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.

Recreate: Inspiration To Write New, Fresh, Unique Stories

Recreate from the Mosaic of your MemoriesWriters recreate – everything we write is not truly unique. It comes from outside of itself.

Did you know? “The muses, the Greek inspirers of the creative arts, were the daughters of Memory, or Mnemosyne.” 1

Everything we experience, see, read, watch, hear, is archived on some level in our brain. As we write our subconscious draws from these billions of fragmented memories. This does not mean we plagiarize. Instead, drawing from experience, our own and that of others, we recreate, innovate, change, and forever alter the original. We create; new, fresh, and unique.

One night, I lay in bed watching the opening scenes from the movie Twilight. Bella’s voice-over talks about her decision to leave Arizona. “And this will be a good thing; I think.” In deciding to leave Arizona she is right into the event that begins her story. This is “The Inciting Incident”2. As I considered “the inciting incident” in Bella’s story my mind wandered into the intricate folds of my current work-in-progress. My thoughts ran through and weighed significant details as I considered new ideas and improvements to strengthen the initial scene, “the inciting incident”, in my own work.

My story is not Twilight. But something within that movie triggered a connection within my subconscious that influenced my writing. Echos of Bella, the scene in Arizona, and her softly spoken but decisive words are recreated in the inspiration that gave me new insight into the opening scenes of my current project.

In another example of fractured memories influencing new content, I was recently working on my current novel, ruminating on it in the darkness of the night, and daydreaming through the day. In it, the death of my protagonist’s father is a significant memory but the actual event had not found itself on the page. A scene came to mind but I couldn’t grasp the details. They were hazy, fuzzy. I delved deeper, trying to gain clarity in the image so that I could put it onto the page.

Aspects of the scene I could visualize in my mind’s eye echoed other memories. The setting reflected one I remembered from The Mummy Returns starring Brendan Fraser. The rich opulence, ancient artifacts, varnished wood surfaces, and the palpable sense of old money was mirrored in the room where I visualized my protagonist’s tragedy.

In my head I saw a picture and aspects of it echoed the set from that movie. As I dug deeper into my image, as I dissected it, I discovered a mosaic of memories. That setting was made of a thousand different rooms, ornaments, experiences. I could recreate from each segment of the mosaic, but collectively they created a unique setting.

From the mosaic of our mind and memory, we can recreate and find inspiration for new, fresh, unique stories, scenes, characters, and plots. Do you recreate, within your own writing, inspiration found in books or movies? How much influence do you feel your experiences and memories have on your writer’s voice and the stories you write?

1 “The Poetry Dictionary” by John Drury – First Edition, Page 158: Memory
2 “Hooked” by Les Edgerton – Chapter Three, Page 47: The Inciting Incident

Photo Credit: 03-25-10 © Nancy Ross

SEO Begins In Your Head

Search Engine Optimization does not involve the complexity of algorithms, trends, and scripts. The truth is, there are simple techniques that experienced web developers and SEO specialists consistently implement to get effective results. The first and most basic SEO techniques begin in the head.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) begins with head, title, and meta tags.While developing the correct mindset is important, what I really mean is the HTML content between each web pages opening and closing tags.

Every well developed web page has key elements within these tags that might seem inconsequential but actually play a vital role in not only search engine listings but page distinction and identification. These aspects perform the simple duty of providing basic information to a client’s browser and can be easily overlooked or under appreciated.

The Title Tag

The most important tag to include within the head of any web page is the title. The title is displayed at the top of the browser window (and may be displayed on the content tab in some browsers). The content of a web pages title tag is also, often the title used on web links, particularly in social media submissions and almost exclusively in search engine listings. It sets a readers expectation of what is to follow.

Because the title is one of the first elements rendered by the browser, it is the perfect opportunity to begin optimization. Search engines give this prime web real estate more weight when calculating results and considers the title a vital element on every page. The choice of an effective title for your web pages can significantly impact the quality and quantity of your search engine leads.

Meta Detail: Description

While there is some debate regarding the weight of search terms used in the description meta tag, this tag plays a significant role in the results of your search engine optimization. In the past, search engines used the description given in this meta tag when displaying search results. Now, while results usually gather their information from the instance of particular keywords in the pages main content the description meta tag still impacts search engine rankings.

Google representative, Vanessa Fox confirms that the tag plays an important role. It is important to use an unique description for every page to prevent duplicate content penalties. While it is impossible to know exactly how much power your web page description holds in final results, it is opportunity to optimize your pages with a mind to your keywords and content that should not be overlooked.

Meta Detail: Keywords

There is no arguing that keywords and keyword phrases generate maximum impact when optimizing you web pages for search engine results. The keyword meta tag allows us to add additional focus to up to twenty keywords and keyword variations every page. The methods of selecting keywords and using keywords effectively in your site content is more than this post could possibly begin to contain but in most cases, the obvious keywords to use are self-evident.

While there is no way to control how, or if, the information you provide in these tags is displayed in search results, the inclusion of accurate, relevant, and unique keywords and descriptions can influence a searchers choice to click through to your site. They allow searchers to evaluate the quality and relevance your content may have for their current needs. This leads to increased targeting and decreased bounce rates.

Points To Remember

  • Search engines each work in differing ways.
  • Small changes can create a significant increase in resulting traffic.
  • SEO techniques are often basic and simple to implement
  • Each page of your website should have these important head elements
  • Each web page should have a unique title, description, and keywords.

Finally, when considering SEO remember – UNIQUE – RELEVANT – DESCRIPTIVE

Any questions?

SG1 Series Part Two: Character Development

Characters are an elemental part of every story. An intriguing plot with a good story-arc is important but without approachable characters your story will never connect with an audience. Readers need characters. Characters are the socket for your stories power supply. It is through your characters that readers can plug into the plot and experience the life of your story.

The Stargate series introduces a multitude of characters in various stages and of differing quality and consideration. Some play bit parts as extras or body count but others grow into the story, we come to love them or hate them, we come to care for the part they play in the story, their injuries and deaths bring anguish and grief or heartfelt cheers.

SG1 – Jack, Daniel, Sam and Teal’c

The original SG1 is a team of four diverse characters. Their differences create an initial challenge; they struggle as a unit until they learn to use each others strengths to counter their own weaknesses. It shows the importance of bringing opposites together. These characters are unique in their own fields. It is their united purposes, each individual to their character, which brings them together. A bond is formed that gives this eclectic community a solid friendship. We see the bond develop and grow with the characters as the series progresses.

It is important to blend characters but avoid carbon copies. Each character should be unique and individual. Distinguish them with separate goals, established histories, areas of interest and technique.

The SGC and General Hammond

The Stargate Command is an entity in its own right. It is actually a collection of individuals that work in regulated ways to create a standardized base of operations. There are many faceless characters lead by the General. Most of the time we don’t connect with these individuals but General Hammond represents the unity. His personality molds the actions of the SGC.

Larger forces need a strong head character to represent their interests. Armies can seem like a long column of faceless men but a charismatic leader will show a distinguishing command of his forces. Each of his men is ultimately the voice of this man and a solid leader is one whose men will lay down their own lives to support the orders he puts forth. This is true of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ guys.

The Goa’uld

While the Goa’uld are a nasty bunch in their own right they are an ideal antagonist. They aren’t evil. They have solid reasoning and a collection of emotional reactions that allow readers to associate with them. The Goa’uld act entirely out of an arrogant sense of self preservation and domination. As a people (um… symbiotic race) they act with rational, intelligent thought. They are challenging but not insurmountable.

Antagonists should be normal people. You can create more impact with a sympathetic antagonist then with a diabolical freak. If a reader can see themselves in a protagonist you have a good story but if readers can see themselves to some small degree in the antagonist then you have a charged situation that will keep a reader tied to the outcome.

There are many more characters involved in the Stargate series. Each new person (or group of people) is shown in snippets. Base motivations appear and personality traits are revealed but characters always have an element that remains unseen. It is impossible to know everything and it is important that characters can still do something unexpected or unpredictable.

Over time, we get to know the main characters. Their own personal stories are revealed and delved into. The primary characters are challenged with personal situations forcing them to make choices that distinguish them. Whole episodes play a vital role in adding depth to these characters and introduce situations that push their qualities forward.

  • Use time in your story to slowly reveal your characters.
  • Allow their actions and reactions to portray the depth of their beliefs and desires.
  • Each scene should use your characters strengths and weaknesses.
  • 3D characters have sides we cannot see.
  • A characters relationships reveal vital clues to their personality.
  • Characters always continue to grow and change based on the situations that occur in each moment of their lives.

Finally, just because your story has reached ‘The End’ does not mean your characters have. Characters should still be imperfect in the final scene. Their growth remains incomplete. Some of your characters may have died but most will live on beyond your closing paragraph and while they began at one point and progressed to another in this story there should always be another world to save, another enemy to fight, another day to live and another dream to follow.

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