Tag Archive | workshops

Picking a Point of View

pietown1940When I first began writing fiction my viewpoint wandered all over the place. I was fine in first person, but the rest of it…omniscient on steroids. I’d throw in the viewpoint of the dog on just a whim. Thankfully, I had some other writers who would read my work and who pointed out a better path. I’m teaching an online workshop on Point of View starting this week. Getting control of viewpoint in a story gave my writing a huge jump in quality. But what is it about viewpoint control that really helps a story?

1-A connection to one character helps the reader into the story. When I learned how to write deep third person POV, and how to stick to a viewpoint and smooth any transitions, I discovered I could better hook readers into the story by connecting the reader to one character. Let’s face it, walking into a room of strangers is tough. If you connect with one person, now you have a reason to stay at the party. That’s the same with any book. A wandering viewpoint or a distant viewpoint can keep the reader from getting past the first couple of pages in your story.

2-Viewpoint control improves the emotion in a scene. I sort of knew this from writing first person, but it didn’t really sink in until I realized that picking the character with the most emotionally at stake in any scene gave me a stronger scene with more emotion. Changes in viewpoint changed the tension and the emotion in a scene–so a change at the wrong time drained my scenes of their impact. A lot of writers know instinctively to stay with the emotion. But I’ve also seen writers change viewpoint right when things are really cooking in a scene–the writer backs off from the best emotion and the reader is cheated. This is where viewpoint control can really improve your writing a lot (with very little effort).

3-Viewpoint control keeps the reader focused. This may sound obvious–too many jumps in viewpoint and the reader gets confused. A confused reader puts the book away and may never return. I’ve seen this in movies, too. I had to stop watching the Transformer movies–too many jump cuts and changes and viewpoints and I not only stopped following the action, I stopped caring. It just became noise. You want to learn how to handle any shift in viewpoint so the reader isn’t thrown out of your story.

4-Points of view tells the reader what’s important. I’ve seen–and I used to do this–stories where EVERYONE’S viewpoint gets shuffled into the story. The guy holding the door open in chapter ten, the second cousin of the heroine who appears only for a page in chapter twenty…on and on. A lot of this and the reader starts wondering who are the main characters and starts wanting a scorecard to keep track. I’ve only seen this handled really well once–in Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the point of view shifts are to anything that’s funny (which is the point of the book, really). Can a lot of viewpoints be brilliantly handled? Sure–if you’ve got the talent to pull it off. But why stress yourself and the reader–stick with the viewpoints of the people who matter. One big lesson I learned–when in doubt keep it simple. Stick to one or two viewpoints.

5-Strong viewpoint control lets you increase the tension in your scenes and your stories. When I was jumping around with everyone’s viewpoint my story lost focus. The pacing suffered because I was sending the reader off on tangents. It’s a lot like that party I mentioned earlier–if you’re wandering around a party hearing snippets of conversations, you’re not really involved or caring about any of them. But if you stop and focus on one conversation or get involved in one argument, that pulls in your focus. Now you have something you care about, meaning things matter. That is key to having tension in a story. If the reader doesn’t care that the heroine may not ever really love the hero, or that the hero may not save the world, you can have all sorts of great action but the book is going to be a yawn. You want your viewpoint control focused and tight so the reader is also focused–and caring about what happens next.

6-Viewpoint control helps you write. I used to get stuck in stories. Somewhere between page fifty and one hundred the story would wander off a cliff. When I went back to look at these failures I saw I was not really attached to any one character–I hadn’t figured out whose viewpoint mattered, and so I didn’t really know whose story this was. It’s important to figure out the viewpoints you want to use because you want to tell those character’s stories–and you want to know who is at the center of any story. These days if I get stuck in a scene I always try two things: I change the viewpoint, or I go back to see if I have the conflict identified. That fixes just about every roadblock in my writing.

7-Smooth viewpoint shifts keep the reader in the story. Any transition–between viewpoints or in time or between scenes–is a place where the writer can lose the reader’s attention. It just seems a natural stopping point. Elizabeth Daly who wrote lovely mysteries in the late Forties and in the Fifties taught me a lot about how to smooth and handle transitions point. The key is to hint or introduce the start of the next scene before the last one ends. Nora Robert’s books also taught me a lot about handling viewpoint shifts. When you find writers who do something really well, take the work apart and see how they do things.

When in doubt, you can always stick to first person–but even first person has some tricks to it to keep it from becoming all about “I…I…I” But that’s something to cover in the workshop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are you a writer or a story teller?

readerI’m doing a workshop on Storytelling this August — the idea for it came out of reading a lot of manuscripts where the writing was really good, but the story just didn’t work. Either the characters didn’t really make sense, or the story itself went off the rails about midway through and became a bunch of actions instead of a story arc that worked to really explore the characters and their relationships. This is something we all have to work on (constantly it seems). So what makes a good story compared with good writing?

1- Good writing can make you stop in awe. This is actually a problem in a story. A good story keeps you turning the pages, not stopping to admire the scenery. I find if the writing stops the reader for any reason, it’s a place the author needs to look at to see if the writing is just getting too “writerly” and getting in the way. Truman Capote said you want to be that voice by the fireside telling the story–invisible but compelling.

2- A good story sweeps you away. This means the reader doesn’t stumble over complicated sentences, or even more complicated plots–instead the reader is pulled into a fully developed world where the characters all make sense as people who work in that world. And the world all makes sense (things don’t just happen because the author thinks it would be cool or a great twist, but they happen within the rules of that world–and that takes a lot of development).

3- Good writing can be intellectually pleasing, but a good story catches your emotions. This is something I see a lot–the author has gotten carried away with a story that is just too much about the author being clever and not really enough about the author digging deep into both their own emotions and their characters’ emotions. This is where the story is just flat. You can overthink stories–and you can overwrite them, too.

4- Good writing is perfect; a good story may have flaws, but you just don’t care because it’s great as it is. This is where someone has edited out the emotion from the page–we all do this at times. We get so caught up in dotting every period and worrying over every comma that we forget that it’s the flawed characters and it’s the story that a reader wants. Ever come out of a movie and suddenly you realize there were a lot of plot holes, but you never noticed them during the movie? That’s a story that did it’s job–it engaged you on an emotional level. That’s a story teller’s job.

5- A good story needs great characters, and good enough writing that the writing comes second. This again is a place where I see less experienced writers struggling–their technical skills are weak enough that they have to focus too much attention on untangling sentences. The more I write, the more I tend to love simple, clean prose. The reason for this is that if I don’t have to fuss with craft, I can focus more on the characters and getting them on the page.

6- A good story has an arc–it goes somewhere. Good writing can wander–you can have beautiful prose that doesn’t really go anywhere. Story telling goes way, way back in the human psyche, and if when you break those rules we all love in stories (even without knowing what it is that makes a story work), the risk is that you’re creating a story that readers will put down.

7- A great story is one that must be told, but it’s rare that a writer really must produce great writing just for the sake of the writing. A great story is the one that burns in you, the one you can’t ignore, the one that you have to get on the page because the characters won’t leave you alone and you know that you’ll write this one even if only your mother reads it. You want to look for these stories.

You can be a good story teller and sell well–Edgar Rice Burroughs, to me, is a perfect example of this. Not a great writer, but it’s really hard to put down one of his books once you start reading. You just keep turning the page. There are other writers who are both great story tellers and really good writers–Stephen King is a good example of this (boy, can he write!). However, there really aren’t any great writers who are not great story tellers on any fiction best seller lists–and even the best non-fiction writers know how to spin a yarn.

So are you a great story teller–what stories are the ones you must tell?

Writing Regencies

writingdeskThe Regency romance is one of the most popular types of romance published–but what makes for a good Regency? What do you need to know to write one.

I’m teaching a workshop on Writing the Regency this July (22-Aug 18), but here are a few basics:

1-Voice. First things first, and the first thing any Regency novel needs is the right voice. Now the Regency voice can be funny or dramatic, but the feel has to be something that invites the reader into a world that doesn’t exist–yes, it’s the past, but it’s a past that no one’s been to, so it’s up to the writer to come up a “tone” or voice that feels right. It’s the sort of thing that readers know, and the writer has to find.

2-Research. This is the one that stops most folks. The odd thing is that contemporary novels can need research, too, particularly when you dip into fields that aren’t your own (medical, legal, cowboys, fire, etc. etc.). The trick to research is to know the right questions to ask–what do you need to know. And where do you go to find it? Too much time spent in research means too little time spent writing.

3-Plausibility. Readers have to buy into the world. You can actually have accurate details–but will readers believe them? The same goes for the characters. Do you have people who make sense within this world you’re creating? The reader has to believe not just in your characters, but that your characters could have existed within the Regency world.

4-Glamour. The Regency is an era of style–of wit. And clothes. And, also, titles. Lords and ladies, and getting this wrong can throw a reader right out of the story. Setting matters, as does the furniture, and the outfits. We all want to be swept away–that’s part of the attraction of the past.

5-History. Technically, you don’t need too much of this in a Regency (you can go for costume drama). But you do need some basics, otherwise why bother setting a book in this era. And if you’re writing a Regency mystery, or historical fiction, you need more than the basics. But part of this is why you pick the Regency to start with–it helps a lot if you’re more than a little in love with the era.

6-Details. The right details can make or break a story, and this is where you want to find fresh details (and not just repeat what other authors may have done in their stories). The search for these details can be like a treasure hunt–the one trick here is not to stuff every little detail you find into one story.

7-Adventure. We read about the past because it is past–nicely, safely so. But it’s also a time with a touch of adventure, with swords and duels, war and spies, candlelight and balls. It’s a place for the reader to move into and have a short adventure into that past. The adventure may be as simple as an elopement or as complex as an unsolved murder, but a touch of this always helps any Regency.

 

Getting More From Online Workshops

writingdeskI’ve been teaching (and taking) online workshops for a number of years now, and they’re always tricky beasts. The instructor can’t see the students’ eyes, so there’s no using glazed stares to realize the students aren’t getting it, and no seeing the spark of understanding. There’s also a slow down in communication–questions have to be written out and answers written out, and back-and-forth becomes a bit harder. And witting comments can sometimes come across as snide insults (from the instructor or the student). So how do you deal with this and still do an online workshop and get something out of it?

Here’s my recommendations. (And since I’m doing three back-to-back workshops this summer–Plotting from Character July 8 – Aug 4, Writing the Regency Set Novel July 22 -  Aug 18, and a Storytelling Workshop Aug 5 – Sept 1–I hope folks will take notes of what can improve your workshop experience.)

1-Interact–a lot! The more you put into the workshop, the more you’ll get out of it. I’ve “lurked” in some online workshops and I never found them as useful as when I participated. This can be with questions or assignments.

2-Offer feedback. This can be praise or suggestions for what might work for you better. Be polite, but do offer feedback (this is so helpful to me when someone suggests a new idea).

3-Ask your questions. Even if it seems dumb or basic, ask anyway. You might also help someone who is just too shy to ask.

4-Make mistakes. Forget the idea of “doing it right.” Every workshop someone will post the phrase, “I hope I did this right.” It drives me nuts. First because there is no “right” in writing–there’s what works, or doesn’t work. And second because if you were pro and slick at everything why would you need (or take) this workshop? Go in with the mind-set that you’re there to screw up and make mistakes–you’ll learn more from mistakes.

5-Use emoticons. Semi-colon, close parenthesis are great to add a smiley face :) to let folks know you intend to be funny here. For a long time I didn’t use them and I think I ended up with a lot of folks not understanding my humor to try and make a point.

6-Relax and have fun. Workshops should be a safe place. You don’t have to impress anyone there. It’s a place to take risks and try new things and see what works and what doesn’t work.

7-Remember you are getting one person’s point of view. Every writer has a different process. It’s great to find out what works for someone else–and often those tips can help your own process. But not everything that works for someone else will work for you. That doesn’t mean you’re a failure–or that you are not a writer. It means your process is different. Try new things out. But discard what doesn’t work for you. Run everything past the filter of your own writing process and style.

Above all, use the workshop as a reason to get yourself writing! Remind yourself you paid money for that class, so use that as your reason (excuse) to get up early or stay up late to read the lessons and do the writing assignments. Make your writing your first priority, at least for the duration of the workshop!

The Fear Factor

“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. . . . Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.” – Stephen King

Up in a balloonFear shows up in a number of ways, and hits each of use differently. It shows up a lot in the only workshops I teach.

It shows up in excuses (I’m too old, I’m too busy, I won’t try this because I don’t understand).

It shows up in procrastination (I’ll catch up later, I’ll try the exercises after the class on my own).

It shows up in perfectionism (I’m awful because I didn’t do this right, I failed, I suck, I’m stupid).

It shows up in a refusal to try new things (I’ll post this old story bit instead of writing anything new).

And I can see it every single time. Then we have the brave souls who face their fears dive in and fall on their faces. I applaud that. Because they’re learning. Which is the point of a workshop. It’s supposed to be a safe place to try things, to experiment. Instead, I see so many writers who are afraid to spread their wings—as if one mistake is going to be a disaster.

Folks—we learn from our mistakes. Go out and make more of them.

I am amazed how many people resist this idea. They want to be praised. That’s not good. That’s not going to help you learn. What does help is the rewrite and the revision and the experiment. Try something new. Write a scene. Then rewrite it from a different viewpoint. Just because. Throw stuff out there. Try something in first person if you’ve never done first person. Or in present tense. Just try it out. Tell yourself that:

a) it doesn’t have to be perfect

b) it doesn’t have to be good

c) it can actually be really awful

Just let it be what it’s going to be. Then read (aloud so you catch what you’ve really done) what you’ve written and look at what you can learn from what you did. Look at what works. Look at what doesn’t work. Keep the good stuff.

This happens when I cook, too. I’ve made some awful things—I once put too much baking soda into my gingersnaps. They came out Alka-seltzer hockey pucks—hard and fizzy if you chewed on one. Great for your digestion (if you needed it), and not something anyone would eat (not even the horses would go for them, despite the sugar on the outside). Learned a great lesson on baking soda from that one.

Same applies to my writing. I’ve written awful scenes (and I expect I’ll keep doing that). Sometimes the dialogue clunks like a flat tire. I’ve tried first person, third, second, even. Present tense, past tense—it’s all about stretching those writing muscles and trying new things. You don’t know what really works until you’ve tried it.

I’ve written books that are not for everyone (go read the reviews)—sometimes folks hate my character (hey, it’s better than indifference). And I worry about all of it. I still get the nerves going and I still wonder if I’m any good at any this—no amount of praise ever takes that worry away.

The point of this is you’re never going to get over your fear.

Live with it. Know it’s there. Let it flow into you and out of you again and go write anyway. Use the fear—let it keep you sharp. Let go, too, of the affectations that King talks about—which means get out of the way of your characters. Let them tell you their story and stop pushing them into plots that don’t work. Stop being so damn writerly and just get clean words onto the page.

And if you need more good words from Stephen King buy his book On Writing: Memoirs of a Writing Career. Or read more at: http://grammar.about.com/od/advicefromthepros/a/StephenKingWriting.htm

(First published at https://writersinthestorm.wordpress.com.)

Writing Workshops

I’m just starting up the Writing the Regency Workshop online for Outreach International Romance Writers, which works well since I just gave a talk on this at RWA National Conference, too. This had me thinking about what is it that folks need to get right, and I also asked the RWA Beau Monde Chapter about what they thought. Here’s the short form answer:

1 – Basic History. Even if you’re doing alternate history, you need to know some of the basics because this informs the characters–people live within the context of their world, and it helps to know what events formed their parents and grandparents and their family.

2 – —Titles & Class System.  Gossford Park is great to help us Yanks get an idea of a nuanced class system–Americans are used to rich/poor and something in between and that’s about it. Getting this right can be tricky since titles evolved over more than a thousand years, but it’s important–nothing can throw a reader out of a story faster than a title that makes no sense.
—3 – British Sensibilities.  BBC America is a big help here, so is being an anglophile.  This one is another tricky spot since you can end up with characters who don’t seem as if they’ve ever been near England.
—4. Legal Stuff.  If your story premise has anything to do with inheritance or marriage laws, it’s time to break out the research books and make sure the basic premise works. If that doesn’t work the whole story can fall apart on you.
5. —Society’s Attitudes. The 1800′s are similar to our world, but it’s also a different era–and while your characters may rebel against this, they should know what they’re up against. Folks back then knew about a woman’s place, and a man’s place, and that there were no teenagers, just adults and children. All of this can affect your characters.

6. Social/Personal Constraints. Honor mattered, so did duty–and while some folks might shrug those off, others did not and it said a lot about a character who did not take these to heart. This is also the stuff that makes for great conflict so it’s wonderful meat for a writer.

Now, of course, there’s lots more to know–but those are the big ones. We’ll get into the rest in the workshop.

Writing the Regency Novel

I’m giving a workshop at the RWA National Conference this July (just got the times and it’s Friday at 4:30 – 5:30, so early enough to enjoy dinner Friday). And part of what I’ll cover is why set your fiction in the Regency era?

For all that it covers an amazingly short time span (1811 to 1820) the English Regency has a remarkable allure.  Mystery writers, including the great John Dixon Carr, have chosen this era for a setting, and the Napoleonic wars offer the setting for the popular Sharp series by Bernard Cornwell and the Aubrey/Maturin Series by Patrick O’Brian’s. In Romance writing, the Regency is perhaps the most popular historical time period, and has launched many now best selling authors. But why should such a short time span–nine years really, although the Regency influence extends over perhaps thirty years–prove so magnetic?

Answering that question could be the target of a scholarly book, but space is limited–and time fleeting–so perhaps the best course is to emulate the Regency in brevity, as well as in style, and carry things off with a high hand. Of all time periods, the allure of the Regency might well be that it was a time when style triumphed. The era sparkles with wit, gallantry and elegance in fashion, furnishings and frivolity. It was an era in which a man with no background–Beau Brummell–could become the leader of male society just because of his style and wit. At the same time, Turner was painting and shocking the world with his art, while Byron was writing and shocking society with his life. Charles Fox was being brilliant in politics, and shocking just about anyone who met him. And Sheridan was writing plays that still amuse with their wit.

It was a brilliant era. And an era of the extremes of rich and poor, and yet it was an era in which if you were good at something, you could gain fame and fortune. The prizefighter John Jackson (1769-1845) won fame with his fists, but went on make his real fortune by teaching boxing lessons to the cream of society. For a gentleman to say he got the chance to spare with Jackson was considered a social coup. The status given Jackson makes him perhaps a forerunner of the modern sports superstars. In fact, the Regency could be said to be a time when much of our modern sensibility of admiring skill–rather than inherited status–seemed to take hold.

A full answer to the appeal of the Regency era, however, must look at not just the actual time period itself, it must take into account the fiction and films which have so greatly shaped our impressions.

All this and some details of the history that you have to get right (and what can you fuss with or make up) will be covered in the workshop. But it’s worth noting that the Regency’s reflections to our era cannot be overlooked: change, uncertainty, but still the need for daily routine, and the relief of pleasure. The royal scandals filled newspapers with sympathy for the Princess of Wales, and this left the Prince unhappy about this. There were opportunities for those with vision, and at the same time great risk for those so unwise as to invest in the wrong future.  All of these qualities resonate with us. However, the Regency is blessedly in the past.  It is a world slipped into the past and therefore one with a safely known future.  Somehow these people who lived then found a way to happiness, to prosperity, to joy, to survival.  And what more comforting message can a reader find?

A Sexy Synopsis

The synopsis–we all hate writing them, and yet, it’s one of the most valuable tools a writer has. And it’s not just about condensing the story–for me, it’s really more about if I have an idea for where the story is going and  a clear handle on the conflict. It’s a place where flaws shine big and bright, which means I need to fix them in the book, too. But, oh, have I written some very, very bad synopses.

What set me on the course to learn how to do a better job of this was my first synopsis. Like many writers, I just wrote. And then I heard about RWA’s Golden Heart contest. Ah, ha–a way to get to an editor faster than through a slush pile. But I needed a synopsis to enter. So I wrote one–twenty pages of details about the book. Thank heavens, this was a time when you still got feedback from this contest, and some kind soul pointed out I really needed to condense my synopsis and do a better job of just telling the story.

With that in mind–and now as a member of RWA–I set about to learn how to do a better job.

One of the best tools came to me through Dwight Swain’s book Techniques of the Selling Writer.

I still reference his book when it comes to writing a new synopsis. His advice is to boil your story down to some immediate, big picture information.

  • Who is the main character, and what is the situation this character is coming out of?
  • What does this person want?
  • What’s keeping this person from his or her goal?
  • What are the consequences–the bad outcome–from this character not getting his or her goal?

This was great. This allowed me to write an opening paragraph for each of my characters in the romance. The next year I went on to final in the Golden Heart–but I still wasn’t satisfied. Yes, it was progress, but it wasn’t a win and it wasn’t a sale (my ultimate goal). So I kept at it. And I kept learning. I’d go listen to anyone talk about writing a synopsis, and gradually I learned I not only needed a good synopsis, but I could use that to show me if I had weaknesses in my book (if the middle of a synopsis is vague, the real problem is probably not enough conflict to keep the story going).

I was happy with the book, and the synopsis I wrote for A Compromising Situation–and the book won the Golden Heart and sold. That was a huge win.

A Compromising Situation

The synopsis then turned into a sales tool for me. From it, I was able to pick out possible cover scenes–because I knew by then that you needed a couple of key scenes in the synopsis to show the relationship developing. I was able to help focus cover copy, and also to write promotional copy that I could use on my website.

Now I realized just how powerful–although still painful–a synopsis could be.

Here’s the opening for that synopsis for A Compromising Situation.

After breaking her heart once years ago, MAEVE MIDDEN now only longs to find a position as a governess in a house full of young girls, where she might have a permanent position and a place to belong.  But can she settled for that after she falls in love with COLONEL ANDREW RICHARD DERHURST, now LORD ROTHE, a man far above her in station, a man who is supposed to be her employer, a man who may not be able to return her love?

And here’s how it fits into Dwight Swain’s advice:

Who is the main character, and what is the situation this character is coming out of:

  • After breaking her heart once years ago, MAEVE MIDDEN

What are the consequences–the bad outcome–from this character not getting his or her goal?

  • …now only longs to find a position as a governess in a house full of young girls, where she might have a permanent position and a place to belong.

What’s keeping this person from his or her goal?

  • …far above her in station, a man who is supposed to be her employer

What are the consequences–the bad outcome–from this character not getting his or her goal?

  • …who may not be able to return her love?

Notice the consequences are not world-ending. This was (and is) a story about people and so the consequences are deeply personal–and, for Maeve, a woman who has experienced rejection before, this type of rejection is deeply wounding. This would be a loss that would scar her.

By this point I’d learned how to stick to the main plot points in the synopsis, to focus on the conflict and the relationship since this was a romance, and I’d learned how to be very picky about each word used in the synopsis so that it was crafted to convey a tone and feel for the story (there’s no sense writing an action-packed synopsis if your story is a character study).

And I’m still learning.

Which is also why I’m still giving the synopsis workshop. Except these days a synopsis has to be even shorter, and even more able to catch someone’s interest. Which is why I call this a “sexy synopsis“. It’s got to be like a little black dress. It’s got to be something you can wear anywhere, and that’s useful as well as sexy–but it has to cover all the vital parts.

Just like the perfect little black dress,  a synopsis can take a lot of work to find all the right parts–the parts that flatter as well as fit. So if you, too struggle with your synopsis, head on over to the workshop at ORIW to pick up more tips and help for learning to get a synopsis that’s more than just something you need for writing contests and queries.

Showing More, or Lessons from Your Favorite Actors

The old adage given to most young (and I mean young in writing years, not in age) is: “show don’t tell.” Good advice, and while there’s a place for story telling in any story, showing is important enough to get top billing. You can see this in action in any decent film with good actors at work.

Actors have to show more–telling in a movie gets you boring exposition or, even worse, the deadly monologue from the bad guy as he explains evSilent Film Becky Sharperything. When you’re working in a visual media, telling ends up being talking heads. So movies have to show more–and actors have to put their characters into action. But novelists get to cheat.

In a novel or short story, the writer can just put down the words: “He was angrier than he’d ever been in his life.” Not great prose, but the reader gets the idea. Give that to any actor, and you’d end up with an actor struggling how to show that on the screen. So that’s one way a novelist can switch over from telling too much to showing more–imagine your favorite actor in the role.

What would an actor do to show this character’s anger on the screen? Would his jaw tense, his fists bunch? Would he hit something? Or would he smile, pull out a gun and shoot someone. Would he turn away, and turn back with a punch? Or would he offer up a cutting remark? It’s those little bits of business that an actor uses to better show their character in action–to put the characterization on screen. And it’s just those bits of business that a novelist needs to create to make a character come to life on the page.

Years ago, I took some improve classes. They were fun, and I was going out with an actor–and it was a great way to meet other cute guys, too. It was also great to get my head wrapped around thinking like a character, instead of myself. I had to start thinking about “how do I get this emotion across” or “how do I show this better?”  And that’s a great exercise for a writer, too–to act out your scenes.

Silent Film Star Theda BaraAnd this is where I study my favorite actors, too. How is he underplaying this scene–getting everything across with just a twitch, or a tilt of the head, or a slump of the shoulders? How is she making me see and feel the sorrow her character is dealing with–and not just with tears? I look for the honest performances–the ones that seem effortless, but which have had all the hard word done before the actors show up in front of the camera. I look for the actors who may know how to overplay a scene for farce, but who also know how to pull back and let their characters listen and react in ways that help me start to understand their characters.

All of this has gone into the Show and Tell workshop I teach–and which I’m giving for OCC RWA chapter this September (starting Sept 11). And it does seem to be the show part that most folks are working on, and which gives them the most trouble.

But narrative is a part of any story or novel–the narrative is often the stitching that holds all those great “showing” scenes together (which is why the workshop is called Show AND Tell).

Regency Actor GarrickHowever, next time you’re watching a favorite TV show or movie, or at the next play you go to, start to watch like a writer (or another actor, or the director). Look for those little bits of business that put a twist on the dialogue, or which reveal a ton about what the character is thinking or feeling. Would you have done something differently in that scene? Chosen to play it another way? Study the pros–and then write a scene that would earn the undying love of your favorite actor if you were to give them such a juicy, emotional scene with so much character hidden in the actions that show us the real person.

What’s My Motivation?

No wonder most folks think they suck at plotting—they do. Lately, I’ve read implausible plots, overly melodramatic plots only missing the villain twirling a mustache, plots so tangled there’s no way you can get the synopsis to five pages and have it make sense, and complex plots where the romance (and the character) are lost in the action. How do you fix this? It all goes back to character.

To quote Robert Mckee “character is story and story is character.” A good story comes from good characters—folks with clear goals and motivations that make sense. The plot then is actually pretty easy—you throw things (events) at those characters that will hit on their weak points (take them off track from their goals) and hit their buttons for their internal issues. The plot tests the characters you’ve created.

If you haven’t done the homework of creating strong characters to start—that means well developed characters—those story people are going to be feel pushed through a contrived plot. This will give you implausible, melodramatic, tangled, and/or too complex plots. This is because you’ll be using action to make up for weak conflict due to weak characterization.

I’m going to be doing my Plotting from Character workshop again soon, and from what I’ve seen in contests lately, a lot of folks could use this. If you start with character, plotting gets a lot easier. And characters need a few things to work well in fiction:

Goals – everybody wants something. Even the character who wants for nothing will still have something that he or she wants and needs – a story is about a character whose life is pushed out of balance. And the goal for that character is to fix this imbalance—to get back to a happy place. Goals work best when they are a specific thing that represents achieving that goal—which is how you end up with things like the Maltese Falcon (it’s something tangible folks can be after—having it in your hands means goal achieved).

Negative goals (to avoid some event), aren’t so great unless you also have a clock running—as in stopping the bomb from blowing up becomes a positive due to that ticker. But something like avoiding marriage is a little harder—since it’s a negative, the reader doesn’t knows when the character has achieved this goal (Is he married now? Married now? How about now?) See—that’s not going to give you a tangible “he made it” goal.

Motivations – to go along with the goals, fictional character needs good reasons for their actions, for their goals. Fictional folks have to make a lot more sense than real people.  And motivations work best if deeply rooted in the characters psyche—the deeper, the better. As in, a motivation that comes from a key, formative event the character’s childhood is much stronger than a motivation that comes from a recent event. For example, a character that needs to find a new job because she’s been fired—that’s motivation, yes. It matters, but it hasn’t been made personal. A deeper motivation comes from that character having been raised poor. So what if she saw her mother crying over a broken down car when she was ten and vowed never to be that person. Now, she’s got strong motivation to get that new job. The motivation has been made personal. And notice how you also want to tie this motivation to a key moment in that character’s life so it will resonate—and you can use that scene then in the story.

Internal Needs – this relates to motivations, and also to goals. Stories work best with lots of conflict, so you want to develop characters with strong internal needs. And hopefully these are going to be in conflict with their goals. So the character who is out of work and needs that job—and has motivations from being poor in childhood—if she’s got the internal need for respect, and she’s offered a menial job with no respect, now her external goals and internal needs are in conflict. She wants the job (external), but she needs respect (and won’t get it from the job). So what does she give up? She’s in conflict, which is always good stuff for fiction. How the character then resolves this conflict becomes part of your plot—and reveals this character’s true colors.

Motivations – just as with goals, internal needs have to be motivated. (Remember, fictional folks have to make sense—much more so than real people.) So this character needs an event in his or her formative years that leaves him or her with deep reasons to have these internal needs. And, again, you want to tie this motivation to deep, core issues—could be the character is compensating for a handicap, and respect isn’t just about being respected.

Characters should have such strong goals and needs that the character (and the reader) should feel as if that character’s “self” will be destroyed by giving up either the goal or need.

And then you throw in the romance (if you’re writing a romance).

Once you create your main character, now you design the love interest, and all the other characters. The love interest is someone with a conflicting goal, conflicting internal needs, and motivations that are just as deep and strong. In other words, this is both the ideal person, and the totally wrong person. This is a soul mate (and I use the definition that soul mates are those people who push all your buttons—they make you grow).

You develop goals and motivations for all characters—in other words, you never have a bad guy who is bad just because he is bad. And you look to develop goals and motivations that go beyond clichés. (Trust me, your first few ideas for goals and motivations will be cliché—that’s why they pop up so readily. As Orson Scott Card advises in Characters & Viewpoint, dig deeper.)

And, very important, you want the story’s antagonist—the person up against the protagonist—to have conflicting goals. Only the protagonist or the antagonist should be able to win the day (and for more on this, study up on Bob Mayer’s talk on Conflict Lock – he’s bestselling author and he knows what he’s talking about).

Theme – this is what helps you with all this goals and motivations stuff, and with all the secondary characters you need. If your theme is about how love heals, you’re going to need hurt characters, and folks who’ve never been hurt by love. You’ll need folks who haven’t been heeled by love—and those who have. You need all sides of the theme. And the main character is going to be at the center of that theme.

Now, with characters and theme shaping up, you can plot. Meaning you look at your main character and you keep asking—What is the worst thing that could happen to this person? You ask this many, many times and jot down the answers. What could prevent this person from getting his or her goal? What would force this person to give up his or her goal? What would push this person to the extreme to get his or her goal or meet his or her needs? Keep pushing, keep making it worse. (Action movies are great to take apart for this sort of stuff—look at Indiana Jones, and how his life just gets harder and harder and harder.)

These ideas for obstacles that the main character must overcome can then be shaped into the main turning point actions—the plot that will test your character. It will also test the main character’s relationship—the romance. You put just as much strain there as you do for any action.

As you do this, you’re coming up with events to throw at your character, but this is not the time to decide yet how your character will act—that come from knowing your character and putting your character into these bad, bad situations. In other words, you set up the obstacle course—your characters decide how to run that course. The story comes out of the characters dealing with worst case scenarios.

Two things about this—first, you need to structure the action so that tension and conflict rises. In a good story, things go from bad to worse—not the other way around. Second, you’ll develop subplots around the main plot, but it’s the main action line—the main character’s driving goal, motivations for this, and obstacles (or turning points)—that should be the main focus. The main story arc must have the main character at its heart—the main character must resolve the story (or fail at this, which makes it a tragedy). And this should be the last set of story points to be resolved. (Subplots can start sooner than the main story, but should be all wrapped up before the main story is in order to create the most satisfying story.)

Notice how all this plotting now comes out of the characters that you set up. Your characters give you your theme, they start to suggest events you’ll need in the story to block them from their goals. For example, you know the woman who need a new job is going to start off applying for new positions—and maybe that’s not so exciting, so you start her where she’s just been turned down for the 100th time. But she starts off trying to do this the easy way—that’s so your story can build and get worse. You know you’re going to make things worse for her—she’s going to be face with choices. Maybe even asked to commit murder in order to make a million dollars. But she’s not going to be asked that right away—that’s going to come after she’s been tested, and tested, and tested more. That’s going to come when she’s more than desperate. That’s going to come when she has so few other choices this extreme one seems a viable option.

Once you get the ideas and characters down in writing, you’re going to check in with a writer friend. You’re going to look at this from all angles to see if it makes sense. If it’s plausible. If every character is well motivated with strong goals. You do this because it’s too easy to think you’ve got it all buttoned up when you don’t. And you’ll find you have stuff worked out in your head that doesn’t make it onto the page—you want to always make sure to get the story on the page as close to what’s in your head.

What this means it that you won’t be coming up with cliché conflict (the heroine is kidnapped and the hero saves her)—conflict will be very specific to the characters you’ve created because it will be deeply rooted in individual pasts. You won’t be stuck with how to escalate conflict and tension, because you’ve got goals and you’re going to take away all the easy ways for that character to reach his or her goals. You won’t be caught with a romance that relies on misunderstandings or mistaken assumptions to create problems in the relationship—problems will be built into your characters.

Just keep in mind—it’s all about the characters.