Tag Archives: Elements of the story

#amwriting: the external eye

EDWAERT_COLLIER_VANITAS_STILL_LIFEMore people than ever are writing books. In today’s marketplace, every author must find ways to get his/her manuscript in as perfect shape as they can before they begin shopping for agents and publishers.  At every seminar I attend this one fact is stressed most firmly.

What this tells me is that agents and editors at the large publishing houses see so many submissions on a daily basis that they don’t have time to do more than look at the first page or two before deciding to look further. If it is not formatted to industry standard, or if it is a rough draft, it goes into the trash, based on that quick glance. (See my post, How to Format Your Manuscript for Submission.)

Therefore, we make our manuscript as good as we can before we send it off to an agent or a large publishing house, or take the plunge and self publish. To this end, during the second or third draft we may consult what has become known as the beta-reader, volunteers who read our work, knowing it is in its infancy.

You can find many good freelance editors who offer this service, but I do recommend you ask them what it involves and what kind of report you will get back before you commit your funds to it. I can also recommend Critters Writers Workshop, a free author-driven service. Or you may have a spouse or good friends who will help you with this.

A word to the wise: Editors and other authors make terrible beta readers, because it is their nature to dismantle the manuscript and tell you how to fix it.

But what if you don’t have the luxury of a reader who both likes the kind of work you write and who also is willing to spend the time reading your work?  Consider asking them to read a selected chapter, instead of asking them to read the whole thing.

I suggest this, because reading the rough-draft of an entire novel is a huge commitment to ask of someone. It is not reading for pleasure, although we hope they enjoy it.

Give your reader this list of questions, and ask him/her to please answer them, explaining that you can’t continue until you hear back from them:

  1. Were the characters likable?
  2. Where did the plot bog down and get boring?
  3. Were there any places that were confusing?
  4. What did the reader like? What did they dislike?
  5. What do they think will happen next?

You need a reader who reads your genre, reads fairly quickly, and won’t devolve into an editor.  Questions two and three are the most important: Where is it boring, and where is it confusing? Having it read in small chunks will give you a good idea of what you need to do with the ms as a whole.

I usually send my  manuscripts  in short pieces to my trusted crew when I need to know if I am on the right track. But the final ms in the Tower of Bones series is different. I hope to have it ready for publication by spring, so I have taken the plunge and sent Valley of Sorrows to David Cantrell for a structural edit. Dave and I have worked together on many projects.

Structural editing is digging deep. This is a tricky novel, because it tells two separate but entwined story-lines, Edwin’s and Lourdan’s, so I need an interested, but surgical, eye on it before I begin the final revisions. Dave has read Tower of Bones, and knows the world, the magic system, and the characters.

I hear you asking, what if he asks me to cut something I think is an integral part of the piece? I will have to decide what to do after I:

  • Re-read the section in question: Is it garbled? Was my intention not clear when I wrote it?
  • Look at the section in the context of the entire manuscript: Will losing this section change the story in a way that I don’t want? Or will cutting that section allow a more important point to shine?
  • Decide how married I am to that plot point. Sometimes divorce is the only answer.

In my own work I have discovered that if a passage seems flawed, but I can’t identify what is wrong with it, my eye wants to skip it.

But another person will see the flaw, and they will show me what is wrong there. That is why I rely on the external eye, and work with a structural editor.

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Elements of the story: Conversation, gestures, and actions

My Writing LifeCreating memorable characters is the goal of all authors–after all, who would read a book if the characters are bland or uninteresting? But what is it that makes a character interesting? Is it just witty conversation?

That is surely a part of it, but think about the people you know. Picture the ones you like to spend time with. What is it about them that captured your interest in the first place? I’m not talking lovers here, so set the intangible, irresistible chemistry aside, for the moment.

Was it their gestures, their mannerisms that intrigued you before you got to know them? Something about them caught your interest, and you found a kindred spirit.

That is what we want to do for our characters.

And no, I don’t mean for you to inject an excess of flushing, smirking, eye-rolling, or shrugging into your story.

I want you to think natural: People don’t only use their faces to communicate. People’s bodies and faces are in constant motion, and that is how you want your characters to seem. You can do this in small, unobtrusive ways by visualizing your conversations and the character’s who are having them.

Consider this excerpt from one of my works in progress, Billy Ninefingers. These excerpts are from my rough draft and will be tightened up, but I am using them as the examples today.  This tale takes place in the world of Waldeyn, and Huw the Bard figures prominently in it, although not in the opening chapters. This conversation happens just before the first plot point. It is the calm before the storm and reveals some of Billy’s personality and his sidekick, Alan Le Clerk. It shows them as mercenaries and as people, and also shows their environment.

Conversation 1 Billy and Alan

 

Billy and Alan are clearly friends. It’s a sunny day and they are obviously wearing armor. Their conversation tells us they’re concerned about the trail they are on. Through that, we learn that world they live in is dangerous and people must hire guards to protect them from more than just highwaymen if they choose to travel. The three paragraphs of that conversation are all the reader needs to know about the work they do and the trail they are riding. That scene ends and the next scene  takes them and the merchant they are guarding to their destination, the dark, dirty town of Somber Flats.

That is where we come to the lead-up to the inciting action. This is where we meet Bastard John, and it is one of the few times he will be in such a place that we can see who he is. The second plot point makes no sense unless the reader knows that the Bastard is an obnoxious bastard, and proud to be so-named.

Conversation 2 Billy and Bastard John

 

We know the Bastard is a bastard when he is drunk. We know he is capable of acting on any thought that passes through his alcohol-soaked mind. We also see that Billy has a sense of fair-play.

Picture your conversations as if your were there with them. People miss a few beats when they are speaking. They gather their thoughts and  speak in short bursts. They shift in their chair, or stand up, or wave a hand to emphasize a point. They turn, and they sometimes mumble.

And it is important to remember that every character’s mannerisms are individual, uniquely theirs. You, as the author visualize them this way, but it is your task to commit their personalities to paper, and that is where many authors fail.

Through physical actions and conversational interactions we make our characters knowable and likable (or not, as the case may be). Their actions also help to show the environment they exist in. Within the scene of the conversation, you have the opportunity to convey the setting and the mood of your characters.

Claude Monet Painting in his Garden, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Claude Monet Painting in his Garden, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We use our words sparingly and with intention, painting the setting as if we were artists in the style of the  impressionists. With color and small hints a good author gives the impression of detail, offering the reader a framework for  to hang his imagination on.

When characters act and speak naturally within a clearly visualized impression of a setting, we as readers,  suspend our disbelief and become immersed in the story.

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Elements of the story: the structure of the scene

Most authors understand that there is an arc to the overall novel–the Story Arc  which  consists of :

  1. Exposition, where we introduce our characters and their situation.
  2. Rising Action, where we introduce complications for the protagonist
  3. Climax, the high point of the action, the turning point of the narrative
  4. Falling Action, the regrouping and unfolding of events that will lead to the conclusion
  5. Resolution, in which the problems encountered by the protagonist are resolved, providing closure for the reader.

The Arc of the Story

Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge says, “In a story arc, a character undergoes substantial growth or change, and it ends with the denouement in the last third or quarter of a story: The end of a narrative arc is the denouement. It shows what happens as a result of all the conflict that the characters have gone through.”

However, as we’ve discussed before, within the larger story there are many smaller stories, “scenes” created with this same arc, that come together to create this all-encompassing drama. The way these scenes unfold is what keeps our readers interested and invested in the narrative until the end of the book.

Last July, at the 2014 PNWA Conference, in his seminar on the arc of the scene, author Scott Driscoll explained how the main difference in the arc of the scene vs the overall arc of the novel is this: the end of the scene is the platform from which your next scene launches.

Once he explained it in that fashion, I understood it. This means each scene begins at a slightly higher point on the novel’s Narrative Arc than the previous scene did, pushing the narrative toward the climax.

Milano_Duomo_1856

Milano Duomo 1856 via Wikipedia

In my mind, this means that novels are like Gothic Cathedrals–smaller arcs of stone support the larger arcs until you have a structure that can withstand the centuries. Each small arc of the scene builds and strengthens the overall arc of the greater novel.

These small arcs of action and reaction ensure the plot doesn’t stall and create tension that drives the story to the four cardinal points of the story arc.

Conversations are scenes that form a fundamental part of the overall arc: they begin, rise to a peak, and ebb. They inform us of something we must know to understand the forthcoming action. Conversations propel the story forward to the next scene. A good conversation is about something and builds toward something. J.R.R. Tolkien said “Dialogue has a premise or premises and moves toward a conclusion of some sort. If nothing comes of it, the dialogue is a waste of the reader’s time.”

That is true of every aspect of a scene: action, conversation, reaction. A scene that is is all action can be confusing if it has no context. A properly placed conversation can give the reader the context needed to understand the reason for the action.

A certain amount of context can arrive through internal monologue, but it must be done in such a way that the reader is not faced with a wall of italics. There are two problems with long mental conversations:

  1. italics are daunting in large chunks.
  2. it can become a thinly veiled cover for an info dump.

Remember, in novels, not everyone in the scene knows everything, so their thoughts won’t be that critical, and are therefore not needed. Plot points are driven by the the characters who do have the critical knowledge. The fact that some characters are working with limited information is what creates the tension.

Consider the concept of  asymmetric information–a situation in which one party in a business transaction has more or superior information compared to another. In business, one individual’s pursuit of pure self-interest can prevent other companies from effectively entering and competing in an industry or market–he has critical knowledge they don’t have, and effectively eliminates his competition. He has a monopoly.

That monopoly of information creates a crisis. In the novel, a conversation scene should be driven by the fact that one person has knowledge the others need. Idle conversation will bore your reader to tears.

We deploy info, but we don’t dump it in one large chunk though–the reader must find it out at the same time as the other characters, over the first 3/4 of the novel.

We do this in small arcs that combine to form the overall story arc. Events occur, linked by conversations, forming small arcs (scenes) that support the structure of the novel.

The Story Arc

 

By creating small arcs in the form of scenes, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, a pulse which never completely falls but is always increasing toward the high point of the book, giving the reader small rewards of emotional satisfaction along the way to the big event, the grand climax.

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Elements of the Story: Allegory

allegory

Proper use of the allegory is an integral tool in the author’s toolbox. An allegory is a metaphor, but it is not merely symbolism, although it is definitely symbolic. Authors, painters, and musicians can convey hidden meanings and discuss complex moral issues through the device of allegory.

Literary Devices.net describes  Edmund Spenser’s “Faerie Queen,” a moral and religious allegory, in this way:

RAK9388 Faun and the Fairies, c.1834 by Maclise, Daniel

Faun and the Fairies, c.1834 by Daniel Maclise

“The good characters of book stand for the various virtues, while the bad characters represent vices. “The Red-Cross Knight” represents holiness while “Lady Una” represents truth, wisdom and goodness. Her parents symbolize the human race. The “Dragon” which has imprisoned them stands for evil. The mission of holiness is to help the truth, fight evil, and thus regain its rightful place in the hearts of human beings. “The Red-Cross Knight” in this poem also represents the reformed church of England fighting against the “Dragon” which stands for the Papacy or the Catholic Church.”

The Faerie Queene is an allegorical romance, and contains several levels of allegory, including praise for Queen Elizabeth I, who was Spenser’s great patron.

Elizabeth-I-Allegorical- painting  c.1610  by Unknown. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Allegory of Queen Elizabeth (c. 1610), with Father Time at her right and Death looking over her left shoulder. Two cherubs are removing the weighty crown from her tired head. Artist unknown.

Allegory is not always something that works well if you desire commercial success with your novels. This is because allegory is the sort of thing that only becomes apparent on further contemplation by the reader–which many casual readers don’t usually want to do and modern action-based literature does not encourage. A great many of today’s readers are action-junkies, so if you choose to present a moral concept through the use of allegory, you must take a page from Stephen King‘s work and  wrap it up in such a way that the average reader will enjoy it for the entertainment value, while the discerning reader will look deeper and find more layers to enjoy within your work.

ClassroomSynonym.com says: “At the foundation of a well-constructed allegory are carefully crafted parallels between two separate issues. To properly analyze an allegory it’s important to identify these parallels and explain why the parallels are such strong indicators that an allegory exists. Even though “The Crucible” is literally about a witch hunt, the unfair tactics for deciding who is a witch and who isn’t parallel the claims made during the McCarthy Era with little justification other than rumor and hearsay that certain people were communists. The unfair method of designation is the parallel.”

Crafting an allegorical narrative requires planning and intention. Clarity of thought on your part is absolutely crucial if your deeper story is to become clear to the reader. I suggest you outline so that the beginning, middle and end are clear before you begin.

An effective allegory narrative will have a clear moral or lesson that will become apparent at the end of the essay. Even if it is not stated directly the message will be implicit in the final resolution. You want to be sure that the ending reflects your final thought on the subject.

  1. Use Symbolism

The allegory is the symbol of your idea. This means your narrative or poem conceals the true theme you’re symbolizing. In other words, you are writing a cover story that will contain the primary one.

  1. Planning Your Characters Is Essential

Each character in an allegory represents an underlying element to your theme. Because the reader is expected to interpret the whole story and find what it means, no character can be introduced that does not directly pertain to and represent part of the underlying story. The moment you introduce a random character into it, your allegory devolves into chaos and your deeper meaning is lost.

  1. Planning Your Action is Essential

The arc of the scene becomes tricky. Every action is crucial–action must show something that pertains to the underlying theme, not just push the overlying story forward.

  1. Insert Hints Regarding the Deeper Meaning Into The Overlying Story

What that means is, you’ll be expected to leave evidence in your story for the discerning reader to grasp. Some authors have used irony, and sarcasm.  Others use large metaphors. No matter what you choose, subtle clues will guide the reader to the deeper story, and you want them to catch that underlying meaning, or you wouldn’t have written it. You don’t have to explain it baldly—readers love figuring out puzzles. But you do have to make sure a trail of breadcrumbs is there for your reader to follow.

E-how gives us this perfect, concise example: “For instance, if you want to show the damage done to the environment by humans, then the character symbolizing “everyman” could end up harming or hurting the character symbolic of the environment.”

animal farm george orwellI love allegories, and I have written a great deal of poetry that is allegorical.

I have read The Faerie Queene and The Crucible, and was challenged by both, for different reasons. One reason for that challenge in The Faerie Queen is that Spenser used many words that were considered archaic even in Elizabethan times, so you have to interpret it as you go.

Some other famous allegorical novels I have read are:

Animal Farm by George Orwell

An allegorical and dystopian novella by George Orwell, first published in England on 17 August 1945. According to the author himself, the book reflects events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and then on into the Stalin era in the Soviet Union.

The Trial by Franz Kafka  Kafka’s descriptions of law and legality are considered allegories for things other than law, but it does clearly show how law and legality sometimes operate paradoxically.

Thinner by Richard Bachman (Stephen King writing under a pen name) Horror: An allegory about what lies beyond the limits of prosperous American complacency and where the responsibilities of human actions ultimately lie.

I will just say that allegorical novels are not written to be comfortable, cozy reads. They can be quite disturbing and thought provoking, as both Animal Farm and Thinner were to me. They were extremely disturbing, if you want the truth, but that was what makes them great literature. I was in the mood for a meatier read, and they took me out of my comfort zone, showing me disturbing aspects of the world I live in. These were things I could not change on a global level, but which I could possibly change within in my own sphere, thus my horizons were widened by reading them.

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Elements of the story: calamity, villainy, and the hero’s struggle

Tolkien's art work for Hobbiton-across-the-water

Hobbiton-across-the-water, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Most writing coaches agree that the first 1/4 of your story is where you reveal your characters and show their world while introducing hints of trouble and foreshadowing the first plot point. That is the first act, so to speak.

The Calamity:

Something large and dramatic must occur right around the 1/4 mark to force the hero into action, an intense, powerful scene that changes everything. Quite often, in epic fantasy the inciting scene will be comparatively disastrous, and one that that forces the protagonist to react. He/she may be thrust into a situation that radically changes their life and forces them to make a series of difficult decisions.

  • What incident or event will occur at the first plot point?
  • What negative effect does this event have for the protagonist and his/her cohorts?
  • How are hero’s efforts countered?
A conversation with Smaug by J.R.R. Tolkien

A conversation with Smaug by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Villain:

Conflict drives the story.  We know a great story has a compelling protagonist, but in order to have a great conflict, you must also have a great adversary. The hero has an objective, and so does the villain.

  • Identify the opponent–who is he/she, and what is their power-base?
  • What is the adversary’s primary goal, and who or what are they willing to sacrifice to achieve it?
  • Do the hero and the villain know each other, or are they faceless enemies to each other?
  • How does the adversary counter the hero’s efforts?

In fantasy, and often in thrillers and horror, we have an adversary who is capable of great evil. They may have supernatural powers, and at first they seem invincible. Their position of greater power forces the hero to become stronger, craftier, to develop ways to beat the adversary at his game. A strong, compelling villain creates interest and drives the conflict. Write several pages of back-story for your own use, to make sure your antagonist is as well-developed in your mind as your protagonist is, so that he/she radiates evil and power when you put them on the page. If you know your antagonist as well as you know the hero, the enemy will be believable when you write about their actions.

Bilbo comes to the huts of the raftelves by J.R.R. Tolkien

Bilbo comes to the huts of the Raft elves by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hero’s Struggle:

Now the story is hurtling toward the midpoint, that place called the second plot-point. The characters are acting and reacting to events that are out of their control. Nothing is going right-the hero and his/her cohorts must scramble to stay alive, and now they are desperately searching for the right equipment or a crucial piece of information that will give them an edge. The struggle is the story, and at this point it looks like the hero may not get what they need in time.

Their weaknesses must be first exploited by the adversary, and then overcome and turned into strengths by the hero. The hero must grow.

During this part of the story you must build upon your characters’ strengths.  Identify the hero’s goals, and clarify why he/she must struggle to achieve them.

  • How does the hero react to being thwarted in his efforts during the second act to the midpoint?
  • How does the villain currently control the situation?
  • How does the hero react to pressure from the villain?
  • How does the struggle deepen the relationships between the hero and his cohorts/romantic interest?
  • What complications (for the hero) arise from a lack of information regarding the conflict, and how will he/she acquire that necessary information?
  • Midway between the first plot point and the second plot point, what new incident will occur to once again dramatically alter the hero’s path? This will be a turning point, drama and mayhem will ensue, perhaps offering the hero a slim chance. What stands in his/her way of realizing that small chance and what will the hero sacrifice to attain it?

the hobbitThe first half of the book can be exciting or a bore–and because I’m always growing as an author, my new rule is “don’t write boring books.”

I say this because the books I loved to read the most were crafted in such a way that we got to know the characters, saw them in their environment, and bam! Calamity happened, thrusting them down the road to Naglimund or to the Misty Mountains.

Calamity combined with villainy creates struggle, which creates opportunity for great adventure, and that is what great fantasy is all about.

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