Category Archives: Concept And Development

Developing Fresh Story Concepts

couple in love1384968-mAs most writers know, there are no “new” plots. That doesn’t mean there are no new stories, however. An oft-done plot can still be made into a fresh and entertaining story.

Take romance for example. Everyone knows that the traditional plot form of a romance is boy meets girl and they fall in love, but Things happen to keep them apart. In the end, however, they conquer, or their love conquers, and they get together.

No real surprise in a romance. Then how does a writer make a romance seem fresh? The easy way is to create seemingly insurmountable barriers–cultural or religious mores that keep the couple apart, personality quirks, misunderstandings, irreconcilable (until they are reconciled – 😉 ) differences.

Perhaps one character is a faery and the other a human, in a wheelchair, for example. Those are obstacles! Who would even see romance coming? Which is precisely why R. J. Anderson surprised and delighted readers with Faery Rebel: Spell Hunter.

But what if the couple is already married–a union of convenience or position–and they barely tolerate each other? What if, in fact, the wife holds her husband in contempt because she admires a mysterious someone else who does gallant, selfless deeds to help others?

That set-up describes The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, one of my favorite novels. I suspect one reason I love it so much is because of the surprise I experienced the first time I read it.

ShrekBut now those two have been done, so how can a romance writer find a new something? One idea is to merge elements of “already been done” stories. Take Beauty and the Beast, for example, and merge that with Sleeping Beauty, and you have Shrek.

Of course, the brilliant writers who created all three Shrek movies did much more than staple two threads together, but the point for this discussion is that they worked from familiar storylines. By starting with two that seemed unlikely to fit together, they made a movie (three actually) that seemed familiar yet wholly new.

Sometimes the newness isn’t in the plot but in the characters. An interesting character, quirky, engaged to someone else, perhaps single longer than most, with a family who values family and marriage above all else. Add in humor (which comes from the quirky characters), and you have the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding which turned out to be a surprising smash hit.

Or how about a widower not looking to remarry, with a little boy who longs for a mother, so much so that he makes a call to an all-night talk show and pours out his heart. Interested women start to write. MANY interested women. Now we have distance, reticence, an engagement, the many others, all standing in the way of true love. And that’s Sleepless in Seattle.

Fresh stories can also come from different settings. What would a romance look like set in Louisiana as the state battled the worst oil spill in history?

What would a romance look like between a 9/11 widow and a firefighter ten years after the Twin Towers attack?

New places, odd places, uncomfortable places can be fuel for fresh fiction just as much as plot twists or off-beat characters. The important thing, I think, is to imagine beyond the list of “first responders”–the plot lines, characters, or settings that first present themselves when we writers start contemplating a new story.

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MICE In Your Story

Especially for writers who are planning to participate in NaNoWriMo starting in less than a week, it might be helpful to consider something Orson Scott Card introduces in his writing books Character and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction. I came upon the concept in Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, to which Card contributed several chapters.

Here’s the key concept: “All stories contain four elements that can determine structure: Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event” (Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, p. 77). MICE, for short.

Milieu has to do with the story world–its physical, social, political, economic aspects.

Idea refers to new bits of information that characters discover in the process of the story.

Character relates, not just to who the main player is in a story, but how he changes.

Finally, Events show what takes place to correct a wrong in the normal order of things.

All stories have all these elements, but according to Card, one of the four takes central stage. The Milieu dominates Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, for example. Then Idea might be considered central to Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. In Til We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, the Character change would be the key component and in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe also by Lewis, the Events that put the world to rights, both in Narnia and in the Pevensie family, would dominate the story.

I’m intrigued by this way of looking at stories. I can see a particularly useful application because Card teaches that whatever dominant element shows itself in the beginning will also end the story. If a novel starts out as a murder mystery, for instance (Idea), but doesn’t end with the discovery of the perpetrator, readers will be frustrated no matter how well-told the story might be of the police detective’s recovery of his self-confidence (Character).

In some ways, I think this view of stories can help writers decide where their story starts and where it should end. If they begin with a character, for example, who has reached a point where he is so “unhappy, impatient, or angry in his present role that he begins the process of change” then it will end “when the character either settles into a new role (happily or not) or gives up the struggle and remains in the old role (happily or not)” (ibid., p. 81).

As you may have realized, I’m qualifying my reaction to this approach to stories. Card himself says all stories have all the MICE elements, and I agree with this point. I’m not so sure, however, that one dominates.

As an example of Milieu, for instance, Card mentions The Wizard of Oz.

The real story began the moment Gulliver got to the first of the book’s strange lands, and it ended when he came home. Milieu stories always follow that structure An observer who will see things as we would see them gets to the strange place, sees all the things that are interesting, is transformed by what he sees, and then comes back a new man . . . Likewise, The Wizard of Oz doesn’t end when Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the West. It ends when Dorothy leaves Oz and goes home to Kansas. (Ibid., pp 77-78)

I agree with this assessment, but believe The Wizard of Oz could just as easily be used as an example of a Character story which Card says is “about the transformation of a character’s role in the communities that matter most to him” (Ibid., p. 80). Clearly, Dorothy’s role in her family is central to the story. She was unhappy in the beginning and learned by the end that there’s no place like home.

A case might even be made that The Wizard of Oz is an Event story, starting with something wrong in the fabric of the world which needs to be set right. Dorothy’s unhappiness and determination to run away has unsettled her world; when she reaches Oz, it’s apparent that their world has been unsettled, too. As Dorothy goes about doing what she does to fix her own situation, she also puts to right what ails Oz.

characters-and-viewpoint-second_edition_mediumMy point is this: I tend to think that the best stories skillfully weave all the elements together so that the dominant one isn’t overpowering, and the subservient ones aren’t invisible–or worse, predictable and clichéd.

Is there any advantage in knowing what kind of story a writer is undertaking? Perhaps. If a writer isn’t sure how to end a story, then the dominant element can serve as a guide. Or the reverse. If a writer isn’t sure where to start the story, then the type of story he’s written can help him determine where the proper beginning lies.

The main take-away for me is that all four elements need to be present in a story. Whichever turns out to be the star, the others still must be present, still must pull their weight.

What do you think? Orson Scott Card is pretty hard to argue with. Do you think he’s right that one of these four elements will dominate a story? Or do the best stories bring all elements, or most, along with nearly equal strength? Can you give an example?

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Filed under Character Developmet, Concept And Development, Plot, Setting or Story World, Story

Know Your Characters

teen with attitude-1109209-mPerhaps nothing is more important for a novelist than to know his characters, and this fact is true regardless if the story is “plot driven” or “character driven.” In reality, the difference between those two types of stories is dependent upon the type of conflict that dominates the story–external or internal.

Clearly a story dealing primarily with a character’s internal flaw or need will depend upon knowing how that character is wired. But those stories aren’t the only ones that require an author to know his characters.

A story with external conflict front and center will have the kinds of events that deal with attempts to overcome this outside problem. Different characters will go about trying to solve the problems that confront them in different ways. Hence, an author needs to know what type of person he’s creating.

White_Collar_2009_logo.svgTake for example the main character in the TV show White Collar. He is a criminal working as a consultant to the FBI in order to stay out of prison. His methods of “consulting” vary a great deal from the detectives in a show like NCSI: Los Angeles.

He does what he does best–con, break and enter, forge, blackmail, things those on the legal side of the law can’t do. But is he nothing but a user? Something about him makes viewers care for him and cheer for him to turn from his criminal past.

Episode after episode, there is a criminal who needs to be caught, and our hero must work on behalf of the law by using his skills as a criminal. At the same time he has his own mysterious goals which sometimes put his actions on behalf of the FBI on a collision course with his actions meant to achieve his own ends.

The only way the plots for this show can work is if the writers know the character. What motivates him? What secret is he withholding from his handler?

When characters are involved, relationships develop. But relationships hinge on the inner qualities of each person. An author, therefore, must know how her character will relate to the various people in her story.

teen on cell-phone-959697-mWill a teen trust her new boyfriend or be suspicious of his intentions? Will a manager hire a yes-man for his assistant or will he find the best go-getter he can who might end up jumping ahead of him for promotion? Will a grandmother lie to protect her grandson from the policeman who accuses him of stealing from their neighbor or will she tell the truth, knowing he’ll be taken from her and put into the juvenile system?

In short, who are these people in your story? Not, what color eyes they have or how old they are, but what will they do when life turns against them, and why?

What makes them tick and how do they respond when they receive an expensive gift, learn they have cancer, watch their team win the Super Bowl, run into the boss who fired them?

As Art Holcomb said in a guest post at StoryFix, “We’re all predictably different . . . and so must our characters be.”

Unless an author intentionally crafts them to be different, however, they well might end up being stereotypical teens, or managers, or grandmothers. But if they are different, even quirky, they must have a believable reason for being different from the average person in their same shoes.

What separates them from others and why?

The better an author knows her characters, the deeper the story and the more impact it can have on readers.

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Trends And Knowing What To Write

HP and the Goblet of Fire coverWhat creates a writing trend? Why, for example, did vampire stories proliferate? Why did urban fantasy become a craze? Why did young adult dystopian fiction become a hot commodity?

On the other hand, why were books about faeries rather short lived? Why didn’t pirate novels take off? Why did chick lit have a fairly short shelf life?

The truth is, no one really knows. No one predicted that a series about a boy wizard would become the phenomenal success the Harry Potter books turned out to be. Of course, once a book succeeds, some writers capitalize on the obvious reader interest and look to write something similar, only different, and a trend is born.

By the time most of us recognize a trend, however, it’s too late to join the party. Granted, the Christian market seems to be trailing behind the general market, so agents and editors in the latter may be saying they don’t want any more dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction, but the former is still interested in acquiring in those genres.

Having said that, it’s a pretty sure bet that a good number of authors have dystopian manuscripts with agents who sell to Christian publishers. In other words, someone who wants to begin a dystopian novel will most likely find by the time he has finished writing and revising that he is too late.

Published authors have the advantage of selling stories based on proposals, but new authors need to finish a book before trying to sell it. This fact alone makes it hard for someone starting out to get ahead of trends, or to arrive when they are hot.

Because of these realities, agents and editors at writing conferences will often answer trend questions by saying, write your passion. I’m sure they mean to be helpful. They know that trend chasing is a dead-end street, and they want to spare newer writers, but “write your passion” is so generic, it doesn’t serve as much of a guideline.

Here’s what agents and editors are looking for: they want something familiar repackaged in the guise of something new.

Harry Potter was, at its heart, a boarding-school story. But it was also a coming-of-age story and it was a story of sacrifice and of good triumphing over evil. And it was about magic. Each of those alone would not have been fresh or new (see Ursula Le Guin’s article “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists” reminding us that she wrote a story about a school for wizards). By bringing the threads together, J. K. Rowling created a new look, a fresh take on the familiar.

Stephenie Meyer did the same thing with her love triangle/vampire stories. The Twilight series gave readers a good vampire who became the love interest, not the villain. A heroine with two love interests who must decide between them is not a new story, and Anne Rice had been writing about vampires for years, but bringing the two threads together was fresh–was being the operative word.

You see, once it’s been done, doing it again will only feel like copying or “borrowing.”

The thing is, all writers borrow. The most repeated phrase in the writing world, I think, is that there are no new stories. So finding inspiration in what another writer has produced isn’t wrong. The problem comes in deriving that inspiration from something current or currently famous. Those are the stories that acquire the “derivative” label.

By “currently famous” I mean a work that has resurfaced as a popular book, such as Lord of the Rings. Although the books were well known and well read–famous–they became popular again after the first movie in the series came out. A book that now borrows from Lord of the Rings would be spotted at once–as if the veil had been pulled back, showing beneath the thin veneer of the author’s personal input, the original work. The contemporary writer, then, looks lazy at best, and at worst, like a cheat.

West Side Story2Other stories, such as any of Shakespeare’s plays, may be famous but not currently popular. Writers might find inspiration in any of those. Romeo and Juliet apparently was just such an inspiration for Arthur Laurents’s West Side Story (see “West Side Story”.

So what does that mean for a writer who wants to begin a new work? I think there are some specific guidelines that might be helpful.

1. Find inspiration from something that is not current or currently popular.

2. Put a new face on the story you want to tell.

3. Do so by reworking the story to fit the genre of your choice. West Side Story was a contemporary story about star-crossed lovers, not a remake of Shakespeare’s medieval tale.

4. Look for ways to twist the original. Seth Grahame-Smith did this with his mashup, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. (Mashups, by the way, became a short trend that quickly burned out).

5. Twists should be unexpected and uncommon. “The pauper orphan is in reality the lost prince” has become a predictable and common twist. What could be true about the pauper orphan instead? Love triangles have been done and redone, but perhaps there’s room for one more twist. What would be an uncommon element in a love triangle? Murder mysteries from Colombo to CSI have been told and retold. Is there some way to turn the basic story on its head one more time?

These are the guidelines an author should follow rather than chasing existing trends. Hopefully she’ll be passionate about the story which serves as her inspiration and about the twists she wants to introduce. So, yes, write your passion, but do so with an eye to creating a trend of your own rather than following the ones already out there.

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Where To Start

812863_pink_fitness_center
At the beginning of a new year, thoughts turn to fresh starts. More people create bucket lists, start exercise programs or new diets, and make promises to stop smoking or staying up too late.

For writers, the new year is a good time to do a re-evaluation, too, or to start a new project. If you’re in the latter category and are planning to write that book you’ve been thinking about, I suggest keeping in mind a couple basic points.

  • Avoid jumping on bandwagons. If you’ve read a really good story about a boy wizard, a vampire, or a mermaid, I suggest you look for a different concept and avoid joining in with any number of others who might think they want to write about about those characters after reading the same books. If you’ve seen a successful movie about a hobbit, it’s not the best idea to write a book about a hobbit. If you’ve watched a cool TV program about fairytales, it’s not the best idea to write a retake of a fairytale. Why?

    For one thing, agents and editors will not look at your work as if it is fresh and original. For another, it is harder to make your work stand out above others trying to do the same thing you’re trying to do.

  • Avoid copying trends. This is a correlation to the first point. Because a certain genre is hot or because editors or agents say they are looking for this or that kind of book, this is not the time to start writing those books. For one thing, you well may be starting out when other writers who aren’t chasing trends but are writing to their natural bent, are finishing up. In other word, by the time you read that something is the new “in” genre, it’s probably too late to start a project in that genre.

    For another, by chasing trends, you may well write something that you aren’t particularly qualified to write. For example, if you hear that middle grade boy fantasies are the next hot thing, replacing young adult dystopian fantasy, you may not be well versed in what the differences are between middle grade and young adult books. You may also have a sharp learning curve to write straight fantasy as opposed to dystopian fantasy.

    None of these are impossible, of course. But if a writer is chasing a trend instead of trying to start one, he’s behind the pack at the start.

  • running marathonDon’t sign up to run a marathon simply because you’ve started walking the track. In other words, don’t set your sights too high too soon. Nothing can discourage a writer more than getting into a project only to find out that it is much more demanding than what he anticipated.

    The cure for this, of course, is to do your homework. If you decide you want to self-publish a book, then do the research to learn what all is involved–both in time, expertise, and money. Can you afford this project? Do you know enough about book covers and editing and promotion to make this work? Or can you afford to hire professionals to do what you cannot? With your other responsibilities, will you have the time to complete the project?

  • Study writing. Too often those who wish to write don’t realize that different types of writing require different skills. One of the best writers of non-fiction I know decided to write fiction. Unfortunately this author did not take the time to study fiction technique and the result is … less than successful.

    The point is, success in one area should not blind a writer to the need to do the hard work to learn the components of a new type of writing. For most of us, fiction is a new type of writing. We may have read stories all our lives, but we haven’t written fiction. We may have written blogs, articles, reports, letters, and emails all our lives, but those are not stories. Hence, we need to study what makes good fiction if we want to write a novel.

  • Continue to learn no matter how much success you have. One of the best professional basketball players in history used to spend his summer working on a new shot or move so that he would have something new in his arsenal for the new season. No matter how many championships he won, he continued that approach. The man was a millionaire, and he had wide acclaim from his peers and fans, yet he was not satisfied with what he’d accomplished in the past and knew that he had to master greater skills if he wanted to stay at the top.

    Unfortunately, it seems too many writers make getting published their goal, and once they have published, even if they self-publish, they relax. They no longer work to improve because they are satisfied. They make no effort to expand their audience or win others over by their improving writing skills.

  • Think past the obvious. Rather than settling for the first story idea that comes to you, push yourself to think of other possibilities. Rather than using the first descriptive word that comes to mind, look for something more interesting, specific, or unique.

    In the third point above, I originally wrote “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.” It’s a familiar phrase–a cliché actually–but it communicates the thought I wanted. However, its very familiarity would most likely make it forgettable. Creating a new comparison has a greater chance of not only showing the principle, but of becoming memorable.

What tips do you have for writers who might be thinking of starting a new project?

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Characters Need To Act–Even In Pitches

I’ve read too many novels in which the main character has no plan of action. Things happen, and he responds when necessary. In other words, he is reactive, which means outside forces are largely responsible for any character development that might occur.

Recently agent Rachelle Gardner allowed writers to post in the comments section of her blog one-sentence story pitches which whittle a novel to its bare bones–the premise.

According to former agent Nathan Bransford, there are three necessary elements in a twenty-five word pitch:

– The opening conflict (called the Inciting Incident by Robert McKee)
– The obstacle
– The quest

Racheller expands on this to include the following:

→ A character or two
→ Their choice, conflict, or goal
→ What’s at stake (may be implied)
→ Action that will get them to the goal
→ Setting (if important) [emphasis mine]

In the template she borrowed from Mr. Bransford, the character is to “overcome the conflict.” She then gives an example pitch she borrowed from Randy Ingermanson of a well-known story in which the character “battles for his life.”

In response to Rachelle’s invitation, many writers bravely put their pitches out for critique. However, I noticed one commonality–not universal, but frequent: the recurring actions in these pitches were “revealing” or “discovering” or “finding.”

Yes, those are verbs and therefore actions, but they are not graphic or explicit. They aren’t necessarily reactive, but they don’t show what the character is doing.

I’ll be the first to admit–writing an active pitch is not easy.

For one thing, not every story has a character hunt down the killer or free the princess. Some stories key in on the protagonist’s inner struggle, but the key word there is “struggle.” The hard work of facing life as a victim of rape or of recovering from a divorce or any of the other cataclysmic events that can change a person, must still come through as active in a pitch.

A character can defeat her doubts or conquer her fears, but she can also do something more particular to your novel. The more unique or original, and active, the verb in your pitch, the more likely it will catch a reader’s (or agent’s or editor’s) attention.

Here’s my pitch of a few familiar stories (fictitious or true). Do they sound intriguing? Do you recognize them or are they too general?

  • When a rebellious prophet sails away from God, he must survive the stormy consequences and repent in order to escape a watery grave.
  • When a family leaves their secluded home for a day, they must solve the mystery of the disturbing break-in that decimated their child’s belongings.
  • A loyal lieutenant must escape through a window and live like a fugitive in order to avoid the undeserved murderous rage of his father-in-law, the king.
  • When a trusting king expects instant riches from the miller’s daughter, she must outsmart a magical imp to save her life and that of her firstborn son.

No doubt you can improve on these, but each contains action. And action is what you want to show those reading your pitch.

Now it’s your turn. If you’d like to try your hand at writing a twenty-five word, single sentence pitch of your novel, feel free to post it here to receive some feedback.

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Ideas

I’ve read my share of author interviews, and inevitably the question comes up: Where did you get your idea for your story? I used to think that was a question interviewers used because they couldn’t think of anything else. 😆 But just this past week, an author (whose debut novel landed on the New York Times best-seller list) created a frequently asked questions page on her site, and she included “Where did you get your idea for …”

So I relent. Apparently people really are interested in where story ideas come from. I have a writer friend, in fact, who has expressed some interest in writing short stories but generally says she doesn’t think she could because she doesn’t know what she’d write about.

I’m familiar with the problem. When I was in fifth grade, I had a teacher who assigned us a story every Friday. My friends used to moan and groan. What could they possibly write about?

When I became a teacher and handed out my own writing assignments, the chief complaint I heard was, “I don’t know what to write about.”

Honestly, all this subject-matter angst has mystified me. In my own writing I’ve had questions about selecting subject matter for a non-fiction piece, but generally the issue is a non-issue for me when it comes to fiction. Finally I realized, perhaps I needed to tell other writers why.

As I see it, stories ideas come from everywhere. From an author’s dreams, his home environment, his work environment, from his childhood memories, from what he reads in the newspaper, from what happens in the grocery story or bank or gas station or library or church, from special days and from regular ones, from the hair dresser or from the dentist, from the generous friend or from the demanding neighbor, from his child’s teacher, from the Little League coach or the hot dog vendor or the ticket taker. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. 😀 Ideas are everywhere.

The key is in recognizing them when we see them. One way to recognize a story idea is by asking probing questions — things like, I wonder why she decided to finish college in a small school instead of the state university where she started? From there a writer can begin a list of “maybe” answers. Maybe she followed a guy she met. Maybe she got involved in a cult. Maybe she was following in the footsteps of her older sister. Maybe she was running away from her family. Maybe she wanted a simpler lifestyle. And on and on until the list begins to include the bizarre and improbable. The more outlandish, the more a writer is stretching her imagination.

Of course, each of these “maybe answers” comes with a “why.” It is in answering this that a writer begins to get a glimpse at which of these stories might be interesting to write.

So the real answer to the question, Where did you get your ideas, lies in observation and curiosity — and the great news is, with practice every author can cultivate and increase both.

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Promises

Whether he realizes it or not, a writer makes his readers a promise, or actually a string of promises. In the first line, the first paragraph, the first page, scene, and chapter, the author is promising, promising, promising. Will the story be funny? Is the character irascible? Will the setting determine the outcome? Is the mood gloomy? Does the point of view character tell the truth? And on and on go the questions to which the author answers with promises.

Interestingly, these answers are only important in so far as the author keeps his promises. If he lets readers know on page one that this story has a jaunty, humorous flavor, that decision is no better or worse than if he lets the readers know the story will have a dark, brooding flavor. What the author must not do is promise one thing and deliver something else. In other words, he must not promise a jaunty, humorous story and switch to a dark, brooding tale half way through.

At first glance this idea of promise may seem suspect. After all, things change during the course of a story. Why can’t a character suffer loss and become sullen instead of happy-go-lucky? Actually, he can. Change works as long as that change is motivated.

If a bird can’t fly on page one, then he shouldn’t be able to fly on page 151 … unless something has happened which makes it believable that yes, the bird can now fly.

This “believability” is actually “story believability.” If the author has created a world in which animals can receive transplants, then a wing transplant would be a believable cause for the bird’s change in flying ability. If, on the other hand, the author creates a world in which animals trust people, it would be believable if an avian aficionado finds an injured bird and nurses it to wholeness.

Put another way, whatever motivates change in the story must be true to the rules of that particular story world. Essentially the author lays down those rules in the early pages of his novel. In essence, he is promising that the rest of the story is going to continue within these parameters, according to these particulars.

Some weeks ago in the discussion about backstory, we looked at the opening of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Here’s the first paragraph again:

    Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who loved new clothes. He loved clothes so much that he thought of nothing else all day and spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes.

The promise here is that the central character has this particular obsession with clothes. If halfway through the story, with no believable change to the story rules, the king no longer cared about clothes, the author would have broken his promise to readers.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, if Aslan the great lion who reigned in Narnia stopped being a talking lion, C. S. Lewis would have violated his own story rules. He would have broken faith with his readers who came to understand that in Narnia, Talking Animals were not only possible but the norm. In a later book, in fact, Lewis creates a reason why fewer and fewer animals are of the talking variety. The change, then, becomes believable and consistent because it adheres to the change that occurred within the story rules.

Is your character logical and even-tempered? Then he must remain so unless something consistent with the way the story works, brings a personality altering change.

Earlier this week over at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, I invited visitors to look at the openings of six different novels. Why not take a few moments to drop by and see what promises you think the authors of those excerpts are making to their readers in those first lines.

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Plotting A Novel

Seat-of-the-pants writing is only one method

Writing instructors often divide novelists into two camps — those who plot and those who write “by the seat of their pants.” The latter have an organic method of writing, they say. The characters “tell them” who they are and what they must do.

I’ve long brushed such phrasing aside because it’s apparent that the characters aren’t alive and the thoughts “coming from them” are actually the author’s own thoughts. Why, then, this pretend that the story is coming from outside the author?

Well, maybe pretend is the point. After all, we are talking about fiction.

Certainly pretend is necessary in conceiving a novel, no matter what method the author uses to find his way. The seat-of-the-pants writers apparently write in a meandering way, often completing scenes they may discard later or will piece together with other scenes to make the whole.

I have to admit, I’ve never quite understood this manner of writing.

Author and writing instructor (Writing Fiction For Dummies, Writer’s Digest) Randy Ingermanson created a way of plotting he calls the Snowflake Method which gives more structure. The writer starts small, then expands from a sentence to a paragraph to a page to several character sketches to a four-page synopsis, and so on.

Call me lazy, but all that writing seems like a waste of time to me. 😉 I can accomplish the same thing by a simple outline.

Being an outliner from my non-fiction days, I carefully structured my entire first novel before I wrote a word. The problem was, in the writing, I often added new scenes and unplanned characters. I kept changing my outline to fit the new direction my story was taking.

Some writers claim they would be a slave to an outline. I can’t answer for them, certainly, but don’t think the outline is any different than the meandering scene-by-scene writing or the Snowflake Method — just shorter.

In all these ways of envisioning a story, the author is imagining. He’s creating characters and a story problem, friends and obstacles, places and inner struggles, a background and a resolution. In most instances, I dare say, the first conception of these elements is not the last.

After I wrote the first draft of my first book, I realized I didn’t know my character very well. He was an arrogant sinner that needed to change. But how did he get to be who he was? What were his strengths that would win people over despite his weaknesses?

As I understood my character better, my writing became less generic and more specific. But all that work! If only I’d conceived of a well-rounded character before I wrote that early draft. But of course, as a beginner, not having studied how to write fiction, I didn’t know any better.

All this brings to mind some of the writing advice I heard in school and even taught my own students: writing is 75% pre-writing (the rest is divided up between writing and revising/editing).

Without a doubt, I work better that way. Nothing discourages me more than not knowing what will happen next. So I plot. I sit down and ask myself, what are the logical things that might happen? I make a list. I ask, what are the unusual things that might happen? I make a list. I ask, what are the most likely things to happen? These things I cross off my lists.

Next I decide what else to throw away and what to keep. I can order keepers and then choose one at a time to expand.

I’m shortcutting the procedure, but I think you can see how much quicker it is to make lists than it is to write a scene which may or may not work or to expand a core idea with events that I may or may not want to include.

For me, working with brief phrases that represent the scenes I’ve imagined gives me more time to work on the actual story — the one I’ll know going in, I want.

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