Monday, November 18

Dan Wells' Seven Point Story Structure: The Second Plot Turn And Pinch Points

Dan Wells' Seven Point Story Structure: The Second Plot Turn And Pinch Points

This post continues my series on story structure. Here are links to the earlier posts:

The First Plot Point/The First Plot Turn (25%)

Whatever you call it, the events at the end of the first quarter of the story prepare the reader for the events at the midpoint.

In the hero's journey, this--the first plot turn--is the place where the hero enters the Special World, it's where he crosses the first threshold.

Two things happen:

a. The hero accepts the quest, and
b. The hero is locked into the quest.

Let's take these one at a time.

a. The hero accepts the quest

This doesn't have to happen at exactly the 25% mark, it can happen at any time in the first act. But it needs to be clear that the hero is entering the Special World of Act Two of their own free will. It must be the hero's choice. 

This acceptance doesn't have to be long and involved. It can be a subtle as a head nod. But the hero must intentionally take up the quest. It's a choice. 

Even if the villain is blackmailing her by threatening all she holds dear, still, the hero has to be shown accepting the quest. She sees the dangers, she knows what taking up this quest could cost her--she knows the stakes--yet she accepts. She commits herself to a course of action.

b. The hero is locked into the adventure

Something happens to "lock in" the hero. For example, at the 25% mark, at the tail end of Act One, Neo (The Matrix) is presented with a choice between the red pill and the blue pill. If he takes the blue pill he'll go back to his regular life, his ordinary existence. He will turn aside from the Special World of the adventure. 

If, on the other hand, Neo takes the red pill then his life will be irreversibly transformed as he is ushered into the true world, the world of the adventure, the world where the scales will, finally, be removed from his eyes and he will, at long last, discover the answer to the question: What is The Matrix?

I think The Matrix is one of the clearest examples of the hero being locked in to their quest, but once you start looking for it you'll see it in practically every movie you watch. 

The Second Plot Turn (75% to 95%)

I think of the second point turn as the third act twist

Here's how Dan Wells explains it: At the midpoint, the hero resolved to do something. At the resolution/climax the hero does what he resolved to do. This point, the second plot turn, is where the hero gets the last piece of the puzzle to finish the quest.

The hero realizes "he has the power" or "the power is within him" or some such variant. 

As Dan Wells says, when you see this sentiment in an outline, or just say it aloud, the concept seems cornball to the extreme, but it's powerful; that's why it's used so often. That said, Dan Wells reassures us that all genre novel outlines sound a bit silly, so don't let that hold you back.

In The Matrix Trinity tells Neo "I love you. Now get up!" He gets up  and wipes the floor with the agents of the matrix. Why? Because he's the one. He has the power within him.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Harry is the boy who lived. He's the boy who could find the philosopher's stone because he was pure of heart. He didn't want to use the stone, only to find it. He had the ability/power within him.

In Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke is told to use the force, that the power is within him.

Pinch Points

Pinch points add zest to your story and help keep it on track. 

Pinch points are where we see, first-hand, the antagonistic force and the dastardly things it is capable of. Pinch points apply pressure on the hero. They remind us of the central conflict of the story. They help push the hero into action.

There are two pinch points. The first is halfway through the first part of the second act and the second is positioned halfway through the second part of the second act. (see: Using Pinch Points To Increase Narrative Drive. That article contains an illustration of where pinch points fall in the three act structure.)

Note: Though both pinch points have the same function, since the stakes are constantly increasing, your second pinch point is going to give the hero a 'pinch' that's more like a punch.

If you use a three act structure in your stories then you'll know that the middle of the Second Act can seem to stretch out before you like the great swampy middle of despair. Pinch points can go a long way to keeping the story on track and reminding your readers what it's all about, who the big bad is, and what the hero is fighting for.

Examples of pinch points

These examples are courtesy of Dan Wells:

Loss of mentor

For instance, Gandalf's apparent death in The Fellowship of the Ring. I re-watched this movie last night; "You ... shall not ... pass!" and then: "Run you fools!" Fabulous scene. 
This was a vivid pinch point. It showed us the power of the Dark by way of the formidable beasts of power which lived it in its depths. If a beast of the depths could claim the most powerful of them, Gandalf, then what chance did the rest of the fellowship have? A great way of showing the reader/watcher the strength of the opposition.

Loss of everything

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone the second pinch is a sequence of events. It begins when the hero, Harry, and his two friends, Ron and  Hermione, go into the dungeon and are presented with a series of trials. The last trial takes Ron and Hermione away and Harry is forced to continue on, alone.

*  *  *  *

That's it! Or at least, that's the nuts and bolts of Dan Wells' 7-point system. He has a lot more to say in the videos, especially about how this system applies to romance stories. And a lot, lot, more. Highly recommended.

Till next time!

Photo credit: "beaver moon" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, November 15

How To Evoke Emotion In Readers: The Focal Character

How To Evoke Emotion In Readers: The Focal Character

Today I'm going to talk about focal characters. I'm doing this because I want to examine how a focal character can be used to evoke reader identification and, therefore, emotion. The concept of the focal character is fundamental for a number of others--scenes and sequels for example--so I'm giving it a post of it's own.

My purpose here is to explore tricks and tips--methods--we as writers can self-consciously use to craft characters, strong vivid interesting characters, that will 'hook into' our readers emotions.

This post continues my exploration of Dwight V. Swain's marvellous book The Techniques of the Selling Writer

What do we want our stories to do?

We wish to manipulate the emotions of readers through our stories.

Sounds cold-blooded, doesn't it? But think of it this way. You go to a horror movie. What would happen if you weren't scared? You wouldn't give the movie a good review--or at least I wouldn't. 

What if you saw a romance movie and never felt the pang of love lost? Or an adventure movie and never once found yourself on the edge of your seat, breathless, wondering how the hero would get out of the fix he'd found himself in?

Given this--given that stories are all about the evocation and manipulation of emotion--the question for writers is: how does one evoke and manipulate emotion?

Answer: through characters. Specifically, one manipulates the emotions of our readers through manipulating the circumstances of our focal character.

So, really, what we need to know is how to create a focal character that has the capacity to evoke emotion in others. 

Evoking Emotion

As DS writes, "Feeling is a thing you build through manipulation of motivation and reaction."

(Note: For more information on motivation-reaction pairs see the post: How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion.)

1. Recognize that events by themselves lack meaning or emotion.

DS uses the example of a rainstorm. Let's say you're a farmer and your crops are languishing during a drought. In that case a rainstorm would be welcome. Ecstatically welcome.

On the other hand, imagine you're in light summer clothing and you've just paid a couple of hundred dollars to have your hair done. Also, you aren't wearing a coat or carrying an umbrella. Then it starts to rain. In this case the rainstorm would be most unwelcome.

The point is that events only begin to matter when they matter to someone. (And not just any someone. Your focal character. But we'll get to that in a minute.)

Instances/events have to be specific.

Take the example of the rainstorm. How much rain was there? Was it a drizzle or did the rain come down in a torrential downpour? What was the wind like? Strong? Weak? When did the rainstorm occur? Where? And so on.

Be specific. Added together all these details create the specific instance and bring the rainstorm to life, make it real.

You need a yardstick.

DS writes: 

"A thing matters only insofar as it relates to and affects and is judged by people. [...] We decide how significant a thing is by the way a particular somebody behaves when faced with a specific instance./In other words, a thing isn't just significant. It's significant to somebody."

Whether an event is perceived as good or bad depends on how your focal character reacts to it. 

The yardstick needs to be a character.

"The bombing raid is rated by whether we or our enemies are on the receiving end. [...] Chocolate bars are good, if I'm hungry; bad, if I'm trying to reduce; and so on."

Someone needs to feel, to think, to judge. This can only be a character.

Judgements are made with FEELING rather than LOGIC or REASON.

"Pure water is clear," is a fact. So is "the number two is even". Here's another one: The cat is on the mat.

Generally speaking, a fact matters to a person to the degree it affects them. If the fact affects them positively they'll feel positively about it ("Our company is giving out bonuses this year!") and vice versa. 

As Dwight Swain writes:

"Seven inches of rain in a night is a fact, so long as you merely see an item about it in the paper. Let it wash through your living room and ruin two thousand dollars' worth of furnishings, and it takes on true meaning and significance for you."

2. Your Focal Character is your reader's emotional compass.

I included the material, above, because it emphasizes the importance of feeling and judgement--of a yardstick--but all that has simply been to lead up to this discussion of the focal character. 

A story isn't about something out there in the external world, it's about the reactions of the characters you've created. It's about what happens to them and how they react to it.

Your story world is going to be filled with facts. These facts will only matter to your reader to the extent they effect someone, a character. The focal character.

A story concerns the focal character's reactions to what happens, to the facts and events of the story. A story is about "his feelings; his emotions; his impulses; his dreams; his ambitions; his clashing drives and inner conflicts."

How do you make the focal character care about what's going on within the story world you create? (And, by extension, make the reader care?)

You give the focal character a goal, and you spell out what forces oppose him/her reaching that goal. You also spell out the stakes; that is, what will happen if the focal character achieves his goal, as well as what will happen if he fails to achieve it. Further, when you're spelling out the stakes, focus on what the focal character would win or lose emotionally

Facts are just facts, we're interested in emotions. Feelings.

The three main functions of the focal character:

i. "To provide continuity."

However much time passes, or places visited, the focal character gives your story continuity. It unites its disparate elements into a unified whole.

ii. "To give meaning."

It is your focal character's reactions that will determine whether a reader sees a certain event, a certain happening, as important or inconsequential. 

DS writes:

"Meaning ... is always a conclusion you and I draw about something from the way a particular somebody behaves when faced with a specific instance." 

For example, The reader's "attitude toward the rainstorm we cited earlier will be determined by whether the rain helps or handicaps the focal character".

In Indiana Jones and Raider's of the Lost Ark we have a trailer scene where the focal character, Indiana Jones, struggles to win a dangerous prize. We see him save a man's life only to be betrayed. We see his prize, a golden statue, taken from him and his life unjustly endangered. And we see his vulnerability--his fear of snakes. 

This is the context in which we view Dr. Bellog taking the golden idol from Indy. Everything Indy did before this point gave that event its meaning and shaped/determined our reactions to it.

iii. "To create feeling."

The focal character creates feelings in your reader. DS writes, "The biggest single reason that a focal character exists is to evoke them [emotions]."

Here's how it works:

Your reader needs a focal character, someone to either approve or disapprove of. Without an emotional compass your reader will have no feeling either way--either that or they'll be confused.

Take away: Your reader exists within the story by identifying with your focal character. It is this identification that sucks him into the story world.

3. Focal Character versus Viewpoint Character

The focal character is not the viewpoint character. Further, the focal character need not be the hero/protagonist.

Viewpoint character:
"A viewpoint character is someone through whose eyes we see all or part of a story. In effect, we get inside his skin."

Focal Character:
"... the person around whom the yarn revolves ..."

The focal character "will be the central and most important character, because he's the one who determines your reader's [emotional] orientation."

For example, "Sherlock Holmes is a focal character; the viewpoint is Watson's. In Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade is the focal character .... the viewpoint, author-objective."

I'd say that in Bram Stoker's Dracula the viewpoint is first-person and floats between characters, depending on which journal or piece of correspondence is being read, but the focal character--the person whose story it is--is Dracula. 

Okay! So much for focal characters. The next post in this series will be on how to craft a scene your reader won't be able to put down. Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "Untitled" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, November 14

How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion

How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion
One of my favorite books on writing is Dwight V. Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer because there he discusses, in depth, how to construct characters that evoke emotion in readers. 

The following information is contained in chapter three of Mr. Swain's book, these are my notes. I'm sharing them with you because no one ever laid out the whys and wherefores of how to elicit emotion in readers the way Mr. Swain does here.

As I've said before and I'll no doubt say again, everyone's different. If what Mr. Swain says works for you, if it helps you, then great! Use it. If not, ignore it. Different strokes.

How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion

Dwight V. Swain writes,

"Feeling is a thing you build through manipulation of motivation and reaction."

Specifically, feeling is built through the manipulation of motivation-reaction units.

Motivation And Reaction Units

First off, what's a motivation and reaction unit? Before I--or, rather, Dwight V. Swain--lay it all out, let's look at an example:
"Now, with a roar, the red Jag picked up speed, careening recklessly as it hurtled down the drive and out into the highway. Stiff-lipped, Brad turned from the window and ground out his cigarette."
Not bad. There's definitely emotion there. I'd be interested in reading on. Let's sweep the curtain aside and look at how Mr. Swain did this.

First, though, some terminology.

The anatomy of a motivation-reaction unit:

1. Motivating stimulus
2. Character reaction
2.a: Feeling
2.b: Action
2.c: Speech

How to construct a motivation-reaction unit:

At it's simplest, a motivation-reaction unit consists of just two sentences. The first sentence contains the motivating stimulus and the second sentence contains your character's reaction.

So, for instance, in the above example:

Motivating stimulus:
"Now, with a roar, the red Jag picked up speed, careening recklessly as it hurtled down the drive and out into the highway."

Character reaction:
"Stiff-lipped, Brad turned from the window and ground out his cigarette."

How to write a motivation-reaction unit:

a. "Write a sentence without your character."
b. "Follow it with a sentence about your character."

Let's unpack that.

a. Write a sentence that doesn't mention your character.

The motivating sentence has nothing to do with how the character sees the world, it describes how the world is. Dwight V. Swain notes that this is important because, if you mention the character in the motivating sentence, that mention could be enough to turn what is supposed to be a motivation into a reaction.

b. Write a sentence about the character's reactions.

While the motivation sentence was about the world, the reaction sentence is about the character. "It describes how he behaves in consequence of the action that takes place" in the first sentence.

For instance, in DS's example:

Second sentence:
"Stiff-lipped, Brad turned from the window and ground out his cigarette."

Stiff-lipped --> indicates Brad's state of mind.
Grinds out his cigarette --> indicates Brad's state of mind.

Note: You don't have to limit yourself to one sentence. "Often two, or three, or even more sentences may be needed in order to present a given motivation or reaction with proper impact."

That said, if you're a beginning writer, Mr. Swain advises you to keep to one sentence each for motivation and reaction, at least until you feel you've gotten the hang of it.

Now let's look at the motivating stimulus and character response in more detail.

The motivating stimulus & character response

What is the motivating stimulus? It's "anything outside your character to which he reacts."

A good motivating stimulus will have great significance to your character, it will be pertinent to your story and it will be motive. That is, it will act to push the events in your story forward.

A good character reaction will show--or at least imply--the character's feeling, his action and his speech.

Why does this work? In a word context

To a "considerable degree, your readers will draw their conclusions as to the meaning of the focal character's reaction on the basis of context". In this case the context is "the stimulus or motivation that provokes it".

This works especially well if this reaction is in response to an "objectively written, non-introspective, physical reaction".

"Thus, a film editor may place a close-up of an actor's face directly after a shot of an actress lying dead in a coffin. Invariably, the audience will thereupon interpret the actor's expression, however blank, as one of grief."

So, if "you want a particular reaction pick a stimulus that will evoke it. A good external motivation makes your character's consequent behavior completely logical to your reader."

Two tips:
- Link motivation and reaction tightly.
- See each motivating stimulus as your character sees it. See it with her background, her attitudes, her dynamics and insights. THEN let her react in character.

That's it! I hope something about this discussion was helpful to you. This information represents only a fraction of what Dwight V. Swain writes about in chapter three of Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Photo credit: "Sunset Bliss..." by Vinoth Chandar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, November 12

Dan Wells' 7-Point Story Structure: The Midpoint

 Dan Wells' 7-Point Story Structure: The Midpoint

This post continues the series on Dan Well's 7-Point Story Structure (Introduction, The End & The Beginning).

You see a pattern here. First (as we discussed last time) we figure out how we want the story to end. Does the hero win the day? Lose big? Based on that, we start constructing our arc, how the hero changes over the course of the story. 

It's the same here. Knowing what happens at the midpoint helps us set up what's going to happen at the first plot turn. 

Story Arc

I talked a bit about this last time, but it bears repeating. I think that in writing there are no rules but one: there must be change. That said, what shape that change takes is completely up to you.

In general, there are two kinds of change, two sorts of opportunities for it: change in your plot and change in your characters. Let's call this external change and internal change.

External Change

All dramatic stories have external change. 

Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of my favorite movies but let's face it, Indy doesn't change. And, frankly, that's part of what I like about that movie. It's an action-adventure movie and isn't apologetic about it. 

But Raiders has a lot of external change. At the start of the movie Indy gets his prize--a golden idol--taken from him by Dr. Rene Bellog. At both the beginning and the midpoint Bellog says to Indy, (this is a paraphrase) "Anything which you have is mine to take." What happens at the end of the movie? Bellog is dead--face melted off--and Indie has the ark. So there's change. External change.

Internal Change

In most stories the main character will have both internal as well as external goals.

I read something the other day about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I think it was the blog of one of the screenwriters from that movie. He pointed out that Charlie doesn't change. And I thought about it. That's true. He doesn't. Willy Wonka does. 

One of the nifty things about internal change is that, often, by meeting his internal need (the internal need drives the change) the hero finds the good trick out of the predicament he is in, often around the "all hope is lost" point.

(Maybe your story won't have an all-hope-is-lost point, and that's fine. But if it does, having your main character's solution to his internal problem help him figure out how to meet his external need is a neat trick.)

Shape of the Arc

The shape of the arc--this applies to both internal and external arcs--is completely up to you.

Often, a hero will start off weak, go through struggles, fail some--okay, fail a lot--but grow and change and, by the end, be strong enough to defeat the Big Bad. 

But that's not the only shape the arc could take. In a tragedy, the hero ends weak--he doesn't achieve his goal and often loses his life and/or the lives of those he loves. But that doesn't mean he has to start off strong. He could start off weak, become strong, then come crashing down. 

That said, if you're not writing a tragedy, often writers start the hero off weak and become strong. This is what Dan Wells does. But that doesn't mean the hero has to start off weak. They could start off strong, become weak, then become strong again. In actuality, the number of possible combinations is constrained only by your creativity.

There is only one constant, one rock-hard rule: there must be external change. (I mean, think about it. What would a story be without external change? A straight line. Reading such a thing would make watching paint dry look like a death match.) 

The Midpoint

At some point around the middle of the story the hero will start to move from their beginning state to their end state. 

For simplicity, let's say the hero ends on a note of strength. He achieves his goal, saves the day, gets the girl. Whatever. In this case we'd start him off weak. The town bully kicks sand in his face and goes off with the girl he has a crush on. And that's a good day for him.

(Of course you could take him/her from strength to weakness then back to strength again, or any combination you could think of.)

In any story, this transition isn't going to happen all at once, and the hero is going to relapse/fall back a time or two, but the midpoint marks a sea change. The hero is no longer a passive explorer of his new situation, of the Special World, now he takes the fight to the enemy.

As Dan Wells says--and also Larry Brooks and a number of others--the character moves from REACTING to events to ACTING on his own. In The Usual Suspects Keton kidnaps Keyser Söze's lawyer and tries to force him to give up his boss. The attempt is both short-lived and unsuccessful, but he tries, he takes the reins, or at least attempts to.

After the midpoint the hero will increasingly take the initiative. He will lead rather than follow, he will guide rather than be guided.

Further, this decision to stop running, this decision to turn and attack, has to be conscious. The hero must make it consciously and with intent.

A few things to keep in mind about the midpoint:

- In general, the midpoint will parallel the resolution of the story. If the hero achieves his goal at the end then the hero will have some degree of success at the midpoint

- Also, at the midpoint the hero will receive some information about his adversary--his nemesis/the Big Bad/the antagonistic force. This new information changes the way the hero understands/looks at/perceives the antagonistic force, at whatever force prevents the hero from attaining his goal. He gets a clearer picture and, as a result, his understanding of the story world--as well as his place in it--shifts.

Larry Brooks points out that sometimes it is only the audience that receives this extra information (see: story structure series: #6--Wrapping Your Head Around the Mid-Point Milestone.)

That's it for today! Next time we'll talk about the First Plot Turn.


Photo credit: "melancholic cat" by 55Laney69 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, November 8

Lester Dent: How To Write A 6,000 Word Short Story: The First Quarter

Lester Dent: How To Write A 6,000 Word Short Story: The First Quarter

This post continues my series on Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula.

The First 1,500 Words

1a. Introduce your characters early and in action.

The first quarter of our 6,000 word story is mainly going to be concerned with introducing the characters, the setting and setting up the problem/mystery to be solved. Also--and I can't stress this enough--bring them on in action

Dwight V. Swain writes:

The first time he appears, the character must perform some act that characterizes him.

Character can't be demonstrated save in action [...] [W]hen you act--ah, then the cards are down and we see the stuff you're really made of!

For this reason, you as a writer should devise incidents that will force your story people to reveal early--or at least hint at--their true natures, in action. Each must display, and thus establish, that aspect of himself which is of top importance to the story. Is your man a thief? Show him stealing. A scholar? Let him abandon the party for the library. Ambitious? Have him maneuver a chance to impress someone who can help him. (Techniques of the Selling Writer)

Excellent advice. I tell you, if push came to shove and I had to get rid of every single book on writing I possess save one, I think I'd keep Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Introduce all your characters early, not just your hero, and introduce them in action.

1b. Introduce your characters using tags and traits

A great way to introduce any character, but especially your hero, is through the use of tags and traits. [1]

Jim Butcher writes:
"TAGS are words you hang upon your character when you describe them. When you're putting things together, for each character, pick a word or two or three to use in describing them. Then, every so often, hit on one of those words in reference to them, and avoid using them elsewhere when possible. By doing this, you'll be creating a psychological link between those words and that strong entry image of your character.
.  .  .  .
"TRAITS are like tags, except that instead of picking specific words, you pick a number of unique things ranging from a trademark prop to a specific mental attitude. Harry's traits include his black duster, his staff, his blasting rod and his pentacle amulet. These things are decorations hung onto the character for the reader's benefit, so that it's easy to imagine Harry when the story pace is really rolling. (Characters)"
Here's how Lester Dent introduces Renny Renwick in his book, According to Plan of a One-Eyed Mystic:
Doc said, “This will be the first vacation you have had, Renny.”

“Yes. I'm slipping in my old age,” Renny said, grinning.

There was no truth in the statement, and they both knew it. Renny, with his great size, big fists, homely face, and his exclamation of, “Holy cow!” for every unusual situation, wasn't slipping. Not at all. The thing he still liked most was excitement.
That description was packed with information. We're told that Renny Renwick is getting on in years but isn't old. He's a workaholic. He's a big guy, not good looking but not ugly and he gets a saying: Holy cow. Also, even though he's getting on in years he's as capable as he ever was and he hasn't lost his thirst for excitement. 

Dent delivered all that information in a few lines.

Here's another passage:
"Doc Savage was a giant bronze man whose appearance was almost as astonishing as his reputation. His bronze hair was only a little darker than his skin, and his eyes, one of his most spectacular features, were like pools of flake gold always stirred by tiny winds. He was obviously a man of great physical strength."
- giant, strong, man
- bronze hair and skin
- startling appearance and reputation
- eyes "like pools of flake gold always stirred by tiny winds"

Dent's description was packed with information and was rolled out in a natural way.

Further reading:
- Jim Butcher's Livejournal: Characters.
- In June I wrote an article about Tags and Traits: Tags & Traits: Characterization And Building Empathy.

2. Put The Hero In Danger

In Dent's words the hero "tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem" and, in so doing, he puts himself in danger. 

Be clear on what the villain's goal is and on what the protagonist's goal is. What obstacles will the antagonist put in the hero's way to prevent him/her derailing his dastardly plans? How can the hero avoid these obstacles? How might the villain anticipate the hero's next move and use it to trip him/her up?

3. In the first paragraph, the first line, introduce the hero and "swat him with a fistful of trouble".

I don't know if this is the sort of thing Dent had in mind, but in one of my short stories I have my protagonist being shot at in the first paragraph, then I go back in time half an hour and show what led up to it.

I think the important thing is to introduce a question very early on, in the first paragraph if possible. In his article, A Simple Way To Create Suspense, author Lee Child writes:
"As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer." 
For example, here's the first line of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:
"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."
The question: What is abnormal and why are they making such a fuss about being normal? 

It doesn't hurt that J.K. Rowling inhabits her prose. What a voice! But, moving on.

Another great first line comes from Stephen King's 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."
There's a terror, one that may never have ended, and it begins with something as innocuous as a newspaper boat. That kept me reading!

Granted the examples I've used come from novels, but it is the same principle. The important thing is to, in your very first sentence, place a question in the readers mind they would like the answer to.

A word of warning, though. This implied question carries a promise: that it will be answered and that the answer will have been worth the wait. 

In both It and the first Harry Potter book we're given, fairly early on, a  good idea what the answers are. What's abnormal? Harry and his ilk. What's the terror? It lives in the rain-swelled gutters, looks like a clown and likes to snack on little children. 

4. End with a twist

A plot twist "is a radical change in the expected direction or outcome of the plot of a novel [...] It is a common practice in narration used to keep the interest of an audience, usually surprising them with a revelation." (Plot twist, Wikipedia)

Examples of plot twists:

- Darth Vader revealing himself as Luke Skywalker's father in The Empire Strikes Back.
- Arch villain Keyser Soze turns out to be the unreliable narrator in The Usual Suspects.
- In The Sixth Sense the protagonist and point of view character turns out to be a ghost.

For more great plot twists peruse Wikipedia's list of plot twists.

Traditionally--looking at stories through the framework of the three act, eight sequence, structure--a plot twist (or plot reversal) occurs at the 25% mark and the 75% mark.

For instance, at the 25% mark of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark Indy finds out that his mentor--the man who had the artifact he wanted--is dead. His daughter, a former lover of his and a women who really knows how to hold a grudge, was in possession of it.

At the 25% mark of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Harry finds out he's a wizard and is whisked off to Hogwarts. (The 25% mark is, roughly speaking, where the hero is locked into their adventure.)

Intensify the mystery

At their heart, I think all of Lester Dent's stories--like J.J. Abram's stories--were about mysteries. So, as Dent writes, it's important to "hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved--something the hero has to cope with". 

Our checklist for what we need to have accomplished so far:

a. "Does it have SUSPENSE?"
b. "Is there a MENACE to the hero?"
c. "Does everything happen logically?"

By the end of the first quarter of the story we need to have accomplished something. The hero needs to rescue someone, or find something out. Let's say the hero needs to rescue someone named Eloise and ...
"... surprise! Eloise is a ring-tailed monkey. The hero counts the rings on Eloise's tail, if nothing better comes to mind.

They're not real. The rings are painted there. Why?"
Another mystery is introduced. The key point is to send the story off in a new direction.

That's it for the first quarter! Next time we'll take our story up to the 50% mark.


1. I say, "Introduce the hero," but I mean "hero or heroine"; I use "hero" as meaning a protagonist of either gender. 

Photo credit: "Superior Fridge Perch" by Laura D'Alessandro under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, November 7

Lester Dent's Short Story Master Formula

Lester Dent's Short Story Master Formula

Lester Dent's Formula For Writing A 6,000 Word Short Story

Lester Dent writes:

"This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words.
"No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell."[1]

Note: Keep in mind that Dent wrote adventure/horror/science fiction stories, ones where a lot of dead bodies showed up. That said, his formula works for anything, even stories without dead bodies, just adjust it to suit your needs.

Who was Lester Dent?

Although Lester Dent created the superhuman scientist and adventurer Doc Savage the novels were credited to Kenneth Robeson, a name made up, and owned, by Dent's publisher.

Dent started out as a telegraph operator who wrote on the graveyard shift. One of his co-workers had sold a story for $450--which was a fortune at the time--and Dent thought, "Hey, I could do that!"

Turned out he was right.

Dent eventually wrote over 159 novels over 16 years--and that was just the Doc Savage novels! He celebrated his affluence by buying a yacht and sailing around the world.

Before he died in 1959 Dent decided to gift other writers with his formula for writing a 6,000 word story. 

Michael Moorcock's Summary of Lester Dent's Method

I'll get to a blow-by-blow of Dent's method shortly but here's a summary, courtesy of Michael Moorcock:

"... split your six-thousand-word story up into four fifteen hundred word parts. Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there's no way he could ever possibly get out of it. ... All your main characters have to be in the first third. All your main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, developed in the second third, and resolved in the last third. (Lester Dent, Wikipedia)"

Note: When I talk about Dent's method, below, much of it is a paraphrase.

Lester Dent's Method

Before you set pen to paper here are four things to think about:

1. A murder method

From what I've seen, the overwhelming majority of Dent's stories contained a murder. The murder method should be different than anything you've read or seen. I know, that's a tall order. But try to put a spin on it that's unique.

Dent writes:

"A different murder method could be--different. Thinking of shooting, knifing, hydrocyanic, garroting, poison needles, scorpions, a few others, and writing them on paper gets them where they may suggest something. Scorpions and their poison bite? Maybe mosquitos or flies treated with deadly germs?

"If the victims are killed by ordinary methods, but found under strange and identical circumstances each time, it might serve, the reader of course not knowing until the end, that the method of murder is ordinary.

"Scribes who have their villain's victims found with butterflies, spiders or bats stamped on them could conceivably be flirting with this gag.

"Probably it won't do a lot of good to be too odd, fanciful or grotesque with murder methods.

"The different thing for the villain to be after might be something other than jewels, the stolen bank loot, the pearls, or some other old ones.

"Here, again one might get too bizarre."[1]

Here's a list of possible murder methods. These are primarily from the appropriately named article, How To Commit The Perfect Murder.

i. A sword. Perhaps a kantana.
ii. Sharpened icicle. Extra points for fashioning it from some of your victim's bodily fluids.
iii. A knife. Butchers knife, throwing knives, kitchen knife, rusty butter knife. Let your imagination guide you.
iv. A gun. Guns "can be found in bins, strapped under cars, inside folded newspapers and in every schoolchild's backpack. Remember to replace after use."
v. A car. Best if you don't use your own car. The author suggests stealing one, preferably from a Walmart. Or perhaps a long-term parking lot.
vi. A heavy object. A brick, meat tenderizer (/club), candlestick, paperweight, and so on.
vii. Heavier objects. An aeroplane, elephant, train, bulldozer, Mack truck.
viii. Pills. Available from drugstores, doctors, drug dealers.
ix. Hammer and stake. Be creative.
x. A notebook. See Death Note for inspiration.
xi. A wand.
xii. Push off a (tall) building.
xiii. Severe allergies, the more exotic the better.
xiv. Poison. Arsenic, curare, and so on.  Be creative.

Here are a few more: bomb, lynch, crucify, burn/incinerate, drown, asphyxiate, strangle, martial arts, curse, evil puppets, acid.

2. The antagonist's goal

Again, although there are relatively few things folks murder for (love, money, power, and so on) the particular motivation is--or at least should be--unique to your villain.

Dent describes what the villain is after as "treasure". I don't know whether he's being literal or employing metaphor. Perhaps a bit of both. Whatever his ultimate goal--for instance, let's say it's revenge--there's going to be a physical manifestation of that goal in the story.

For instance, in Star Wars IV, Darth Vader wanted to defeat the resistance  and the physical manifestation of that desire was the destruction of the rebel's base on Yavin IV.

When I first saw Star Wars--one of the local theatres was showing all the films back to back--I thought the Death Star was truly badass. It destroyed planets! It was like a roving, moon-destroying, bully. That was a new spin on an old theme.

I won't list them, but here are a few links having to do with ideas for what the treasure might be.

3. A setting

Ideally, the setting will be suggested by (a) the murder method and (b) the villain's goal. You'll want something that stands out, that captures the imagination.

Dent writes:

"Unique locale? Easy. Selecting one that fits in with the murder method and the treasure--thing that villain wants--makes it simpler, and it's also nice to use a familiar one, a place where you've lived or worked. So many pulpateers don't. It sometimes saves embarrassment to know nearly as much about the locale as the editor, or enough to fool him."[1]

If Lester Dent were alive today I think he'd say: Google Maps Street View is your friend.

On an unrelated note, love that name, "pulpateer".

4. The hero's motivation

Dent doesn't write much about this point except to say that it is "a menace which is to hang like a cloud over [the] hero".

I explain this to myself by thinking about stakes. What are the stakes? What will the hero gain if he achieves his goal (and, presumably, that goal is to stop the villain)? What will the hero lose if he doesn't? 

I mentioned Star Wars IV, above. Here are the stakes:

Success: If Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star then the rebel base is saved.
Failure:  If Luke doesn't blow up the Death Star then he, and everyone else he knows, is dead. 

It kept me on the edge of my seat.

Whew! We're through the preliminaries. We now know what the murder method is, what the villain's goal is, we know the setting and we understand the stakes. (By the way, Dent says that you really only have to know two or three of the above points before you start writing. Even if you know one of them you're ahead of the game.)

Next time I'll talk about the actual writing. Dent broke a 6,000 word story into four equal parts. Next time we'll look at the first quarter and discuss the opening line and how we, in Dent's words, need to "swat him [the hero] with a fistful of trouble".

Stay tuned!

Here are links to other articles in this series:
Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Third 1,500 Words
Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Fourth And Final 1,500 Words

Thanks to RedFoxOne for sending me a link to Gareth-Michael Skarka's implementation of Dent's formula as a scenario generator for gaming. Brilliant! Here's the article: Pulp Adventure Generator.


1. As far as I can tell, Dent's formula comes from the book, The Creator of Doc Savage, by Marilyn Cannaday. It is also online over at The Lester Dent Master Fiction Plot
Correction (Dec 8, 2020): Dent's formula was first given in the Writer's Digest Yearbook, 1936. Thanks to Korodzik for leaving a comment and letting me know.

Photo credit: "Diwali Abstract Series 2013 - The Galaxy Effect" by Vinoth Chandar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, November 4

Creating Vivid Characters For NaNoWriMo, Part Two

Creating Vivid Characters For NaNoWriMo, Part Two
This continues my post from Friday on how to create vivid characters.

How does your hero fulfill his/her need? What's his/her solution

Dexter's problem is that he wants to kill people. Anyone. Doesn't matter who they are or what they've done. His solution, his way of living with this urge and being a productive member of society, is to kill people that not only deserve to be killed but which, by their absence, make society a better, safer, place. (As I've mentioned, Chuck Wendig doesn't agree.)

Sherlock Holmes hates boredom. He needs problems and puzzles. Interesting ones. He provides himself with this needed stimulation by being a consulting detective.

Walter White
Walter is a brilliant chemist who is dying and wants to leave his family provided for. His solution is to make high quality meth and sell it.

Harry Potter
Harry's need, his deepest need, is to find, or create, a family. A home. I know what I said last week, but his deep internal need is to find or forge a connection with others.

Harry's solution is to reach out and find friends, and new family, at Hogwarts. This leads to a strong desire to protect the place.


A limitation is anything INTERNAL to a character that gets in the way of them meeting their need.

Limitations have a way of tripping up a character when they least expect it.

Chuck Wendig uses Buffy as an example:
"Limitations are traits of the character’s that get in her way — they might be flaws or frailties but they can just as easily be positive traits that make trouble for the character and the plot. You might say that Buffy’s limitations were her age, her immaturity, and her emotional entanglements with problematic boyfriends (seriously, Buffy, what’s with the choice in dudes?)."
Excellent point.

CW argues that Dexter's moral code was a limitation placed on his serial killer nature. I can see it that way, but, for me (as I've said) his moral code is a part of the solution to his problem, his problem being the urge, the need, to kill. For me, that's what makes Dexter a tragic figure.

I would say that Dexter's limitations were the feeling of attachment he often developed for those he needed to kill. For instance, his AA mentor, stalker and occasional girlfriend Lila Tournay.

Sherlock's major limitation was his ego. 

In my opinion one of THE BEST episodes of Sherlock was A Scandal in Belgravia. He botches an important anti-terrorist plan of the British government because of his love of solving puzzles, because he wanted to show off.

Here's a quotation from the end of the show (SPOILER ALERT):
"Mycroft: The terrorist cells have been informed that we know about the bomb. We can't fool them now. We've lost everything. One fragment of one email. And months and years of planning. Finished.
Sherlock: Your MOD man.
Mycroft: That's all it takes. One lonely naive man, desperate to show off. And a woman clever enough to make him feel special.
Sherlock: You need to screen your defence people more carefully.
Mycroft: I'm not talking about the MOD man, Sherlock, I'm talking about you!"

Captain Malcolm 'Mal' Renolds
Although Mal can make hard calls--he is by no means a softie--he does have a heart of gold and a penchant for doing the right thing even when the result promises to be disastrous.

Harry Potter
In the muggle world Harry's magical abilities severely limit his ability to bond with the Dursleys.

In the magical world Harry's heritage, that he is the boy who lived, prevent him from just fitting in and having a normal school life. People either hate him or want him to save the world.

Greatest Fear

What does your character most fear? (This information will help you ramp up the stakes.)

Letting down those who depend on him. Not being what those he cares about think he is. Costing them their lives.

Being outed as a serial killer. Having his sister find out.

Not being smart enough to figure a case out. The criminal besting him.
Having those he cares about come to harm.

Walter White
Dying without having lived.
Dying without leaving his family provided for.

Harry Potter
Living with the Dursley family forever. (Which would also be the Dursley family nightmare.)

Part of J.K. Rowling's genius was figuring out plausible ways to pack so much conflict in to the story early on.


We're almost done!

Chuck Wendig wants us to do two more things. First, write a 100 word character description. He writes:

"Write a description. Keep it to 100 words. Less if you can manage ... Do not hit all the bases. Do not try to stat them up like a [...] baseball player. Listen, when you look at someone, you take away a visual thumbprint of that person — it’s pushed hard into the clay of your memory. You don’t remember every little detail or aspect."

For example: "... that woman shaped like a butternut squash with the frock that smelled like cigarettes and old terriers."

Also, here's Chuck's tip:

"... writers are best describing things that break the status quo, that violate our expectations. In other words, find the things that make the character visually unique, interesting, odd, curious – different. Cleave to those."

Describe things that violate your readers' expectations. Yes! That one's going on my wall.

Test Drive Your Character

Second, before you plunk them down into your story take your newly christened character for a test drive. Chuck Wendig writes:

"Take ‘em for a test drive. Said it before, will say it again: write a thousand-word piece of flash fiction with Your Brand New Shiny Character in the starring role. Drive him around. Ding him up. Challenge him! Force him to talk to other characters: an obstinate cab driver, a belligerent cop, a drunken orangutan. Give him a new problem or one related to the character explicitly.

"Let ‘em speak. Let ‘em act. See what they do when you get behind the wheel.

"Inhabit the character."

Wonderful advice.

Once again, here's the challenge:
- Give your character a problem to solve, something that can be wrapped up in 1,000 or so words. The problem can be one that's related to your character, or something completely different.
- Force your character to talk to other characters. I know these were only suggestions, but, well, why not? Get them to talk to an obstinant cap driver. How would your character handle that? Then throw in a beligerant cop. Or choose other characters entirely. It's up to you.
After you've written the story, your next and final step (yes, we're done!) will be to write, or rewrite, your character's logline.

Good writing!


As I mentioned Friday, I'm doing #NaNoWriMo and, as part of that, accepted a challenge issued by a bunch of lovely lunatics to write 10,000 words over the weekend. 

Well ... I did it! 

It was close though. I've caught a bad cold and am squirting all sorts of fluids from all sorts of places.

Yes. It's gross. 

Now, thankfully, gleefully, I'm going back to 2,000 words a day. 

Photo credit: "Falknerei Schmidt" by Ben Fredericson under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, November 1

Creating Vivid Characters For NaNoWriMo

Creating Vivid Characters For NaNoWriMo
Chuck Wendig has outdone himself this time. 

I know I've said this before--often--but this is one of the best posts on character development I've read (adult language warning -->): Plot & Character.

I need to work on my characterizations, I need to make them more vivid. My goal--and I think most writers share this in common--is to create characters readers not only can picture and understand--characters that seem real--but to create characters readers empathize with.

So. I'm going to interrupt my series on Dan Wells' 7-Point System to talk about, first, what constitutes a well-defined character, a rounded character, a character that feels so real your readers cry when he almost dies and grin like kids at Christmas when he achieves his goal. In short, characters your readers can identify with. Second, I'll talk about how you can begin crafting such a character.

Let's get started!

The Character Logline

Chuck Wendig points out that, just like screenplays and novels (and pretty much any kind of story) characters can have loglines. That is, they can have a short--usually one sentence--summary/description.

Recall that a logline attempts to capture the essence of a story.

So, let's attempt to craft a logline that captures the essence of a character. Chuck Wendig gives us a fabulous example of the sort of thing he's looking for. He writes:

“Dexter Morgan is a serial killer with a code of honor hiding in plain sight among the officers of the Miami Police Department.”

Right there, bam! Look at all the contradictions, the conflict waiting to happen.

Dexter's a serial killer with a code of honor (right there I'm interested) and he's working in a police department! The bird is surrounded by cats, hiding in plain sight.

That's a heck of a character concept. Further, you can see immediately that the whole series, all the stories, naturally grow from the main character, who he is.

A Character IS Something

When I read Chuck Wendig's description of Dexter Morgan one thing struck me like a runaway Mack Truck: A character IS something.

Clear as mud? Let me throw out a few examples and you'll see what I mean.

Neo (The Matrix) is The One.
Dexter Morgan (Dexter) is a serial killer.
Walter White (Breaking Bad) is a drug manufacturer and dealer.
Sherlock Holmes is a detective.
Tony Soprano (The Sopranos) is a mob boss.
Captain Malcolm 'Mal' Reynolds (Firefly) is a captain.
Dr. House (House) is a diagnostician.
Orphan Black is a hustler and a clone.
Harry Potter is a wizard.

Each character contains within themselves--by their nature, their occupation, or both--the seeds of both their deep desire (/their goal/the story goal) and the opposition to that goal.

Neo is something. He is The One, the one who transcended the matrix and could manipulate it. It was like his very own holodeck! But he didn't start out knowing this. Neo's journey was from (among other things) ignorance to wisdom. Who Neo was set the endpoint and implied the challenges he would have to face.

Dexter is the best example, or at least my favorite.

"Serial killer," that phrase, is packed with emotion. It is provocative. Thick. Shocking.

When I first saw the promo's for Dexter I thought, "Really? A hero who is a serial killer, they'll never pull it off." Ha! Good thing I'm not a producer.

One of the reasons the show worked--and I'll talk about this throughout the post--everything that happens in that show happens because of who Dexter is: a person compelled to kill. That, by itself, wouldn't have been very interesting--not to me at least--but this is a monster with a code of honor. That is unique. That is interesting. That's a concept you can build a novel around. (Dexter was based on a series of novels by Jeff Lindsay.) More on this later.

Now, let's don our white lab coat, pull the irritatingly bright examination light closer, clutch the rusty scalpel in our shaking hand, and take a closer look at a few well done characters most of you are familiar with. (I was going to go with a dissection metaphor but decided that, even for the day after halloween, it was a tad grizzly.)

1. What does your character want?

Dexter wants to kill people. No, that's not right. Dexter needs to kill people. It is a drive, a craving, one that he's helpless to resist.

Dexter's need, his deep dark desire, is the engine that drove each episode of the show forward. Can you imagine what an episode of Dexter would have been like if the lead character woke up and realized, "Huh. I don't want to kill anymore."

I believe that Dexter's code of honor--basically, that he only kills those who deserve it; other murderers--is also a deep need, one not borne of compulsion. I believe it comes from his humanity and, really, is why the character is interesting. Without this balancing need Dexter (to my way of thinking) would just be a monster. His desire to be normal is what makes him a tragic figure.

Chuck Wendig, on the other hand, believes Dexter's code of honor is a limitation (we'll talk more about limitations later). That's a valid, perfectly fine, way of looking at it. Wouldn't the world be dull if we all agreed?

Walter White
Walter White IS a brilliant chemist with a terminal disease and a baby on the way.

Walter's need: To ensure his family is provided for.

How Walter chooses to meet this need: make high quality meth and sell it.

You see the pattern? What the character IS implies/contains the seed of their deep need and, thus, their problem: how to meet their need (/how to quench their desire, /how to achieve their goal). If a story can be compared to a car the main character's need, his goal, is the internal combustion engine.

Without Walter's need to provide for his family, without him being a brilliant, desperate, chemist, there would have been no story, no show.

This is what writers mean when they say that character is plot. Plot should flow naturally out of the main character.

Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock's need is to be amused. Interested. Not bored. "The game," as he so often says in the original stories, must "be afoot!"

He is a natural detective, compulsively unravelling mysteries.

Sherlock's need to stave off boredom drives him to put himself, as well as those he cares about, in harms way if a sufficiently interesting puzzle/mystery presents itself.

One more example:

Harry Potter
a. Harry Potter IS the boy who lived.

He is the boy who the evil wizard Voldemort could not kill.

Harry Potter wants Voldemort to go away and for him just to be a normal wizard. Harry Potter being the boy who lived--the boy who nearly killed the dark lord--makes him a symbol of hope for those allied against the dark lord. On a personal level, this works against him. It makes folks expect ridiculous things of him (saving them from he-who-must-not-be-named) and it makes Voldemort's followers loathe him.

Harry's need: when Harry's at Hogwarts he wants to be a normal, completely unexceptional, wizard.

b. Harry Potter IS a wizard.

When Harry's not at school he must stay with the magic-hating Dursleys. Put a boy who can't control his magic, a boy who doesn't even know he's magical, with relatives who have a fanatical hate of magic and you've got a tinderbox of conflict just begging for a match.

That's it for today! I thought I'd be able to get through all this material in one day, but I guess not.

Until next time, good writing!


I'm going through NaNoWriMo again this year.

I'm part of a great Google+ Community, the Writer's Discussion Group, and we're getting together using the hashtag #wdgnano. Come and hang out with us whenever you like. This weekend a bunch of us are doing a 10,000 word weekend. I'll let you know how it went. (grin)

My word count so far is zero for NaNo, though I did write about 2,600 words so far, but that's just been for this blog post (and the one on Monday). So, only 3,300 more words to go! lol

Photo credit: "hello." by 55Laney69 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, October 30

Dan Wells' 7-Point Story Structure: Starting At The End

Dan Wells' 7-Point Story Structure: Starting At The End

Last month, as I thought about the writing sprint that is NaNoWriMo, I thought about Dan Wells' seven point system for story creation.

Well, perhaps not creation.

Where ideas come from and how we choose them--or they choose us--is a mysterious process. What is less mysterious is what we need to do to spin an idea into a story concept and make sure we have enough material to make it stretch over 50,000 words.

(For part one of this mini-series, click here.)

1. Start At The End: The Resolution/Climax Of The Story

It sounds counterintuitive and perhaps a wee bit crazy, but I've found it to be fabulous advice: when you write a story, begin at the end.

Dan Wells uses J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, as his example. BUT. It's been years since I read that book so I'm going to use Star Wars IV: A New Hope instead. (And, yes, I know that one's a book and the other's a movie, but those are just two different mediums, two different ways, of telling a story.)

So. What is the resolution?

Resolution: Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star and saves the Rebel Alliance from destruction. 

Of course Luke won! But resolutions really are as simple as this, answering "yes" or "no" to the story question. (For more on story questions, Jim Butcher has an excellent discussion of the subject.)

2. Write Your Hook: What Is Your Starting State?

We know how the story ends so now we have to figure out how it begins.

As you write the hero's starting state, keep in mind your hero needs to change, to go through some sort of arc.

For example, if you want your hero, your protagonist, your kick-ass dude or dudette, to end up wiping the floor with the antagonist they need to start out weak. Otherwise, there's no change and that wouldn't be interesting. Well. Not as interesting. A vividly rendered Big Bad getting their nether-regions handed to them by an uber-hero will never lose its appeal for me.

(That's not quite true. Your hero could start out strong, lose everything in the middle, and then claw his/her way back up just in time to pound the Big Bad back into oblivion at the end. Or something. The shape of the change, of the arc, is entirely up to you.)

Hook: Luke is an orphan--or so he believes--who lives with his aunt and uncle. He craves a life of excitement, of adventure. He wants to visit far off planets but lives a life of drudgery on a backwater planet far, far, away from anything he considers remotely interesting.

In the beginning of the story Luke isn't in charge of his destiny, others--his well-meaning aunt and uncle--decide what goals he pursues. At the end of the story Luke is a hero of the rebellion, he destroyed the Death Star and saved the Rebel Alliance. Further, he managed all this because he took charge of his life, trusted himself and his special ability.
Note: As we've seen, Dan Wells calls the hero's starting state "the hook". I want to mention that you'll occasionally come across another use of the phrase. Specifically, as that initial something that "hooks" the reader, the thing that keeps them reading, that generates narrative drive (/suspense). To read more about this other use of the term see: The Strange: How To Hook A Reader's Interest.
Okay, back to talking about arc, change, movement. Looking at Luke, his character, at the beginning of his journey and comparing that with where he ended up, we can see this arc as taking him from weakness to strength. That said, it is also an arc, a journey, from inexperience to experience, from distrusting himself to trusting himself. From unbelief to belief.

That's it for today. Next time we'll look at the first plot turn and the Midpoint.

Photo credit: "new garden gnomes ..." by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, October 28

NaNoWriMo, Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason and Plot Wheels

NaNoWriMo, Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason and Plot Wheels

In this article I explore several plot wheels and examine how they can be used to generate ideas during NaNoWriMo (or anytime!). But, first, some background.

Stephen King on Plot Wheels

Stephen King in On Writing credits Edgar Wallace with creating plot wheels. King writes:
"An amusing sidelight: the century’s greatest supporter of Developing the Plot may have been Edgar Wallace, a bestselling potboiler novelist of the 1920s. Wallace invented—and patented—a device called the Edgar Wallace Plot Wheel. When you got stuck for the next Plot Development or needed an Amazing Turn of Events in a hurry, you simply spun the Plot Wheel and read what came up in the window: a fortuitous arrival, perhaps, or Heroine declares her love. These gadgets apparently sold like hotcakes."
I don't want to mislead anyone into thinking King approves of such plot-generating devises. Earlier in that same chapter he wrote:
"You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer—my answer, anyway—is nowhere. I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible."
Stephen King is a well-known pantser (or, if you prefer, a discovery writer). He doesn't plot. He crafts realistic characters and then sets them lose on an unsuspecting story world; or perhaps it's the other way around. He creates realistic characters, characters we identify with, and then places them in a world, one much like our own, but with sharper edges.

King writes:
"I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course). (On Writing)"
I'm going to argue that, even if one holds the above view, there's still a place for plot wheels. Not for generating plot, but for generating ideas.

It's sort of like watching clouds on a warm summer day. You're lying in the grass, the warmth of the sun baking into your skin, the hard, cool, earth at your back. You're absently chewing a piece of grass and looking up at the clouds, watching them transform into all manner of things. A bear, a mountain, a heart, a rose. Anything.

My point: we get ideas in all sorts of ways. Why not plot wheels? During NaNoWriMo anything that can help you generate ideas is a good thing.

Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason and Plot Wheels

Erle Stanley Gardner wrote 119 Perry Mason novels. In Lawyer Turned Detective, we find out at least part of the secret to his success:
"Key to Gardner's remarkable output was his use of the plot wheels invented and patented by another of his successors, a British crime novelist named Edgar Wallace. By using different combinations of possible twists and turns for both major and minor characters, Gardner was able to construct narratives that held his readers rapt for several decades."
I've taken the liberty of transcribing four of Edgar Wallace's plot wheels.

(Thanks to Kim Aippersbach for sending me the link and to Silvia Moreno-Garcia for originally passing along the information.)

Erle Stanley Gardner's Plot Wheels

Erle Stanley Gardner used four wheels to help him generate plots for his Perry Mason stories: the wheel of blind trials, the wheel of hostile minor characters, the wheel of solutions, and the wheel of complicating circumstances. (He may have used others, but those are the four I've seen.)

(Caveat: As you can see from the picture of the wheels some of the words are difficult to make out. I did my best. Also, Gardner used abbreviations and omitted certain words due to space constraints. I've expanded a few of them in an effort to make the meaning clearer.)

The Wheel Of Hostile Minor Characters Whose Function Is Making Complications For The Hero

These folks put obstacles in the hero's way, make it difficult for her to reach her goal.

1. Hick detective.
2. Attorney.
3. Newspaper reporter.
4. Detective.
5. Business rival.
6. Rival in love.
7. Father of heroine.
8. Blackmailer.
9. Gossip.
10. Meddlesome friend.
11. Suspicious servant.
12. Hostile dog.
13. Spy.
14. Incidental crook.
15. Hotel detective.
16. Thickheaded police.

B. Wheel Of Complicating Circumstances

1. Hero is betrayed to villain by spies.
2. Every move the hero makes takes him from the frying pan and puts him into the fire.
3. Heroine's maid is a spy.
4. Father of heroine is hostile to the hero.
5. Detective believes the hero is guilty and tries to arrest him/her at a critical time.
6. Hero commits an incidental crime. For example, he/she is caught speeding and is arrested.
7. Witness mistakes hero for villain.
8. Hero violates the law and is sought.
9. Heroine's mind is poisoned against the hero.
10. Some character is not as represented.
11. Rival in love tries to discredit the hero.
12. Zeal of hick cop upsets plans.

C. The Wheel of Blind Trials By Which The Hero Is Mislead or Confused

1. Witness lies.
2. A document is forged.
3. A witness is planted.
4. A client conceals something.
5. A client misrepresents something.
6. A friend pretends to betray the hero.
7. The villains assistant pretends to betray the hero.
8. A vital witness refuses to talk.
9. False confessions.
10. Genuine mistakes.
11. A witness takes flight.
12. A witness is kidnapped.
13. A witness commits suicide.
14. A witness sells out.
15. Planted clues.
16. Impossible statements.

D. Solution Wheel

How the hero surmounts the obstacles thrown in his way.

1. Gets villain to betray himself through greed.
2. Gets the villain to, of his own free will, plant additional evidence.
3. Plants fake evidence to confuse the villain.
4. Fakes circumstances so the villain will think he/she has been discovered.
5. Tricks the hero's accomplice into confessing.
6. Villain is hoist by his/her own petard.
7. Villain killed while he/she is trying to frame someone.
8. Gets villain to overreach himself/herself.
9. Meets trickery with horse-sense.
10. Squashes obstacles by sheer courage.
11. Turns villains against each other.

12. Traps [tricks?] villain into betraying a hiding place. Hero either a) creates a fake fire, or b) gives him/her something else to conceal, or c) makes it necessary for the villain to flee (and so must take something out of the hiding place).

This idea can be adapted to any area. I think I'm going to put together a list of professions as well as a list of things a character could plausibly lose.

I've had fun writing about plot wheels. I hope they'll provide an idea, or three, for you just when you need it whether or not you're going through NaNoWriMo.

Here's an app, The Brainstormer, that does something similar to a plot wheel. I haven't used it, but it looks interesting.

Note: My next post will be about Dan Wells' 7-Point System.

Photo credit: "Every holiday brings new bokeh" by kevin dooley under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.