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

Friday, January 22

Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense

Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense


Let’s talk about what suspense is. Sure, yes, we know what it is in a “I know it when I feel it” kind of way, but if we want our stories to create suspense in our readers, it would be helpful to have a definition. 

Lee Goldberg once said that, "Suspense is an escalating sense of apprehension or fear, a building of pressure, heading either towards an uncertain conclusion or a horrifyingly certain one." [1] 

I will look at two ways of creating suspense. First, the author might get a reader to ask a question without immediately answering it. We’re human, and once we have an interesting puzzle we find it difficult to NOT try to solve it. Second--and this is really just a more specific way of creating a question in the reader’s mind--the author might give the reader either more or less information than the hero. Let’s look at each of these techniques in turn. 

Ask a Question but Withhold the Answer

Lee Child holds that suspense boils down to asking a question and making people wait for the answer. He believes that humans are wired to want the answer to a question they don't know the answer to. 

Want viewers to stick around during a commercial break? Ask them a question before the break and answer it when the break is over. This is Child's explanation for his view that “The way to write a thriller is to ask a question at the beginning, and answer it at the end." [2]

Child also talks about his technique in his New York Times article, "A Simple Way to Create Suspense." [3] 

"As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer.... Readers are human, and humans seem programmed to wait for answers to questions they witness being asked."

"Trusting such a simple system feels cheap and meretricious while you’re doing it. But it works. It’s all you need. Of course, attractive and sympathetic characters are nice to have; and elaborate and sinister entanglements are satisfying; and impossible-to-escape pits of despair are great. But they’re all luxuries. The basic narrative fuel is always the slow unveiling of the final answer."

Dramatic Irony and Suspense

In order to understand how to create and build suspense we need to understand dramatic irony. Why? Because dramatic irony can be used to increase the audience's (and in this case our reader is our audience) sense of curiosity and concern for the hero.

An Example

Scenario 1: Imagine a hero inching along a darkened path, oblivious to the deadly monster creeping up behind him, poised to strike.

Scenario 2: Imagine that, as before, our hero inches along a darkened path but now there is no deadly threat stalking him. Instead, he is anticipating a threat just around the bend. He doesn’t know a monster is there, but he thinks one could be. 

The first scenario creates suspense by giving the audience more information than the hero possesses. We see the danger creeping up on him and want to scream: Turn around!

In the second scenario we, the audience, know what the hero knows and, with him, we cringe as he rounds every corner, every bend in the twisty road. 

That was a quick overview. I go over these points again, below.

Some Aspects of Dramatic Irony

Surface meaning versus underlying meaning

Dramatic irony occurs when the surface meaning of an utterance is at variance with its deeper meaning. In other words, dramatic irony depends upon certain people knowing more than others. Some who hear the utterance will be stranded at the surface while others will go deeper.

Let's look at the possibilities.

The audience knows less than one or more of the characters.

Tension can be generated when we see a character's reaction to, for example, the contents of a suitcase even though we never find out what it contained.

This example comes from Pulp Fiction. Vincent Vega looks into the suitcase, its eerie illumination playing over his face. For a moment Vega seems lost in whatever he sees. The viewer doesn't know what's in the suitcase, but Vega and his partner, Jules Winnfield, do. Vega is looking right at it but, damn him, he's not telling! 

The audience knows more than one or more of the characters.

I think this is the far more common scenario. It happens on almost every show I watch, nearly every episode.

A character knows less about something than another character, and they don't know they know less.

For example, a couple of months ago I re-watched the science fiction and horror classic Alien, a movie that has aged remarkably well. At one point one of the characters, Brett, searches for Jones the cat. Everyone on the ship is going back into stasis and that includes Jones, but Brett needs to catch him first. Yes, sure, the alien is on the loose, but in this scene Brett isn't overly worried about meeting the alien since he knows Jones is in the area and, therefore, attributes any weird noises to the spooked feline. 

Brett hears a noise, looks beneath nearby machinery and spots the cat. Brett tries to coax the cat out of his hiding spot but, just as the cat walks toward him, we see a tentacle unfurl behind Brett. Jones sees this, hisses and darts away. Brett is stunned. He thinks the cat hissed at him. Puzzled, he keeps calling Jones, trying to coax the cat out of hiding. While Brett does this we see the alien slowly, silently, unfurl behind him. 

At this point in the movie, if you're anything like me, you grip the cushion you have a stranglehold on even tighter and scream: Turn around!

And, of course, Brett turns around but it's too late. He becomes monster chow.

This is the kind of thing we mean when we say that in dramatic irony the implications of a situation, speech, and so on, are understood by the audience but not by at least one of the characters in the drama. In this scene both the cat and the alien had more information than Brett did and, as so often happens in horror movies, Brett paid for that inequality with his life.

Unwise Behavior

When a passage contains dramatic irony, the character from whom information is being kept usually reacts in a way that is inappropriate and unwise.

In the example from Alien, running away and hiding would have been both appropriate and wise. Standing in front of the alien calling out "kitty, kitty," not so much.

Summary

To summarize, suspense is an escalating sense of apprehension or fear of a certain ending. Part of the reason this is effective is because it asks a question, “Will the hero survive?” and makes you wait for an answer. Lee Child has spoken quite a bit about this way of creating suspense. Dramatic irony is another way of creating suspense and it occurs when there is an incongruity between what the expectations of a situation are and what is really the case. 

Notes

1. For more on this see the Google+ Hangout Libby Hellman hosted, "Secrets To Writing Top Suspense."

2. Lee Child was quoted having said this in an article about Thrillerfest, but I can't find the reference.

3. "A Simple Way to Create Suspense," by Lee Child (2012)

Photo Credit

Indiana Jones and the Mountain of Rocks, by JD Hancock. I altered the image to create a greater contrast with the text. I highly recommend dropping by JD Hancock's website and viewing his many, fascinating creations.

Monday, October 19

Writing: A Support System for Life

"... the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies ...", Stephen King

What is writing? Stephen King has a very simple answer: It’s the art and craft of telling stories on paper. But what is “the art and craft of telling stories on paper” and can it be learnt?

King believes that, if you’re a writer, then you can get better, but if you’re not a writer then, Sorry, it’s not gonna happen. 

King writes,

“I don’t believe writers can be made, either by circumstances or by self-will (although I did believe those things once). The equipment comes with the original package. Yet it is by no means unusual equipment; I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened. If I didn’t believe that, writing a book like this would be a waste of time.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

Personally, I believe that anyone with sufficient interest in writing can learn to get better. But, of course, not everyone is going to have sufficient interest. Stephen King, like Ray Bradbury, wrote millions of words before he was published. It takes perseverance. And those who don’t love writing probably won’t persevere. 

By the way, I'm going to talk quite a bit about Stephen King in this article because he has, more than any other writer, helped me write better. That's my goal: to be better today than I was yesterday. (I'm not saying I achieve that! But it's a goal.)

What is writing?

In order to talk about how to become a better writer one needs, I think, to say something about what writing is.

Is there any one thing that writing is? Perhaps. According to Stephen King, writing is telepathy. That is, it is the sharing of thoughts and ideas.

Perhaps, though, there is just what writing is for me, what writing is for you, what writing is for Stephen King, what writing is to Neil Gaiman, and so on.

I don’t see anything wrong with looking at writing like this, but I think that what writing is for any one particular writer is going to have something in common with all writers. What is that thing? 

Writing as manipulation.

I agree with King that writing is the sharing of thoughts and ideas with a reader, but I sometimes wonder if that goes far enough. We are communicating ideas to the reader, but with a desire to achieve a certain end. For example, when a writer creates a book of jokes, his intention is to make his readers laugh. When a writer pens a thriller, she wants her audience to be curious, apprehensive, frightened, and generally caught up in the suspense.

In this view, writing has to do with the manipulation of a reader's emotions. I hate to put it like that because I don’t want anyone to think of writing as Machiavellian. If one accurately communicates a certain idea or set of ideas, it is usually going to be the case that certain thoughts and emotions follow. For example, when Luke’s family's farm is burnt to the ground in Star Wars IV: A New Hope one can’t help but feel Luke’s horror as he sees his relatives’ smoking corpses.

Writing is different for each of us.

As I said, writing is a bit different for each of us. For me, ‘being a writer’ means turning my thoughts, ideas, emotions, wishes, peeves, hatreds, and loves into something shareable. For me, writing is sharing an experience with my reader.

King writes:

"Book-buyers aren’t attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages. This happens, I think, when readers recognize the people in a book, their behaviors, their surroundings, and their talk. When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story. I’d argue that it’s impossible to make this sort of connection in a premeditated way, gauging the market like a racetrack tout with a hot tip." (Stephen King, On Writing)

I really like what King says here. Yes, I can't help but be the kind of writer I am. 

In my everyday life certain things make me happy or sad, certain things make me angry, certain things make me laugh like a lunatic. I'm unique, and that this-ness is and should come out in my work. But, at the same time, that doesn't mean I can't improve my writing. Since writing is the communication of thoughts and ideas, there are better and worse ways of expressing them. And we, each of us, can get better.

So! That leads me to: 

Nine things you can do to become a better writer:


1. Read.

Stephen King believes that in order to write one must read.

“You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones. (Stephen King, On Writing)


2. Don’t write for anyone but yourself.

Just the other day I was talking to a writer about writing. I do that occasionally, and I always come away looking at the craft a bit differently. 

Sometimes it’s just the realization that not every writer thinks about writing the way I do. Some writers write with the desire to communicate certain thoughts, certain ideas, perhaps even certain emotions to their reader. Other writers write because they are telling themselves a story. If they like the story, good. If other people like the story … Well, great, but that’s not the point. The story will sell or it won’t. Selling is better than not selling but that doesn’t change what they write.

I guess, thinking about it now, I would say that the latter kind of writer -- one who writes what they like and their only concern is the story itself -- is more of an artist than I am. I chew my fingernails and pace the floor when my story is read by others. My first question is a breathless, “What did you think?” But, really, it would be much healthier to just write the story for myself, edit it for the world and then let it go. If readers take to it, great! If they don’t … Well, I should already be working on my next story.


3. Edit for the world.

There are two things here. First, write the first draft for yourself but write the second draft for the world. Second, the first draft will tell you what the story is and what it isn't. On your second draft, take away all those bits that don't belong. (Yes, this is where another bit of King's advice comes in: kill your darlings.) [1]

King writes:

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he [John Gould] said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

“Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it. If you’re very lucky (this is my idea, not John Gould’s, but I believe he would have subscribed to the notion), more will want to do the former than the latter.” (Stephen King, On Writing)


4. Backstory

“The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest. Long life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

Whenever I think about backstory I think of Aaron Sorkin’s advice:

“A song in a musical works best when a character has to sing—when words won’t do the trick anymore. The same idea applies to a long speech in a play or a movie or on television. You want to force the character out of a conversational pattern.” (Aaron Sorkin, from Aaron Sorkin On How To Write A Gripping Monologue)

You want to only give a reader background information when they want the information. The background information needs not only to be relevant, but you want the reader to be sitting on the edge of their seats eager to know the information.


5. Be brutally honest

“The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are things you get ashamed of, because words make them smaller. When they were in your head they were limitless; but when they come out they seem to be no bigger than normal things. But that's not all. The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried; they are clues that could guide your enemies to a prize they would love to steal. It's hard and painful for you to talk about these things ... and then people just look at you strangely. They haven't understood what you've said at all, or why you almost cried while you were saying it.” (Stephen King, The Body)

Writing isn’t easy. It requires bravery. I believe that the very best writing needs honesty the way humans need oxygen. That said, no uncomfortable admissions or confessions are required, just be honest about how things seem to you and try to say them clearly. That’s usually awkward enough.

And if that is accompanied by a bit of poetry, by a bit of style, so much the better.


6. Art is there to enhance our lives, not the other way around.

“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

I love this. The purpose of life isn't to create great art, the purpose of great art is to create a good life. Art enhances life, it helps us understand ourselves as well as others. If we're really lucky art helps us come to grips with this great nebulous thing that we sometimes gesture toward by mumbling about “the human condition.”


7. You will have critics. Ignore them.

“Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

“I have spent a good many years ...—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all. I’m not editorializing, just trying to give you the facts as I see them.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

Tell yourself a story, a story that is unique to you, and enjoy yourself. If no one else likes the story, that’s fine. It will happen. Start writing your next story.

Stephen King knows more than I ever will about writing but, for what it’s worth, I’ve found that my best stories were written quickly, in the heat of the moment. Yes, that initial draft was followed by a number of others, but the story itself, the first draft, was written quickly. And I think that’s key. Checking on a date, or the spelling of a name, etc., is important, but it can break the flow and let doubt in. And, who knows, whatever it is you wanted to research may be a detail that is nixed in the next draft.


8. You will fail. Shake it off and keep writing.


If you try your best to succeed at something, anything, one thing is inevitable: failure. The key to living a moderately happy life is not to let the failure paralyse you. Shug, learn what you can from the failure, and move on. If you send a story to a magazine and it isn't bought, if a book you publish sells only the one copy that you bought, accept that and move on.

"Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as “good” and other sorts as “bad,” is fearful behavior." (Stephen King, On Writing)

"What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like (or love, the way I loved those old ECs and black-and-white horror flicks) in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues. What’s equally wrong is the deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money. It’s morally wonky, for one thing— the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies, not to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck. Also, brothers and sisters, it doesn’t work.

"When I’m asked why I decided to write the sort of thing I do write, I always think the question is more revealing than any answer I could possibly give. Wrapped within it, like the chewy stuff in the center of a Tootsie Pop, is the assumption that the writer controls the material instead of the other way around. The writer who is serious and committed is incapable of sizing up story material the way an investor might size up various stock offerings, picking out the ones which seem likely to provide a good return. If it could indeed be done that way, every novel published would be a best-seller and the huge advances paid to a dozen or so “big-name writers” would not exist (publishers would like that)." (Stephen King, On Writing)

Don't measure your own success or failure by what other people do. Measure it by where you are today compared to where you used to be.

Above all, don't let fear of failure stop you from doing what you love.


9. The adverb is not your friend.

Stephen King makes no secret of it, he does not approve of adverbs. And for good reason! As he points out:

“Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is the voice of little boys wearing shoe polish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

“Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?” (Stephen King, On Writing)

I’ve thought about this a great deal over the years, more than is decent. And the more I ponder it, the more I agree. No matter how much you would like to be on congenial terms with all parts of speech the truth is clear: adverbs are traitors. It seems they’ll help you express yourself more clearly but they won’t. If I need an adverb to explain things to a reader then I haven’t done it right.

For example:

a) She looked at him, puzzledly. 

b) Squinting at him, she frowned.

I like to see things when I read. “The man walked down the street.” I see this, and in seeing it I understand it. If I squint at someone and frown, there’s something I’m trying to figure out. 

The first sentence, (a), tells us that someone is puzzled and asks us to do the imaginative work. What would happen if we took “puzzledly” away? We would have no idea that she (whoever she happens to be) is puzzled.

Now, I’m completely positive (and, yes, I did that on purpose!) that you will find my own work (as is King’s work) riddled with adverbs. The point is not to excise them from one’s speech, but to make sure they’re not doing the heavy lifting. (And, yes, definitely, this is a “do as I say, not as I do” moment. ;)


That's it!

Thank you for reading! If I have written something that encourages you to write, I will consider this time well spent. I hope you have a wonderful day, and I’ll talk to you again soon. 😀👋

My home on Twitter: @woodwardkaren


Notes:

1. Stephen King on killing one's darlings:

"... it’s all on the table, all up for grabs. Isn’t that an intoxicating thought? I think it is. Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, “Murder your darlings,” and he was right." (Stephen King, On Writing)

"Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)." (Stephen King, On Writing)

2. I thought this was a good article: 22 lessons from Stephen King on how to be a great writer, by Maggie Zhang.


Saturday, October 3

Free Indirect Discourse: What it is and why you should care


What is Free Indirect Discourse and why should you care?

Do you have a favorite author, one who is able to grab you on the first page, immerse you in their story world and release you only when their tale is over? For me, that author is Stephen King.

That was how I read The Dead Zone, It, Carrie, The Stand and many of King’s other novels. Misery was a bit too much for me -- the scene where fan Annie Wilkes hobbles Paul Sheldon did me in for a while but I couldn’t stay away for long.

My question: How does King do this? How does he immerse readers in his world so quickly and so totally? Here’s what I think: It’s his use of free indirect discourse.

What is Free Indirect Discourse?

Free indirect discourse is a way of presenting a character’s voice in such a way that it is partly mediated by the voice of the author or narrator. Or: It is where the character speaks through the voice of the narrator.

There are two things here. First, free indirect discourse has to do with the way in which the thought is expressed and, second, it also has to do with the narrator’s voice bleeding through. 

Let’s take a look at each of these.

1. No reporting clause.

Let’s look at free indirect discourse by contrasting it with different modes of writing:

Quoted/Direct Speech: The child lay on the mat and asked, “Where’s the cat?”

Reported/Indirect Speech: The child lay on the mat and wondered where the cat was.

Free Indirect Speech: The child lay on the mat. Where was the cat?

As you can see, there is no reporting clause in the last example, we are presented with the thought itself in all its naked glory. (Also, the tense is shifted from the present tense to the past tense.)

2. The narrator’s voice intermingles with that of the character.

Free Indirect Speech blurs the boundaries between the character’s thoughts and the narrator’s report. As a result, the reader feels as though they are being given direct, god-like access to a character’s mind, to their motivations.[2]

As Jen Miller writes in her article, “Teaching Under the Dome”:

“Such a technique provides a very useful shortcut for giving readers the personality of a wide range of characters in a short period of time.”[1]

Free Indirect Discourse in Graham Greene’s Short Story The Basement Room

A friend, RLL, recently introduced me to the work of Graham Greene by way of Greene's short story, The Basement Room. What drew my interest was how quickly Greene immersed me in the story, how quickly I bonded with his characters. In fact, my reaction to this story made me think of my reaction to Stephen King’s work.

Briefly, The Basement Room is about a child of seven who is left on his own for a fortnight with only Mr. and Mrs. Baines -- the butler and his wife -- to mind him. The child, Philip, has been looking forward to the freedom this arrangement will bring. Unfortunately, Philip soon learns that Mrs. Baines is worse than an entire gaggle of nannies. She becomes a jailor and he and Mr. Baines are her prisoners.

It seems to me that Greene uses free indirect discourse to overcome some of the limitations imposed by seeing much of the world through the eyes of a young child.

For example:

Philip took the slice of Dundee cake in his hand and munched it round the room. He felt very old, independent and judicial; he was aware that Baines was talking to him as man to man. He never called him Master Philip as Mrs. Baines did, who was servile when she was not authoritative.

Baines had seen the world; he had seen beyond the railings. He sat there over his ginger pop with the resigned dignity of an exile; Baines didn't complain; he had chosen his fate, and if his fate was Mrs. Baines he had only himself to blame. (Graham Greene, The Basement Room)

Here it seems to me that we’re not just getting Philip’s thoughts, we’re getting the narrator's -- and possibly the author’s -- as well. Philip’s thoughts seem to be viewed through the lens of a more mature mind. 

Here it seems that Greene has deliberately run his character’s thoughts, Philip’s thoughts, together with the narrator’s report in such a way that it is difficult to tell which it is. As a result, we get a more intimate peek inside of both Mr. Baines and Philip.

Free Indirect Discourse & Stephen King

Let’s look at another example, this time from The Shining by Stephen King.

Jack Torrance thought: Officious little [so-and-so].

Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.

As he listened to Ullman speak, Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk- under the circumstances.

Ullman had asked a question he hadn’t caught. That was bad; Ullman was the type of man who would file such lapses away in a mental Rolodex for later consideration. (Stephen King, The Shining)

At the end of the second paragraph we get this sentence: “There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.” This is obviously Jack Torrance’s thought filtered through the report of the narrator and, because of this, it tells us quite a bit about Jack Torrance and gives us a sense of intimacy with the character.

Here’s another example from the same book:

"Your daddy may not be back until suppertime, doc. It’s a long drive up into those mountains."

"Do you think the bug will break down?"

"No, I don’t think so." But he had just given her something new to worry about. Thanks, Danny. I needed that.

The last sentence seems to be a direct report of the character’s thoughts without a reporting clause. As a result, it has an immediacy, an intimacy, it would otherwise lack. We are, essentially, getting a first person report but with all the flexibility that writing in the third person provides.

Free Indirect Discourse in More Recent Work

I peeked at the books at the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list. Most of them had been written in the first person, but there was one, “Total Power” by Kyle Mills, that began like this:

A light mist condensed on Sonya Vance’s windshield, turning the forested mountains around her into smears of green. Clouds had formed beneath the bridge she was driving across, dense enough that it looked like they would catch her if she jumped. 

Tempting.

"Tempting" -- the sole word in the last paragraph -- is an example of the character’s thought merging with the narrator’s voice and, in so doing, it reveals to us Sonya’s mental state. Precarious. 

Tips For Using Free Indirect Discourse in Your Own Work

1. Third Person Perspective

In order for a character’s thoughts to merge with the narrator’s you -- of course! -- need a third person narrator. But you can use either a limited third person or omniscient viewpoint. Of course an omniscient viewpoint, while it gives you the greatest flexibility, also gives you the most rope to hang yourself! 

2. Season to taste

I’ve been scouring my favorite books looking for examples of free indirect voice. It seems authors use it to heighten intimacy with a character who might otherwise not be as transparent (for example, a young child or someone with an unusual viewpoint) or someone unpleasant like Jack Torrance in the Shining. 

Also, if you are using a limited third person viewpoint and your character is on the verge of becoming unconscious, using free indirect voice might help add intimacy and richness of detail.

Do you use free indirect discourse? What do you think of the technique? 

Notes:

1. Teaching under the Dome: Life in a Small Town, Characters, and Narrative Point of View, Site: Fantasy Matters

2. Baktin talks about heteroglossia which is the “presence of two or more voices or suppressed viewpoints in a text or artistic work.”

Bakhtin argues that the power of the novel originates in the coexistence of, and conflict between, different types of speech: the speech of characters, the speech of narrators, and even the speech of the author. He defines heteroglossia as "another's speech in another's language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way" (1934). (Wikipedia, Heteroglossia)



Monday, September 30

How To Write a Good Blog Post

How To Write a Good Blog Post


I'm trying something new. I've released a YouTube video today. What follows is more or less the script for it.

My Story


My Dad was a wonderful storyteller, and I was in awe of him. I wanted to tell stories the way he did but I couldn’t tell an entertaining story to save my life so, to get better, I read a lot about writing.

I’ve improved. I’m not sure I’ve ever told a story as well as my father, but I’ve gotten better over the years.

When I was in school, one of my teachers told me that to truly learn something I had to teach it. About a decade ago, I began a blog about writing. And, as you would expect, over the years I’ve learned a few things about writing. I’ve certainly written a lot!

I started a video blog because the things I’ve learnt have made my life better, and I would like to share them in another medium.

So, for better or worse, here is one of my more popular blog posts, one I wrote a few years ago about how to write a blog post! Actually, though, this advice applies to any writing that isn’t fiction.

As you read this, please keep in mind that what works for me may not work for you, so take what seems right to you and discard the rest.

Here it is.

The Essential Structure of a Blog Post:


1. Tell the reader what you are going to say.
2. Say it.
3. Tell the reader what you said.

That’s it!

It sounds too simple, doesn’t it? But it helps create prose that readers find easy to read and understand.

Before we get into that, let’s talk about the title:

The Title


Titles are important, especially for a blog post. The title is the first thing your reader sees. If the title doesn’t grab them, they won’t continue reading.

Make sure the title accurately represents your article. After a reader finishes your article, you don’t want them to feel deceived. Chances are they came across your article because they were looking for a particular kind of information. If, at the end, they don’t have the information they wanted they will feel deceived. Tricked. In that case they will not leave a comment and they will not share your article with their friends.

Perhaps this is just me, but I find that if I can’t create a clear, succinct title then I haven’t thought through what the essential idea of the blog post is. There should one one idea that sums up what I’ve written.

(BTW, don’t worry if you don’t have a title before you start writing. Sometimes what the article is about will come to you as you write your rough draft. But be careful. For myself, if I can’t come up with a title, then that tells me my ideas are jumbled. And that’s bad.)

So let’s break this down:

1. Tell the reader what you are going to say.


1a. Include a hook in your first paragraph.


When I write things like this, I hurry to look at my first paragraph to see if there is a hook. Perhaps this is a case of do what I say and not as I do!

Hooks are good. In both fiction and nonfiction.

BTW, if you’re not familiar with the concept of a hook, it is basically the idea that you need an idea, a thought, that will capture a reader's interest quickly. The example I usually give is of any James Bond movie ever made.

Or, here is the opening line of Stephen King’s novel, IT:

“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”

Who wouldn’t be curious after reading a line like that? When I read that sentence I wanted to know more about the terror and why it might not end. (BTW, IT is one of my favorite stories.)

2. Say what you have to say.


As a practical matter, I find this the easiest part.

You know what you want to say. Say it.

I find it often helps to break my ideas up into the simplest possible points.

In my original blog article I give the example of writing about why a writer would want to podcast.

For example:

a. You can introduce your work to more people
b. You can introduce your work to people with different kinds of interests, to a different audience.
c. Variety is good. Doing one kind of thing to earn money is fine, but two is better. Why? Because it makes you more financially stable. Financial stability for a freelancer is a very good thing. It lowers anxiety levels.

These points are bare bones. In the article I would expand each one, but this wouldn’t be terribly difficult. I could give examples from my own experience, I could give examples from the experiences of other writers (obviously, cite them), I could talk about advice other podcasters have given. There are MANY options.

By the way, don’t be shy about using another writer’s work as long as you cite and link to it. It helps drive traffic to their blog post. A number of people have done this with my blog posts and I’m thrilled as as long as they cite me and provide a link.

3. Summarize what you’ve said.


When it comes to summarizing what I’ve said, sometimes it seems artificial. I’ve said what I was going to say and then I’ve said it. Why should I summarize what I’ve already said?

My advice is to use your own judgement. Keep in mind, you don’t have to summarize EVERYTHING you’ve just said. Perhaps close with what you think is your strongest point, especially if the post is short.

4. Be Honest.


This is actually the most important thing.

I think for everyone it might be different, but -- especially in the beginning -- I imagined I was sitting at a sunny corner table, having coffee with a writer (my audience) at my favorite coffee shop. Then I just, honestly, told her/him what my research or experience made me think about a particular topic.

And try to be brief. (I’m not sure I’ve ever succeeded in that.)

It’s great to have a blog post that is one or two thousand words long, but you don’t want a blog post one word longer than it absolutely has to be. And that’s a dark art, and we all fail at it, but it is a worthy goal.

That's it for today! Good writing and I'll talk to you again soon.


Monday, September 23

Heroes, Dragons and Treasure



Yesterday I published an article about how to write a sequel that readers won't be able to put down. One thing I forgot to include in that article was another way of seeing the hero’s goal. I'd like to address that here.

By the way, what I’m about to say isn’t unique, but I've recently started to think about the hero's goal in a slightly different way, one I've found enormously helpful. I'm going to talk about this new perspective in the hope that it might help your writing life. Here it is:

The hero's goal in any story -- regardless of whether it is a sequel -- is to slay a dragon, claim its treasure and use it to remake themselves and their community for the better.

I think I’ve been expressing this general idea for years, but I don’t think I ever put it quite this way before.

Let's break this apart.

Dragons


Above, I used the example of a dragon but, of course, that is a metaphor. But dragons work for this; they’re terrifying! I loved the way Game of Thrones depicted them. Who wouldn’t tremble if he saw something like that slowly emerge from the darkness of a cave?

The essential thing is that, in the story, the reader sees the hero confront the thing that terrifies her the most. That’s the hero’s purpose in the story.

Treasure


The idea of a hoard of treasure guarded by a dragon is easy to grasp and just plain fun! But there is a serious question here:

Why would the greatest treasure be found with the biggest, baddest, dragon?

On one level that’s obvious. Big bad dragons are the ones who have lived the longest (at least that’s the way I’d write the story!) and so have had the most time to collect a massive hoard of treasure/gold. They’re also the strongest and so could possibly take treasure from other dragons.

On another level, I’m not completely sure. Yes, I can see it in the sense that if you tackle the most difficult task possible then, if you finish it, you’ll be the most elated since the difficulty of the task is related to how happy you are if you succeed!

Also -- and this is true in real life -- if we don’t stretch ourselves we’ll stagnate. There is nothing compelling about a protagonist who doesn’t try to stretch themselves -- and this applies to both heroes and anti-heroes. That’s how characters grow. Even anti-heroes believe in something passionately and, eventually, they put everything on the line to defend it.

There’s also this: The treasure represents what we desire, what we love. So it would make sense that what we love the most would be paired with what we fear the most, with what we most dread. Like two sides of the same coin.

Return Home


If all that happened was that the hero overcame the thing they were most afraid of and gleaned the reward that came from that victory, it could be a good story, but it wouldn’t be a complete story. (And that’s okay, not all stories have endings. I’ve gone to at least one movie like that. I would guess you have too!)

I mean, sure, the hero has the treasure so life is great for her (at least for awhile) -- and since we like the hero we’re glad about that -- but to make the story complete the hero needs to take what she's learnt (the treasure she's won) and bring it back to their community, back to the people they are connected to: their family, their friends, their acquaintances. In this sense, the hero’s victory is the victory of everyone. Even your reader.

And, ultimately, that’s what great stories are about: community. Even though a story generally has only one protagonist, the protagonist is telling a story about the community. It is a story about how the growth of the individual, the success of the individual, betters everyone. [1]

Meaning


What I’ve been talking about so far is the hero’s journey. What the hero’s journey is all about is MEANING. The hero’s goal gives her life purpose, at least within the pages of the book.

A Note On Story


There are many different kinds of story, and often elements of the hero’s journey are subverted in creative and unexpected ways. Of course that’s fine. Just as one should know grammar before one intentionally subverts it, it’s a good idea to know the elements of the classic hero’s journey before one subverts them.

That said, of course a person doesn’t need to know about the hero’s journey before they can tell a terrific story. Absolutely not. But I think it helps. Also, if you’re writing a story and something feels a bit off, knowing the elements of the hero’s journey can help.

Notes:


1. That’s one of the many things I love about Dan Harmon’s TV show, Community.

Photo Credit: Syd Wachs, Macro photo of five assorted books, from unsplash.com.


Friday, August 18

How to Write Again after a Break

How to Write Again after a Break


You may have noticed I took an unscheduled leave of absence. Sorry about that. I was ticking something off my bucket list: being involved with the making of a movie!

And by “being involved” I mean that I wanted to do something that would give me a fly-on-the-wall perspective, something that would allow me to watch and think about what was going on. Being an extra (or ‘background actor’) gave me that opportunity!

Unfortunately, because of the pesky NDAs I signed, I can’t say more about it than that. If you ever have a chance to be an extra or background actor in a show, go for it! Of course, make sure it’s a legitimate offer, but if it is you’ll meet some VERY interesting people—your fellow background actors!

Okay, enough about that!

What I want to talk abut today is getting back in the groove. In my case, the writing groove which REALLY hasn’t been easy.

I know I’m procrastinating if my office is tidy—a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its place tidy. That, and I start to make journals. Currently, I’ve made enough journals to last me for at least a year!

And I suppose that even writing that, drawing this out, is a form of procrastination.

Oh! And brewing Kombucha.

Okay, so, my point: that even though it is taking a while to get back into the swing of things, since I have a pattern, a structure, (dare I say) a PROCESS, I have something to fit myself back into.

So I guess that’s what I’m writing about today, fitting back into old patterns and, in so doing, re-invigorating them.

Nothing Stays the Same


Heraclitus said that one can never step into the same river twice. The point being that the essence of nature is change. Not only do we change but the world also changes around us.

Perhaps the trick is figuring out how to change and still keep the things about ourselves we like. Or perhaps those are the bits, like Stephen King’s darlings, that need to be given up. I can never tell.

Sound difficult? It is! Especially if it’s radical change, the kind that shreds our lives. The kind that breaks us into a billion pieces, sets those pieces on fire and then smears them with napalm and incinerates them.

Anyway.

When we go through change AND come out on the other side we can put our characters through the same hell—er, “learning process”—and our story will be much more believable.

My feeling is that once I experience a particular something, a particular experience, it’s easier to write about believably. And since the hero’s arc is all about—or should be about—change; Intense, deep, destructive, life-shattering change—our writing is that much stronger.

And so there’s that. I guess my life has gone through quite a bit of change lately. There’s a temptation, an impulse, to walk away.

One thing I’ve found that does work for me is this: I sit my ass down in a chair and don’t let myself leave until I write something. By the way, the not leaving part is metaphorical. Bathroom breaks are fine and you get to eat but NOT cook anything. (Believe me I know what a delicious, scrumptious, diet-killing ribbit hole cooking can be.)

Which isn’t to say writers can’t be happy! But there is a reason so many of us have been friendless dreamers who live alone and drink WAY too much. I’m not trying to drive folks away from the profession, but just sayin’.

Back to the point.

The Beauty, The Utility, of Having a Schedule


Here’s my point: If you have a schedule then, even if you break that schedule, even if you shatter it into a million, billion little pieces, you’ll still have something, a structure, to come back to. Yes, things will be different, nothing is ever the same, but it will make possible what would otherwise be impossible.

And then the trick is to do it again.

Tuesday, July 18

Update: Writing and Acting

Sorry! I know I’ve disappeared for the past month. My deepest apologies.

I’m fine, nothing dire has happened. Just the opposite! I’ve been checking something off my bucket list: being an extra. Or, as we say in the biz, “background actor.”

It’s been amazingly, fantastically fun! There was a lot of filming where I used to live and I always wanted to peek behind the metaphorical curtain and see how movies are made. Being a background actor is giving me the opportunity to do just that!

So far I’ve only been on set for about 3 hours a day, the rest of the time I spend in holding (which is a huge air-conditioned tent). And when I’m working it’s difficult to look around. It’s really only when I’m asked to wait out of camera range that I can watch the process of filming. But, still, what I’ve seen has been interesting and (of course!) I can’t help but relate it to writing.

It seems to me that an actor going on an audition is similar to a writer sending their work off to a publisher. Perhaps I’m wrong, though. Please tell me what you think!

Similarities between writing and acting:


The part could have been already filled.


I’m told that occasionally a production must audition for a role even though the director already knows who they are going to cast.

WRITING: Often magazines have enough stories for several future editions, but they don’t close their submissions page.

Not what the director/production was looking for. 


When I was in high school (low these many years ago!) a troupe came in and showed various ways Hamlet and Ophelia could be played.

You’ve heard of character studies. When playing a character an actor develops a detailed idea/concept/notion of the character they are portraying.

But, even if they completely nail their portrayal of the character, it may not be what the producer was looking for.

WRITING: You can submit a terrific story but if its not what the publisher is looking for it’s not going to be accepted.

Of course, there are differences. I talked with a background actor who had a successful audition when he was in the right headspace and a horrible audition (for the same part) when he wasn’t able to get back into character.

With writers it’s a bit different, although even here you could argue there are similarities. Sometimes, whether a person thinks your story is a good read depends on their mood, even their surroundings. Have they had an argument with someone recently and would like to punch a wall? Are they in the middle of the renovation-from-hell? Are they reading your story between speakers at a crowded convention? If so, chances are that even if your story is exactly what they’re looking for, it will be rejected.

The moral: Take heart! Just keep on doing what you’re doing. Writers write AND submit their work (or self-publish!). Rinse and repeat.

I promise to return to a more regular blogging schedule when my stint as a background actor is over. And after the story I’m a part of has been aired I can talk more about the details of my very fun adventure!!

Tuesday, June 6

How to Write a Book, Part Two

How to Write a Book, Part Two


This article is part two of How to Write a Book.

2. Figure out how many words you can write a day.


As you write your Zero Draft you’ll also get an idea for how many words you can write in a day. You want to shoot for a SUSTAINABLE amount. Writing a book isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.

NaNoWriMo is wonderful practice for writing everyday. It doesn’t matter if you can write 50,000 words a month, but trying helps you get in touch with your inner writer and figure out your average word output.

If you can’t write every day, that’s fine! Perhaps you have an insane schedule conceived in the depths of hell and can only write once a week. That's okay! All you’re trying to do at this point is figure out how many words you can write over a certain time period.

3. Create a story outline.


Don’t worry if you don’t know how the story ends (the Climax) or what the middle bits are (Midpoint Crisis) or even what sets all these events in motion (the Inciting Incident). That’s what we’re going to work on now.

Take what you know about the story and:

a) Internal: build on your understanding of the story, and
b) External: shape the basic story outline so it fits the structure of your chosen genre. 

Before we think any more about (a) or (b), though, let’s talk about suspense.

3a. A note about suspense.


I’m interested in writing stories that entertain. Not everyone is! And that’s fine. But I love a rousing, suspenseful, tale. Since these kind of stories are what I love to read it’s natural that they’re also what I love to write.

Another thing: It’s MUCH more difficult to sell books that aren’t entertaining. Yes, there are folks who read and enjoy stories that do not have even the faintest smidgeon of suspense—I’ve met them!—but that’s not my audience.

When I write these posts I’m writing to those who, like me, want to craft stories that entertain.

3b. Begin at the end.


When I create an outline for a story I begin at the end.

Sounds perverse, doesn’t it?! But—especially if you’re writing something with the element of surprise—it makes sense to start with what we KNOW and then work out what needs to happen for us to get there.

For example, let’s say you know that Bob Boisterous murdered Sally Soffit with an experimental drug because Sally was going to get the promotion Bob coveted.

Means: Experimental drug
Motive: Bob wants the promotion
Opportunity: Bob says he was taping a podcast in his private studio when the murder occurred—and it seems as though he’s telling the truth.

You know Bob has to get caught which means he has to make a mistake. Let’s say Bob put the poison in Sally’s coffee. When she tasted the coffee she cringed and said, “Someone put sugar in this,” but drank it anyway because she was caffeine deprived and in a hurry.

The killer didn’t know Sally would tell anyone her coffee was too sweet or that the person she told would remember it. When the dregs of Sally’s coffee is analyzed it seems to only contain coffee because the killer switched the cups.

Our detective thinks Bob’s behavior is fishy. Bob hated Sally (and vice versa) and Bob’s grief seems false. If he had nothing to do with her death, the detective feels he wouldn’t be as intent on hiding his true feelings.

Also, the victim’s comment about the sweetness of the coffee (Sally NEVER used sugar) is enough to make our intrepid detective suspicious. Further, the detective knows of a poison that would act on the victim in a way consistent with what the coroner told him about the body.

The murderer was counting on the death being put down to natural causes—the victim had a heart condition and the effects of the poison looked like cardiac failure.

You get the idea. Everything is much easier once you know where you’re going. Because of this you can save a LOT of time.

3c. Complete your outline.


At this point you don’t have to know every last little thing about the plot but try to have something down for the main points. Keep in mind that your outline isn’t written in stone! It can and will change as you write.

Even if your outline has gaps it helps to have the bones of the story written down. You’ll be able to see which parts are missing. A well-defined, concrete, problem is much easier to solve than a nebulous ill-defined one.

ACT ONE (25%)
(This is the Ordinary World. Describe it as you introduce your characters IN ACTION. Give them an initial problem to solve, setbacks, etc.)
Inciting Incident: What is the Inciting Incident?
Call to Adventure: What draws the protagonist into the quest?
Journey to the Special World: What mini-quest takes the protagonist from the Ordinary World into the Special World of the Adventure?

ACT TWO (26 to 75%)
(Introduce the Special World of the Adventure. It should be starkly different from the Ordinary World, inside out and upside down.)
Trials: What challenges does the protagonist have adjusting to the Special World?
Approach the cave: What crisis compels the protagonist to confront the antagonist at the midpoint?
Midpoint: What happens at the confrontation? Does the protagonist win or lose? Do they acquire any information?
Complication: Something goes very wrong and complicates the protagonist’s quest, what happens?
More complications: Events keep going wrong. What happens?
All Hope is Lost: What happens at the All Hope is Lost point?

ACT THREE (76 to 100%)
(All subplots have been closed out or will soon be closed out. We’re concentrating on the hero’s quest, racing toward the finish line.)
Race to the Finish: How does the protagonist get his/her mojo back and get back on track?
Climax: What happens at the climax? Does the protagonist win and, if so, how?
Wrap up: What happens to the major characters?

You don’t need to answer these questions in any detail at this point. This will just give you the big points, the turning points.

Now we have an outline. Granted, this outline will vary depending on the kind of genre you’re writing for, but you’ve got the bare-bones done. High-five!

4. Decide how long you want your finished manuscript to be.


Now figure out how your story fits into, or onto, your outline. When I think of this step I think of pulling a dress (your story) over a mannequin (the outline).

I’m not going to fib, this step is a bit of a dark art. Let’s start by deciding how long we want the finished manuscript to be.

If you’re writing a fantasy you might want to shoot for 90,000 to 100,000 words or, if you’re writing a romance, you might want to keep your word count closer to 60,000 or 70,000. It’s my experience that mysteries range from anything between 60,000 to 85,000 words.

Let’s say you decide to shoot for around 80,000 words and use a three act structure.

Act 1: 20,000 words.
Inciting Incident (5%): 4,000
Call to Adventure (10%): 8,000
Journey to the Special World (20%): 16,000

Act 2: 40,000 words.
Trials (26%): 20,800
Approach the cave (40%): 32,000
Midpoint (50%): 40,000
Complication (55%): 44,000
More complications (60%): 48,000
All Hope is Lost (70%): 56,000

Act 3: 20,000 words.
Race to the Finish (76%): 60,800
Climax (90%): 72,000
Wrap up (98%): 78,400

Of course you might not want to use three acts, perhaps you’d prefer four or five or even six! All the major points (Inciting Incident, Call to Adventure, etc.) will be the same. Also, keep in mind that at the end of each act, a major event should occur which spins the hero’s journey (the through-line) in a different direction and increases the stakes.

As far as what happens in each act you’ll want to adapt it to the genre you’re writing in. For instance, here’s a five act structure for a murder mystery.

5. Write your first draft.


Congratulations! You’ve got an outline. Sure, there are gaps but you’re getting the feel for the general shape of the story, the major moments. Now let’s see what we can do about filling in the missing bits.

For example, there’s 4,000 words between the Inciting Incident and the Call to Adventure. One thing that can help get you through the gaps are scenes and sequels.

I’m putting together an example outline for Murder in Meadowmead. I’ll try to finish that up today and publish it tomorrow (Wednesday).

That’s it! I’ll talk to you again tomorrow. In the meantime, good writing!



Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put 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: The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface, by Donald Maass. I’ve had the privilege of taking a couple of workshops from Mr. Maass. He’s terrific! If you ever have the chance to hear him speak, take it! His books are amazingly helpful. Highly recommended!

From the blurb:
While writers might disagree over showing versus telling or plotting versus pantsing, none would argue this: If you want to write strong fiction, you must make your readers feel. The reader's experience must be an emotional journey of its own, one as involving as your characters' struggles, discoveries, and triumphs are for you.

Readers can simply read a novel...or they can experience it. The Emotional Craft of Fiction shows you how to make that happen.



Friday, June 2

How to Write a Book


How to Write a Book


The question I’ve been asked more than any other is, “How can I write a book?” Here's my attempt at an answer. Please keep in mind this is just ONE WAY to write a book not the only way.

How to write a book


Neil Gaiman once said—and I’m paraphrasing—that each time he writes a book it’s a different process. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Each book is different, each book presents its own challenges and its own rewards. But if you’ve never written a book and would like to take a peek at how I TRY to do it, read on.

1. Write a Zero Draft


You’ve heard of discovery writers. A discover writer doesn’t have preconceived notions about the content or shape of their story (though they may have an idea, or a few ideas). They write by the seat of their pants, discovering where the story takes them.

(For more about what a Zero Draft is see: The Zero Draft: How To Beat Writer’s Block.)

My Zero Drafts are strange amalgams of discovery writing and conscious plotting, heavy on the discovery. (If you’re curious about how I go about getting ahold of a character, see my posts Let's Make a Detective! and Let's Create a Sidekick!.)

That said, when I’m in discovery mode, I try not to consciously think too much about the structure of my story; I brainstorm.

But everyone’s different. Some folks like to dictate their ideas, their musings, into a recorder (if you don’t want to buy a voice recorder there are some decent apps—Android; Apple—that do basically the same thing).

Free writing. After you've practiced free writing for a while you'll get a feel for what works best for you. Myself, I find it works best if I put on my favorite tunes, curl up in my office chair with my writing journal and write longhand.

1a. Do not censor yourself.


Some folks refer to the Zero Draft as a ‘vomit draft.’ Gross, right? But that’s what it’s supposed to be! The Zero Draft is a safe place. Don’t censor yourself, don’t question your ideas, write them down. Remember, no one but you is EVER going to see your Zero Draft.

1b. Ideas, not words.


In a Zero Draft it isn’t the words that's important, it's the IDEAS.

After all, YOU have to discover the story before anything you write will make sense. You have to call the events of the story, as well as the characters, to life within you. If you haven't gotten ahold of the ideas how can anything you write evoke them? At least, that’s my take on it!

I find that the act of writing often works as a kind of invocation. And, ultimately, I think that’s what a zero draft is. It's an invitation to your characters to come to life and do interesting, scandalous, things in the settings, the playgrounds, you create for them.

1c. How long should your Zero Draft be?


The Zero Draft can be any length you like, regardless of how long you want your finished manuscript to be.

As I said, above, the purpose of the rough draft is to call your story into existence, to form that first connection with it. Here’s what I’ve found: 

The shorter your Zero Draft is the better. 

The Zero Draft will be a bit of a mess (after all, it is a vomit draft!) so short is good; less mess to wade through. Also, keep in mind that the Zero Draft is just a beginning. Your understanding of your characters, your understanding of your overall story, will change over time. Your names for them will change, their desires will change, their childhood peccadilloes will change, their connections to other characters will change.

Next Post: In my next post in this series I'll talk about creating a story outline. Stay tuned!



Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put 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.




Sunday, February 12

The Structure of Character

The Structure of Character


Most of the time I focus on story structure rather than character structure.

Now, you might wonder: Is “character structure” really a thing? Do all the different elements that go into making up a fictional human have a structure?

I think they do, though it’s not as clear cut as it is with story structure. By the way, I’m not putting this forward as the way things are, I’m musing aloud. In what follows I lay out my reasoning, and I would be very interested in what you folks think! :-)

Motorboat Example


To make things easier, I’m going to refer to the following diagram in what follows:



In this figure you see three things:

- A shark
- A man driving a motorboat
- An island

When we talk about character, the following terms are often used:

- Motivation
- Goals
- Desires (internal & external)
- Flaw
- Wound

I want to try and explain what I mean by each of these terms with reference to the above diagram.

MOTIVATION: The shark is the man’s motivation for heading to the island.

DESIRE: The man’s desire sets his goal. We can’t actually see the man’s desire. In this case it’s something like, “Stay alive!”

GOAL: The island is the man’s goal. If the man reaches the island he’ll be safe from the shark.

FLAW/WOUND: Flaws come in many different varieties. The character can have a physical imperfection: a sprained leg, a scar, a physical wound, and so on. The character can also have a psychological flaw. He could be depressed or his anxiety levels could be so high he can’t think straight. Or perhaps he’s lost someone he loves. In terms of the motorboat example, if the man had a broken arm it would be more difficult to steer the boat toward the island.

Desire vs Goals


Some folks talk about internal desires and external desires—and that’s great! An example of an internal desire would be the desire to be loved. An external desire, on the other hand, would be wanting Handsome John, the crown prince of Egodia, to ask one out on a date. This way of talking about things is fine—great!—but I prefer to simply think about these things in terms of desires and goals.[1]

A desire, at least in the sense I’m using it here, has the following connotations:

  • It is about the heart rather than the head. 
  • It is personal vs impersonal.
  • It has to do with “unkickables”; that is, things you can’t take a picture of—things like the desire to be loved or to be a success.
  • It is broad vs narrow.


A goal, on the other hand, is very different:

  • It is about the head more than the heart.
  • It is impersonal vs personal.
  • It is “kickable”; tangible. That is, you could take a picture of it. This covers things like winning the lottery and climbing Mount Everest.
  • It is narrow vs broad.

The way I think of it, a goal is a specific, concrete, expression of a desire. While the desire is broad, general, even nebulous, the goal is concrete. One could take a picture of the character accomplishing it.

For example, if a character—let’s call her Jane—has the desire to be rich, there are several concrete, specific goals she COULD have:

  • Buy a lottery ticket.
  • Go to school and become a lawyer.
  • Become a day trader.
  • Rob a bank.

And so on. Jane’s personality, skills, background and environment will no doubt influence which goal Jane selects, but that GOAL will be an expression of her DESIRE to be rich.

Of course, you could think about desires differently. For example, Jane could have a specific desire (e.g., I want to get rich by becoming a day trader). That’s fine. Think of desires and goals however makes the most sense to you!

The Structure: Incompatible Desires


When I talk about the structure of character I think about how desires and goals relate to one another. Specifically, how the secret to making a lifelike character is to give her incompatible desires (which, in turn, translate into incompatible goals). In a well-structured story this will eventually force the character to prefer one desire, one goal, above another.

Perhaps the best way to communicate what I mean is to look at examples:

Example 1: Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris


I’m guessing that you’ve either read the book or seen the movie. If not, what are you waiting for!? If you’d like to read a summary of the story, head over to Wikipedia.[2]

In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling has two main desires:

Desire1: Save lives, help those who can’t help themselves.
Desire2: Gain status, be recognized and valued for accomplishments.

These desires are expressed as the following goals:

Goal1: Save the girl ([name], the senator’s daughter) Buffalo Bill has captured.
Goal2: Climb the career ladder at the FBI. (Graduate and become a full-fledged FBI agent. Be recognized and rewarded for hard work and excellence.)

Before Clarice started working for Jack Crawford her internal and external desires were in sync. She believed her superiors at the FBI were interested in saving innocents, that this concern trumped their ambition.

Another way of saying the same thing is that, in the Ordinary World of the story, Clarice’s goals were aligned. AFTER she begins working for Crawford she realizes her superiors in the FBI don’t care about saving Buffalo Bill’s victims as much as they care about politics—that is, in not ticking off the wrong people and climbing the career ladder.

When Clarice’s internal and external desires come into conflict her life becomes disharmonious. Clarice realizes she must choose, one desire must rule the other. Either she will give up her ambitions and try to save the girl or she will let go of her desire to rescue the innocent in favor of getting ahead at the FBI. Whichever way Clarice chooses it will reveal her character. In the end she does the only thing she can given who she is: she tries to save the girl.

Example 2: The Matrix


For both Neo and Trinity their goals change during the course of the movie. At first Neo is focused on finding Morpheus and figuring out what the matrix is. When he accomplishes that at the Lock-In his desires change. Neo wants to be what Morpheus wants him to be: the One. He also wants to protect the resistance—both the movement and the people within the movement, especially Trinity. So ...

Desire1: Protect and serve the resistance.
Desire2: Become the One.

Early in Act Two these desires are in harmony, but after Morpheus is captured they come apart. At this point Neo believes he has a choice: save Morpheus and die himself or sacrifice Morpheus and live on in the hope he (Neo) will become the One.

Goal1: Kill Morpheus before the agents can extract the codes from his mind and use them to quash the resistance. (Morpheus dies, Neo lives.)
Goal2: Rescue Morpheus and, in so doing, give up his own life. 

Neo wants to save the resistance—and himself—(Goal1), and he wants to save Morpheus (Goal2), but he can’t do both. So he chooses, and his choice reveals his character and sets him apart as a hero. He chooses to give up his own life so that Morpheus might live and the resistance continue.

So, what do you think? Is there a structure to the desires of a well-drawn character?



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

Today I’m recommending something a bit different. Sometimes I use a voice recorder to start my writing off. I love writing while I walk! The voice recorder I use is the Sony ICD PX333. I’m sure there are better recorders out there, but not for $29.99! I’ve had it for years and I've dropped it, used it out in the snow, the rain, and it still works fine! If someone else would like to recommend another voice recorder, please do!



That’s it! I was a bit late with this post—there was a lot to think about! I’ll talk to you again tomorrow. Till then, good writing!

Notes:


1. To me this seems like a simpler system, though I likely find it simpler simply because it clicks with me. Each of us is different and so it’s reasonable that we each need to make sense of these concepts in our own way. If my way of thinking clicks with you, great! If not, then ignore it. Do whatever makes sense to you.

2. Although the book and the movie are quite similar there are significant differences. For example, Clarice’s anger plays a much bigger part in the book as does Crawford’s scheming and behind the scenes manipulations.

3. The Oracle has told Trinity that the man she falls in love with will be the One.

Monday, October 31

Preparing For NaNoWriMo



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

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

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

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

Planning for NaNoWriMo


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

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

1. Designing a Writing Plan.


How many days per week do you want to write?

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

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

2. What Point of View Will You Write From? 


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

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

3. What is the Core of Your Story?


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

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

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

4. Character Development


Let’s start thinking about our characters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. The Genre


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

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

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

6. The Setting


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

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

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

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

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

Just Breathe


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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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