all by their lonesome. If the hero is to win and escape the horror, they will have to do it relying on their own wits and strength. This is especially true in the case of a horror story. 

The hero, or the hero and his allies, usually travel to someplace remote and unusual. Someplace they haven't been to before. (And then of course there's a story a local tells them that scares the pants off them but which they discount, and so on.) At the end, the hero's allies have met an unpleasant death but she is still there and now she's really ticked off and has a plan. But all of this is facilitated by the isolated nature of the setting. Otherwise she'd just use her cell phone to call someone for help!

Monsters

The monsters that scare me the most are normal things that have been twisted. I haven't been the same since I read Stephen King's book, Pet Sematary! 

Here's an example of how twisting a familiar setting can create horror. The story is called Bad Dreams and was published anonymously on Dramatica.com but, before you head off there, know that the site is NOT work safe. That's putting it mildly. But this story is fine, it is one hundred percent PG.

‘Daddy, I had a bad dream.’

You blink your eyes and pull up on your elbows. Your clock glows red in the darkness--it’s 3:23. ‘Do you want to climb into bed and tell me about it?’

‘No, Daddy.’

The oddness of the situation wakes you up more fully. You can barely make out your daughter’s pale form in the darkness of your room. ‘Why not, sweetie?’

‘Because in my dream, when I told you about the dream, the thing wearing Mommy’s skin sat up.’

For a moment, you feel paralysed; you can’t take your eyes off of your daughter. The covers behind you begin to shift.

Great story, right?!

The setting used here is familiar. Intimate. Isolated. The protagonist is in his bedroom with his wife and child. Would the story have the same impact if it was morning, rather than the witching hour? Would the story have the same impact if the exchange took place while the protagonist was preparing to drive to work? I don't think so.

I think that the closeness, the intimacy, of the threat contributes to the isolation. If the wife was in the kitchen or even just out in the hall the situation wouldn't feel so intense and creepy. It's the intimacy of the threat (your wife is lying right behind you) that adds to the feeling of isolation. For example, I'm in a crowd then someone sticks the muzzle of a gun in my back and tells me, "Don't scream, don't talk, just walk." I'm instantly isolated because I can't call for help.

Surprise, Disorientation & Isolation

I've already talked about some of these things, but I need an excuse to trot out one of my favorite horror scenes. This scene--well, I suppose it is more like a series of scenes--occurs toward the end of one of the best horror movies ever made, Alien. (Yes, okay, that's my personal opinion. If you disagree, let me know in the comments.)

Toward the end of Alien, when Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) makes her way to the shuttle, she runs down twisting hallways expecting danger at every turn. For me, that was the most suspenseful part of the movie. 

The dark--both of the spaceship and the surrounding, suffocating, emptiness of space--isolates the hero from any possible aid and disorients her, magnifying her fear--which, mysteriously, has become your fear even though you're perfectly safe and sitting snugly on your couch chowing down on buttered popcorn. Or, no, wait! that was me. ;)

Well, that's it for today. If you'd like to chat or ask a question or tell me I'm wrong, leave a comment. Until then, good writing and I'll talk to you again soon.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Wednesday, February 3

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)

There are many stories that don't fit the hero’s journey. For example, the movies Psycho and The Princess Bride. And that's great! There are as many ways to write a story as there are writers. 

I mention this to emphasize that what I am going to talk about is only one way of doing things. If it doesn’t work for you, or you have developed your own way, great! However, if you are looking for an example of how things could be done, this is one possible way.

Narrative Setting

Narrative setting is the setting where the events of the story take place. 

The story world includes, among other things, the physical environments your characters will encounter as well as the groups they interact with. You can create these environs from your imagination or you can set the story in the actual world. 

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

Social Setting

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

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

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

The most important environment for social creatures such as ourselves is our social environment; our family, our friends, our coworkers, our distant relatives, our facebook friends. Of course, your protagonist need not be sociable! Let your imagination run wild. Anything is fair game as long as it's believable.

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

The Elements of Setting: Time

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

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

The Elements of Setting: Place

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

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

The Elements of Setting: Circumstances

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

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

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

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

Setting & Scenes

Let’s talk about setting as it relates to each scene.

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

For each scene, in addition to knowing what season it is, know (if outdoors) what the weather is like, what characters are in the scene, what happened just before the scene started and what will happen just after the scene ends. Also know what time of day it is. Is it morning or high noon? Nighttime? Twilight? The witching hour? You don’t have to--you likely shouldn’t!--put all this information in the scene, but it helps to know.

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

Place: Indoors? Outdoors?

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

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

If the scene takes place indoors, what are the characters' surroundings like? Are they lavish? Poor? Shabby? Drab? Colorful? Ostentatious? Is it a human-made structure or natural, something like a cave. 

Wherever your characters are, were they invited here? Are they comfortable here? Does this place make them feel at home or are they unsure how to act? 

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

Conflict

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

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

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

Writing Challenge

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

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

A Thought Experiment

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

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

Okay, that’s it! This was a bit of a grab bag of ideas. I hope you got something from it. I’ll talk to you again soon. In the meantime, good writing!

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Thursday, January 28

How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict

How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict


How to Generate Conflict

Conflict results from the clash of two things: a character's goal and the opposition to that goal. It follows that every scene needs two opposing forces, in genre fiction these are usually a viewpoint character who wants something desperately and a force that prevents her from getting it. 

Specific Goals

The protagonist should have a goal so specific you could take a picture of it. A desire for riches isn't a good goal because it's too general, too abstract. Wanting to win next month's million dollar lottery, though, is a fine goal. It even suggests ways to bring it about: buy a lottery ticket! 

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

Opposition to the Goal

Something must oppose the hero reaching her goal.

What characteristics should the opposing force have? First and foremost, it must have the ability to prevent the hero from achieving his goal. Second, it must give the opposing force the ability to evoke the hero's deepest, darkest fears.

Indiana Jones’ antagonist, his opposing force, was Belloq. He managed to keep track of Indy’s activities and rob him of whatever artifact he sought. Also, when Belloq sealed Indy and Marion in with the Ark when they were in the Well of Souls, there were lots and lots of snakes, the creepy crawlies Indy was terrified of.

Luke Skywalker’s anatangost was his father, a sith, and his darkest fear was being seduced to the dark side of the force.

Stakes

I’ve written quite a lot about stakes in my “Good Storytelling” posts, I’ll leave links to them below. 

Anyway. Stakes. This part is easy: the hero must have something to lose and something to gain.

To create suspense, the stakes of a conflict should be clearly spelled out in advance, before the hero is menaced by danger. If the hero achieves his goal, how will his life change? If he loses, what difference will that make?

In The Matrix Neo would have lost the love of Trinity as well as his life if he had not achieved his goal and become The One.

In Star Wars IV, if the resistance had lost and failed to destroy the Death Star then the resistance would have been snuffed out. Of course, the resistance won, the resistance survived and went on to topple the Empire.

Ticking Clock

To build tension it helps if the hero is racing against a clock, though perhaps not an actual clock. They must be under pressure. This both sets a deadline and gives the character time to plan, to agonize and, finally, to fight. 

I know I’ve talked quite a bit about Star Wars IV but that was a good story. At the end Luke, and the entire resistance, are rushing against a ticking clock. The Death Star is powering up to destroy the planet that the resistance is based on. If the Death Star isn’t destroyed by then the resistance will blink out of existence.

Raise a Question

I’ve also talked about this in Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense.

When we talk about creating suspense we are talking about an emotional state that exists within a reader. We generally try to evoke this emotional state by getting our readers to identify with our characters, especially our hero. We make it clear what the hero needs, as well as what he fears, and then we force the hero to face his darkest fears as he struggles to attain his goal. 

Because the reader has identified with the hero they feel concerned for him and this keeps them turning pages to see whether the hero will succeed.

And it's effective. I've stayed up into the wee hours of the morning more times than I'd like to admit simply because I had to know what happened. 

Well, Lee Child is a proponent of another, easier, way of creating suspense: simply raise a question. He even goes so far as to say that it doesn't especially matter whether your readers care about your characters, there is something about a question being raised that makes readers want to know the answer.

Photo Credit

FRANK IN STEIN by JD Hancock.

(BTW, I also write about this in How to write a genre story: how to create suspense.)

-- --

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter


Blog posts you might like:

Wednesday, February 8

14 Tips On How To Create Your Own Urban Legend

14 Tips On How To Create Your Own Urban Legend


This would have been a great thing to do for Halloween! Oh well, better late than never. Today I want to talk about something that has fascinated me for ... well, for as long as I remember: urban legends.

As I’m sure you know, an urban legend “is a form of modern folklore consisting of fictional stories, often with macabre elements deeply rooted in local popular culture. (Wikipedia)”

Generally, urban legends spring up on their own, but there’s nothing to say that we can’t create our own! Why would we want to create one? Well, to scare the pants off our readers! And because it’s kind of fun. :-)

The Ingredients of an Urban Legend:


Antagonist: A proper villain.

Protagonist: An ordinary, more-or-less innocent person. Everyman/woman.

1. Fear of strangers. The bad guy is a foreigner, an outsider, a stranger.


This is a primal fear. The thing that waits in the darkness outside the ring of firelight. Closely related is the idea that one of the people huddled around the fire isn’t what they seem. They are a monster wearing a human face.

2. Importance of ritual and rule-following.


This is generally part of the moral: Follow the rules and you’ll be okay, break them and the monsters will get you. Or, which is more-or-less the same, behave morally, resist temptation and the boogyman will pass you by. Give in and you’ll be monster food.

3. The author is anonymous.


The event itself is said to have happened to a friend or a friend of a friend, but the author herself doesn’t give a name or any way to trace her down.

4. Vague. No specific examples are given, nothing that can be definitely traced.


Sometimes it’s said that the information came from “an advisor close to the president” or perhaps even a prominent person is named, but in such a way that it’s difficult to pin down anything concrete. Public officials say many things, do many things, and it’s not always easy to trace them.

5. Electronics don’t work.


It seems that whenever the supernatural is involved—and most urban myths I’ve read include some sort of supernatural element—anything electronic dies a spectacular death.

6. The protagonist is alone.


This is classic storytelling. When the protagonist confronts the Big Bad they are (almost) always alone. Let’s face it, if the protagonist had help the stakes wouldn’t be as high, it wouldn’t be as interesting.

7. It is said to be a true story.


We all know urban legends aren’t true, but they’re interesting precisely because a small part of us thinks, or wants to think, that it COULD be. That’s what happens when a story aggressively puts itself forward as being true, as being just another story about something that happened to a friend.

8. Event is said to have happened locally.


I think this point is connected to the fact that we tend to prefer the stories of our friends. What happens locally has the potential to affect us.

9. Event is said to have happened recently.


Events that happened a few years ago or last decade, even sensational ones, aren’t as interesting to us as those that happened earlier today, or yesterday, or a few weeks ago.

10. The event happened to someone the teller knows. Or a friend of a friend.


I think that, rightly or wrongly, we tend to put more weight in the stories our friends tell us, even friends of friends.

11. The event is macabre, horrific, sensational.


In your own life, what scared you the most? We’ve all been scared. When I was a kid I ate pizza too fast and started choking. Lucky for me my dad knew the Heimlich maneuver and I was okay. For a few weeks after that, though, I was terrified of choking.

In itself fear of choking is a bit tame, but I suppose it depends on WHAT the person chokes on.

12. Give it a moral.


I think this is implied by some of the above, but it’s so important it deserves its own point. Urban legends have a moral. For example, take the urban legend “The Hook.” From Wikipedia:

“The basic premise involves a young couple parking at a lovers' lane. The radio plays while they make out. Suddenly, a news bulletin reports that a serial killer has just escaped from a nearby institution. The killer has a hook for one of his hands. For varying reasons, they decide to leave quickly. In the end, the killer's hook is found hanging from the door handle.”

Here, since the couple left lovers’ lane, they get to live. If they hadn’t stopped their ‘activities’ and left, though, things would have turned out bloody.

13. I say this tongue-in-cheek: It helps if a blurry photograph is involved!


Self-check: Would your urban legend disturb you personally IF it were real?

Something to try if you’re looking for inspiration: Make your own urban legend by taking the beginning of one and melding it with the ending of another. Here’s a list of urban legends.



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.

Many writers have sung the praises of this book: Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between, by James Scott Bell. Personally, I start from the ending, but to each their own. Bell’s approach has been something of a revelation.

From the blurb: “What if, amazing as it may seem, the place to begin writing your novel is in the very middle of the story? According to #1 bestselling writing teacher James Scott Bell, that's exactly where you'll find your story's heart and heat. Bell's "Mirror Moment" is the secret, and its power is available to any writer, at any stage of the writing process. Bringing together years of craft study and personal discovery, Bell presents a truly unique approach to writing a novel, one that will stand the test of time and serve you all your writing life.”



That’s it! I’d love to read your urban legend. Share it in the comments ... if you dare (cue scary music). Or post it on your webspace and leave a link. Whatever you do, good writing! I’ll talk to you again on Friday.

Cheers!

Wednesday, October 5

How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 4: Structure

How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 4: Structure


Over the years I've written a few articles about the various ways a story can be structured (see: Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction, A Story Structure In Three Acts), but CYOA stories are in a class by themselves. (Google CYOA structure to see what I'm talking about). If you do, you'll see dozens upon dozens of CYOA branching structures.

(How to Write a Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 1)

This multiplicity reinforces something Chuck Wendig said: at the most concrete level there is no such thing as one story structure. Rather, each story's structure is unique. [2]

You might ask: Well, if that's the case, Karen, why do you go on about story structure like there is one, and only one, structure that all stories have?! ('One structure to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.' Sorry, couldn't resist!)

Great question! It's all a matter of specificity. It depends on to what extent we abstract away from the specific details of the story to more general details. For example, I think it's a safe bet that no two coastlines are exactly the same and yet, when mathematicians compare their shapes they can be seen to exhibit the same fractal pattern. The same can be said for leaves, the shells of certain snails, and so on. [3]

My point is that—as with the hidden geometric structures of coastlines—it's only when we pull back from the particular details of any story that structural commonalities between them emerge.

The Unique Structure of a CYOA Story


This post is about two kinds of structure. The first kind is the sort of structure I just talked about.

The second kind of structure I'll discuss is unique to CYOA stories and has nothing—or at least very little—to do with the first kind. To make this less confusing, I'll call the first kind of structure, "story structure" and the second kind of structure, "branching structure."

I want to stress that everything I say here is given with the intention of providing a person new to writing CYOA stories a place to start. If you write a story that doesn't fit into the kinds of structures I talk about, that's great! The important thing is not that your story has a certain kind of structure as opposed to another—or any kind of structure for that matter!—it is that you've written a story you love, that you're excited about. One that, when you read it, works. Ultimately, that's the only test that matters, whether you and your intended readers feel that reading your story was time well spent. (see: Kurt Vonnegut's 8 Rules For Writing)

The general structure I'm going to talk about is—and I want to stress this—given purely as a place to start. If you have your own ideas about how you want to write your CYOA story, go for it! Ignore everything I say here. On the other hand, if you're looking for a place to start, like an oyster using a grain of sand to form a pearl, then take what works for you and ignore the rest.

CYOA Terminology


First, let's get some terminology out of the way. This is how I think about CYOA stories, but I'm not saying this is how anyone else thinks about them!

Narrative block: What I have been calling a narrative block is also a node on the decision tree. For example:



Narrative Chain or Path: A narrative chain is composed of linked narrative blocks. For example, the following narrative chain is composed of 21 narrative blocks:

Narrative Chain or Path. (Click for larger image.)


Complete narrative chain. A complete narrative chain represents a complete story. These narrative chains reach the lowest level, in this case level 21 (see my discussion of levels, below).

Cut narrative chain. What I call a cut narrative chain tells a full story too, in it's way, but the player doesn't reach the lowest level. An example of a cut narrative chain would be one in which the character died before she reached the end of the adventure. A cut narrative chain is a narrative dead end.

Clusters: The CYOA stories I've looked at seem to have 2, 3 or 4 main clusters. For example, the following structure has two clusters ...

Narrative Clusters. (Click for larger image.)


... while the following structure has four clusters:

Narrative Clusters. (Click for larger image.)


You get the idea. Each cluster has a branching structure of narrative blocks inside it. In what follows I'll talk about a structure with only two clusters because it's simpler.



Levels/Depth: What I'm calling a level refers to the depth or length of the narrative chains. Generally speaking, the longest narrative chains seem to be 20 narrative blocks in length. The figure, above, has 21 levels.



Want to have all this information in one place? Get How to Write a CYOA Story! Right now it's only $0.99.



Notes:


1. "Writing Tips how to Write a Choose Your Own Adventure Story," by Len Morse.

2. Chuck Wendig uses language in uniquely creative ways which makes most of his blog posts NSFW. Be warned. But this particular blog post is truly excellent (as most of his posts on writing are): 25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure.

3. "Earth’s Most Stunning Natural Fractal Patterns", by Jess McNally, Wired Magazine.

Monday, October 3

7 Steps: How to Write a Story Description

7 Steps: How to Write a Story Description


I like writing descriptions for my stories about as much as I like eating day old spinach. So! In the best tradition of procrastinators everywhere I decided to write a blog post about how to quickly write a good description. 

By the way, if you think this topic sounds familiar, I’ve written about it before, though with a slightly different focus. Here are links to those posts: 


Let’s get started!

How To Write A Pain-Free Story Description, Quickly.


If you outlined your story this process should be relatively pain-free. If you didn't outline, answering these questions may help strengthen your story's structure.

i. Who is the main character?


In J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular children’s story, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we’re given the main character’s name right in the title!  Harry is an orphan who lives with his odious Aunt Petunia, her intolerant husband, and their spoilt child Dudley.

ii. What is unique about the main character? What is their special gift? What can they do that no one else is able to? Has their special gift marked them in some way?


Harry Potter had been able to mortally injure Voldemort. In Lord of the Rings, only Frodo could carry the One Ring to Mount Doom. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson gives Lisbeth Salander elite computer skills, she can do things that none of the other characters in the novel can do.

iii. What is the initial setting?


As a baby, Harry was left with his obnoxious Aunt Petunia Dursley, Uncle Vernon Dursely and their bratty child Dudley Dursley. Harry is not accepted for who he is and he is constantly reminded that his aunt, uncle and Rodney all hate having him around and wished he would leave.

iv. What is the main character’s initial goal?


Harry’s initial desire—the thing he wants most when we’re first introduced to the character—is to be part of a family. He desperately wishes his parents weren’t dead, that he was living with them. Or even that he knew more about his parents. Harry, like all of us, wants to find people who accept him for who he really is.

v. What person or force opposes the main character achieving his/her initial goal?


In Harry’s case, his Aunt, Uncle and their spoilt son Dudley oppose Harry. They are his antagonists, his tormenters. 

vi. What is the story goal?


The story goal is the main character’s overriding goal. Whether the main character will attain the story goal is determined at the climax of the story.

Harry Potter’s overriding goal in the first book is to protect the only home/family he has ever known, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, from harm. He wants to figure out how Voldemort is endangering the school (and the world in general) and stop him. Specifically, he wants to prevent Voldemort from getting hold of the Philosopher’s Stone and getting back his power.

vii. Description of Antagonist.


What person or force opposes the main character achieving his/her story goal?

Voldemort opposes Harry. Or, to put it another way, it is impossible for both Harry and Voldemort to both achieve their main goals. 

viii. Positive stakes: If the main character achieves his/her goal what would the consequences be for the main character, the main character’s allies, the antagonist, the antagonist’s allies and the world in general?


- Harry: Will be able to stay at the only place he’s ever felt accepted, it’s his only real home.
- Voldemort: If Voldemort doesn’t get the Philosopher’s Stone then he won’t be able to get his power back which means he won’t be able to take over the world and remake it in his image.
- Harry’s allies: Life can go on as normal.
- Voldemort’s allies: Their dreams of attaining wealth and power will be dashed.

ix. Negative stakes: If the antagonist achieves his/her goal, what would the consequences be for the main character, the main character’s allies, the antagonist, the antagonist's allies and the world in general?


- Harry: Harry would be dead.
- Voldemort: Voldemort would, eventually, rule the world and kill billions of people including Muggles.
- Harry’s allies: Dead.
- Voldemort’s allies: Bloated with wealth and power.

x. Break into Act Two.


What happens, what occurs, to transition, to carry the main character into Act Two?

Hagrid arrives to grant Harry one of his wishes: he tells Harry what he really, truly, is—a wizard—and gives him the incredibly welcome news that he will be attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the fall. The school, or rather the people there, become Harry’s new family and give him the sense of belonging he sought.

xi. The Special World of the Adventure. 


Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry Potter discovers he’s a wizard and that he has been accepted into a school created just for people like him. Not only will he fit in, he is regarded as  something of a hero.

xii. Complication/Antagonist/Pinch Point.


Voldemort is attempting to get his power back. If he does he will destroy the entire world, Harry and Hogwarts included.

xiii. Test and Trials.


While in the Special World of the Adventure, the main character learns about his parents and himself. He discovered how his parents died, why and how he came to live with the Dursleys, why he has the scar he does, and Ron Wesley’s family accepts him.

Putting the Description Together


Okay! You will notice that not all of the above points directly contribute to the description, but they help lay out the essential structure of the story, it’s backbone. 

By this time you should have one or two sentence descriptions for each of the above points. Now let’s knit this information together into a description. (Not each and every point will be used, but they allow us to  double-check that our story is well-formed.) By the way, I’ve taken this particular description from the publisher’s book page.

Initial setting: “Eleven-year-old Harry Potter is an orphan living with his cruel aunt and uncle when ...”

Break into act two: “... he makes a discovery that will change his life forever: he is a wizard. He is whisked away to the mystical Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry ...” 

The Special World of the adventure: “... to learn magical skills, from potions to spells to flying on broomsticks.”

Complication/Antagonist/Pinch Point: “But an evil power is rising, the same one that threatened to destroy the entire world when Harry was only a baby. 

Test and Trials: “As Harry learns the truth about his family, his childhood, and his mysterious lightning-bolt-shaped scar, he finds unforgettable friendship, a loving surrogate family, and ...”

Description of Antagonist: “... the courage to face the darkest force ever to menace the wizarding world.”


That's it! If you'd like to read more about story structure, here are a few links:


Wednesday, September 21

How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part Two



A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post, How to Write a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) story. It's one of my favorite posts because I love CYOA stories. I mean, who wouldn't? They're a cross between a book and a game!

Anyway, I've always wanted to expand on that first post and, today, decided there is no time like the present. If you haven't read my previous post, and don't have time right now, here's a list of what that post covered:

  • What a CYOA story is.
  • A way of thinking about the plot in a CYOA story.
  • The overall structure of a CYOA story.
  • The structure of each block or scene in a CYOA story.
  • What kind of endings a CYOA story might have.
  • What kind of characters to include.
  • Whether a CYOA story should have a subplot.
  • Pros and cons of writing a CYOA story.
  • Today I want to expand on one of the themes I touched on back then: the structure of each block or scene in a CYOA story. Next time I'll discuss in more detail the unique overall structure of a CYOA story.

Enough preamble, let's get started!

The Narrative Blocks of a Choose Your Own Adventure Story


Novels are composed of scenes and sequels.

Let's talk about scenes. Just like a story, each scene 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 who strive to achieve their goals and inevitably fall short. At the end of the scene, though there is a resolution of sorts, often the hero will fall short of reaching his scene goal.

So that's a scene. What is a sequel? I'll let Jim Butcher explain this. On his Livejournal, he writes:
Sequels are what happens as an aftermath to a scene. They do several specific things:

1) Allow a character to react emotionally to a scene's outcome.

2) Allow a character to review facts and work through the logical options of his situation.

3) They allow a character to ponder probable outcomes to various choices.

4) They allow a character to make a CHOICE--IE, to set themselves a new GOAL for the next SCENE.

Do you see how neat that is? Do you see how simply that works out?

1) Scene--Denied!

2) Sequel--Damn it! Think about it! That's so crazy it just might work!--New Goal!

3) Next Scene!

Repeat until end of book.

Scenes


When I write a scene, I use index cards, one card per scene. The cards themselves can be physical index cards—I've outlined that way many times!—but, of course, there's an app for that these days. I use the Index Card app. In any case, here is the information I put on the cards:

1. GOAL: What does the main character want?

For each main character in the scene, list her goal for that scene. Each character's goal should be concrete and specific enough to take a picture of. Note: each character's goal should tie into their overall story goal.

2. STAKES: What does the character have to win or lose?

For each main character in the scene, if the character achieves her goal, what will she win? Conversely, if the character loses, what will she lose? Whatever it is, make it concrete, make it something you could take a picture of.

3. WHO: Who is in the scene?

Make a list of all the characters in the scene and then, for each of them, go through these questions:

What is this character's goal?
Does the character achieve her goal?
If the character doesn't achieve her goal, what does she lose?
If the character does achieve the goal how does her life change? What does she win?

4. WHAT: What happens in the scene?

Summarize what happens in the scene in one or two sentences.

5. WHERE: Where does the action in the scene take place?

  • Is the setting vivid? Memorable?
  • Does the setting present the main character with a challenge?
  • Is the setting unusual? Suprising? Unexpected? Remarkable? (Think of Fangorn Forest in the Lord of the Rings.)
  • Does the setting help you showcase the characters strengths and weaknesses?
  • Does the setting have special significance to any of the characters?
  • Does the setting tie in with the theme?

Note: Not all these questions will be relevant for each setting.

6. WHEN: When does the action in the scene take place?

Does the action take place inside or outside? Is it day or night? What time is it? What date is it?

7. URGENCY: Why does the main character have to attain their goal now?

Why must the protagonist attain their goal? What is pushing them, and the action of the story, forward?

Often—perhaps too often!—this is taken care of by a ticking clock of some kind. This doesn't have to literally be a ticking clock (though sometimes it is). Perhaps one of the characters is ill and requires treatment, or perhaps (as with Sherlock Holmes) the main character is simply bored.

8. OPPOSITION: Urgency is a force pushing forward (—>) where Opposition is a force pushing backward (<—).

Urgency and Opposition both act on the main character, and perhaps other characters, but definitely the main character.

For example:

Urgency: The main character is ill and must receive treatment soon or they will die.

Opposition: The nearest hospital is over a day's walk away and the character requires treatment within the next couple of hours.

Resolution: The character collapses but is found by a hiker who happens to have a satellite phone.

Urgency: Sherlock Holmes is bored. If he doesn't get an interesting case soon, he will start shooting up Mrs Hudson's walls.

Opposition: John Watson, or perhaps Mycroft Holmes, wants Sherlock to do something ordinary and uninteresting.

Resolution: Someone comes to Sherlock with an interesting case.

For more about structuring a scene see: Using Index Cards to Outline a Novel.

Sequel


Sequels help orient the reader in the overall story and are great for revealing character. Let's face it, we read not just because we're interested in what will happen next, we read because we're interested in the characters, in what is happening to them. That's why we care, that's what pulls us through a book.

Making readers care about your characters is essential to good storytelling. If we can do that then we will have devoted readers. Mastering the sequel is the key to this.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. What are the elements of a sequel? Here's Jim Butcher again:
Here's the basic structure to a sequel. [...]:

1) EMOTIONAL REACTION:

2) REVIEW, LOGIC, & REASON:

3) ANTICIPATION:

4) CHOICE:

And it MUST happen in THAT ORDER.
Let's go over this point by point:

1. Emotional reaction.

Sequels are all about reaction. At the beginning of the sequel we see the character reacting to whatever happened at the end of the scene. Recall that at the end of the previous scene the character underwent a stressful experience—most likely a setback—and now we get to see how they react to it. This, right here, is a large part of character development. How we react to major setbacks reveals character. This is true in real life and it's equally true in literature.

2. Review, Logic & Reason.

The character has had their emotional reaction, now they need to think about what happened. The character goes over exactly what happened and they seek to understand it. Why did it happen? The character seeks to understand their failure.

3. Anticipation and Planning.

The character turns from looking backward to looking forward. Given that this happened in the past, what is likely to happen in the future? Given that the antagonist whipped my hide just now, how can I change my tactics so that doesn't happen again? Part of the anticipation phase is thinking of various things that could happen, various possible futures, possible paths the protagonist could take. The protagonist thinks about each of these possibilities and how he or she could respond.

4. Choice.

Now it is time for the protagonist to choose which path to take. He has had his emotional reaction. He has calmed down and thought about it calmly. He has thought about various things the antagonist could do next and how he might counter it. Now it is time to choose among these possibilities and finalize the plan. This gives the protagonist a new goal and leads into the next scene.

Next installment: How to Write a CYOA Novel, Part Three.

Want to have all this information in one place? Get How to Write a CYOA Story! Right now it's only $0.99 on Amazon.



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

Today I'm recommending, Elements of Fiction Writing: Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell. From the blurb: "Ramp up the tension and keep your readers hooked! Inside you'll find everything you need to know to spice up your story, move your plot forward, and keep your readers turning pages. Expert thriller author and writing instructor James Scott Bell shows you how to craft scenes, create characters, and develop storylines that harness conflict and suspense to carry your story from the first word to the last."



Summary


This has been a blog post about how to write a CYOA story, but what I've said, above, is true for any story. Next time I will dive into the unique aspects of CYOA stories and examine their structure. Also, I'll talk about how to approach scenes and sequels given the branching nature of a CYOA story.

That's it! Tomorrow I'll post a writing prompt on my Wordpress site (I tweet them as well), so head over there if you'd like to do a quick writing warmup! Otherwise, I'll talk to you again on Monday. Have a great weekend and, in the meantime, good writing!