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.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 3 - The power of images

A great movie has three great images. This wisdom was imparted to me by a producer decades ago. I've always kept it in mind, and I've made a point in all my stories – whether scripts, novels, or short stories — to take a step back and check to see if I had images that meant something to me.

For my current work, I decided to explore imagery more methodically. I listed 10 films I love and, under each, noted three visuals that first came to mind. I didn't research or review or do any preparation, and I was very careful to avoid movies where the trailers were too familiar.

All those images were freighted with emotions, and, in my mind's eye, I was more likely to see clips than stills. For most, I could easily remember what happened before and after the images.

My next step was to note next to each image whose eyes it was seen through. Some seemed to be godlike views. For example, the transition from bone to satellite in 2001 A Space Odyssey. Some were a little more personal. In Casablanca, when Rick and Captain Renault walk away together, the camera shows both men, but it's arguably Rick's point of view. The look on Doc's face in West Side Story is from Tony's point of view. And there is an interesting level of irony because I feel Doc's anxiety and I know Tony doesn’t.

Doc: Buenas noches? So that's why you made it a fair fight...
Tony: I'm gonna see her tomorrow an' I can't wait!
Doc: Tony... things aren't tough enough?
Tony: Tough? Doc, I'm in love!
Doc: And you're not frightened?
Tony: Should I be?
Doc: [after a pause] No. I'm frightened enough for the both of us.

For the most effective image in my collection, everything came together to connect immediacy, emotion, action, and character. It's when photographer Jeff Jeffries in Hitchcock's Rear Window feeds flashbulb after flashbulb into his camera to blind his assailant. The hero has gone from selfish voyeur to a participant who has taken on his responsibilities as a member of the community. He fights back with a weapon that is distinctly his. He's fighting for his life. And the visual itself is stunning and a perfect fit for cinema.

Many of the images I listed are visually arresting and perfect in tone. In The Natural, Iris Gaines, in her haloed hat, rising from the crowd to offer the redemption Hobbs needs so he can regain his power. The horrible triumph of Salieri in Amadeus as Mozart's shrouded body slips into the common grave. Joe Gillis's body floating face down in the pool in Sunset Boulevard.

At this point of my exploration, I looked for patterns. An essential question I asked myself was, why do these images resonate with me?

I won't go into any deep analysis here, but I was surprised to find how often images had to do with previously powerless people who found the capacity within themselves to make a difference. Similarly, there were cases where people who seized power for good reasons were nonetheless destroyed. Moments of redemption were also common among the images I'd chosen.

This exercise has provided me with insights as to my tastes, my concerns, and how the great artists of film have used imagery to make their work indelible. So, if you want to try this yourself, here are the steps:
  1. List about 10 films that are your favorites. Be leery of those that are less personal – many older films tend to use an omniscient point of view. Also be careful of those instances where clips from the trailers are fixed in your mind.
  2. Note down the first three images that come to mind for each of the films you've chosen. Don't spend a lot of time thinking about whether you have the "best" images. This is about you, your memory, and your emotional responses.
  3. Determine whose eyes you see the scene through. This can be as direct as the photographer's view of the murderer in Rear Window or have the distance of Rick's walk into the sunset at the end of Casablanca.
  4. Give yourself the opportunity to feel what you felt when you first saw this scene. This may take a while. In fact, shifts in emotions may need to take place throughout your day. It's not a bad idea to contemplate one image, write the emotion down (or sequence of emotions for that image if it's a clip), and do something else for a while before returning to your list to consider a new image.
  5. Analyze the visual content and see if you can figure out what about it touches you and makes it distinct and brilliant.
  6. Look across all the images that you've selected and see if there are any patterns that provide insights you might use to improve your work. Make this personal. Focus on the elements and characteristics that resonate with you.
If this exercise works for you, it may provide some direction on how to more effectively use imagery in your storytelling. It also may offer an opportunity to deepen the emotion and meaning of your work.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 2 - Visualizing your characters

At one time, I worked for a company that was very big on education, and I ended up having dinner with a communications guy who also was prominent in voice acting. As soon as I found this out I immediately flashed on a cartoon character he resembled — McGruff the Crime Dog.

This flash turned out to be absolutely accurate. In fact, it turned out the cartoonist had drawn the character's face based only on the voice. My dinner companion looked like he sounded.

Much of my introduction to characters as I write comes through an experience of what they sound like. Long before I know who they are and what they look like, I have their voices in my head. But at some point, I need to be able to see them, too. This helps me both to visualize scenes and to provide apt descriptions for readers.

Many of my writer friends begin with pictures. I know some who have folders full of magazine clippings that represent their characters. I've also found online that people search actors directories and use gaming software to make it easier to see their characters. Some writers actually sketch out entire casts and even specific scenes.

The best hint I ever had on how to visualize a character comes from a friend who said if you want to remember what someone you love looks/looked like, think of them in motion. I found that to be excellent advice for recalling memories, but it easily extends to seeing characters I know only by voice.

The first thing I try to imagine is a scene that has both motion and emotion. I want the character to be feeling something — joy, rage, terror, love. Ideally, I place the action in an environment that allows me to see it, without forcing things, from afar. Then I work in cinematic terms by viewing the action as a long shot, a medium shot, a close-up, and in extreme close-up. The particulars are likely to change, but, almost always, I end up seeing the person's full body, hands, face, and eyes.

Now, I may not know enough about the story to create a scene that is relevant. Because of this, I have three "go to" activities to explore with my characters:
  • Flying a kite.
  • Loading a gun.
  • Lighting a candle.
Motion is obvious in each of these cases. And it's easy for me to imbue each with specific, powerful emotions.

So try this at home:
  1. Choose a character you want to visualize clearly.
  2. Select an activity that includes both motion and emotion. (Feel free to use one of mine.)
  3. View the scene in your imagination from different distances. You can go from distant to close (as I usually do), close to distant, or at random distances that suit your mood.
The main point for all these is to get at least a few visual cues in your head. Be sure to write these down for later use. You can even create a complete description of the scene in great detail if you wish, just don't overdo your descriptions and your actual story. The reader usually wants to participate by filling in some of the blanks.

One more thing. I poked around and found a few references if you want to dig more deeply into character visualization.

https://writeitsideways.com/how-to-bring-your-characters-into-focus/

https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/get-cclose-characters/

https://mythicscribes.com/community/threads/how-do-you-visualize-your-characters.3138/

https://www.reddit.com/r/rpg/comments/2tgjkc/looking_for_some_character_visualization_software/

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 1 — Is this a good idea?

Most writers I know come across new ideas every day. Which is great. Linus Pauling said the best way to have good ideas is to have a lot of ideas. But which should you choose?

There is no one answer. It is always best to make your own decisions on what you should be writing. Realize, however, that these are important choices for you and for your career. Not every idea is worth investing a lot of time in. So let me offer three suggestions to guide you.

1 Write the idea down in a full sentence. Not only will this make it clearer, but it will also save you from confusion and mis-remembering later on.

For example:

A man discovers keywords he can use to reach and influence large audiences without fail.
Or

An easily cultivated fruit is discovered that makes women more physically powerful than men.
Or

A woman whose lifelong dream is to travel to Mars falls in love right after she gets selected for the mission.

Now, while I believe these are evocative, none of them are as complete as they would be once developed into loglines. Still, they represent sentences that could become part of a regular harvest for a writer. And there's enough to work with in each case.

Typically, I would have 10 to 20 of these collected across a week. Half of them would be struck out the first time I reviewed them. What about the rest?

2 Explore who the audience might be or the genre for any of these ideas.

Sometimes, the answer seems obvious. I usually try to put down three or four different audiences/genre even when all my instincts tell me only the first one that comes to mind could possibly be valid. One trick for getting at least one more audience is to think of it in terms of a horror story. And, if you feel comfortable writing humor, you can consider who might be interested in the story if it were treated as a comedy.

The keywords story above could be written as a political thriller. Powerful forces might compete to obtain the services of this genius. Or could be treated as a fantasy, where the protagonist is, perhaps, a social media version of Midas, turning his keywords to gold. And, of course, there are a lot of ways to go with a comedy of this sort. I primarily would look toward unintended consequences, like badly formed wishes in folktales.

3 Apply 10 criteria to test and score the idea.

These are up to you, and I'd suggest putting together a list of 20 criteria so you have some choice. It would be good to weigh them, with different points available, as well. Not every criterion you work with will be of the same value to you.

Here are some criteria to think of:
  • How passionate am I about this idea?
  • Does this idea fit in with a genre or other work for which I'm known or have a platform?
  • Could I write this now, or what I need to do a lot of research first?
  • Would working on this idea help me to grow and develop as a writer?
  • Would a successful execution of this idea improve my reputation?
  • Does this idea have possibilities for reuse or adaptation?
  • Is this idea interesting and distinctive enough to set me apart in a good way from other writers?
  • Is this idea promising? Can I think of variations and ways to modify it that might make it significantly more appealing?
  • Does my gut say I have to do this?
  • Am I the right person to tell this story?
  • Am I connected to a network of people who could dramatically improve the idea?
  • Does this idea have the potential to make me a lot of money?
  • Will this idea put me in contact with people I'd like to meet or establish relationships with?
  • Will I be proud to be associated with this idea?
  • Does this idea present risks to me? Of abuse? Of lawsuits? Of legal entanglements?
  • Could the dramatization of this idea creates positive social consequences?
  • Could the dramatization of this idea create negative social consequences?
I hope you get a sense of possible criteria from these examples.

With all these in mind, here's what I suggest you try at home.

Write down three ideas in full sentences.

Choose one to explore with regard to potential audiences/genres.

Ask 10 criteria questions about the idea and see how it scores.
(It's best if you develop your own criteria, but feel free to work with some of those I provided.)

Feel free to reply to this blog with your answers. It might be fun to see how other readers react. And I'll be happy to offer comments.

One more thing to consider when looking at ideas. It's perfectly fine to jump in and write a few pages on a story based on one of your ideas. Often, I'll write whole flash fiction (1000 words or less) stories to better assess the potential of an idea. Effectively, this is a way to implement business's "fail early" strategy for innovation. It can also be fun.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Fighting Through the Beginning - Worries that stop storytelling

How do you start your story? What gets in the way of writing it?  There are all sorts of chronic problems that derail the creation of the first few pages.

Dithering -- where you don't commit to a Work-in-Progress, so every day is a big decision -- is one of them. Distractions (snack? coffee? chores?), which keep your from sitting down to write or keep taking you away from the page (email? social media?) can stop you before you really start, too.

Then there's the blank page. Accusing you. Taunting you. Daring you. There's an apocryphal tale the Winston Churchill (who wasn't a man associated with fear) needed to have his teacher splat paint on the pure white canvases before he could get going. True or not, I like it. A little bit of mess can lead to wonder and joy.

I've already written about "in which" sentences. (As it happens, I'm reading Neil Gaiman's Seasons of Mists, and each section begins with one of these.) In addition to forcing you to commit to a defined task and prompting your subconscious, you can grab this sentence and use it like an essay topic to launch you into writing. It makes a pretty good pain splat.

And it rescues you from the difficult business of having to develop a perfect hook, a catchy phrase, or an engaging voice. You get time to  get your bearings, warm up, and find your rhythm before doing something challenging (and, perhaps, unnatural).

If hooks come, good. If you finish a first draft without any, that is not a problem. It doesn't mean you aren't a writer. It means, like most of us, a lot of what draws the reader in comes in the second or third draft. Or even later. You may even discover that what you've created, after the inevitable trimming of your prose, is a kind of "hook" you would never have considered. One that emerged organically from the storytelling.

Storytelling is always your first job. Even when you are working without an outline. Depending on how you work, the beginning of your composition may begin with an image or a feeling or furious action or a character who won't shut up. Note: This would be the beginning of your storytelling, not he chosen beginning of the work you present to the public.

I only realized recently that I am inhibited at the beginning (though not for the first few sentences) by mechanical considerations that have to do with the final product. What I'm writing might not feel tight enough for a flash fiction story or the scenes may be coming too much one-upon-the-next for the correct pacing of a fiction script. Or it might not have enough jokes per page for a comedy or it might have too much humor for a work that's dark and tragic.

On some level, I think all of these represent a part of me that is trying to get it "right" before I get it down. As if taking care will help me avoid extra drafts. Which is crazy because that kind of thinking hobbles the work and takes the fun out of it. It even insidiously undermines the freshness of the voice. Any impulse to "get it right" during a composition stage kills the flow and tends to approve of cliches. (Cliches are the non-creative mind's way of getting it right from the beginning. They are comforting. They don't raise alarms. They are pleasantly... bland and unoffensive.)

"Requirements" should be gathered ahead of time, reviewed the day before, and ignored in the first draft. There are a lot of "shoulds" for beginnings, regarding setting things up, introducing characters, creating immersive scenes, presenting the story question or the protagonist's desire, informing the reader of the dire consequences of failure, etc., etc. Please make sure all of these are established by page three or four. (It gets worse when marketing provides requirements for alpha males, series tropes, and such.) Talk about inhibiting.

You can't fill out a crossword puzzle and tell a story at the same time. It's okay to hope to get a few of these in as your write the first, second, and third pages (and keep getting more in through the first quarter of the story, when a new set of requirements come due). But don't worry if you don't.

Worry instead about your reader. Leave the rest behind, take on a story you have to tell, and imagine your perfect reader (use one person you actually know if you can) leaning in, nodding, and expressing the emotions you are trying to evoke. This, not the hooks or alpha heroes or immersive descriptions of settings, will get you successfully through the beginning of your story.

Not enough? Still unsteady? Here's one more thing to have in your kit before you begin your composition -- a good ending. If you have a great ending, that's even better, but a good one will inspire a beginning more reliably than anything else I know of.

A great character can get you going with charm and eloquence, but might let you down -- more show than substance. A high concept can generate twists, turns, and must-have scenes, but may not be right for you (being clever, but not essential to who you are) or may not have a satisfying resolution. A world like Tolkien's may create the perfect space for rich evocative stories, but you might get bogged down in narration. But a good ending is a destination that pulls you toward it and keeps you on the journey.

In my experience, a good ending also morphs in the telling of the tale to a better ending. There's no guarantee that it will be the best ending ever, but it is the closest thing to an insurance policy on getting a solid first draft that works as a story.


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

20 Questions 8 - What to ask about your story’s ending

The ending of your story is your last chance to make a good impression. It's also the part of the story that can disappoint or alienate readers (or the audience).

Many writers won't even begin a project unless they have a strong ending in mind. And many people who write by the seats of their pants abandon stories – even novels and screenplays – because they can't get the pieces to come together when they come to the big finale.

Every ending is a little different, and one of the most useful exercises I found is simply documenting endings that I'm most passionate about and trying to understand why they succeeded. This isn't so the ending will be copied in any real way. It's more a way to increase my range of options and models for comparison. Whatever ending I draft out gets looked at very closely. This is even more true if I start with an ending because it becomes the foundation on which everything is built.

With this in mind, I'll conclude this 20 question series with questions you might use to explore your own endings.
  1. Is the ending clear? Yes, it is fair to have an intentional level of ambiguity. My favorite example of this (spoiler alert) is the spinning top at the end of inception. Does it continue to spin – demonstrating the protagonist has not returned to reality? Or does it fall over? To me, that was fun. To others, it was frustrating. So imagine how frustrating it must be when you're ending has less clarity because it is written sloppily or you yourself don't know what happened. Readers make investments in your work – of time and sometimes of money. Don't annoy them.
  2. Is the ending fair? This is easy to answer for most mysteries. If the clues are there when the reader looks back at the work, it feels like a cheat. When lovers are shoved together in a romance without a change in (at least) one of them, there is a falseness about the story that's hard to overcome, no matter how happy the characters are in the final scene. Worst of all, is it a deus ex machina, a tossed in settling of affairs based on the effort of someone other than the main character.
  3. Is the ending earned? Does the hero overcome the villain without luck or a change in the rules that were set at the beginning of the story? As the writer justify any surprises near or at the end? Do the obstacles reaching toward the ending get more difficult? Does the power of opposing forces increase rather than diminish? Has the protagonist made a sacrifice that mattered?
  4. Is the story at the ending the same story the reader started with? If it began as a comedy, did it end that way? If it began as a romance, did shift into a thriller? Combining genres is fine, as long as you don't pull a switcheroo on the readers. Beyond genre, one teacher of mine made a good suggestion: Expose your (story's) "color palette" in the first chapter or two. And don't deviate from it.
  5. Is the story question answered? By the end of the first act, there should be a question that keeps the reader turning the pages until the very end. While smaller questions may occur at the beginning to hook readers, one question (Will Luke destroy the Death Star?) should dominate the story. This actually constitutes a promise to the reader. Breaking that promise will wreck the ending.
  6. Does the story end too early? Are there too many loose ends? Does the reader have time to experience the emotion before putting down the book or leaving the movie theater? Is it unintentionally abrupt?
  7. Does the story end too late? Can any of the verbiage after the story question is answered be reasonably cut? Does it have a real purpose? (One story I hate to this day spent a dozen pages after it should've stopped tying up loose ends that I couldn't make myself care about. It undercut everything that was positive about the book.)
  8. Is the pacing right? Obviously, the pacing of the whole book needs to be right, fit for the genre and designed to keep the reader engaged. Usually this means that scenes and chapters are shorter near the end. But the main elements of the ending should be laid out not just with a sense of increasing tension, but with a real sense that revelations are not too crowded together and there is room for an emotional response. (How this works is often directly related to who the reader is.)
  9. Are all the important loose ends tied up? This is especially important if there are engaging supporting characters and subplots. I've seen writers, so happy to have dealt with the meat of their stories effectively, neglects to give appropriate finishes to these "minor" elements.
  10. Is the ending sticky? Does it resonate with the reader? You want the ending to be memorable and provocative. Both readers and writers benefit when the ending captures the imagination or leaves the reader just enough work to do so that people can't resist talking about it.
  11. Is the ending expected? Obviously, surprises are good. But if nothing of what is expected is delivered, that's perilous. Readers need to have some level of anticipation that's valid. While, for instance, the most obvious suspect in a murder mystery getting arrested at the end can be flat, exposing the real murderer should include an element of "I should have known that" or "that makes sense."
  12. Is the ending unexpected? Does it include, without cheating, a twist not anticipated.
  13. Is the last sentence as powerful and memorable as it can be? While it is not good idea to have a last sentence that doesn't feel organic, it's a shame to waste the opportunity to give the reader one more gift. Do this even if you have to rewrite the last few pages to set up that one sentence appropriately.
  14. Is the ending thematic? This may be a difficult thing for those who begin their work with an ending to answer. Often, the themes the stories emerge with the writing. But the main message or the story proposition needs to fit neatly with whatever ending is in the final draft. So, however you work, save this question for the time when you think you're finished.
  15. Is there a roll in the ditch? That is, to the hero and the villain face each other directly in the ending? This can't be done by proxies. It must be personal.
  16. Does the entity include a legitimate revelation or surprise? Did you give the reader one more important insight at the end that adds a dimension to the story?
  17. To all the important surviving major characters get to play a part in the final few scenes? Comedies almost always do this. In fact, classically, comedies and with a party, wedding, or some sort of celebration that pulls together everyone. It's less important in a drama, but it still can add power to the conclusion of your story.
  18. Does the ending include difficult action by the protagonist that makes a difference? The main character needs not only to act in the end, but to personally bring about the ending.
  19. When a reader finishes, are there unintentional doubts created that distract from the story’s conclusion? An ending is much less satisfying if the reader can think of one that is equally (or more) satisfying while being equally (or more) logical and likely.
  20. Does the ending create a memorable picture? Is it visually striking? Is there an image that sticks in  the reader’s head?
That's it. As usual, some of these may be of more value than others as you explore your story. But I hope you find a few that make the conclusion to your story powerful, satisfying, and resonant.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

20 Questions 7 - What to ask about your story’s beginning

Beginnings are the way you and your story are introduced to readers (or the audience). Consider why someone might have come to your story. Perhaps, to be entertained. Maybe to learn something new or to experience a time, culture, or situation about which they know little or nothing. Some people come to stories to be distracted or consoled. Some come for lessons and comfort. And some are attracted just by the beauty of the language as expressed through a fresh voice.

Almost everyone comes to a story for emotion. The promise of a thrill or a laugh or a good cry must be there from the start or another story, which will provide what the reader is looking for, will be selected instead.

It's also the writer's responsibility to keep the reader engaged. New writers especially do not get much leeway on this. The benefit of the doubt – is this worth my time? – may not last any longer than the first few sentences.

To help you bulletproof your beginning, I developed these questions. Not all need to be answered. (You know your story and your audience.) But I hope at least a few will help you to spruce up and make a good first impression.
  1. Does the beginning raise questions? It doesn't necessarily have to jump right into the story question, but there should be at least one question that causes a reader to turn pages.
  2. Does the story move? Without bullets flying or death-defying leaps, is there sense that you've dropped into something that's already in progress? 
  3. Is the reader spared a slog through description and back story many skip past nowadays?
  4. Does the story sound promising from the first few sentences? Is there an intriguing hook? Or an arresting opening image? Or a line of dialogue that would make you eavesdrop on the subway?
  5. Is it clear? While mystery is okay, readers should believe that everything in the first pages will make sense sooner or later. And they should not need to reread any of the sentences.
  6. Does the reader know who the main character is? Do they know who they are supposed to empathize with?
  7. Is empathy supported? While characters don't need to be likable, they do need to have human experiences that matter emotionally illustrated within the first few pages.
  8. Do readers know the stakes? And are they high enough to worry about? Do they create a sense of foreboding were tension?
  9. Is the setting expressed with enough detail to allow the reader to participate? Is there enough description and enough stated so the reader can follow the path to immersion in the story world? Do indicators, early enough so that the reader does not need to revise initial impressions about the setting (unless this is intentional, as is sometimes the case in speculative fiction and comedy)? Note: setting includes era, season, and time of day. Not just place.
  10. Is there a perspective, the use of language, or a voice that elicits confidence and may even charm the reader?
  11. Are the rules of this world, even if it is mimetic, presented so all that happens can be understood and the reader will not feel anything that occurs is a cheat or unfair?
  12. Are there hooks? Does the writer plant intriguing and question-raising information from the very start and throughout the first pages of the story?
  13. Is anticipation built? Does the reader quickly have expectations that will be fulfilled, exceeded, and manipulated for surprise and delight?
  14. Are clichés avoided? Both in terms of phrases and situations (waking up, arriving, dealing with amnesia).
  15. Does the story, even in the first few pages, hint at the overall theme?
  16. Are the senses engaged? Is the reader encouraged to experience the story in ways beyond just hearing and seeing and are these in a reasonable and natural balance with the material?
  17. Are the scenes in the beginning of the story well-constructed, with clear motives, beginnings, middles, and ends?
  18. Within the first few pages, are there any surprises? Does it go beyond the expected in ways that promise entertaining revelations?
  19. Is it clear within the first few pages what the genre is? Will the reader know what kind of a book he or she picked up after the first few pages, or, for instance, will they be liable to experience disappointment when they realize that sexy romance is really a horror story?
  20. Does the reader have a reason to keep turning the pages after the first scene, the second scene, the third scene, and however many scenes make up the beginning of the story?
It's easy to see that wonderful beginnings are difficult to write. Here's a tip -- don't worry consciously about any of these during the drafting stage. Keep these questions for the rewrite. Also, when drafting the story, be aware that you probably won't know the ideal starting point until you are well into the work. Many writers aren't clear on where the story begins until the first draft is done, and it is very common to end up cutting the first pages, scenes, and even chapters. Does this sound discouraging? There's no reason for lamentations. It's just part of the process that reveals the best beginning to bring to your readers.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

20 Questions 6 - Villain vivisection

Not all stories have villains, but all commercial stories have antagonists. Man against man, man against nature, man against himself — you know the drill. And if you've been a storyteller for any time at all you understand the value of having powerful antagonists.

Character change is a big part of why we come to stories, and a good antagonist, opposing the hero or heroine, forces change. So it's worth digging more deeply into your antagonist to be sure you're getting everything you can out of him, her, or it.

I've listed 20 questions that I hope will be helpful. I focused on the idea of a villain, but it shouldn't be too difficult to interpolate these questions to whatever antagonist you have in your story.
  1. Is your villain active? Does he or she plan and execute work that impedes, distresses, and discourages your protagonist?
  2. Does your villain take advantage of the flaws and weaknesses of your hero/heroine?
  3. Does your villain go as far as possible in creating havoc and damage? Is the harm done extreme and is the villain willing to sacrifice to make it as difficult as possible for the hero/heroine?
  4. Is the villain vigilant and attentive? Does the villain react to what the protagonist does? 
  5. Are his or her responses timely, apt, and punishing?
  6. Is the villain humanized? Are there enough dimensions so that readers might suffer the discomfort of identifying with him or her?
  7. Does the villain change as the story progresses – not in terms of focus, but in terms of improved ability, knowledge, and judgment?
  8. Does the villain surprise? Are some of the choices unexpected while being reasonable?
  9. Is the villain in some way a reflection of the protagonist? Would the hero or heroine feel uneasy about some of the things they have in common with the villain?
  10. Is the villain powerfully motivated? Are there reasons for his or her goal and do those reasons push him or her hard?
  11. Does the villain at some point offer the hero or heroine a choice? (This might include an opportunity for them to join forces.)
  12. Is the villain powerful? 
  13. Is he or she at least the equal of the protagonist in terms of intelligence, resources, and options?
  14. Are the villains plans and goals clear? Where possible, is what the villain wants tangible?
  15. Is the villain's potential for causing harm illustrated early enough in the story to make readers dread his or her success?
  16. In addition to keeping the protagonist from his or her goal, to the actions of the villain undermine the hero or heroine's sense of identity or self?
  17. Is there a time where it's clear that there's more to the villain than meets the eye?  Does a backstory add texture and depth?
  18. Are there important scenes where secrets about the villain are revealed?
  19. Is the villain fresh? Is there something so distinctive and interesting about him or her that his or her mere presence makes the story special?
  20. Do the actions and intentions of the villain support the story's theme? (Often, the villain stands in for the status quo or society's rules or values.)
A great villain can be the spark and the life of your story. He or she will torture your hero or heroine in ways you wouldn't dare. The remarks that come out of the mouths of villains are often so good, writers steal them (with modifications) for their heroes and heroines.

That means you may find this set of questions in this series to be the most fun to work with. And that will increase the delight of your readers.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

20 Questions 5 - Make your main character's obstacles more challenging

In stories, characters never change except in the face of adversity. And the conflict they face comes when what they want is blocked in some way. This is where setbacks, sacrifices, and (often) nasty surprises come in.

A sure way to improve your story is to tune up these obstacles so they demand the most of your main characters. Make them fierce. Make things go wrong. Don’t turn away from torturing your characters. To help you in this (sometimes painful) project, I offer 20 more questions for your story, these dealing with the obstacles the heroes and heroines must face.
  1. Are all the obstacles expected by the genre and logline included?
  2. Can you make the obstacles more challenging for your main character? 
  3. Will readers have doubts about whether they can be overcome?
  4. Are the consequences for failure or the required sacrifices as extreme as you can make them?
  5. Do the obstacles escalate in difficulty each time they crop up in the story? Did you avoid plateauing or deescalation?
  6. Is taking on an obstacle irreversible? Is there no way to go back? Must the hero or heroine go through or abandon the quest?
  7. Are choices clear and reasonable? Have you avoided advancement of the plot by stupidity?
  8. Does the main character have agency? Will it be impossible for the obstacle to be overcome without the choices and actions of the protagonist? Is deus ex machina avoided?
  9. Do some of the choices for dealing with an obstacle represent dilemmas, where neither choice is desirable or without important costs?
  10. Do all the obstacles upset YOU personally? Do you suffer along with your protagonist?
  11. Are all the obstacles related to the goal? Do they make a difference? Are they of the right scale?
  12. Does each obstacle advance the protagonist along his or her character arc, forcing change and growth?
  13. Are the obstacles visceral? Can they be imagined and related to by readers?
  14. Would at least some of the obstacles be insurmountable by the protagonist at the beginning of the story?
  15. Do obstacles compromise the fulfillment of as many of the protagonist's needs (as reasonable), up and down Maslow’s hierarchy?
  16. At one time or another, is the hero or heroine challenged in a variety of ways (e.g., physically, socially, intellectually, morally, psychologically)?
  17. Are some of the solutions surprising while still being fair?
  18. Do any obstacles threaten prized relationships?
  19. Do obstacles challenge the protagonist’s self-image?
  20. Do villains get more savvy and harsh with each obstacle they present? 
Without obstacles, a happy ending isn't earned (and a tragedy can fade to so what?).  By making the obstacles more daunting, the story inevitable becomes stronger, improving both the characters and the plot.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

20 Questions 4 - True Goals for your story’s hero/heroine

Fundamental to storytelling is having a character who wants something. In commercial fiction, the character wants something external and tangible. Michael Hauge says you should be able to take a picture of it.  (Think of the Death Star exploding or Rocky still standing at the bell for the last round.)

This is not to say that there can’t be goals like gaining respect or that internal needs, like managing anger, can’t be satisfied. These add to the texture and depth of any story and can make a commercial story more engaging, valuable, and artistic. But, without a clear goal, a story can lose focus.

Some goal development has been covered in other posts, especially in Problems with the Premise series and John Marlow’s lesson on writing loglines, but here I’ll present 20 questions that might be a good reference and prompt fresh thinking. As usual, work with those that fit your intentions and feel free to ignore the rest.

Note: In many stories, the main character has a goal that changes to the fundamental story goal by the beginning of the second act. That’s fine. It provides a way to ease readers from a familiar world to one that is more challenging. Ultimately, however, the goal is part of the story question that keeps readers turning pages. Will the two lovers get married? Will Ulysses get home?  Will Frodo destroy the Ring?
  1.     Is the protagonist’s goal clear? Heinlein wrote that his best writing education came from a Naval Academy course where students had to write unambiguous orders. If anyone could read them in a different way, it was a failed lesson.
  2.     Could one picture capture achievement of the goal?
  3.     Is the value of the goal apparent? Can readers connect with the benefits for the protagonist or society?
  4.     Does failure to achieve the goal carry a price? Will something really bad happen or something important be lost if it is not achieved?
  5.     Is commitment to the goal irreversible for the protagonist? Is there a point where he or she cannot go back and live the life presented at the beginning of the story?
  6.     Is the protagonist the right person to achieve the goal? (This one is tricky. Often it is best if the protagonist appears to be completely overmatched, even the least likely person. Frodo is a great example.)
  7.     Does the protagonist have the agency necessary to achieve the goal? That is, is the main character able to take the actions needed to succeed? (Also, tricky. Actions could include training to get the required skills or dealing with a personal flaw or inducing others to help.)
  8.     Is the goal personal for the main character? Does it connect with a need and carry emotional weight? (The truth about this one does not have to be apparent to the protagonist, but it must become apparent to the writer.)
  9.     Does the goal itself suggest tasks that must be accomplished? Does it create expectations that engage the readers?
  10.     Does the goal suggest obstacles and even seem impossible?
  11.     Can the goal be bigger? Can it mean more and be harder to achieve?
  12.     Can the goal be stretched to cover several levels of Maslow’s hierarchy?
  13.     Does the goal have emotional impact? Either directly or through empathy with the main character?
  14.     Can you list all the contextual information that must be clear to the reader before the goal can be fully appreciated? (For instance, the hero’s reputation or past failures, society’s rules, and consequences for those who have tried to achieve this goal in the past.)
  15.     Is the goal appropriate to the genre and tone of the work? (In general, love stories are not central to horror stories and would be at odds with Poe-esque dread or Lovecraftian grue.)
  16.     Does the goal’s achievement bring a boon to society?
  17.     Does the pursuit of the goal force the character to deal with a flaw and grow as a person?
  18.     Will success require face-to-face engagement between the protagonist and the antagonist, a classic “roll in the ditch”? (Obviously, this is not relevant for every story, but it is always worth considering.)
  19.     Is the goal, as understood by the protagonist, worth the sacrifices and effort needed? (The reader should never think that, if the hero/heroine had any brains, he/she would quit.)
  20.     When the goal is achieved, with it be unmistakable that the main character earned the success? Or will it seem as if luck or outside forces played a hand?
I’ve written these with the assumption of the main character’s success, but failure is an option. And bittersweet endings can be delightful. Also, the paths to even the clearest goals should have surprises along the way. Clarity does not mean an absence of twists or secrets.

I’ve worked one-on-one with dozens of students as they’ve developed the premises for their stories, and making a goal as good as it can be is the second hardest task. (The hardest is giving a beloved protagonist a real flaw.) The most common problem is the writer presents a goal that’s internal, usually tied to the protagonist’s wellbeing. You can’t take a photograph of that. After that, goals usually need to be tweaked to be more ambitious. And then, the protagonist, as described, is not the best one to take on the goal — which leads to work in character development.

Next time, I’ll present questions on obstacles so you can properly torture your poor protagonist.










Tuesday, August 22, 2017

20 Questions 3 - Exploring your story's world

A common problem with stories I judge for contests is the inclusion of scenes that are set in empty space, with the writer providing no genuine sense of setting. A deep understanding of the plot and the protagonist is essential, but orienting readers in a clear and believable setting is the only way to get them lost in your story.

In addition to inviting people into a place (and time) you've created and making them comfortable, the setting can contribute to the overall tone of the story and situate readers in a genre. Perhaps most important, it situates the characters, reflecting (and sometimes creating) the challenges they face, providing contrast, and heightening tension.

Of course, for science fiction, fantasy, and horror, the setting can be essential to what the story is about. Writers working in those genres frequently need to build their worlds in great detail and set up the rules in clear ways so what happens makes sense. In fact, I've advocated using some of the techniques of speculative fiction worldbuilding for contemporary, mimetic fiction.

The bottom line is setting has value and the detail with which you plan and present it will depend on the genre, the readers' needs, and the purposes you have in you scenes (and the overall novel). So please keep that in mind as you look through these 20 questions to explore your fictional world. Some will surely be more valuable than others, but I hope a least a few will inspire new ideas for you.
  1. Are your readers oriented in space? Does they have the clues they need to imagine the room or landscape in which the action takes place? This includes the size of the space (open? claustrophobic?), the people present, and the significant objects (certainly, any that will be put to use, but also those that contribute to tone)?
  2. Are your readers oriented in time? If it's a different era, are clues to this clear or is is made explicit? If it is relevant, is the time of day obvious? Are their clues to what season it is? If time has passed since the last scene or if this is a flashforward or flashback, do readers know this from the first paragraphs?
  3. Is the weather accounted for in some way?
  4. Do the senses help immerse readers in the scene? Does this go beyond sight and dialogue to include ambient sound, touch, taste, heat, and humidity? Is the setting comfortable? Or uncomfortable in some way?
  5. Is the setting experienced through a point of view character, with attention to what the character would know and notice?
  6. Does the environment include threats (weapons? cliffs?), disturbing elements (foul smells, dirt, dead bodies, creaking floorboards), or attractors (beautiful scenery, pleasant smells, a banquet, sexy people)?
  7. Is gravity relevant? Is the floor tilted or slippery? Is the earth quaking? Is there a thirty-story drop just outside the window?
  8. What emotions does the setting evoke in the viewpoint character? How do these change throughout the scene? 
  9. Does the setting trigger phobias for the point-of-view (POV)  character? Or does it prompt memories? 
  10. How is the setting assessed by the character? How does it figure into his or her strategy and attainment of goals?
  11. If this scene revisits an setting shown earlier, how has it changed? How is it different or more meaningful for the viewpoint character?
  12. Does irony play a role? Do readers know things about the setting that the viewpoint character does not?
  13. Are there any clues planted in the setting that will pay off later on in the story? Does what is described set up and justify answers, endings, surprises, and revelation of secrets?
  14. Within the way the POV character presents the scene (either by first-person narration or the third-person limited perspective), are their indications of who the character is on a deeper level?
  15. Without distracting readers from the story, is the scene appropriately entertaining and interesting? Does it provide information, paint pictures, and invite further investigation?
  16. Are the elements of the setting the best choices to create conflict, expose the protagonist, heighten tension, and set the mood? 
  17. Does the setting align with the theme and help to build the story?
  18. Have you, as the writer, been selective? Including all elements that are essential to the scene and the larger story? Eliminating that which is not essential?
  19. Does the setting have its own history? Its own future?
  20. Are any of the elements symbolic? Do they add to the story's effectiveness at an unconscious level, allude to myths, or provide keys to deeper interpretations?
Pacing the description of the setting so the story doesn't stall often takes trial and error. Getting the balance right between the amount of description and the amount of action and dialogue can be tricky. Because of this (and because beginning writers overdo it), some writers skimp on providing information about the setting. The way I approach it is considering the setting like a secondary character in the story. This helps me to be sure that it is presented completely without taking over.

Next time, I'll provide 20 questions on the protagonists goals.


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.