Tag Archives: the story arc

When your novel is only a novella #amwriting

Sometimes we find that our work-in-progress is not a novel after all. We get to the finish point, and that place might be only at the 40,000-word mark (or less).

WritingCraft_short-storyIn some circles, 40,000 words is a novel, but in fantasy, it is less than half a book.

You could try to stretch the length, but why? If you have nothing of value to add to the tale, it’s better to be known for having written a strong novella than a weak novel.

I’m a wordy writer but sometimes the finished work is shorter than I’d planned–a lot shorter. Then I have to make a decision. I could choose to leave it at the length it is now and have it edited. Or I could try to expand it.

If my beta readers feel the plot lacks substance at that length, I let it rest for a while then come back to it. Then I can see where to add new scenes, events, and conversations to round out the story arc.

Other times, the story is complete, but only about half the length of a novel. Sometimes this happens in the revision process.

In the second draft of any manuscript, I weed out many words and hunt for unnecessary repetitions of information. At that stage, the manuscript will expand and contract. It hurts the novelist in my soul, but the story may only be 35,000 words long when the second draft is complete.

I do a lot of rambling when trying to visualize the story. While I usually do it in a separate document, it often bleeds over into my manuscript. During the editing process, I sometimes find that besides the four chapters that don’t fit the plot anymore, three more chapters mainly deal with background info, and can be condensed into one.

CAUTION INFO DUMP ZONE AHEADA detailed history of everyone’s background isn’t required. As a reader, all we need is a brief mention of historical information in conversation and delivered only when the protagonist needs to know it.

Unfortunately, I sometimes forget to write it out in a separate document.

Once I condense rambling passages, I end up with a scene that moves the story forward.

Some other things to watch for in the second draft are areas where I have repeated myself but with slightly different phrasing. These are hard for me to pick out, but they can be found. I decide which wording I like the best and go with that.

Also, in the first draft, I use a lot of “telling” words and phrases I will later change or cut. I look for active alternatives for words and phrases that weaken the narrative:

  • There was
  • To be

When I change these words to more active phrasing, I sometimes gain a few words in the process as showing requires more words than telling.

But then I lose words in other areas. Again, I’m speaking as a reader here, but when reading conversations especially, it’s good for an author to use contractions. It makes the conversations feel more natural and less formal. It shortens the word count because two words become one: was not becomes wasn’t, has not becomes hasn’t, etc.

Most times, I can cut some words, even entire paragraphs. Often the prose is stronger without them, and these words need no replacement.

In the first draft, I regularly employ what I think of as crutch words. I can lower my word count when I get rid of them. These are overused words that fall out of my head along with the good stuff as I’m sailing along:

  • So (my personal tic)
  • Very (Be wary if you do a global search – don’t press “replace all” as most short words are components of larger words, and ‘very’ is no exception.)
  • That
  • Just
  • Literally

I have learned to be ruthless. Yes, I might have spent three days or even weeks writing a chapter that now must be cut. But even though I try to plot an outline in advance, the arc might change as I write the first draft. New events emerge, and I find better ways to get to the end than what was first planned.

It hurts when a really good chapter no longer fits the story. But maybe it bogs things down when you see it in the overall context. It must go, but that chapter will be saved. With a name change and perhaps a few place-name changes it could be the genesis of a short story.

I save everything I cut in a separate file, as I guarantee I will find a use for it later. I always have a file folder inside each master file labeled “Outtakes.” Those cut pieces often become the core of a new story, a better use for those characters and events.

I have learned to pay close attention to the story arc. Once your first draft is complete, no matter how short or long, measure the story against the blueprint of the story arc.

blueprint-of-the-story-arc

  • How soon does my inciting incident occur? It should be near the front, as this will get the story going and keep the reader involved.
  • How soon does the first pinch point occur? This roadblock will set the tone for the rest of the story.
  • What is happening at the midpoint? Are the events of the middle section moving the protagonist toward their goal? Did the point of no return occur near or just after the midpoint?
  • Where does the third pinch point occur? This event is often a catastrophe, a hint that the protagonist might fail.
  • Is the ending finite, solid, and does it resolve the major problems? Even if this story is one part of a series, we who are passionate about the story we’re reading need firm endings.

Some people think they aren’t a real author if they don’t write a 900-page doorstop.

I tell them that it’s not important to have written a novel. Whether you write poems, short stories, novellas, or 700-page epic fantasies, you are an author.

The Emperor's Soul - Brandon SandersonNovellas hold a special place in my heart. A powerful, well-written novella can be a reading experience that shakes the literary world:

  1. The Emperor’s Soul, by Brandon Sanderson
  2. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
  3. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, by Truman Capote
  4. Candide, by Voltaire
  5. Three Blind Mice, by Agatha Christie
  6. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson
  7. The Time Machine, by H.G, Wells
  8. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
  9. The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
  10. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
  11. The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James

15 Comments

Filed under writing

How the Written Universe Works: The Inciting Incident #amwriting

Whether we show it in the prologue or the opening chapter, the first event, the inciting incident, is the one that changes everything and launches the story. The universe that is our story begins expanding at that moment.

the inciting incidentThe first incident has a domino effect. More events occur, pushing the protagonist out of his comfortable life and into danger. Fear of death, fear of loss, fear of financial disaster, fear of losing a loved one—terror is subjective and deeply personal.

I love stories about good people solving terrible problems, but I want them to mean something.

While I have experienced violent situations, I’ve also faced many things that shook my world but didn’t threaten my physical safety.

Arguments and confrontations are chaotic, leaving us wondering what just happened. We want to convey that sense of chaos in writing, but we must consider the reader. Readers want to see the scene and understand what they just read. We must design every action scene to ensure they fit naturally into a narrative from the first incident onwards.

The threat and looming disaster must be made clear to the reader at the outset. Nebulous threats mean nothing in real life, although they cause a lot of stress in our daily lives.

Those vague threats might be the harbinger of what is to come in a book, but they only work if the danger materializes quickly and the roadblocks to happiness soon become apparent.

Resolving disaster is the story. Hold the solution just out of reach for the following ¾ of the narrative. Every time we nearly have it fixed, we don’t, and things get worse.

The arc of the story begins with the first event, the inciting incident. The story’s arc occurs because the characters keep reaching for a resolution but can’t quite grasp it. Every attempt is blocked somehow.

959px-One_Ring_Blender_Render

The One Ring, Peter J. Yost, CC BY-SA 4.0

The characters reap the rewards of minor successes but not the golden ring. Those small rewards keep hope alive and keep the reader involved.

If the first problem was taken care of too quickly, why? What sort of trap was laid, and why did the characters take the bait?

If we do this right, we will move our readers emotionally and they will remain invested in our book.

I mentioned that confrontations are chaotic. It’s our job to control that chaos and make a narrative out of it. Nothing upsets a reader more than a book where the author contradicts something that was said or that happened before.

I choreograph action sequences, which can take a little time. Each character’s reactions must be portrayed in such a way the reader doesn’t say, “He wouldn’t do that.”

In real life, people don’t all react the same way. So, our characters can’t all be superheroes in a fight scene. It’s easy to lose the characters’ individuality in the jumble of actions that a confrontation is.

If your violence is war, go to history and see how battles were waged historically. Any war will do, but let’s say you are writing an account of a soldier’s experiences in modern warfare. Go to the Battle of the Bulgealso known as the Ardennes Counteroffensive.

512px-Western_Front_Ardennes_1944

US Army Center for Military History, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve used this battle as an example before because it was a pivotal point in World War II, and the placement of all the forces on both sides is well documented.

Also, one of my uncles fought and was wounded in that battle. Uncle Don came home with a metal plate in his head. American forces endured most of the attack, suffering their highest casualties of any operation during the war.

But you can look at any historical battle. Just remember that even though your book may explore a real soldier’s experiences, you are still writing a fantasy. The past is just hearsay, stories written by the victors. The future is a rumor that may not happen. The only moment that happens for sure is this moment, that moment you experience now.

Our characters exist in their own now, and the inciting incident kicks off their story. Perhaps the soldier’s inciting incident occurs when they join the army. From that point on, the actions and reactions of our soldiers must be logical even amidst the chaos of battle, or the reader will skip over that scene and possibly put the book down.

We make our characters knowable and likable (or not, as the case may be) through physical actions and conversational interactions. In the early part of the story, each scene should illuminate the characters’ motives. The reader must gain information at the same time as the protagonist does.

toolsHowever, the reader has an edge—they will be offered clues from the antagonists’ side, which the characters don’t know. The antagonist’s actions will affect the plot in the future. Even if the antagonist isn’t an overt enemy at the outset, the readers’ knowledge creates a sense of unease, a subliminal worry that things will go wrong.

Through the first half of the book, subtle foreshadowing is essential. This knowledge raises the stakes, increasing the tension.

Next week, we will look at ways to choreograph confrontations and violent encounters.

10 Comments

Filed under writing

Transitioning from scene to scene #amwriting

In my previous post, I showed how each scene is a small area of focus within a larger story and has an arc of its own. Small arcs hold up a larger arc. These arcs are created by events, and all the arcs form a cathedral-like structure that we call the story arc, which is the outer shell or the novel’s framework.

transitionsBy creating small arcs in the form of scenes, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, the life-breath of the novel.

Pacing is created by the way an author links actions and events, stitching them together with quieter scenes: transitions.

Transitions can be fraught with danger for me as a writer because this is where the necessary information, the exposition, is offered to the reader. This is the “how much is too much” moment.

In my first draft, the narrative is sometimes almost entirely exposition. This happens because I am telling myself the story, trying to get the events down before I forget them.

Every narrative has a kind of rhythm. While the characters might be in the midst of chaos, we must ensure there is order in the layout of the narrative.

  • action,
  • processing the action,
  • action again,
  • another connecting/regrouping scene

These “processing” scenes are transitions, moving the plot forward while allowing the reader to make sense of what just happened.

One word that slips into my first draft prose is the word “got.” It is a mental code word that I subconsciously used when laying down the story. This word signifies a small incident to revise in the second draft.

“Got” is on my global search list of “telling words.” The words in the list are signals to me, indications that a scene needs to be reworded to make it a “showing” scene.

Got:” He got the message = he understood.

Code_word_FeltCode words are the author’s first draft multi-tool—a compact tool that combines several individual functions in a single unit. One word, one packet of letters serves many purposes and conveys multiple mental images to the author.

In fact, all passive phrasing is a code. The author’s “subconscious writer” embeds signals in the first draft. It tells the author that the characters are transitioning from one scene to the next. They, or their circumstances, are undergoing a change. Is this change something the reader must know?

Each lull in the action should lead us into a new scene. When transitions are done right, readers won’t notice the narrative moving from one event to the next, as the progression feels natural.

Let’s look at two more code words for transitions:

  • Went
  • Thought

When I see the word “went,” I immediately know someone is going somewhere. It is a transition scene taking the characters to the next event.

I ask myself, “How did they go?” Went can be changed to any number of verbs:

  • walked
  • drove
  • rode
  • took
  • teleported
  • And so on and so on

You get the idea.

We can’t have non-stop action, as that is exhausting to write and more exhausting to read. The characters and the reader both need to process information, so the character arc should be at the forefront during these transitional scenes. That period of relative calm is when you allow your characters’ internal growth to emerge.

We allow the characters to justify the decisions that led to that point and plan their next move, making it believable.

The transition is also where you ratchet up the emotional tension.

We have more options than simply moving the characters from point A to point B, several paths to choose from.

strange thoughtsThought (Introspection):

  • Introspection offers an opportunity for new information to emerge.
  • It opens a window for the reader to see who the characters are and how they react and illuminate their fears and strengths. It shows that they are sentient beings, self-aware.

Keep the moments of mind wandering brief. Go easy if you use italics to set thoughts off. A wall of italics is hard to read, so don’t have your characters “think” too much if you use those.

  • Characters’ thoughts must serve to illuminate their motives at a particular moment in time.
  • In a conversation between two characters, introspection must offer information not previously discussed.
  • Internal monologues should not make our characters all-knowing. It should humanize them and show them as clueless about their flaws and strengths. It should even show they are ignorant of their deepest fears and don’t know how to achieve their goals.

Sometimes we have more than one character with information the reader needs to make sense of the next event.

The key is to avoid “head-hopping.” The best way to avoid confusion is to give a new chapter to each point-of-view character. Head-hopping occurs when an author describes the thoughts of two point-of-view characters within a single scene.

Visual Cues: In my own work, when I come across the word “smile” or other words conveying a facial expression or character’s mood, it sometimes requires a complete re-visualization of the scene. I look for a different way to express my intention, which is a necessary but frustrating aspect of the craft.

Fade-to-black is a time-honored way of moving from one event to the next. However, I don’t like using fade-to-black scene breaks as transitions within a chapter. Why not just start a new chapter once the scene has faded to black?

One of my favorite authors sometimes has chapters of only five or six hundred words, which keeps each character thread truly separate and flowing well. A hard scene break with a new chapter is my preferred way to end a fade-to-black.

Chapter breaks are transitions. As we write, chapter breaks fall naturally at certain places.

Conversations can serve as good transitions that propel the story forward to the next scene. However, they can easily become info dumps. In literary terms, a good conversation is about something we didn’t know and builds toward something we are only beginning to understand.

DangerThat is true of every aspect of a scene—it must reveal something we didn’t know and push the story forward toward something we can’t quite see.

The transition is the most challenging part of the narrative for me to formulate in the first draft. I get stuck, trying to decide what information needs to come out and what should be held back.

The struggle to connect my action scenes into a seamless arc is why writing isn’t the easiest occupation I could have chosen.

But when everything comes together, writing is the most satisfying job I have ever had.

4 Comments

Filed under writing

The Story Arc: delivering backstory #amwriting

Many writers who managed to write the entire story arc of their novel during November are now going back and looking at what they have written. This can be a dangerous moment in the life of your book.

Info DumpIn my last post, I talked about the good and bad aspects of two editing programs that I am familiar with, the things they do and don’t help us identify in our work. One more thing these wonderful programs can’t help us with is identifying bloated backstory.

Walls of fictional history muck up the transitions and flatten the story arc. They block the doors from one scene to the next.

Every story has a past, a present, and hopefully, a future. We write the story of our characters’ present moments, no matter what narrative tense we are using. Each character emerges from our minds with a personality. That personality was formed in some way by an unwritten past.

That history shaped the characters even though it isn’t written, and at first, we don’t consciously think about it. We open a document and start writing—we envision our characters with unique personalities the moment they step onto the first page.

At some point, we realize that a bit of backstory is needed. But how much, and how should we dole it out?

This is where it gets dicey. In the revision process, it’s tempting to inform the reader of this history by placing blocks of information in the first pages. It seems logical: before a reader can understand this thing, they need to know this other thing.

We can provide the reader with the backstory in several ways:

  • In conversation.
  • Memory/flashbacks
  • A brief recap of events

Each of these methods is both good and bad. While a certain amount of backstory is necessary for character and plot building, too much outright telling halts the momentum, freezes the real-time story in its tracks.

The opening paragraphs must be active. The first lines must step onto the stage in a way that feels original, informative, and engaging. The passages that follow must reflect and build upon the tone and cadence of the opening lines.

Before we dump information, we should consider what must be accomplished in each scene and allow the backstory to inform the reader only when it’s necessary to advance the plot.

CAUTION INFO DUMP ZONE AHEADLook at the first scene of your manuscript. Ask yourself three questions.

  1. Who needs to know what?
  2. Why must they know it?
  3. How many words do you intend to devote to it?

Dialogue is the easiest way to dole out information.

It is also a great way to fall into an info dump.

Don’t allow conversations to deteriorate into bloated exposition detailing unimportant fluff just to fill up space.

“Jack, remember when you nearly blew up the ship? Remember how you spent two weeks in the brig?”

“Yes, Jill. That meant you were one gun short to save the day. I almost lost the war for you, but you prevailed. I’m lucky to be your sidekick.”

“Well, Jack, what we’re dealing with this time has nothing to do with that. I’m just pointing out the obvious.”

We’re all familiar with the term ‘flatlined’ as a medical expression indicating the patient has died. A story arc can flatline in two ways:

  • The pauses become halts, long passages of haphazard info dumps that have little to do with the action.
  • The action becomes random, an onslaught of meaningless events that make no sense.

One way to avoid a flatlined story arc is through character interaction. Your characters briefly discuss what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. Then, they bravely muck on to the next event.

Another way is to insert short moments of introspection between the action. Our character’s thoughts offer opportunities for doling out new information essential to the story.

Don’t ramble on, either in conversation or introspection. If you go on for too long, your reader will either skip forward or close the book.

When they are brief but informational, these moments open a window for the reader to see who the characters think they are. Their introspection illuminates their fears and strengths.

It shows that our characters have a sense of self.

The problem with conveying the backstory is that timing and pacing are essential. The moment to mention it in passing is when the character needs that information to make decisions as they go forward. If the character doesn’t need to know it, neither does the reader.

That way, you avoid the dreaded info dump, but the reader can extrapolate the needed backstory.

In the most gripping narratives I have read, character introspection is brief but delivers crucial information. Internal monologues are featured but are kept minimal, only addressing what is essential. They serve to illuminate a character’s motives at a particular moment in time.

So, conversation and introspection are where we only deliver information not previously discussed and that the reader needs to know at that moment. Repetition is monotonous and pads the word count with fluff.

I suggest you don’t stop the action with a prolonged recap of previous adventures. It’s all right to work in a brief mention. However, if the events were detailed in a previous book in that series, the reader will probably be aware of the history. As a reader, I can say that a longwinded rant about things I already know does not keep my interest.

No matter the genre, in all stories, complications create tension, and information is a reward.

A trick I have found for whittling down info dumps is this: look at the word count.

to dole out phrasal verbI look at each conversation and assess how many words are devoted to each character’s statement and response. Then, when I come to a passage that is inching toward a monologue, I ask myself, “what can be cut that won’t affect the flow of the story or gut the logic of the plot?”

Even with all the effort I apply to it, my editor will find places to shave off the unnecessary length.

Sometimes we write brilliantly, and those moments give us hope when we churn out less than stellar prose. Weeding that garden of words is not easy, but readers will be glad you tried.

2 Comments

Filed under writing

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc Part 2 #amwriting

I have developed mad skills at carving out time for writing because I participate in NaNoWriMo every November. As a municipal liaison for the Olympia area, I must get a minimum of 1,667 new words written each day.

WritingCraft_NaNoPrep_Novel_in_a_monthI usually do this with a little advance preparation. Then on November 1st, I sit in front of my computer, and using the ideas I have outlined as my prompts, I wing it for at least two hours.

So, where am I in this process? I’m now listing prompts for the middle of my novel, book 2 of a fantasy series.

However, for this series of posts I’m using an exercise from a past seminar on plotting to illustrate how my method works. This is a plot that can be set in any contemporary, paranormal fantasy, or sci-fi world. Change the vehicles from cars to horses and carriages, and it can be placed in a historical world.

Depending on your personal inclination, this could be written as a political thriller or a romance, or a combination of both.

In my last post, we met our protagonist, Dave, an unmarried accountant. We saw him in his usual surroundings, a café he regularly has lunch at. An event occurred, which is the inciting incident. What could possibly have enticed Dave out of his comfort zone? What did he do that was out of character for him? He “paid it forward” and bought a stranger lunch.

  • This act changes his life. It’s the first point of no return, leading to the first crisis.

Dave didn’t know it, but that was the moment he was thrown out of his comfort zone and into the situation, which is the core of the plot.

  • Dave walked toward his office, only a few blocks away, but as he waited for the light to change so he could cross the street, a limousine pulled up alongside him. Four large men in black suits hustled him into the backseat.
  • He was forced at gunpoint onto a plane bound for a foreign nation, handcuffed to a suitcase with no explanation.

Those are the circumstances in which Dave found himself in my last post. 

scienceHow will the next phase of Dave’s story start? That will begin the middle section of the story, and this is what we are going to give a brief outline of.

As I’ve mentioned before, everything that occurs from here until the final page happens because Dave has an objective: he wants to go home.

I suggest we give ourselves a few prompts, all of which center around Dave achieving his objective: to get rid of the suitcase and go back to his job. He wants that desperately. Desire drives the story. Objectives + Risk = Story

  1. A silent guard accompanies Dave.
  2. Dave has been left in possession of his cell phone, but mysteriously, it has no signal.
  3. They arrive at the embassy.
  4. Dave is taken to an interrogation room and questioned about his relationship with the woman he bought lunch for.
  5. Dave discovers that the only key that can remove the handcuffs is in the custody of the mysterious woman who is interrogating him.
  6. The woman leaves the room. While she is out, Dave’s phone lights up with a text message from his boss in Seattle. Because he hasn’t been to work for two days and didn’t call in, he has been fired.
  7. He can’t seem to call out or reply to the message, another mysterious thing.
  8. The interrogator returns, having verified that Dave is who he claims he is. She also seems to know he’s now unemployed.
  9. She offers him a job. All he has to do is babysit the suitcase for two months until a certain agent who is otherwise occupied can claim it.
  10. Dave wants to go home, but he can’t. He’s unemployed and homeless in a foreign country with no luggage, and no money other than his credit cards, which have limits. If he accepts the job, he will be given a work visa, a flat to live in, and a salary.
  11. He needs these things to achieve his deepest desire: to go back to Seattle and get another accounting job, which he can do after fulfilling his part of the bargain.
  12. The wage he is offered is good, significantly so, which makes him nervous. Still, he can see no choice but to accept the job. (The second point of no return, leading to the next crisis.) After all, he’s always wanted to visit (Stockholm? Insert foreign capital here).
  13.  Anyway, how hard can it be to babysit a locked suitcase?

That question must come back to haunt him for the next 40,000 words, and if you list a few prompts, you will take Dave to his ultimate meeting with fate.

Hindrances matter. Add to the list of obstacles as you think of them, as those difficulties are what will force change on the protagonist, keeping him and his story moving forward.

The_Pyramid_Conflict_Tension_PacingIn any story, the crucial underpinnings of conflict, tension, and pacing are bound together. Go too heavily on one aspect of the triangle, and the story fails to engage the reader. By outlining a few important events now, we can add trouble and hitches during the writing process and increase the tension. Pacing will be something to worry about in the second draft—at this point, we just want to get the bones of his adventure down on paper.

Scenes involving conflict are controlled chaos—controlled on the part of the author. Stories that lack conflict are character studies. And perhaps, a character study is what you wish to write, and that is okay too. It’s just a different kind of story, more literary in its approach. Regardless, it will need an arc of some sort to bring change and growth to the protagonist.

The middle is often easiest to write because that is where the action happens. But it can easily be messed up, again with too much detail inserted in dumps. Several more events will follow, all of them leading toward one or more confrontations with the enemy. Without a loose outline, some of these events will be “desperation events.”

  • Killing off random characters
  • Random explosions
  • Yet another gratuitous sex scene

Next week we will plot the conclusion of Dave’s adventure. We’ll also examine the way writing the ending first can inspire beginnings. My 2010 NaNoWriMo novel grew out of what was really the final chapter.


#NANOPREP SERIES TO DATE:

#NaNoPrep: part 1: What’s the Story?  (the storyboard)

#NaNoPrep, Setting: Creating the Big Picture

#NaNoPrep, Building Characters

#NaNoPrep, More Character Building

#NaNoPrep, Creating Societies

#NaNoPrep, Designing Science, Magic, and the Paranormal

#NaNoPrep, Terrain and Geography

#NaNoPrep, Connections and Interconnections

#NaNoPrep, Construction and Deconstruction

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc Part 1

This Post: #NaNoPrep, The Story Arc Part 2

7 Comments

Filed under writing

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc part 1 #amwriting

Today’s post begins a three-part series on the story arc. At this point, I’ve been talking about NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, for several weeks. It begins on November 1st, and to sign up, go to www.nanowrimo.org .

WritingCraft_NaNoPrep_Novel_in_a_monthWe know our genre and have written a few paragraphs that describe our characters and who they are the day before the story opens. Also, we know where the story takes place. (To catch up on earlier posts, the list is at the bottom of this article.)

I always feel it’s necessary to have a brief outline of the story arc when I sit down to write. “Pantsing it” is exhilarating, but my years of experience with NaNoWriMo have taught me that when I am winging it for extended lengths of time, I lose track of the plot and go off the rails.

Not having even a loose outline creates a lot more work in the long run. It stalls the momentum if I must stop writing, take the time to analyze where I’m at, and then throw together an outline for the next section. Stopping the flow lowers my NaNoWriMo word count for that day.

For those who are new to writing and are just learning the ropes, turning your idea about a book you’d like to write into a manuscript you would want to read takes a little work.

First, you need to know how to construct a story.

magicEvery reader knows that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They start in a place of relative comfort, and through rising action, they follow the characters through events that change them for better or worse.

However, when a new writer sits down to write a novel in only thirty days with no plan and no idea what they’re going to write, they can easily lose interest and stop writing altogether. Others might force themselves to get their 50,000 words, but have no control of character arcs, setting, or plot. They end up with backstory infodumps and side quests to nowhere. The ending either slowly faints away or is chopped off.

All the infodumps and history can be gotten out of the way before you begin the opening paragraphs on November 1st.

The progression of events from an opening line to a final paragraph is called a story arc. It is called an arc because the action begins at a quiet point, rises to a pitch, and ends at another quiet point.

So, let’s consider the beginning. Now is a good time to write a line or two describing the opening scene, simple prompts for when the real work begins.

Beginnings are the most critical and are easiest to mess up with too much information. All beginnings are comprised of situation, circumstances, and objectives.

  • A good story opens with the main character and introduces their companions (if any). (Circumstances)
  • The antagonist and their cohorts are introduced. (Circumstances)
  • With the introductions out of the way, something occurs that pushes the main character out of their comfort zone. (Situation and Circumstances)
  • That event is called the “inciting incident” and is named that because this occurrence incites all the action that follows. (Objectives)
  • These scenes comprise the first ¼ of the story arc. The beginning ends with the first major incident, where the action kicks into high gear, transitioning to the middle section of the story. (Situation, Circumstances, and Objectives)

strange thoughts 2In your musings, on what day does the serious event occur, the one that changes everything? THAT day is where the story begins, and everything that happens before that moment is backstory and isn’t necessary. A plot outline I have used before as an example is set as a political thriller, but it could easily be a paranormal fantasy, a sci-fi thriller, or a romance.

At the outset of the story, we find our protagonist and see him/her in their normal surroundings. Once we have met them and seen them in their comfort zone, an event occurs which is the inciting incident. This is the first point of no return.

At the outset, Dave, an unmarried accountant, sees a woman from across a café, and through a series of innocent actions on his part, he is caught up in a spy ring. We begin with the protagonist.

  • What could possibly entice Dave out of his comfort zone? What would he spontaneously do that is out of character for him? Perhaps he buys a stranger lunch. This act must change his life.

Because Dave paid for a stranger’s meal, he draws the attention of the people who are following her. They think he must be involved with her, putting him at risk.

That was the inciting incident, the moment that changed everything.

Now, Dave is thrown out of his comfort zone and into the situation, which is the core of the plot.

  • On his way back to his office, a white limousine pulls up alongside him, and four men in black suits hustle him into the backseat. He is forced at gunpoint onto a plane bound for a foreign nation, handcuffed to a suitcase. The only other key that can remove the handcuffs is at the Embassy in the custody of a mysterious woman.

This is the circumstance in which Dave finds himself at the beginning of the story. 

  • How will the next phase of Dave’s story start? That will begin the middle section of the story.

Now we come to the next part of the core of your plot: objective.

  • At this point, our hero just wants to get rid of the suitcase and go back to his job. He wants that desperately. Desire drives the story.

Everything that occurs from here until the final page happens because Dave has an objective: he wants to go home.

However, to counter the enemy, we must decide how to get Dave and his story to the next plot point, which we’ll discuss in the next post.

Those paragraphs are all that is needed as far as an outline for the beginning goes, unless you’re in the mood to go deeper. All we need is an idea of who, what, and where. We’ll discuss how to plot the middle, or the why, in the next post.

WordItOut-word-cloud-4074543If you work at a day job and using the note-taking app on your cellphone to take notes during work hours is frowned on, you can still capture your ideas for the storyboard.

Carry a pocket-sized notebook and pencil and write those ideas down. You can discreetly make notes whenever you have an idea that would work well in your story, and you won’t be noticeably distracted or off-task.

Part 2 of this topic will talk about action and reaction, plotting the middle of the story arc.


#NANOPREP SERIES TO DATE:

#NaNoPrep: part 1: What’s the Story?  (the storyboard)

#NaNoPrep, Setting: Creating the Big Picture

#NaNoPrep, Building Characters

#NaNoPrep, More Character Building

#NaNoPrep, Creating Societies

#NaNoPrep, Designing Science, Magic, and the Paranormal

#NaNoPrep, Terrain and Geography

#NaNoPrep, Connections and Interconnections

#NaNoPrep, Construction and Deconstruction

This Post: The Story Arc Part 1

14 Comments

Filed under writing

Structure of the Word-Pond #amwriting

Today we’re winding down my summer blogpost series, The Word-Pond. We’ve explored the myriad aspects of ‘depth,’ the wide inferential layer of Story. Depth isn’t easy to categorize, nor can we point to one aspect and say, “Get this right, and you’ve got a story with depth.”

I’ve described Story as a pond filled with words and discussed the three layers:

Surface: The Literal Layer; the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer. Characters live, and events happen. These are reflected in the surface of the story. The ways in which we play with the surface layer are by choosing either Realism or Surrealism, or a blend of the two.

Middle: The Inferential Layer, where Inference and Implication come into play. This is an area of unknown quantity filled with cause and effect: the reasons why these lives are portrayed, and why events happened. This is where emotions muddy the waters.

Bottom: The Interpretive Layer. This level is not only foundational; it contains and shapes the story:

  • Themes
  • Commentary
  • Messages
  • Symbolism
  • Archetypes

The words in this pond behave like the waters of a pond in nature. While close scrutiny reveals that the waters of a pond are separated into layers by temperature, salinity, microbial life, or by the sheer weight and pressure of the volume of water, the overall structure is one large, important thing: a hole filled with water.

Without water, a pond is a depression in the ground filled with possibilities only.

In our word pond, the one large thing containing our words is “story.” So now we want to form these layers into a coherent, meaningful story. We need a container for our words, the hole in the ground for the story to flow into.

This container is the story arc.

Many people say they have a book in them, one they’d love to write. They begin, get a chapter or so into it, and lose the thread. They can’t see how to get the story from the beginning, to the crisis, to the resolution.

This is where the skills I’ve developed through my years of participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has paid off.  If you want to write a novel, it’s best to sit down and get that first draft out of you while the story is fresh in your mind. You’ll spend a year or more rewriting it, but if you don’t get the original ideas down while they’re fresh, you’ll lose them.

A story begins with an idea for a character. That character usually comes to me along with a problem. This is the seed from which the story grows.

I sit down and draft a story plan in four acts. First, I tell myself how I believe the story will go. This only takes half an hour and gives me finite plot points to write to. Once I have the four acts, I know where the turning points are, and what should happen at each. This ensures there is an arc to both the overall story and to the characters’ growth.

I’m going to use the original plot idea for a work in progress as my example. My WIP is a short story, 5000 words in length, but you can plot any length of story.

The story: Our Protagonist is a courier, transporting a valuable artifact. This artifact brings her to the attention of the Antagonist who intends to seize it, no matter the cost.

You must know what the surface of the Story looks like before you can explore the depths. A good way to discover what you are writing is to “think out loud.” Divide the story into four acts:

Act 1: the beginning: We show the setting, the protagonist, and the opening situation.

  1. Setting: a village near a crossroads.
  2. The weather is unseasonably cold.
  3. The protagonist is carrying a jewel reputed to enable a mage to control the weather.
  4. The protagonist must travel alone, as her partner was killed.
  5. Unbeknownst to her, a traitor in her employer’s court has designs on the artifact. By possessing it, the Antagonist will have the power to usurp the throne.
  6. She is wary, knowing the danger of traveling alone. She conceals the artifact by sewing it inside her shirt.

Act 2: First plot point: The inciting incident.

  1. The Antagonist’s hired thugs capture her.
  2. She is thrown into prison.
  3. A fellow prisoner has overheard that her partner was murdered to ensure she would be traveling alone.
  4. This fellow prisoner believes he has a plan to enable their escape.
  5. The protagonist isn’t sure she should trust him but refuses to let the artifact fall into the Antagonist’s hands.

Act 3.: Mid-point: We show their dire condition and how they deal with it.

  1. Seeing no other way, our Protagonist agrees to the Sidekick’s plan.
  2. He is on the verge of managing an escape but needs help with one last thing.
  3. By working together for several days, they manage to complete the escape route.
  4. Timing the rotation of their guards is critical to the success of their plan.
  5. Just as they are about to make their escape, the Antagonist makes a surprise visit to the dungeon and roughs up our Protagonist. He batters her physically and mentally, attempting to force her to tell him the whereabouts of the jewel, but she manages to keep her secret. When he leaves, her shirt is torn, but the jewel is still safe.

Act 4: Resolution:

  1. They must wait for another rotation of the guards, giving the Protagonist a chance to rest. She is injured but can still do what she must.
  2. The two make their escape but find themselves emerging near the kennels.
  3. The Sidekick gives the watchdogs the food he had saved for their journey, distracting the dogs and allowing them to escape over the walls.
  4. The Protagonist and the Sidekick manage to keep ahead of their pursuers and arrive back at court, where she delivers the artifact and reveals the identity of the traitor.
  5. The Employer is grateful, and the Protagonist and her Sidekick are all set for another adventure—perhaps a novel.

You have an idea for a story. Take a moment to analyze and plan what needs to be said by what point in the story arc. This method works for me because I’m a linear thinker.

If you know the length of a book or story you intend to write, you know how many words each act should be. Once you have the map, you can get to the nitty-gritty of turning that far-fetched tale of woe into a good story.

As you write each event and connect the dots, the plot will evolve and change. You begin to explore the deeper aspects of the story. Emotions, both expressed and unexpressed, secrets withheld, truths discovered—all these details that emerge as you write will shape how the characters react to each other. In turn, these interactions will alter the shape of the larger story.

This is why we never really know how a story will go, even if we begin with a plan. The plan serves to keep us on track with length and to ensure the action doesn’t stall.

Draft a short plan for a 50,000 word manuscript. 50,000 words is the industry standard for a novel. Write 1,667 words a day that connect those events together, and in thirty days you will have written a 50,000 word first draft of your novel.

To see more of what National Novel Writing Month is all about, go to: www.nanowrimo.org

I am dragon_fangirl there. Look me up and become a writing buddy!

3 Comments

Filed under writing

How contrasts drive the story #amwriting

The Buddha offered a morsel of wisdom that authors should consider, “There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it.”

J.R.R. Tolkien understood this quite clearly.

Written in a style that was popular one-hundred years ago, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a large reading commitment, one fewer and fewer readers are willing to undertake. Yet, compared to Robert Jordan or Tad Williams’ epic fantasy series, it is short, totaling only 455,175 words over the course of three books.

The story is sprawling, showing a world of plenty, ignorant of the disaster lurking at the edge of their border. Tolkien shows the peace and prosperity that Frodo enjoys and then forces him down a road not of his choosing. He takes the hobbit through personal changes, forces him to question everything. In the final confrontation with Sauron’s evil influence, Tolkien forces Frodo to face the fact he isn’t quite strong enough to destroy the ring. Frodo can’t give it up—he is willing to risk everything to retain possession of it when Gollum amputates his finger and takes the ring.

Frodo and Sam hunting down a case of genuine Canadian beer and spending spring break in Fort Lauderdale wouldn’t make much of a story, although it could have made an awesome straight-to-DVD movie.

Frodo’s story is about good and evil, and the hardships endured in the effort to destroy the One Ring and negate the power of Sauron. Why would ordinary middle-class people, comfortable in their rut, go to so much trouble if Sauron’s evil was no threat?

In both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Tad Williams epic fantasy Osten Ard series, we have two of the most enduring works of modern fiction. Both feature an epic quest where through it all, we have joy and contentment sharply contrasted with deprivation and loss, drawing us in and inspiring the deepest emotions.

This use of contrast is fundamental to the fables and sagas humans have been telling since before discovering fire. Contrast is why Tolkien’s saga set in Middle Earth is the foundation upon which modern epic fantasy is built. It’s also why Tad Williams’ work in The Dragonbone Chair, first published in 1988, changed the way people saw the genre of epic fantasy, turning it into hard fantasy. The works of these authors inspired a generation of writers: George R.R. Martin and  Patrick Rothfuss, to name just two of the more famous.

My favorite books convey the beauty of life by contrasting joy, companionship, and love with drama, heartache, and violence. No matter the setting, Paris or Middle Earth, these fundamental human experiences are personal to each reader. They have experienced pain and loss, joy and love. When the author does it right, the reader empathizes, feels the emotions written into the story as if they were the protagonist.

Hunger is a fundamental agony that can linger for years. People can survive on very little, and unfortunately, many do. To have only enough food to keep you alive, but never enough to allow you to grow and thrive forms a person in a singular way. Acquiring food becomes your first priority. Having a surplus of food becomes a reason to celebrate. To go without adequate food for any length of time changes you, makes you more determined than ever to never go hungry again.

Thirst is a more immediate pain than hunger. The human animal can survive for up to three weeks without food, but only three to four days without water. Rarely, one can survive up to a week. When one has gone without water for any length of time, even brackish water must taste sweet. And when one is without food, even food they would never normally eat will fill their belly.

War happens because of famine and deprivation. Wars are fought over water. We forget this when we have plenty to eat and never worry if we will have water or not as long as we can pay the bills.

Need drives the human story, which is why we love tales of heroism and great achievements. Love and loss, safety and danger, loyalty and betrayal—contrast provides the story with texture, turning a bland wall of words into something worth reading.  First comes the calm, and then the storm, and then the aftermath. Feast is followed by famine, thirst followed by a flood. War, famine, and flood are followed by a time of peace and plenty. This is our history, and our future, and is how good tales are played out.

Employing contrast gives texture to the fabric of a narrative. When an author makes good use of contrasts to draw the reader in, readers will think about the story and those characters long after it has ended.

I say this regularly, but I must repeat it: education about the craft of writing has many facets. We must learn the basics of grammar, and we must learn how to build a story. We learn the architecture of story by reading novels and short stories written by the masters, both famous and infamous.

We can’t limit our reading to the classics. Those books may be the basis for the way fiction is written today, but the prose and style don’t resonate with the majority of modern readers.

I have a piece of homework for you. You can copy and use the following list of questions as part of your assignment.

We may not love the novels on the NY Times bestseller list, and we may find them hard going, but stay with it. Go to the library or to the bookstore and see what they have from that list that you would be willing to examine. Your local second hand bookstore might have quite a few recent bestsellers in their stock of general fiction. Buy or borrow it and give it a postmortem. Why does—or doesn’t—the piece resonate with you? Why would a book that you dislike be so successful?

As I said at the beginning, the plot is driven by the events and emotions that give it texture. How did they unfold? Did the book have a  distinct plot arc? Did it have:

  • A strong opening to hook you?

  • Was there originality in the way the characters and situations were presented?

  • Did you like the protagonist and other main characters? Why or why not?

  • Were you able to suspend your disbelief?

  • Did the narrative contain enough contrasts to keep things interesting?

  • By the end of the book, did the characters grow and change within their personal arc? How were they changed?

  • What sort of transitions did the author employ that made you want to turn the page? How can you use that kind of transition in your own work?

  • Did you get a satisfying ending? If not, how could it have been made better?

Reading and dissecting the works of successful authors is a necessary component of any education in the craft of writing. Answering these questions will make you think about your own work, and how you deploy the contrasting events that change the lives of your characters.


Credits and Attributions:

Struggle for Survival by Christian Krohg, 1889, oil on canvas.  Now hanging in the National Gallery of Norway.

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Christian Krohg-Kampen for tilværelsen 1889.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Christian_Krohg-Kampen_for_tilv%C3%A6relsen_1889.jpg&oldid=301415583 (accessed February 10, 2019)

Comments Off on How contrasts drive the story #amwriting

Filed under writing

Logic and the Deus Ex Machina #amwriting

I write fantasy novels, but I also write contemporary fiction.  All fiction, literary as well as fantasy, requires world building and a certain amount of planning as any novel or short story must have a logical story arc. Without a fundamental logic to the events, the reader can’t suspend their disbelief.

NaNoWriMo is prime “pantsing it” time. For those who don’t know that term, “pantsing” is writer-speak for “flying by the seat of your pants.” I always begin by writing to an outline, but in the mad rush to the finish, my story goes in directions I never planned for.

I outline in advance because (when writing in any genre) if you are pantsing your way through a story that encompasses 75,000 to 100,000 words, it is easy to get involved in large info dumps and bunny trails to nowhere. A loose outline will tell you what must happen next to arrive at the end of the book with a logical story set in a solidly designed world.

However, I’ve never yet written a story that stuck strictly to the original outline.

Characters develop lives and personalities of their own, and stuff happens that wasn’t planned for. When I finish the first draft, it always makes sense in my head, and I usually feel confident it can pass the logic test.

So, what is the logic test? Once you have the first draft written, let it sit for a few weeks, then come back to it. If I was smart, during my writing process I made notes where the scenes began deviating from the outline.

Screen writers have it right, so the layout of my outline is divided into acts and beats, the same as a screenplay would be listed with a brief description.

Act One

  • Opening scene–characters in “normal” environment–/ Hook
  • Inciting Incident–characters thrown out of “normal” and into new circumstances.
  • End of the Beginning

Act Two takes up 50% of the novel—it is the second quarter and third quarter combined.

  • Pinch Point #1
  • Midpoint
  • Pinch Point #2
  • Crisis

Act Three

  • Climax
  • Final resolution

Each section has a brief description of what occurs there, such as:

Act Three, scene 1

  • Leave Hemsteck
  • First campsite, Alf /Ronan talk. Dex overhears.

If I have made notes of my changes to the story line, I have a guide showing me what those changes were. I know where to go back and check to make sure the events are foreshadowed logically, and not a clumsy Deus Ex Machina. (Pronounced: Day-us ex Mah-kee-nah.) (God from the Machine.)

This is a plot twist that is used to miraculously resolve an issue. (Miraculous is the key word.) A Deus Ex Machina occurs when, toward the end of the narrative, an author inserts a new event, character, ability, or otherwise resolves a seemingly insoluble problem in a sudden, unexpected way.

So, let’s consider an indie novel I tried to read a week ago and didn’t finish. I was in the mood for a trashy  adventure/romance, and for the first few chapters, I was able to overlook some technical annoyances because the characters were hilarious. After thinking about it, I doubt the author intended it to be such a hilarious mockery of 19th century upper class mores, as everything was written so earnestly, so faux Charlotte Bronte.

The setting for the final incident that threw me out of the book completely is a grand ball at a Buckingham Palace. The main character, whom we just spent a chapter dressing in an excessive amount of detail, becomes involved in a quarrel. She draws her sword, and the fight is on.

Where did that weapon come from? Swords aren’t easy to conceal. It wasn’t part of the highly detailed scene where her maid was dressing her one layer at a time. Why was she wearing a sword at a formal event? Do all the ladies go armed at these events? If so, it should have been made a part of the choosing-the-gown scene. Give her a fancy scabbard to keep that handy  rival-stabber in, something that looks all bejeweled and goes with the outfit.

In late Regency/early Victorian times, officers wore ceremonial swords to formal events. Women were never armed openly. Any weapons they had would have been knives, poison, or pistols and would have been concealed, not hanging from their waist in a long scabbard. A pistol in her bodice would have almost logical. So, if you intend for her to draw her sword, there must be a logical reason for these men and women to be armed.

When I look back at my story’s outline, starting from the ending and working forward, does the characters’ journey to the final page make sense? If my characters must show up to a grand ball fully armed, it must be logical, a part of their culture.

Good writers don’t rely on miracles to ensure things work out to the main character’s advantage. They use logic and insert small clues and hints into the narrative, so the reader doesn’t feel cheated. To that end, I suggest keeping an updated outline of what happens in each scene.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Rembrandt – Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Rembrandt_-_Rembrandt_and_Saskia_in_the_Scene_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=302686497 (accessed December 16, 2018).

4 Comments

Filed under writing

Crisis and the point of no return #amwriting

In literature what is the “point of no return?” Scott Driscoll, on his blog, says, “This event or act represents the point of maximum risk and exposure for the main character (and precedes the crisis moment and climax).”

Crises, even small ones on the most personal of levels, are the fertile ground from which adventure springs. Most disasters are preceded by one or more points of no return; places where the protagonist could have made a different choice and trouble could have been avoided.

Our task as authors is to identify this plot point and make it subtly clear to the reader, even if only in hindsight.

In life we often find ourselves boxed into a corner, frantically dealing with things we could have avoided if only we had paid attention and not ignored the metaphoric “turn back now” signs.

I’ve used this prompt before, but it’s a good one, so here it is again:

Imagine a road trip where you are sent off on a detour in a city you’re unfamiliar with. What would happen if some of the signs were missing, detour signs telling you the correct way to go? Also missing is a one-way street warning sign.

At some point, before you realized the signs had been removed, there was a place you could have turned back. Unaware of the danger, you passed that stopping point and turned left when you should have turned right. Now you find yourself driving into oncoming traffic on a one-way street.

That place where you could have turned around before you entered the danger zone was the point of no return for your adventure. Fortunately, in our hypothetical road-trip, no one was harmed, although you were honked at and verbally abused by the people who were endangered by your wrong turn. You made it safely out of danger, but you’ll never take a detour again without fearing the worst.

In contemporary fiction, literary fiction, romance—no matter what genre you are writing in, “arcs of action” drive the plot. A point of no return comes into play in every novel to some degree. The protagonists are in danger of losing everything because they didn’t recognize the warning signs, and they are pushed to the final confrontation whether they are ready for it or not.

Speculative fiction generally features a plot driven by a chain of events, small points of no return, each one progressively forcing the protagonist and his/her companions to their meeting with destiny.

Contemporary and literary fiction is also driven by a chain of small events. In some novels, this takes the protagonist to a confrontation with himself, or a family is forced to deal with long-simmering problems. Many times in literary fiction the point of no return looks like a non-event on the surface. But nevertheless, these events are the impetus of change.

In most literature, these scenes of action form arcs that rise to the Third Plot Point: the event that is either an actual death or a symbolic death. This event forces the protagonist to be greater than they believed they could be, OR it breaks them down to their component parts. Either way, the protagonist is changed by this crisis.

The struggle may have been fraught with hardship, but the final point of no return is the ultimate event that forces the showdown and face-to-face confrontation with the enemy—the climactic event.

No matter the genre, the story arc has certain commonalities—in literary fiction, they will be more subtle and internal than in an action adventure or space opera, but in all novels the characters experience growth/change forced on them by events.

During the build-up to the final point of no return, you must develop your characters’ strengths. You must identify the protagonist’s goals early on and clarify why he/she must struggle to achieve them.

  1. How does the protagonist react to being thwarted in his efforts?
  2. How does the antagonist currently control the situation?
  3. How does the protagonist react to pressure from the antagonist?
  4. How does the struggle deepen the relationships between the protagonist and his cohorts/romantic interest?
  5. What complications arise from a lack of information regarding the conflict?
  6. How will the characters acquire that necessary information?

Misfortune and struggle create opportunities for your character to grow as a person or to change for the worse. We must place obstacles in our protagonists’ path that will stretch their abilities, and which are believable, so that by the end of the book they are strong enough to face the final event and denouement.

Remember, each time the characters in a book overcome an obstruction, the reader is rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction. That reward keeps the reader turning pages.

It doesn’t matter what genre you are writing in: you could be writing romances, thrillers, paranormal fantasy, or contemporary chick lit—obstacles in the protagonist’s path to happiness make for satisfying conclusions.

The books I love to read are crafted in such a way that we get to know the characters, see them in their environment, and then an incident happens, thrusting the hero down the road to divorce court, or trying to head off a nuclear melt-down.

After all, sometimes a dinner party happens, and the next day our Hobbit finds himself walking to the Misty Mountains with a group of Dwarves he only just met, leaving home with nothing but the clothes on his back. In chasing after them, Bilbo has passed the first point of no return. I say this because after having heard the stories and listened to their song, and after having seen the map, even if he were to turn back and stay home, Bilbo would have been forever changed by regret for what he didn’t have the courage to do.

9 Comments

Filed under writing