From Beginning to End

When writing a novel, some people have trouble with how to begin.  Where should the story start?  How much action?  How much dialogue?  Should I include backstory?  Sound familiar?

If this is you, there’s help in the form of a book by Nancy Kress called Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.

I personally struggle with beginnings, so I thought I would take a look and try to learn a thing or two.

Some obvious points:  You want to make sure you have an engaging character.  You also want to make sure your story has conflict.

But if you’ve gotten that far, what could possibly be missing?

  • It’s all in the details.  And not just any details.  Very specific details.  “Details set your opening apart from the hundreds of others similar to it,” says Kress.  Here’s her example.  Don’t just say Mary loves dogs.  Show how she feeds her eighty-pound Lab all the best leftovers every night.
  • Create credible prose.  Meaning, learn how to use the English language in a way that is accurate, interesting, and easily understood.  For example, consider varied sentence structure.  Short sentences pick up the pace and add drama, while longer sentences slow things down and add tension.
  • A note on character: make sure he or she is unique enough to be picked out of a crowd.  Ask yourself, “Would nine out of ten people behave and think like this?”  The answer should be no, otherwise you haven’t conveyed your character to readers in a compelling enough way.  You need to share more and perhaps dig a little deeper into what makes your character unique.

Add these elements with others and you’ll be on your way to having a successful opening scene!  But what next?  Kress suggests toning down the level of conflict in scene two.  You can do this with backstory or flashbacks, but be careful they don’t slow the story down too much.  The key is balance.  You can certainly continue on with more action, but if you’re going to do that, the challenge is to reduce the level of conflict in relation to the opening scene.  Or you could consider introducing conflict in the form of a subplot, but again, make sure it’s not quite as intense as the opening.  It’s all about pacing.

There’s also advice for trouble with murky middles and how to wrap up the ending of your story in a satisfying way.  But we’ll save those tips for another day…  Or better yet, go check out this book!

In the meantime, get started on your story.  Will it be Once upon a time…or perhaps something more unique?  I think you know the answer! 😉

 

 

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Crafting Great Scenes: Give Your Story a Pulse

So you finished NaNoWriMo.  Now what?  It’s time to revise.  Or maybe you haven’t started writing yet.  Either way, the key to a successful novel is in the scenes.  Each scene should tell its own story with a beginning, middle, and end.  It should have conflict and tension and move the story along.  And above all, it should have a pulse.

I recently finished a great book on crafting scenes called The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield.  Here are some highlights!

First, as an exercise to get you thinking about what makes up a good scene, try writing about a movie scene as you watch it.  This is a great way to deconstruct exactly what makes a scene work, all while enjoying your favorite movie 😉

What makes a scene come alive?  It must have a pulse.  The author defines a pulse as an emotional need or desire.  Tension arises from the pulse and is built from action.  You can imagine the pulse like a heart beating, a flame burning, or a key turning.  Fun!

Scofield provides a great example of a pulse using a story about an aspiring writer.  The ambition to be a writer is the pulse; but by neglecting everything else, there is a confrontation with the lover who says if things don’t change, then he will leave–that is tension!

You also want each scene to have a focal point, hot spot, or pivot.  Otherwise, the scene will be boring.  Think of it as the turning point where everything changes.  For example, the moment when the love interest walks in the room at a boring party.  Here’s a little math equation to help you remember:  Scene (Before X + After X) where X=focal point

Remember that each scene should involve some kind of conflict whether big or small and a resolution.  Keep in mind that conflict actually means power struggles and attempts at negotiation.  In each scene, always try to identify the balance of power.  Who has power and who doesn’t?  What does each character do to try to gain power in a given situation?

Another important element of a scene involves the use of images, which enhance a scene by creating a mood and revealing how a character experiences the world using the five senses.  We must see the world through the eyes of your point of view character and feel what he or she is feeling.

Also be aware of the emotions of your character and how they may change during the scene (i.e. from hope to sorrow).  This will help you create an emotional arc for your character throughout the story, so that he or she can grow and change.

And don’t forget to ask yourself: “Why have this scene?”  It should either reveal character or advance plot. If it does both, even better!

Just to recap.  How do you make a good story great?  One well-crafted scene at a time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plotting vs. Pantsing

The age-old question for novel writers regarding how they work:

Are you a plotter or a pantser?  It sounds funny, but writers really do fall into one of two categories.  They usually make a detailed plotline before they write and then follow it, sometimes allowing for a little serendipity.  OR they write by the seat of their pants, meaning they write as they go, following the muse wherever it leads.  Then there’s the plotser.  I believed myself to fall into this category, as I always know the beginning and end of my story as well as some major plot points, critical scenes, and the climax.

But which one is right for writing?

Truly, either style CAN work.  What I’ve learned over time is that the pantser tends to have more freedom in the beginning but will have more work after the first draft.  The plotter takes more time to choreograph all the details ahead of time, but ends up with a more polished first draft.

So really, what you want to ask yourself is whether you want more work after you write (pantser) or more work before you write (plotter).  Either way, there is significant work involved! 😉

For plotting tips, I recommend reading Outlining Your Novel by K. M. Weiland.  The author makes plotting seem like an organic process.  It’s not so much about roman numerals and bullet points but more about figuring out what drives the narrative and building around that.  You basically keep a notebook of the details you do know in the order in which they happen and then just keep building on that until you connect all the dots.  Ask yourself a lot of questions and write in a stream of consciousness format, allowing for many different possibilities to unfold.  By doing this now, you’re more likely to figure out plot holes and fix them instead of writing yourself into a corner.  You’ll also quickly notice where your story lacks tension.

One great suggestion the author offers when you get stuck is to consider working backwards.  If you know what happens at the climax and you know one of the major events leading up to it, but you don’t know what happens in-between, you can use the climax as a springboard.  Meaning, think about what is necessary for the climax to occur, ask yourself some questions, and you will likely discover ways to lead up to this point.  That way you are less likely to add random, meaningless events just to fill space from point A to point B.

Once you get to the level of crafting individual scenes, consider Darcy Pattison’s advice on her popular blog, Fiction Notes.  In her post entitled “My 4000 Word Day: Prewriting,” she says, “Scenes need a beginning, middle, end; add in conflict and a pivot or turning point; stir with some great emotional development.”

Consider using a set of index cards and have one per scene.  Identify the POV, 3 reasons for each scene (i.e. character, theme, plot/subplot advancement), the number of pages, and on which day in your story the scene takes place (from your timeline or story calendar).  You can also rearrange the cards to determine the best scene progression.

Now if you insist on pantsing, which is OK, you might try these tips that I learned at Detcon, the North American Science Fiction Convention held in Detroit last summer.  When you get blocked, try using tarot cards, especially a literary archetypes deck.  You can also consider collaging ideas or creating a mind map.  You want to at least have a broad story arc and know up to 2 or 3 scenes ahead.  The voice is key, so try to nail that within the first 10,000 words before moving on.

The coolest thing I discovered about detailed plotting is how it actually heightens creativity rather than stifles it.  You’re still making up every detail from your imagination.  I would argue you can actually keep the flow going more easily at this stage, because you aren’t also focused on language and crafting the perfect sentences.  Furthermore, plotting reduces the anxiety of sitting down to write, since now you have a guide to follow.  Every sailer needs a map, even if you plan to go off course every once in a while.

So plot the course of your novel, and prepare to sail through your first draft with unexpected ease!

The Journey from the Outside In

For all of you writers out there,

Today I’m tackling part 3 of story structure.  Here’s part 1 and part 2.  Just to review.  You start with a complex character and you give them a goal.  The goal should drive the plot.

But don’t confuse the inner journey with the outer journey.  You need both, but the inner journey should be more subtle.  Nobody likes an “issue story,” but you do want to see your character change in some profound way at the end as well as get (or not get) what they originally wanted.  In fact, you might try giving them something else that they never knew they needed.  The happy surprise, just like in real life 🙂

For example: Character X can have a stuttering problem, but the goal should not simply be to overcome that problem.  There should be an external goal, (i.e. the character wants to be class president) which forces the character to face that issue.  As Character X battles his opponent, he must also tackle the childhood wound that caused the stuttering to take place.  The character not only stops stuttering and wins the election, but also comes out with greater self-esteem which is the real prize.

Bottom line:  Your job as a writer might be to show character growth, but  readers are here for story.  If you can deliver that first, they won’t mind the lesson they learned along the way.  In fact, they just might be grateful for it 😉

 

Give Your Story a Backbone

What’s missing in your story?  Try a story structure.  Focus your story more.  Give it a backbone.  If you’re a plotter, you may have already done that.  But if you’re a pantser, like I used to be, you probably didn’t.  You just went along with the story following it wherever it went.  This is fine.  Some great stories were created that way.  But I guarantee those same stories went through a rigorous round of revisions as well.  The best part is that once you’ve found your focus, it will be so much easier to cut away the excess material.

How DO you find your focus?  Start with a story question.  Figure out what your character wants.  Figure out your character’s wound, which is shaping his world and holding him back.  What or who is physically standing in his way?  And what is he afraid to lose?  Don’t forget to add a ticking clock to add tension.

Now get going.  Grab an eraser and get to work.  Kill your darlings, as they say.  Underneath the rubble of words you just might find your masterpiece.