Monday, March 29, 2010

Scene Structure Part VIII – How To Make Scenes Boring

Part of an ongoing series on Scene Structure.

DON’T FORGET TO VOTE FOR

WHICH BLOGFEST I SHOULD HOST!

How To Make Scenes Boring

medicine_eatstation_eating-702002 I think it’s time to use some reverse psychology on you guys. Instead of explaining how to tighten up your scenes, I’m going to go into detailed examples how how to suck the life out of them. If any of these techniques sound familiar, you might want to consider livening up your scenes.

  • Lower the Stakes. What does the outcome of the scene mean to the character? Make sure everything is resolved right away. Don’t make things difficult or challenging. Make sure magic Fae drop in and deliver problem-solving wands and make the bad guys go bye-bye. Life-and-death struggles are a bit too exciting for modern readers. If something’s important to the character, just give it to him right away. Drawing these things out could lead to appearances on Oprah or Pulitzer Prizes, and no one wants that.
  • Remove Conflict. Conflict is defined as a character’s Goals meeting Obstacles. Are there any annoying obstacles? Or, why even have goals for that matter? Make sure you don’t throw any monkey wrenches in there. Scenes should be as exciting as filling out a tax return…as an experienced accountant with years of service. Your characters should go with the flow, floating as gently as a dandelion seed in the wind, no cares or worries, nothing that makes him want to scream at every turn of the page.
  • Remove Tension. Is there doubt as to the outcome? Should the reader even care about the outcome? Does the reader know anything the characters don’t? Do you lead the reader in the wrong direction? Shame on you. Everything should be nice and predictable, as clear as crystal. Don’t ever confound your readers, they might not have the brain capacity for that. Those morons can’t figure anything out for themselves, so make sure everything is lined up for them without a hint of confusion or misdirection.
  • Write with Ponderosity. Yes, I just said, “ponderosity.” Look it up. Instead of saying, “she was drinking coffee,” you could say, “she was sipping a double mochachina latte espresso with whip and sprinkles while texting on her phone and examining her nails.” Explain everything to the Nth detail, just in case your readers missed something. Who cares if the details add nothing to the story? Don’t forget to mention how exactly the espresso was prepared, and the entire life story of the barista. The more words, the better, especially if they are obscure words no one has heard of before.
  • ¡Viva la Backstory! Readers must know everything about every character, no matter how minor or trivial. Did you research the entire lifecycle of the glowworm? Throw it in there! No information is too random to exclude. Especially in the first few chapters, you must set everything up carefully so the reader doesn’t experience the least bit of confusion (or interest). What happened in the last 6000 years of Elfin History, year by year? Enquiring Minds want to (not) know! Throw it in there, you have the room. No need to interrupt backstory with any kind of action, that would distract the reader from your detailed expositional essay.
  • Random Scenes Rule!   Need a break from your zombie apocalyptic epic? What about a scene covering the care of tulips? Do your characters travel a lot? Include a scene about every ride they take, and every conversation during those long, exhausting journeys. How were those dance lessons? Did they help ameliorate the slave trade in Eastern Europe? I definitely want to hear your character obsessing over her birthmark while delivering a child. It all makes total (non)sense!
  • Maintain Status Quo. Your character has wrestled with the question of how to ask a girl out all night…and he’s no closer come morning. Kewl. Now let’s hear every detail about that inner dialog, for days on end. Still no decision? Great! How about a conversation with him mom that gets nowhere? How was his dinner? Fine? Alright! We’re totally getting nowhere! Send the bad guys out on vacation so they don’t bother him during his month-long introspection. Have his mom cook dinner so he can’t be bothered. The End. Awesome!
  • Keep It Simple.  Are there any new elements? New props? New settings? New characters? If if there is, get rid of them. The characters shouldn’t be burdened with learning anything new. Pretty much the whole book should be an extension of the first scene. In fact, just write that first scene over and over again, and soon you’ll have a whole novel! Creativity is way overrated. No one likes a smarty-pants writer with a complicated world that the characters must learn to navigate at their own peril. Keep your characters safe at home.
  • Don’t Let Anything Happen. Heavens forfend if the character actually does something to change his situation. Kill those activities! TV watching is the best way. Maybe have him play a video game no one has heard of or cares about. Bad guy bothering him? Relocate to the closet and let him play cellphone games. How could that be less exciting! Fighting bad guys is for the cops, not your character. Problem-solving is for brainiac eggheads, not your timid mama’s-boy.

I hope that’s helped you figure out how to take all the life out of a scene. Let me know if you have any other effective methods.

singlebed_460

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Blogfest-arama! Poll!

Blogfest-arama!

blogfest Seems like everyone is holding a Blogfest. For writers, this means that you post a portion of your WIP on your blog, and then add a link to the main Blogfest page. Each Blogfest has a specific theme.
Here is a list of upcoming Blogfests. If you know of more, please let me know! Looks like it may be time to add a calendar widget to my blog…
Which brings me to my next point. I want to host a Blogfest! But I’m not sure what to do. Here’s a list of potential subjects.
  • Hero Blogfest
    A character performing a Heroic Act that will live on in the annals of history.
  • Epiphany Blogfest
    The moment the light bulb turns on for a character that changes their life forever.
  • Disaster Blogfest
    (This ties in more with
    Dawn’s Rise than Steam Palace.)
    Either a natural disaster or a personal disaster. It’s
    TEOTWAWKI!
  • Bad Girl/Villainess Blogfest
    Let see some good women gone bad. Harpies, vixens, succubae, or just haughty cheerleaders.
  • A Proper Blogfest
    In which your delightful characters illustrate the utmost in courtesy and manners—or display a contemptuous lack thereof. Served with tea and biscuits.
POLL CLOSED! Thanks for voting! Bad Girl Blogfest won, but feel free to pick up any of these!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Scene Structure Part VII – Point of View

Part of an ongoing series on Scene Structure.

Point Of View

stinky dog Most scenes have a single Point Of View. Think of POV as a “camera” that’s recording the story. Where is this camera? Does a character control it? Or is it focused on one specific character? In either case, that character is considered the scene’s “POV Character.”  I’m going to address a few of the more common POV’s in use today. There are three basic dimensions of POV. Some of these are mutually exclusive; you generally don’t have Deep 1st Person Cinematic for example. Also I’m ignoring Past Vs Present tense, but your scene should maintain the same tense throughout.

1) First Person Vs. Third Person

Almost all literature is written in First or Third person. First Person is written as if the narrator was relating a personal story, using “I”, “me”, or “my” (and sometimes we/us/our) to refer to his character. In third person, the narrator usually never refers to himself. In some cases, the narrator is literally a “Third Person” set outside of the story, like a benevolent storyteller relating the story and pointing out its important moments.

2) Omniscient Vs Limited Vs Cinematic POV

Omniscient is the most “knowledgeable” POV. Every character’s thoughts and motives can be exposed at any time. This can lead to “head hopping” where the reader can follow each characters thoughts and feelings. Limited focuses on the thoughts and experience of a single character. In Cinematic, the writing is similar to a script—only speech and actions without any inner thought.

3) Exposition Vs Deep POV

This is the scale that determines how “close” the narrative is to the POV character. Deep POV is as if the “camera” has been placed inside the characters’ eye, so we experience the story only through their emotional journey. Exposition in this sense is a general description of the scene as viewed from far above.

Now I will attempt to illustration some of the more common examples of POV (all in past tense). The scene is one where a dog comes into the house covered with mud.

Third Person Cinematic POV

The dog entered the room, its black mane dripping with mud. Sally covered her nose and grimaced.

“What have you gotten into?” She glared at the dog.

The dog shook, tossing gobs of mud in every direction. Sally screamed and rose, turned to the nearby stairs.

“Marty! The dog! Help!”

Third Person Limited Exposition POV

Sally watched the dog enter the room, its black man dripping with mud. She covered her nose.

“What have you gotten into?” She glared at the dog.

The dog shook, tossing gobs of mud everywhere. Sally screamed, frustrated by the dog’s antics.

She turned to the stairs. “Marty! The dog! Help!”

Third Person Limited Deep POV

The clicking of the dog’s nails tore Sally from her book. She cringed, eying the dog’s black mane dripping with mud. A scent of rotten swamp assailed her nose.

“What have you gotten into?” Not again!

The dog shook, flinging globs of filth against Sally’s expensive new furniture.

Her blood boiled. This was all his fault. “Marty! The dog! Help!”

Third Person Omniscient POV

Reveling in her recent swamp excursion, the dog entered the room, her black mane dripping with mud. Wouldn’t Mistress Sally be pleased with her new scent?

Sally’s eyes turned black and she covered her nose. “What have you gotten into?” That stupid dog!

The mud itched so the dog shook, tossing gobs of glorious mud in every direction. Mistress Sally screamed.

That was it! The last straw! “Marty! The dog! Help!”

First Person Deep POV

I smelled the mutt before I saw her. She pranced into the room, proud as she could be, her black mane coated with muddy filth worthy of the local sewer.

I covered my nose and glared at the beast. “What have you gotten into?”

I saw it start. First, a twitch in the nose. Then, a shake of the neck. Finally—mud flew everywhere—right on my expensive new loveseat and matching end tables. A scream burst from my throat, an agony borne of a month living with this unkempt monster.

The beast panted at me, its tongue lolling. “Marty! The dog! Help”

Point of View Goals

  • Provide the “right” amount of information for a scene. Sometimes you want to feature the character who’s experiencing the greatest ordeal, sometimes you want an uninvolved character who’s just relaying things objectively. Sometimes you want to hide feelings/thoughts/motivations, so you may want to avoid Deep POV’s. If you find that a scene is flat, trying changing it to a different POV. Even if you don’t keep the change, sometimes you’ll gain insight into the different characters in the scene.
  • Make sure that it’s clear whose POV you are in, especially if it changed from a previous scene. Usually it’s clear from the first sentence, by using a name. Some authors even put the name in a scene header. This is especially important if you change POV between different 1st Person narrators.
  • Each type of POV had pros and cons. First person can’t be Omniscient, although the narrator can sometimes relay things he thinks the other characters are thinking, or knows from past experience. Deep POV requires that you write strictly from one character’s perspective, preventing a broader look at the scene.
  • Switching POV’s is fine, as long as there’s some consistency. Avoid doing it during a scene. If you find you switch a lot, maybe there’s another POV alternative to explore. A good rule of thumb is that you want to explore your Main Character’s POV more than any other character.

What POV do you prefer to write in?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Revision Reschmision II

Revision Reschmision II

shooting-star-wallpapers_9475_1600x1200 As some of you know, I’ve been working through an online revision course for Steam Palace. The first half of the course was a detailed examination of my  draft, including analyzing scenes, plots, characters, settings, and consistency. It hasn’t really touched structure and style. But now I find myself at an impasse. I have a vision of what the book should be, and I want to start writing it. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been rewriting certain scenes, trying to gain a feel for what the new version will be like.

The course is wanting me to build scene cards, mark keep/change areas, blah blah blah, but my plan is to completely rewrite everything., Every single line. The reason is simple. Although I had an outline for my first draft, when I sat down to write it, all I wanted to do is to get my idea for the book down on paper. I rushed through the draft, not worrying about anything. The result is a mix of good and bad (mostly bad), but rewriting is far more effective that revising.

Revision is different from drafting. In this revision, every line, every word counts. When I was drafting, I could crank out 5000 words a day. With revision it’s closer to 500, and I’m writing copious notes to make sure I don’t drop threads. But that’s not the main difference. I know where the story’s going. I know what the character relationships are. I’ve thrown out 3 characters and replaced them with far more interesting people. I’ve ripped out the middle and replaced it with something deeper. I’ve taken my setting and cranked it up a couple notches, raising the stakes up to where a true Sci-Fi story should be.

Here’s the thing. In my heart, I’m a pantser. I’m not a plotter or an outliner. I can’t sit around for the next 2 months plotting out cards for every possible scene. Yes, organization helps me. Having an outline made drafting immeasurably easier. But organization is not my strength. I’m a problem solver, and I’m creative thinker. I can’t plan everything out to the Nth detail.

At a critique meeting the other day, a newbie was incredulous that I could imagine a world with imaginary characters. I explained that it’s a simple process. What you’re looking at right now is a bunch of dots on a screen, but your brain sees it as something else. Imagination is the same. I see a setting, some characters, and some issues, then my brain interprets that as a story. You “imagine” stuff all the time, you just don’t know it.

This is why I’m kind of giving up on the course. I don’t want to draw dots. I know I haven’t figured out every problem that I have in the story, but my imagination is begging that I start crafting full scenes, not just one-line summaries which don’t really tell me what happens in a scene. My brain has connected all the notes I’ve made, and is ready to tell the story as it should be.

This week I created a new prologue for my story…just for fun (please no anti-prologue lectures). I may or may not include it in the final revision, but something I read in the coursework really made me think, and I’ll paraphrase here:

Do not write any scenes or include any characters that you are not dying to write.

That really struck a chord with me. I knew during drafting that there were a bunch of scenes that I “got through” because they “needed” to be in there. Then when it came time to print out a chapter for my critique group, I sometimes skipped the boring scenes. After learning this, I realized that

  1. If it’s not fun for me, it’s not fun for the reader.
  2. Some of my characters are just plain boring and don’t add to the story.
  3. I will only include stuff that I am determined to share with the world because it’s so awesome.

Note that this does not apply to first draft. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to make every scene perfect and you’ll never finish. In your first draft, include every piece of crap that comes to mind. But during revision, everything counts.

And now, without further ado, here is a snippet of my new prologue, a highlighted bit that appears above the chapter header.

One sister will marry, one sister will die;
The day that Belonia drops from the sky.

“Belonia” is a strange star that’s been in the sky for 450 years. It travels across the sky backwards, counter to the Sun and Moon. There used to be four of them, but now there’s only the one. A crazy old witch lady issued this prophecy. I’m not sure it fits the story, and the name sounds a little like “Bologna” (I used an online name generator), but I had a lot of fun writing it. And maybe that’s the secret.

Do you make sure everything in your novel is included for a reason…and that the reason isn’t “it has to be in there”?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Scene Structure Part VI – The Reversal

Part of an ongoing series on Scene Structure.

The Reversal

Reversal-of-Fortune The Reversal goes by a few other names: The Disaster, The Twist, The Reversal of Fortune, The Turning Point (of the scene). Each of those terms has varying connotations, but I think the best way to address this concept is with an example.

JANE MCCONNELL and JOE JOHNSON are high school students. They both want to go to the dance with each other (Scene Goals). Somewhere in your outline or notes (or head) you write a scene, “Joe asks Jane to the dance.” So you write something like this (I’m going to stick to Omniscient POV for this exercise).

Example 1

“Hey Jane,” said Joe, huddling against Jane’s locker during a quiet moment between periods. “I’ve really enjoyed spending time with you lately. I think you’re really special. Would you like to go to the dance with me?”

Jane drew a breath. Her friend had mentioned Joe had been looking for her. “Of course I would!”

Okay. For starters, there’s no Conflict, therefore, there’s no scene. If goals are met without resistance, then you’re just telling the news. To add conflict, add obstacles.

Example 2

Joe rushed through the school halls. Last break of the day, and he still hadn’t found Jane. He reached her locker just as she closed up and walked away. “Jane,” he gasped, sliding in front of her, “I only have a minute. Would you like to go to the dance with me?”

Jane stopped, surprised by the sudden question. This was kind of out of the blue, but not unwelcome. “I hadn’t thought about it, but yes, yes I would!”

Well, that’s a bit of conflict. But nothing’s changed. Start thinking about “what’s the worst thing that could happen here?” Here’s the thing. Asking Jane out is a major test for Joe. He’s got to want to do it, to earn it. And then fail at it.

Example 3

Joe raced through the school halls, searching for Jane before she left for the day. There, down near the cafeteria, she spotted her bobbing ponytail with her trademark pink ribbon. He pushed though the crowd and collided with Vickie.

“Watch it,” she screamed at him, pushing him off.

He jumped up, but a hand snagged his collar.

“Where are you running to, Mr. Johnson?” The gym teacher hulked over him, shaking him like a doll. “Slow down or we’ll be talking after school.”

“I will, I will.” Joe took four slow steps, then broke into a run. Oh no, Jane had left the building. Joe stumbled through the doors and out towards the bus line. Twenty buses stared at him, each identical. Which one held Jane? He jumped aboard each one, searching for the object of his mission. On the fifth bus, he spotted her.

“Jane, Jane.” She sat in the fifth seat.

Jane’s eyes grew wide and her heart beat a tick faster. “Joe, what are you doing here? This isn’t your bus.”

A group of giggling girls boarded and claimed the seats around Jane. “Oh Jane, who’s your geek leech,” asked one, sneering at Joe. “Go back to your nerd herd!”

Joe ignored them. “Jane, I’ve been trying to find you all day. I know this is kind of last minute but—will you go to the dance with me?”

Jane glanced at the faces around her. How she had waited for this moment. But this? “No! Joe, you need get off my bus, it’s about to leave!”

More than ever, we feel like Joe has really earned this, but to make a scene shine, it must contain a Reversal. What’s really different between this scene and the other two? Both achieve their goals when you think about it: Joe asked Jane, and Jane was asked by Joe. The reader now knows that they both want this dance thing to happen, but Joe broke all kinds of social protocols to do it, and Jane doesn’t want to be a laughingstock. The readers see what Joe did as almost gallant, but Jane sees it as an embarrassing display of desperation. So we have a Reversal in that Joe’s efforts went for naught.

The Reversal is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal. If everything had gone well, then they’d be going to the dance together, but that situation is not a scene, and it’s not even a story, except in the newspaper sense.

The Reversal Goals

  • Leave the reader guessing. If your outline says, “Joe gets Jane to go to the dance” then you’re going to have to construct the scene differently so that that result is not obvious. Maybe Joe is actually chasing Vickie and collides with Jane in the hall. Vickie’s bus takes off, and with it goes his chances. But after a lengthy apology for running her over, Jane hints that she’s looking for a date and he takes her up on it.
  • Don’t meet goals/expectations. Characters are made to be disappointed. Success is earned at great cost, and characters lose more often than they win. Don’t make things easy for anyone.
  • A Positive Reversal is still a Reversal. When a character expects disaster, make a good thing happen. Joe is depressed because he’ll miss the dance, but Joe’s friend Vickie—who’s loved him since the third grade—listens to him go on about Jane, then offers to be his date at the dance so he can participate.
  • The Reversal changes everything. It’s not like you go to an ice cream shop and they’re out of strawberry so you get chocolate. It’s not that Joe messes up with Jane so he goes with Vickie. It’s that you go to an ice cream shop and they don’t have strawberry so you throw a fit and get permanently banned from the shop. It’s that Joe messes up with Jane and he’s going to mess up with Vickie too because he gets it into his head to “show up” Jane for rejecting him. He’s blown his chance with Jane and there are no backsies.

You can see that even when characters’ goals are aligned, things can still go horribly wrong, and that makes for juicy writing fodder. If Joe had just taken Jane aside in a quiet moment like in Example 1, things would have gone fine, but nothing would have been learned. The Reversal is there to expose the ugly flaws in our characters when faced with pressure and conflict. It’s to make that moment at the dance, when Joe finally gets together with Jane after all he’s been through, that much more special. (And then add a Reversal to that… :)

How do you keep your readers guessing?

Friday, March 12, 2010

This is Day One…Again…

This is Day One…Again…

first day One year ago this week, I left my job. Or I was asked to leave. Whatevs, it’s all in the past now. I decided at that time that “this was it”, that I wasn’t going to work in software any more. I was tired of it. It didn’t motivate me. It didn’t interest me. Today’s software industry is nothing like it was twenty years ago, when everything was fresh and new. I had a manuscript, and I figured after a couple months of editing, I could publish it and be on my way to having a writing career. (That was a funny thought. After six months of hacking on it, I finally gave up that project.)

On this first anniversary of that momentous decision, I think it’s appropriate to take stock of my progress so far.

Published Pieces: 0
Rejected Pieces: 0 (not including blog contests and the like)
Blog Posts: 124
Blog Followers: 116 (or 180 according to Feedburner)
Novels-in-progress: 2
Novels abandoned: 1
Novels with completed first drafts: 1 (for
NaNoWriMo)
Flash Fiction pieces: 9
Other story concepts in various stages of development: ~5
Words Written: At least 200,000 (~500 day)
Money Earned: $0.00
Money Spent: $XXX,XXX.XX

So when I take stock, what are my real accomplishments? I haven’t earned a dime, I haven’t even sent anything out to publishers, and I’m no closer than I was a year ago to having a writing career.

But, I know I’m not the same person I was a year ago. When I go to critique meetings, I sometimes look at other’s submissions and think, “that was me a year ago. Look at all these issues.” I’ve learned a lot. I started out this process na├»ve and ignorant of what it takes to really write. I had learned a few things over the years, taken a creative writing class or two, but I figured the writing process was something like, “keep writing until it’s done.”

So here are the most important lessons I’ve learned so far.

  1. Writing is not a process. It’s a craft. It needs to be learned. You can not learn it by reading books (except books or blogs about writing to some extent). You learn about writing by writing. And rewriting. And throwing stuff out and starting over. And banging your head against the wall.
  2. Critiques are essential. Everyone has blind spots to their own work. The difference between an amateur and a profession isn’t necessarily how to spot problems (though it helps), it’s how to address the problems and revise the work.
  3. Writing can be approached as an engineering problem. Things need to “work” and words, phrases, metaphors, imagery, etc are the “tools” used to make writing work. There are rules, accepted practices, guidelines, and common structures that are used to build a story. These can be learned. Taking this analogy further, it took me four years of college engineering classes to acquire the skills for my first career.
  4. Not everything works. You can have a great idea and a shitty execution. You can have flawless prose but a lame idea. Sometimes you can fish, sometimes you have to find another river.
  5. There is a vibrant writer’s community not only online, but right in your own backyard. Writers love to help other writers, to be there for each other, to support you when you get down and cheer you when you succeed. Don’t be afraid to reach out, we’re all in this together. I’ve yet to meet a single writer either online or IRL who doesn’t have publishable talent under a mishmash of adverbs and tense confusion.
  6. Everything happens in an incredibly slow pace. I see authors release books year after year and I figure that it must be easy to crank out drafts. But revision takes forever. Also it’s hard to get enough time in the day to work on what I really need to be working on. And even if I start sending out queries today, in the best possible scenario, it would be at least two years for my book to hit the shelves.
  7. I have the talent. I can sense with each passing week and month that my craft is improving, that I’m progressing, that I’m building my skill up to a publishable level. I recognize that I still have much to learn, that given another year or two, I should be a master, or at least halfway decent. And this is the most important lesson of all: I must be focused on continual improvement, of working as hard as I can on my craft, because it’s not a process, it’s an education.

So it’s still Day One of my new career, even after a year. I’m still starting at the beginning, trying to find my way through the morass of the publishing industry. I know that I will query Steam Palace this year, I will finish the first draft of The Immortals, and I will also write a new NaNoWriMo novel. And if I’m sitting here next March in this same cafe without either a modicum of success or at least some spectacular failures, I’m really going to have to think about what I’m doing with my life. But for now I’m going to keep plugging away.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Scene Structure Part V – Plot Circles

Part of an ongoing series on Scene Structure.

Plot Circles

crop circle An interesting thing happened at my writer’s meeting the other day. One critiquer started asking me about various threads I left hanging, mentions of things not fully explained, strange words and other things. Since my story is a bit of a mystery, I’m sprinkling in clues for the reader to note. I did these things intentionally but subtly, trying not to call too much attention to them. But an astute reader will pick up on them and wonder, “what’s really going on?”

This is what I’m calling “Plot Circles.” Elements that appear earlier in the story must be addressed in later portions of the story. In fact, the more importance you give to them (judged by word count), the more they need to be addressed.

Here are some kinds on things that may need to be wrapped up later in a story.

  • Props – Unless it’s pure background, every prop should be used at some point. The more you describe something, the more likely it will be used. Characters don’t focus on background unless they see a tornado approaching. Describe only what’s important to the character, and important for the reader to remember.
  • Characters – Every character that acts, talks, or has a name is important. Don’t give “background” characters unneeded importance. If I’m in a coffee shop ordering a latte, I don’t provide the name of the barista or anyone in the shop unless it’s a recurring character.
  • Actions – Not everything your character does needs to make sense. In fact, usual-acting characters will draw the reader’s attention. But every time you call attention to strange activity, the more importance you give it. If there’s a crazy man disrupting things, he’d better have an important message. If a character keeps checking a watch, the reader will expect that something’s about to happen.
  • Communications – Notes, text messages, talking birds, calls from lost relatives, missives from Heaven, crop circles, these can all be great methods, but make sure they are followed up at some point. Sometimes the messenger can be as important as the message, but sometimes the messenger should be shot—ie, removed from the story.
  • Mentions – Things like “you know we can’t do that” without explanation. Sometimes it’s more important what you leave out of a scene than what you leave in. Vague references, thoughts, implications, tics, avoidance, obsessions, fears—these can all give the reader pause and wonder if something bigger is going on.
  • Misdirection/Lies – Some of these your reader can see clearly. Some are only revealed later. Characters lie to each other more often than not. They trust few people with the truth. However, without some dose of the truth, the reader will be lost. But more than that, lies are told for a reason, and that reason should be revealed at some point.

If you leave things hanging in early scenes, you need to complete the threads in later scenes. Here’s a list of some methods to wrap things up.

  • Reversals – I’ll have a whole post about this, but here’s an example. In scene 10, Joe loads a gun carefully. In scene 20, when he needs it, it’s empty. Why? You see how we complete the circle, but start a new one. BTW there better be a damn good explanation why it’s empty or your readers will revolt.
  • Revelations – Your character learns something new, a key piece of the puzzle. He puts 2 and 2 together. He connects characters. He sees things in a new light. He knows who the secret admirer is. He knows who emptied his gun. He now knows why he’s scared of dogs.
  • Conclusions – Using deductive reasoning, Col. Mustard could not have used the pipe wrench in the library. Tie things together. Eliminate the impossible. Point the finger.
  • Backstory – What haven’t we heard yet? What critical piece is missing? It might have been nice to know from the beginning that the main character has an older brother who is the true heir.
  • Confessions – Faced with harsh reality some characters finally admit the truth. Whether coerced or out of guilt, confessions reveal a lot. Perhaps a level of trust or mutual admiration has been earned.
  • Change – Lessons must be learned. What’s different now? Why did your character go through those hardships? Does he now know the proper salute?
  • Reality – What’s really going on? I believe that narrators should be honest. If you say that the sky is blue in scene 1, it shouldn’t be magenta in scene 52 unless something really strange is happening. The discovery of reality must be character-driven, otherwise you’re just playing tricks with your reader.

Here’s a technique to make sure you don’t leave incomplete circles. Run through each scene, and if there is anything mentioned that is not explained or used in that same scene, mark it. Then as you find the answers later in the book, cross them off. Once you’re done, you’ll find a bunch of things you may need to correct. Examples: What ever happened to that beautiful vase of wildflowers mentioned in scene 20? Did we ever find out if she found her birth parents? Why didn’t they just go downtown and spend the $40 for a marriage license? We go on and on about the Immortal Gods in chapter 7 but then never use a single one of them. We know that she lied on her job application, but nothing’s come of it. In chapter 12 she’s addicted to Ebay but in 27 it’s like it never happened. Didn’t he ask her out in the last chapter? How many colors can the sky be in one book? There was a great scene with her mom in chapter 4 but then we never see her again.

How do you find and complete your plot circles?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Iapetus999 and the Olympian

Iapetus999 and the Olympian

2010-03-03 JR Celski 007It was my honor to meet Olympic Two-Time Bronze Medalist J. R. Celski yesterday in my local 24 Hour Fitness gymnasium. He won the bronze medal in short-track speed-skating in the men's 1500 meters race and the men's 5000 meter relay in the 2010 Winter Olympics. He’s a little guy but very polite and gracious, despite having to face a gym full of screaming female teenagers worthy of a Twilight premiere.

2010-03-03 JR Celski 002 I thought of writing a post equating winning an Olympic medal to writing a novel, but frankly I have no idea what it takes to win a medal. Reading his website, I see that he’s been skating and rollerblading since he was little, and performed in a lot of Junior events around the country over the years. Maybe that’s what I need to be doing…competing, putting myself out there, entering every competition and contest I can find, sharpening my skills like J. R. sharpens his blades.

Then maybe someday I’ll be the one sitting behind the table with screaming girls waiting in line just to see me.

2010-03-03 JR Celski 005

Monday, March 1, 2010

Scene Structure Part IV – Information

Part of an ongoing series on Scene Structure.

Information

computer-too-much-informati Every scene contains a certain amount of new information. Information management can be one of the toughest aspects of crafting a story, since you want to build your world and your characters with drowning your reader with mind-numbing facts. Information can be divided into these general areas:

  • History – Basically everything that’s happened from the beginning of time up until this point of the story. Family history, social history, geological history, corporate history, births and deaths and everything else.
  • Setting – Where things are, what they look like, and what things that can be manipulated. Buildings, roads, rooms, tokens, animals, coffee cups, climate, local dress, mobile objects like cars, dragons, etc.
  • Character – Who are the characters, what do they know, what are their relationships, what are their individual beliefs, what are their motivations. Just keeping track of a cast of hundreds can cause a migraine. Make charts if you have to.
  • Value Systems – Whether codified in law, religion, or custom, these systems can have complex rules and interpretations. Every action your character does either aligns or is against accepted value systems. 19th century people didn’t use cell phones. What was their mode of communication? Women didn’t wear jeans back then either, and couldn’t vote. Make sure your rules and customs are consistent with the setting.
  • Object Skills – From swinging a broadsword to reciting an incantation, object skills help a character interact with the world around them. Many of these skills must be mastered to progress in the story.
  • Life Skills – How to kiss, how to raise a child, how to pay taxes. These are harder to define than object skills, but they are usually more important. The character must master some important Life Skill to prevail in the end, but there are some smaller skills they can work on in the meantime.
  • State – This is sort of the catch-all knowledge-base. The position of characters in the setting, where all the objects are, the weather, time of day, who knows what about whom, even hidden things not obvious to the reader or the characters. What are they wearing? Holding? Body position, facial expression, pitch of their voice. Are they expecting someone? Waiting for a bus? This is the “what’s going on right now” question.

In every scene, the POV character is going to acquire either information and/or skills that will help them along their journey. Note that these lessons may not be easy, and some knowledge is won at a very high price.

I think it’s important to impart some portion of each of those bullet points above in every scene. The next question is, what techniques to use to make this information flow seamlessly to the reader without appearing forced? Here are some ways:

  • happy-man-and-his-dump-truckThe Information Dump (info dump). In very foreign (to our experience) settings, especially fantasy worlds, you may just need to explain the setting and the rules to the reader. The danger of this method is boring the reader, but done well, it can be a fascinating look at another world.
  • Exposition. Similar to the info dump, you basically include an essay about your world in your story. This is a non-dialog method of explaining the world. Keep it as short as possible.
  • Training. A character acquires a Mentor who guides them through the nuances of their world. The Mentor is there to impart critical information, but the character usually must pass some tests to earn each piece of info. The Mentor may not have the character’s best interests at heart, so something false information can create challenges for your character later on.
  • Goal-oriented Problem Solving. Your character is trying to accomplish something, and must interact with the setting and characters to do it. Perhaps they are exploring the world, noting things as they go, providing the reader with their impressions of what they find.
  • Dialog. Your character is allowed to ask questions…unless they already know the answer. Be wary of the “As you already know, Bob…” Interactions with other characters is very revealing.
  • The Novice. A good technique is to create a “novice” character who, like the reader, knows little about the world they’re in and must be inquisitive to survive. Be wary of exposition in dialog where characters go on lengthy explanations about the world.
  • Prologues. If you must, prologues are handy for explaining a key part of the backstory. However, when you review published literature, you’ll find they are rarely needed even when they’re included. Use them sparingly.
  • Consequences. To help learn the rules of the world, characters should break them, and then face the consequences. The rules are there for a reason, and can reveal a lot about the people who crafted them.
  • Research. More character-directed than Training, the character goes to a library or Google to find out key information. But as you know, there’s nothing more boring to a reader than hearing about keyword searches, so stick to the highlights.

Another point is that your character must grow in each scene. Whether growing in skill, knowledge, or in experience, each scene is like a mini life-lesson.

What techniques do you use to pass along information to your characters and readers?