Archive | November 2018

Kitchen Sinking

sink.jpgIt took me a long time to learn that less is more–seven books, of time, in fact. They’re still with me, hidden away in boxes. Learning curves, all of them, and for that they have a special place in my heart, but they’re also books only a mother could love. They’re more than ugly ducklings, because they never grew up into anything else. My problem was that I kept coming up with what I thought were cool ideas–lots of them. And all those ideas would get smashed into one story. It was a lot like cooking and deciding that if a little spice was good, why not throw in some of every spice in the cupboard. No wonder those stories couldn’t be rescued.

These days I advocate–and try to practice–that less is more. One good idea is great in a story–it’s a good hook and I really don’t need to complicate it into a ball of tangled yarn. That includes not overdoing it with the characters–it’s often better to trim down the number of characters. Some of the best advice I ever was given was to look to where I could put two (or three) characters together to make one far more interesting character. This keeps the technical challenges down so I can focus on making the characters and story that is there the best possible.

The main thing that taught me how to trim down–and it wasn’t just those seven manuscripts–was to learn to write a good short story. Short means you have to focus, and there isn’t room to do anything but a tight structure. With just two main characters characters, the focus became my characters–and a really good story with great description. It was lovely to write that story. I had time to breathe, to develop, to enjoy the world. And I had a huge ‘ah ha’ moment. And that is simple is much more challenging than complex.

To go back to that cooking metaphor, when you have a lovely simple dish with only three or four ingredients, those ingredients have to be of very good quality. In fiction, that means only a few well developed characters, one great idea, one strong theme, one central conflict. And the ability to throw out what’s not working–or what doesn’t fit. It’s about paring down to the core so I know what the core is in the story. And it’s about delivering really good prose. I can do that when I’m not trying to juggle too many technical challenges.

So these days I leave the too many viewpoints alone. I look to make the cast small enough to manage. I like the focus of a good story well-told, and it’s not necessary to do more.

And I’m not alone–others see these same issues of sinking a good story (or kitchen sinking it) with too much going on:

TOO MUCH PLOT–https://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/too-much-of-a-good-thing-dont-sink-a-story-with-too-much-plot

COMMON MISTAKES–http://www.foremostpress.com/authors/articles/mistakes_beginners.html

DO’s AND DON’Ts of MIXING GENRES–https://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/get-published-sell-my-work/the-dos-and-donts-of-combining-genres

GET TO KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS–https://theeditorsblog.net/2013/03/22/get-to-know-your-characters/

 

Advertisements

Plot, Character & Theme

I’m doing my Plotting from Character workshop this November and as usual before a workshop I’ve been thinking about the elements that go into the workshop–and into a story.

Too often what I see in manuscripts is that “stuff happens.” Now, that’s not bad in an action-packed story, except it can end up not being very satisfying to a reader. Ideally, the stuff that happens has something to do with the main character having tough choices that reveal the character of the character, and has even more to do with theme. So let’s start with theme.

The importance of theme is often overlooked. Theme is what the story is REALLY about–it is what is going to resonate with the reader and create a greater satisfaction. Theme is the touchstone for the writer, too. If you get lost, look to theme to get back on track. So…without theme, a story tends to wander. You might even think of theme as the core phrase or question that puts a focus into the story.

This focus helps you set up a core goal that will lead to conflict and then a crisis (or dark moment, where the protagonist must face his or her greatest weakness, and either overcome it, or not, leading to death of the old self, or in a tragic tale, the character’s death for failure.

What does this have to do with ‘plotting from character’?

With theme in place, the writer can start asking–“What characters do I need to explore this theme?” And also–“What needs to happen to face my protagonist with tough choices related to theme?” In other words, it is no longer about coming up with general stuff, but now coming up with events that will test the protagonist based around the theme, or core ideas the protagonist needs to learn.

This helps greatly in avoiding cliches, such as the heroine gets kidnapped, or the hero and heroine have a misunderstanding after the hero’s ex tells the heroine some lie about the hero. Theme and a specific character will generate a very specific story–and this brings a freshness to the story.

How do you apply all this?

Well, theme and character go hand-in-hand. It’s really hard to develop just one of these, so you have to do them together. For example, if you’re story is REALLY about how there is only fear and love, and the stronger of these will overcome the other, then you know you will need a character who has deep fears to overcome, and faces the need to overcome these in order to have a great love. You’re also going to have a character who doesn’t overcome fears, and a character who is fearless. Those combinations will let you best explore that theme. With that in place, you still need to develop the characters–starting with the protagonist–so that the characters do not come across as flat (or cardboard). And you’re going to develop tougher and tougher choices for that protagonist that fit into the main turning points of the story.

This means the action of the story is going to come from your characters–from facing characters with tougher and tougher choices. Because your characters are yours, this helps you avoid any cliche action in the story. That’s plotting from character. But it’s hard to do this without some idea of theme.

Now I will say some writers know how to do this instinctively (I’m not one of them). I also hold that if you know your theme up front, it is a lot easier to weave it into the story–not with a heavy hand, but a light touch that makes the theme (and the story) stronger. Is this easy–no, not really. But it is well worth it for the reader in that you’ll end up with a stronger story that makes the reader keep thinking about that story long after the last page has been read.