Category Archives: Story

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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Hiding Information From Readers

writing in diary August_Müller_TagebucheintragFrom time to time I read advice that says novelists should create characters who have secrets. One such article, “5 Secrets about your Characters’ Secrets,” lists out ways that a writer can use characters’ secrets: to develop a plot twist, create conflict, for descriptive texture and intrigue, to use as part of the character reveal, and I’d add, as a source of on-going tension.

In fact, novelist L. D. Alford includes secrets on his list of tools to create tension. He explains the process:

The protagonist’s secrets are wonderful secrets—the trick is that the author can’t reveal them too early. This is an example of not showing (or telling) everything. I don’t like my readers to know anything that is not revealed through showing. To effectively use protagonist’s secrets, the author must only use showing to reveal and must not show everything.

There is incredible power in keeping protagonist’s secrets. Just like in real life, you never know everything about someone else, and you never want to let someone know everything about you. This is the point of secrets—not everyone knows them. The power of secrets is your readers realize they don’t know everything about the protagonist, and they await with excitement further revelations.

Secrets create questions, both for the other characters and for the reader. As other characters react to the existence of a secret or to its revelation, as the main character struggles to keep the secret, tension abounds. But the natural reaction to not knowing is wanting to know, so secrets generate curiosity. What are those marks on her arm which she keeps hidden? Why hasn’t she told her boyfriend that her parents died?

Mr. Alford also says in one post, “The most powerful use of secrets are those that are kept by the protagonist . . . and not shared immediately with the reader.”

Of course, the protagonist isn’t the only character who can have a secret.

Dobby2I think, for example, of Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets in which a character named Dobby goes to Harry’s home in order to dissuade him from returning to Hogwarts, the school for witches and wizards. Harry can’t imagine why Dobby wants to keep him from going back, and the reader is just as much in the dark.

Later Harry learns that Dobby, a house elf, is trying to protect him from another wizard, one to whom Dobby is bound and who he cannot betray. Dobby’s secret turns into a full-blown “who wants to harm Harry” question which in turn creates tension throughout the book as one person after another falls under suspicion.

There is a limit, however, to the use of secrets. The author should not withhold the information from the reader that reveals the protagonist’s goal or plan. What the central character wants, drives the plot. If that desire is a secret, readers will be left out of the true quest.

Likewise, if the protagonist makes a plan to achieve his goal, a secret plan which the readers don’t know, they have no way of cheering for his success or fearing when obstacles crop up or enemies plot countermeasures.

In other words, if readers aren’t in the loop when it comes to the goals and plans the main character makes, the tension, which is the point and purpose of keeping secrets, will be lost.

Keeping secrets can powerfully aid a novelist when it comes to creating tension, but a line should be drawn when it comes to the goal of the protagonist and the plans he makes to reach his goals. These are essentials that readers must be aware of if they are to care for the character and hope for him or fear for him. They should not be withheld in the effort to give the protagonist an intriguing secret. Rather than creating tension, withholding the key to character motivation creates indifference.

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Picking Up The Pace, Revisited

According to Sol Stein in Stein On Writing, one of the most common reasons manuscripts are rejected is because of a slow pace.

I’ve read slow-paced books before. The truth is, they can be boring.

According to Stein, there are a number of techniques writers can use to keep the pace of a novel or non-fiction work (including blog articles) moving at a healthy clip.

First, short sentences move the pace along. Second, short paragraphs do the same. Finally, short sentences combined with short paragraphs create the fastest pace of all.

To achieve these shorts, first tighten sentence structure (get rid of words like even or just, for example) and reduce redundancy. Second, judicially shorten sentences and paragraphs in action scenes.

I say “judicially” because a fast pace for the sake of a fast pace can become exhausting … and equally boring. Varied sentence structure is by far more interesting than one subject/verb/object sentence after another.

Besides regulating sentence and paragraph length, a writer can control pace by skipping steps, or condensing action. For example, suppose a character decides to bake a cake. Including all the steps would look something like this.

Duncan Hines Moist Delux German Chocolate Cake

    Martha went to the pantry and picked out the cake mix she wanted — German chocolate. She flipped to the back of the box and checked the list of ingredients. Off she went to the refrigerator, pulled out the egg carton, and selected three eggs. Next she turned on the oven, setting the temperature to the required 350 degrees. After retrieving her measuring cup, cake pan, and mixing bowl from the cupboard, she opened the box.

Nothing is wrong with this paragraph. The writing is clear, the sentences are varied, the verbs are strong. But so far the reader hasn’t learned anything. Martha is going to bake a cake — we got that. But five sentences later, she still hasn’t done it. In other words, this scene can be compressed in a sentence or two.

    Martha settled on German chocolate cake for dessert and prepped for her first baking project in a year. When everything was ready, she whipped the ingredients together and popped the mixture into the oven as if she’d been baking cakes for a living.

In those two sentences, Martha not only gets the cake in the oven, we have a chance to learn something more about her in the process. We’re letting the reader imagine the particulars of baking the cake. As a result of the faster pace, we are able to make the scene do double duty.

Another technique to increase pace is to leave a scene out. The old time movies used this technique, not for the sake of pace, but to adhere to a standard of modesty when a couple would enter a bedroom and close the door. The intimate scene was left to the viewers’ imagination. The next scene in the film, then, would show the wife in the morning helping her husband with his tie, for example, or heading to the kitchen in her robe and slippers to start breakfast.

For the sake of pace, scenes in novels can be left out in the same way. Take a story about an innocent man going to prison. The courtroom scene isn’t necessary because the conflict will center on what the prisoner must endure behind bars. Hence, for the sake of pace, the court appearances simply are not present. The police come to the protagonist’s house, and in the next scene, he’s being strip searched in a federal penitentiary.

Jump-cutting, borrowed from film-making, is a similar technique, but instead of taking out a scene, the transitional action is omitted. Here’s how that would work.

A pastor is going to visit an accident victim in the hospital. He tells his secretary where he’ll be and heads for the door. When using the jump-cut, the author includes an extra line between text to indicate something has been left out or time has passed. In this example scenario, the next action is the pastor stepping into the hospital room with a Bible in hand. The transition—how he got from his office to the hospital room—is left out.

Whichever techniques an author uses, the important thing to remember is that these devices should serve the story. Jump-cuts for the sake of jump-cuts don’t move the story forward, and a fast pace for the sake of a fast pace can lose readers.

If, however, the story is dragging or critique partners are falling asleep, it might be time to experiment a little with some ways to pick up the pace. 😉

This post, sans some editorial changes, first appeared at Rewrite, Reword, Reword in June 2011.

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Vocabulary, Word Choice, And Fiction

SpellingBee2011-JamacianContestantAn author’s vocabulary and word choice are closely associated, as I realized when reading Stephen R. Lawhead‘s The Skin Map, Book 1 of the Bright Empires series.

Vocabulary is at the heart of language, and therefore, of writing. An author cannot use words he does not know. Consequently, it seems prudent for any serious writer to do whatever he can to improve his vocabulary.

The easiest method, perhaps, is to read widely. However, some writers take such pleasure in words, they regularly study them. Christian suspense author Brandilyn Collins is just such a writer. As a blogger at Forensics and Faith, she shared weekly a new set of words (see for example this vocabulary post), and frequently tweets a new word.

In The Skin Map, I encountered a steady offering of new words—conurbation, telluric, feculent, aubergine, imprimatur. Often the meaning of these words was clear in context. On occasion, I paused in my reading to look up a new offering.

And there is the question—should an author include words that might not be widely understood, chancing that a break in comprehension will damage the “fictive dream” to the extent that the reader won’t want to continue, or will, at least, pause before again buying a book by that author?

The answer to this question actually brings the discussion to word choice. Presumably an author such as Mr. Lawhead who would use a word like feculent could just as easily have chosen to write foul, filthy, or polluted instead. He did not, meaning that he chose a more precise, though less used, word for a reason.

What should an author consider when making such word choices? I don’t think “most common” should be the hard and fast rule, or books will all descend to the level of fifth grade readers, much as TV writing has. At the same time, peppering a story with “fifty dollar” words for the sake of sounding erudite is foolish.

Writing is first and foremost communication. Words that obscure meaning must go. Words that may be difficult can stay as long as the author has a reason for them and creates a context that makes their meaning accessible. Look, for example, at Mr. Lawhead’s use of telluric.

Into the invisible square the old man drew a straight diagonal line. “A ley line,” he said, speaking slowly—as one might to a dog, or dull-wited child, “is what might be called a field of force, a trail of telluric energy. There are hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, all over Britain, and they have been around since the Stone Age.” (from The Skin Map, p. 18)

Notice that the word I’ve labeled “difficult” is describing a type of energy and is renaming “a field of force.” Though this passage may not give a reader enough to come up with a synonym for “telluric,” it nevertheless gives enough for someone unfamiliar with the word to keep reading without having missed anything central to the scene.

In addition, the word appears in dialogue. Much of word choice in fiction must be made in relation to the characters. Is a word too sophisticated for a street urchin? To common for an aristocrat? Too antiquated for a twenty-first century teen?

Choosing words with characters in mind is especially important when writing in a close third person narrative. An author has more latitude when writing, as Mr. Lawhead was in The Skin Map, in an omniscient point of view with an unseen narrator. Beyond dialogue, he could choose words that fit with the narrator persona or with the main character of each particular scene.

In summary, an author should make it his goal to expand his vocabulary. Then, when making word choices from the wealth of his vocabulary, he must consider how clearly his words communicate as well as how consistently they represent his characters.

– – – – –
This article is a reprint, with some minor editorial changes, of “Vocabulary and Word Choice” which first appeared here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework in November 2010.

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The Denouement – Wrapping Up Loose Ends

The End - BookA novel’s plot structure, in its simplest outline, consists of an inciting incident, rising action, a climax, and the denouement also called the conclusion or resolution. Of all the story elements, perhaps the least examined is the denouement which resolves the complications of a story’s plot.

Part of this lack of analysis might be because no two denouements look alike. Truly, there is no hard and fast “right way” to wrap up a story.

Fairy tales famously took care of the denouement with one line: They all lived happily ever after. Mysteries often closely dovetail the denouement with the climax—the whodunit is entwined with the lives and stories of the suspects who didn’t do it, and the reader learns all about those too as the detective reveals how the crime was committed.

Somewhat popular today in fantasy are stories that have a somewhat open-ended denouement, often for the purpose of introducing the next book in a series.

Other stories seem to go to great lengths to wrap up all the loose ends. I think, for example, of Return of the King, third in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Essentially the story question ended when Frodo battled Gollum and ended up destroying the One Ring.

But we know by the title that this volume of the story is about the returning king, so after the climax, there is the resolution of the king being accepted by his people. Then there is the story of the hobbits returning home, of their dealing with Sauroman in the Shire, and finally of Frodo’s departure with the elves. And I’m not listing all the various loose ends that are nicely tied in the process.

Another approach is to skip the denouement altogether. The story “The Lady Or The Tiger?” skips the climax (will the princess tell her lover under punishment by the king to open the door releasing the tiger or the lady he would then have to marry?) Consequently, with no climax, there can be no denouement.

Gone With The Wind ends in a similar way with one major difference: the protagonist is a different person in the end; she has learned who she loves and who she doesn’t love and she’s learned what gives her strength. Apart from that, the reader knows little of what will become of her.

The_End_(5647069175)Writing instructor John Truby in The Anatomy of a Story says, “A great story lives forever” (p. 418), much the way a train ends but continues on.

Truby describes three types of endings that truncate a story: premature endings (of which there are also three kinds: the protagonist’s early self-revelation, the hero’s desire attained too quickly, the actions the hero takes to achieve his goal aren’t organic); arbitrary endings in which the story just stops; and the closed ending in which the hero achieves his goal, gains new insights, and essentially lives happily ever after.

With these endings, the story does not live on.

All three of these structural elements give the audience the sense that the story is complete and the system has come to rest. But that’s not true. Desire never stops. Equilibrium is temporary. The self-revelation is never simple, and it cannot guarantee the hero a satisfying life from that day forward. Since a great story is a always a living thing, an ending is no more final and certain than any other part of the story. (Truby, The Anatomy of a Story, p. 419)

As I see it, this “living ending” is the secret to a successful denouement. Of course, there is no formula, no set way to ensure that readers will continue to think about the characters going on after the story, but there are some principles that might help.

One writer, Charlie Jane Anders, says the most legitimate reason for the denouement to exist is to “provide some resolution to the themes of your story.” She goes on to explain:

if your plot doesn’t end with enough of a clear-cut catharsis to resolve the main themes of your novel, then yes, you need a denouement. (“What’s The Difference Between Denouement And Picking At A Scab?“)

Later she adds

Remember: readers actually like it when you make them do a lot of the work themselves. And a big part of the pleasure of reaching the end of a book is getting to imagine in your own mind how the characters will go on afterwards — the story keeps unspooling in your head after you stop turning pages, except that the training wheels have come off. So the less you spoonfeed the reader in your final pages, the more you’re inviting her/him to start imagining the story after the book ends. (Ibid.)


Statements about denouements that accomplish what a novel needs, then, include the following:

  • they do not have a set length
  • they do allow the characters to “go on living” after the end of the story
  • they may give a panoramic view of the characters doing something that lends itself to expansion in the reader’s mind
  • they may hint at what happens next without spelling out particulars
  • they should wrap up the theme of the story, though other loose ends may still be dangling.

Your turn: what’s the best ending you’ve read? What, in your view, made it so good?

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Construct Your Sentences; Don’t Let Them Grow Like Weeds

scaffold-770382-mIn my capacity as a contest judge, an editor, and a book reviewer, I do my fair share of reading fiction. Of late, I’ve noticed what seems to me to be a growing trend—less attention to sentence structure.

For instance, in a novel I’m currently reading, I saw one paragraph with four of its five sentences all starting with He. In another, the opening two sentences were constructed identically. In others, authors lean heavily on a favorite construction which appears with frequency.

Some writers might think, Nit-picky, nit-picky, nit-picky.

Once upon a time, I may have thought this as well. But what’s at stake is a reader’s attention. Most readers, perhaps without realizing it, are affected by sentence structure.

For example, structure that is repeated with frequency can become tedious. If that construction happens to be simple sentences, the effect is often so simplistic that readers may feel as if they’re back in first grade reading their primers:

Jack Silversteen unbuckled his gun belt. He let it slide to the floor. The belt landed with a bang. Jack stared at his enemy. He crossed his arms.

But even more complex sentence construction can become tedious, too, because it creates a distinct rhythm:

Martha poured a cup of coffee, being careful not to spill. She waited for Jack to sit down, tapping her finger on the edge of the saucer. She glanced out the window, humming a little tune. A bird landed on the sill, flapping its wings against the glass.

The lack of variety becomes tiresome, no matter how well constructed the sentences are.

The truth is, some sentence construction can be problematic even if it isn’t repeated too often. For example the use of present participles (verb forms ending in —ing) in the example above can easily go awry. The —ing form of a verb implies simultaneous action, but some writers use this construction as if the action carried by the participle follows the action carried by the verb:

EXAMPLE: He wolfed down his sandwich, burping with satisfaction.

Clearly the character couldn’t wolf down the sandwich and simultaneously burp with satisfaction, but the construction of the sentence says that’s what he did. The author’s intention was to show a sequence of events, but the present participle doesn’t accomplish that purpose.

Participles are also problematic when they introduce a sentence because they are easily misplaced.

The rule of thumb for phrases that describe is to place them in close proximity to what they describe.

EXAMPLE: The man wearing the baseball cap climbed to the top of the bleachers.

When a participial phrase (a group of words beginning with a verb form such as walking or written or talked) begins a sentence, therefore, it is positioned to describe the very next noun—the subject of the sentence.

EXAMPLES:
Walking in the park, the little girl spotted her first squirrel.
Written before he had his coffee, the email didn’t make much sense.
Talked about as if she’d already won, the gymnast became careless.

When a modifier is misplaced, however, it is positioned before a noun which it is not describing.

EXAMPLES:
Walking the last mile, her finish time was well above the goal she’d set for herself.
Written on a napkin, she cherished the poem as a spontaneous expression of his love for her.
Talked about for days, the reader looked forward to the release of the new book.

Inattention to sentence construction can also lead to redundancy, a lack of parallelism, and a host of other awkward or inerrant grammar issues which may confound readers. But it can also mean an author has missed an opportunity to communicate more effectively.

For example, sentence construction contributes to the pace of a story. In action scenes, when the pace should be fast, short sentences, even fragments, can be most effective. Nothing stalls action more than long, leisurely sentences that meander.

Sentences, like scenes and chapters and books have a “sweet spot,” a part that delivers the greatest punch. Consequently, a well constructed sentence will deliver the key piece of information in that sweet spot—the end of the sentence. Yes, the beginning is important, but the point here is, after the key bit of information, the sentence shouldn’t go on with less important detail.

EXAMPLE
Weak: Nothing was more important to her, and she’d spent all day looking for just the right one—the perfect book that would help her finish her research paper on time.

Improved: Nothing was more important to her, and she’d spent all day looking for just the right one—the perfect book. Now she could finish her research paper on time.

In the first example above, the thing most important to the character was the book, but the sentence doesn’t stop with that important information. By breaking the long sentence up, the writer can create a second punch. The book, it turns out, is important because it is the key to a second goal—finishing the paper on time. The construction of two sentences instead of one allows the writer to escalate the importance rather than simply moving past the first important object—the one the character has spent all day looking for.

Finally sentence construction is key to the creation of voice, whether the author’s voice or the various characters’ voices. For instance, in the previous paragraph, I ended the last sentence with a preposition. While grammar rules now allow such, a more formal writing style would still require rewriting the sentence to read . . . the one for which the character has spent all day looking.

weed-plant-1161347-mThe choice to construct the sentence in a formal manner or in a more colloquial manner is not an issue of right or wrong but rather of effect—what effect does the author hope to create. If he prefers a more academic, precise tone and wishes his audience to see him as careful in his usage, he most likely will opt for the formal construction. If, on the other hand, the author is going for a more relaxed tone, the preposition at the end of the sentence will be just fine.

Much of the problem with sentence structure, as I see it, is that writers may not be aware of the importance of writing from the ground up—choosing words purposefully and building sentences with intention. Rather, sentences seem to be left on their own, to grow as they wish. Like weeds.

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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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What’s At Stake?

Yeah, not that kind.

Yeah, not this kind.

If a story needs tension on every page, it seems logical that authors writing fiction need to learn how to create tension. One technique is to increase stakes, that is, to make the action urgent.

Unfortunately, it seems this idea of upping stakes is too often equated with saving the world from aliens or stopping a terrorist attack. After all, what are higher stakes?

The problem, of course, is that not every story is about aliens or terrorists. And even in the stories that accommodate those elements, repetition has reduced these high stakes to a shrug unless there is more involved.

Not this kind either.

Not that kind either.

So how can a writer bring urgency to her story without threatening to blow up the White House or start a pandemic that could wipe out the human race? First, we need to look at what’s behind the stakes.

At the heart of a story is a character with a need or a goal–he wants to win the love of the princess or get a promotion at work or make his dad proud. To evaluate the stakes created by any actions these characters might take, the author must simply ask, so what?

What will the character lose if he doesn’t win the love of the princess? Well, the princess! some will answer. And that matters, why? Can’t he simply find another girl to love, one he can win?

Or what happens if he doesn’t get the promotion he wants? Won’t he simply continue working at the job he has? How about making his dad proud. If he doesn’t, what will he lose? A chance for better self-esteem? And that matters because . . .

The point is, stakes are built, in part, upon creating consequences for failure. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, equated their love with life. They chose dying rather than living without the person they loved.

However, in addition to creating consequences, these consequences must matter, and this is accomplished by creating a character the reader will care about.

As long as the reader merely has a nodding acquaintance with the protagonist, the stakes of a novel will remain low. Only when the reader cares deeply what happens to him will the stakes begin to soar.

Writing instructor Donald Maass states this principle clearly in Writing the Breakout Novel:

The wishes, needs and objectives of strangers are, to most of us, of little concern. The same is true in a reader’s relationship to a character in a story: That character’s stakes will seem strong only to the extent that the character is sympathetic. If the character feels cold, distant or veiled, it is impossible to care. The personal stakes in the story feel low. Reader interest is weak. On the other hand, when characters are strong and appealing, and better still are portrayed warmly and with intimate candor, the stakes feel high and reader interest runs high, as well. (p. 74)

In short, personal stakes for the protagonist hinge upon how well the reader gets to know this character. Maass again:

we cannot help but like people that we know very well, whatever their faults. Understanding leads to sympathy. Sympathy in turn gives power to stakes.

A corollary to this principle is that readers will care about circumstances that a sympathetic character cares about. To raise the stakes, however, the author must withhold what the character wants, must take him through a minidisaster that forces him to regroup. Each failure reminds the reader what’s at stake.

Besides personal stakes, a novelist should present public stakes–what will society lose if the heroine fails? Again, it’s easy to jump to the large failure–death and destruction. But there are different kinds of destruction. A writer should consider exploring moral choices, ethics, corruption, spiritual well-being and their affects on society.

One character, of course, is most likely not going to impact a government to wipe out all corruption or turn a society away from a questionable ethic, but this is where a novelist can allow the character to represent “everyman” and establish a universal principle by showing a particular life and situation.

James_Stewart_in_Mr._Smith_Goes_to_Washington_trailer_2The old movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” comes to mind as this type of story. When corrupt politicians tried to manipulate a Junior Senator, Mr. Smith, appointed to office to complete the term of the deceased incumbent, the young man ends up embroiled in false accusations and dishonest dealings. His efforts to do what is right eventually cause one old family friend to confess his wrong doings.

Is all of Washington cleaned of corruption? No, but Mr. Smith illustrates what an honest man willing to stand for right can accomplish. The stakes in this story involve the good of society, not just Mr. Smith’s reputation–though there is that, as well as his standing in the eyes of the woman he’s attracted to.

Perhaps this intertwining of personal and public stakes is the ultimate method of elevating both.

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Creating Tension

Agent and writing instructor Donald Maass believes in creating tension on every page of a novel. In fact, he goes so far as to say that this one factor can be the difference between a novelist breaking out, or not.

Without a doubt the most common flaw I see in manuscripts from beginners and midcareer novelists alike is the failure to invest every page of a novel with tension. Low tension equals low interest. High tension equals high interest. The ratio is mathematic, the result positive, so why do so many writers believe they can ignore the equation? (Writing the Breakout Novel, p. 174)

breakoutnovel-coverI’m less inclined to think that writers are purposefully ignoring the concept. Rather, some may not have learned they need tension on every page and some may believe they have it simply because the story–every page–interests them.

Tension goes beyond interest, however. Tension drives a story forward and makes a reader want to know what will happen next. But how exactly do you create tension on every page? Donald Maass gives several suggestions.

Primarily tension comes from conflict, so Maass advises novelists to build a novel in scenes. “A well-constructed scene has a mini-arc of its own: a beginning, rise and climax or reversal at the end” (ibid. p. 174).

He also suggests eliminating the “aftermath” scene, sometimes referred to as the sequel, in which the protagonist re-groups and decides what to do next. Rather, a fairly common practice in vogue today is to use the “jump cut,” moving from the end of one set of complicating circumstances to the beginning of the next.

In addition, Maass gives a valuable suggestion about exposition–the “self-talk” which shows the reader the inner workings of a character. If the character’s thoughts are nothing more than a rehash of what has happened, there’s little tension. Rather than showing the protagonist trapped in a dilemma, struggling to resolve his situation, he may instead appear to wallow in indecision and self-pity. Not only is there low tension, but the character may come across as whiny. It is better to leave out internal monologue that doesn’t create tension.

In my own reading and in a spate of superhero movies, I’ve discovered that tension sags when an event is predictable. Even the most action-packed scenes can feel boring when a reader or viewer knows the outcome ahead of time. Tension, then, is created by an unknown outcome.

It’s also created by the personal. If something deadly is about to happen to an unknown character, the tension is seriously reduced. Even our news outlets have learned this fact. An anonymous child goes missing, and people sadly shake their heads. A face is put to that child, with the story about her life, her friends, her interests, and suddenly the public cares deeply what happens to her.

In the same way, when writers put a face to a character, readers’ interest increases.

elevator-200538-mThe conflict a novelist creates for his character, however, must be believable. A businessman on his lunch break accidentally steps into into an elevator shaft that the maintenance worker accidentally left exposed, but he breaks his fall because he happened to be carrying his dry cleaning. Well . . . not so believable. When events stretch beyond the point of credibility, readers may lose interest.

You’ll notice in that scenario above there were also a number of accidentals. Tension needs the unavoidable, not the happenstance. When a drunk leaves a bar and climbs into his car, readers know that danger is approaching. Whatever happens to that driver should be caused by his being behind the wheel in an inebriated state. He might cause an accident, get stopped by the police, even make it home only to have his wife react negatively. Whatever happens to him has been completely and properly motivated and will therefore seem to the reader as unavoidable.

Finally, to create tension, the events a writer takes her character through must be urgent–they should matter. Perhaps the hero is faced with a decision to go to a party or not go to a party. The situation won’t have tension unless something is at stake.

Perhaps the woman he’s in love with will be at that party, but she has a new boyfriend, so he must decide if the pleasure of seeing her outweighs the sorrow of seeing her with her boyfriend. That’s better, but if he has no chance of winning her back, the tension is still low. There’s not enough at stake.

Have you read through your manuscript looking for tension on every page? It’s a great exercise, and perhaps a must revision step before sending that baby out into the world.

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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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