Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 10 - Torture test your scenes

I've been working to improve scenes that showed up in my story but aren't up to the quality of some of the other scenes. It took me about three hours to go through 20 scenes of a Young Adult novel I'm working on, and it made an amazing difference. Here's what a card for one of the scenes looked like.
Now to explain:

Scene number indicates where it is in the manuscript. This is the 12th scene in the novel. I added "S" because this manuscript has more than one viewpoint character and this scene is from Sarah's point of view.

Title That bolded bit above, Stalking 101. This is optional, but I've found titling scenes helps me to keep a focus on them. Often, it also reveals something about their nature. If I can't title a scene, it's a pretty good indication the scene isn't really needed.

Pages (pp38-40) In addition to providing a reference for revision, having the page numbers across many scenes gives me a sense of how much variation there is, when scenes run long and when scenes run short.

Goal Every scene needs a purpose. The main goal here was for Sarah to solve the riddle of some strange behavior by the new boy at school, Daniel.

Conflict Sarah had a goal, but it wasn't easily accomplished. As she followed Daniel, he seemed to sense he was being spied upon. And once he got to the abandoned house he was squatting in, he was able to catch her snooping.

Consequences I have these in practical terms (got her secret, but got caught) and emotional (responsibility, fear, empathy). For each of the scenes I analyzed, I included both of these.

Setting For me setting is time as well as place, and I want to check to see there are enough touchpoints to help the reader get/stay immersed in the story and that the setting is appropriate to the experience. Here, noir-ish elements support feelings of guilt, fear and vulnerability.

Cliffhanger This does not have to go all "Perils of Pauline," but there needs to be a reason to keep reading. Usually, an interesting question suffices. Making sure the reader cares about what happens next is good enough.

A lot of these card sections are reference. and some are not for everyone. I do believe that testing each scene for a goal, conflict, consequences, enough of a setting for reader immersion, and a reason to keep reading is essential to effective story revision. That means five factors for each scene (about 40 scenes in a feature script, typically 60 or more in a novel.

This simple analysis showed me some scenes I'd written were incomplete (and ideas on how to fix them came readily to mind). I also noticed which felt underwritten and thin. The surprise for me was how the cards came together to reveal sequences and suggest ways to cut, add, and improve story logic. A lot was accomplished in a relatively short amount of time. (If this had been a script, it would have provided direction for fixes for half the story!)

So here's what you might try at home. In your story, think of a scene that is less remarkable than your other scenes. Create either a full card for it (like the example) or just test the scene for goal, conflict, consequences, enough of a setting for reader immersion, and a reason to keep reading. If anything is missing or weak, you already have a payoff from the exercise. But don't stop there. Analyze the scene before and the scene after so you get a good view of how it fits into the larger story. Chances are, this will give you additional insights.

Even if you don't do every scene, looking at the weak ones is likely to provide you with ideas on how to make them -- and your story -- stronger.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 9 - Sneaky villains

Not all stories need villains. Not all antagonists need to be bad. And, when you can give the bad guys good points, that adds dimensions to your story.

There are lots of ways to create and enhance your villains, and I wrote about some of them in a five-part series that began last March. Today, to continue Try This at Home, I'll introduce three things you can experiment with to make your villains more difficult to handle because none of them hit your heroes in straightforward ways.

He's so nice. One way we deal with real-life troublemakers is by sharing thoughts and experiences with other victims. Even if these don't prepare us for the next assault, they validate what we went through and make us feel less singled out and alone.

Which is why making the villain seem nice to others is so painful for your hero. No one believes he acted so viciously. They wonder if your protagonist is paranoid or cruel. How can he or she say such awful things? Whenever your protagonist is isolated, the burden of abuse becomes harsher. If you make everyone around your hero a fan of the opposition (or at least sympathetic to the bad guy -- seeing him as the victim), every complaint gets stifled. Every action aimed at escaping persecution is questioned.

Put this into action by seeing if your villain can, minimally, make someone dear to the protagonist into a loyal ally.

You're a bully. When the villain is seen as wronged, weaker, or downtrodden, he gets a strange power. People root for the underdog. They want to champion the oppressed. I remember Danny Simon saying that Michael J. Fox's character in Family Ties could get away with anything because he was so small. Standing up to him would automatically make you appear evil. But imagine being at his mercy instead of safely in the audience?

I remember, back in the days before credit cards were ubiquitous, a baseball hero of mine took his savings and bought a sports equipment store. One by one, the local Little League teams outfitted themselves on credit and didn't pay their bills. They bankrupted him and forced him back out on the road as a radio announcer. They were villains who knew his complaints would make him look like a bully.

See if you can find a way to give your bad guy the appearance of being powerless compared to our protagonist.

Winning is the only thing. There are villains who are so obsessed, they have no limits. They'll damage themselves rather than lose. Certainly, mobsters who are so ruthless they kill off whole families create shock and can terrorize their victims. But there is a special fear when the bad guy seems to have slipped off the rails because he is willing to see those he himself loves get hurt rather than suffer an insult.

An example of this in real life that might fit this, depending upon your point of view, is Gordon Liddy holding his hand over a flame to make a point. If you take your villains and mess with Maslow's pyramid of needs, giving them priorities that lead to their accepting horrible losses and the unimaginable will become all too real.

So put your hero up against someone who vividly illustrates his "natural" responses are inverted.

Note that none of these explicitly target the hero or, by themselves, cause him harm. You can disadvantage your protagonist (and shift the balance to the antagonist) in many ways that are indirect. Passive-aggressive actions, gaslighting, and enticements that reveal the flaws of the main character all fit this model. And they are all difficult to defend against.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 8 - Developing your story ideas

According to two-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, "The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas." If you write regularly, you probably already know this. Most authors I know are forever capturing story concepts in journals, dictating them to create audio memos, and scribbling on the backs of receipts. (Those who are serious take Ray Bradbury's advice and write the ideas down in full sentences.)

Most concepts wither away and die of their own accord. The excitement that caused them to be recorded fades. Some rattle around until they meet another idea and find their ways onto to-do lists. The most persistent refuse to go away. They keep popping up, sometimes hooking writers years later and demanding full treatment in a novel, a short story, or a script.

But an idea is not a story. Even the most evocative logline needs to be developed into something more, with characters, a setting, and a plot that has a beginning, middle, and end. It's just fine to let all this development happen as part of the writing process. Writing by the seat of your pants ("pantsing") is a legitimate way to grow as story from a small seed, and it's a great way to end up with an organic work that is full of surprises (if you're careful not to settle for cliches).

There are rigorous ways to develop an idea. Once a story goal is clear, you can write lists of tasks the protagonist must complete and more lists developing the possible obstacles. These can be pruned, organized, and shaped into a detailed outline that provides the blueprints for a story.

It also can be valuable to look at the concept one piece at a time, and that's what I'll present in this post:

Choose characters who have a lot to lose. I just wrote a piece based on a real incident. Historically, reputations were at risk, but that was not very dramatic. I kept the same issues and the same event, but I lowered the social standing of the characters. These people had their careers, their marriages, and even their health at risk.

Moving up socially can work for different stories. For instance, an affair usually puts people at risk, but it usually would put a prominent televangelist more at risk than a grocer or a car mechanic.

Manipulate power. The best stories have people pushed to do the impossible. If it's not hard for the protagonist, it's not much of a story. A man needs to drive into the wilderness to say goodbye to his dying mother. A rich man goes there by helicopter. It takes him a couple of hours. He travels in comfort. A poor man needs to get a car. He can't get one that can go off road, which means he has to map out a longer route that may risk his getting caught in a snowstorm. He won't have a heater in the car. He will only have enough food for four of the five days needed to reach his destination, and none for his return. Etc.

Age can be power, too. Ten-year olds can't drive and are not allowed in bars. Sex? Think of what was forbidden to women through most of history (and into today).

Culture and intelligence can be power.  MacGyver was so versed in engineering, he could create problem-solving devices out of whatever was at hand. Most people couldn't. Or making language an obstacle can put your protagonist at a disadvantage. (In fact, there is a whole genre of fish-out-of-water stories, where local knowledge collides with the odd ways of an outsider.)

Raise the stakes by making the character critical to a larger goal. In his stories, James Joyce seems obsessed with the failure of Charles Parnell, an advocate of Irish Nationalism. He was a key figure in his time, and, when his adultery was revealed, his political support faded away and Ireland had to wait decades for independence. Making a potential personal failure relevant to the outcome of a cause that affects many can sharpen your story.

Avoid what's sensible. The best stories are not about reasonable people. They are about believable people who are pressed beyond what's reasonable. So be careful about providing any conventional answers to the story question. Find some that are not reasonable and make them believable.

George Bernard Shaw said it best, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." Unreasonable men also have better stories.

That brings up what I mentioned above about not settling for cliches. Here's something I've tried with my classes. Make a list of 20 animals. When people do this, most of the animals are common across some of the students lists. Almost always, however, when the last few animals are listed, they are distinct for each student. Originality comes up later, with some work (and even desperation). Your answers on how to do a story task like break into a warehouse are likely to begin with the obvious. But, if you keep at it, you'll come up with something special.

Of course, this article does not provide an exhaustive list of approaches to idea development. In fact, it leaves out one of my favorites, which is a free-wheeling brainstorm with imaginative friends. I love it when anything is acceptable and people get competitive about going for the most outrageous possibilities. The best stories are often the most extreme, especially those that take the writer out of his or her comfort zone.

So, give idea development a try. Play with characters, stakes, and obstacles. The only rule is to keep going until something weird and enchanting emerges.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 7 - Pacing, fast and slow

If you write page turners, people will seek out your work. An important factor in accomplishing this is managing the story’s pacing. For many writers, this comes naturally. The events of the story just emerge as appropriate for their storytelling style. But, especially for longer works like novels, it may be necessary to consciously adjust the pacing.

The ideal? Everything in the story gets the time that it needs. And there aren't any hard and fast rules as to how long you should dwell on different portions, because much of this depends upon getting the balance between emotion and verisimilitude correct. But it’s obvious when writers get this wrong. Emotional scenes go by too fast with too little impact. Events jumbled together in ways that make them less clear. Descriptions seem to last forever and readers end up skipping past them to get to the dialogue.

So let's review some ways to hit the gas pedal and some ways to put on the brakes.

Too Fast
To get the most out of scenes that capture the heart or make readers laugh, set them up properly. Take the emotional moments you've written, and look to see what's before it. Mostly, readers need to have some indication that the main character of the sea is anticipating something. Springing on a motion on a reader is a little like stepping out from behind a curtain and shouting "boo"! In general, the bigger the emotional payoff, the more the character should be looking toward its possibility. So try these two things:

First, add to the story in a way that extends the time of anticipation and the stakes are the experience that's coming. And do this through the character as much as possible.

Second, explore the possibility of interjecting a different emotion right before the big payoff. This switch stops the reader from protecting him or herself from feeling too much. Writers have known about this technique for a long time. A great example, is comic relief, where something funny happens before an anticipated tragedy or horror.

Too much speed can also lead to disorientation, so it's worthwhile to take a fast-moving section and make sure that time, place, and the identities of participants are completely clear before things begin to happen. This is narration with the purpose.

Scenes can also feel like they are moving too quickly when they lack a singularity of purpose. It's always a good idea to write down why a scene is in a story. This practice becomes essential when it feels like too much is going on. Take a deep breath. Write down the purpose of the scene. Make it specific. And see if this is the only (or nearly the only) reason why this piece is part of your work. Your apt to find out that the scene tries to accomplish several things. (The solution is to simplify.)

Too Slow
Too fast is not usually a problem for writers. It's much more likely that some scenes will go too slowly. Take your scene and highlight everything that isn't moment to moment. This includes characters remembering, description, and most narration. I like to pull out almost all this in the first 30 pages, and most manuscripts I read spend most of the first 30 pages in this mode. To get yourself into the right mindframe for balancing moment-to-moment with the rest, take some favorite scenes from authors you love to read who write in your genre, and mark them up in the same way — highlighting whatever is not moment-to-moment.

Simpler than that technique is to just look at the pages. Chances are, if your story is moving too quickly, it has long paragraphs and too little dialogue. Look at the white space on your pages and compare it to work that moves more quickly. The answer is likely to be right in front of you.

One more thing: emotion always makes the pages fly by. If they seem to drag, it's entirely possible that not enough attention is being paid to evoking emotions. So read over your text, checking your heart as you go. I had one manuscript that I critiqued where I thought a lack of emotion was the problem. I was wrong. The emotion in those pages was terrific, but it was buried underneath lots of nonemotional detritus. Once I struck out all the excess wordage, especially descriptions and reflections that primarily provided background information, the work was wonderful and it moved.

Sometimes stories get into trouble because they get away from the spine. Even areas that may have intrinsic interest can drag down the pace if they pull readers away from the story question. Sadly, these parts also need to be cut. But there is one rule to keep in mind — don't cut funny. What is good practice in normal storytelling can be skirted whenever your writing comedy or interjecting light moments (including comic relief). So my final suggestion is this. Pay attention to your instincts. They will rarely be wrong.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 6 — Three voice exercises

I sympathize with editors and agents who have to wade through piles of manuscripts, most of which sound the same. The second rate versions of Nora Roberts or Stephen King or Clive Cussler can wear you down. And the anonymous bestsellerese of some writers attempting to be glib is impossible to connect with.

In conferences, on webpages, and in blogs, the professionals looking for fiction make it clear that each day they hope to find, somewhere in the slush pile, a distinct voice — language and perspective that stands out as individual and authentic.

I've written a few posts about voice in the past. I think there are some right ways to develop your own voice open: using dictation, writing dialogue–only scenes, and (ironically) writing pastiches that capture the voices of other writers. There are wrong approaches: writing diatribes, writing essays in ways dictated by long-forgotten sixth grade teachers, and any sort of "how to" writing — which needs to be clear and often becomes generic.

So, for this addition to the blog, I'm going to suggest three exercises that may help you to develop your own voice. They all begin in the same place, choosing an individual you know well to address with your work. Picking out someone in particular forces you to deal with intention, interest, pacing, and word choice that writing for an audience can't match.

Do you have someone in mind? Good. Now try this:
  • Describe your favorite scene from a story. It doesn't matter whether it's from your own work or from an author or movie that you connected with. Just communicate the images and the feelings in a way that would be understood by the person you've chosen to address.
  • Write about an occasion in your life when you were hurt, but not wronged. We all have cases where people around us, including people who love us, cause us harm. And it can be difficult to put these in perspective when blame isn't easily assigned. The hurt itself becomes more vivid when you try to explain why it felt bad without complicating your explanation with accusations or intentions.
  • Imagine a circumstance when you felt wonder or gained a positive insight about people, society, your world, or life. Then relate this incident as clearly as you can while including all the reasons why it mattered to you.
For each of these, the goal is to identify something that's meaningful to you, but is not overwhelmed by relationships, feelings of guilt, or feelings of injustice. The language you use to bring these experiences to someone you know well is likely to be distinct and completely owned by you.

If you wish to, you can return to these exercises and write to different people you also know well. This will give you a different dimension of your authentic voice. If you can do this work by dictating it, you'll probably have better results than if you simply type the words out. If that doesn't feel comfortable, take the time after you've finished your writing to read your exercises out loud. This will help you to connect with your own voice and smooth out any pieces that didn't come naturally.

Once you've done this, the trick is to take the voice you've discovered and move it into your novels, short stories, scripts, or whatever else is your usual writing. This may not happen automatically, but with practice, the sound of your work will change in ways that will help it to stand out when it reaches agents, editors, and other gatekeepers.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 5 - Creating the best secrets

I've become borderline obsessed with the use of secrets, surprises, lies, and revelations in stories. These turns creates excitement and delight. They capture attention and keep readers and audiences engaged.

The fun can range from someone shouting "boo!" (or coming through the door with a gun) to curious facts to stunning images to deep, life-changing insights. All of them are valid and, minimally, increase the entertainment value of the story. Often, especially in terms of secrets and revelations, it's assumed that these are developed in plotting. This does happen, but I think the most fruitful secrets and revelations emerge from deep knowledge — of characters and of the worlds in which they operate.

For me, surprises appear in two ways. Some of their by design, having emerged from analysis of the characters and the worlds. Others — which interest me the most — seem to come from someplace else. There is no real chain of logic that I can identify. Intuition may be at work. Effectively, the surprises that thrill me most are those that blindside me. A character whispers in my ear or an image appears in the daydream.

I'm not sure this can be turned into a repeatable approach. But an exercise I do, which I call connect the dots, often creates situations that lead to unexpected ideas. Here's how it works:

For a world, especially a world that is intimately tied to the story's premise, I make a list of captivating images or scenes that might belong in the story. Then I activate my logical, analytical brain and try and see how they might be connected with each other. I don't do this once. I do it several times.

This pushes me to go beyond the obvious. It helps me to create a narrative that makes me uncomfortable and even shocks me. When I feel that what I have is both exciting and disturbing, I know that this will take the story to a new level. As an added bonus, since I have created parallel narratives, I sometimes can use one of those as an alternate explanation that may change expectations for readers and audiences enough so the turn in the story will be fair, but won't be anticipated.

For a character, I focus on intentions. There's nothing more powerful than a deep understanding of why a character is doing something (or series of actions). Often, the character is motivated by the needs (at times, hidden even to them) and the approaches they take are twisted by some trauma.

After I’ve played around with ideas around the character's intention, I think of three specific critical actions or tasks. It's best if these come separately like the captivating images or scenes explore to uncover secrets about the story's world. The less they have logical connections, the better. Then I work, once again, to connect these three in a variety of ways. Once again, I'm hoping to come up with something that's exciting and disturbing.

So here's what I suggest you try at home:
  1. Take your story, your work in progress.
  2. Look closely at either the world or the protagonist.
  3. Find your three images, scenes, actions, or tasks.
  4. Connect these in 3 to 10 different ways, making sure at least one disturbs you.
With luck, you'll have secrets, surprises, revelations, and lies that will make your story more vivid. And here's one more thing to consider. If you are far enough along to have a sense of what the theme of your story is, look at some of these connections and see if any of them express your theme in an intriguing and memorable way. If so, it's likely that you are on your way to providing insights that will delight your readers or audiences.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 4 -- The character flaws trick

A good character flaw can enhance every element of your story. Flaws create risks and conflict. They lead to decisions that raise the stakes. Ultimately, a powerful flaw will reveal character and provide depth to the story’s theme.

The easiest place to begin looking at flaws is with your villain. Obviously, if nature is an antagonist, this won't work. And it won't work if some faceless organization takes the place of the bad guy. So think in terms of an individual with bad intentions.

This has to be someone who has some strong points. Most villains that catch our interest are intelligent. Some have clear (though often twisted) virtues.

Okay, do you have a villain with redeeming features in mind?

This one should be easy. Your villain needs to want something desperately. Unless they are (uninteresting) sociopaths, they need something and have a reason why they need it. In fact, they may even have justifications that make sense.

So now you have a villain with positive traits who desperately want something for what he or she believes are good reasons. I'm interested already. Now comes the fun part — give the villain a flaw. Not a simple vice. A villain may park in handicapped spots, but he or she needs more than that. Greed is good. Lust can be effective. Murderous rage always leads to (delightful) trouble. A good definition of a strong flaw is something that creates havoc in almost any context.

Now think of three things a villain would do in your story. If you can, make them essential tasks. And go beyond normal limits. Make these actions as extreme as you dare.
By now, you should have a potent brew of bad intentions, self-justification, a flaw, and evil actions. If you're like most people, you probably had some fun sticking your toe into the deep waters of the dark side. It's time for me to ask you to do something difficult. Give your hero as much of what you've just developed for the villain as possible. In particular, give your hero the villain's flaw.

That's got to hurt. And it will leave a mark — on your readers as well as you. But it's not as crazy as it sounds. Most writers identify too closely with their heroes and give them namby-pamby flaws nobody cares much about. Killing any prospects of having a powerful character arc in the story. They don't like their heroes to make mistakes or do bad things. They worry that people will not be able to identify with flawed heroes. This is nonsense.

This exercise takes advantage of the ease with which most writers can attribute evil to villains. Interestingly enough, this often leads to them giving all the best parts of the story to villains. A classic activity by some actors playing heroes is for them to mark the best lines in the villain's dialogue and ask that they be given to the hero (adapted as necessary).

If you do this exercise often enough, it will become easier for you to give your heroes the flaws they need to act with true heroism. Courage is not doing something dangerous. Often, that's foolhardy behavior. Courage is doing the right thing when you're terrified.

Have some courage here. Take on this challenge and make your hero work harder to get to a happy ending.