Tuesday, August 15, 2017

20 Questions 2 - A closer look at your hero or heroine

The argument about what's more important, plot or protagonist, goes back over two thousand years. (Aristotle said plot.) What's indisputable is that readers must identify with the main character. They don't need to like him or her (though that helps), but they do need to have empathy for the protagonist.

As I poke at main characters, my mind is apt to run Rogers and Hammerstein's Getting to Know You as background music.

Getting to know you
Getting to know all about you
Getting to like you
Getting to hope you like me


Well, who can account for brains overdosing on caffeine? 

In the past I've written about getting to know your charactersdeepening connections, and bonding with them by asking revealing questions. So it makes sense to go at this from the angle of 20 questions. The goal here is to build your appreciation for the main character (though you can use the same approach for other characters) and to have a better sense of the specific ways he or she will respond to challenges (aka, tortures) you'll hit them with.
  1. What is my protagonist's external goal? What is he or she willing to sacrifice (and change) for? 
  2. Why does the story's protagonist want the goal so much? How will its successful attainment be fulfilling?
  3. What does my protagonist really need? What will make him or her a more complete and fully realized person?
  4. What does my protagonist fear? What would damnation be in his or her eyes?
  5. What is the protagonist's main virtue? Main flaw?
  6. What would the story's main character do only under extreme duress?
  7. How has the protagonist been hurt or traumatized?
  8. How do I connect with the protagonist? What part of me gives him or her life?
  9. Have I gone past the default of imagining a character like me to explore characters of different sexes, cultures, religions, abilities, etc., respectfully taking advantage of the full range of human experience?
  10. How will readers connect with the protagonist and why?
  11. What are the protagonist's most distinctive and important mannerisms?
  12. What are the protagonist's most distinctive and important physical attributes?
  13. Have I imagined the character in motion? Walking? Running? Climbing stairs? Dancing? Playing a sport?
  14. Have I imagined the character in a comfortable place, completely at ease and able to be his/her unguarded self?
  15. Have I imagined the character in a strange or hostile environment?
  16. Have I imagined the character celebrating, grieving, enraged, determined, joking, and otherwise emotionally aroused? Have I imagined transitioning from one strong emotion to another?
  17. Have I placed the character in relation to other characters? Do I know him or her as a social creature?
  18. Do the protagonist's most important aspects come across in a timely manner in the story?
  19. What is it about this protagonist that makes him or her the best character to act in the story?
  20. Does the protagonist have agency? Can he or she act to achieve the story goal and answer the story question?
Okay, I could go on, but I hope there's enough here to intrigue you. While I had to work to get the questions for testing your plot, these gushed out, and I had to select those I thought were essential or most apt to provoke fresh thinking. The list could have been 100 questions. You might see if you can build your own list and discover which provide the biggest payoffs as you develop your stories.

Next time, I'll provide 20 questions on story settings.



Tuesday, August 8, 2017

20 Questions 1: Testing your plot

Under the best of circumstances, plotting can be tricky. The goal of the story, after all, is to get readers engaged and keep them engaged all the way to the satisfying conclusion. It's easy to miss steps or to get diverted into subplots or to have the story plateau.

The first thing you need to avoid this (unless you have an amazing memory) is some sort of summary of the plot. This may take the form of an outline or a narrative that takes a few pages or Post-it notes populating applying board. The important thing is to have something concise enough to make it easy to identify the problems and opportunities in your work – whether that is simply the plan for the story you intend to write or a completed draft.

If you have that, you're ready to take a closer look at your plot using these 20 questions.
  1. Which scenes are part of your main plot and which are related to subplots? (There can be scenes that serve more than one purpose.) The best way to determine which scenes are part of your main plot is to look at your logline. If it doesn't relate to the purpose of the logline and move the reader toward the answer to the story question, it's either part of the subplot or it doesn't belong in the story.
  2. Is the story of logic solid? Does one scene follow inevitably from the previous scene? (I test this with Kitchen's reverse logic approach. You can also use the simpler approach from the South Park guys -- That is, scenes can be connected by "therefore" or "but.")
  3. Is the protagonist's goal clear? Often, the goal changes at the end of the first act, but readers need to sense that they know what the protagonist is trying to achieve every step of the way. And, for commercial fiction, the goal has to be external (although there also can be an internal goal).
  4. Is there a set of tasks the protagonist must achieve to succeed? It's good to list these out. You should have enough tasks to support the length of the work and the level of difficulty should rise as the story proceeds.
  5. Does the plot include twists, turns, and secrets? Every protagonist approaches achieving the goal with imperfect knowledge and faces and setbacks. This is what makes the story more interesting than going to the grocery store to buy ingredients for dinner.
  6. Are there obstacles? Usually this comes in the form of somebody who opposes the protagonist – the antagonist, often a villain. But there also can be institutional problems and the protagonist's flaws can get in the way (which is great, because that allows for growth and the character arc).
  7. Does the setting makes things more difficult for the protagonist? This doesn't mean that every story should be set in the desert or prison. Ordinary People is set in a comfortable, middle-class household – but it's as neat, sterile, and cold as the story's antagonist. (Also, a rich, evocative, and intriguing setting may be more important than one that supports the plot. It's your choice.)
  8. Does the plot fulfill genre requirements? Most commercial genres bring with them expectations for readers. Romance readers, for instance, expect a "meet cute" scene, a first kiss, a grand gesture, etc.
  9. Does your plot have a beginning, middle, and end? Aristotle says the story should begin as late as possible and end as early as possible. If the story can still be told by cutting early scenes and removing some of the last scenes, that's the way to go (usually).
  10. Are there any momentum killers? Are there scenes that exist just to provide back story? Are there scenes that belong in a different book? Are there scenes that develop character but don't move the story forward?
  11. Do your subplots reflect and support your main plot? 
  12. Do your subplots demonstrate other possibilities, especially things that might go wrong?
  13. Is the motivation of the protagonist reasonable and are the actions taken within his or her level of competence? Though it is essential that a protagonist change within a story, radical and unearned powers or actions taken just to move the plot forward, without good reason, we can the plot.
  14. Is this plot original enough? Are the developments and the choices made by the characters cliché and familiar? Is much of the story to predictable?
  15. Is there another story that can serve as a reference point or a model for this story? Do you know of a work that is worth comparing your story to so that possibilities for pacing and developments and reveals aren't missed?
  16. Do you feel a connection to the story? A lot of good ideas aren't good ideas for every writer. Looking at the plot as it exists, is something missing for you? 
  17. Do you have a passion for this story? 
  18. Could some changes bring that out for you?
  19. From the plot alone, will readers get excited? 
  20. Is this plot inherently emotional and intriguing?
The point of these questions isn't to have good answers for all of them. Plenty of excellent works break rules and deliberately leave out elements that are reflected in these questions. The goal here is to determine if there are hidden flaws in the plot or if there are ways it could be pushed to make it better. I'm also hoping that some of these questions will be fun for you to think about and explore.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Writing Experiments 2 - Four tougher exercises to build your skills

Last time, I provided some simple exercises so you could deliberately challenge yourself as a writer and deepen your skills. I ended with a promise to suggest more challenging work this time.

As a pure expression of story and one of the toughest exercises, I'd suggest creating a logline. You need to know who the protagonist is, what he or she wants, what the obstacles are, and what the stakes are. John Marlow provides an excellent tutorial on how to do this. You also might want to read my Problems with the Premise series.

You can dig more deeply into this by writing an introduction to the work (or a chapter), with the characters, situation, goals, and risks involved. If you want to have some fun and really push yourself, write it as a poem. Copy the form of a narrative poem or the best of epic poetry, if you wish. The Iliad? Not bad. But, for this exercise, I prefer doing something more like The Ballad of Gilligan's Island.

Something about expressing the essence of a story in rhyme provides focus and, as an extra advantage, gets your premise stuck in your head.

To know more about your characters, I recommend interviewing them. Character descriptions and lists of traits help, too, but they tend to be bloodless and a lot less fun.

To dig more deeply into a setting, visualize every detail you can. Use the best words for each object (goblet or tumbler, rather than glass). Qualify with textures, colors, light and shadow. This should be a long list. Now take in the other senses. Music? Other sounds? Odors? Drafts? Dank air? Is anything in motion? Changing?

Now, look at your list and highlight whatever will be noticed or will influence the protagonist (or other key character).

Finally, think about the setting in terms of the reader. In particular, look for two things: critical information and mood.

By the time you're finished the setting exercise, you should have a deep understanding both of the elements that come together to create a sense of place and how they impact readers.

Exploring theme is another classic way to poke at your story. It's too easy to come up with a "There's no place like home" answer, so I use an essay method. This can provide a real push to get to the heart of a story, especially after the first draft is complete.

One of my favorite exercises (and a very tough one) is to reverse or invert a solid, well-known work. The best example of this is It's a Wonderful Life, which takes Dickens's A Christmas Carol and replaces the miser Scrooge with the overly generous George Bailey. Nothing gets your head into the structure of a story more completely than this exercise.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Writing Experiments 1 - Four simple exercises to build your skills

Most writers run across challenges in their work all the time. Characters who won't cooperate. Scenes that refuse to resolve. Ideas and situations that require research. Themes that cut too close to the bone.

Nonetheless, to reach your full potential, deliberate experimentation may be needed. It's common to play around with exercises earlier in your writing career, but this can be invaluable to writers at all levels. In fact, it may be more helpful to set aside time to break away from familiar work and take on an exercise after the basics of craft have been learned.

A good place to start, is simply to take a scene you've written and rewrite it from a different point of view. Consider, for instance, a first kiss scene in a romance. If it is written from the perspective of the heroine, redoing it from the hero's point of view will provide insights on the characters and their relationship even if the rewrite never makes its way into the final manuscript.

In addition, that specific example shifts from writing in a female point of view to a male point of view. That sort of experiment can push a writer into an uncomfortable place if he or she has never written from the perspective of the opposite sex. In writing experiments, the degree of difficulty is usually a good measure of how much might be learned.

Another experiment is to write with the voice of a published author. This is generally more difficult than changing points of view. In my case, I was introduced to this exercise while in high school. I had to write out three scenes from Tolkien in longhand. One was the original, and two were created by me in the voice of the author. The next step was to hand pages around and see which ones other students identified as being the original scenes. In my case, my fake pages fooled all the other students. (That's when I began to suspect I was a writer.)

Note: This exercise does not have to be a recasting of a published scene. It can be something of your own, just written in someone else's voice. And, unless it's parody, these pages are for your work notebook, not for publication.

When you write in the voice of another author, you learn techniques and skills and rhythms and you build a sensitivity to vocabulary that can shape your own writing.

Still harder for most people is to create variations. The way to do this is to come up with 3 to 5 approaches to a writing task. I often will move from the logline I've created for a work to distinct ways to begin it. I always discover something unexpected and find my way to a better approach by doing this.

Note: this does not have to be restricted to the beginning of a long work. It's possible to write the equivalent of a logline for a chapter or even the scene. From that, creating variations works the same way.

For instance, your protagonist might need to have a repair done to his or her car while traveling on a long trip. The purpose of a scene might be to prevent the protagonist from leaving right away. This could be accomplished by discovering parts aren't available or the mechanic is antagonistic or their credit card has been canceled. Writing out these scenes where the protagonist must learn about the obstacle and respond to it can push your creative abilities and build your knowledge of the work itself.

I'll end with one of the easier experiments. This is simply to write the next scene in your story either by only using dialogue or by only using description. Essentially, this means creating a radio version or a silent movie version. (I understand this is a standard exercise for some film school classes.) Either approach will force a reassessment of how the purpose of such a scene might be accomplished. These versions (if you choose to do both) will differ in interesting ways. Chances are, each will force the exercise of new writing muscles. And one is likely to be more difficult and provide a better learning experience.

Next time, I'll look at some more challenging experiments and discuss what value they might provide.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Story Excitement 3 -- Sharing the fun

If you want your stories to thrill readers, the first step is usually to thrill yourself. I provided some ideas on how to do that in the first entry of this series and how to sustain it in the second.

Acting provides some guidance in sharing emotions. Traditionally, an actor works from the outside, accumulating specific, authentic details. He or she may add a prosthetic nose or cultivate a tic or walk in a specific manner to project the feelings of the character to the point where they come across (and often infect the actor).

Similarly, a writer will use the specifics of a character that readers identify to carry the sense of excitement to them. If your protagonist's heart is beating fast, chances are, so is the reader's. But a writer can do more. Mood can be created by the setting. (Think of almost anything by Edgar Alan Poe.) The writer can also create conflicts and obstacles that can quicken the pulse.

Scene construction can have a huge impact. Comic relief can distract the reader away from building tension so the ultimate impact hits all the harder. Beyond careful timing of secrets and revelations, the writer can make readers feel what the protagonist is unaware of. Irony is a powerful tool, well expressed by Hitchcock, who spoke of the suspense created when the audience knows a bomb is ticking and the character does not. 

Method acting pulls directly from your feelings, as discussed in the previous entries, but you can enhance through finding personal ways to connect with your material. This may be through imagery or sequences within the story that touch you, but, like actors, you can also use sense memory to call up situations (not explicit in your story) where you had relevant emotions.

Sharing the excitement may, however, take more than "feeling it." Everything has to be conveyed through written material, without the expression of your voice and body, so exaggeration is encouraged. Don't be rigorously realistic or shy about going over the top. You can always moderate later.

Finally, sharing the excitement is the perfect reason to be professional about the writing itself. Passive voice? Adverbs? Junk words (like just, even, almost)? All of these distance the reader and muddy the feelings. As do unnecessary dialogue tags and joining dialogue (or scenes) before the last possible moment or leaving it later than as soon as possible. Anything sloppy or unneeded takes away from the excitement.

But it may not be carelessness that holds you back. It could be a reticence about sharing emotion. We often value being "cool" or "in control." Forget that when you're writing fiction (and much of nonfiction). If you don't let loose (at least with the draft), you're cheating your readers and yourself.

Get excited.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Story Excitement 2 — Holding onto the thrill

Excitement can fuel the enthusiasm you need to get your story done. The beginning of Romancing the Stone provides a pretty good depiction of what can happen when a novelist is finishing the work. The words may pour out. Along with laughter and tears. I've known some writers who have said that there were large sections of writing where they were so physically and emotionally involved that they had no memory of the actual creation of the scenes.

On the other hand… commitment can wane as the writing continues for weeks, months, or years. Almost every novelists I've asked has said that the work feels so rotten at the one half to three quarters completion point that they are tempted to abandon it. (In fact, ask around and you'll find out there are a lot of partially finished novels in drawers and on hard disks.)

So, excitement from beginning to end is not guaranteed. How can it be maintained?

The primary tool I use, which also has been useful for some of my students, is to write a list of 10 to 20 reasons why the manuscript must be completed. These are written in full sentences, intended to communicate convincingly to the future self who is discouraged. They can range from the very practical (I have a contract, there's a market for this, an agent is waiting) to the aesthetic (the concept here presents beauty or raises questions) to a sense of justice (this reveals corruption in our society).

Another way to keep the enthusiasm is to take a deep breath and delve more deeply into one of the characters in the story. Often this means seeing the dark side of a character you love – not easy, but irresistible. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to put one of the characters into an intolerable situation. The more excruciating, the more compelling the story will become. Note: this situation does not need to be included in the final work. Its value comes from what it's does to help the writer connect more profoundly with his or her creation.

Raymond Chandler wrote, "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand." Certainly, if you can find a way to surprise yourself, if you can disrupt the story or depart from your outline, it's likely to engage you. Discomfort may be the first feeling, but if you stick it out, you're likely to feel the adrenaline. Taking a risk is always acceptable.

If you respond well to other stimuli – pictures, music, a cold shower, or a hot tub — go for it. I have a friend who picks up magazines when she gets stuck. As long as she sticks to the pictures, quirky, attention-grabbing photography will get her going again.

Connecting with an obsession in some way can also keep the fire going. Think of the elements that cause you to watch movies over and over again, games that you lose yourself in, even those thoughts that keep you up at night. Find a way – and it may involve more stream of consciousness than traditional writing – to feature something that obsesses you in your work in progress.

Finally, if you have a long-term relationship with someone, think about how you have been able to maintain that. Gifts? Finding common interests? Resisting temptations and distractions? Paying attention to needs and emotions? Each of these provides models for holding onto the thrill you feel for your work in progress. In other words, nothing beats persistence, imagination, and commitment for finding your way to a happy ending.

All this excitement is great for you as a writer working to get your manuscript finished. Often, what you feel as your writing is translated to readers without much effort. But sometimes, conveying that excitement is not automatic. And that's will talk about in the next entry in this series.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Story Excitement 1 - The joy of losing control

Do you wake up in the middle of the night with story ideas? Do you sit down to work and end up pacing? Do images bubble in your head  — too fast to keep them all — as you garden or shower or put on a load of laundry?

In my case, all of the above. Most days, it’s slogging away and finding the fun with effort -- only after a few sentences or paragraphs or pages begin to connect. But excitement is a part my experience, too. Neurons begin firing when a story idea hits or a character shares her mind or pictures flash in my head or I have nothing more than an uneasy feeling that edges toward panic attack (but in a good way).

Excitement. - To quote the Pointer Sisters, "I'm about to lose control and I think I like it."

Chances are, when you write, you have an expectation that people will be excited by your work. So excited they'll pay money for the experience. Where does that excitement come from? From you.

Not someone else. Many, many times, I've had writers talk about, work on, and even complete stories they felt were high concept or likely to pay off... but they were not THEIR stories. Not because the situations, worlds, or characters were strange to them. (Heck, I write SF and fantasy. Reality is very plastic for me.) They were not their stories because they did not have an emotional connection to what those stories.

Understand, I'm fine with experimentation and taking on challenges. Stephen King tossed Carrie in the trash because, on the surface, it was way beyond his experience. But it was at the core of what his writing was all about, so we can all be grateful his wife rescued the manuscript.

Life is sneaky. It can deliver you someone else's story. The aether is filled with great ideas. I've frequently pulled down many that I could not connect with in my gut or in my heart. Good ideas that worked and had commercial success. I have no regrets about leaving those alone. I only regret those that I took on and shouldn't have.

Because my experience in writing those stories, even when it was pleasant, never thrilled me. Or readers. Here are my indicators of true excitement:

Questions, questions, and more questions. Sometimes it starts slowly, but ideas that hang on to suggest a few questions, to send me to the Internet or the library for research, and then lead to cascading curiosity -- those are guaranteed to excite me.

Surprises. I've heard the best thing you can hear from a scientist looking at data is, "That can't be true." The insight, fact, or possibility that upends what I think is right may disturb me. It may agitate or frustrate me. But, on closer examination, it is almost surely going to get my juices flowing. I just have to let go. Lose control.

Movement. As I indicated above, there are times I can't stand still and I go marching around the house. The muse is upon me. It's not always pleasant. It is likely to mean hours of meandering until whatever that formless thing is starts to reveal itself enough so I can make a note, sketch a chart or picture, or blurt out dialogue. At that point, I'm all in.

Strange pieces come together in alarming ways. Probably most writers capture images and concepts every day. (If they're smart, they follow Bradbury's advice and jot them down in full sentences.) For me, most of these bits of flotsam and jetsam are never revisited. Some bubble up and go away. Some make amusing connections, entertaining me for an instant. A very few snap together in weird ways to create full-fledged monsters that demand my attention.

Can any of this be nurtured? For me, curiosity, getting out of my comfort zone, and just paying attention ensure exciting starting points for stories. I also keep track of what I respond to emotionally -- in life and in art. (If you don't know your twenty favorite movies, books, TV shows, etc., why not?)

Interviewing characters can get me traction, too. Especially when some of the zip of the story concept diminishes.  Telling a friend about the story can provide a focus that ups the excitement (but it can also provide a payoff for your exciting idea and make it lose its zest, so beware).

Overall, the easiest path to excitement in stories is being excited by life. This does not necessitate skydiving or running with the bulls. It does mean fully engaging and knowing your own heart. Because, ultimately, what is compelling to you is what connects with your true self.

Next time, I'll talk about maintaining excitement through the creation of stories that take time to create, like novels and feature scripts. And I'll conclude this series with ideas on how best to share excitement.