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Friday, November 25

Turning An Idea Into A Story

Turning An Idea Into A Story


I know I’ve touched on this in a couple of previous posts. To be honest, there’s an old story I’ve written, one I love, but I know the structure is wrong. While I’ve become much better at spotting structural defects in the works of others, when it comes to my own work it’s devilishly hard because I’m so close to it.

I think that this is, at least in part, because I don’t need to read the words to grasp my story, it’s already in my head.

What I want to think about today is how to take an idea and treat it a bit like a piece of knitting or crochet that needs to be blocked. By this I mean, just as I would stretch a crocheted snowflake over a mould so that it would take on the appropriate shape, so a story idea can be positioned within a structure to see how well it fits, where it’s thin as well as where it bunches.

True, I wrote about this last time, but today I want to approach it from a different angle. Last time I talked about a writer’s audience and how this can influence the content of the work. Today I want to focus on shaping the story idea itself.

As always, I would love to know what you think! Are you getting a bit worn out by NaNoWriMo? What kind of articles would you like to read? If you feel that you haven’t achieved your writing goals, what would you say was the single biggest thing holding you back?

The Beginning of a Story Hypothesis


“(1) A state of affairs, present or projected, that symbolizes happiness to your hero.

“(2) A danger that threatens his chances of achieving or maintaining that state of affairs.”[1]

What I try to do is imagine each of these states of affairs as vividly and concretely as I can. Then I write them down. This serves as a foundation for my story.

Example: Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.


What state of affairs symbolized happiness to Clarice Starling?

As the title of the movie suggests, the lambs being silent.

Let me unpack that. Clarice was abandoned by her mother after the death of her father. She was angry. How could her mother abandon her own child? But then Clarice abandoned the lambs because it was out of her control. Like her mother, she couldn’t do anything to help. By the time we meet FBI trainee Starling, though she is still angry with her mother on some level, she’s more angry with herself.

What danger threatens Clarice’s chances of achieving or maintaining the said silence? Two threats: the serial killer Jame Gumb and the FBI. The serial killer because he’s the one killing the girls, Clarice’s lambs. The FBI because they care more about politics and advancement than about saving a life.

Example: Raiders of the Lost Ark


The state of affairs that symbolizes happiness to Indiana Jones is taking the Ark back to the university’s museum.

The danger that threatens Indy’s chances of achieving this state of affairs is, primarily, Belloq, his nemesis. Belloq is also an archeologist, one who keeps stealing the relics Indy recovers.

Now it’s your turn. I’d like you to think of two things and creative a vivid mental picture of each of these situations:

1. What state of affairs, present or projected, symbolizes happiness to your hero?
2. What danger threatens your hero’s chance of achieving or maintaining this state of affairs.

Five Elements In Every Story


Swain writes that the following five elements are in every story (see below). In what follows I use Raiders of the Lost Ark as an example.

1. A Protagonist


A protagonist is the person who the world pushes on, the one who is threatened by a specific danger. He is also the person who, eventually, pushes back.

Example: Indiana Jones, relic hunter.

2. A Situation/The Inciting Incident


This is the “backdrop of trouble that forces him [the protagonist] to act.”[1]

Example: Two men from army intelligence visit Indiana Jones and tell him that the Nazi’s have discovered Tanis, the resting place of the Ark.

3. The Objective/Protagonist’s Goal


The concrete thing or state of affairs the protagonist desires.

Example: The Ark ensconced in the university’s museum back in the USA.

4. An Antagonist


The antagonist not only resists the protagonist, he fights against him.

Example: Whenever Indiana Jones finds a significant relic, Dr. René Belloq is there to snatch it away from him. Now, Belloq is working for the Nazi’s and he uses his knowledge of Indiana Jones’ character against him.

5. The Disaster


If there is nothing at stake the story isn’t as exciting. Further, the stakes must be personal, they must endanger the people and things the protagonist cares about most. Also, the stakes must increase until, at the climax, the protagonist is faced with a disaster that is “Something Unutterably Awful.”[1]

Example: The Nazi’s have not only found the Ark, they open it releasing the raw power of God.

The Story Question


The story question is formed by fitting two sentences together.

Sentence 1: This is a statement and it should establish the PROTAGONIST, SITUATION and OBJECTIVE.[1]

Sentence 2: This is a question and it should establish the ANTAGONIST and the DISASTER.[1]

Here are a few different forms a Story Question could take:


Dwight V. Swain:

First form: “Will this focal character defeat his opponent, overcome his private danger, and win happiness?”[1]

Will Indiana Jones defeat Dr. René Belloq, overcome the Nazi war machine and avert global disaster?

Second form: When [Situation/Inciting Incident] [Protagonist] wants [Protagonist’s Goal/Thing That Makes Her Happy]. Will she lose her chance for happiness because [Antagonist] [Disaster]?

Example: When Indiana Jones learns that Nazi archaeologists are close to recovering the Ark of the Covenant, he sets out to claim the ark for the United States and her allies. Will he lose his chance to avert global disaster because Dr. Rene Belloq once again snatches Indy’s prize away from him?

Jim Butcher:

*WHEN SOMETHING HAPPENS*, *YOUR PROTAGONIST* *PURSUES A GOAL*. But will he succeed when *ANTAGONIST PROVIDES OPPOSITION*? [3]

Or: When [Inciting Incident occurs] [Protagonist] [Protagonist’s Goal]. But will he succeed when [Antagonist Opposes Protagonist]

Example: When Indiana Jones learns that Nazi archaeologists are going after the Ark of the Covenant he sets out to claim the Ark first. But will he succeed when Dr. Rene Belloq discovers Indiana’s plans?

Whatever form your story question takes it should be answerable with a “yes” or “no.”

Other Ways of Structuring a Story


These really aren’t other ways, they are different ways of representing or thinking about the same way. If you’re writing a short story or even a piece of flash fiction, these might be of a bit more help:

a. The Three O System: Objective, Obstacle, Outcome.[1]


Example: Indiana Jones wants to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to the USA. Unfortunately, Indy’s nemesis, Dr. Rene Belloq, is set on getting the Ark for the Nazi’s and he has no qualms about playing dirty. If Belloq succeeds the world as we know it could be destroyed.

b. Who, What, Why: WHO wants to do WHAT and WHY can’t he?[1]


Example: Indiana Jones wants to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to the USA. Unfortunately Dr. Rene Belloq and the Nazi war machine are set on taking the Ark for themselves.

The Secret Sauce: Linking this in with the protagonist’s character


I’m a fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. A BIG fan!

Every time Butcher releases a new book I block off a few hours of my day, curl up in my favorite chair and read the book cover to cover. Sure, I’ll go back later and re-read it. The second time will be slower, more careful. I’ll look at the structure of the story and try to analyze how Butcher created certain effects in the reader. But the first time through is pure unadulterated pleasure.

One thing I’ve noticed about the books of the Dresden Files series is that the main character, Harry Dresden—though clever and able to think well in the moment—isn’t the brightest bulb. Which is convenient since Dresden is uncompromisingly committed to doing the right thing (a.k.a. the moral thing).

What’s the right thing? It’s the unselfish thing. In other words, “Adherence to principle despite the temptation to self-interest.”[1]
What’s the wrong thing? It’s the selfish thing. In other words, “Abandonment of conviction for the sake of personal advantage.”[1]

This should really come through at the climax. Make sure that the moral issue is brought into play. The hero (and this is a big part of what makes a character a hero) does what he does for unselfish motives while the villain does what he does from selfish motives. I’m not saying it’s quite as clear cut as this, but (thinking about the books I’ve read and the movies I’ve seen) self-interest seems to be a dominant trait in most antagonists.[2]

As a result, though, often heroes are more good than bright. I’ve just mentioned Harry Dresden. It’s not that he’s stupid, far from it! But there are many people who are more intelligent than him in one way or another. That said, he excels at three things. First, he can think well under pressure. Second, he can think well in the moment, making a split-second decision that will (usually!) turn out to be the correct one. Third, he’s a planner, able to think of multiple possibilities and planning for them. He’s not brilliant but he can be exceptionally clever.



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’d like to recommend Master Lists For Writers by Bryn Donovan. The author goes over setting, various plot types, how to write action as well as dialogue—and that’s for starters! From the blurb: “Whether you’re writing novels or short fiction, screenwriting, or any other kind of storytelling, MASTER LISTS FOR WRITERS is a rich source of inspiration you’ll turn to again and again.”



That’s it! I hope NaNo is going well for you. Remember, as long as you’ve written more than you would have otherwise, you’re a winner! I’ll talk to you again on Monday. In the meantime, good writing!

Notes:


1. Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.

2. It is also true that every antagonist is the hero of his own story. The antagonist might see himself as a savior, unselfishly sacrificing himself—as well as, perhaps, those he cares about—for a greater good. Of course it could also be the case that he’s lying to himself!

3. Fundamentals—Story Skeletons by Jim Butcher.

Sunday, October 13

Techniques of the Selling Writer: How To Create A Story With An Interesting Hero & A Satisfying Ending

Techniques of the Selling Writer: How To Create A Story With An Interesting Hero & A Satisfying Ending




Today I'm going to talk about how to craft a story so that not only will the average reader find the ending satisfying but you'll also have created, in the process, a well-rounded, sympathetic, likeable hero.

What follows, the ideas, come from one of the best books on the craft of writing ever written: Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight V. Swain. Though the ideas are Mr. Swain's I've put them in my own words. And, by the way, this is all from just one chapter of Mr. Swain's book, chapter 5: Fiction Strategy.

The Hero's Motivation


What do heroes seek? They seek what we all, on some level, seek: security, safety.

For example, take Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He doesn't seek his own safety, true, he seeks the safety of the world because if the Nazi's capture the ark they'll win the war and that would be, to put it mildly, bad.

What does a hero (what does anyone) need to feel safe and secure? Mr. Swain argued that the hero needs to feel he controls his destiny. That is, he needs to feel that his choices and actions are related to what happens in the (story) world in such a way that what he does matters.

To put this same idea another way: in a story world there needs to be a connection between what the character does (his DEEDS) and what happens (his REWARDS).

The question: Just how do we build this connection between deeds and rewards?


Let's go back a bit.

At the beginning of the story your hero isn't going to feel safe and secure. She isn't going to feel that there's a satisfying connection between her deeds and her rewards. The hero is going to have to fight for this, it's part of her quest.

For example, at the start of Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke lives with his aunt and uncle on their farm on Tatooine. Does Luke feel he controls his destiny? No

If Luke had a choice, he'd be off to the Academy but his aunt and uncle won't let him go. By the end of the movie, as a direct result of the choices Luke has made, he is in charge of his own destiny. Case in point: he made the choice to ignore the targeting computer and, as Obi-Wan Kenobi instructed, use the force. The outcome of the entire movie (not to mention the known universe!) hangs on this choice and he is rewarded. Luke achieves his goal, the destruction of the Death Star.

Or take another terrific Harrison Ford movie, Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark. What does Dr. Belloq keep saying to Indy? At the end of the opening sequence he says: "Dr. Jones, again we see that there is nothing you possess which I cannot take away." Then, again, at the midpoint, just before he seals Jones inside the Well of Souls, he taunts him by saying, "So, once again, Jones, what was briefly yours is now mine."

What Belloq is saying here is: You don't control your destiny, I do

That's what the hero has to wrench control of by the end, that's his great task, to control his destiny through the choices he makes.

The Hero's Deeds Need To Be The Cause of His/Her Rewards


I've already mentioned that there has to be a certain kind of cause and effect relationship between DEEDS and REWARDS for a story's ending to be truly satisfying. (Remember, I'm talking about the kind of stories where the hero wins the day, stories like those behind all the Indiana Jones movies). Rewards must be meted out on the basis of deeds. Your hero's behavior--her choices--must determine her fate.

Specifically, Good Deeds Must Be Rewarded


As DVS says, having a causal relationship between a character's deeds and their rewards isn't enough. Good deeds must be rewarded.

The Hero Must Deserve To Win


Let's say we've built a story, a world, in which deeds are the cause of rewards and in which good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are (eventually) punished. It follows that your hero must demonstrate he's a good guy if we want him to achieve his goal in a plausible manner. (Which isn't to say that he can't make the occasional mistake in the beginning.)

How does the hero demonstrate what end of the moral/ethical compass he's on?

In this post I'm going over this material using broad strokes, but I'd like to slow down at this point and go over some specific examples DVS gives (this is all from chapter 5 of Techniques of the Selling Writer). These examples are designed to show ways, small ways, in which your hero can demonstrate to readers what kind of guy he is.

Also, although DVS couches this in terms of morality I think it could just as well be put in terms of that holy grail of character creation: likability.

Example 1: A clerk gives your hero too much change. It would be easy to keep the change and walk away. But that's not what a hero does. He gives the change back.

I'm going to get to this in a later post, but memorable characters--and memorability is a very good thing; after all, it's hard to like a character you can't remember!--are (in general) extreme characters. Giving back 25 cents because it would be wrong to take it is extreme, and in your story world that's a good thing.

Example 2: Your hero dings someone's fender in the parking lot but no one noticed. Does he leave a note taking responsibility or just drive away? 

I think many people would drive away, which gives you an opportunity to show that your hero isn't like other people.

The Hero Must Demonstrate, Through His Choices And Actions, That He Deserves To Win


Let's focus on the end of the story. At the end of the story the hero is presented with a choice. The specifics of this choice should come as a surprise to the reader ("Marion, don't look at the light!" "Trust the force, Luke") but the general dimensions of the choice--good against evil--are not new themes. You've been foreshadowing this climactic confrontation, this decision, since the opening lines.

What is this confrontation? 

The confrontation is, classically, between the hero and the villain, or--using different terminology--between the protagonist and the antagonist. Fundamentally, it's a moral dilemma. Right against wrong, good against evil, love against hate. There should be two paths before the hero, one leads to the dark side, the other to the light. The hero makes his decision and if (when) he decides to do the right thing, the two fight (either actually or metaphorically).

Everything must hang on what the hero chooses to do. And by everything I mean EVERYTHING. If we haven't made it so that the hero's life, his love's life, his travelling companions' lives, his friends lives, his village's existence and, possibly, the fate and happiness of everyone in the known universe, hangs on our hero's choice then we've taken a wrong turn somewhere. (I exaggerate, but only a little.)

The Hero's Choice: The Path of Darkness & The Path of Light


The paths are mutually exclusive. We've established that the hero's choice is going to be between two paths, the path of darkness and the path of light. Each path, each choice, has an outcome that is antithetical to the other. If the hero chooses the path of darkness then whatever the path of light would have brought about, resulted in, is irrevocably, irretrievably, gone. And vice versa.

The Hero's Choice Must Resolve The Dilemma


This seems obvious, but I thought I'd say it anyway. The general dimension of the problem, good against evil, will still be there but this PARTICULAR problem will be finally and absolutely resolved, one way or the other. If the problem isn't resolved then your readers aren't going to feel satisfied by the ending and that's what our goal is.

For instance, in A New Hope Luke must decide between safety and trust. On the one hand, Obi-Wan Kenobi is telling him to turn off his equipment and trust the Force. On the other hand, his inner critic is telling him not to be stupid--there is no such thing as 'the Force' and, even if there was, he couldn't harness it--just be smart and use the equipment. 

The safe course is the selfish course because then, if it fails, it wouldn't be Luke's fault. (Sure, they'd all be dead, but, still, not-his-fault.) He was just doing the sensible thing. 

The path of trust is the true course. And it's risky. It likely won't work. It's not the easy way. Or even the sane way. But there's something about Luke, about who he is: he's strong in the force, like his father. He's special. And when he trusts that, when he believes it enough to act on it, to go 'all in,' then he wins the day.

The Path of Light And The Path of Darkness: Selflessness vs Selfishness


I've been talking about good vs evil, the path of light vs the path of darkness which, really, has been a bunch of handwaving. So let's cash out these terms, how I've been using them. 

In our story universe good is defined by one simple thing, SELFLESSNESS, just as bad is defined by just one thing, it's opposite, SELFISHNESS.

In your story universe the path of light, the good/moral/right thing will always be the unselfish thing. Further, doing the unselfish thing will always bring the hero all kinds of pain and misery. Conversely, the path of darkness, the evil road, will always lead to the selfish choice. Doing what's best for the hero. Making life wonderful for him even though, because of his choice, countless people will suffer and die. 

At this point you might well wonder, "Why would anyone choose to do the selfless thing if the odds of winning are slim to none and you'll lose everything if your plan doesn't succeed?"

Mr. Swain has an answer: Because of EMOTION. Because of who the hero is, intrinsically. So, you see, it all comes back to CHARACTER. Even if it would be more intelligent (certainly more self-preserving) to follow the wrong road, the hero follows his feelings instead. Remember, the test the hero goes through is one of character, not logic or reason or even intelligence.

This has been a long post, but before I end it I'd like to briefly talk about other kinds of cause and effect structures.

Other Kinds of Cause-Effect Story Structures


So far, I've talked about a story universe in which a person's deeds determine how they are rewarded in the end. (It's like that scene from The Mummy where Evelyn 'Evy' Carnahan whispers to Beni, "You know, nasty little fellows such as yourself always get their comeuppance." Great line.)

But it's not always like this. We've all read and enjoyed stories where a person's deeds are completely uncoupled from their rewards. But, here, that's not the kind of world we've set out to build. We set out to build a world that is both just and fair. 

But you don't have to, you can set up any sort of cause-effect relationship you want, and they can all work, they just appeal to different sorts of audiences and require a different sort of structure. That said, in North America at least, you probably won't have as large an audience for those kinds of stories. 

Oh, and one more thing. If you want to see Dwight V. Swain's principles at work, read The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. It's one of my favorite urban fantasy series and each book is better than the one before--and that's saying something. Highly recommended, not just for what you'll learn from them regarding technique but also for the pure pleasure of it.

This post is itself a kind of foreshadowing. This post, suitably tweaked and transformed, will appear as a chapter in my upcoming, as yet unnamed, book on the craft of writing.

by Kevin Dooley under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, July 31

Chuck Wendig on Plot, Complication, Conflict and Consequence

Chuck Wendig on Plot, Complication, Conflict and Consequence


Chuck Wendig has written what is, I think, his best post on writing so far, and since he has written quite a few fantastic posts that's saying something. Here's his post (adult language -->): Ten Thoughts On Story.

Chuck Wendig's post has ten points, mine only has five and they don't necessarily map onto his points 1-to-1. In any case, there's a lot of great stuff to cover so let's jump in:

1. The three C's of storytelling: Complication, Conflict and Consequence


Here is how Chuck Wendig describes the essence of storytelling:
"[A] character you like ... wants something ... but can’t have [it] ... and goes on a quest to answer that interrupted desire ..."
I put the ellipses in the above quotation because CW refers back to his account of his son's first story. (It's a touching account, I do hope you read CW's article.)

Here's an example of what this looks like:

a. Desire/goal

Protagonist desires something. This something is/becomes the story goal.

Example: In Indiana Jones And The Raiders of The Lost Ark Indiana Jones desires the ark.

b. Complication

Something/someone comes into the picture that/who will prevent the protagonist from achieving their desire. Another way of saying this: someone else wants the same thing the protagonist does but only one person can have it.

Example: Rene Belloq, a rival archeologist, also desires the ark.

c. Conflict

The protagonist and antagonist are pitched against each other in a series of conflicts.

Example: Indiana and Rene enter into a contest, a battle of wits/wills, to find the ark and bring it back to their sponsor/patron.

d. Consequence

The consequence of the conflict. Usually there are three possible outcomes:

i. The protagonist achieves his goal/desire.
ii. The antagonist achieves his goal/desire.
iii. No one achieves their goal/desire.

Example: Rene is killed by the thing he wishes to possess, Indiana takes possession of the ark and delivers it to his patron in the US though, as it turns out, the patron is not allowed to keep it.

2. The essence of plot


This is how Chuck Wendig describes plot:
"[T]he actions of many characters hoping to gain what they desire and avoid what they fear and the complications and conflicts that result from those actions. A character-driven story rather than one driven by events."

3. Your character's motives, their stories, are the most compelling


Chuck Wendig uses Star Wars as an example:
"At the end of the day, the big story is subservient to the little one. The Empire and Rebellion are just set dressing for the core conflict of Luke, Leia, and their father. Or the loyalty of Han. "

4. Every character has to want something


Chuck Wendig writes:
"Money? Love? Revenge? Approval of estranged father? High score on rip-off arcade game, Donkey Dong? Motivation is king. It moves the characters through the dangerous world you’ve put before them. It forces them to act when it’s easier not to. It gives them great agency."

5. The scene: Yes, BUT .../No, AND ...


A story is told in scenes. In that sense, scenes are the atoms of story. (Chuck Wendig touches on this point, but I thought I'd expand on it.)

In each scene characters have desires, often conflicting desires, but there will be one thing in particular--some goal--they're working toward. By the end of the scene that goal has either been achieved or not (probably not). If not, then another goal has likely taken its place.

(Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive.)

An easy way of remembering this is: Yes, BUT .../ No, AND ...

Yes, the hero achieves his goal, BUT there is a setback. No, the hero does not achieve his goal AND there is a setback. Here are a few examples from Indiana Jones taken from my article Making A Scene:

Examples:


Conflict: Does Indie find the ark?
Setback: Yes, BUT he is captured, thrown into a pit of snakes, and the antagonist takes the ark.

Conflict: Do Indie and Marion survive the pit of snakes?
Setback: Yes, they use torches to keep the snakes at bay BUT the torches are about to burn out.

Conflict: Do Indie and Marion escape the pit of snakes before their torches burn out?
Setback: Yes, Indie crashes a pillar through a wall providing them a way to escape BUT the room they enter is filled with skeletons that--for Marion at least--seem to come alive.

(A bit later in the film ...)

Conflict: Will Indie commandeer the plane?
Setback: No, AND Indie is spotted crawling up the plane, toward the pilot.

Conflict: Indie and a bad guy fight. Will Indie win?
Setback: Yes, BUT a much bigger man starts a fight with Indie (AND the pilot sees indie and knows he's trying to commandeer the plane).

Conflict: The pilot starts to take pot shots at Indie. Will Indie escape being hit?
Setback: Yes, Indie dodges the pilot's bullets BUT the pilot keeps shooting.

Conflict: Indie is fighting a huge bad guy. It looks like he has no chance of winning. Will Indie, against all odds, win the fight against the Man-Mountain?
Setback: No, Indie is not going to win a fist-fight with the Man-Mountain AND the pilot is still shooting at him.

Scenes are chains of conflicts and setbacks followed, at the end, by some sort of resolution/consequence that (unless it's the end of the story) spawn further conflicts and setbacks.

As I said at the beginning, Chuck Wendig's article (adult language -->), Ten Thoughts On Story, is a must-read.

Photo credit: "Smoking Stonehenge" by Bala Sivakumar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, October 25

Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive

Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive


Yesterday I promised to write an article about the last tool Mary Robinette Kowal introduced in her (terrific!) workshop at SiWC last weekend, The Mysteries of Outlining. Namely: "Yes, BUT ... / No, AND ..." Another name for this might be "How to write a scene: conflicts and setbacks".

Characters need setbacks


If your main character got everything she wanted right away then your story would be as entertaining as watching paint dry. The solution: be mean. Give your main character setbacks, lots of them.

Conflicts & Setbacks

Your main character has goals, he wants things. In Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones goes on a quest to find and bring back the lost Ark of the Covenant. About halfway through the movie he finds the ark but is captured and, along with Marion, sealed inside an ancient burial vault and left to die.

What follows is one of the BEST sequences of conflicts and setbacks I've come across. Let's start after Indie finds the ark.

Conflict: Does Indie find the ark?
Setback: Yes, BUT he is captured, thrown into a pit of snakes, and the antagonist takes the ark.

Remember that it is established early on in the movie that Indiana hates snakes. Spiders and all manner of creepy-crawlies he's fine with, just don't bring him near a snake! (And, yes, I know that there's no logical reason why there would be THAT many snakes in an ancient burial vault, but the scene still works.)

Conflict: Do Indie and Marion survive the pit of snakes?
Setback: Yes, they use torches to keep the snakes at bay BUT the torches are about to burn out.

Conflict: Do Indie and Marion escape the pit of snakes before their torches burn out?
Setback: Yes, Indie crashes a pillar through a wall providing them a way to escape BUT the room they enter is filled with skeletons that--for Marion at least--seem to come alive.

Conflict: Will Indie and Marion escape from the ancient burial vault they've been entombed in?
Setback: Yes, BUT the bad guys have the ark and Indie needs to get it back.

After every goal Indie achieves there is a setback. I just noticed we didn't come across a "No, AND ..." so lets keep going.

Another FABULOUS sequence in the first Indiana Jones movie--especially from the perspective of what we're talking about here--pulling the reader through a scene, creating conflict and using setbacks to create narrative drive--occurs at around 01:16:33 where Indie decides he's going to commandeer a plane. He fails in the end and it blows up but the sequence of goals/conflicts and setbacks is memorable.

Conflict: Will Indie commandeer the plane?
Setback: No, AND Indie is spotted crawling up the plane, toward the pilot.

Conflict: Indie and a bad guy fight. Will Indie win?
Setback: Yes, BUT a much bigger man starts a fight with Indie (AND the pilot sees indie and knows he's trying to commandeer the plane).

Conflict: The pilot starts to take pot shots at Indie. Will Indie escape being hit?
Setback: Yes, Indie dodges the pilot's bullets BUT the pilot keeps shooting.

Conflict: Indie is fighting a huge bad guy. It looks like he has no chance of winning. Will Indie, against all odds, win the fight against the Man-Mountain?
Setback: No, Indie is not going to win a fist-fight with the Man-Mountain AND the pilot is still shooting at him.

Conflict: The pilot takes aim at Indie, from this angle he can't miss. Will Indie survive?
Setback: Yes, indie survives. Marion hits the pilot over the head and knocks him unconscious BUT as the pilot slumps over in the cockpit he hits some levers and starts the plane rolling forward while Indie fights the Man-Mountain on the ground below.

Conflict: Marion climbs into the cockpit to remove the pilot and stop the plane from moving. Does she succeed?
Setback: No, AND she gets locked inside the cockpit.

You get the idea. The entire scene is well worth watching.

One thing I want to point out before I go on to the next section and talk about scenes is that the stakes for our hero gradually escalate throughout the scene. At first Indie just wants the plane and gets into a fist fight, then there's an impossibly huge guy he has to fight, then someone starts shooting at him, then the plane begins to move, then there's a truckload of German soldiers who see him, then Marion explodes gasoline containers, then there's gasoline on the ground running toward the fire.

At the end of the scene an ocean of gasoline is rushing toward the burning remains of the gas canisters while the Man-Mountain continues to beat Indie to a pulp and, of course, the whole camp has noticed the gasoline barrels explode and is rushing to investigate. It's really quite something.

Scenes & Sequals


To flesh out this discussion let's talk about the larger picture. Conflicts and setbacks are parts of scenes and a novel is made up of scenes and sequels.

Scenes are where the action takes place, where your character has conflicts and setbacks until the end of the scene and he or she attains their goal, or not, as the case may be.  

Sequels are where your character reacts emotionally to what's happened, where he or she reviews the facts of their situation and perhaps wonders if their plan is working or whether it needs to be changed. Basically a sequel sets your character(s) up for the next scene and gives your readers a bit of a break from the fast pace.

I'm not going to talk about sequels here, except to point you to Jim Butcher's post on the subject.

Scenes


Here, according to Jim Butcher, is the basic format of a scene:
Point of view character: _______________________
Goal: ______________________________________
Conflict (scene question): ______________________
Setback (scene answer): _______________________

POV (Point Of View) Character

Both Mary and Jim say the same thing:
Make your POV character the one who has the most at stake. 
Jim Butcher qualifies this by saying it should be the character who has the most at stake emotionally. If one character may lose his cousin who he never liked and doesn't care about and another may lose his cat who is their best friend then make Cat Guy your POV character.

Keep in mind that, like all writing rules, if you know what you're doing you can break them.

Goal


The goal needs to be ACTIVE and it needs to be SPECIFIC. Michael Hauge advises writers to think of it in movie terms. How could you show the character's goal on the screen? It should be something concrete such as (these are Jim Butcher's examples) "Get out of the room alive" not "Do something to save the day".

Conflict: Will your character succeed? WHICH character will succeed? Your hero or the antagonist?


Conflict is whatever will make your character fail in reaching his or her goal.

Between characters. Conflict happens between characters, not between a character and the environment. In the second Indiana Jones scene the plane--specifically its propeller--acted as a threat to Indie, he could have been killed by being forced into its blades, but it was used as a prop, the conflict came from the Man-Mountain trying to force him into the blades.

Conflicting goals. Conflict happens between characters trying to achieve different goals. Antagonists have goals too, ones that, if fulfilled, would prevent the hero from reaching his or her goal. Jim Butcher writes:
All this really means is that you need an antagonist with the same specific, attainable goal, the same kinds of emotional stakes, as your protagonist. Once you've got the right kind of set up, the scene almost writes itself. (Scenes)
If only!

Setbacks

For every conflict that comes up, a question can be asked: Will our hero succeed? There are four answers:
1) Yes
2) Yes, BUT
3) No
4) No, AND
We've covered this, above. Briefly, "Yes" won't get us anywhere. The hero needs setbacks because if his goal were just handed to him that would be very dull. The hero doesn't get everything he wants until the end of the book--and sometimes not even then!

"No" can work but it can be frustrating and cast your hero in a bad light. Use sparingly.

The other two, "Yes, BUT" and "No, AND" we've covered, above.

So, what are you waiting for! Go write a killer scene. :-)

Update (April 28, 2014): I go into this topic in more detail in Parts of Story: Try-Fail Cycles.

Other articles in this series:
- Orson Scott Card & The MICE Quotient: How To Structure Your Story
- Mary Robinette Kowal and The Mysteries of Outlining
- The Mysteries of Outlining and Nesting MICE: Creating Killer Stories

Other articles you might like:
- Jim Butcher On Writing
- NaNoWriMo: How To Reach Your Daily Wordcount
- Book Review Blogs That Accept Self-Published Work

Friday, December 5

Story Openings: Five Choices




Mythcreants is fast becoming one of my favorite blogs. Chris Winkle’s articles have the enviable quality of being both witty and informative.

I started off the day today by feeding Twitter. I comb through various blogs I’ve subscribed to (I use feedly.com and love it; and, no, I don’t have an affiliate relationship with them!), read the articles and then tweet links to those I found myself wishing I’d written.

Well, you know how it is, I started reading one article, followed a link to another and then fell down the social media version of the rabbit hole.[1]

Happily, though, I found “The Keys to a Great Opening Scene” over at Mythcreants. “The Keys” is the kind of post I look for, the kind of thing I love to read then keep in the back of my mind as I review my recent reads.

Then I thought, this is a blog post! I can use CS’s five-keys-to-writing-a-great-opening and go through the last few books I read, books that I enjoyed, to see how they score. (The books I look at will also be best sellers; I add that qualification as a kind of objective measure. That way you’ll know it wasn’t just me and three other people who thought these books were fabulous.)

Before I get started I’d like to make it clear that I agree with CW. Each of his five keys do (IMHO) make for a stronger opening. But, that said, many wonderful books, books that have sold fabulously well, lack one or more of these features. In that light I want to stress that if a book’s opening doesn’t receive a perfect score it’s not meant to reflect negatively on the book. No. I mention it to embolden nervous writers to try out different things, to experiment.

The Criteria


First, let’s take a quick look at the criteria Chris Winkle puts forward in his article The Keys to a Great Opening Scene. (I urge you to read CW’s article and to allow yourself to follow his rabbit warren of links. His site has some of the best articles on writing I’ve come across.)

1. Immediate Action


Chris Winkle writes:

“[...] surprising them [readers] with action and conflict in your opening scene is the single most effective way to keep them reading.”

CW links to another of his articles, one in which he discusses conflict in-depth (see: Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story). I’m not going to go into the kind of depth CW has, but I’ll just mention ...

a. Conflict within a character

The protagonist has conflicting desires. Part of him wants to find the buried treasure of the ancients even if it kills him while another part wants to stay at home with his family and watch his children grow up. 

Or the protagonist wants to become partner in the leading law firm in New York but she also wants to be there for her spouse who was recently diagnosed with a potentially deadly disease. Unfortunately, she can’t do both.

b. Conflict between one character and another

There’s goal centered conflict where the protagonist and antagonist each want the same thing but only one of them can have it. If Indiana Jones brings the Ark back to America then Dr. René Belloq can’t bring it to Hitler, and vice versa. 

But there’s also conflict between ideals. Again drawing from Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones cared about the artifacts themselves while Belloq was only interested in what the artifact could do for him. (The same could be said regarding their views of people, especially Marion.)

c. Conflict between the protagonist’s allies

Strictly speaking this is a subdivision of (b), but it feels different enough to warrant it’s own point. As before, this conflict could be internal or external. 

Internal: For example, a personality conflict. One person is loud and likes telling off-color jokes while another despises off-color jokes and just wants quiet so they could, I don’t know, read, sleep, write or merely hear oneself think. (Not, of course, that I’ve ever been in that situation personally. Of course not.)

External: Not all of the merry band of adventurers have the same goal. for example, in The Matrix, Cypher regrets taking the red pill and—far from wanting to destroy the matrix—wants to reenter it.

Again, I urge you to read CW’s article, “The Keys to a Great Opening Scene.”

Looks like I’m going to have to pick this up on Monday! Next time I’ll explore the pros and cons of beginning a story with a trailer or prologue.

Update: Here is an index to the posts in this series:

- Story Openings: Five Choices (the current post)
- Story Openings: Throwing Trouble at the Protagonist
- Story Openings: Tags and Traits: Bringing Characters to Life
- Story Openings: Tags, Traits and Tropes
- Story Openings: The Power of Paradox (upcoming)

Notes:


1. I want to share something with you that made me chuckle. Science Fiction and Fantasy author Tim Powers recently said:

“[...] you go to Wikipedia for some virtuous reason, because you need to find out about something. Except there’s those words in blue and you click on those and oh gee what is that, and pretty soon you’re eight levels in and you can’t find your way back to the page you started out wanting to look at. And then there’s a little sidebar that says ‘two-headed dog,’ and you think, well, jeez, what the hell’s that.

“And then if anything leads you to YouTube, you’ve had it.”

That’s from Mitch Wagner’s interview with Tim Powers: Interview With a Secret Historian. It’s a great read. Thanks to +Andy Goldman for recommending it.

Photo credit: "spence" by greg westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, September 13

Using Tarot Cards To Tell A Story

Using Tarot Cards To Tell A Story


I thought I'd write about something a bit different today.

Years ago, an acquaintance told me she thought numbers had meaning. Although I didn't share her belief, I was intrigued. Next, she told me the meaning of numbers told a story.

A story! That did interest me and I scooted to the edge of my seat.

She laughed and told me the story and, though it was interesting and I promised myself I'd remember, I promptly forgot it.

Well.

This morning I went shopping with a friend who bought a deck of tarot cards. Later, while she was making coffee and puttering around her kitchen, I picked up the tarot cards and flipped through the major arcana, starting with The Magician.

At that moment my friend's story came back to me and I realized something. The meaning of the numbers from one to ten seemed to be a close analogy for something else: The hero's journey.

I'll lay out my reasoning below, do tell me what you think in the comments.

(Please keep in mind I'm not claiming numbers have meaning; in fact, I don't think they do. What interested me was the similarity of the one story to the other.)

The Hero And The Fool


1. The Unaccomplished, Unrealized, Hero


Number 1: The thing itself without division or differentiation of any kind. Pure, raw, potential. (By the way, all my information about the meaning of numbers was drawn from the links on this page over at aeclectic.net.)

This is from at aeclectic.net.:
"... the Magician implies that the primal forces of creativity are yours if you can claim your power and act with awareness and concentration."

Hero's Journey: The Hero in the Ordinary World


The hero in the ordinary world is at the beginning of his journey. He hasn't yet claimed his power and does not act with awareness.

The hero is untried, untested; a diamond in the rough.

The hero has the capacity for great bravery, for acts of courage, but none of that has manifested yet. One day he may be able to slay dragons but that day is not today.

2. The Hero Starts His Journey


Number 2: Duality. Division. Instinctual knowledge. The energy of (1) gets direction.

Hero's Journey: The Call to Adventure

In this second stage what was metaphorical becomes literal. The hero literally gets a new direction with the call to adventure.

For example, Indiana Jones is asked to find the ark of the covenant (Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark), Joan Wilder must ransom her sister (Romancing the Stone), Frodo must destroy a ring of power (The Lord of the Rings).

As with the biblical story of Jonah, our hero may refuse the Call to Adventure at first, but, eventually, something will happen (in Jonah's case, being swallowed by a whale and stewing in gastric juices for a few days) to change his mind.

3. The Hero Enters the Special World


Number 3: The number three brings balance to the two opposites. One can also think of 3 as the child of 1 and 2; in this sense, 3 can be thought of as having been birthed by them. It is a newborn that needs nursing, developing.

Hero's Journey: Entering The Special World


Christopher Vogler, in his wonderful book, The Writer's Journey, puts it this way,
"It [the Special World] is a new and sometimes frightening experience for the hero. No matter how many schools he has been through, he's a freshman all over again in this new world."
Vogler also notes that "the Special World should strike a sharp contrast the the Ordinary World."

So here we have the hero entering a new situation, a new world, with different rules. It is completely unfamiliar. What used to be his strengths in the Ordinary World are weaknesses here and what were weaknesses are now strengths (think Alice in Wonderland).

To sum up: the hero enters a new world that is completely different.

4. The Hero Trains, Becomes Something New


Number 4: If the number 3 is a new thing then the number 4 is the new thing matured. It can be successful, or not. The number 4 is about maintaining what has been created, about building a strong structure.

Hero's Journey: The Hero Finds His Footing.


The hero finds her legs in the new world, she learns how things are, is tested, finds some allies and makes more than a few enemies. Through her journeys, her trials and tribulations, she starts to grow into her own.

5. The Ordeal: The Hero Confronts His Nemesis And Loses Something


Number 5: Something is lost. This could be momentum, love, money, friendship, whatever, but something that was gained in (4) is lost. Also, though, one becomes stronger because of the ordeal.

The hero goes through the trial (usually) victorious. He loses something, but he is made stronger.

The is part of the wikipedia entry for The Hierophant:
"The negative aspect of The Hierophant is well illustrated by the myth of Procrustes. Procrustes was a man (or a monster) living in the mountains of Greece. He invited weary travelers into his home, washed the dust off their feet, provided a meal, and let them lie on his bed. If they were too big for his bed, he cut them to size. If they were too small, he stretched them to fit. At last, Theseus came through the mountains and accepted Procrustes’s seemingly kind offer. When Procrustes tried to cut him to fit, Theseus killed him, making the road safe. In this way, the Hierophant is like Freud’s superego. It shapes us, sometimes brutally. This shaping is necessary for us to become who we are." (Wikipedia)
I would add that not only the shaping, but rebelling against the shaping, is what brings us into our own. It is the fight against the monster that makes us, as the saying goes, "come into our power".

If the hero never fights the monster, never engages it, the hero will never realize his full potential.

Or something like that! (grin)

So here we have a confrontation, like what happens between the protagonist and the antagonist midway through a story, what Vogler calls the Ordeal. Because of the battle something is lost (in the case of Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark it was Indiana's freedom) and something is gained (he gets his lady love, Miriam, back).

(In the tale of Procrustes the Pitiless, although Theseus doesn't lose anything, many of Procrustes's other 'guests' do.)

Okay, that's it for today. I'll go through stages 6 through 10 on Monday.

#  #  #

Personally, I don't put any stock in numerology or the tarot, but I love stories and it seems to me that the cards of, for instance, the Rider-Waite tarot deck, tell a story. Also, I'm intrigued by the possibility they could be used to help us create our own stories.

In any case, since this blog is about anything and everything to do with story--anything that will help us create better, more inventive ones--I thought I'd share!

Good writing, see you Monday. Cheers!

Photo credit: "RWS Tarot 00 Fool.jpg" by Pamela Coleman Smith (published 1909) via Wikipeida.org. This image is not under copyright in the US.

Saturday, April 26

Parts of Story: Try-Fail Cycles



One of the most useful tools or techniques for writing engaging prose is the try-fail cycle. The try-fail cycle lies at the heart of how to unfold a conflict in such a way that it generates suspense.

The nuts and bolts of the try-fail cycle.


For every conflict that comes up, a question can be asked: Will our hero succeed? There are four possible answers:

1) Yes
2) Yes, BUT
3) No
4) No, AND

Let's look at each of these.

1. Yes.


Although in real life we love it when we get what we want, this is boring for others. When families get together at Christmas what's the gossip about? It's all about who got divorced, who lost their job. It's about the bad things--or at least the sad things--that have happened to the people in our lives.

Being told that, yes, the hero will succeed won't generate conflict. It's not interesting. 

Imagine someone told you the following story:

Bob woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Bob promptly got up and took himself over to the nearest waffle house and ate a hot, flaky, buttery, waffle. The End.

Boring.

Even if we give Bob some motivation, it still doesn't help matters:

Bob's wife, Cindy, woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Cindy was seven months pregnant and hadn't had any appetite for the last three days. Her doctor was worried. When Cindy woke up wanting waffles Bob was overjoyed. "You wait right here," he said, "I'll get you a stack of the fluffiest, most mouth watering, waffles you've ever had. Be right back." 

Bob jumped in his car, got the waffles, and gave them to his wife. She scarfed them down in no time and everyone was happy. The End.

See? Still boring.

I won't write it out, but what if we gave Bob a few obstacles? What if Bob jumped in his car and it wouldn't start? He investigates and discovers his battery is dead. Bob heads over to the neighbor's house hoping he'll help jump start his car but his neighbor isn't home.

Bob peers through the neighbor's window hoping the man just fell asleep on the couch. Instead of seeing his neighbor--an ancient relic who shuffles about, his underwear sagging dangerously--he sees an attractive young woman he doesn't recognize. She's moving around the living room putting valuables into a sack. His neighbour is being robbed!

Bob tries to call the police on his cell but can't get a signal. He wonders if he should bang on the window or say something to the intruder to scare her off. As Bob peers through the window wondering what he should do the woman turns and sees him. She screams something at him he doesn't understand (it's muffled by the glass), pulls a gun from her pocket and points it at him.

Bob, a spike of fear raising goosebumps along his arms ...

And so on.

That's not as boring. I might be able to do something with that. And it's all because we didn't give the hero what he wanted.

2. Yes, BUT ...


As we've seen, a hero needs setbacks because if what he desires were handed to him that would be dull.
With "Yes, BUT" we give the hero something he wanted but introduce a complication. For instance, in my story, Bob's goal was to drive to the waffle house and buy his wife some waffles. Is Bob able to get into his car? Yes! BUT his battery is dead. That's the complication. 

By setting up goals and obstacles and making Bob hop from one to the other, getting in more trouble each time he fails, the story becomes more interesting. Why? Because character is revealed through adversity.

3. No.


For fictional characters, answering the question, "Will the hero get what he desires?" with "No" is almost as bad as answering it with, "Yes." We don't want to see our heroes fail. We want to see them triumph over adversity, or at least make some progress toward triumphing. Imagine this scenario:

Bob woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Bob tried to drive to a waffle house but his car wouldn't start. Dejected and waffle-less, Bob climbed back into bed. The End.

Not interesting.

4. No, AND ...


This is very common. Not only doesn't the protagonist achieve what he set out to but another complication is thrown in his path. We saw it above. The question is: will he get a jump start from his neighbour? The answer: No, AND he has a gun pointed at him.
I'll talk more about this in a minute.

Conflicts & Setbacks


Your main character has goals, he wants things. But if he got everything he wanted right away then your story would be as entertaining as watching paint dry. The solution: be mean. Give your main character setbacks, lots of them. 

In Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones goes on a quest to find and bring back the lost Ark of the Covenant. About halfway through the movie he finds the ark but is captured and, along with Marion, sealed inside an ancient burial vault and left to die.

What follows is one of the best sequences of conflicts and setbacks I've come across. Let's start after Indy finds the ark. 

Question: Does Indy find the ark?
Answer: Yes.
Complication: BUT Indy is captured, thrown into a pit of snakes, and the antagonist takes the ark.

Remember that it has been established early on in the movie that Indiana hates snakes. Spiders and all manner of creepy-crawlies he's fine with, just don't bring him near a snake! (And, yes, I know that there's no logical reason why there would be that many snakes in an ancient burial vault, but the scene still works.)

Question: Do Indy and Marion survive the pit of snakes? 
Answer: Yes, they use torches to keep the snakes at bay.
Complication: BUT the torches are about to burn out.

Question: Do Indy and Marion escape the pit of snakes before their torches burn out?
Answer: Yes, Indy crashes a pillar through a wall providing them an escape.
Complication: BUT the room they enter is filled with skeletons that seem to come alive.

Question: Will Indy and Marion escape the ancient burial vault they've been entombed in?
Answer: Yes.
Complication: BUT the bad guys have the ark and Indy needs to get it back.

Notice that after every goal Indy achieves there is a setback.

Another fabulous sequence in the first Indiana Jones movie occurs a little after the midpoint when Indy decides he and Marion need to get on the plane that the German's will be using to fly the ark out of the country. 

Indy fails in the end (the plane blows up) but the sequence of goals and conflicts create a memorable scene. Let's take a look.

Question: Will Indy commandeer the plane?
Answer: No.
Complication: AND Indy is spotted crawling up the plane, toward the pilot.

Question: Indy and a bad guy fight. Will Indy win?
Answer: Yes.
Complication: BUT a much bigger man starts a fight with Indy (AND the pilot sees indy and knows he's trying to commandeer the plane).

Question: The pilot starts to take pot shots at Indy. Will Indy escape being hit?
Answer: Yes, Indy dodges the pilot's bullets.
Complication: BUT the pilot keeps shooting. 

Question: Indy is fighting a huge bad guy. It looks like he has no chance of winning. Will Indy, against all odds, win the fight against the Man-Mountain? 
Answer: No, Indy is not going to win a fist-fight with the Man-Mountain.
Complication: AND the pilot is still shooting at him.

Question: The pilot takes aim at Indy, from this angle he can't miss. Will Indy survive?
Answer: Yes, indy survives. Marion hits the pilot over the head and knocks him unconscious.
Complication: BUT as the pilot slumps over in the cockpit he hits some levers and starts the plane rolling forward while Indy fights the Man-Mountain on the ground below.

Question: Marion climbs into the cockpit to remove the pilot and stop the plane from moving. Does she succeed?
Answer: No.
Complication: AND Marion gets locked inside the cockpit.

You get the idea. The entire scene is well worth watching.

One thing I want to point out before I leave this chapter is that the stakes for our hero gradually escalate throughout the scene. At first Indy just wants to board the plane, then he gets into a fist fight, then there's an impossibly huge guy he has to fight, then someone starts shooting at him, then the plane begins to move, then there's a truckload of German soldiers who see him, then Marion explodes gasoline containers, then there's gasoline on the ground running toward the fire.

At the end of the scene an ocean of gasoline is rushing toward the burning remains of the gas canisters while the Man-Mountain continues to beat Indy to a pulp and, of course, the whole camp has noticed the gasoline barrels explode and is rushing to investigate. It's quite something.

Try-Fail cycles are present in every story. The next time you read a book or watch one of your favorite TV shows, look for the try-fail cycles.

Monday, September 12

Short Stories And Their Structure

Short Stories And Their Structure

Do you ever re-read your old blog posts? That's what I've been doing (and, inexplicably, I've been doing it while re-watching Dr. Who). I just finished reading—or, rather, rereading, "Short Story Structures: Several Ways of Structuring Short Fiction." It seems like I wrote that an age ago, but it's only (only!) been four years. And, believe it or not, I remember writing that post like it was yesterday.

In the years since, I've written many short stories—though I must confess these days I write more nonfiction than fiction. Still, though, I have formed a more definite idea of what the structure of a short story is. That said, I believe these things can be idiosyncratic. The kind of short story structure that appeals to me, that fits my writing style like a glove, that feels right or comfortable, might not be the one that feels natural to you. And that's fine. That's great! Take what feels right to you, what makes sense to you, and change or ignore the rest.

So, for what it's worth, here's what I currently think of as the archetypal short story structure. (It is very close to Sarah A. Hoyt's story structure, the one she outlined in her post: The Structure of A Short Story).

1) In the first couple of lines introduce your audience to the most startling interesting/puzzling/desperate thing about your main character's immediate situation.


In a full length novel we have more time to introduce the protagonist and her situation, but when we have only 1,000 words the story structure becomes condensed and every word counts.

Let's look at a few examples of terrific openers for short stories.

a) Stephen King, "Autopsy Room Four"


"It's so dark that for a while—just how long I don't know—I think I'm still unconscious. Then, slowly, it comes to me that unconscious people don't have a sensation of movement through the dark, accompanied by a faint, rhythmic sound that can only be a squeaky wheel."

b) Ernest Hemingway, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"


"It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened."

c) Raymond King Commings, "The World Beyond"


"The old woman was dying. There could be no doubt of it now."

d) Stephen King, "The Monkey"


"When Hal Shellburn saw it, when his son Dennis pulled it out of a mouldering Ralston-Purina carton that had been pushed far back under one attic eave, such a feeling of horror and dismay rose in him that for one moment he thought he surely must scream."

2) In the remainder of the first paragraph give your readers a good idea of your character's problem. At the same time, flesh out the setting and your protagonist's character.


If you're thinking that's a tall order, you're right. But short stories have to get moving quickly. The character's problem is the story hook. I think of this as the engine of the story, as what propels the events of the story forward.

Here's an example from Stephen King's "Autopsy Room Four" (I promise it doesn't include any grisly bits!) King writes:

And I can feel contact, from the top of my head to the balls of my heels. I can smell something that might be rubber or vinyl. This is not unconsciousness, and there is something too ... too what? Too rational about these sensations for it to be a dream.
Then what is it?
Who am I?
And what's happening to me?
The squeaky wheel quits its stupid rhythm and I stop moving. There is a crackle around me from the rubbersmelling stuff.
A voice: "Which one did they say?"
A pause.
Second voice: "Four, I think. Yeah, four."

What is the character's problem? The protagonist of our story is not dead and yet he is being wheeled into an autopsy room. We understand the protagonist's problem—he's not dead, but if something doesn't happen to prevent the autopsy he will be soon. That's a grizzly, and immediate, problem!

3) From the first paragraph up to Act Two. Develop the character's Ordinary World, specifically The Problem the protagonist is enmeshed in. (25%)


In a full length book, and in some longer short stories, the problem you develop in the first quarter of the story isn't the protagonist's main problem. The main problem, I'll call this the Story Problem, is introduced after the precursor problem is wrapped up (This wrapping up will require a few try-fail cycles).

On the other hand, in a short story of under 2,000 words or so I think it's best to give the protagonist the same goal throughout.

Story Goal: The goal the protagonist pursues from Act Two on.
Story Problem: What is keeping the protagonist from achieving the Story Goal.

Around the quarter mark of the story everything changes. If the protagonist had a preliminary goal, she now realizes that the forces which were keeping her from fulfilling that goal weren't what she thought they were. Now the protagonist adopts the Story Goal, acknowledges the Story Problem and enters the Special World of the adventure. From now to the end solving the Story Problem will be her focus.

4) Have the protagonist try to solve the Story Problem and fail. (25 to 50%)


I know it's a movie and not a short story, and I know I should probably update my movie references, but this movie is my all-time-favorite action-adventure story. Yes, I'm talking about Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark. That movie had terrific try-fail cycles. Indiana Jones has acquired the headpiece of the Staff of Ra, the artifact he needed to discover the exact location of the Well of Souls—and now wants to appropriate the Ark.

(For more information about try-fail cycles: Try-Fail Cycles and the Gap.)

First the antagonist René Belloq steals the Ark and seals Indy and his love interest, Marion, into the Well of Souls. Of course the Well is teeming with snakes (Indy hates snakes). Indy uses his torch to keep the snakes at bay, but the torches are burning down. Then Indiana realizes he could use one of the giant statues to knock down a wall and escape the snakes. But the next room is filled with skeletons. And so on. It's a terrific sequence!

That's the idea. Put the protagonist and those she loves in dire peril, have them grasp at straws trying to get themselves out of the fix. Your characters don't have time to think, they're reacting, going on instinct, and in that pressure cooker of adversity their character is revealed.

5) The middle of the story marks a sea-change in the protagonist. She switches from passive to active, from ignorance to knowledge. (50%)


I used to characterize the middle of the story primarily as the place where a showdown occurs between the antagonist and protagonist. And this often does happen.

But over the years I've come to view the midpoint as the place where the hero's view of the world—both the Special World of the adventure and the Ordinary World—changes. This change is permanent. There's no going back. The information, the knowledge, she acquires at the midpoint indelibly marks her. As a result it changes the story. It twists the plot.

Also, often this change takes place as a result of confronting the antagonist, the Big Bad, of the story. The antagonist gloats, boasts, to the protagonist. He lets her know just how impossible reaching her goal is. Perhaps he laughs at her, letting her know he thinks her attempts to effect change are pathetic.

The protagonist now understands that, despite all her planning, she can't achieve her goal, at least not the way she was approaching things. What she thought she knew about the world, about her opponent, was deeply flawed.

The situation looks impossible. Still, though, the hero gets away with her life, so that's something. (Although sometimes one of her allies, possibly her helper or her mentor gives up their life for her escape.)

(List of archetypes: Archetypal Characters.)

Perhaps the hero's allies help the protagonist pick up the pieces. Or perhaps, briefly, the protagonist gives up hope. Sometimes it takes the intervention—and possibly death—of one of the hero's allies to get her to take up the fight again.

6) The hero forms a plan. (60%)


Having regained her will to fight, the hero forms a cunning plan. Of course, as we will see, this plan goes disastrously wrong! But she will adapt with the help of her allies.

7) Three trials culminating in the Dark Night of the Soul (65% to 90%)


As I've said, everyone has their own way of thinking of these things, but to my mind the middle of the third act—here I'm thinking in terms of four acts—contains three events, each of them a major setback to the hero's plans, and each one more devastating than the last. The final setback is known as the Dark Night of the Soul and it completely scuttles the hero's plan.

This is the lowest part of the story. It seems impossible the hero could win. In terms of stakes, we knew all along what would happen if the hero failed, but now we discover that things are so much worse than we'd previously thought. Not only is the hero beaten, they are (apparently) obliterated.

Note: If you're writing a short story of less than 2000 words you might want to collapse these three events into one.

The Dark Night of the Soul generally comes before the hero's 'ah-ha' moment. There's something she realizes and this allows her to change her perspective. Her worldview shifts. She sees a possibility, a way out. It's a slim chance, but at this point in the story she has given up everything. The worst has happened, or at least been set in motion. She has one—exceedingly improbable—chance to save things.

And, of course, it's up to you, the writer, to determine whether she does in fact pull it off.

8) Climax and resolution.


The protagonist confronts the antagonist. Perhaps at first the antagonist is disdainful. He feels he has thoroughly beaten the protagonist and she no longer presents an interesting challenge.

Then the the protagonist draws on the lessons she has leant in the Special World, on her new skills. This gives her a fighting chance. But, as I said, it's your story. Does she win? Does she beat the antagonist and achieve the Story Goal? Or does she fall victim? Perhaps, in the end, she chooses to sacrifice herself for what she sees as a greater good.

The thing to keep in mind is that the climax, although it is a confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, is all about their opposing goals. The question is: will the protagonist achieve her goal?

The antagonist generally wants the same thing as the protagonist, but the two work at cross purposes. For example, both Indiana Jones and Dr. René Belloq wanted the ark but they wanted to do vastly different things with it. Indiana Jones wanted to take it back to the States and put it in a museum where scholars could study it while Belloq wanted to give the ark to Hitler in exchange for wealth and power.

9) Aftermath.


One doesn't have to spend a lot of time on this part, but I think it's important to show the aftereffects of the protagonist's confrontation with the antagonist. Show the hero back in the Ordinary World (if she survives the climax). How has her life and the lives of her allies, the lives of those in her tribe, changed because of her journey, her struggle?

That's it!

Other articles you might like:

A Story Structure In Three Acts
How To Write A Horror Story
Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts

Friday, April 12

What Slush Pile Readers Look For In A Story

What Slush Pile Readers Look For In A Story

Yesterday I read a fascinating article written by Ferrett Steinmetz, an accomplished author and slush pile reader, about what he looks for in a story.


Slush Pile Readers Want To Love Your Story


Some of what Steinmetz wrote surprised me. For instance, that readers of slush want to fall in love with your story. He writes:
As we lay our eyes upon the first sentence of your epic tale, we are filled with the hope that you—yes, you!—will win the Nebula for this very story.

What you as a writer must understand is that our Hope-O-Meter starts topped off—but as we encounter each bit of bad writing in your story, our Hope-O-Meter drops.
There are many things that can cause a slush pile reader's Hope-O-Meter to drop but it all comes down to this: The reader doesn't care about what's happening.
Steinmetz writes that this lack of caring usually comes from one of three things:
  • Who is this character we’re expected to follow along until the end of the story?
  • What is s/he doing, and why is s/he doing it?
  • Why should we care about this particular action?
If we don’t know all three of those soon, then generally speaking we’re going to lose interest.  (Great writers can break any rule, of course… but if you’re a great writer, then why are you still in our slush pile?)

The Secret: How To Get Your Short Story Accepted


Steinmetz writes:
So what you’re doubtlessly asking by now is, “How can I keep that Hope-O-Meter filled all the way up?”  And the answer is, “Get me to care about your characters, quickly and efficiently.”
And now for the 64 million dollar question: HOW does a writer get a reader to care about their characters?

Steinmetz's answer:
A writer gets a reader to care about their characters by answering the right questions.
To illustrate this, Steinmetz gives examples from actual slush that didn't make it:


1. Who is your protagonist?

Jason’s hand trembled as he crouched in the bush and aimed at the slaver on the rooftop. The slavers had come to Juniper County to put anyone they could find in shackles, so now Jason had no choice: he had to shoot.

The slaver turned, his eyes going wide as he saw Jason. Jason pulled the trigger; the slaver’s head burst open.

Swallowing back nausea, terrified that someone had heard, he ran for cover…
The flaw here, Steinmetz writes, is that we don't know who Jason is.

- If slavers came to their home town, most people would shoot at them, so this doesn't tell us a whole lot about Jason.
- Jason is nauseous and nervous so that might indicate he's inexperienced but it could also just be that he's afraid of being caught.

What we needed to know about Jason:
a. Who or what he is fighting for. Does he have a family that he's trying to protect? (This covers two things: character and motivation.)

b. How experienced of a fighter is he? Is he an able hunter or a clueless accountant?

c. What are his ultimate goals? Does he want to escape the town? Drive the invaders out? Rescue his family? His friends?
Further, the reader needs to know the answer to these three questions in the first three paragraphs.


2. What is your protagonist's goal?


Here's an example of a passage that nails the "who" but falls short when it comes to "what":
At six o’clock on the dot, Damien clicked off his computer and stacked his unfinished paperwork neatly in his in-tray. The desk had become untidy over the course of the day, so he lined everything up geometrically; the desk blotter perfectly parallel with the keyboard, the monitor at a forty-five degree angle.

He made his way to the elevator, observing a spot on his shiny leather shoes. He unfolded a handkerchief to buff it clean, then pressed the exact center of the button that marked the first floor.

When the elevator arrived, Damien spritzed the air with a small can of perfume, trying to neutralize the odors of stale BO and farts pent up within
Here we know the kind of person Damien is, but we don't know what motivates him and we don't know what his ultimate goal is. Steinmetz writes:
Note how this opening has no real indicators of Damien’s wants or needs, aside from a clean shoe and a fart-free elevator.  It’s a kind of weak characterization, because it does tell us what his immediate needs are without letting us know what his goals are.

However, if we know that Damien is leaving work to go to a pick-up bar to try and get a girl, then suddenly all of these mundane details take on personal shape; he’s buffing his shoes so he’ll look good, he’s spraying the elevator to avoid smelling bad for his partner.

Or, if we know he’s going to visit his dying mother in the hospital, the rituals take on an air of desperation; his mother’s illness is out of his control, but he can control his own personal space.

3. What makes the protagonist interesting?


Here's an example of a passage with bland characters:
Beatrice stirred her soup in time to the rhythm of her husband chopping wood outside. Her cousin Jack took over stirring as she went into the bedroom to check in on Cindy. As Beatrice picked her daughter up, she wriggled and grinned.
Steinmetz writes:
In this case, you have four characters in the first paragraph, none of them doing anything that makes them memorable.  Anyone can chop wood, if they need to.  Anyone can stir soup or check on a baby.
We want our protagonists to be interesting. If they're not interesting then they're boring and who wants to read about a boring character? Steinmetz writes:
Interesting characters do things that no one else would do in their circumstance; that’s why you remember them.
Also, a writer needs to make each of their characters interesting and memorable but in different ways. Otherwise characters blend into one another.


4. What is the story goal?


Usually the story goal(/story question) is the same as the protagonist's external goal.

For example, in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones' goal was to find the ark and bring it back to the university for further research and study. That was also the story question: Will Indiana Jones find the ark and bring it back to the university museum before Dr. Rene Belloq and the Nazis snatch it from him and use it to swing the tide of war their way?

However, the protagonist's goal isn't always so closely linked to the story question.

For example, in Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke's goal is to destroy the death star and thereby save the rebel alliance. However the overarching story goal is to destroy the empire. Even when Luke succeeds in destroying the death star the empire is far from beaten since the emperor is still alive.

Steinmetz holds that it's important for readers to know both what the protagonist's goal is, and what the story question is (if they're different), from the beginning.

Here's an example of an opener where the story goal is withheld:
The work will take three months, and if done poorly, risks fatally poisoning you,” Nellie explained to the scent-engineer. “So I need to make sure your skills are up to speed.” She tightbeamed a spec over to his PDA; he whistled.

This is quite an unusual request,” murmured Paco. “Even if you granted me full access to your family’s pheromone farms, I’m not sure it could be done.” He nodded, contemplating the request. “But if so, I’m the only man who can do it.”

That’s the attitude I’m looking for,” she said, reaching out to clasp hands and seal the bio-contract.
Steinmetz writes:
A lot of writers, for some reason, think it’s more interesting to conceal the central premise of their story and then reveal it later on.  At some point around page five or six, we’re going to finally have the Big Reveal that what Nellie is looking for is an Enslavement Pheromone to turn humans into mindless ant-drones.  Mwoo hah hah!

Unfortunately, the irritation of leaving your reader in the dark is almost never as cool as your actual central concept.

5. Don't include too much description


I know, that's not a question, but Ferrett Steinmetz makes an excellent point:
[I]f a story started with, “The tendril-fields were wet and pulsing, the rose-pink tentacles reaching up to grab at the spine-birds that flew overhead,” then fine, I’d be like, that’s amazingTell me more. But generic descriptions of landscape are a pace-killer.

6. Show don't tell


Steinmetz writes:
Thing is, there’s a big difference between “he’s insane” and “he thinks bugs crawl into his ear whenever he talks on his cell phone.”  There’s a big difference between “He’s in love” and “Every time he fills up at the gas station, he buys a single flower for his wife and leaves it on her pillow.”  There’s a big difference between “exhilaration” and “The story you spent three months agonizing over just found a home at Shimmer.”

Stories are about concrete details.  If you write about emotions as though they’re just these abstracted principles, then your story lacks all power.  When you write about characters feeling stuff, get as gritty as you can; it’ll make them more unique and pay off, and it won’t make us slush editors go, “Oh, yes, another story written by a madman who doesn’t actually sound all that insane.”
Great examples and excellent advice. The epitome of something simple to understand but not easily done.

I encourage you to read the rest of Steinmetz's essay here: Confessions of a Slush Reader: Why Should I care?

Other articles you might like:

- Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge: Choose Your Opening Line
- Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction
- Alexa.com: Find Out How Much Traffic Your Blog Gets

Photo credit: "recession" by Robert S. Donovan under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.