Articles in the Fiction Writing Category

Redshirts: Well gentlemen, you're all going to die.The fact is, as writers, we often deal in death. We bring into being characters whose whole purpose for being is to die. Sometimes a random extra wanders onto the page that needs culling for effect. Sometimes death is happening and you need fodder for the cannons so you implement a platoon of redshirts to bolster your numbers. And sometimes, from among those ranks of the doomed to died, you come to love a character. You know from their beginning you’re going to have to kill them, but they weasel their way into your heart. That’s okay. In fact, that’s great! If you love the character then odds are your readers will too. That makes it all the better when that character dies because your readers will be emotionally invested.

Today, in memory of all those characters destined for death, I want to send out a short tribute. December 1st has been appointed Redshirt Remembrance Day by Western Australian writer, Hadiyah Stephens. She invites us to take a moment to remember a character we’ve loved and murdered for the sake of a compelling story.

“For those of you don’t recognise that ‘red-shirt’ reference, it’s a Star Trek one. If you see a random, nameless red shirt in Star Trek… he will die. It’s inevitable, it nearly always happens. So in dedication of all the red-shirts in our stories, ‘We miss you, but you die for the better good of our word counts and stories.’” ~ Hadiyah Stephens

In the first of my Red-shirt Remembrances I give these words in honour, respect, and thanks to a character in my book, The Flight of Torque. Unlike those nameless redshirts, this character has a name. He was however a relatively minor character in the book. From the moment of his creation he was always intended to be fodder for my protagonist. The moment of his birth he was destined to die in a gruesome and brutal way that would torture and torment my heroine. His reason for living was in the manner of his dying.

And you know what? I didn’t love him in the beginning. He’s a “bad guy” and there’s a lot about him not to love. He was vengeful, vacuous, violent, vagrant, and vapid. He was other derogatory words that don’t start with the letter ‘v’ too. But as I wrote him into the story I explored him. I discovered his voice and had fun with it. I watched the beauty of his movements. I followed the wonky way of his thoughts. I began to know his quirks. Over time I came to like him. I was no longer sure I wanted to send this character into the cold, dark night of eternal slumber.

Still, the story called for his demise. In true writerly fashion I drew it out in all its glorious wonder. I used the relationship I’d formed with him to make it meaningful and to make sure it hit a raw nerve with my protagonist. His death pushed the story onward and upward. It served the story and that is what a good death always does.

So, to Carny, may you live the lives that never see the page and be in death a tribute to your story.

1 December 2013

December 18th, 2012

8.00pm
Ok, 8pm crashed into me today. But I’m here, my files open, I’m ready to go, sorta.

8.20pm
Grr, like pulling teeth. I think it’s because I had a rushed start. Stupid game was distracting me. I’d meant to go home, but didn’t, so I got started at Mum’s and now I’m kind of bound here tonight.

It’s a rough start, probably because of the rush, but I still managed 535 words.

8.30pm
Ok, getting started again. I’ll have to remember to make a cup of tea real quick after this one. Battling a headache, mild dehydration, and a moderate case of writer’s lack of confidence. Still, one must not let these things defeat the art, right? Onward!

8.50pm
*sighs* It’s not getting any easier. Perhaps because I’m displaced and getting distracted/interrupted. People talk to me here. It’s very frustrating. I wish I’d gone home in time to get started with these.

8.55pm
*groans* 423. And it’s still like pulling teeth. I’m afraid I’ll end up having to scrap this whole scene. It doesn’t feel right. I’ve definitely got to figure out the various character voices. Maybe I’m over-thinking the whole thing. Or maybe it’s because I’m scattered tonight and can’t settle into it.

9.00pm
*sighs* Ok, going again. Words is words after all.

SPOILER ALERT!

9.10pm
I have to double check that I didn’t already kill Jackson. I hope I did already kill Carvy. Gotta double check all that.

END OF SPOILER

9.20pm
I only wrote 203 words that time. But really I wrote more, because I took a lot out too. I’ve been having trouble with this scene so I’ve been going back, fitting bits in, fleshing it out more instead of just straight writing. Still, it’s progress, and it’s 20 minutes of focused progress. For me, that’s what Word Wars are really all about.

9.50pm
298 words. *grimaces* Still, that scene has mostly come together and I’m started on the next scene. I’m wading through it because I have snippets from an earlier draft that I need to consider for these next few scenes. It’s a complete rewrite but the story is buried in those snippets so I’m passing back and forth between pages of old draft. Stupid way to write, really. But that’s the way it works after the first (and second, and third) draft sometimes.

10.50pm
I have a problem. The scenes unfolding tonight have rushed too far ahead. Of course, I have pages of old draft that can be woven in and hopefully I can pull these pieces apart a bit to better fit my outline. I can’t rush these last chapters. Yes, the tension needs to remain high but I always hate books that seem to crash to the end. They build up and build up and then suddenly it climaxes in a rush. You want to sustain that literature orgasm. That’s what these scenes need to do. Keep that thrumming tension quivering there as the climax comes together, draw it out, make it a sweet ecstasy of reward for the reader, and then take a soft breath to wind it down at the end. At the moment, it’s rushed like a clumsy teenager.

10.55pm
Ok, done some math. That last word war gave me another 324 words. Bringing my total for today to 2,312. Not too bad. And then *drum roll* my current book total stands at 86,250 words. That’s just 13,750 words until my 100,000 word target. So if I can straighten out these chapters here, get them unfolding correctly and at the right pace it should be a good run down to the finish line. I might even want to cut out a bit.

18 December 2012

December 16th, 2012

12.15pm
Ok, I have serious issues with Crey’s voice at the very least. *sighs* It’s going to take some significant editing to work the kinks out of it. Still, I try to remind myself that the book needs to be written more than it needs to have the character voices all straight at this point. I’ll go through and work on his dialogue separately later. In fact, I indent to isolate every characters dialogue individually and work through it to make sure the character voice is consistent. That’s going to be a task and a half, but it will be worth it.

12.40pm
*sighs* It’s so sad to know what I’ve thrown away from the first and second draft. There is some good writing there. Yes, there is also a LOT of bad writing too, but the good writing is sad to cut away. Still, that writing doesn’t belong in this draft and I have to be brutal about not trying to force it to fit. Sometimes murdering your darlings is the kindest thing you can do.

1.55pm
*chuckles* Oh, I like that paragraph. It feels like a transition from one state to another. Embracing yourself, instead of running from it. Theme, distilled in a half dozen lines. I mean it’s not. Every word has lead up to it and it really couldn’t stand alone, but it still feels like a turning point that encompasses that theme. From helplessness, to power.

Trouble is, I feel like the scene needs to end there, but the scene card that follows shouldn’t start from there. I suppose I could chapter break there. It would be a kind of short chapter, just shy of 3,000 words but it’s not the shortest chapter I’d have. I could also, potentially, flesh out the Lucas scene in this chapter, maybe. Yeah, chapter break is probably the best bet.

2.40pm
I’m flagging. It’s different when there is no one here. I mean, I’ve probably written more than I sometimes do at a write in. I’ve certainly written more than I did in the 5 hours at Murdoch yesterday (since I wrote nothing then), but I still feel like I’m struggling. It’s a hard slog. Possibly because I started today with a migraine. The heat doesn’t help either and the sun is starting to come down on this window so the heat and light is getting worse. But somehow, it’s the loneliness getting to me the most. No one else could make it this week. I hope that’s not a sign of these Sunday’s becoming extinct already. Hopefully it’s just that everyone is busy with family and Christmas etc. Hopefully future weeks will pick up pace.

16 December 2012

December 13th, 2012

8.50am
Ok, so I’ve been telling myself I should write, every single night this week. Then I’ve spend a few hours watching t.v. programs instead. So, no more excuses. I need some friends to pull me out of the mindless stupor of the box and back to the final 20,000 words of this book. So, I’m calling on my Novel Ninja friends (a bunch of local Perth-based writers I met during NaNo) to help me challenge myself with some word wars.

Starting from 8pm I’m thinking 20 minute word wars every half hour from 8-11pm. Everyone welcome.

7.40pm
Ok, pulling myself up by my bootstraps to live up to my promise of Word Wars tonight. First one in 20 minutes.

8.00pm
Doh! No idea what I’m going to write, but it’s time. Biting the bullet. Lets do this thing! 20 minutes, go now!

8.20pm
Ok, that’s 20 minutes. 641 words. Not bad given I had no clue what I was going to write when I started. I need to build on the angst in this scene and I guess I’ve got myself in a good position to get started on that. Next war in 10 minutes.

8.30pm
Ok, next one’s up. Here we go. 20 minutes, starting now!

8.50pm
Ok, 774. A bit better. Raced through some dream sequences I wasn’t expecting. Was fun. Wonder what will happen next. lol

9.00pm
Ok, 9.00pm. time to get going again. Another 20 minutes.

9.20pm
Ah ha! 724. And I ended up starting a scene I didn’t even know would exist. Characters really do write these books you know. We just take dictation.

9.30pm
Time to go again. 20 minutes, here we go. (Or I go, whatever.)

9.50pm
Only 605 words that time, but I stopped about 3 minutes early because I needed to pull myself together again. Crying my eyes out, which is ridiculous because I already know how the story ends. Still, I guess if I can make myself cry with these scenes, I might be able to make the reader cry too. And isn’t putting the readers through hell with our characters part of the whole point of being a writer?

9.55pm
I’m fragile tonight I admit that, but even so I do hope these scenes touch my readers as much as they touch me. Still, I’m very aware that I need to go back and give a good working over on Crey’s dialogue. When I write him it comes out me. But I know he has his own voice, his Italian accent, his correctness of language with those few dialectical quirks that are common to a person who speaks English as a second language.

I also have to work through continuity. Things get revealed to me later in the story and I need to go back to make sure they’re woven through at the beginning. To make sure they’re not in conflict with things from earlier scenes/chapters. My beta-readers are catching up to my well edited chapters so I need to make time to go over the second act. It’s not ready for readers yet.

I have doubts about the whole drafts readiness at this point. I know the dialogue in particular needs careful vetting. Along with the continuity. I need to make sure all the notes I’ve taken are put into action. Part of me hesitates to continue when I know I’ve left so much undone behind me. But maybe that’s resistance talking. I just have to get through this fourth act. Only a dozen or so more scenes.

10.00pm
Ok, going again. two more tonight. 20 minutes.

10.20pm
689. Bit clunky I guess. And again, something weird cropped up I wasn’t expecting. Still, it’s interesting, I’ll go with it.

10.30pm
Opps, almost missed the last roll call. Was writing some more. lol Ok, resetting word count, here’s the last round. Ready, set, go!

10.50pm
And that final run brings me to another 775. Time to add up the total of tonight’s word wars.

Sweet! If I did my math right (and that’s always a big if) I wrote 4,208 words. In three hours. That’s damn good. So, even if I was at war with myself it was worth every minute. Look forward to taking another run at it tomorrow night.

Oh, forgot to add the 395 words i wrote between wars. So that’s 4,603. Nice!

13 December 2012

December 4th, 2012

4.50pm
Got some great feedback from one of my pre-readers today. She’s just had chapter 3 (and I’m about to send her chapter 4). There are two points she’s brought up that I need to stick placeholders on so I’m adding my responses to her in my journal today.

5. I really like Jess, I need to play her out a bit more, make Jess a bit more fun, I think. Trouble is, I wanted to do some research into Irish accents so I could really get a feel for her voice.

7. ‘… somehow just having him here…’ Jess doesn’t know, but she’s so flighty that I deliberately dropped it in as something Jess might miss at the time. Is it too big a point for Jess to skip over? The him kind of refers to ‘police’, but of course Tori means Lucas specifically. I thought maybe Jess would just assume him means them. What do you think? I’ll make note of this one to come back to.

Both these points are probably meaningless to anyone else but they’re enough for me to go back and sort things out when I come back to them.

11.1 I love Darcy. I wish there were more of Darcy in this story. *sighs* That could actually be a plot hole. Tori’s role as a reporter really isn’t brought back into the story beyond chapter five where she actually does follow up on the story doing her reporter thing. I suppose time moves quickly after that and there really is no occasion for it to come back up. Except, oh, it could come up there (there being a spoiler so I won’t specify). I wonder how “reporterly” I should make Tori. Would Tori want to report what she’s learned to her editor? She won’t have time to write the story herself, so maybe she won’t tell him because it is her story and she is directly involved. Still, it’s definitely something I need to make note of and think about some more. Any opinions?

11.2 Another thing that occurs to me is that Tori calls him on a landline. I wonder if I could/should modernise this to a mobile phone. She also uses a voice recorder in a later scene, I tend to use my iPhone to take voice notes. An interesting point to consider.

You know what just occurred to me? I should write a post with her feedback and my response because she’s an excellent reviewer and it would be a good example of a great way people can be beta-readers or pre-readers for other people. Reviewing or critiquing work is a fantastic way to build your own skills. I have a few people I do it for, and I have a few people who do it for me. It’s a great symbiotic relationship. I should blog about that.

5 December 2012

December 2nd, 2012

12.30pm
So, it’s Sunday, again. I actually did come down to the library to write, but have spent the first half hour doing non-writerly things. In a way, it is writerly because it organises my mind, ready to begin. But now it’s 12.30. It’s time to stop organising my mind and just start writing already. Music goes on.

1.05pm
I feel like I’m missing something. I thought Lucas had come across Tempany when he came in from the balcony and someone slipped out of the door. But I can’t find it anywhere. Obviously, it has to be an earlier scene. It foreshadows the fact that Tempany knows more about Uriel than she’ll admit. Where is it?

1.35pm
Yay, I’m feeling really good about this. I’ve written almost 1000 words in less than an hour. I’m not certain they’re good words, but they’re there, on the page, after four days of no words. It’s another scene closer to the end of the third act, another scene closer to the end of the book. It also accomplished what the scene was supposed to. I just hope it did it in a way that is both believable and comes across real and passionate. I’m not sure it does. I’m also not sure I foreshadowed the possibility of it happening earlier in the book. It might feel a little deus ex machina (I should totally write a blog post about that!). Although, at this point it doesn’t really serve much purpose. I’m assuming it will serve more purpose in the sequel.

1.40pm
I’m taking a short break. Need some water.

2.05pm
Just went back and tweaked a scene in the first chapter to foreshadow something that becomes a big deal in the third act. I love when there is a feeling of hitting the right note, hitting home, when I read parts of scenes I wrote earlier, months ago. There is this image, I’m describing a photograph, and there is one where a man and woman share a kiss, the woman is clearly pregnant. The line that tugs my heart is fairly simple in the grand scheme of things: “The woman’s rounded belly was a swell that stretched her top and the man’s arms cupped her gently, as if cradling the child within.”

I think it touches me because I know who that child is, who the man and woman are, so I know the connection between them, and the the idea of the man and woman loving each other so much, and the man loving the child so much, tugs at my heart. Perhaps it’s also because I don’t really feel like my father ever felt like that about me. It’s one of those moments where we can put something truly special into a book and touch cords with our readers. At least, I hope it feels as intimate and touching a moment to my readers as it does to me.

Also, it is one of those occasions where using the adverb makes the sentence better. *winks* I could have written, “his gentle hands cupped her” but it needs to be softer than that and the adverb softens the sentence.

2.20pm
Ok, so I did hit the right note with that last scene. I read it over and almost burst into tears in the middle of the library with three other writer friends around me and and seven strangers reading their books. Still, if I feel a wash of sadness, hopefully that means my readers will too.

That also brings a close to Chapter 22. Moving on to Chapter 23, the final chapter, and only a single scene, before the end of act three and the beginning of act four. Rush of excitement and thrill. This book is almost written. About 20,000 words to go.

2.25pm
I just realised Tori needs to have killed someone recently for the Inner Demons scene to work the best. That means I have to go back a few scenes and find someone to kill. No idea who it will be. Actually, I think I do know, he’s the only character I’ve grown to like, despite being a bad guy, his little character quirks kind of make him a fun character, much more fun than the other two characters that could be chosen. And you know, it has to be a likeable character that gets killed. Although, Tori hasn’t had much contact with him. Maybe I need to thread back a bit further to have him in her life a little more.

Ok, it’s possible that I need to get rid of Jeremy. It’ll require a bit of editing but it’s a good way to get the character I mentioned above into the prior scenes with Tori. Although, having said that, I’m not sure if that’ll mean he’s in two places at once. Better check. *groans* I think this sort of thing is why the later chapters are so much harder to write.

STORY OUTLINE SPOILER

Ok, lets get this timeline worked out.

Afternoon: Tori and Lucas are captured in the afternoon.

Evening: The ceremony at the alter happens in the early evening, prior to dinner I would assume. Carvy, Orton, and Jackson get Lucas down to the cells and Crey and Zara takes Tori to her room.

Morning: Tori wakes up, possibly the next morning. She is guarded by two men, unnamed.

Morning: Lucas is visited by Crey. Possibly morning. Orton and Carny come down to give him another beating and Crey sneaks past them back up the stairs.

Morning: The High Priestess visits Tori in her room. Two guards, unnamed, but one is young – Same guards as before.

Late Morning: Zara visits Tori. Two guards, unnamed, one young – Same guards as before.

Late Morning: Zara visits Lucas. Orton and Carny escort her down but then leave as she’s tending to him.

Late Afternoon: Hours later, Tori guarded by two guards, demands to see the high priestess, one guard is killed.
(This is the best place to weave Carny into Tori’s POV)

Late Afternoon: Zara takes Tori away. Dinnertime.

Dinner time: Lucas calls out, Orton answers. Crey comes down to him.

Evening: After dinner, Tori is ‘guarded’ by Crey

END SPOILER

3.30pm
Ok, so I’ve fed the Nagaran person in to an earlier scene where he has a fairly interesting encounter with Tori. I’ll have to edit the first scene of chapter twenty two as well to play out that whole kill someone more recently idea.

3.40pm
Ok, only managed to get 1,325 new words today but I did get a whole scene and some good segments of foreshadowing sorted out. I say that’s pretty good progress for today. Of course, I do feel like I need to do more than that soon because I don’t want it to take 20 weeks to finish this book.

2 December 2012

Reader Question: “Is there a way to kill off the main character early or in the middle of a story? If so, does that kill the story or can it still work?”

Killing The Hero

There are a few instances where killing off the main character at any point in the story can work, but, generally, the Hero shouldn’t die. At The Hero’s Journey Seminar, Karel Seger’s covered this with very good reasoning. He explained that when the Hero dies the viewer is confused because he or she is no longer tied to the character. When death happens to other characters we feel the emotions through the Hero but if you do funky stuff to the Hero you create a detachment that brings the reader/viewer out of the story. I add however, that while it is rare for the death of the Hero to play well in a story it can be done, if it is done well.

Life After Death

For example, if the main character continues through the story after he is dead then it can work. Paranormal stories are becoming more common. Modern readers are open to the idea that there may be an afterlife or life after death. So, a character may die and return to the story as a ghost or other ethereal being. I can think of at least one fantastic example where the character was dead all along and you didn’t know it until the end of the movie. The body may physically die and then be magically or metaphysically reanimated, such as with vampires and zombies. I remember one such biblical death that has been remembered evangelically for centuries. An immortal might experience “death” several times and survive those experiences.

But, life after death isn’t necessary paranormal either. A Hero could experience what has come to be called a “near death experience”. The body may physically die, it may even be pronounced dead, and then spontaneously revive. The science-fictional aspect of cryogenics and other stasis are states where the body would be declared clinically dead. There is no longer a measurable heartbeat or brainwave. The body’s metabolism is slowed down to such a deep “sleep” state that it no longer dreams. Yet, from this “death” the character can revive, exactly as they were before or, as poor Han Solo could attest, with one hell of a hangover.

What is significant about these deaths is that the death experience itself is profound for the character. Experiencing death, and then living in some way beyond that experience leaves a mark on the character. They often experience fundamental change. In a way, they do die because after that experience it is impossible to be exactly who they were before. If you write a scene where the main character dies it needs to have that profundity.

Another aspect of life after death that is becoming more commonly accepted as possible is the survival of the soul after the body dies. In some religions, the soul resides in the heavens after death, but in others the soul is reborn into the world of the living. In this way a character could live again after dying. It could be interesting telling a story from the point-of-view of the eternal soul. What if your character remembers living a former life?

Death, And Then Dying

Sometimes a story can open on a death scene and then flash back. It’s not a popular method because, lets face it, how much is a reader going to be willing to invest in a story if she knows that the character is going to die at the end? But flashbacks can work, especially if the opening scene leaves the death uncertain. If the character is dying when the scene flashes back then your reader is given a strong hook to find out if the character is going to live or die. Again, however, the experience must be a profound one and if that character does ultimately die at the end then you should definitely remember the points I make next.

A Heroic Death

One movie I remember did it brilliantly. The character development through the movie was profound and in the final few minutes the main character makes a heroic choice. One life, for many, but the real choice he made was his life, for his daughter’s. And that’s where it was a real and just choice and where his death made him truly a hero. It did work. But I also remember leaving the cinema at the end out of that movie feeling betrayed and heartbroken. We’re used to great stories having the traditional “happy ending”. The good guys win and go home and live to fight another day. And, technically they did, the good guys did win, but at a terrible price.

I think if most stories did this we’d go into movies with fewer expectations about how things should unfold. This movie is proof that it can be done, and done well. But while a moment like this is memorable, is it truly being fair to your reader/viewer? When we give ourselves into the hands of the writer there is a bond of trust. We open ourselves up to care about these characters. Death is a part of life, it is painful, and killing of that main character can abruptly rip us away from the story. Grief creates disconnection. And we grieve for a well written character who dies. When it’s the main character, it’s almost like we die ourselves because we’ve been seeing the world through that characters eyes. It’s their life we’ve lived while reading the story. It’s very hard to remain invested in a story when our heart has been ripped out.

Not Always A Hero

Sometimes you have to be aware that the Hero may not be who you think he is. If you kill off a character early and the story continues with someone else then that initial character was not the Hero. Beware of this trap because it’s a dangerous one. You can invest a lot of time writing the story in the point of view of one character and making such a dramatic shift to another disjoints the story. If you’ve got this happening in a draft, seriously consider if you could tell the story from the second character’s point of view from the very beginning. Examine your reasoning, why does this shift take place and is it fully justified?

My Advice On Killing The Hero

Make your Hero's death memorable.If you must do it, if the story needs to have this character die, do it well. Make the death memorable and completely justifiable. Never kill a main character carelessly. Don’t have him hit by a bus. Senseless death is waste and a reader needs to feel a sense of purpose behind such a great loss. Fiction, unlike life, has to have meaning. Every action has a motive and a purpose. Even the death of your character, any character at all, needs to mean something. But if that death is of your main character, your Hero, it must be vital, and life-altering. Weigh the loss the reader feels, the grief, and the sense of disconnection with what character’s death gives back to the reader and make sure there is a fair trade there. Sometimes the Hero does have to die, and when he does, he should be remembered for the remarkable contribution he made to through his life.

Which stories, books, or movies do you know of that killed off the main character? How did you feel when it happened?

Do you have a question about writing fiction? Ask me via email, Facebook, Twitter, or Plurk.

18 April 2011

A few months ago, a friend and fellow writer came to me with questions about action, plot, and how to tell a unique story. His questions were fantastic and I wanted to share our conversation for those of you who might be asking yourselves the same thing; “How can I write a story that is fresh and new if I’m following the ‘rules’ and ‘formula’ set out by tried-and-true authors?”

Hi Rebecca! I wanted to ask you about action vs plot. Are the two mutually exclusive? What’s the deal with that and why? Should one expect an action movie to have a plot? Why would viewers care if it doesn’t have one?

Oh, good question. Action, particularly in the action movie genre, tends to refer more specifically to motion and movements that are being taken. Action movies involve a great deal of momentum. The pace is usually quite fast and a lot of exciting events tend to occur.
Plot is more collective; it’s about WHY those actions happen, and when and how. The plot involves the motivations of the characters and the causal affect, why one action leads into, or causes, a reaction.

An action movie SHOULD have a plot, but some don’t. If stuff is blowing up and people are running about everywhere but there isn’t some underlying sense of motivation and purpose there is no plot.

A lot of ‘real life’ is fairly plotless. We do stuff, because it’s a new day; that’s action. But without goals and dreams there is no plot and we tend to wander from action to action aimlessly.

Is it ever a good idea to be whimsical or plotless? I can see that being intentionally plotless, would fit as a plot device (ironically) to make something seem more natural or possibly light-hearted…

Like I said, a lot of real life IS plotless, but during the writing process it’s best to have a plot because in a story things are supposed to happen for a reason. If you factor in an action or event that appears to be plotless it is because within your plot that ‘natural’ or ‘light-hearted’ event is important to the story.

This is Chekov’s Gun Theory, which states, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”

What this comes down to is plot devices. Everything in the story should serve the purpose of the plot. If it isn’t related then it doesn’t belong in the story. The plotless stuff should get taken OUT of a story.

Guy gets up, has coffee, blows his nose, has a shower… The reader doesn’t CARE! So it gets cut. Unless something significant happens in the event, such as his coffee is poisoned or he blows his brains out of his nose, it is noise that will bore and frustrate a reader. If an object, scene, or an action doesn’t serve the plot then it’s superfluous padding which can slow down and even dumb down a story.

Why does a story need to be plot-driven?

Some stories are considered to be plot-driven while others are considered to be character-driven. If the scene develops the reader’s connection with the character it’s considered to be a character-driven scene and doesn’t necessarily ‘need’ a plot. But it’s better if the characters are driving the plot with all of their actions. That is how the two weave together.
Ideally, plot and character go together.

It’s the kind of thing worth considering when reading books. Look at them with your writer’s eye; pay attention to what feels connected to the greater theme of the story. Does anything happen that doesn’t, ultimately, lead into what happens next?
Life does that. If anything in my past had happened differently I wouldn’t be who I am in the present. And books are the same; the action serves the purpose of the plot, or at least it should.

Plot “devices” can be used for connectedness, people can often either remember or miss, something that happened earlier and how it relates to what happened later, but you want your story to be unique and character-driving is how you do that right? If a story is too plot-driven it often becomes contrived and predictable; it will feel fake, and readers will get emotionally disconnected.

You need both. Or rather, I should say, the best stories have both. There are plenty of stories that are “ok” which cater to one or the other predominantly but the stories readers come to love, the ones they become immersed in and won’t put down, are those which keep a balance between character and plot. Those stories build character enough to make us care that these things happen to this person, and plot enough to make what happens interesting.

So how do you escape the “same ol’ thing”? How do you make it something readers haven’t ever read before? How do you do something they wouldn’t predict?

Unique writing usually comes from voice. The same basic plot, even very similar characters have been written about hundreds of times before. (This is the basis of The Hero’s Journey.) But YOU haven’t written them. The way YOU tell the story will differ from the story someone else told.

If you talk to twenty people at a birthday party, every one of those twenty people would describe the party in a different and unique way. It would be like there were twenty parties instead of one. Each of us brings our own experiences and unique perspective to our storytelling.
Your storytelling can do things in a unique way based on your voice and the ideas that are uniquely yours.

Is it better to do what is expected or to prepare the reader for what is to come? Is dropping hints a good thing or should you just hit them with stuff?

It is better to balance the expected with the unexpected. Prepare and don’t prepare. Readers love twists, they love surprises, but they don’t like being mislead or sent off on tangents.

So, even if you do something unexpected, when the reader looks back it should be eye-opening for them. On reflection, they should be able to see the things that pointed to the twist before the twist happened.

For example, the second time you watch the movie, “Sixth Sense”, you realise there are lots of things that pointed to the twist from the very first scene. Natural human assumption about the way the world works creates a belief that causes viewers to miss those crucial hints the first time we see the movie, the twist makes us go “Shock, WOW!” and then ohhh, there, and there, oh yes, I remember that happening, etc.

Hints are good. Intelligent readers especially love the thrill of getting hints and trying to guess the ending. But be careful not to make those hints too obvious or the reader will guess and be right.

A lot of the advice you’re giving, and writer’s are given generally, applies because it’s a tried-and-true analysis of stuff that’s already been written, but how does one approach writing something completely new? Using the same methods as before doesn’t sound like it makes something fresh.

Well, you can write things completely opposite to that which is tried-and-true. It might work, but it might also become the biggest flop in this history of big flops. That’s what innovation is about; taking a chance that it won’t suck it big time.

If you want to write a book you can sell, you do it the way that has proven to work. Publishers don’t like taking risks so particularly for those of us writing for traditional publishers it can be important to follow the ‘rules’ and do what has proven to work.

If you want to do something fantastically unique and new, then don’t follow the ‘rules’. You have to be willing to break all the rules. It might pay off, but it might not. You have to weigh up if the risk is worth it to you. If you love the process of writing without following the tried-and-true, if it’s fun to be wild like that, then go for it. Forge the path for other writers to follow the new rules you create.

The only real ‘rule’ in writing is to write what you love. Because, odds are, if you love it there will be readers out there who love it as much as you do.

Original conversation took place on the 14th of September, 2010.

23 March 2011

You lost your momentum. Your once exciting story feels like it’s gone off the rails somehow. The great beginning gave way to a floundering middle and you don’t know why. It’s frustrating and worrisome but don’t despair. This is a common, fixable problem.

So you’ve written a novel, but something is not quite right. You have a spectacular beginning to your story; a compelling hook, riveting main characters, and a worrisome conflict. Great!  Your ending is excellent with a twist, with a killer resolution – the satisfying all is well or isn’t this ironic last few words.

The problem, you decide, is the stuff in between. The middle of your book is lacking something. There’s no spark, no oomph.

Here are 5 tell-tale signs that your plot is losing steam.

1. Your main characters spend too much time apart.

This little tid-bit actually made a light go on in my head when I realized that the subplot was keeping my main characters apart for a large portion of the book. Doesn’t matter if they’re romantically involved or resolving a different type of relationship. They have to be together to get together.  You need time to build tension and your characters need time to resolve their conflict.

2. Your main character isn’t stressed out.

Conflict is the key to a good story. It creates tension and drama. If your main character is happy and comfortable they are also boring. Whether it’s an arch nemesis sabotaging them at every turn or a love interest that is out of reach, your main character has to suffer. Throwing conflicts in front of them also shows what they’re made of, how deep their desire goes for a given outcome, and what the stakes are. These revelations not only drive a story, they push your character along their arc of development.

3. Random, pointless details.

Do you write about the morning routine? Driving places? How about a few paragraphs describing boring stuff like what they do at work?  Busy work that doesn’t push the plot loses the reader and makes your characters too ordinary. Remember that your book is an escape for your readers. Only use the day to day if it’s significant. For example; if they don’t do something that later on proves a mistake. Then it’s a plot point.

4. Recapping and redundant conversations.

Your reader isn’t dumb. Don’t treat them like they are. If you already showed something in a scene, you don’t need to spend time talking about it, unless it’s a really convoluted storyline in which case sagging probably isn’t the only problem.

5. Second Fiddle becomes more interesting.

If secondary characters, supporting staff, and scenery become the focus of your book you’re in trouble. Quirky side-kicks, sassy best friends, the Beta-Male/friend are all essential, but be aware of those characters taking over. Avoid this by limiting their backstory to only what is relevant to the plot.

But wait. There is hope. Here are some steps to take BEFORE your plot starts to slow that will allow you to side-step the whole horrifying ordeal.  I know that some SEAT OF YOUR PANTS writers out there will hate me for this, but OUTLINING, is the best way to check for signs of trouble. An outline of your plot will help you see some essential components you might be missing.

Make sure you have a book-length plot. The number one reason for losing steam halfway through a story is that you don’t have enough of a plot to support a book-length manuscript.  The subplot doesn’t have enough emotional twists and turns or the main plot is too linear.  An outline can help you see if you need more of one or the other or if your novel should really be a novella or short story.

Make sure you limit the action. This may sound backwards, but too much action and your book becomes frenetic and hard to follow. Doling out the tension systematically, piece by piece, ramping up the stakes just a bit each time is a more effective way to keep your story exciting.

The middle matters in matters of the heart. Use the middle to focus on the romance or the relationship issues between characters. Make sure they contribute to major turning points in the plot.  Don’t go off on tangents like side character issues, or backstory. If you know the middle of novels tends to sag fill it with juicy stuff and it won’t.

Now it’s always a good idea to do check for these problems before your WIP needs a major overhaul. Sometimes going back in and adding subplots or adjusting the pace can fix your novel, but that can be frustrating. Bypass lengthy revisions by simply planning ahead and employing these strategies to avoid a plot that runs out of steam.

20 March 2011

Wow! Have you ever been to a workshop or seminar that just BLEW YOUR MIND? That was what the two-day seminar, “The Hero’s Journey“, put on in the Art Gallery of Western Australia Theatrette this weekend, did for me. It BLEW MY MIND! It truly was, as the presenter described, “The be all and end all, the mother of all story-telling theories.

The seminar, hosted by WAnimate in conjunction with ScreenWest was presented by talented producer, consultant, teacher, blogger, and “student of story”, Karel Segers. Over the course of two days, Karel covered a great deal of ground, from The Monomyth and Mythical Structure, to Hero’s Journey Archetypes, and from the Three-Act Structure to the twelve stages of The Hero’s Journey. He managed to give us an overview of all this while interspersing compelling examples in dozens of clips and sequences from some of the most popular movies in the history of modern cinema. We had a blast. It truly was a lot of fun and I learned a great deal.

Although targeted at animators the seminar was a boon for producers, directors, and writers of all kinds. “The Hero’s Journey” has a particular slant toward screenwriting but I honestly feel that having an understanding of the journey can help fiction writers add depth and dynamic to their stories. By understanding “The Hero’s Journey” you begin to see that stories aren’t just about a beginning, middle, and end. There are stages of evolution and learning built into the character arc that extend throughout the plot. Seeing how this works in the majority of successful books and movies is pretty phenomenal. I’ll never watch a movie or read a book in the same way again.

So, I’m mind-blown. And, over the next few weeks I’ll share with you some of what I’ve learned through the seminar and some of what I’m continuing to learn. I’ll cover:

  • The Monomyth and Mythical Structure
  • Character Archetypes in The Hero’s Journey
    (and possibly break this down in detail by each individual archetype and that archetypes impact on the journey)
  • What exactly is Three-Act and Four-Act Structure?
  • Why Three-Acts and Four-Acts aren’t enough
  • The Twelve Stages of The Hero’s Journey
    (and probably break it down by each stage and possibly share a series of movie analyses and clips that give examples of these stages)

While I get all these posts written, I’ll leave you with some references that were recommended by Karel and which I’ve already hunted down for my own further research:

And some I’m still trying to get my hands on:

There is a lot to cover and so much more I’ve yet to learn. But you know what was most inspiring about this weekend? I had a breakthrough with my current novel. Some of you might remember that I’ve been “stuck” with my current WIP for months now. My muse is holding my draft hostage at the seventy percent (70%) mark and, until this weekend, I was unable to figure out how to bring the strings of plot together to get to those magic words, “the end”. Thanks to what I’ve learned this weekend I’m moving forward again and it feels fantastic!

I want to give a huge shout out and thank you to Karel Segers and The Story Department, WAnimate, ScreenWest, The Art Gallery of Western Australia, and Writing WA for giving me the opportunity to attend The Hero’s Journey Seminar. I had an incredible time and I’d love to have more of these opportunities coming to Perth.

7 March 2011