A Brief Glimpse of the Snowflake Method [Friday Fiction Favourites]

I just blazed through this pretty clever book, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson. I mean blazed, I opened it for the first time a few hours ago and devoured it in one brief sitting. It was enjoyable, and informative. The lightness of voice and the unique fictional non-fiction kept me fascinated.

Using a cute fictional fable with some of our favourite fairytale characters, Ingermanson breaks down his Snowflake Method for planning/outlining a novel. It’s really quite brilliant, and I was surprised at how easily his steps resonated with my own process. I could see how the method can make the initial planning stages simpler to enact. It takes the guesswork out of how to go from initial idea to fully-fleshed and detailed story concept.

If you’re a pantser you’ll HATE the Snowflake Method (but may still love the book). I think planners will love both. If anything, it takes planning to whole new levels and gives us a solid outline that takes the guesswork out of writing the first draft.

The Snowflake Method breaks down into ten tasks.

  1. Define your Category (Genre), Target Market, and 30-word Elevator Pitch/Story Sentence
  2. Expand your Elevator Pitch into a One-Paragraph Summary
  3. Summarise each of your characters:
    Role, Name, Goal, Ambition, Values, Conflict, Epiphany, One-Sentence, One-Paragraph
  4. Expand your One-Paragraph Summary into a One-Page Synopsis
  5. Create One-Page Synopsis for each of your characters
  6. Expand your One-Page Story Synopsis into a Four-Page Long Synopsis
  7. Create detailed Character Bibles for each of your characters
  8. Create a List of All Scenes
  9. Define Proactive or Reactive Elements for Each Scene
    Proactive: Goal, Conflict, Setback / Reactive: Reaction, Dilemma, Decision
  10. Write the first draft based on the outline of each scene

I’m looking forward to putting the technique into practice with Birth of the Sacred Mother. I’m in the early planning stages now and have kept fumbling with my outline. As I read, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, I could see where my weaknesses came from. Like Goldilocks, I’ve been a little shy about fleshing out my antagonists. Now, over the coming days I plan to take the ten-step approach one step at a time and see how it works for me.

I highly recommend this book. Even if you don’t use the method exactly as described, the fiction element makes for a delightful story and the book is a very quick read. Not to mention the fact that the Kindle version is only a couple of bucks. You’ll get ideas and begin to see your own stories differently. You may find there are aspects of the method you love and can use. Ingermanson (or rather Baby Bear) recommends adapting a Creative Paradigm that suits you. That’s what I’ll be doing with the Snowflake Method because I know there are parts I’ll find very useful, but I also still love The Hero’s Journey and that will play into my outline. It’s about adopting what works for you and adapting your own personal technique, one that heightens your efficiency and makes it easier to tell a great story.

The Elevator Pitch: Nailing you novel in a single sentence.

Defining your novel in 30 words or less is incredibly challenging but it’s a great marketing tool and an even better outlining tool. The elevator pitch forces you to coalesce your story idea, to crystallise it into a single, sharp image with a compelling protagonist, a powerful antagonist, a vivid setting, and a captivating twist. It should give your reader a sense of genre and target market. It should also clearly define your story so you have a firm sense of what your book is about.

I know, you’re wondering how do you get all that information into a single sentence? It does take some practice and it does take some crafting. But that’s part of what makes elevator pitches so powerful.

I actually had more trouble nailing down The Flight of Torque than I have its sequel Birth of the Sacred Mother. I have three elevator pitches for FoT:

1. In this inspiring urban fantasy, blood-charmed heiress, Tori, and her wingless guardian angel, Lucas, defy the ministrations of the sinister cult that transformed her into a monster.

2. When a blood-charmed heiress is irrevocably transformed by a sinister cult, her wingless guardian angel learns that keeping her safe comes second to keeping her alive.

3. In this inspiring urban fantasy, blood-charmed heiress, Tori, is irrevocably transformed by a sinister cult. Her guardian, Lucas, is helpless to save her. Now something dark and primal slithers within.

All three are good, but none of them are great. I like the third best because of the phrase: “Now something dark and primal slithers within”, which I also use on my back-cover blurb, but number three is also broken into three separate sentences instead of one single sentence. Number one is good, but I don’t like the term “monster” because that’s not really what she becomes. I also have trouble with “wingless” in both one and two because the cover clearly shows he has wings, and while there is portion of the book where he is wingless, he isn’t always. These are all sorts of things to consider when writing your elevator pitch, getting it “just right” requires quite a lot of thought and effort.

The thing to notice about all three of these pitches is that they all introduce Tori and Lucas (the protagonists) and the cult (the antagonist). All three also define the problem (transformed into a dark and primal creature/monster). They also all give a firm sense of the genre, with one and three stating it outright and two leaving the content to allude to genre. Using powerful descriptive terms for the characters gives readers a sharp sense of who the book is about, a “blood-charmed heiress”, a “sinister cult”, a “guardian angel”. Readers are left with a clear sense of who the characters are. The phrasing also gives them a sense of setting.

Today I wrote the elevator pitch for Birth of the Sacred Mother:
[spoiler]A priest’s teenage daughter learns the true value of sacrifice when, kidnapped and raped by four well-respected men, she finds herself pregnant with an unholy clutch of serpent-tainted offspring.[/spoiler]

I feel very good about this pitch. It crystallises the work for me, and I think that is another great thing about a well-crafted elevator pitch. A great pitch motivates the work. When I read that sentence, it throws me into the story and compels me to get to work. The main job of an elevator pitch is for marketing, to compel readers (or agents or editors) to want to read your story. But in the early stages, during the planning and outlining, I think working out the pitch helps give a writer a clear sense of their story. It is a foundation to come back to, and one that can guide the story because it is ultimately the story’s root.

Now I’ve got a strong elevator pitch, I’ll evolve that concept into a one-page summary. A one-page summary helps to develop a clearer sense of how the story will unfold. I’ll also be fleshing out the characters in more detail.

This early stage, just before the draft comes together is really exciting. But it’s also difficult because I have a few different projects in mind at the moment so I’m frequently feeling torn between them. I’m very excited about all of them and would like to get two of them off the ground as soon as possible. They are shorter projects so shouldn’t take as long to write as Birth of the Sacred Mother, but every minute I spend on them delays this book and now The Flight of Torque has readers there may be people waiting on the next book! Dilemma!

Speaking of people waiting on the next book, that’s very much reason for me to wrap up this blog post. But if you have any questions about writing, about the books, about the craft of writing and planning/outlining a novel or short story, leave them in the comments below or catch me on Facebook.

Action vs Plot and Fresh vs Formula

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.

5 Reasons Why Your Novel Loses Steam

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.

The Hero’s Journey Seminar Blew My Mind!

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.

Avoid Plot Potholes On The Storytelling Highway

Three Plot Potholes - Danger Signs And WarningsWhen driving along the storytelling highway, you are bound to run across a few plot potholes that could send you and your story out of control. Even if you have your trusty map – the plot outline – at your side, it will not always prevent you from running into weather-beaten ruts, perilous potholes, or unexpected road blocks. This is a frustrating scenario for any writer to find herself in, as it appears that the best laid plans are dissolving right before her eyes.

When driving a vehicle, you have a few options for overcoming obstacles to your destination. You can keep moving forward, no matter how treacherous, damaging, or slow-going the terrain will be. You can follow established detour routes, which may make for a smoother ride but can slow your trip considerably. You can kick in the four wheel drive and take it off-road, which can be exhilarating, but can also be more dangerous than the original obstacle.

You can also make a u-turn and head back home, but you wouldn’t want to do that, right? Here are some of the most common plot potholes you may encounter in fiction writing, and solutions to make the storytelling highway a much smoother ride.

Plot Problem 1: Characters Veering Off the Path

Anyone who has been the navigator on a cross-country trip knows the perils of a driver who wants to go off the beaten path. “Hey, there’s a billboard for the World’s Largest Ball of Twine! Let’s go check it out,” your hero says, and the next thing you know your vehicle is turning off on the next exit, into unfamiliar territory. When the characters in your story get distracted by something equally as shiny – and unrelated to the story at hand – it is hard to resist dramatically reaching over and taking the steering wheel out of their hands.

The real world solution is very similar to the literary solution – let the hero get it out of his system. Go and see the amazing roadside attraction, by writing out the unruly scene in your story. Then you will be able to see whether or not the detour was justified. You might be surprised to find that the plot needed a side trip after all, to reinforce the theme of the story, create a new subplot, or to give the protagonist time to think of a solution. Even if the scene needs to be cut out later on, your hero may learn his lesson, and listen to you the next time you tell him to follow your outline.

Plot Pothole 2: Plot Screeching to a Halt

Obstacles like closed roads and dead ends bring your plot to a screeching halt.You are writing right along, and then find yourself at a dead end. You have no idea where to go next. Your outline doesn’t give you any clues on how to navigate your way out. Even asking your characters for ideas gets you nowhere. Your plot is stuck in the mud, and you’re tempted to call a tow truck to get you out of the muck.

This plot pothole usually appears when your outline isn’t as strong as you thought it was. You know your characters need to get from point A to point B, but you weren’t completely sure how they were going to do it. Now that you’re on your way, the problem appears much larger and more difficult to navigate. Your best bet is to take a break, and approach your plot problem with fresh eyes. Talk it over with some writing friends, and possibly add a new element or two to the story that can give you more options. Make sure your characters are adequately motivated and equipped to handle the problem, and with a little ingenuity, they can make it out in no time.

Plot Pothole 3: Spiraling Out of Control

When the writing is flowing freely, it is easy to fly by crucial elements of your story. The pacing of your novel may go entirely too fast, as you send your characters zooming towards goal after goal. They don’t get a chance to breathe or process anything that has happened to them. When you finally hit a pothole, your story flies out of your hands. You haven’t taken the time to get to know your characters, and they are overwhelmed and exhausted.

Even in the most exciting, high paced thriller, you need to give your characters slower scenes, where they can pause and decide what to do next. Allow them to pull over, stretch their legs, and examine how far they have gotten in pursuit of their goals. After a high-speed chase, be sure to pause, so your story has natural highs and lows while getting you ever closer to your conclusion. You wouldn’t drive for 24 hours without a break, and your characters need down time as well.

What plot potholes have you encountered when writing? Do you have techniques for avoiding or powering through the most troublesome stumbling blocks? Your solution may be just what another writer needs to keep writing through their novel.

Photo Credit: 11-11-06 © Stratesigns, Inc.
Photo Credit: 09-02-08 © Alex Potemkin

Conflict Painting Your Fiction Characters Into A Corner?

Conflict, Plot, Writing ProblemsWriting a compelling story involves putting your characters into difficult situations, known as conflict, and showing how they work their way out of them. While we have all faced our share of conflict in our own lives, our heroes can get into more trouble than we ever thought possible! Sometimes, they want to wander far afield from the problems we thought they would encounter, and trip over new sources of conflict we never considered before.

If you find yourself writing about a trouble making protagonist who thrives on conflict, you may wonder how exactly she’s going to get out of it. As your plot progresses, the encounters will only get more intense, and more critical to the character’s primary goals. The heroine has to find her way out, but if she and the writer have painted themselves into a corner with conflict, the story will fizzle out.

The Primer Coat: Review the Plot

The first layer of paint to explore is the plot up to the point of this apparently insurmountable conflict. You’re not looking for a way out of this conflict, even though that is very tempting at this point. The more intense the problem is, the more excited your readers will be, so stick with it! What you are looking for, are hidden tools and clues to paint your way through the conflict, with your protagonist victorious.

For example, your hero cannot think of a way to disable the machine that is threatening to destroy his hometown. However, when you look back at the scene where the antagonist built it, you realize that the key component is susceptible to water damage. If there are cooling pipes filled with water attached to the machine, your hero could use that water to stop the machine and save the day.

The Color Coat: Character Reactions

If your hero is drawing a blank when faced with the biggest conflict of his life, remove him from the story for just a few minutes. Present the problem to him, and freewrite his response. While under pressure, he may buckle, but with some space to breathe and think, he may be able to come to his own solution. Then you can figure out how to make him realize that solution within the story, by having either an internal or external trigger prompt him into action.

Your hero may not have the answer though, which means it is time to look at other characters. Pretend that they are the main character instead. What would the antagonist do if he were in the same predicament? Would the hero’s girlfriend have the same reaction? Write through a couple of imaginary situations, and see if they present alternate scenarios to victory.

The Top Coat: Give Friendly Advice

When you’re absolutely sure you have firmly painted your conflict into the corner, don’t give up hope! Instead, sit with your character over a cup of coffee like you would your best friend. Listen to her problems, and then offer up the best advice you would give.

Your heroine may have to cut ties with her ex-boyfriend once and for all, but doesn’t know how to approach him. Have a mental or written conversation back and forth with her, where she explains everything that is going on, as well as her hopes and fears about the encounter. You can then let her know what you would do if you were in that situation yourself. Whether she listens or not is another matter, but she will be more prepared to face her final conflict, and you will be prepared to wrap up that critical scene in your story.

How have you painted your story conflict into a corner? Did you make your way out, or have to backtrack and start over? What are your techniques for dealing with insurmountable plot twists?

Photo Credit: Wendy Harman (wharman)

In Media Res: Backstory And Beginning In The Middle

In Media Res: Begin in the middle of things.When writing a short story or novel, writers are advised to begin In medias res – “into the middle of things” (Latin). The introduction needs to instantly captivate the reader. In media res plops the reader into the middle of the action or an intense situation, revealing only what is necessary to propel the story forward.

However, when writing such a compelling beginning, it is very tempting to explain everything that is going on. How can readers relate to your protagonist, if they don’t understand why she is challenging her grandmother, or fighting off soldiers attacking her castle? The urge to add in hefty amounts of exposition explaining the heroine’s backstory is hard to resist, yet it will bring your plot to a screeching halt.

Dance Through Chapter One

To keep your story moving forward while still delivering important past information, think of the first chapter or scene as a carefully choreographed dance. You begin the scene where your characters are at, no matter what interactions, arguments, or past influences are in play. Then you bring the scene forward two steps, by showing how your characters react to each other and the situation, through dialogue  and action. After establishing the scene firmly, then you can give the reader one step back by illuminating a bit of the backstory.

This two steps forward, one step back approach will ensure that your characters keep moving forward, while your reader remains engaged in the story, in both its present and past elements. Backstory can be sprinkled amid your powerful in media res beginning via your protagonist’s thoughts, speech, and actions. Your hero wouldn’t be so determined to save the necklace unless it held a special meaning to him. He can either muse over its importance to himself, or tell his friend that it holds magical powers. If they’re running for their life, he won’t be able to go into much detail, so keep it brief.

What is Important Now?

In media res focuses on the present moment in your story. Anything that pulls the reader out of the present will jar their sense of suspended disbelief in your story. The forward momentum will slow down with too much past details, and causing your story to be muddled and disjointed. Eventually, your reader will grow more confused, and set your story down for something easier to follow.

When choosing to reveal past information, ask yourself, “Is absolutely necessary to move the story along?” If it can wait for a calmer moment, then it should. If your reader can easily figure it out on their own, then let them. Readers love deducing things from clues sprinkled throughout the beginning pages. Allow them to wonder for just a little while, and confirm their suspicions later on in the story.

My rule of thumb for introductions is to only include what is necessary for the characters to move through the story. If the heroine’s friend won’t help her break into an abandoned house without knowing the reason behind the heroine’s motivations, then share it. If she’d follow the heroine no matter what, then it can wait. Just as there are no unnecessary steps in a dance number, there need not be any unnecessary descriptions or dialogue in media res.

Take a Bow

Your characters earn their standing ovation when they take a bow at the end of the first chapter, and so have you.Once you’ve successfully choreographed your characters through chapter one, allow them – and yourself – to take a breather. They’ve escaped the burning building, and have to decide what to do next. Now they can discuss their options, as well as more of the past that led up to the first compelling pages. They’ve earned a standing ovation for their first performance, and so have you.

In media res is an exciting way to begin a story, that will draw you and your readers into the thick of the story. Once you learn how to gracefully navigate your way through, your story will have an alluring introduction that will leave your readers cheering “Encore!” and reading on for the next compelling chapter of your novel.

How do you write enticing introductions? Have you actively chosen to start your story in media res? What challenges did this type of introduction bring?

Photo Credit: 08-22-07 © Adam Mandoki
Photo Credit: 04-22-10 © Jacom Stephens
Photo Credit: 11-03-09 © Juanmonino

Why I Don’t Write from Outlines

I Don't Write From Outlines, Do You?Although I carefully map out my blog topics each month, whether I’m writing a full-length feature story or a quick SEO writing tip, I never write from an outline. I have my reasons — and they might surprise you.

Why I Don’t Write from Outlines

Although I carefully map out my blog topics each month, I never write from an outline. This doesn’t change, whether I’m writing a full-length feature story or a quick SEO writing tip: no outline. I have my reasons — and they might surprise you.

Like the best poetry or even a song, an article or a blog post has a rhythm – a melody, a flowing cascade of words down the page. This is different from the “voice” of the writer; it is, for lack of a better term, the “life energy” of the article. A good article should transition smoothly between ideas, leading readers down the path the author wants them to follow.

Full-length feature writing, to me, is like a quiet, spontaneous Sunday drive. I often don’t know where I’m going until I get there. As I scan through pages of notes and quotes, the facts and figures jump out at me, taking their places in line, so that each paragraph leads into the next. Who needs an outline when I have the muse?

The words for a blog post or other Web content, on the other hand, fall fast and furious from my mind in a frenzy. If I took time to outline, I’d lose the idea. Often, blog posts are written before I even have time to think about where they’re going. I type and type — and then I’m done. With my sources in different tabs on my screen and the ideas forming a cloud in my mind, I just write until it’s done and then edit for clarity and conciseness.

Benefits of Outlining

Many writing books say you should outline because it helps a writer to see an article’s overall form and ensures you won’t forget an important fact. In most cases, until I do interviews and/or extensive research, I don’t know where the piece is going. Once I have finished my research and have my notes in front of me, an outline seems redundant.

Some new writers may be scared at staring at the blank page, unsure where their story is going or how they will get there. To me, this is the fun of writing. It’s all up to me – no constraints, no order until I make sense of it all. If I forget a fact because I didn’t have an outline, it probably didn’t belong in the story anyway. (It’s the literary equivalent of the philosophy that everything happens for a reason.)

It’s not exactly a blank page I’m working from either; I have my notes, my quotes. And in my head, there exists the faintest skeleton of an idea, ready to be fleshed out. It’s all up to me to put it together.

In that sense, I guess I do write from an outline. It’s just that the outline exists in my head.

Cast Your Writing Process Vote: Outline or Not?

What about you? What’s your writing process? Do you write detailed outlines? Rough notes? Draw a mindmap? Or do you prefer to wing it, like I do?

Photo Credit: 09-19-06 © OlgaLIS

The Importance of Pace in Short Fiction

Pace is one of the most important elements for any short fiction writer interested in success. When handled correctly a good sense of pace can help create a piece of written art, when mishandled it can spell disaster for a short story. Learning the difference between the two is what divides ambitious amateurs from successful writers.

Given the inherent brevity of short fiction, pace plays a more prominent role than in novels and larger texts. In order to fully tell a story within the word restricted remit of a short story, a writer must utilize their skills to keep the plot moving along at a fast clip; fast enough to keep the reader interested, but detailed enough to be comprehensive. Below are a few methods with which to ensure a successfully paced short story.

One of the most fundamental skills a writer needs in order to write a well paced story is the ability to differentiate between a story that works well as a short fiction and one that does not. Amateur writers are often so determined to tell their story that they neglect to consider the correct form of the piece. A longer fiction artificially compressed into short story loses the elements that made it a good story in the first place; as side plots, secondary themes and minor characters are cut to meet the word limit the story loses its ‘heart’. Likewise, although less common, when a single scene or flash fiction is expanded into a short fiction it ceases to be effective as superfluous elements are added to pad it out; and the pace of the important elements slows accordingly. Knowing when a piece needs to blossom into a longer fiction and when it should remain as a single scene or idea is the mark of a good writer.

Having identified a suitable story, how then does the writer maintain a pace fast enough to convey it fully in a limited word count? Where novels and long fictions are able to spend pages building up complex descriptions and imagery, a short fiction writer must have a prudent and comprehensive vocabulary. Where a novel uses many descriptive words, a short fiction uses few. Therefore those used must be suitably evocative, able to conjure up an image or describe a scene briefly but completely. Essentially in this regard a short fiction writer utilizes the same skill as a poet, paring down their work and selecting only the most powerful words. In this way a skillful writer can keep the word count down, but convey just as much meaning and impact in far fewer words than a less skilled writer with twice the space to fill.

Pace is by no means an easy writing element to master, but with practice and patient reworking of short fiction it can be a real asset to a writer and with it a story can shine.

Nicholas Cockayne is a talented UK-based writer with a BA in English and a MA in Creative and Critical Writing. He’s currently involved in Media Consulting, Marketing, and Advertising.

How do you control the pace of your writing? Have you ever considered it’s importance before?