Tag Archives: write

For the Love of Story

An open story bookThere are two ways to write a good story: You can be gripped by inspiration and allow it to guide your hand, or you can use the existing set of techniques and writerly advice to craft and polish your story until it sparkles like the crystals of a chandelier.

The first will come knocking on your door when it damn well pleases. It may take a week, a month, or even years. Or, it may never come at all. Few, but the very patient, will wait around for the languid muse to saunter in.

The second is to determine a time and place of your choosing and begin writing your story by utilising the many writing techniques at your disposal — a knowledge of story structure, how theme informs the ending, and so on. Sites such as mine, and many others, offer advice for free — for the love of story.

Will this second way guarantee a great story? Perhaps not. But it will set you on the path of writing a well-structured story.

Learn your craft by adding to your arsenal of techniques every day. Don’t let a day go by where a new spanner is not added to your toolbox. Work to master your craft, to be the best you can be, and in time, you will be.

In rereading Linda Seger’s Advanced Screenwriting, I was again reminded of the usefulness of certain practices — in this case, the practice of labeling scenes according to their function as a way of keeping the writer focused on how each narrative segments performs its task in service of the plot.

Apart from the inciting incident, turning points, midpoint, climax and resolution that we’ve all heard about, Seger labels several other sorts — the establishing scene, exposition scene, love scene, confrontation scene, pay-off scene, resolution scene, realisation scene, decision scene, the realisation-decision-action scene, and others.

In the film Big, for example, Josh decides to slot money into the vending machine in return for becoming ‘big’. In the following scene he realises that he is ‘big’. This leads him to an emotional reaction scene in which he begins to experience the complications of being an adult. The result is new action that has him working for a toy company as an adult, while, in many ways, he remains a child.

The point is that by studying the craft, by breaking your story up into a series of scenes with specific functions, scenes that connect to one another, you lay out a blueprint for fulfilling the structural requirements of most, if not all, stories.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the muse, being the jealous mistress that she is, decides to pay you an unexpected visit after all.

Summary

Studying the craft beats sitting around waiting for inspiration.

You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to — what’s a writer to do?

TomatoA friend of mine recently expressed concern about a new novel he’d written – a tongue-in-cheek political satire that explores political correctness from a different angle.

Did it not run the risk of being branded as too conservative, or even racist, he wanted to know? This got me thinking about to-mah-tos and to-may-tos.

We live in a time of great cultural, spiritual, and ethnic upheaval, a time where our received wisdom is being questioned by our increasing exposure to alternative beliefs and practices, fostered by the pervasive use of multimedia and specialist studies championed by countless institutes and universities.

Religion, sexuality, ethnicity, the environment, are all hotly debated, and even divisive, topics. Language, too, is changing. Words that were applied as precise gender indicators, for example, are being dropped from the lexicon in the name of political correctness.

Championing one side often results in disdain from the other. Name-calling, or stereotyping, is the order of the day. Once branded, it is difficult to get rid of the mark, regardless whether it is justified or not. The idea of no-smoke-without-fire seems to hold sway. It would appear far safer to have no opinion at all than to risk soliciting the wrath of the opposition.

Yet, as writers, we don’t have a choice but to adopt a point of view. To choose one side of the fence and make our stand there. As writers we thrive on ideology. We have strong beliefs and opinions about the world and the people and systems that govern it. Our stories are filled with characters who stand for something, the endings we craft betray our themes and concerns. Our beliefs and preferences will emerge whether we like it or not.

So, how do we avoid the misunderstanding and prejudice that our point of view may solicit?

There are many answers to this question, supported by ample research and competing opinions, but let me give you mine — the short version: We treat opposing views with dignity and respect, or failing that, with good humour, and we demand the same in return.

Which reminds me, do you have to-mah-to or to-may-to with that cheese and ham sandwich? It’s six of one, half a dozen of the other to me.

Summary

Agree to disagree, but do so with respect.

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Episode, Season and Series Questions

Lego charactersIn a previous article I suggested that each act in a story is driven by a question it seeks to answer. In the first act of The Matrix that question is: What is the matrix? In the second: Is Neo The One? And in the third: Can The One defeat agent Smith and his cronies?

But just as there are questions that frame each act, so there are questions that frame each episode and each season of a television series. These questions also apply, with small adjustments, to a book series.

In Gotham, the first season’s overall question is: Who will win the mob war, and how will that affect Jim Gordon’s attempt to clean up the city, as he continues to solve specific crimes, while the overall series question is: How does Bruce Wane’s attempt to find the killer of his parents shape his transformation into the Batman?

Each episode typically features a villain-of-the week and is driven by the dramatic question: How is this villain to be defeated? But the episode must also acknowledge the season’s question: How does the defeat of the villain affect the mob war? The death of the witness to the Wane’s murder, for example, would impact the entire series question — not that Cat is about to be killed off by the writers.

A book series, too, asks at least two overall questions. In my book series, The Land Below, the first novel’s dramatic question is: Will Paulie make it to the surface? My next book, The Land Above, is framed by the question: How does Paulie, and his companions, survive the horrors that lurk on the surface?

Each story in a series, then, is governed by several interlocking questions that not only drive a specific episode, but help keep the entire series on track.

Summary

Sketching in the overall series, season, and episode questions, prior to commencing the actual writing of the first episode or book, is the first step in mapping out the direction of your story and its characters.

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What is Multiform Narrative?

Soap bubbles

Multiple Worlds:

In last week’s post I dealt with the category of multi-strand stories, drawn from my Ph.D thesis Multistrand and Multiform Narratives in Hollywood Cinema.

This week, I’d like to talk a little about the remaining category – multiform narrative.

Both categories attempt to deal with the bewildering simultaneity, frenzy, and moral befuddlement of modern life, but whereas multi-strand stories do that through multiple strands featuring multiple protagonists not tied to a single plot, multiform narrative comprises of stories featuring a protagonist who inhabits separate realities in an existential and ontological sense.

This necessarily means that the protagonist splits up into several copies of himself, each occupying a different realm – whether it is the multiple universes of Donnie Darko, or the illusionary realities of dream and memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or the virtual reality inside of The Matrix.

Open multiform narratives, such as Donnie Darko, stubbornly refuse to cue the viewer as to the preferential reality of the story. Donnie, for example, ostensibly appears to be both alive and dead in the movie, since the beginning shows him coming home from having slept the night on the golf course, only to discover that a jet engine has smashed into his bedroom.

But the end of the film replays the incident only this time Donnie sleeps in his bedroom and is killed by the jet engine.

Both incidents can’t be right in a single spatiotemporal framework. They present us with a paradox that can only be resolved if we place the two events in separate realities. In one universe, Donnie dies. In the other he lives.

Closed multiform narratives such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Matrix, by contrast, differ from their cousins in the open multiform category in that they announce which world is real and which illusionary. Here, the filmmakers are at pains to show us Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, et al., entering and exiting the matrix through telephone lines, while Lacuna’s memory-erasing procedure cues and orientates us in a similar way.

Open multiform stories, then, tend to be more subjective and bewildering, whilst closed multiform narratives offer a helping hand through well-placed cues.

Both categories, however, succeed in reflecting the multiplicity and uncertainty inherent in lives littered with smart phones, video games, and multiple apps open on multiple screens – lives from which that much-needed sense of solitude and aloneness seems forever banished.

Summary

Multiform narratives encode the bewildering complexity of modern life by showcasing multiple realities featuring copies of a single protagonist.

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How Fascinating is the Idea Behind your Story?

As a teacher of creative writing, I am often privy to complaints by new writers that their books or screenplays don’t get off the ground, sinking into obscurity instead.

Is it fate, karma, or just plain bad luck, they ask?

Now, while it’s true that luck plays a role in a writer’s success, (not sure about the other two), it’s also true that you can’t keep a good idea down.

Not just any good idea, mind you — a vibrant, original idea we haven’t encountered before, or, at least, an idea presented in a way that feels new; an idea that takes us places we’ve never been, fills us with wonder, introduces us to characters that captivate us.

Consider some of my favorites stories: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Stranger than Fiction, City Of God, 2001: A Space Odyssey, George Orwell’s 1984.

All of these, apart from being well-written, are fascinating and original. They grab our imagination and compel us to know more.

A mysterious black monolith that appears at crucial moments of man’s evolution to spur him on? Wow!

A procedure to erase painful memories from one’s mind. I want to know more!

Jurassic creatures brought to life through DNA preserved in a dollop of Amber? Yes, please!

A secret passage that takes us right into John Malkovich’s head! Who would have thought it!

These ideas are so good, so original, they sell themselves. They make for hugely successful stories – providing all other elements of fine writing are in place, of course.

I believe I should not start writing a story until I am absolutely convinced that the idea behind it is as good, as original and unique, as it can be, because once I start, I find it difficult to change it mid-stream.

My advice to myself is simply this: Start with an idea that fascinates. Isolate its captivating core and think about ways to make it more unique, more original. Come at it from different angles, from the point of view of different characters, different genres, even different epochs. Write at least ten versions of the basic idea, trying, each time, to up the ante, then walk away from it for a week or two, to give it time to breathe, before repeating the process.

Once I’m convinced I have a good idea, I test it on others. I watch their eyes as I speak. If they flick away, seem distracted, I’ve lost my audience somewhere. That happens a lot. The path back to the drawing board is well-worn.

Your process may differ from mine, but one thing seems likely: the more original and unique your idea, the more fascinating your story will be.

Summary

Fascinating, original, well-written stories are the panacea to obscurity.

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How to Survive Slow Book Sales

Snail

Slow Sales?

So, you’ve written your first indie masterpiece, which, no doubt, has solicited glowing tributes from friends and family. You’ve edited it, procured an arresting cover, and posted it up on Amazon, eagerly awaiting that first shower of appreciative reviews before sales start to pour in.

Early the next morning, you fire up your amazon kdp account, your eyes wide with expectation, and check your unit sales column.

Empty!

This can’t be. There must be some mistake. Perhaps America is off on holiday today. Wait. Don’t book sales take a while to show up? They’re probably bunching up at this very moment.

Anyway, best not think about it. Check again tomorrow.

The next day flips over like an egg on toast, sunny side down. It’s early morning. Really early. 2am to be precise. You need the bathroom and decide to check on sales again. You keep one eye shut.

The cold pang scuttles up from your solar plexus and settles on your chest. Still not a single sale to report! You’ll never get to sleep now. And you no longer feel like going to the bathroom.

You stumble to the kitchen to make yourself a cup of coffee, and, in a flood of self-doubt, you pour over your manuscript again, looking for mistakes.

You find two and quickly correct them. Damn! How did they manage to slip through? They could cost you your writing career! You should have hired a professional editor, after all. Too late now.

You upload the corrected manuscript.

Next day, having taken a mild off-the-shelf sedative to help you sleep, you manage to hold out till sunup before switching on your screen and checking on that sales column again.

Empty.

Well, that just about tears it! There can no longer be any doubt. You suck as a writer. People have exaggerated your abilities, probably because you seemed so darned determined to succeed.

That must be it. If you were really any good, this would not be happening. Talent, after all, is impervious to failure. Isn’t it?

Just as well you kept your day job. You’re never typing another word again. Ever!

Boo hoo.

—-

Ring a bell? It does for me. That is pretty much how I remember my early amazon experience with my first ever novel, Scarab. The book languished in obscurity for many days before sales began to appear. A trickle at first. Then a rivulet. And finally a torrent. But those first few days felt like an eternity.

With the sales, came the reviews. Most were very good. A couple were downright nasty. One of the reviewers suggested that my level of English languished below that of primary school. Ironically enough, whenever a nasty review came in, sales picked up dramatically, as if discerning readers were shouting it down with their credit cards.

Scarab went to number one in the bestseller lists in the scifi/hi-tech categories at amazon.com and amazon.co.uk and stayed in the top ten for many months. It was balm to my worst fears. The rest, as they say, is history.

So, what have I learnt from my experience, and from comments by fellow indie writers?

Simply this: if you have a modicum of talent and are willing to work hard, you will inevitably improve and eventually succeed.

But what do you focus on while sales remain tardy?

The answer is simple: Write that next book! And the next! And the next! John Locke believes that new writers shouldn’t publish before they have written several books. That way, when success comes for one, it will come for the others. He should know. He sold a million books.

We could too!

Summary

Write more books while waiting for sales of your current one to pick up; better still, write a whole bunch and release them simultaneously.

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Scene Checklist

Checklist

Scene Checklist:

As one of the larger units of story construction, effective scenes make for effective tales. In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge, provides us with a concise list of what to look out for in your scenes.

1. How does your scene contribute to your protagonist’s outer and inner journey? Remember the outer goal is extremely important in a story. Rumination (inner journey) is not sufficient to drive the visual thrust of your story. We need to see the protagonist engaged in outer struggles, if we are to understand his inner conflict too.

2. Does your scene, like your story, typically have a beginning, middle and end? Your scene ought to establish, build and resolve a situation. There are, of course, exceptions to this. Some scenes are short and are transitional in nature, intended solely to bridge other more important scenes, but as a general rule, this piece of advice holds true.

3. Does your scene propel the reader into the next? Causally linking one scene to the next at the level of the inner or outer journeys makes for compelling tales. In Outrageous Fortune, the scene of two women in the morgue is resolved only when they realise that the body is not that of their lover. But the end of the scene results in their decision to find him, which, in turn, drives the scenes that follow.

4. What is each character’s objective in the scene? Without an objective the scene is rudderless.

5. What is each character’s attitude in the scene? Each character wants something, overtly or covertly. (How does this want tally with that character’s need? ‘Big’ scenes ought to explore and reiterate the tension between want and need.) This want, together with that character’s personality traits, creates an attitude, a motivation. Additionally, characters bleed feelings: they are sad, nostalgic, angry, bored, scared, or turned on, etc. These feelings are revealed directly through dialogue or more subtly, through subtext and action. In Moulin Rouge Satin’s declaration that she does not love Christian, a lie she utters in order to save his life by having him leave, is shot through with irony, sadness and a sense of tragedy.

6. Do many of your scenes contain action, not just dialogue? Talking heads are best left to television soapies and past masters such as Ingmar Bergman. Of course, dialogue is perfectly acceptable in scenes, but stories benefit from the injection of telling action, from small acts such as the lifting of an eyebrow, to the landing of a punch. Imagine your screenplay with the sound off. Is the meaning of a scene still apparent through the action of your characters? If the answer is ‘yes’ then you’d be better off culling as much dialogue as possible. Unless you are Woody Allen, or Quentin Tarantino, your screenplay should not be talk-heavy.

7. Does your scene serve multiple purposes? Does your scene achieve as much as possible to keep your audience or readers emotionally involved with your protagonist and her journey to her goal? Does it reveal character background, motivation, conflict, anticipation, curiosity, credibility and identification or empathy? Does it contain foreshadowing, premonitions and the like? Again, not every scene can be cramp-packed with the above, but pivotal scenes clustered around and including your turning points, pinches, and midpoint, certainly can.

Summary

A scene checklist focuses our attention on the important elements your scene ought to contain in order to be affective.

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The Future of Writing

Shades pic

Bright Future

There has never been a better time to be a writer. After years of concern that reading might be on the wane, especially for our attention-challenged teenagers forever bent over their smart phones and computer keyboards, reading is once again becoming cool, supported by the gadget revolution and the e-readers that it has spawned—Kindle, Nook, Kobo and the like.

Additionally, the virtual side of stores such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble have provided a shopfront where authors can sell their work directly to the public and let it decide on its merit.

No longer need we plaster our walls with rejection slips from reluctant publishers, nor struggle to find reputable agents willing to take us on. Had that been my only option, I’d probably have fallen by the wayside, never having had the stomach to pursue that route in the first place. My first novel, Scarab, completed some 14 years ago, shelved and quietly forgotten about, might never have reached the No. 1 spot in the science fiction/hard-tech category on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk, nor would its follow up, Scarab II: Reawakening, have seen the light of day.

Luckily, I entered the market at a time when Amazon had already provided an alternative to the traditional publishing route through their kindle reader. For me it was a no-brainer. The reading public is, after all, our ultimate judge: It is the public we have to please if we are to succeed as authors—in an economic sense, at least. Of course, now that one’s work rides the best seller lists, traditional publishers no longer seem as reluctant.

Another factor fueling the writing resurgence is the number of new authors the changed landscape had allowed to emerge. People who would never considered trying their hand at writing are now doing so. Although an exponential increase in the democracy of writing has allowed the birth of material that seems below par, it has also allowed amazing new talent to be discovered. Hugh Howey, whose series, Wool has put him on the map, has admitted in a recent interview, that the traditional route would never had garnered him the success his indie status has.

Last, but not least, as indie writing grows into a giant industry, a number of services are springing up to support it. The number of how-to-write and market-yourself books, websites, and story doctors is growing by the day. Editors married to traditional publishing houses are realising that their services have coin with indie writers too—perhaps even more so. Inevitably, this will impact the quality of indie writing, driving it ever upward. Not only will this benefit the reading public, it will also affect the quality of movies that are increasingly drawing from this pool of new talent.

So, my fellow indie writers, put on your shades, for, whichever way we look, the future of writing seems bright indeed.

Summary

The positive outlook for reading and writing seems set to continue, supported by a growing number of hardware innovations and trends.

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How to Increase Tension in your Story

Girl biting nils

Tension

Tension in stories primarily concerns the barely contained hostility or strained relations between individuals or groups. This differs from conflict which is more about disharmony and opposition between people who hold different ideas, goals, and beliefs. Both conflict and tension are invaluable in making stories more powerful and dramatic. In this post we look at seven ways to add tension to your scenes.

7 Ways to Increase Tension

1. Place your characters in a place they shouldn’t be in.

2. Have your characters make decisions that have severe consequences.

3. Have your characters participate in actions and dialogue that worsens conflict.

4. Have your characters participate in actions and dialogue that increases the danger to themselves.

5. Have your characters participate in socially, politically, and morally unacceptable actions.

6. Place your characters in a situation where they have to choose between two evils.

7. Have your characters overstep their natural boundaries.

Mario Salem said:

“Every chance I get, I put my characters in spots that make me uncomfortable. If I’m comfortable with where they are, it’s a boring script. I say ‘what’s the worst thing thing that could happen to this guy’ and then I write that in. My characters hate me and that’s what makes my scripts better.”

We would do well to heed this advice.

Summary

Tension is a necessary part of keeping the reader or audience hooked into your story. Use one or more of the 7 techniques mentioned in this post to help you achieve this goal.

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How to Manage Your Story’s Characters

Card with writing

Remembering Traits

Much has been written about how to craft successful characters for your stories, including advice offered by this blog.

In writing one’s story, however, one may wrongly allow the plot to force a character’s actions, making it appear trite or contrived.

Here’s something I do to help me keep my story’s characters on track.

Constant Reminders

1. I keep each character’s essential characteristics foremost in mind by listing them on separate post-it cards or paper. I keep these in front of me throughout the writing process.

2. Here’s what I note down: 4 or 5 positive traits and 1 negative or contrasting trait for a “good” character, and 4 or 5 negative traits and 1 positive or contrasting trait for a “bad” character.

Now, when a character acts, or speaks, I can peruse the list and see if any of these traits are overtly, or covertly expressed through subtext.

3. The character’s want versus his or her need.

Here, I look for opportunities to illustrate the differences between these two crucial drivers of character.

4. The character’s changing moral values (if any) at each major junction point—the inciting incident, the first turning point, the midpoint, the second turning point, the resolution.

This allows me to hold the character’s developmental arc firmly in hand.

And that’s about it. Of course, there is much more to crafting authentic and engaging characters, but this list ensures that we, at least, get the basics right.

As to the rest, well, I’m a firm believer in the muse.

Summary

Keeping a list of essential character traits on hand at all times is a good way of ensuring that your characters never lose their path as they follow their way though your story’s plot.

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