Tag Archive | fiction

Today’s Notes: Feb. 28th

Birthdays: Ben Hecht, Michel de Montaigne

Ben Hecht was an American journalist, novelist and screenwriter, winning an academy award for “Underworld”.  Michel de Montaigne was an influential writer of the Renaissance era.

Thought for the day: Wherever your life ends, it is all there. The advantage of living is not measured by length, but by use; some men have lived long, and lived little; attend to it while you are in it. It lies in your will, not in the number of years, for you to have lived enough – Michel de Montaigne.

Today’s Oddities:  Today is Public Sleeping Day. You can sleep in your car, on a park bench or on a beach (please check local laws first!) Take a nap at your desk (at your own risk!) Or what about a quick doze on the train, subway or bus?  It’s also Floral Design Day, named in 1995 by Massachusetts Governor W.F. Weld in honor of Carl Rittner, founder of a floral design school. So while you’re taking your nap, dream up a beautiful garden of flowers.

Tips and Teasers: Make a list of words that sound good in your ears. They might be onomatopoeic (words that sound like what they mean: buzz, sizzle) or simple words that suggest particular emotions or qualities. Use three of them in a paragraph.

February 27th

Birthdays: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Steinbeck, Irwin Shaw

Longfellow was a popular poet and writer whose work has stood the test of time. From “The Song of Hiawatha” to “Evangeline”, his lyrical verse sings as well today as it did in his era. Like Longfellow, Steinbeck’s prose has stayed in the forefront for decades. There are too many to list here, but some of the more well known ones include “The Grapes of Wrath”, “Of Mice and Men”, “East of Eden” and “Travels With Charley”. There are many more and I highly recommend any writer read at least one of them. Irwin Shaw was a prolific dramatist, screenwriter, novelist, and more. Read any of these three to expand your writing and reading horizons.

 

Thought for the day: “The creative writer is usually captive to his next book.” Fannie Hurst

Tips and Teasers: Choose an inanimate subject (object, place, idea, emotion) and describe it using action verbs. It’s not as easy as you might think.

Style Questions

Style Questions:

  1. Have you checked for redundancies, repetitions, homonyms and other word choice issues?
  2. Have you used all the senses?
  3. Is the writing more active than passive?
  4. Have you over-used modifiers?
  5. Have you checked for malapropisms and Tom Swifties?
  6. Have you used the proper language for the time period and geographic area in your book?
  7. Have you used the correct customs and manners for the time period and area?
  8. Is your history correct? Don’t invent or discover something before it’s been done in reality and don’t misplace actual historical people or places.
  9. Have you check the housing, transportation, food, dress, etc. for the time period?
  10. Have you kept a time line so your scenes follow a logical path?
  11. Have you checked for consistencies not only in time line, but also with characterizations?
  12. Have you used or overused similes and metaphors?
  13. If you used a motif, did you use the same one consistently

Write Your Novel: Characterization

Now that you’ve gotten the building blocks of your story, you need people to put in there – the characters.

Point of View

Point of view (POV) is defined as the person who is telling the story and from where s/he will tell the story. Ideally, it should be one person – two at the most – protagonist (hero or heroine) and antagonist (villain). Occasionally, a second hero’s or heroine’s point of view is also used, especially in romance novels. If you do decide to use two or three people, it is imperative that you keep their POV’s separate. This is done by having each POV confined to either a chapter or scene or, at the very least, a lengthy paragraph. The point of view should not skip from sentence to sentence. That’s called head hopping and, like watching a never-ending tennis match, becomes tedious and gives you a headache.

The first person point of view is told by “I”. This gets the reader immediately into the character’s head, but it limits you in perspective because you can only tell what’s going on from his or her perspective. Do you have some vital information that only the bad guy or the best friend knows? It doesn’t matter. Unless the hero finds it out for himself, you can’t use it. Nothing can happen that “I” doesn’t know. It limits who the reader gets to know, but it does allow the reader to get to know the main character really well. Note: the main character must be a strong individual in order to carry the entire story.

Third person POV is a story told by he/she. It allows you to be in the minds of multiple people and to see what’s happening in other areas away from the main character. This is the most common point of view used in today’s writing. It limits how well you get to know any one character in particular but allows you to know a little bit about a lot of things.

The omniscient point of view was common in books of the 19th century. In this one, the narrator of the book can directly address the reader. You’ll find it common in books by Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens when they address you, “dear reader”. It is not used in modern writing.

Characters

When you create a new character, you have the chance to make him or her however you want. What you want, though, is a well-rounded character, not a cardboard cutout.

As children, most of us played with dolls. Whether they were GI Joe’s®, Barbie’s®, or even Cabbage Patch Kids®, each type had one thing in common – their size, shape and clothing. If you had a nurse’s outfit for your fashion doll and your best friend also got the nurse, you had identical outfits. The office outfit consisted of a dark suit, white blouse and briefcase. For GI Joe®, well, olive drab is still olive drab. Unless you were creative with a needle and thread, your doll looked the same as everyone else’s.

Is that the way your characters look?  Do your heroine’s all have long, luxurious hair that falls in natural waves to their hips?  Are the women all tall, athletic with enough curves to keep it interesting, fair skin and exotic eyes?  What about your heroes?  Are they all tall, dark and handsome?

I once judged a writing contest in which every one of the seven manuscripts I read had a heroine who was tall with reddish hair and green eyes. Oh, there were subtle differences between the seven, but not enough to make them unique. After the third red-haired, green-eyed siren, I started looking for something – anything – that would make the character different. If this sounds like your characters, then you need to get out your writing needle and thread. It’s time to do some creating.

Stereotyping characters is something many writers do without even thinking about it. Not all people of Asian descent are small of stature with eyes that tilt up at the corners. Some of them are quite tall and have eyes that tilt downward. People of African descent aren’t just “black” or of basketball player size. The colors run the entire spectrum from palest coffee to deepest ebony and some of them are actually a bit on the short side. And not all Germans are Nazi madmen or jolly rotund women toting pots of coffee and serving strudel.

Even identical twins have something that allows their parents to tell one from the other. It may be a subtle mannerism such as the way one tilts her head a little further to the right than the other, or a physical attribute such as the number of freckles. The trick is to find the trait and identify the person with it.

The same is true for your characters. If you have an office worker, instead of putting her (or him) in the same dark suit/white blouse as all the other workers, why not give her a bit of flare?  Give her a brightly patterned scarf to go with that suit or put him in a pink shirt. And give her a reason for this. If you’re going to break the pattern, you should have a good reason. If it’s a character quirk, it has to be consistent with the rest of her life. You can’t have her being conservative in all aspects of her life and then suddenly wearing that bright yellow scarf for no reason at all.

Instead of long flowing hair, why not a short, perky cut that stands on end when she runs her hand through it in frustration – as she often does. Or make one eye green and one eye brown. I actually know a young woman with eyes like this. I asked her one time why she didn’t wear contacts to even the colors out and she said it gives people an interesting way to start conversations. She was in sales and did quite well. She used her quirk to her advantage.

Make your hero somewhat on the short side. It gives him something to overcome and still come out the hero. While this won’t work for all fiction, it may work for some. If he has to be tall and muscular, what about making him blonde with brpwm eyes?  Or even a (gasp) redhead?  In all my reading, I’ve never seen a redheaded hero. Granted, men with red hair are unusual – but it could work. Why not try something different?

So what makes a quirk and what is just an annoying mannerism?  Go to any public place and sit down for a while with your notebook and watch the people. A mall is a good place to do this. Pick out a couple of people and watch them (without being obvious). How do they walk?  Is her head up like she owns the world or down like she’s afraid to face anyone?  Is his stride long and powerful or a short shuffle?  How do they carry their packages?  How do they move in relationship to other people?  Does she make people move aside for her or does she move to the wall to get out of the way?  Does anybody stand out in the crowd?  Why?

Now, pick out one or two of the people that really got your attention and give them a background. Who are they?  What do they do?  Why are they acting the way they are?  What are their other physical attributes?  Do these add or detract from their personality?  Take a good look at the people around you. No two people are alike and neither should your characters be.

For each scene, decide how you’re going to refer to your characters at the beginning of the scene and be consistent with it. If your character is Mary Doe, you can refer to her as Mary, Mary Doe, Ms/Miss/Mrs. Doe or some other name, but it must be consistent throughout the scene.

Another thing you want to remember, especially when creating your main characters, is no wimps allowed. Save wimps for the secondaries – unless there is a compelling reason for your main character to be one. In this case, he or she may start out the story as a wimp, but has to end up the story as a stronger person (character growth).

When creating a villain, you need to evoke sympathy. The best villains have some reason for what they do and it has to resonate with the reader. Granted, this doesn’t happen all the time (the emperor in Star Wars has no redeeming value whatsoever), but it’s better when he does (Darth Vader).

Secondary characters should not take over a scene unless there’s a very good reason. They are there to support the main characters or add color to the story, not to be the main reason for the story. If they start to take over, then maybe you’re telling the story from the wrong point of view.

Questions to answer on characterization:

  1. In each scene, how much time did you spend describing a new character? Is his or her importance worth the amount of time?
  2. Have you introduced the entire cast of characters on the first page? Don’t character dump – introduce multiple characters gradually. This allows you to introduce more information about each character.
  3. Do you have too many characters? Can you combine several secondary characters into a single character without losing the story?
  4. Have you told us about the character’s emotions? Or shown them through actions?
  5. Which point of view are you using? Have you been consistent throughout the story?
  6. Do your characters seem like real people? Do they have both good points and bad? Even bad guys have good points and good guys have flaws.
  7. What do you like about your main character? Does s/he have traits that you like? What about ones you dislike? The more enjoyable you make him or her, the more time your reader will want to spend on them.
  8. Does your main character change or grow through the course of the book? If not, you may have to go back and check on the premise of your story.
  9. Is your antagonist (a.k.a. villain or bad guy/girl) morally bad and not just a bully or brat? Those with bad morals are more interesting and have more to lose/gain.
  10. Does your villain have charisma or something that attracts or charms other people? (Power, wealth, charm, fame, etc.)
  11. Have you humanized your villain? Readers will identify with him/her if s/he has some good qualities.
  12. Have you been consistent in how you refer to your characters?
  13. Are the characters plunged into rising conflicts?
  14. Have you told us about the characters’ emotions? Or shown them through actions?
  15. Is each character a unique individual?

Write Your Novel: Scenes and Sequels

What is a scene? It is a part of the story that contains action. Each scene in your novel should set up a conflict, preferably one that builds on the previous one, like a series of steps. Step one is the basic story problem. The second step builds on that and ups the ante. The third builds on those two, and so on until you reach the highest step – or climax – of the story.

A scene puts the reader in the here and now. The action unfolds as they read, not in the past, where backstory takes place. Scenes contain setting details so the reader knows where he or she is as well as what is happening. They also contain action that is usually shown through dialogue between two or more characters. A scene contains three parts: goal (something the main character needs or wants), conflict (why s/he can’t have it), and disaster (a new problem as a result of the conflict). Each of these elements is important to a scene. And it’s important to keep upping the ante (the disaster), but remember to give your reader some breathing room too – a sequel.

A sequel also contains three parts – reaction (to something that happened), dilemma, and decision(what to do next). You can think of sequels as standing on the step of the staircase just before you take the next step up. You build the tension and action up, then give the characters a little rest. Let them catch their breaths for a couple of pages, then go back into the action. Sequels contain emotions, retrospection, or analysis. They are where the character has to step back, look at what has happened, and make a decision what to do next.

One thing you don’t want to do is overdo the narration part of a sequel. Though it is introspective, it should not be long or boring. Often authors go into what’s called an “info dump” where they tell the reader what’s going on, what has happened in the past, or what is going to happen. Narration slows the action down, but you don’t want to slow it down so much the reader gets bored and stops reading.

By utilizing scene and sequel, you control the pace of your story. Pacing is the rate at which the story proceeds. In a romance, your hero and heroine need to occasionally get out of bed; in a murder mystery, the detective needs time to look at the clues and figure out his or her next step. Even the characters in an action/adventure novel need a little time to regroup and reload.

There are two important aspects to check when looking at your pacing. One is the use of flashbacks, the second is called an information dump.

A flashback, also known as backstory, is simply the character thinking or talking about something that happened previously, either before the book started or in a previous section of the work. Usually, it is a bit of background information that is necessary either to understand the character or situation. If it shows up on the first page, or even in the first chapter, you may find yourself losing readers. Backstory rarely contains any action or tension. It is information, period.

The transition between the “now” time of the story and the flashback needs to flow smoothly so that the reader isn’t jarred. If possible, use dialogue to introduce or present backstory information. Dialogue keeps the passage more immediate. But be careful you don’t “info dump”.

An information dump is when you’re using dialogue or prose to present information the reader should have in order to understand the character or action. Yes, giving vital information is good. Giving it all at once, in large gulps, isn’t. Go through your story. Do you have long paragraphs of nothing more than explanations? Get rid of them. Break the info up into smaller bites and scatter it through the scene(s). In that way, you’re still giving the reader the information but not a lecture.

 

Try answering the following questions to see if you’ve got your scene and sequels heading in the right direction:

  1. What is the event that sets off the rest of the action in the book?
  2. Where does the story start? Try to start in the middle of the action or with “ordinary world”, but with something happening. If you start too soon with filler, you’ve lost your readers before you’ve hooked them.
  3. Have you started the first chapter with a bang – something interesting and important that draws the reader on?
  4. Have you avoided overloading the beginning with back story?
  5. Will the reader care what happens to the hero/heroine? Why or why not? If the reader doesn’t care, s/he won’t read the book.
  6. Do the events in each scene lead logically from one to the next, like a chain?
  7. Is there variety to the scenes?
  8. What complications have you thrown in to make reaching their goals difficult?
  9. Where in the book does the reader know the hero/heroine will reach his or her goal? If too soon, you lose readers, if too late, scenes may need to be cut.
  10. Do you have something important happen every three or four chapters?
  11. Have you allowed for areas of downtime?
  12. Have you ended any chapters with someone going to sleep? (not a good thing)
  13. Have you used enough detail to let the reader know setting, character, events, etc. but not so much as to bore him?
  14. Do you establish the main character of each scene at the beginning of the scene?
  15. Have you wrapped up all loose ends by the end of the book without being too predictable?
  16. If a mystery or suspense, do the clues you’ve given throughout the story support the ending?
  17. Do you have a catchy or unique title that is appropriate for the story?
  18. What makes your story unique? What gives it an edge over other stories?
  19. Do you have more dialogue than narration? Dialogue keeps the reader with the characters.
  20. When you read your story out loud, are there areas you tend to skip over? If you find them boring, so will your readers.
  21. Have you varied the length of your sentences? Too many long ones slow down the action and too many short ones lead to choppy reading.
  22. How much “white space” do you have? If you have areas where paragraphs run a half page or longer, can you break them up? There needs to be a balance between short and long.
  23. Have your characters played Hamlet? If they are prone to long, windy speeches, break them up. Have something happen while they’re talking.
  24. Have you devoted the right amount of space relevant to the character’s importance? Major characters get more page space, minor characters get less.
  25. Does the opening introduce the main characters and setting without being an information dump?
  26. Are transitions from “now” to “then” (flashbacks) as smooth as possible? Do you make them feel as if they are happening now

Novel Writing: The Plot Thickens

One of the first questions you should ask when you’ve finished your book is “What is my book about?” Try to boil it down to a sentence or two. This is the basis of plot.
Plot is what your story is about. If you just string together a group of sentences that have no coherency, you don’t have a plot. You don’t have a story. You just have words. In order to have a plot – and, therefore, a story – you have to be writing about something, preferably something that is includes conflict. If you write romance – the basic plot is: boy gets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back (usually with a bit more action thrown in for interest.) Or you can think of it this way: plot is two dogs with one bone.

It is important to have a plot that draws the reader in – and keeps him or her reading. Proposing hypothetical questions the reader may ask does this. Consider the following passage from my story, “Prime Time”:
Deena studied the newest crop of lunar tourists and transports milling around the huge domed reception area as her partner began his spiel for his audience. On the far side of the shuttles, she caught a quick glimpse of Security leading out a sorry-looking group in binding collars.

One of the prisoners broke from the line and dashed for the shuttle. He never had a chance. The guards triggered his collar and took him down before he got ten steps. Deena winced as they dragged the unconscious man to a cart and dumped him. She hoped for the prisoner’s sake he never woke up. He’d be much better off. The guard glared at her and she turned away. She was here to do a job and forget whatever she might see. She could do nothing for them. Nothing.

The questions that arise are: What is Deena doing there? Why can’t she help anyone? Why would it be better if the prisoner never woke up? Is Deena a prisoner? What is going on here? Each question leads to another – and thus, the beginning of a plot.

Plot can take two basic forms, or even a combination of the two. It will usually be either a three-act structure (beginning, middle, end), or, from Joseph Cambell’s writings, be a mythic journey. It can also be a combination of the mythic journey within the three act structure.

In the three act structure, you have the beginning (Act I) in which you introduce the character(s), set the tone, establish the setting, introduce the story problem, and urge the reader to move on to the next section.

Act II is where you expand on these issues and set up the final moment of the story.
Act III is the final battle, the tying up of loose ends, and leave the reader satisfied.
The Mythic Journey, as explained by Christopher Vogler in his book (which I urge you to get), consists of:

Hero in his ordinary world
The call to adventure
Answering the call
Tasks and challenges
Tutor
Allies and opponents
Talisman
Final test
The return

In addition to these structures, most plots can be boiled down to patterns:
The quest – Indiana Jones looking for the Ark of the Covenant
Revenge – Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride”
Love – choose any “chick flick”
Change – Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”
Adventure – Dorothy in “Wizard of Oz” or Luke in “Star Wars”
The Chase – “The Fugitive”
One Against – Batman in “The Dark Knight” or Erin Brockovich
One Apart – Rick in “Casablanca” or Han in “Star Wars”
Power – Lord of the Rings
Death Overhanging – death can take three forms: physical, emotional, or professional. For physical, “Titanic”; emotional – “Inception”; professional – “Pretty Woman”

Sometimes it helps to have something in the ending reflect back to the beginning of the story. You can do this with an object or with a situation that mirrors one in the beginning. For instance, if you had a story about a blackout, you could have the hero flicking the light switch at the beginning and – nothing. He goes through the apartment searching for candles. The story continues and on the last page, he flicks on the light switch and gets light – then turns it off and lights a candle.

Or you could have the very nervous heroine entering a particular building and at the end, she enters that same building, but this time, everything has changed, especially her.

When checking on the plot line, ask yourself what is the hero/heroine’s goal? If he or she doesn’t reach the goal, so what? Why should the reader care? What makes the goal so important that we need to read? If the goal or conflict is too simple, you’ll end up with the reader saying “they could have done that on page one”, and if they could have, that’s not a good novel. If the goals aren’t important, neither is the story. Having your character take a shower merely because she wants to isn’t a compelling action. It only becomes important if she happens to be staying at a place called “The Bates Hotel”.

Once you’ve set the stakes, raise them. And raise them again. And again. Keep the story growing.

In a full length novel, you will probably have several sub-plots as well as the main plot. A sub-plot is similar to a plot, but may involve secondary characters. Even with other characters, they should have something to do with the plot, a link that ties them to the main story line. Like a plot, they must be tied up at the end.

Then go on to the following questions:
1. What is your story about?
2. Who are the main characters in your book? There should be one or two – three at the very most (hero, heroine, villain).
3. What do they want? What are their internal and external goals and are the goals important enough to carry the entire story?
4. Why does it matter if your characters do or don’t reach their goals? If it doesn’t matter, you don’t have a story.
5. When are the goals met? If too soon, you might have a short story, but not necessarily a novel.
6. How do they meet their goals? They should have to overcome obstacles that make it exceedingly difficult to reach their goals.
7. Do you have subplots? How do they relate to the main plot?
8. Is there enough of a story to fill an entire book?
9. What is the initiating event that sets off the rest of the action in the book?
10. Does the conflict escalate, with a major complication every few chapters, throughout the book? Is the conflict believable?
11. Do you use compelling hooks at the end of chapters to keep the reader interested?
12. Are there enough twists in the plot, especially towards the end, to keep the reader reading?
13. Do you have subplots? How do they relate to the main plot?
14. Are all conflicts, problems, loose ends solved at the end?
15. Do you have a compelling opening sentence? One that draws the reader in and makes him or her want to continue reading? If not, can you make it more compelling?
16. Where does the story start? Have you included too much backstory?
17. Do you have a catchy or unique title that is appropriate for the story?
18. What makes your story unique? What gives it an edge over other stories?

Write Your Novel – back to work

Okay, the break is over. Time to get back to work. By now, you should have an idea of what you’re going to write, the characters, and the setting. You have your writing area set up – or know where you’re going to go to write. So it’s time to get to work. Writing.

That’s something I can’t teach you to do. It’s just plain hard work and something you need to do every day. Writing is a mostly solitary activity and you have to have the discipline to actually sit down and do the work. Don’t think you’re going to push out a full length novel in a few days. It’s not going to happen. To use a cliche, you’re in this for the long haul so don’t let it get to you. Just keep plugging away.

So what’s next on my agenda here? The next few weeks are going to be dedicated to what you do after you finish the book. That’s when the real work starts – the editing. Ugh. It’s not fun. It’s hard work, but it’s also necessary. So, here are the first steps for you to consider. I’ll post more each week.

The End.

Excuse me? I can see the raised eyebrows and hear the questions now. What are those two words doing here. I told you I was going to give you tips. And I am. “The End” is what you write when you have written the final sentence, but it doesn’t mean you are done. In most cases, when you write “The End”, you are actually at the beginning of the hardest part of the writing process – the editing. Oh, you think your agent or editor will take care of all the problems when they accept the manuscript? Don’t count on it. They will correct minor problems, but if you are an unpublished author – or even one who has been published multiple times – most agents and editors won’t look at your manuscript unless it’s as close to perfect as you can get it. They don’t have the time to correct multiple misspellings, grammar faux pas, or other mechanical errors. It won’t matter if it’s a great story – if there is an abundance of errors, you’ll get it back, along with a rejection letter.

Okay, before you go off and decide to catch up on missed sleep, give this a chance. You’re here for one reason – you’re a writer, as am I. We love words – the way they sound, the way they go together to make us laugh, cry, hope, despair, love, hate, or think deep thoughts – or shallow ones. It all depends on the way they’re put together.

When we put a bunch of words together in a more or less coherent semblance, it makes a sentence. Put together a number of sentences and you have a paragraph. Build on that and you have a chapter or a short story. Add more and you have a book. It’s a little like building a tiered cake. You start with the raw ingredients, put them together in a particular way, bake it, and build it.

The raw ingredients consist of plot, style, pacing, dialogue, sensory details, voice, point of view, facts, spelling, grammar, punctuation and word use. How you blend them together into a coherent recipe determines whether you end up with an edible creation, or something better fit for the garbage disposal.

Can I guarantee you’ll get published after you do all this? No. Nobody can do that unless you’re talking about a vanity press – but that’s an entirely different issue. The publishing business is too subjective for guarantees. But when you’ve finished, your writing will be tighter and have more impact, and you may even learn a thing or two that you can apply to your next manuscript. So good luck and get ready to get to work.

Tip #1: Put the book you’ve just finished writing away for at least a week, more is better. Watch movies, read other books, take long walks, relax. Or, better yet, start your next book. Do anything other than look at your manuscript. That way, you can come back to it with a fresh eye.

Note: Although I “cite” rules and “you should…”, remember, the novel is yours. If you want to break a rule, and have a good reason for doing so, then break it.

Homework this week: get to work writing. Or, if you’re done, put that manuscript away and start the next one. Then come back next week and we’ll work on editing for plot.

Write the novel: Sequels

This lesson will concentrate on sequels, which is nothing more than a transition that links two scenes, like a hallway between two rooms. It can be long or short, but, like a scene, it consists of three elements: reaction, problem, decision. It is an area of the story where the reader finds out what the character is thinking and trying to decide. It can also be the place for flashbacks (areas where the reader is let in on something that happened in the past that has an impact on what is currently happening.).

Sequels provide reasoning to your story. They let readers know WHY a character is doing what he’s doing, as well as how s/he reaches his/her decision. Sometimes, a character will decide something in a sequel, then do exactly the opposite. This can only work if we find out in the next sequel why he did what he did. It is a part of human nature to do what is contrary to what we should do, but there should be a valid reason. This is what is shown in a sequel. This can be powerful and dramatic, but the reasoning – the logic – has to be there. Sequel is aftermath. The state of affairs and the state of mind that shapes your character’s behavior AFTER disaster has knocked him down.

With sequels you can also control the pacing of your novel. Dwight Swain, in TECHNIQUES OF A SELLING WRITER, tells us that long scenes equal big interest and long sequels indicate strong plausibility. He also emphasizes that if your story tends to drag, you should strengthen and enlarge the scenes, add and build up the conflict. On the other hand, if it is moving too quickly, you can use sequel to back things off, give the characters, and the reader, a chance to breathe.

Jack Bickham (who was a student of Swain’s) wrote in SCENE & STRUCTURE some tricks you can play with in your sequels which will add to the reader’s pleasant discomfort:

  1. Set a clock ticking so the character has only so many minutes to reach a decision. Some other character may set this time limit, or the viewpoint character may set it himself.
  2. In the thought segment of the sequel, have the character realize whole new dimensions of the previous disaster and his present plight that he hadn’t thought of before.
  3. Consider having the character’s emotional reaction overwhelm him, so that he plunges back into the story battle with insufficient thought.
  4. Devise a way to insert a “roadblock” scene in the early stages of the action segment so that the viewpoint character must, in effect, have a sidebar fight of some kind to find his way back to the next scene which he sees as relating directly to his long-term story goal.
  5. Hold out on the new decision. Write something like, “Then she knew what she had to do.” But don’t tell the reader.
  6. Stage an interruption – an outside stimulus – which forces the character to “stop sequelizing” and meet the new threat.

Bickham says that you will find as you work more with dramatic narrative structure that some of the devices mentioned here can often be spotted in published stories. You’ll also notice how some authors “mix and match” their techniques, using a hint of one trick and parts of one or more others.

Homework: Look at your scenes from last week. Where do you need sequels? Be sure to include the three parts of a sequel: reaction, problem, decision.

REFERENCES:

Swain, Dwight, TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER, University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, ISBN 0-8061-1191-7

Bickham, Jack M., SCENE & STRUCTURE, (Elements of Fiction Writing Series), Writer’s Digest Books, ISBN 978-0-89879-906-4

Write that novel: Scenes

Dwight Swain, in his popular book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER, defines scene as a unit of conflict lived through by character and reader. He tells us the big moments in our stories should all be in scene form. If something important happens to your characters or if you want some incident or part of the story to loom large in your readers’ minds, they must be in the form of scenes.

A scene moves your story forward while providing something interesting for the reader to read. It is action. It’s not flashback or back story or reflection, it is something happening. It’s physical and immediate. It’s the hero saving the town. It’s not him sitting in a bar telling everyone what he did. It happens here and now, on the page, not offstage.

Scene structure is simple, according to Swain. It consists of three elements:

a. goal

b. conflict

c. disaster

Swain tells us that in every scene, the point-of-view (POV) character (the person through whom we are experiencing the scene) should have a goal. That goal should be one of three things. He should want possession of something, relief from something, or revenge for something. If the hero wants something, and it is easily given to him, there is no conflict. This makes for a boring story – which is not what you want. You want your readers to be engaged in your story. Thus whatever the character wants must be difficult to obtain (conflict) and something has to happen that will keep him from reaching his goal (disaster).

For instance, suppose our character wants to buy a house in town so he can tear it down and build a condo(goal). He could just go up to the owners and offer them a boatload of money and hope they bought, but what if the woman living there grew up there, it was a family home (conflict) and she didn’t want to sell, especially to him (disaster)?

A scene is made up of action, reaction, action, reaction revolving around one central character, though there may be other characters in the action with him. That’s the way to include dialogue and move the story forward faster. Plus, it’s a little difficult to have a fist fight with yourself. Adding other characters adds conflict and action. But the central problem of the scene should still be what the main character wants. It should be whomever has the most at stake, the most to lose. But it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes, it can be a quirky character who will give the reader a different, but more interesting perspective.

Just remember to end your scene with a disaster. According to Swain, this is a hook – “a device for catching, holding, sustaining, or pulling” the reader in. It puts your hero in jeopardy. Makes things worse. Ups the ante (okay, any more cliché’s here?). You get the idea. It upsets the hero and the reader and gives him a new goal to aim for.

Once you’ve figured out your scene, you start to write it and get bogged down. There are several ways a scene can fail:

  1. No focus character – your reader needs to know whose head he is in
  2. The goal is weak – there has to be a short-range goal and it has to be something important to the character
  3. The character is weak – if the goal is important enough, he has to be willing to fight for it
  4. There is no sense of urgency – a scene has to be immediate. There needs to be a time constraint (either real or imagined)
  5. The opposition is too vague – there has to be something for the hero to fight against
  6. The opposition is weak – like #2, there has to be something the villain is willing to fight for
  7. The scene is trivial, monotonous, or boring – there has to be trouble, and a lot of it

And now you know.

Homework:

Start writing down ideas for scenes – major events in your story. Don’t worry about sequels – we’ll fill them in later. Right now, just hit the high points.

 

For further reading, I recommend: “Techniques of the Selling Writer” by Dwight V. Swain. It’s an oldie, but a very goodie.

Write the Novel #9: Structure

There are three sections of a story: Beginning (Act I), Middle (Act II), and End (Act III). Many writing teachers have broken these down into other parts such as scene/sequel, and more, but the basic structure remains the same: three acts.

If you write fantasy, paranormal, or science fiction, do yourself a favor and get the book: “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers” by Christopher Vogler. It is based on Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” and is a fabulous way to learn about novel structure. If you don’t write in these genres, get the book anyway, you won’t be sorry.

Here are the tips in a nutshell. And no, I won’t go into detail. Mr. Vogler deserves the honor of being the best source for this information and I will not undermine his sales. 🙂

Campbell and Vogler break each act down into different parts. I will concentrate on Vogler’s interpretation here. His sections include:

Act I: Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting with the Mentor, Crossing the first threshold

Act II: Tests, Allies, Enemies; Approach to the Inmost Cave; Ordeal; Reward

Act III: The road back, resurrection, return with the elixir

If you look at these through well-known stories, as he does, you can see where the breakdowns are. For instance, he uses the Star Wars movies as examples. We see Luke in his ordinary world with his uncle, he is called to adventure by Obi Wan, he refuses the call by insisting he has to help his aunt and uncle, he meets with his mentor (actually accepts that Obi Wan is his mentor) and crosses the first threshold by leaving the farm. He is tested, meets allies and enemies, goes through several ordeals, and gains the reward of being able to destroy the Death Star. He returns with his friends with new powers and a new life.

Simple, right?

Not exactly. It is simple when broken down to these basic units, but it can be decidedly difficult to write. However, by using Vogler’s approach, you may get a better grip on where things are going than if you just go forward with no plan at all.

You can also break the three act structure down into just scenes and sequels. A scene is nothing more than something that is happening. The sequel is what comes after that event. Each scene should contain a goal, a reason for that goal, and the conflict. What is happening in the scene? Why? What will happen if something goes wrong and your hero doesn’t achieve his/her goal in that scene? There has to be an event of some sort. It doesn’t have to be huge, it can be subtle and small, but there has to be a reason for it. The main character for that scene (does not have to be the main character of the story) should have to make a decision of some sort. What happens when s/he makes that decision? It should lead to consequences. This is your sequel. Then build from there. Each event should lead to the next and so on until the climax and end.

This is plotting.

For now, I’ll just leave you with these basics. I’ll go into more detail later on. But do yourself a favor and look for Vogler’s book. It is an excellent one.

Homework: Watch a movie. Or two or ten. Figure out the structure and apply it to the above. Can you figure out where each part happens?