Category Archives: Plot

Novels In Three Acts . . . More Or Less

Some writing instructors insist on a particular story structure: there must be three acts and between each, a door of no return.

Screenwriters use this formulaic structure, and many novelists have adapted it. But is this “beginning, middle, and end” framework a must?

To be honest, when I started writing novels, I’d never heard of the three-act structure. Later, when I read about the concept, “beginning, middle, end” seemed like a horrific oversimplification of the story form. More than that, I bristled at the idea that I was to write according to a set formula.

Soon, however, I began to see the structure in movies, and honestly, some of the joy of stories blinked out. Now I could predict, when things were bad, they’d only get worse. I could anticipate the beaten bad guy pulling out a gun, or the frightened girl running into the arms of the killer. The more I saw the girders of the story structure, the less I liked it.

Did all stories really have three acts?

Anyone familiar with drama knows they do not. There are one-act plays, two-act plays, even four- or five-act plays. Yet there are writers, and writing instructors, who hold religiously to the three-act structure.

Act One introduces the hero and gives a call to adventure which he may resist, but eventually he passes through the first door of no return and accepts, ushering him into Act Two. Here a mentor appears who teaches the hero, and he has any number of encounters with the dark forces. At some point he faces a dark moment within himself, then discovers a talisman that helps him in the battle. Again he passes through a doorway of no return which thrusts him into Act Three and the final battle, after which he returns to normal, though he himself is changed, for good or ill.

Of course there are adaptations of this framework for the various genres, but a good many writers believe this is the only way a story can be structured. Thankfully, not every writing instructor sees it this way. Some time ago Stephen James said the following in a Writer’s Digest article entitled “The 5 Essential Story Ingredients”:

While it’s true that structuring techniques can be helpful tools, unfortunately, formulaic approaches frequently send stories spiraling off in the wrong direction or, just as bad, handcuff the narrative flow. Often the people who advocate funneling your story into a predetermined three-act structure will note that stories have the potential to sag or stall out during the long second act. And whenever I hear that, I think, Then why not shorten it? Or chop it up and include more acts? Why let the story suffer just so you can follow a formula?

Screenwriter John Truby also brings into question following a formula. In his book The Anatomy of Story, he says, “A great story is organic — not a machine but a living body that develops” (p. 5). He further explains, “The story must feel organic to the audience; it must seem like a single thing that grows and builds to a climax. If you want to become a great storyteller, you have to master this technique to such a high degree that your characters seem to be acting on their own, as they must, even though you are the one making them act that way.”

Some writers talk about their characters insisting on going here or doing that. The characters, of course, aren’t real and can only do what the author imagines them to do. But if the character comes to life for the author, then there is a “right” way she must act that is consistent with her traits. The story, then, organically grows out of the characters rather than the author imposing a set of actions on the character.

And how many acts can that take? As many as need be. Stephen James again:

Stop thinking of a story as something that happens in three acts, or two acts, or four or seven, or as something that is driven by predetermined elements of plot. Rather, think of your story as an organic whole that reveals a transformation in the life of your character. The number of acts or events should be determined by the movement of the story, not the other way around.

Because story trumps structure.

Now that’s the kind of story structure I like.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in December 2011.

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Filed under Plot, Story, Structure

Writing In Scenes

Hang_glidingNot everyone has the same writing process. And that’s OK. Still, I think those who plan out their stories in advance or those who patch their stories together once they know where they’re going, can all learn by thinking about their story in scenes.

Years and years ago, I picked up a book entitled Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham. To be honest, I didn’t understand much about the book at all because he referred to scenes and sequels, but I didn’t understand the terminology. I associated scenes with plays and sequels . . . I didn’t have a clue what that meant in the context of fiction.

Time passed and I learned more about writing. Eventually I re-read Scene and Structure and benefited from it. And still, I didn’t really think in scenes when I was writing.

During one critique session, a member of my writing group asked me what my character wanted in a particular scene. Well, that froze me. What did he want? I hadn’t thought about it before. I was able to mumble some answer, then set the question aside.

I didn’t seriously come back to it until a few weeks ago. I’m reading/studying Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress, and she put me back on the scene track. I was nearing the end of Chapter 5: “Showing Change In Your Characters–If I Knew Then What I know Now” and came across these lines:

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint coverAll of this can, I know, sound overwhelming. Dramatizing motivation, dramatizing emotion, dramatizing change, creating sharp concrete details that characterize–and doing it all simultaneously–can seem too much to juggle (not to mention also “becoming the reader” to see how it all looks to someone else). But there is a way to keep control of your material. It is, in fact, the key to keeping control of many other elements of fiction as well, such as plot and emotional arc.

The key is this: Write in scenes.

You don’t have to think about the whole book at once, the entire emotional arc, or the progressive motivations of six different characters. All you have to do right now is write this one scene. (p. 75, emphasis in the original)

When I read that, something clicked.

Understand, I’ve evaluated other authors as part of my editing job. One section of the form I use is about scenes. Here are the particulars I analyze:

A. Goal
B. Conflict
C. Disaster/reaction
D. Dilemma
E. Decision


However, I’m generally writing an assessment of the novel as a whole, so what I say about the scenes is general.

But what if, in my own writing, I looked at those elements as the pillars of my scene as I constructed it? What if I didn’t start writing the scene until I knew what my characters wanted, what would bring the conflict?

So I tried it.

And now I’m a believer!

Truly, I couldn’t believe how unstuck my writing became as soon as I knew what my character wanted as a short term goal. Rather than meandering from place to place with no particular purpose, grousing about this issue and that situation, spewing his angst and whining about his plight, he became active and purposeful, he strove and struggled, and when conflict arose, he figured out how to confront it.

Did he have to give up something in order to make Plan B work? Therein lies the dilemma. Was he successful? Therein lies the disaster, which leads him to a decision about how to proceed, giving him a new goal for the next scene.

And one follows after the other like a line of falling dominoes. They start going down because someone tipped over that first one.

Writing in scenes can have that same feel. Because the first one went down, the next one must follow. Because Johnny punched Billy, the teacher is calling his parents.

There’s a silly commercial for an alternative to cable TV that plays off this concept. The cable company puts the character on hold, and when that happens, he feels trapped. When he feels trapped, he goes hang gliding, and when he goes hang gliding, he crashes into electric wires. When he crashes into electric wires, the city experiences a black out. When the city experiences a black out, crime rises. When crime rises, the character’s dad gets punched in the stomach by a looter over a can of soup. “So don’t have your dad get punched over a can of soup. Get DirectTV.”

The humor of that commercial is that the resulting actions of each disaster don’t follow a logical progression. The secret to good fiction writing is to make the progression from goal to conflict to reaction to dilemma to decision, a logical progression (just not predictable).

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Filed under Motive, Reactions, Scenes

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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Filed under Characters, Concept And Development, Plot, Setting or Story World

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

A Story’s Bare Bones

1187803_skeleton_1What IS a story? The dictionary isn’t particularly helpful. The Oxford English Dictionary says a story is “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.”

Perhaps the key lies in the “for entertainment” part of the definition. Clearly anyone can give an account of a group of characters and what they do without actually telling a story.

For example, my neighbors across the street held a yard sale today, and the man down the block is mowing his lawn. Another set of neighbors is holding a party and playing loud music. Earlier today, my downstairs neighbor did her laundry in our new washer and drier.

Entertained yet?

I fulfilled the first two requirements–gave you characters and events. But entertain? Not unless you have some strange fascination with what happens in my neighborhood. 😉

The “for entertainment” part of the definition, then, is actually the place where story lives.

Perhaps the easiest way to examine a story is to take one apart. Here’s the shortest one I know:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. (by Mother Goose)

Humpty_Dumpty_In the first line we are introduced to the main character and we’re given an opening that shows us what “regular” life was like. This is critical to the success of any story.

Too many writers are in a hurry to write something blood-pumping, that will move readers to the edge of their chairs. But those scenes don’t happen unless the reader cares.

If I tell you Jeff drowned in the ocean, I doubt if anyone would think twice about the statement. We don’t know who Jeff is or why he was in the ocean. If, however, I say, A lifeguard named Jeff drowned in the ocean, now we might be a little intrigued. What if I changed it to say, A lifeguard named Jeff drowned in the ocean while trying to rescue a ten-year-old boy. Now there’s another level of intrigue, but not enough. We could think Jeff did something foolish or wasn’t skilled enough for the job. If we learned that a warning just went out about a riptide, that Jeff was putting up the red flag when the boy went into the water, the story begins to take shape.

The point is, first readers need to know who this person is so that they can care about him, all without boring them to death with a lot of backstory.

Line two of our example gives us the inciting incident–Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. Something happened that interrupted his regular routine, that set in motion a sequence of events.

In most stories, those events are put in motion by the protagonist as a way to solve the problem which the inciting incident created. In our example, however, Humpty Dumpty is in no shape to do anything about his predicament. Instead, enter the minor characters who work on his behalf. All the kings’ horses–not one or two, but all of them–and all the kings’ men worked to rescue Humpty Dumpty. Each action increases the tension, ups the conflict. At last there is only one more horse, one more man, and they fail.

This story resolves in a sad way. Nothing they did solved Humpty Dumpty’s problem. Most stories resolve in a more hopeful or positive way, but certainly not all. But “resolve” they must. At the end of the story, readers want to know “what happened.”

How detailed the resolution, of course, is up to the author. What did the kings’ men do with what was left of Humpty Dumpty? Some authors might write that as part of their resolution.

These then are the bare bones of a story. Yes, there are muscle and flesh and skin that need to be added, but without the bones, the story won’t hang together, so it’s a good place to start.

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Filed under Characters, Inciting Incident, Plot, Story, Structure

Keep ‘Em On The Line

Fishermans_with_fish_silver_salmonSo readers are hooked with a great beginning. How does the novelist keep them engaged from that point on? Perhaps the best way to look at this subject is to start with what does not keep readers turning pages.

One way is to employ “FALSE STARTS.” If the opening scene does it’s job and intrigues, readers should be asking, what happens next?

If, instead, the writer delivers glumps of backstory, excessive description, or the “flash forward,” readers may be tempted to put the book down.

Backstory tells readers about things in which they aren’t yet interested. Excessive description requires a story to grind to a halt as the writer paints a picture (always a fun thing to watch 😉 ).

It’s so easy for a writer to think the reader will “get” that the backstory and the character or setting descriptions are vital for their understanding of what’s about to take place, and that they will surely stick around to see just how great the story really is. Sadly, I’ve learned the hard way, this just isn’t so.

What about the flash forward?

In a writing instruction article in The Writer, Hallie Ephron says the flash forward is a device writers are tempted to use in order to begin with an exciting scene when the actual beginning seems to lack pizazz.

Prologues sometimes (often?) employ this device. The technique is designed to show a tense and intriguing scene, then stop at a cliff hanger, and go back to the beginning to show readers “how we got here.”

The story question, then, is something like, what brought this smart, capable woman to the point where her boss was so mad he fired her, forcing her to sell her home and move in with her crotchety maiden aunt? Unfortunately, the “how we got here,” which makes up the bulk of the story, by definition lacks the tension of the beginning forward action. There is no rising action because the novel started with the greatest point of tension.

If writers should avoid backstory, excessive description, and flash forwards, then what should come next? What ought to follow an opening so that it won’t come off like a false start? Is there a trick writers can use to pull this off?

Yes. First we must create characters readers care about. They must be interesting and believable, but they must also be people with whom readers can empathize.

One of the best writers I know creates quirky characters that are hard to connect with. Few people know such people in real life and fewer understand what makes them tick. Characters that are don’t connect with readers create an automatic strike against the story.

But there’s more. Other books I’ve read have bland characters that are floating through their story with no intention. These have a strike against them too.

Well-drawn characters must not only be interesting and believable, people with whom readers can empathize, they must do something interesting and believable.

In my adventures through fiction, I’ve found stories with truly wonderful characters. They are fun—even funny—and realistic, with age spots and crows feet as well as knight-in-shining-armor charisma and undeniable moral fiber.

And yet, at times, something so integral has been missing that I could easily close the book and not finish reading. I just didn’t care.

Yikes! 😮 What would cause such a thing?

In a nutshell, objectives. Actually, the lack thereof. In order for me to cheer for a character, which means I’ve arrived at the caring level, I have to see the character striving to accomplish something. The story can’t stall on bad things happening to a good character, over and over again. Instead, the character must take on a central problem and work to win out.

Somehow, a character striving, especially against great odds, resonates. It is in the effort to overcome that a character’s mettle shines.

An engaging character is only one element. Another is to put tension on every page, as Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, says.

One way to create tension is to create the legitimate possibility of failure. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was a story that kept readers wondering if the protagonists would succeed or fail. Frodo’s ability to pull off a victory was in doubt until the last sentence of the climax. For much of the last book of The Lord of the Rings, his spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. In the end, even his spirit gave out.

Along the way, he’d experienced a good number of successes, so how did Tolkien make readers feel as if Frodo might not make it in the end?

I think the main way was by not protecting his characters from hurt. The four hobbits were captured, Frodo was wounded, Gandolf was killed, Peregrin looked into the crystal where Sauron could see him, the fellowship broke apart, King Theoden came under Worm Tongue’s spell, Boromir succumbed to his desire for the ring and died. At every turn, the end seemed in doubt and victories weren’t had without paying a price.

Finally, there needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t look like the kind of winning the reader was hoping for.

In summary, if writers are to keep readers turning pages after they’ve hooked them with a great opening, they need to avoid false starts. Openings should not fall victim to chunks of backstory, excessive description, or fast forward gimmicks.

Writers also need to create characters with whom readers can relate and for whom they can cheer.

Finally, writers must put tension on every page. Winning can’t come easily or quickly, and not necessarily in the expected manner.

With these elements in place, readers are bound to be scrambling for more time with the book so they can keep the pages turning.

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Filed under Action, Backstory, Plot

Five Fiction Killers

Reading_Young_manI’ve read any number of lists about writing fiction from editors, writers, and agents, all designed to give fiction writers help. Some enumerate story essentials, others, ways to improve, what agents look for, or story mistakes. I decided it’s time I make my own list–my “story killers.” The elements below are things that induce me to put a book down, perhaps never to pick it up again. Or worse–perhaps never to pick up a book by that same author ever again.

Of course there is some subjectivity in such list. Some readers care more about plot than others do. Some care more about character. Good stories, however, need to be a blend of both, in the right way. I think you’ll find the “killers” on my list reflect this blend.

1) Characters that don’t want anything. Instead, the story happens to the protagonist, and he merely reacts. Even when the action seems fast-paced and suspenseful, I remain rather ho-hum because I’m not cheering the character on to achieve anything. All the activity seems designed merely to keep the character alive so he can do other things to keep himself alive. Survival, without a plan to end the cycle, simply doesn’t make a compelling story as far as I’m concerned.

paper_cutout_character2) Characters that are flat. This point applies to minor characters as well as the main ones. Writers have several euphemisms for this kind of character–two-dimensional, cardboard cut-out, stereotypical. The point is, they lack originality and, therefore, the feel of a real person. No individual is actually like any other. When a character in a novel acts just like a “typical” barkeep or hooker or preacher or cop . . . in fact like a typical anyone, there is some stereotyping going on.

The other way to flatten a character is to make her non-descript. She is simply “a woman” or “a secretary” or “a waitress.” There’s nothing particular about her.

Some writers think that giving a character a particular or unique look is sufficient. However, characters become memorable by what they do more than by how they look.

A college professor with tats covering his arms and neck might seem unique, but if he behaves like any other college professor, then he will soon fade into the background. If he has tats and never writes anything using capital letters, now he’s acting out of character for a college professor.

The reader might start to wonder if his students like him more or if they’ll think he’s incompetent. They might wonder how he keeps his job. In other words, there’s been some complexity introduced, some conflict. And yet this character doesn’t need to become major. He can simply be interesting in his minor role.

3) Unimaginative prose. Rather than varying structure, each sentence is simple, starting with “He.” Or adjectives are pedantic–long arms, long beard, long cord–and verbs are lackluster. Everyone walks, sees, turns. These verbs, of course, aren’t “incorrect,” but they are dull. They don’t create an image for the reader or paint a unique scene.

I recently read a book that compared a bald head to a cue ball. This analogy was an attempt to make the prose interesting, but there were two problems with it. First, it’s such a common comparison it can almost be considered a cliché. But also, this was a work of speculative fiction and nothing in the story made me think these people would know what a cue ball was.

The point is, comparisons can liven up unimaginative prose, if they are done well. The comparison needs to give the reader a fresh perspective and it needs to be consistent with the viewpoint character’s thinking.

4) Conflict that is too easily resolved. Characters need to struggle and strive. They need to work hard to overcome. If obstacles block their goals but are easily removed, the struggle doesn’t seem like much of a struggle. Whatever they win doesn’t seem as if it’s been earned. When a character beats any foe, overcomes any problem, soon there’s little tension when the next hurdle looms ahead of the character. The reader already knows this too will be brushed away in a page or two, with little or no lasting effects.

5) A lack of emotional response. Characters that live through horrific things ought to feel something or ought to make a conscious effort to shut off their emotions to the awfulness. If they act the same after witnessing a murder or escaping death as they did before the event, the story begins to feel cartoonish and the characters, more like caractures.

Along those lines, a character running for her life should have more thoughts about how she can escape than about whether or not the love interest she’s with will kiss her or not. Seriously. I’ve read books that interrupt the tension of an escape for an injection of sexual tension–at least that’s what I imagine the author was going for.

This tension-on-tension is bound to water down one or the other. They both won’t have the same impact they’d have if they were introduced separately.

Plus, it doesn’t seem plausible to me. When the danger is over, yes, then the character might feel grateful to the love interest or so relieved or thankful, that a “moment” would be logical and appropriate.

But with gun-totting criminals behind and the edge of the roof ahead, I don’t see the female protagonist logically thinking, My, look at his broad shoulders. That sort of line will ineitable induce from me . . . well, 🙄

Along with a reason to put that book down.

What “killers” would you add?

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Filed under Characters, Plot, Word Use, Writing Rules

The Engine That Drives Your Plot

engine and trainCharacters drive the plot of a novel, don’t they? Certainly it’s not the theme, unless you’re writing didactic fiction. Nor does the setting drive the plot, though we might say it serves the plot. So characters it is. But what drives characters?

From a Writer’s Digest article written by Steve Almond several years ago:

Once you’ve found a strong central desire within your hero, your plot decisions boil down to forcing him into the danger of his own feelings. All else becomes secondary.

Two key words: desire and feelings.

Characters fuel the plot, but what the character wants–his desire–fuels him.

Too often writers fail to identify a character’s central desire. Rather, he floats passively through a story, letting things happen to him, only reacting when pushed into a corner.

Here’s a sample of what I’m talking about.

At the beginning of the story, our hero goes to work, but because of the bad economy, he gets laid off. He decides to go to the unemployment office. On the way, he gets into a fender bender. The other driver doesn’t have insurance, and his own coverage isn’t sufficient, so his car is totaled.

Now he’s without a job and without a car, so he sits down at a bus stop. Across the street in the window of a cafe is a “Help Wanted” sign. He decides to check it out. The owner is desperate for help and hires him on the spot, but at the end of the month, doesn’t have the money to pay him.

He tells his landlady that he can’t make the rent, so she starts eviction proceedings. Now he’s without a job, without a car, and without a place to live.

This “story”–which is actually a collection of episodic events happening one after the other to the same character–could go on indefinitely. There is no overarching goal the character is trying to reach. If there were, the reader would follow him through until he either successfully achieves what he set out to accomplish, or utterly fails. As it is, the story can stop at any point, with a further deterioration of events or a reversal. But the character isn’t driving this plot. The author is manipulating events to create the effect he wishes.

Equally problematic is a character who has a central desire and then faces one external problem after another while never once dealing with internal issues.

Plots, in reality, are nothing more than events that take a character from point A in his life to point B–not physically, but emotionally or psychologically or spiritually. In other words, the character experiences some sort of internal change which we term character development.

However, only so much character development can occur by his overcoming one physical obstacle after another. At some point, he must face and deal with his fears, hopes, disappointments, conflicting beliefs, insecurities, guilt, dread, conflicting loves, and so on.

These internal matters are, in fact, the engine that drives a character that drives the plot.

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Deepen Your Story With Plot Layers

Super_Bowl_XLIII_-_Thunderbirds_Flyover_-_Feb_1_2009Tomorrow is Super Bowl Sunday. For the past two weeks since the teams have been set, reporters have been busy gleaning stories to tell as part of their preview. Of course there’s the main conflict — which is the better team and which will win? But there are also subplots and plot layers which good newsmen ferret out.

The subplots might have to do with a particular player’s path to the pros or his overcoming injury or his decision to retire at the end of this season. In other words, there’s a story inside the main story, perhaps one that deals with people not involved in the game. The scam perpetrated on Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o–with his friend setting up a fake girlfriend and then supposedly having her die–is an example of a subplot.

Jim_Harbaugh_in_2007Plot layers generally center on the main character. In my Super Bowl analogy, that usually is the quarterback, but for this article, let’s make it the coaches. You see, this year, the two opposing coaches, Jim Harbaugh and John Harbaugh, are brothers. So they have the obvious game connection–leaders of two teams vying for the top spot in the NFL. But below that is their life-long connection as brothers.

In a novel, the layers of a story–the varied aspects of a character’s life, should intersect at a pivotal point. In the Super Bowl, the coaches who are brothers might make a critical decision because of their relationship–one that could either win or lose the game.

In a young adult book I’m reading now, a boy is running for his life only to discover that his missing father is the key to why he’s being pursued. His desire to find his father and his need to escape his would-be killer intersect.

There are several reasons for adding layers to a story. First they add richness the way a layered cake becomes richer with a creamy filling.

JohnHarbaugh2009Then, too, layers deepen character. A character isn’t just a coach. He’s also a brother, perhaps the oldest who has had expectations put on his shoulders all his life, or the youngest who has tried to find credibility in the eyes of the rest of the family.

Thirdly, a layered plot gives the texture of the character’s varied world. The character isn’t just trying to win a game. He’s also trying to keep his marriage together, perhaps, or to gain bargaining power when his contract expires. Maybe he’s a foster dad who wants to give his new son hope that life can be better than he’s believed possible. Whatever the particulars, these added elements make the world seem complete because the character is juggling a variety of issues–the same way real people do.

For more information about and examples of plot layers, I recommend Donald Maass’s latest book, Writing 21st Century Fiction.

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Goals And Who Needs Them

illustration by Carl Offterdinger

The more novels I read, the more I realize those that engage me are ones with characters who have goals–both story and scene goals.

In every story, I suspect the author has goals. To entertain, perhaps, or to show a particular truth. On the scenic level, the writer may wish to convey backstory or to introduce a character or to describe the setting.

Those things do mot make for compelling writing. What matters isn’t the author’s goal but the character’s–both for the story and for each scene. If the character is likable or sympathetic or at least one with whom readers can connect, then they will be cheering for him to achieve what he sets out to do. If the character is despicable, a true villain, then readers will be hoping for his failure and an end to his carefully laid plans. Either way, the story will hold the reader’s interest because the goal turns into a question–will he succeed or fail?

The Shark Tank, one of the many “reality” TV game shows, serves to illustrate how compelling this “will he succeed or fail” set up can be. In the TV show, entrepreneurs with something to sell and in need of marketing or distribution stand before a panel of investors who make offers to fund the enterprise in exchange for a portion of the company. Each person has his or her own goal. Will they or won’t they succeed? The entire hour-long show depends on viewers wanting to know who will come away from the conflict with what they want.

A good many fairy tales also illustrate the importance of goals. Look, for example, at “Puss in Boots,” a tale by the French writer. The story begins with a little set up–common in writing up until the late twentieth century. But before long, the story goal surfaces.

Once upon a time there was a poor miller who had three sons. The years went by and the miller died, leaving nothing but his mill, his donkey, and a cat. The eldest son took the mill, the second-born son rode off on the donkey, and the youngest son inherited the cat .

“Oh, well”, said the youngest son, “I’ll eat this cat, and make some mittens out of his fur. Then I will have nothing left in the world and shall die of hunger.”

The Cat was listening to his master complain like this, but he pretended not to have heard anything. Instead, he put on a serious face and said:

“Do not look so sad, master. Just give me a bag and a pair of boots, and I will show you that you did not receive such a poor inheritance in me.” (emphasis mine)

The character in question is the cat, as the title of the story suggests. The overarching goal is for him to prove to his master that he was not a poor inheritance.

In scene after scene throughout the story, Puss formulates a goal, though the reader may not fully understand how his actions will achieve that for which he’s aiming. Take this scene with an ogre, for example.

The cat has convinced the king that his master is not a penniless fellow, but a generous, loyal, landed aristocrat. The king wishes to go to the man’s (non-existent) castle. The cat asks for an hour to make the place ready. Then this scene:

With that he jumped away and went to the castle of a great ogre and asked to see him saying he could not pass so near his home without having the honor of paying his respects to him.

The ogre received him as civilly as an ogre could do, and made him sit down.

“I have been assured,” said the Cat, “that you have the gift of being able to change yourself into all sorts of creatures as you wish; you can, for example, transform yourself into a lion, or elephant, and the like.”

“That is true,” answered the ogre very briskly; “and to convince you, you shall see me now become a lion.”

Puss was so terrified at the sight of a lion so near him that he immediately climbed up the curtains, not without difficulty, because his boots were no use to him for climbing. A little while after, when Puss saw that the ogre had resumed his natural form, he came down, and admitted he had been very much frightened.

“However,” said the cat, “I fear that you will not be able to save yourself even in the form of a lion, for the king is coming with his army and means to destroy you.”

The ogre looked out of the window and saw the king waiting outside with his soldiers, and said,

“What shall I do? How shall I save myself?”

Puss replied: “If you can also change yourself into something very small, then you can hide”.

And in an instant, the ogre himself into a mouse, and began to run about the floor. Puss no sooner saw this but he fell upon him and ate him up.

Puss, who heard the noise of his Majesty’s coach running over the draw-bridge, ran out, and said to the King:

“Your Majesty is welcome to this castle of my Lord Marquis of Carabas.”

In the end, the cat not only secures for his master a title, fine clothes, the esteem of the king, and a castle, but also the hand of the princess in marriage. Clearly, he succeeds in his story goal.

Stories that wander about, with things happening to the main character rather than the main character wanting something and going out to get it, scene after scene after scene, are the kind I can easily put down or which might even put me to sleep.

Stories with characters that want something–now that’s a different situation altogether.

So here’s the question: does your character have a goal in each scene? Does mine? I’m in the process of doing a revision, and one of my steps this time around is to identify my point of view character’s scene goal. If I can’t, then I need to do some serious re-writing.

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