Archive | August 2017

How do you Plot?

notquietThere are as many ways to plot as there are writers. However, one thing I’ve learned over the years is that if you have an idea where you’re going, it can save you from having to do massive revisions. This is not to say you have to know every detail. Sometimes knowing too much can keep you from writing the story–you feel as if it’s already been told.

A balance between too much and too little is my happy spot. I want to know the big moments in every act. I want to know the character arc I’m building–and I want that arc to be the story arc. That’s where I see a lot of writers get into trouble–they build an action arc instead.

Now action can be great–in a mystery, or SF, or a Western. It’s not so good in a romance, which has to be character based. And character-based stories are what I prefer. But character-based stories need to be plotted from the character (not the action). This idea is what led me to my Plotting from Character workshop, which I’m teaching this September for the Contemporary Romance Writers.

handsThe idea behind the workshop is that if you plot from trying to think up actions to happen, you’re more than likely going to end up pushing your characters around as if they are paper dolls. The characters are going to come across as one-dimensional and not well motivated to take the actions demanded by the plot (because the plot is being pushed onto them, not pulled from who these characters are). The other problem is the plot is going to seem contrived–the author will have to manipulate the characters to make these actions happen. That’s going to strain the reader’s ability to believe in these characters (and their situations).

How do you avoid this? Well, that’s the point of the four-week workshop. But there are some tips:

  1. Create one main character–this is your protagonist. I know this seems obvious, but it is amazing how many writers write as if they are really unsure who is the protagonist. This is not the narrator. This is the character who changes the most in the story (and who faces the most problems).
  2. Create an external goal for the main character that is tangible, so the reader knows if the character gets it or not. (There should be consequences for failing to achieve the goal. Failure should be personally costly to the main character. And those consequences are the motivation for wanting this goal.) This will drive your action and needs to be known to the reader as soon as possible (in the first ten pages is best).
  3. Figure out the main characters’ person’s core internal need. This should be something in conflict with that character’s goal so you get automatic conflict for that character between what that person wants and needs.
  4. Make sure you have strong motivations (the why) for a character’s core need. Discard the first three or four ideas (those will be clichés).
  5. Internal motivations are strongest if tied to a specific event in the character’s formative years—create these scenes (you may use them in the story).
  6. WHY is the most important question to keep asking and answering–why would this person act this way? Why do they want that thing? Why must they do this now? Never stop asking this question.
  7. Have a theme in mind–it will help you enormously as you shape all your characters and the story. Theme helps you figure what to put in and what to leave out.
  8. Create secondary characters around the main one, with clear needs, goals and motivations for every character–and with more and more conflict.
  9. Layer in strengths and weaknesses for all your characters–develop them so characters do more than show up to advance a plot.
  10. Leave room for your characters to surprise you.

Obviously, there is more to the art of plotting from characters. But if you keep the story focused on your characters–and keep asking would this person really do this?–then your stories are going to become much stronger.

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Rushing the Story

stophurryingI’ve seen a new habit cropping up with a lot of beginning writers–they’re all rushing the story. It’s like these writers are so afraid of a slow pace that the story takes off the other direction, meaning too fast for the reader to start to care about the action and way too fast to establish the scene and the characters.

Visual media–movies and TV–have it lucky. A thirty second shot can do a lot to establish place, time and even give you a good bit of information on a character. But in any written media, all of that needs far more than a sentence or two on the page.

Now I’m not saying you have to drag the story out, or load on the details until it is overwhelming. I’m talking a balance between too much and too little. Too much information can indeed slow a story down and leave the reader turning pages to jump ahead to where there is some action and the story starts. But too little information can leave a reader confused, and leaves the setting unclear and will not help the reader into the story with vivid details.

The opening of a story–or every scene in the story–is also a vital place to set the reader into the world, the moment, and is a place to establish the tone of the story. Yes, an action packed story should start off with action. But a historical romance can slow down the pace. A cozy mystery doesn’t have to have the same grit as a police procedural. Writers need to think about the type of story being produced. And have confidence in their own skills. A writer who will take time to set up the story and the scene will better hook me because I can see at once that this writer will deliver on the promise in those opening pages. I trust this writer knows how to TELL A STORY.

And I think that is where a lot of young writers fall down. Yes, you need to know the technical stuff–how to write a sentence or craft a paragraph so it won’t trip the reader. Even more important is how to tell a story, and that means all parts of the story. This means you want to know how to craft every scene so it has an arc–a beginning, middle and end. You want to know how to weave in conflict and tension, but how to do so with also weaving in vital details.

A writer needs to use all the senses to bring the reader into the world–to make the reader smell the air, feel the chill or warmth, hear the crunch of frost or gravel. It’s about more than throwing in just a few crumbs of details–the writing must have enough brush strokes to realize the world. And that means the writer has to see, hear, smell and think about all these details.

It’s not enough to say the hallway was black and white marble with a grand staircase. I want to know if that marble is polished to a sheen and is slick to walk on, or is it dusty and cracked. I want to know if the air is stale or fresh with the scent of orange blossoms and roses from a hot house. I want to know if the character standing next to that grand staircase is shivering in the cold of a draft, or sweating from oppressive heat and wishing a window could be opened. I want to see the world through the character’s eyes and have a mood established of foreboding, or joy, or tension, or awe. I want to hear the footsteps crack against that marble, or hear the slam of a distant door and I want to be immersed in that world. All that means the writer must be just as immersed.

It is noted that the great writer Chekhov once wrote to his brother Alexander, that, “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.”’

chekhovmoon03This has come to be attributed as: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Which Checkov indeed did in one of his stories:  The dam, flooded with moonlight, showed not a bit of shade; on it, in the middle, the neck of a broken bottle glittered like a star. The two wheels of the mill, half-hidden in the shadow of an ample willow, looked angry, despondent …

So maybe it is a need for these younger writers (and by young, I mean in experience, and not so much in age), to slow down and read their own work aloud. That’s a habit I learned early on. Reading your work aloud is a great way to catch not just the mistakes, but to hear the cadence of the words and to learn where more is needed. It’s rather like having a chef who must takes the food–a lack of tasting leads to not enough of the right spices.

Or maybe it’s just a need to slow down in general. Stop trying to rush to the end. Start letting the reader–and yourself–enjoy more of the process of getting there. Let the story unfold and spend more time with the details. Do multiple drafts and look to improve every single draft with more of the right details and more vivid images and senses. Give the reader a world the reader won’t want to leave.

And think about the overall tone of the story–go for more of what you want to give the reader (more humor, or more romance, or more tension, or more whatever you want to deliver). A writer’s job is to deliver a great story–and that means the writer must first imagine it.

What Are You Showing the Reader?

faces.jpgOne of the most important things to think about when you open any story is—what are you SHOWING the reader about that character? You want to remember that what you TELL the reader doesn’t matter as much as what you SHOW.

That’s right—you can tell the reader, the protagonist is smart, handsome, pretty, kind, and all kinds of wonderful. But if you don’t show the character being those things, the reader won’t believe it.

When you’re showing the character to the reader, you describe the character’s actions and use those actions to reveal emotion and thoughts. This puts the character on the page. And this all takes more words because you have to layer actions that are expressions of emotion (one action does not clearly identify an emotion, as in trembling hands could be anger, fear, or just feeling the cold). And showing is about IMMEDIACY—it’s happening now for the character. This means you do not want lots and lots of backstory in any character’s introduction.

In a lot of manuscripts that I see, the main characters is not shown as someone that the reader can connect with and root for. The characters does things that make the character unlikable right from the start. This is a problem when you have a reader looking to read for fun–it’s like going to a dinner party and finding out there’s  no one you can connect with. You want to leave the party right away.

Showing a character in action always uses more of the five senses: touch, taste, sound, sight, smell. Anytime you want to show more, read your draft and see if you are only describing sights—then weave in as many of the five senses as you can. And think about what you are showing. Are you showing a character who is a coward, who is cold, who is unkind? Is there anything you can show that would better connect the reader to that main character?

If you want a reader to connect with a character, you want several things:

-SHOW the character in action (so the reader gets an immediate sense of who is this person).

-PRESENT the character with something the reader can either admire or understand.

-CONNECT the reader emotionally with the character—meaning it’s not about the action entirely. The reader has to understand the character’s motivations and emotions.

And if you’re writing genre fiction, take a look at Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writers. They’re going to help you get your readers attached to your characters right off.