NaNoWriMo

NaNoWrimo Workshop – Constructing Scenes

This was originally published on Write Anything, October 23, 2008.

Welcome back to Write Anything NaNoWriMo workshop week!

*taps monitor* Are you awake? Are you daydreaming? I hope you’re daydreaming about your NaNoWriMo project because guess what?

We start in less than 48 hours!!!

No worries, right? *gulp*

If you’re just tuning in (welcome!), we’ve been talking about various aspects of beginning a novel-length story this week. We’ve covered finding ideas, setting, character, point of view, and plot.

Today, we’ll cover constructing scenes – from start to finish – and tomorrow, I turn the floor over to you and you get to share what sort of progress you’ve made thus far and offer any NaNoWriMo advice.

Let’s get started …

Again, I will be referencing Plot & Structure – Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish by James Scott Bell because in my opinion, this is one of the best books about plot on the market. If you haven’t checked it out, seriously, dude, look at it. It’s good.

Most readers judge whether they will A. continue reading the story, or B. like the story within the first ten pages of reading the story.

So tease your readers, make them want to stick around and read the rest of your story with a killer beginning.

THE BEGINNING of your novel actually performs several tasks:

1. Get the reader hooked.

2. Establish a bond between the reader and the Lead character.

3. Present the story world – tell us something about the setting, the time, and the immediate context.

4. Establish the general tone of the novel. Is this to be a sweeping epic, or a zany farce? Action packed or dwelling more on character change? Fast moving or leisurely paced?

5. Compel the reader to move on to the middle. Just why should the reader care to continue?

6. Introduce the opposition. Who or what wants to stop the Lead from obtaining his/her goal/objective?

First impressions are everything when it comes to tempting people to read your novel. Blow your first impression and you’ll have twice the work to get readers’ attention.

Bell suggests the following to grab readers:

Opening Lines:

Start your opening lines with the character’s name (Bell suggests looking at some of Koontz’s work – he’s the master of killer opening lines. I agree). In addition to introducing the reader to your character right off the bat, make something happen to that character, “and not just something ominous or dangerous. An interruption of normal life.”

Give your readers motion, of something that is about to happen or has happened. If you do this, it’s likely your reader will want to stick around to find out what happens next.

Action:

We’ve all heard it – in media res – in the middle of things. Start your story in the middle of some sort of conflict. Using dialogue, as in an interrogation, is a good example of this.

Raw Emotion:

“We bond with the Lead through his deep feeling of a universal emotion.”

Look-Back Hook:

Suggest there is a not-to-be-missed story about to unfold.

Attitude:

A good example of attitude is The Catcher in the Rye. The character’s voice is almost defiant and blase about telling his story.

Prologues:

“The use of prologues is a venerable one, used by all sorts of writers in many different ways. But the most effective prologues do one simple thing – entice the reader to move to chapter one.”

Personally, I’m a huge fan of prologues, both in reading and writing. In fact, I plan on starting my NaNoWrimo project with a prologue. And on a side note: I bought Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight today and though the prologue is short, it’s powerful. Here’s an excerpt from Twilight’s preface:

I knew that if I’d never gone to Forks, I wouldn’t be facing death now. But terrified as I was, I couldn’t bring myself to regret the decision. When life offers you a dream so far beyond any of your expectations, it’s not reasonable to grieve when it comes to an end.

The hunter smiled in a friendly way as he sauntered forward to kill me.

Brilliant. That definitely makes me want to keep reading.

Bell goes on to explain these techniques in detail – it would behoove you to read his suggestions. Again, the beginning? Can gain, or lose, your readers. Hone up on it and be aware that it’s crucial if you want to jerk the reader out of his/her reality and into your story.

All of your hard work will (should) compel the reader to move on to THE MIDDLE.

Bell says, “What you do in Act II, the middle, is write scenes – scenes that stretch the tension, raise the stakes, keep readers worried, and build toward Act III in a way that seems inevitable.”

Bell offers some suggestions on keeping the middle of your story interesting and moving forward.

Death:

What is the Lead’s ultimate obstacle? To stay alive.

And it’s not all about just physical death, the Lead could have an aspect of themselves die on the inside, too. Or even something die in their professional life, like they are denied a promotion, or they are demoted, or they are involved in a scandal that puts the entire company in jeopardy.

The Opposition:

The Opposition (which Bell prefers to call the antagonist because not all antagonists are evil), should be stronger than the Lead. Why? Because if they are easily matched, then why should the reader worry?

And don’t forget to write your opposition with an empathetic view – it just makes for a better character.

Adhesive:

An adhesive is any strong relationship or circumstance that holds people together.

“If the Lead can solve his problem simply by resigning from the action, the reader will wonder why he doesn’t do so. There needs to be a strong reason for the Lead to stick around, to keep the characters together throughout that long middle.”

Here are a few tips on making a strong adhesive:

  • Life and Death – staying alive is essential to one’s well-being.
  • Professional Duty – a cop can’t just walk away from his assigned case.
  • Moral Duty – a mother will fight to the death in order to get her child back.
  • Obsession – when you’re obsessed by something, then you’re just compelled to have it
  • .

Bell says to “ARM yourself for confrontation.”

ARM stands for Action, Reaction, More action. It is the fundamental rhythm of the novel. Think about it. Unless your Lead character is doing something, you have no plot. Plot results from the action of the character to solve the problems in front of him, all with the aim of gaining his desire.

Action requires that the character has decided upon an objective and that he has started toward it. This action must be opposed by something or the scene will be dull. So pick an obstacle, an immediate problem to overcome.

Bell goes on to explain how to stretch the tension, how to raise the stakes, how to energize a lethargic middle, and how to trim an overweight middle. Again, all GREAT tips to help you get past the middle hump.

A weak ENDING can ruin an otherwise wonderful book.

“A great ending does two things above all else: First, it feels perfect for the kind of novel it is appended to. Second, it surprises the reader. It is not so familiar the reader has the feeling he’s seen it somewhere before.”

Why are endings so hard? Because the novelist is like a plate spinner, you know, the guy who spins a dozen plates all at the same time while making sure none of them drop?

“Your plot will have lots of plates spinning by the time you get to the end. You need to get them off safely. You need a little flourish. And you need to do it in a way that is not predictable.”

Maintain the tension in the story until the last possible moment, then give your reader a knockout ending.

But in addition to the knockout scene, you need to give your reader a final scene in which something from the hero’s personal life is resolved.

Choose Your Ending:

1. The Lead gets his objective, a positive ending

2. We don’t know if the Lead will get his desire – an ambiguous ending.

3. The Lead loses his objective, a negative ending.

Don’t forget to tie up any loose information. And only you, the writer, can know if the information is important enough to wrap up. Missing pants are probably not that important. But missing money could be. If the loose information is important enough, you’ll most likely need to write an additional scene. This may entail some extensive rewriting – too bad, do it anyway. The majority of readers do not care for unresolved issues.

If it’s minor information that’s flapping in the wind, it’s probably enough to have a character simply explain it away.

You want to leave your readers with a last page that makes the ending more than satisfying. You want it to be memorable, to stay with readers after the book is closed.

Working to make your last page (memorable) … is worth every ounce of your effort. It’s the last impression, what psychologists call the recency effect. Your audience will judge your book largely by the feeling they have most recently, namely, the end. Leave a lasting impression and you will build a readership.

Whew! That’s it! I hope this week proved insightful for you. I also hope it got you excited about writing your novel for NaNoWriMo. Keep all of these things we’ve talked about this past week in your mind, but the bottom line is TO WRITE your story. Try not to think about it too much. Knowing all of this information is great, but the bottom line is, do what feels right for you and your story.

Next month is all about quantity, not necessarily quality. Get your words down on paper first, then you can go back and polish later.

It’s hard to polish something that isn’t there. 🙂

Thank you for sticking it out with me! If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo this year, look me up! I’ll be giving updates about my writing progress next month, so stick around!

NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo Workshop – Plot

This post was originally published on Write Anything, October 22, 2008.

Welcome back to Write Anything NaNoWriMo workshop week!

Plot happens. Or in my case, it doesn’t happen enough.

I apologize for the lateness of this post, but plot … *insert heavy sigh here* is indeed my Achilles heel.

I normally have no problem finding ideas, settling on a (vague) character or finding that character’s voice, but plot … I have a problem with.

I think, at heart, I’m a short story writer. I can whip out short stories like nobody’s business, but when it comes to stories longer than 4,000 words? My brain completely locks up. I never know where to go, which way to turn and my stories tend to veer off the main highway and before long, I’m out in the middle of rural imagination land scratching my head and wondering how in the world do I find the road back to my original premise.

So, writing about plot? Is NOT an easy thing for me. However, I’ll try my best to make this post coherent and informative – for both you AND me. (And if you have anything to add, you’re MORE than welcome to do so!)

Plot, in essence, is the board, or frame, for your story puzzle pieces. You take an idea, snap on a few characters, insert them into a POV, border it with conflict and voila! You have a plot for your story.

Oh, if only it were that easy.

I’ll be referencing several areas from James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure because it truly is an invaluable how-to plot resource guide. If you don’t have this book, I recommend buying it – now.

You might be one of those writers who likes to have their story all worked out in your mind before you write your novel. You preplan, plan, revise the plan before writing. Perhaps you have index cards all over your wall or desk as you read this. (Guilty?)

Or, you might be one of those seat-of-the-pants writers who loves to plop down each day at the computer or over a pad of paper and just write, letting your story flow without planning, anxious to see where your story takes you.

Or, you could also be a ‘tweener (*raises hand*) who does a bit of planning but still seeks some surprises and spontaneity.

Which ever method you use, you have to ask yourself one question: Does it connect with readers? After all, that is the purpose behind plot.

Readers are subconsciously asking these questions when they open books:

What’s this story about?
Is anything happening?
Why should I keep reading?
Why should I care?

These are all plot questions, and if you want to make it as a writer of novel-length fiction, you must learn how to answer them.

There are a few basic plot elements, that if understood and applied, will help you come up with a solid plot every time.

Let’s talk about Bell’s LOCK system:

L is for Lead

A strong plot starts with an interesting Lead character. In the best plot, that Lead is compelling, someone we have to watch throughout the course of the novel.

O is for Objective

Objective is the driving force of fiction. It generates forward motion and keeps the Lead from just sitting around. An objective can take either of two forms: to get something, or to get away from something.

C is for Confrontation

Opposition from characters and outside forces brings your story full to life. Readers want to fret about the Lead, keeping an intense emotional involvement (and investment) all the way through the novel.

K is for Knockout

Readers of commercial fiction want to see a knockout at the end. A literary novel can play with a bit more ambiguity. In either case, the ending must have knockout power. A great ending can leave the reader satisfied, even if the rest of the book is somewhat weak. But a weak ending will leave the reader with a feeling of disappointment, even if the book up to that point is strong.

Now that you know the key points, you need to structure your plot. Plot is about elements, those things that go into the mix of making a good story even better. Structure is about timing – where in the mix those elements go. You need a three-act structure: beginning, middle and end.

For a breakdown of these three-act structures, you really must read Plot & Structure, but in essence, “a plot is about a Lead character who has an objective, something crucial to his well-being. The major portion of plot is the confrontation with the opposition, a series of battles over the objective. This is resolved in a knockout ending, an outcome that satisfies the story questions and the readers.”

But how do you come up with a plot that people will want to read about?

Bell suggests you ask yourself a series of questions. Here are a few to consider:

What do you care most about in the world? (If you care, you’ll write with passion. If you write with passion, that passion will transfer to the readers and they will care right along with you).

What is your physical appearance? How do you feel about it? How does it affect you?

What do you fear most?

What secret in your life do you hope is never revealed?

What is your philosophy of life?

“Answering these questions opens up a door into your own soul. From that viewpoint, you can better evaluate plot ideas. Does the story you’re considering hit a nerve inside you? If not, why write it?”

Here are seven of the twenty plots suggested in 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias:

1. Quest: as the name implies, quest is the protagonist’s search for a person, place or thing, tangible or intangible. (This will be the crux of my NaNoWriMo story).

2. Wretched Excess: people who push the limits of acceptable behavior, either by choice or by accident. This fascination for people who inhabit the margins of society is what makes this plot so interesting.

3. Sacrifice: your protagonist is sacrificing something from his/her life whether it’s physical or spiritual.

4. Forbidden Love: think Romeo and Juliet here.

5. Transformation: deals with the process of change in the protagonist as she journeys through one of the many stages of life.

6. Underdog: the protagonist is faced with overwhelming odds.

7. Temptation: the story of the frailty of human nature. If to sin is human, it human to give in to temptation.

We’ll cover constructing plots tomorrow, but for now, let’s talk about common plot problems and how to solve them.

Scenes That Fall Flat:

Always make sure scenes have tension in them. Even when characters are calm and relatively quiet, there should be an undercurrent signaling that things are not as calm as they seem.

Every scene should have that moment or exchange that is the hot spot, or the focal point.

Mishandling Flashbacks:

There is an inherent plot problem when you use flashbacks – the forward momentum is stopped for a trip to the past. If not used properly, the reader can get frustrated or impatient. The following are tips when using flashbacks:

1. Necessity – is it absolutely necessary?

2. Function – make sure it works as a scene. Write it as a unit of dramatic action, not as an information dump.

3. Navigation – getting in and out of a flashback can be tricky, so make sure it flows naturally. For example, write in a strong, sensory detail that triggers the flashback.

The Tangent:

The tangent is a side road that was not on your original plot map. It is a suggestion of your writer’s mind. You can ignore the tangent and move on, or you can follow the tangent for a while because it could lead to a better idea. Bell suggests that instead of continuing with your story, open up a new document and follow the tangent. If it fits with the rest of your story, copy and paste it into your story. If it doesn’t, keep it, it may come in handy for future stories.

Resisting the Character for the Sake of the Plot:

Sometimes, your characters will want to take over. Let them. See where they lead you. It could add a whole new element to your story.

Slogging:

The part of your story that slows down and appears sluggish. Here are some suggestions to get past this point:

1. Go back. Is there some place in your earlier pages that seems dull? Or beside the point? Have you lost sight of the Lead’s objective at any point? Keep going back until you find a spot where you felt good about the writing, about beingn on track. Come up with a better scene idea than the one that is already there.

2. Jump Cut. Jump to the next scene, move your characters forward in time, put them in a different location, if you wish. Sometimes jumping ahead can help you connect your story later.

Shut Down:

What if your imagination shuts down? There’s nothing there. Don’t panic – it happens to all of us at one point or another.

Bell suggests:

1. Recharge your battery. Write through it. Give yourself permission to be bad. Write first, polish later. (Hence NaNoWriMo. *smile*)

2. Relive your scenes. Not rewrite. Relive. Have you ever imagined yourself to be the characters? Tried to feel what they are feeling? Then try it. Let the characters improvise. Don’t like what they came up with? Rewind the scene and try it again.

3. Recapture your vision. What does you novel utlimately mean? What is it saying about life beyond the confines of the plot? How does it illuminate your vision of life? Every story has a meaning.

To outline, or not to outline? That truly is every writer’s question. And unfortunately, there is no fast and easy answer. It really all depends on you, the writer. You’ll need to experiment with both methods to find what works for you. Bell’s section on Plotting Systems (Chapter 10) offers some great advice for the NOP’s (the no outline people) and the OP’s (the outline people) complete with step-by-step methods you can try for yourself. But the bottom line is – what works for you? There’s only one way to find out – experiment.

Bell writes, “What makes a plot truly memorable is not all of the action, but what the action does to the character. We respond to the character who changes, who endures the crucible of the story only to emerge a different person at the end.

“So, look to create character change in your novels in a way that deepens the plot and expresses a theme. For when a character learns something or suffers because he changes for the worse, it is an expression by the author about the larger canvas – not merely what happens in the novel, but what happens in life.”

Lastly: Constructing Scenes

NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo Workshop – Point of View

This post was originally published on Write Anything, October 21, 2008.

Welcome back to Write Anything NaNoWriMo workshop week!

“The choice of the point(s) of view from which the story is told is arguably the most important single decision that the novelist has to make, for it fundamentally affects the way readers will respond, emotionally and morally, to the fictional characters and their actions.” David Lodge

Let’s talk a little bit about point of view.

When I first became interested in writing, point of view confused me.

A lot.

First of all, I couldn’t keep them straight. I think the writing teachers I had back in school took great delight in watching our faces contort into all sorts of bewildered masks as they stood in front of the class and talked about the various points of views and when you should, or should not use them.

And if you learned NOTHING else from them, you did not, under any circumstances, combine them in the same story!

*insert horrified gasp*

That point was pounded so much into my brain I actually graduated from college with a lop-sided skull.

Now, you’re lucky if you read a story, any story and from any genre, that doesn’t have at least two different points of view in them. And in some stories, points of view change so fast that it leaves readers scratching their heads trying to figure out 1). which character they’re supposed to be following and 2). exactly whose story is it, anyway?

Even though I understand the difference between the points of view now, I still hesitate over which POV I should write my stories from, because a lot of times, picking the right point of view can make, or break, your story.

But first things first – let’s define the various points of view:

First-Person Singular POV

The most natural POV is the first-person singular, since all stories and trials originate with someone, an “I,” witnessing what happens.

The first person narrator can tell a story with herself as a central character or she can be one of the minor characters. Or she can tell somebody else’s story, barely mentioning herself except to show where the information comes from.

First-Person Multiple POV

You use several first-person narrators and alternate among them, usually beginning a new chapter with each change of narrator. This strategy offers a diversity of voices, viewpoints and ways of thinking without the arrogance of the omniscient sound.

Some pros and cons for First-Person POV:

Pro: It’s technically the least ambiguous. Readers always know who is seeing and experiencing the story. It’s subjective. You’re a bit more free with the voice – using slang, bad grammar, etc. And first person offers smooth access to a character’s thoughts. (You don’t have to worry about awkward switches in pronouns – which CAN get tedious).

Cons: We can’t take an outside look at our POV character. Sure, you could use a mirror, but that’s been overdone and is in fact, cliche – avoid that technique if at all possible. In a suspense story, it’s pretty much a given that an “I” character will survive – kill off your “I” character and the story dies with him/her. And it’s hard to create a compelling new voice for each story.

Third-Person Omniscient POV

In this POV, which is used infrequently in contemporary writing, the author knows everything about all the characters, places and events involved. The reader observes from many angles. The “camera” is conveniently set wherever the action is, akin to television coverage of a basketball game.

Third-Person Limited POV

This POV – and its variants – is the most common one used. There are at least three kinds of third-person limited POVs:

Third-person subjective POV – resembles first-person POV except it’s usually done in standard English rather than in the character’s voice.

Third-person objective POV – You don’t reveal the viewer – the way you don’t see the person holding a camcorder.

Third-person limited omniscient POV – this combines the objective and the subjective approaches.

Third-Person Multiple POV – this sounds like omniscient POV, and the difference may be subtle, but it’s best to see it as a series of third-person limted POVs minus authorial intrusions.

Objective POV (or theatrical POV) – this perspective is blurred under the third-person objective POV, but we should distinguish an objective POV, which does not focus on one person, from the limited objective POV.

Second-Person POV

The author makes believe that he is talking to someone, describing what the person addressed is doing. But the “you” is not the reader, though sometimes it’s hard to get rid of the impression that the author is addressing you directly. This POV is the least popular as it puts the readers on the defensive, most people do not like to be told how to think or what they are to do, even in stories.
(Source: Josip Novakovich, Fiction Writer’s Workshop)

There are a few more, but in essence, they are a combination of the ones listed above.

I think you get the point (of view – haha).

Here are a few POV exercises to try:

1. Take a piece of your own writing and rewrite it in
(a) a different viewpoint
(b) a different tense (changing from present to past, for example).

2. Take a passage from a favorite novel and rewrite it, changing viewpoint and tense. How does that change the story? Does it read better?

3. Relate one of the following scenes in 300 words, first from one viewpoint, and then from another:

The first day of school. A young teacher, fresh from college, faces his/her first class. (The viewpoint of the teacher, and then one of the pupils).

There has been a road crash. (Viewpoint of a by-stander, and then the crash victim).

A young woman helps an old blind man across the road. (Viewpoint of the woman, and then the man).

(Source of exercises: Nigel Watts, Writing a Novel)

It may take some time to settle on a particular POV for your story, but a POV that works for the story will make it better and more interesting to readers.

One word of caution: switching POVs often irritates readers and certainly most editors, unless you establish the pattern early in the story, writers should respect POV. Keep your readers inside one character head at a time and if you switch, make sure the switch is obvious by either starting a new chapter from another POV, or even a new paragraph – never in the same sentence.

Finding the best POV for your story is difficult and may take some experimenting. The only rule about POV is that there is no rule. If a particular technique works, use it. And if your story is not working with your current POV, rewrite it and change the POV and see what happens.

Next: Plot