Friday, May 23

How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery, Part 2 of 2

How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery, Part 2 of 2


This discussion of how to write a murder mystery is a continuation of my last post (see: How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery). In that post I talked about:

- The qualities of a terrific detective
- The importance of personality, character, strengths and weaknesses, and relationships
- The setting/arena
- The inciting incident
- Clues, what kinds there are and how to use them
- Character solutions vs forensic solutions

Today I'm going to conclude by examining:

- Other characters such as the murderer and the victim
- Open versus closed mysteries
- The importance of fair play

What follows is from Lee Goldberg's wonderful article, How To Write A Murder Mystery.

Other Characters


Lee Goldberg writes:

"I always begin developing a book the same way – I come up with an “arena,” the world in which our story will take place. A UFO convention. Murder in a police precinct. A rivalry between mother and daughter for the love of a man. Once I have the arena, I think about the characters. Who are the people the story will be about? What makes them interesting? What goals do they have, and how do they conflict with the other characters?"[3]

Putting this in point form:

- What makes these characters interesting?
- What are their goals?
- How does each character's goal (or goals) conflict with those of the other characters?
- How do these goals create obstacles for the hero/main character/detective?
- How do the other characters help the reader understand the setting/arena?

The Murderer


"Once I figure out whom to kill, and how, and of course why, then I start asking myself what the killer did wrong, or what he overlooked, that will lead to his undoing."[1]

- Who does the murderer need to kill? 

I find that, often, the first victim is the person the murderer needed to kill. But there are notable exceptions. Agatha Christie often broke with convention and used her readers' expectation against them (for example, Murder in Three Acts, The A.B.C. Murders).

- How does the killer do it?

What is the murder method? An arcane poison? Or a normal poison that no one can figure out how it was administered? Locked room mysteries also fall into this category. Or perhaps (and this is truly diabolical) the victim is forced to kill him/herself (A Study in Pink, Se7en). 

- Why does the killer need to kill?

P.D. James once wrote that "All motives can be explained under the letter L: lust, lucre, loathing and love."[4] True. We could also say that:

- The murderer wants to prevent certain information from coming out about him, information that would radically transform his life in ways he would hate. 

- The murderer wants to take revenge on someone because they radically transformed her life in ways she hated.

- The murderer wants to radically transform his life into something (he thinks would be) infinitely better. And so on.

- What did the killer do wrong? What did he/she overlook?

It seems axiomatic--at least in fiction--that every killer, no matter how intelligent they are or how well planned the crime, will make at least one mistake. With Agatha Christie, often the killer's mistake was trying to be clever and trying to pull the wool over Poirot's eyes. But this was a trap. Poirot assumed the guise of a silly foreigner and so invited the proper English people of his day to underestimate him. His quirks, his foreignness, was, in a way, his disguise.

What the killer did wrong, what he/she overlooked, has to be something the detective could discover, as well as something that plays to his/her strength. There are countless examples of this, but what comes to mind immediately is the episode of Sherlock entitled The Great Game

Sherlock Holmes is wonderful at noticing minutiae and bringing together diverse threads, strands, of information and, from them, creating a synthesis that yields the answer (usually the 'ah-ha' clue triggers this epiphany). The graphical way the show's writers/producers/director have used to illustrate the information Sherlock notices (words suspended in air) works brilliantly and adds another dimension to the storytelling. (Sorry. Sherlock is one of my favorite shows and I tend to rhapsodize. Moving on.)

The Victim


Lee Goldberg writes:

"And then I ask myself the big questions—who gets murdered, how is he or she killed, and why? Is it an 'open' or 'closed' mystery?"

Putting this in point form: 

a. Who gets murdered?
b. How are they killed?
c. Why are they killed?
d. Is it an "open" or "closed" mystery.

Let's take these one at a time:

a. Who gets murdered?

Lee Goldberg doesn't have a lot to say about the victim, so let me draw on a point I made--I borrowed it from W.H. Auden--in Writing a Murderously Good Mystery: The Importance of The Murder Victim.

W.H. Auden, self-confessed addict of English-style whodunits, believed the following about the victim:

i) All your characters should have a reason to want to kill them.

ii) All your characters should have some sort of change in feeling for the victim after they learn of their death. 

For example, a character who loathed the victim might feel guilty for wanting her dead; or perhaps just worried that her (widely known) sentiments about the victim will make her the detective's primary suspect.

The important thing to keep in mind, though, is simply that the victim's death must be a catalyst for that most important aspect of storytelling: change.

b. How are they killed?

Susan Spann advises us to kill our characters with style: 

"In real life, people get run over with cars, shot with pistols, and decapitated with ancient swords. (THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!!) In fiction, anything is fair game if you can explain it. Take down your victim with all the creativity you can muster. Pufferfish poison? Absolutely. Shuriken to the face? You’ll see it in one of my novels."[5]

Here are the results of my google-foo:

- Death by Egyptian curse
- Death by puffer fish poison
- Death by ricin
- Death by caffeine
- Death by puppets
- Death by robot
- Death by milk (In honor of Mr. Monk)

c. Why are they killed?

I've already talked, in general terms, about motives. Here we're interested in specifics. We want to know why, within the context of the story, this character was done away with. 


Let's say that there are two broad reasons why people murder: 

i) People murder to radically transform their life in ways that they think they would like.

ii) People murder to keep their life from being radically transformed in ways they don't think they would like.

In other words, folks murder because they want good things or because they want to avoid bad things. But that's general. To put meat on those bones (or tofu, if that's your preference) we need to know what the murderer wants, what he desires. And to know that we need to know what his strengths and weaknesses are. 

I talked about this last time in regards to the hero, but it applies to the murderer as well.

d. Open vs Closed

Lee Goldberg explains the terms "open mystery" and "closed mystery" as pertaining to the readers/viewers knowledge. If the reader/viewer knows the identity of the murderer from the beginning then the mystery is open. On the other hand, if the reader/viewer finds out about the identity of the murderer at approximately the same time the detective unveils his/her identity, then it's closed.

Goldberg adds that whether a mystery is open or closed is determined by the series concept. For example, in a Columbo episode the viewer usually[2] knew the identity of the murderer from the beginning. Cracker, Death in Paradise, Midsomer Murders and scads of other TV shows are examples of closed murder mysteries. Diagnosis Murder--one of the shows Lee Goldberg both wrote for and produced--had both open and closed murders.

Trying to decide which kind of structure will work best for your tale? Lee Goldberg writes that:

"An open mystery works when both the murderer, and the reader, think the perfect crime has been committed. The pleasure is watching the detective unravel the crime and finding the flaws you didn’t see.

"A closed mystery works when the murder seems impossible to solve, and the clues that are found don’t seem to point to any one person, but the hero sees the connection you don’t and unmasks the killer with it."[1]

The Importance Of Fair Play


"In a true whodunit, the reader enjoys the game as long as you play fair. That means that all of the clues, including the 'Ah, ha!,' have to be shared with the reader at the same time that the hero finds them."[1]

Never withhold clues from your readers. They need to find out about all clues at the same time as your detective.

The detective can't receive crucial information 'off-screen,' the reader needs to see the detective finding everything. Now, that doesn't mean that the detective has to explain the significance of the clue to the reader. Generally that's kept back for the final reveal.

It can be tempting to hide clues from the reader because then it's easier to keep the reader in the dark, it's easier to keep them from guessing the identity of the murderer before you want them to. It is also a sure-fire way to make your readers mad as aggrieved hornets and you don't want that! 

How To Play Fair


What's the trick? How do we give readers all the facts and keep them from guessing the identity of the killer? Lee Goldberg writes:

"Obviously, you want to distract, trick, and manipulate the readers and make it as hard as possible for them to solve the crime, but you can do that without keeping important information from them. You just have to be artful about turning their attention away from it, to get them to focus on the wrong things.

"As the author, you have a real advantage. You are the control voice in The Outer Limits. You control point-of-view, in essence the camera through which the reader is seeing and interpreting the world. For instance, if in your story the detectives are focusing on what’s in the room where a murder took place, talking about each item in detail, tracing the history of each piece, that’s what the reader will be thinking about, too, and not the real clue that you are distracting them from: what’s not in the room."

An example of distraction.


I watched an episode of Diagnosis Murder the other day. In this episode, Murder with Mirrors, the killer was a magician and the victim was killed by their own trick. 

The victim was handcuffed and dropped into a tank of water. He was supposed to use a lockpick, given to him by his accomplice onstage, to pick the handcuffs and free himself. The problem: the key didn't fit the cuffs. 

Most of the show was spent trying to figure out who had access to the key and who had a motive to swap the real key with a fake one. The problem: no one who had a motive had the opportunity to switch keys. 

The solution: The killer hadn't swapped the key, he'd swapped the handcuffs! The viewer was so busy wondering who had access to the key that they didn't realize someone could have, instead, swapped the handcuffs. At least, that was the hope. As soon as the detective, Mark Sloan (played by Dick Van Dyke), realized this, the case was solved.

In summary. I apologize for quoting so much of Lee Goldberg's article, but it is a terrific article that anyone who wants to write a murder mystery should read. Again, that's How To Write A Murder Mystery by Lee Goldberg.

Further Reading


- Here are other articles I've written about how to write a murder mystery.
- Writing Nero Wolfe, by Lee Goldberg

In this article Tod Goldberg, Lee Goldberg's brother, talks about why he decided to do the novelization for Burn Notice and what the experience was like:
- Burn Notice: The Novel (Tod Goldberg), by Tod Goldberg, Special to The Times 

Notes/References



2. I say "usually" because in at least one episode the viewer was tricked into thinking they knew the murderer's identity when they didn't. For example, Double Shock and Last Salute to the Commodore.


4. Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James

5. 25 Things You Need To Know About Writing Mysteries, By Susan Spann, over at Chuck Wendig's blog TerribleMinds.com. (I wrote a post about Susan Spann's post, How To Write A Murder Mystery.)

Photo credit: "241" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, May 21

How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery

How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery


Ever wanted to write a murder mystery? I have! I love murder mysteries. I love reading them, I love watching them, I love thinking about them.

And so I was terrifically, fabulously, excited when I discovered that Lee Goldberg--screenwriter, executive producer, award winning mystery author, and New York Times bestselling author--had written an article about how to write a murder mystery. If anyone knows about writing a murder mystery, it's Goldberg. In addition to writing 15 Mr. Monk books (all of which I have read and enjoyed), Goldberg wrote 26 episodes of Diagnosis Murder and was an executive producer for the show. What follows is drawn from Lee Goldberg's article.

The Qualities of a Terrific Detective


Lee Goldberg writes:

"The idea for the mystery will arise from the personality of the hero, and what aspects of his character I want to explore, what arena (a place, industry, sport, culture, etc.) I want to put him in, and finally what kind of conflict I think will best bring all of those aspects together and give me a narrative engine for my story."[1]

The above paragraph, like most of Goldberg's wonderful article, is densely packed with information. Let's write out the points he brought up so we can see it at a glance:

- The detective should have an interesting personality.
- The detective should have a well-developed character.
- The setting (or arena) for the mystery should be pregnant with potential conflict.

The complex interplay of these three things (personality, character and setting) forms the narrative engine for the story.

An example: Adrian Monk


Lee Goldberg writes:

"If the character is, say, Adrian Monk, I start by asking myself what new aspect of his personality, his obsessive/compulsive disorder, and his relationships with others, can I explore this time? What situation can I put him in that he hasn’t been in before?"[1]

Let's unpack this.

1a. Personality


What is personality? For our purposes, I'm going to go with Wikipedia and say that:

"Personality has to do with individual differences among people in behavior patterns, cognition and emotion." (Personality, Wikipedia) 

When we talk about a person's--or a character's--personality we're talking about what is unique to them. What makes them who they are. It is the specific combination of general elements that comes together to make each person unique.

1b. Character


While personality has to do with what makes each individual unique--as well as how that can go wrong--character has more to do with the type of person one is. It has to do with archetypes, tropes. I'm not sure if that's how Goldberg uses the term, but it's how I'll use it in this article. 

1c. Strengths and weaknesses.


Like us, our characters have weaknesses. Mr. Monk had a prodigious memory as well as the ability to make connections between apparently unrelated things. He also suffered from an obsessive compulsive disorder and was scared of just about everything. Sherlock Holmes (in Sherlock) is inhumanly smart but socially clueless. Hercule Poirot was brilliant but vain. All characters have strengths and weaknesses. 

1d. Relationships


Our characters strengths and weaknesses define them, but so do their relationships with others. 

Every character has a goal and these goals conflict with each other. Also, these goals should get in the way of the main character--the detective--achieving their goal: solving the murder.

Additionally, characters and their interrelationships provide an excellent way to 'hook' characters into the story's setting/arena.

1e. Setting/Arena


Lee Goldberg writes:

"Those questions inevitably lead me to the arena, the world in which our story will take place. A UFO convention. A murder in a police precinct. A road-trip in a motorhome. But an arena is not necessarily a place. It can also be a situation, like the rivalry between mother and daughter for the love of the same man. Or how people cope with unexpected, and devastating financial hardship. Or how having a child changes relationships. The arena can also be a sport. The world of horse racing. The world of stamp collecting.

"You get the idea.

"The arena can be anything. It’s the setting, the backdrop, the context that allows you to reveal your hero to the reader in entertaining and compelling ways."[1]

The Inciting Incident


In a murder mystery the Inciting Incident is often the murder itself. Sometimes--I believe CSI does it this way, or at least used to when I watched CSI Vegas--the murder is shown first and then the hero, the detective (or detectives), comes on scene after the body is discovered. Sometimes the murder isn't shown and we just see the Call to Adventure and the detective is asked to discover the identity of the murderer.

Lee Goldberg writes that the main purpose of what I'm calling the Inciting Incident is to "create conflict and reveal character." Lester Dent wrote about having a clever device for the murder; something interesting, something puzzling. And I think that's important, but whatever one uses, whatever one's Inciting Incident is, it must serve those two functions; one about plot, the other character. It must:

(a) create conflict, and
(b) reveal character.

The Clues


Lee Goldberg writes:

"Now I can get into the nuts and bolts of figuring out the clues, and how the hero will discover them. This isn’t as hard as it sounds, either, because the clues will also be organic to the story, and because of that, they won’t just lead us to the killer, they will also stoke the conflict, illuminate the theme, and open up our arena. The clues will reveal themselves to you. Trust me on this."

The clues must:

- Lead to the killer
- Stoke the conflict
- Illuminate the theme
- Open up the arena

Using the clues.


"I need a number of clues, some red-herrings that point to other suspects, and some that point right to the murderer."[1]

The finish clue.


"The hardest clue is the finish clue, or as I call it, the “Ah, ha!” the little shred of evidence that allows the hero to solve the crime—but still leaves the reader in the dark.

"The finish clue is the hardest part of writing any mystery for me because it has to be something obscure enough that it won’t make it obvious who the killer is to everybody, but definitive enough that the reader will be satisfied when the hero nails the murderer with it."[1]

Character solutions vs forensic solutions.


Character solutions are, all things being equal, better than forensic solutions. Lee Goldberg writes:

"In my experience, the best “Ah-ha!” clues come from character, not from mere forensics. For instance, a character solution is having the hero discover that Aunt Mildred is the murderer because she’s such a clean freak, she couldn’t resist doing the dishes after killing her nephew. That’s so much more satisfying than a forensic solution, like finding Aunt Mildred’s finger print, or catching her on a security camera, or anything else that doesn’t require the detective to be clever and make some surprising deductions."[1]

That's it for today. On Friday I'll finish up looking at Lee Goldberg's article: How To Write A Murder Mystery. We'll look at the murderer, the victim, open versus closed mysteries as well as the importance of fair play. Stay tuned!

Update: Here's a link to How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery, Part Two of Two.

Here are other articles I've written about how to write a murder mystery.

Notes/References



Monday, May 19

4 Time Management Tips For Writers

4 Time Management Tips For Writers
Have you ever sat down to write and gotten up hours later ... and accomplished nothing?

I have.

Where does the time go? Yes, spending time on social media can be a time sink but--for myself at least--I think most of the time the problem is as simple as not being focused.

1. Be prepared.


The first step to getting things done is to know what it is you want to do.

The day before yesterday I sat down and wrote close to 5,000 words in three hours. I know there are oodles of folks who could do more with less, but I was pretty happy!

The next day I got next to nothing done. 

Why? What was the difference? 

On my productive day I focused. I knew what I wanted to write. I had mapped out the structure. On my unproductive day I didn't take the time to prepare; to figure out in advance exactly what I wanted to accomplish.

Think of all the time you could save if you never again had to stop and puzzle: Now, what was it I had to do?

How I apply this:

I need to make a list of the writing related tasks that:

a. Must be done today.
b. I would like to get done today.
c. I need to do at some point.

If a task needs to get done by a particular date I write down that date. (I find Google Tasks is great for this!)

Writing Lists


I've already talked about general-things-I-need-to-get-done lists, but now I'd like to talk about writing-related lists. (See: Time Management Tips For Writers.)

Elizabeth Spann Craig gives examples of lists she uses in her article Tips for Writing in Short Blocks of Time:

“5 ways to describe my protagonist,” 
“7 ways to describe the main setting,” 
“5 potential subplots involving secondary characters,”  
“5 possible endings for this book,” 
“7 ways my protagonist can grow,” 
“5 things my protagonist fears more than anything,”  
“my protagonist’s biggest goals”…you get the idea. [The quotations are all from ESC's article, Tips]

2. Find the place and time that works best for you.


I think it's a great idea to keep a writing log. You can do this with a program or just go Old School and enter the data into a spreadsheet program like Excel--or even a textfile! 

When I did this I used the following categories:

- Place (home office, couch, coffee shop, park, and so on)
- Date
- Day of the week
- Time started writing
- Time finished writing
- Number of words written

After a few weeks you'll be able to see where and when are the best times and places for you to write.

3. Every sliver of time counts.


Here's the power of lists. 

Remember those lists we talked about in the first step, "Be prepared?" Let's say you're standing in line at the market; the fellow in front of you is trying to buy something the cashier never knew existed and a bevy of tall, gangly, teenagers are scouring the shelves trying to figure out what it is and how much it costs.

So--if you decide to remain in line--you've got 10 minutes or so of nothing much to do. This doesn't have to be dead time. Pull out a list!

Here's the list I would work on: Come up with names for five characters in your WIP.

When I begin a story--this is true for my zero draft--I don't want to halt the creative flow by trying to puzzle out names, so I use whatever comes to mind or call them by their role. But, eventually, all my characters have to end up with names, names that suit their personalities.

If I'm stuck in line at a checkout, I'll look around at the contents of the shopping carts around me. If I saw a jar of Bick's pickles (my favorite) I might be inspired to name one of my pseudo-people "Bickerson" or "Bickers" or "Bicksly," and so on.

Another way I come up with names while waiting in line is by picking up a magazine and looking at the credits section. Often a name written there will suggest an idea. If not, then I might start combining part of one name with a part of another. For example, if I saw the name, "Edward Robinson," and "Jeremy Hall" I might write down, "Robin Hall" which might suggest the name "Hallingsworth," and so on.

You get the idea. Do whatever works for you.

4. Reward yourself.


This is a step I think folks skip all too often. We let the cares of the day, the hour, the minute, carry us away and it is effortless to let oneself be swept up in them, and swept away.

But when you accomplish something significant--even if it's just that you did everything on your to-do-list for the day--celebrate!

For myself, sometimes this celebration is as humdrum as getting up from my chair, stretching, and taking a walk among the unfamiliar and somewhat shocking abundance of colorful plants in our newly established community gardens.

Or--a less healthy alternative--I'll get another coffee. (grin)

What do you do to keep your writing schedule on track?

Good writing!

Photo credit: "L1410411" by Savara under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, May 14

Preparing To Write A Story: Characters

Preparing To Write A Story: Characters


Today I continue writing about science fiction and fantasy author Michael Moorcock and his guidelines for writing a 45,000 to 60,000 word novel in three days.

Last time (see: How Michael Moorcock Wrote A Novel In Three Days) I wrote about how to begin setting things up, how to prepare for this literary marathon. Today I'm going to continue that discussion by talking about characters.

How many characters should you have?


I've heard it said that, "You should have as many characters as the story calls for." That's true but not terribly useful, especially for a beginning writer.  

While there is no clear-cut answer to this question, I would advise someone setting out to write their first book to let the adage "Less is more" be their guide. In other words, as long as each character has an arc that ties in with the main character's goal, that's fine. But if a character doesn't advance the story then one needs to think long and hard about whether that character should be in the story.[1] 

Also, in general, you likely don't want two or more characters filling the same role. For instance, if you're writing a 60,000 word novel and you have two vixen characters, ask yourself whether you really need them. What is each of them doing for the plot? Can you combine them?

Main Characters: Protagonist & Antagonist


You'll have a main character/hero/protagonist (of course!); this is the character the story is about. Their arc is the story arc. You'll also have an antagonist/villain, someone to oppose the hero's efforts to achieve his goal. That's the bare minimum.[2] 

Secondary Characters


Secondary characters are sometimes called minor characters. Whatever you call them, these are characters who have their own arcs, their own wants and fears, their own goals and dilemmas. In this way they're just like the protagonist and antagonist. The only difference is that the arcs of secondary characters are, well, secondary to those of the main characters. Being secondary doesn't mean being unimportant, it just means that their arc will, in some way shape or form, tie in with the protagonist's arc.[3]

Some secondary characters may have their own scenes, scenes in which they are the viewpoint characters. If you want to keep things simple--and the first time you write a book I'd say that's a great idea--have your protagonist be your only viewpoint character. But, like everything about writing, that's up to you and the demands of your story. Generally speaking, though, viewpoint characters will have more robust arcs than non-viewpoint characters.

K.M. Weiland advises that writers should add a relationship character to the mix since they will represent "the moral absolute within the story, against which the protagonist and antagonist will both be measured."

Best friend. In the movie Shrek the relationship character was Donkey. Clearly, Donkey was a force of change in Shrek's life, Donkey was Shrek's moral/ethical compass; Donkey never felt shy about telling Shrek how he should be doing things. 

Shrek provides us with just one example, but if you think about the stories you've read/watched/listened to I'm sure you will think of dozens of others since helper characters are in practically every story. 

Romantic interest. If the relationship character is the protagonist's love interest then it often happens that this character can see a potential in the protagonist that they themselves are blind to, perhaps that they (at times) actively resist. The love interest often tries to get the protagonist to change in ways that, though painful in the short term, would allow the protagonist to fulfill their potential. For example, in The Matrix Trinity helped Neo realize he was The One.

Minor antagonist. More colorfully referred to as an Evil Minion, Black Shirt, Punch Clock Villain, Renfield, or Sycophantic Servant this is the antagonist's special helper. Sometimes the antagonist is a Big Bad in which case the helper might be the protagonist's Nemesis.

Protagonist's mentor. There are all sorts of mentors. The wise old man/wizard/knight, the trickster, a teacher/guide/watcher, big brother, and so on. The mentor often gives the protagonist gifts as well as wise advice. If the hero--as often happens--initially rejects the Call to Adventure the mentor often convinces the hero to take up the challenge.

Chameleon. Often there is what I think of as a chameleon character, someone who seems as though they might be playing both sides, but one can't tell. Severus Snape, from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, was a chameleon character. He seemed to be working for the dark side but he turned out to be a red herring. The chameleon could be any of the characters--best friend, love interest, mentor or even the antagonist's minion.

Helper. What I just said about the chameleon being a role more than a character type/trope is also true for the protagonist's helper. This role could be filled with either the best friend, the love interest, the mentor or any of the many tropes which exist

So far we have:

Main character/Protagonist/Hero
Main character's conscience
- Best friend
- Love interest
- Mentor
Antagonist
Antagonist's minion

If you're trying to keep things as simple as possible, it's a good idea to try and keep the number of major characters--character's whose arcs are the most significant and who might be viewpoint characters--down to two or three.

We didn't talk very much about Michael Moorcock's method/formula for writing a novel in three days, but we do at least have a better idea of the kind of characters we'll be using. In the next episode in this series I'll talk more about the hero/protagonist and whether there are any qualities in particular the protagonist should have.

Good writing!

Links/References/Comments


1. "Each [character] takes extra words, extra space, extra effort. Throw in too many, and you may even lose or confuse your reader." (Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer)

2. The antagonist doesn't have to be a person; it can be, for example, a force of nature such as a tornado. But that is less common in genre stories and those are the kind I have in mind. Also, I think it is harder to use a non-sentient force (such as a tornado) as an antagonist and I write these blog posts with new writers in mind. Finishing a novel is difficult enough; let's make everything else as easy as we can the first time round!

3. The arcs of secondary characters don't always tie in with the arc of the protagonist. Some stories will have (for example) four characters whose stories are given equal weight and who don't interact, whose stories don't overlap. These stories-within-a-story are, from what I've seen, generally unified either by a person, a place or an idea. (Examples: Pulp Fiction and Short Cuts.) I didn't mention this within the body of my article because I'm focusing on writing a very simple story.

Links to interesting articles on characters and character creation:

Photo credit: "bike" by Greg Westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, May 13

How To Put Emotions Into Words

How To Put Emotions Into Words


Just now +Adam Zielinski posted a marvelous pictorial representation of how emotions are structured; he posted on the Writer's Discussion Group, one of the communities I belong to. I immediately popped the graphic into my "writing resources" folder in Evernote and went in search of more. 

But then I thought ... wait! I should share this on my blog. 

A Wheel Of Emotions




The wheel can be found here. Thanks go to Adam Zielinski.

Categorizing Emotions, Wikipedia Style


Here is a classification of 48 emotions in terms of whether they are:

- Negative or Positive
- Forceful or Passive

And so on. Here's a link to the article: Contrasting and categorization of emotions.

Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions


You can see Plutchik's wheel in the post I linked to, above, but over at ThisIsIndexed.com Jessica Hagy wrote an interesting article and, as well, drew her own visual representation of the wheel.



That's the first of three sketches she did, you can read her article here: Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions.

And that's it! Tomorrow I'll either talk about Michael Moorcock's writing method or I'll share one of the other projects I've been working on. 

I hope you have a good writing day.

Photo credit: "One of these blacks is not like the others..." by Laura D'Alessandro under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, May 12

Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts

Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts


I finally published the first episode of my book on writing: Parts of Story: Plot!

To celebrate, and to say a big, huge, massive thank you! to my readers, if you subscribed to my email list before today then you should have received an email telling you how to download a free copy. You don't have to sign anything, there are no strings. I just want to give you the book for free. (Because all good things come to an end, this offer will expire May 26, 2014.) 

If you hadn't subscribed to my newsletter before today you can still get Parts of Story: Plot for free. Just subscribe to my newsletter and then contact me and ask for the book. 

Back to writing about writing ...


A couple of weeks ago I received feedback from one of my beta readers about my manuscript for Parts of Story. He said, "Great book! But I don't understand how scenes and sequels are related to overall story structure."

Oops! I corrected that before I published my book, but the more I thought about the subject, the more I wanted to expand on what I wrote. So ... blog post!

Jack Bickham: Scene & Structure


I just finished reading a terrific book on writing. I almost said "the best book on writing I've ever read" but there are so many great books on writing I couldn't possibly pick a favorite. At the moment, Jack Bickham's Scene & Structure and Stephen King's On Writing are definitely at the top of my favorites list, though for different reasons.

Although both Scene & Structure and On Writing seem to have been written with beginning writers in mind (though they have a lot to offer writers of every level of experience) the authors approach their topic—how to write—in very different ways. King focuses more on the art of writing while Bickham focuses more on the craft of writing. 

The Craft Of Writing


Let's get the definitions out of the way.

A scene is:


"A scene is a unit of conflict, of struggle, lived through by character and reader. It’s a blow-by-blow account of somebody’s time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition." (Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer)

A sequel is:


"A sequel is a unit of transition that links two scenes, like the coupler between two railroad cars. It sets forth your focal character’s reaction to the scene just completed, and provides him with motivation for the scene next to come." (Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer)

You may think it's odd that I raved about Jack Bickham's book and then used definitions from Dwight V. Swain's. Swain was Bickham's teacher, his mentor and his friend. Bickham is expanding on what Swain said, he's filtering it through is own understanding and experience, but it's the same system.[1]

A sequence is:


A daisy chain of scenes and sequels that has a beginning, middle and end and which is unified by an idea. 

An act is:


A daisy chain of sequences. Just like each scene and sequence has a beginning so does every act. A beginning, a middle and end. Acts, in turn, combine to form the major structural bones of a story.

The Three Act Structure


As we've just seen, scene-sequel pairs make up sequences, sequences compose acts and acts form the skeleton of a story.

How many acts? It doesn't matter. Three acts, four acts, two acts, one act, six acts, you name it. One of the most popular--and most useful--structures is the three act structure (or the four act structure that simply chops the second act down the middle to yield four equal parts). 

I'm not going to go over this structure in detail since I've stepped through it in my post: Story Structure (I've updated that post in my book).

Sequences and Acts


Typically, there are two sequences in the first act, four sequences in the second act and two sequences in the third act. (For more about sequences see, The Eight Sequences, over at ScriptLab.com.)

That's it! That's how scenes and sequels fit into acts. Of course that's the bare bones, the basics. In the future I want to go over the structure of scenes and sequels in more detail, as well as how scenes flow into sequels and vice versa. At the end of Scene & Structure Jack Bickham gives the structure of a complete (hypothetical) 50,000 word suspense novel. I won't go that far, but if you're interested I would encourage you to get ahold of his book and study it.

Good writing!

References/Notes/Links


1. Jack Bickham wrote: "This book is dedicated to the memory of Dwight V. Swain: writer, teacher and friend. Without him, I would have had no career as a novelist."

Wednesday, May 7

How James Patterson Works With His Co-Authors



We all know that James Patterson is good at selling books. I've written about Patterson before, about how 1 in every 17 hardback novels sold bears his name, about how he has sold more books than anyone else since 2001. 

Famously, Patterson works with co-authors, at least six, to keep up his prolific output. One thing I've wondered and guessed about over the years is what Patterson's working relationship is like with these co-authors. Does the co-author do it all? Does Patterson write the outline, hand it off to the co-author, then stand back? Or perhaps Patterson is more hands-on, even going so far as to re-write passages in the novel?

How James Patterson Works With His Co-Writers


Today I was researching an article I'm writing on Lee Child when I came across Mark Sullivan, one of Patterson's co-authors, talking about his collaboration with Patterson. In the article What I Learned from James Patterson, Sullivan wrote:
"I’ve been lucky enough to write with James Patterson for the past two and a half years. Before that I’d written eight novels, including Rogue, been published in multiple languages, sold books into movies, and been nominated for and won various awards. In short, I thought I knew what I was doing when it came to commercial fiction. Working with Patterson, however, I discovered quickly that I didn’t.

"I’d always worked organically, starting a tale to see where it took me and then figuring out an outline if the story showed promise. My coauthor forced me to think logically and deeply through every scene up front, long before we even thought about writing.

"During the eight weeks it took us to craft the outline of Private Berlin, for example, Patterson was constantly pushing the envelope, from the premise to the characters, from the action to the setting. In conversations that took place on a weekly basis, he bluntly criticized my initial efforts, made me want to be better, and in so doing gave me a master class in commercial fiction. What I’ve learned from the global bestselling author could fill a book [...]"
I'd like to read that book!

I think some of the best information on the details of what collaborating with James Patterson is like comes from the article James Patterson Inc. by Jonathan Mahler. He writes:
"The way it usually works, Patterson will write a detailed outline--sometimes as long as 50 pages, triple-spaced--and one of his co-authors will draft the chapters for him to read, revise and, when necessary, rewrite. When he’s first starting to work with a new collaborator, a book will typically require numerous drafts. Over time, the process invariably becomes more efficient. Patterson pays his co-authors out of his own pocket. On the adult side, his collaborators work directly and exclusively with Patterson. On the Y.A. side, they sometimes work with Patterson’s young-adult editor, who decides when pages are ready to be passed along to Patterson."
Sounds as though Patterson is very hands-on.

Love him or hate him, James Patterson knows how to sell a lot of books. Of course, being a former advertising executive ("Patterson ran J. Walter Thompson’s North American branch before becoming a full-time writer in 1996"[2]) helps. On top of that:
"Patterson and his publisher, Little, Brown & Co., a division of the Hachette Book Group, have an unconventional relationship. In addition to his two editors, Patterson has three full-time Hachette employees (plus assistants) devoted exclusively to him: a so-called brand manager who shepherds Patterson’s adult books through the production process, a marketing director for his young-adult titles and a sales manager for all his books. Despite this support staff and his prodigious output, Patterson is intimately involved in the publication of his books. [...] [H]e handles all of his own advertising and closely monitors just about every other step of the publication process, from the design of his jackets to the timing of his books’ release to their placement in stores."[2]
It's an older article--published January 20, 2010--but still well worth the read.

Photo credit: "Friedrichsthal Castle" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, May 6

How Michael Moorcock Wrote A Novel In Three Days

How Michael Moorcock Wrote A Novel In Three Days



Today I'd like to talk about science fiction and fantasy author Michael Moorcock and his guidelines for writing a 45,000 to 60,000 word novel in three days. 

This feels like a confession--and I suppose it is!--but I wasn't familiar with Moorcock's work until a couple of years ago. He's one of only a few genre writers who have also published successful literary novels. Also--and this is straight from Michael Moorcock's Wikipedia page--The Times named Moorcock in their list of The 50 greatest British writers since 1945.

I think I discovered Moorcock around the same time as Lester Dent. It seems that, when Moorcock first started out, he was a pulpiteer of sorts:

"Most of Moorcock's earlier work consisted of short stories and relatively brief novels: he has mentioned that 'I could write 15,000 words a day and gave myself three days a volume. That's how, for instance, the Hawkmoon books were written.'" (Michael Moorcock, Wikipedia)

Michael Moorcock's Formula


In "How to Write a Book in Three Days," Eric Rosenfield writes:

"In the early days of Michael Moorcock's 50-plus-years career, when he was living paycheck-to-paycheck, he wrote a whole slew of action-adventure sword-and-sorcery novels very, very quickly, including his most famous books about the tortured anti-hero Elric. In 1992, he published a collection of interviews conducted by Colin Greenland called Michael Moorcock: Death is No Obstacle, in which he discusses his writing method. In the first chapter, "Six Days to Save the World", he says those early novels were written in about "three to ten days" each, and outlines exactly how one accomplishes such fast writing."

That's what I'd like to talk about today: How Michael Moorcock did it, how he wrote a book in only a few days. 

All the quotations in what follows (except where otherwise indicated) are from Michael Moorcock: Death is No Obstacle via Rosenfield's article. I would love to read Death Is No Obstacle, and to provide an expanded overview of Moorcock's writing techniques, but I refuse to pay the $150 it's selling for on Amazon! I hope that, one day, the book will become available as an ebook.

1. Be Prepared. 


MM: "If you're going to do a piece of work in three days, you have to have everything properly prepared."

Good advice. Great advice! But what, exactly, would this preparation consist of? 

Michael Moorcock talks about how to prepare to write a book quickly at various points later in the interview, and we'll look at that, but here I'd like to talk about some of the things Lester Dent did to prepare to write a story in a short amount of time. 

You might wonder why I've chosen Lester Dent. It's because Moorcock mentions Dent and his formula in both Death is No Obstacle and in his list of 10 rules for writers:

"7. For a good melodrama study the famous "Lester Dent master plot formula" which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre." (Michael Moorcock's Rules For Writers, The Guardian)

Also, anytime a person sits down to write a massive amount in a short span of time, one needs to prepare and, even though a 45,000 word book is a lot longer than a 6,000 word story, still, many of the things we need to set up are the same--or at least similar.

Lester Dent on what must be in place to write a story quickly:


Lester Dent writes that you need to think about four things before sitting down to write a story:

1. A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE
2. A DIFFERENT THING FOR VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING
3. A DIFFERENT LOCALE
4. A MENACE WHICH IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO [2]

I think that by "different" Dent meant a thing that was unusual, something mysterious; something that would catch a readers attention (I'll talk about this in more detail in point 5, perhaps I'll get to that on Friday).

You don't need to come up with something unique and mysterious for each of (1), (2) and (3), above. As Dent writes:

"One of these DIFFERENT things would be nice, two better, three swell. It may help if they are fully in mind before tackling the rest."[2]

In other words, come up with ideas for all three, but only one of them needs to be different and mysterious. 

By now we should have:

a. A murder method.
b. The villain's goal.
c. The setting.

One of a, b or c must be different; interesting, attention grabbing, mysterious. If all of them are, great! But we only need one.

d. A menace which hangs over the hero.

Here's how I think about the menace. Imagine a man in a rowboat being chased by a shark. The man is paddling toward land as fast as he can, but the shark is slowly gaining.

A hero/protagonist is driven by two forces: the situation he is trying to escape (the shark) and whatever it is he hopes to achieve; his goal (the land). Generally these two things are related (being chased by the shark explains the man's emphatic desire to reach land) and yet are distinct.

Using this analogy, the menace that hangs over the hero is his fear of the shark, anticipating being made into a nice light, very bloody, snack.  (In a sense, too, the shark, the menace, provides the ticking clock, but we'll look more at that later in this series.)

Links/References/Notes

1. The Wet Asphalt articles on Michael Moorcock:

2. Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, by Lester Dent hosted over at paper-dragon.com.

Photo credit: "News from the Pottery Market" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, May 2

Creativity, Inc: Ed Catmull On Success, Candor And Fear Of Failure



I'm reading Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull.[1] For me, the most interesting parts are where Catmull talks about failure and how to handle failure. 

Failure is an intrinsic part of a creative person's life, whether they are a singer, a songwriter, whether they play an instrument or write stories. We've all experienced failure of some sort and if there is one thing I believe with all my heart it is that how we handle failure goes a long way to determining whether we will succeed.

In Creativity, Inc. Catmull writes:

"Left to their own devices, most people don’t want to fail. But Andrew Stanton isn’t most people. As I’ve mentioned, he’s known around Pixar for repeating the phrases “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.” He thinks of failure like learning to ride a bike; it isn’t conceivable that you would learn to do this without making mistakes—without toppling over a few times. “Get a bike that’s as low to the ground as you can find, put on elbow and knee pads so you’re not afraid of falling, and go,” he says. If you apply this mindset to everything new you attempt, you can begin to subvert the negative connotation associated with making mistakes. Says Andrew: “You wouldn’t say to somebody who is first learning to play the guitar, ‘You better think really hard about where you put your fingers on the guitar neck before you strum, because you only get to strum once, and that’s it. And if you get that wrong, we’re going to move on.’ That’s no way to learn, is it?”

Agreed!

The idea here isn't that one should try to fail--I can picture someone sitting in a bar nursing their third scotch and soda saying, "I'm on my third divorce, whoohoo!"--but that our goal shouldn't be to avoid failure since that path leads to mediocrity. Instead, we should strive to achieve success. 

Fear of failure leads to taking fewer risks and innovating less. Instead, we want our curiosity to drive experimentation. The alternative is to play it safe so we won't fail, but if we look at things that way, if we take "don't fail" as our goal, we'll never do anything brilliant. 

And, yes, maybe we will never do anything stunningly brilliant, but it's a lot more fun to be creative and fail occasionally than to play it safe, never fail, and hate what we do. 

Pixar's Rough Drafts Suck


This line suprised me: "early on, all of our movies suck." That got my attention! Here's the entire quotation:

"[C]andor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I make a point of repeating it often, and I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions of our films really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing by saying this. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.” This idea—that all the movies we now think of as brilliant were, at one time, terrible—is a hard concept for many to grasp. But think about how easy it would be for a movie about talking toys to feel derivative, sappy, or overtly merchandise-driven. Think about how off-putting a movie about rats preparing food could be, or how risky it must’ve seemed to start WALL-E with 39 dialogue-free minutes. We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. And this is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process—reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul."

That's courageous! And they've gotten terrific results. (By the way, Maria Popova over at BrainPickings.com has written a wonderful article about Catmull's book.)

Having planted my feet firmly on the "failure is an agent of learning" bandwagon, I'd like to offer a couple of notes of warning.

1. Pick the right people.


Catmull writes:

"Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others. Show early and show often. It’ll be pretty when we get there, but it won’t be pretty along the way. And that’s as it should be."

I agree! In principle. 

Yes, in the best groups that's true. But I've learnt from experience that humans have good reasons to fear speaking up in groups, to fear sharing the product of their creativity with others. Unfortunately some--whether through ignorance or malice--find glee in ripping the creative efforts of others to painful, bloody, shreds. Don't give them the chance.

Yes, share your creative work with others, but test them first. Don't wear your heart on your sleeve the first time. Get to know your collaborators and make sure they're the right fit for you. A team that is simpatico (and here I'm thinking of writer, beta readers, editor, etc.) is a beautiful thing. One that isn't grinds everyone down. Picking the right people to rely on is key. (IMHO)

2. Don't try to fail.


I know I've said this before, but it's an important point. 

Catmull is saying that you shouldn't aim to avoid failure--you shouldn't have that as your goal--because that's focusing on the wrong thing. Rather, aim for the stars and embrace failure when it happens. 

Of course, if you're aiming high, if you're trying to do things no one else has, you're going to fail. A lot. But Catmull says that's okay. You're learning. Adapting. Evolving. A culture--whether corporate or otherwise--that doesn't foster people who are willing to take risks will never achieve anything truly great. Anything truly different. Why? Because they will be too fearful to strike out where no one has gone before (yes, I'm hearing the Star Trek theme in my head!)

I think Ed Catmull's book, Creativity, Inc. is a must for any creative professional to read, especially the chapters on candor (Chapter 5) and fear of failure (Chapter 6). 

Notes/Links/References


1. Ed Catmull is a computer scientist and president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios.

Photo credit: "spring in the park" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, May 1

Parts of Story: The Preconditions For Suspense

Parts of Story: The Preconditions For Suspense

What follows is the final section of Parts of Story: Plot. (Yes, I'm doing a happy dance!) 

If you've been enjoying these posts, don't worry, there will be many more since I have yet to write the second and third parts in this series: Parts of Story: Setting and Characterization & Parts of Story: Point of View and Theme. That said, I will continue doing a normal blog post every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. All the chapters will be prefaced with "Parts of Story" so if you'd rather not read as I blog my book, those posts are easy to ignore.

For those of you who have signed up for my newsletter, I expect to have Parts of Story: Plot finished by Friday May 9th. At that time I'll send out an email to everyone. It is difficult to put into words how much I appreciate you guys and gals, my readers. As a small thank you I would like to make Parts of Story: Plot free for a week to anyone would requests a copy. I'll explain the logistics of all that in the newsletter. 

Okay! Enough talk. Here is the final chapter:

In order for a tale to be suspenseful, what must be the case?

1. Conflict


What is conflict? How is it generated? 

It's simple. Conflict results from the clash of two things: the character's goal and the opposition to that goal.

The hero seeks something, desires something--freedom, money, love, respect--and he has a goal. This goal is concrete. It's so specific one could film the hero attaining it. 

Something that the hero fears opposes him, something that has the ability to prevent the hero from achieving his goal and, thus, attaining his desire.

If the hero desires freedom then early parole might be his concrete goal, something we could depict by the huge outer doors of a prison opening and the hero walking out into the world, once again in charge of his life.

Perhaps the warden decides to frame the hero for something he didn't do and, in so doing, keep him imprisoned longer. 

If the hero desires money then a concrete goal might be to rob the bank on 1st and 3rd at three o'clock in the afternoon of July 4th, when the guards change shifts. 

But perhaps the bank brings in extra security guards for July 4th and some of them are Navy Seals.

And so on.

2. Stakes


To create suspense, the stakes of the conflict should be clearly spelled out in advance, before the hero is menaced by the danger. 

The general stakes for most horror movies are as follows: 

The hero wins: the hero (and possibly one or more other characters) escape the evil and live.

The hero loses: the hero fails to escape the evil and everyone dies.  

By the way, The Cabin in the Woods gives these stakes an interesting twist. It's a huge spoiler, so skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the movie and want the ending to be a surprise. Ready? Okay ... In The Cabin in the Woods Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard put an ironic twist on the stakes making it the case that if the hero (Marty) wins and escapes the evil then the world will end. On the other hand, if the hero allows himself to be killed then the world will be safe ... and five other people will be brutally murdered every single year the world stays that way. Talk about a no-win situation!

3. A ticking clock


“Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.”

To help build tension it helps if, in some way or other, the hero is racing against a clock, though perhaps not an actual clock. They must be under pressure. This both sets a deadline and gives the character time to plan, to agonize and, finally, to fight; time in which the reader can agonize.

Raise A Question


When we talk about creating suspense we, of course, are talking about an emotional state that exists within a reader/viewer/listener. Generally we try to evoke this emotional state by getting our readers to identify with our characters--especially our hero. We make it clear what the hero needs and then we force the protagonist into danger as he tries to attain his goal.

Yes, certainly, this kind of conflict creates suspense. But I would like to point out that there is another, related, way to create suspense: raise a question.

Lee Child is a great proponent of this method. He even goes so far as to say that it doesn't especially matter whether your readers care about the characters or the subject matter; there is something about a question being raised that makes us want to know the answer.

I agree.

The other day I read a fabulous short story--"In The Cave" by Tessa Hadley--where suspense was generated by a question the storyteller asked: What happened to break the hero's infatuation with her almost-boyfriend? 

Yes, I read on because the writing was enchanting, and because of the conflict generated by the clash of the protagonist's current state of affairs and the state of affairs she desired for herself. But, mostly, I read on because I wanted to know the answer to the question the storyteller had raised in the first paragraph: Why hadn't it worked out between the protagonist and her companion?

In Summary



Suspense is an emotional state within your reader, one most writers wish to evoke, and that emotional state depends upon two things. First, the reader asking the question: what happens next? Second, the reader being interested enough in the characters for the answer to matter.