plot development

Plot Triangles and Circles

This all started because as I was cleaning up the office, I found a portable hard drive with a copy of Trapped In The Closet on it. Say what you like about how absurd the story and the videos are, but there’s a plot there. As for whether or not it’s a “good” plot we can debate, but I’m going to tell you that I’m gonna side with the guy who made remix of Ignition fresh and hot out his kitchen more often than not – it’s entertaining while being vaguely in the ballpark of coherent, which is what we ask out of a plot.

The original draft of this post was a rundown of the Trapped In The Closet beat structure, but over time I started seeing that it wouldn’t do any good to bring up the midget and being deep in the streets without first making sure we’e talking the same language in plot.

What Is A Plot?

A plot is a series of events and actions that occur in an order that help resolve a question, conflict or challenge. If that conflict has to do with character, it’s a character plot. If it has to do with the main crux of the story, it’s called story plot.

All Plot Has A Structure

Plot ideally escalates and resolves according to divisions in stories we recognize as Acts. And in school, we most often see two different kind of Act structures: 3-Act and 5-Act.

Got this straight out of a textbook

 

Notice any similarities?

Look at both of these, they each deal with what’s called the Triangle or in some cases the Mountain, where the middle of the story is filled with the plot’s escalation, climax and resolution. The degree to which we delineate the start, rise, and resolution helps determine if we’re talking 3 or 5 Acts, but there’s no real way past the Triangle, or is there?

Here Comes the Circle

There’s this thing called the monomyth, the hero’s journey, Campbell’s structure … it’s all the same thing. It’s the progression of a hero through their story. It can be represented as a circle.

There’s a prettier version in color, but I like this version too.

The Triangle is gone. So are the clear markers about where the Acts start and end.  It’s a visual representation of progress more than it’s a sense of scale (the triangle has a high point that’s the tallest thing in the image, so that must correlate to the climax).

So Which Is Better?

Stop that. Stop thinking one is better, or that if you use one or the other you’re making some kind of profound statement as to what sort of writer you are, or how literary or whatever tilted bullshit is circulating in the writing media you consume. There is no better. They each have their uses. Each has situations where one will produce a more linear plot with fewer creative difficulties, so at best you can say one is situationally better than another, but no, there’s no Plot Thunderdome or Quickening to determine the best kind of plot.

And if you’re asking, yes there are other models of plot, and the one I teach clients will be up on Patreon starting this week.

These are just tools, and tools are only as potent as the person using them, no matter what they’re using them for.

I’ve set all this out so that we can get on the same page. This is going to be our common language for what we’re talking about today.

Plot Fuel, Plot Momentum, Plot Roadblocks

If you’ve ever said or thought, “I suck at plotting.” I will tell you that you don’t. You think you do, but that’s because you’re defining plot like it’s built out of something other than the rest of the storystuff – decisions and intention.

What you choose based on what you intend is the fuel that drives plot. All plots. Characters. Stories. Series. All of it.

Let’s nip the “my characters don’t follow my plot” idea in the bud – You made your characters. You made the plot. You make all the decisions as to what happens or what doesn’t happen. If one train of thought isn’t working out, you have the full ability to change part(s) of it until it does work out. Being uncomfortable with the responsibility for your creation is something you should come to terms with before proceeding down any creative path.

Intentions (like “I intend to tell a story about A meeting B and then doing X” or “This is a story about one woman’s struggle to find an identity as a beekeeper and office drone.”) help frame decisions, and as the story progresses you approach the subsequent with questions of “And therefore what” “And then” “Which leads to what happening and why?

These questions help build momentum in the story, because they lead you to make more new decisions in an orderly fashion rather than spraying thought shrapnel all over the place.

What does that look like? This:

Character realizes they’re trapped in a stifling job and their real passion is beekeeping.”
And then…
They try for weeks to get fired from their job, only to be promoted again and again for being ‘outside the box.'”
Therefore…
Her rival at work discovers her plan to get fired and tries to reveal it to the company
Which leads to what happening and why?
During the big merger talks, everything is exposed and…

What these questions do is help develop momentum because the later actions build off the earlier ones. It’s not a quick jamming together of disparate things that sound individually cool under the idea that if individually they’re cool, so collectively they must be double-extra-cool. You can prove this false by looking at movies that jam in extra villains hoping that more badguys make for more opportunities for awesome to happen, like in the Batman movies pre-Nolan, or comparing the plot development of the Star Wars prequels to the OG trilogy.

What you’re looking for is sequential, because that’s how you build momentum.

But now we have to talk about a roadblock.

No, not that guy.

I’m talking about the manufactured obstacles you put in the way of the story, without thinking they’re obstacles. The ideas that seem like they’d work or be cool or contribute to a better overall story.

This is the “I could have a character who…” or “What if this also happened while this other thing was happening…” additions that can come across like impulse additions or things that got included because they’re supposed to “help a book sell”

These might be great ideas when thought of as a bubble or a passing thought while you’re putting lunch in your face, but as with anything developmental, you have to ask how does this new thing work with the existing, and is it really worth it to tear apart what I’ve already got, just to add something that either doesn’t need a payoff or needs a payoff that profoundly impacts what I’ve got and where I wanted to go in first place.

I’ll offer two examples, one more serious than the other, so you can see what I mean.

Serious example: Add a love interest for Charlie Bucket into Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

There isn’t a romantic subplot in the movie. And while it may sound interesting to suddenly take one of the contestant kids and make them fall in love with our protagonist Charlie, so that ultimately when it’s time for this love interest to be proven unworthy of winning (which is the heart of the movie), we feel some extra level of sting when they meets their candy-themed demise. It sounds like this should be really compelling. It would let you write scenes with dialogue, and you’d get a look at what Charlie is feeling and you could maybe even talk about loss and grief once the love interest goes out but Charlie soldiers on. Sounds like a great idea.

Until you look at what the story is built on and see that adding something no matter how cool it might be to stretch your writing chops ultimately would involve really tough third act resolution. What if the love interest makes it to the end of the story? Are they still in the contest? Would they co-win? Wouldn’t that mean you’d have to make the secondary character a primary one to justify the story’s logic? Is it ultimately important for the story about childhood kindness, empathy and goodness to have to grapple with substantial emotional topics beyond the fact that a kid just watched another kid turn into a blueberry or fall down a hole or shrink and be taken away to be stretched? Aside from being a thing for the writer to write, what would that contribute to the story’s greatest plot-message?

Less serious example: What if in addition to blowing up the Death Star, Luke also has to overcome a fear of podracing?

One of the big traps people find themselves in is thinking that their plot isn’t enough, that their characters aren’t doing enough and that every element from small to large has to tie together. Now this gets a little tricky, because people read that and think I’m somehow writing a permission slip to have wild plot holes and loose ends. I’m not. I’m saying that you don’t need to tie every element back to some other part of itself or its package like some plot Ouroboros in order for the predominant plot to make “better” sense or fit “nicer” into the big picture of all the stories and ideas you’re presenting.

In the podracign example, trying to tie a thematic nod to a series element (podracing) to the rather focused narrative (blow up the Death Star) can result in slowing down pacing and making any additions (like a new podracing scene) feel like it’s unnecessary — because it would be. To add a bell or whistle when the story stands on its own won’t help make the story better, just different.

 

The point I’m making will all this — no matter what method you use to plot, no matter what that plot shakes out to be, every element in it, has to, in some positive way, contribute to the story’s completion or its depth. Depth isn’t meant in a pretentious way, I mean it in a “this has to add something that can connect to other material in a substantial way, that enriches existing material in some may other than cosmetics or fan service.”

 

I absolutely have more to say about plotting, so look for more next week. Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in plot development, plot stuff, 0 comments

InboxWednesday – Plots To Nowhere

Hey everyone, welcome to Wednesday. Hope you’re doing well. Let’s go jump into the inbox and see what’s up. Today’s question occurs 15 times in the inbox in various shapes and sizes, so I’m hoping this answer can serve as a proxy for all them.

My MS got rejected for a weak plot, I don’t know how to fix it, what do I do?

To start, we’re going to need to invent a plot. Let’s go with two, and we’ll make them dissimilar.

Our protagonist is a person with a past, and they’re trying to do everything they can to avoid trouble, but they get sucked into a giant-scale battle for the fate of all mankind with Galactic Overlord and douchenozzle Dale.

AND

Our protagonist is a quiet, hardworking cubicle drone who is routinely taken advantage of for a variety of reasons, until one day when they’ve just had enough of co-worker Dale’s douchenozzlery.

I want to start off with a quick set up that plot is one of the three critical pieces of story structure (the other two being character and world), and it’s one of the most diverse parts of storytelling, because anything with a conflict can be a plot.

And we can take a step back to say that “conflict” is another word for “challenge”, since the actions of a plot do represent a challenge to the characters’ status quo. Whether that’s a galactic dictator or an office jerk, there’s something or someone that prevents the main character from achieving their goal, even if their goal is just to keep hanging out and having Cheetos.

When we talk challenge, we have to talk scale of the challenge, because disproportionate scale is a manuscript killer. A disproportionate scale is one where either the problem or the character it’s affecting is way too great or too small but not played for laughs – think about a kindergarten class trying to stop Godzilla, or Superman trying to keep a fly off his potato salad. So when we create a plot, you need to frame that scale relative to the world you’re building.

This is where I talk about world, and I don’t mean just the single literal planet. The world of a story is the stage it’s set on, whether that’s the office building or a galaxy or the local high school where dreamy Dylan is aloof and all Brenda wants him to do is share his feelings. The scale of the problem has to fit within the world, and it has to fit in the world as well as being significant to the characters who are going to be doing something about it.

So in our intergalactic Dale story, our world is actually several worlds, and our heroine is a captain on a ship. We’ll give her a crew for good measure and throw her smack into the middle of the battle between Dale’s forces and the scrappy revolutionaries, because if I call them rebels, I’m sure Mickey Mouse will show up to my office and break my legs or something.

In our cubicle coming of age story, we’ll make our heroine a data entry technician, and Dale can be the brownnoser who sits on the other side of the cubicle partition, the guy who always takes credit for everyone else’s hard work. The world is just the office, and maybe a local lunch spot so we can keep the story fluid, but we’re not going to fly across country or maybe even to the next county in order to make this heroine get her shit in gear and give Dale a beatdown.

Working with all that, we have the basis for story. We’ve got crude bozzettos we can fill in with other characters and some details where applicable so that we’re not just telling the A to B progression.

Which brings us to the other plot assassin: linear progression.

In simplest terms, linear progression is the simplicity and speed a character takes actions that resolve the plot. For instance, if our plot is to get across the room, then we have progress from our chair to walking across the room and getting to the other side. This is a short progression. Granted, it’s a really simple example, and we don’t need to fatten it with something like an earthquake or hostage negotiation unless the story is really supposed to be about those things.

Let’s look at both our Dale examples. We know that in the end the respective Dale is out of commission. The specifics don’t matter for this discussion, though we can assume they’re relative to their respective worlds. Office Dale isn’t likely to get disintegrated by a quantum rifle, and Intergalactic Dale isn’t going to lose his hold on the galaxy thank to his Powerpoint presentation being swapped for animated GIFs of clown porn. (Again, we’re not playing this for laughs, since comedy would allow us the stretch the seriousness of the plots.)

So long as we know the end results, we can reverse engineer the plot by asking, “How did that happen?” until we reach the starting point in Chapter 1. Like this:

Office Dale is fired, heroine is promoted
How did that happen?
Heroine swaps thumb drives with Dale when he isn’t looking
How did that happen? 
Heroine’s best friend gives Dale her number.
How did that happen?
Heroine and best friend conspire after nearly getting fired.

Etc etc.

In this way, we’re making a kind of outline from back to front, where all we need to do is keep in mind that whatever the plot, however we choose to answer these questions, we have to show the heroine as having changed from however she was at the beginning of the story. It doesn’t even need to be positive change, it can be negative – say she gets all vindictive, or our space captain loses her faith trying to do what she thinks is best. You don’t need to stretch either of those elements out into support structure for every beat unless you’re trying so show office culture to be inherently selfish, or space faith to be corrupt.

Wait, let me slow that down. It’s a big deal.

To show a character has changed, you have to take something you established at the beginning (a fear, a doubt, a talent, a skill, a lack of skill, something about the character) and demonstrate that because of the plot, that thing isn’t the way it used to be at the end of the story. A hopeful character being broken down, or a bitter character gaining faith are the obvious and extreme examples.

But it doesn’t need to be so extreme in order to be workable, it just needs to be believable, and the reader will believe whatever the context of the character and the world can support.

In our office story, so long as the heroine is shown to be quiet and not assertive, and that she doesn’t develop mutant powers in order to stop Dale from being a jiggling bag of crotch weasels, there’s plenty of credible ways to show she’s assertive, the most common being a scene where she stands up during the Johnson account presentation and delivers the performance of her career.

For our space tale, if our captain is not a fan of the no-win scenario, and a Vulcan isn’t handy to be killed off in the third act, then she’s going to have to come to terms with some kind of loss that may put her on a redemptive arc later in subsequent stories. Maybe she’s stripped of her command and has to become one of the pirates she always hated.

How long does that take? Don’t know. There’s no specific answer to give you, because there is no magic number. But I can tell you that if you collapse the progression, if you shorten it, the audience isn’t going to believe it’s a viable arc. It becomes too convenient, as if the character just walked over to the closet and found the box labeled “plot fixer.”

Stretch it too far, and you’ll lose the momentum and reader focus. I see this a lot in science fiction and fantasy, where the quest to go put the magic doo-dad in the special place (sounds super dirty, you’re welcome) gets spread out over all these planets and with these side characters that contribute really tiny value to the story, but they’re great evidence that the writer loves to show off how many different words they can puke and masturbate into existence.

Again, this isn’t the screaming of one editor that you don’t need to keep the pendulum either on anorexia or obesity, but hey, there’s a whole realm of story between all or nothing that you should totally go check out and mine and live in and do something with. (for the record THIS IS THE SCREAMING OF ONE EDITOR SO THAT YOU KEEP WRITING AND STOP GOING TO HUGE EXTREMES IN ORDER TO GET THE RECOGNITION THAT YOU CAN ABSOLUTELY GET WITHOUT THE TREND-CHASING OR SOCIO-POLITICAL SOAPBOXING)

Plot weakness is about the choices you make, because it’s not enough to just choose the specific words but also the idea you’re trying to develop via those words. Remember – Writing is the act of making decisions.

The value a plot point contributes doesn’t have to be equal sized, but we’re telling a story, not working on the brunoise of an onion. Be willing to challenge not just how complex the plot is (because complexity does not guarantee quality any more than bombastic line delivery guarantees acting, I’m looking at you later years Pacino) and take that further to challenge the specific contributions of each plot point and plot participant.

Oh, and if you have an office or intergalactic Dale in your life, don’t you dare let them stop you from creating.

See you on Friday. Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in answering questions, inboxwednesday, living the dream, 0 comments

The Spine of Your Story

For the last few days, I’ve been in sort of a malaise, looking for a good topic, looking for inspiration, looking for a shining gem … in short, really feeling like I’ve lost my sense of direction as the worries of freelance life creep up.

When I get like this, after friends and caretakers and family all tell me some variation of, “You’ll figure it out” or “It’ll get better”, I sit down and think about what it is I’m trying to do.

(No, I don’t really sit like Rodin’s The Thinker, it’s more like a Batman sort of brooding.)

What I’m trying to do is help people get their stuff out into the world. Whether that means publishing, filming, displayed, sold, or whatever-ed. I like seeing people succeed at what they set out to do, and I like having a hand in that. Yes, I’m reaching a point where I will soon have many things of my own out there in the wild, but that’s a whole set of blogposts and related fears/anxieties for down the road.

When I get stuck, I go back to helping people. Say it’s because of a codependent upbringing or massive anxiety all you want, but I like having a skillset built to support others. Whether that makes me a kingmaker or a puppeteer is not up for me to decide, and frankly, I don’t have the interest in worrying about that. There’s awesome stuff to make, and I want to help, and I can help. That’s the spine upon which this business is built.

And that’s where I want to take today’s blogpost – spines.

People tend to describe the core ideals of their work in terms of foundations. As giant slabs of concrete or bedrock that supports a framework. They usually throw in mention of pillars or columns to go with an architecture metaphor when they describe successes.

I don’t have a problem with building foundations, it’s just that I don’t give them a lot of thought when I think about construction. When we look at buildings, we see the walls and exterior reach upward, we see the glass and metal, we see the neon lines, and the edges. We only see a foundation when we look for parking.

So, for me, foundations are important, but I prefer body metaphors to architecture, and it has very little to do with the fact that I withdrew from an architecture survey class in college after two weeks when I found out I’d need to produce slides (this was fourteen years ago) because the professor thought the slide captured the majesty of geometry better than photos or film.

In a body, it’s more than the feet (the foundation) that hold us up – it’s the spine. It’s a Jenga stack of  bone wrapped around critical nerves and control mechanisms. It gives us form, it separates us from earthworms, and its a really nice part of the opening for House.76fec7dcbb6b9210d2a29df551b1b4ff

And when we talk story, we look for a spine. We look for the stack of actions and emotions that give framework. We want to see the progression of one developed idea upon the other.

It’s worth pointing out here that your spine can also find its way into your query, as an ability to talk about the story’s framework (rather than just recite what the framework itself is), can help put your idea over with the reader. Here’s an example:

RECITING THE SPINE: And then Alice doxxes Bob because he sneezed during her presentation, which causes Bob to lose everything, ultimately building himself a supersuit out of old lawnmower parts to fight Alice, who morphed into a giant turtle monster thanks to exposure to radioactive isotope 43. They fight and realize neither side wins when people get petty or try to be Iron Man, because #TeamCap for life.

TALKING ABOUT THE SPINE: When one man’s life is ruined by pettiness, he finds the sort-of hero within, at least until the giant turtle monster shows up. No lawnmower will be spared in his quest to clear his name and restore the boredom of his low-paying wage slave existence.

When we talk spines, we can easily lose ourselves to the constituent parts: each vertebrae  a previous success, until we’re neck deep in nostalgia like a Bruce Springsteen song minus the too long rhythm guitar part. Yes, it’s great that we’ve built a spine on our successes: completed chapters, previous gold star moments, praise, fond memories, but a spine’s task is to carry the body forward and onward.

If we just stay on our spine-for-a-story track a minute, it’s important to know how to build that spine. A spine is built of beats, and the emotions underneath them. And just like in our Alice-Bob example, you need to be able to discuss what the beat is locally (summarize it) and what it is globally (speak about it broadly and conceptually.

Let’s look at a few more:

A New Hope
Luke finds the overcooked Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen, then goes back to Obi Wan to say he wants to become a Jedi.
VERSUS
A young man loses everything he knows and undertakes a quest that will not only change his life, but the entire galaxy.

Planet of the Apes
Marky Mark without his funky bunch discovers that it was Earth all along, but then goes back to Earth and sees a statue so then credits roll.
VERSUS
An alleged astronaut travels to what he thinks is an alien world of sentient primates only to discover that the sentient primates were coming from inside the house … or something.

All The President’s Men
Woodward and Bernstein break the Watergate story after doggedly investigating a money trail and getting help from Deep Throat.
VERSUS
Two journalists risk their careers in order to expose corruption at the highest levels of government.

Just like our actual spines having a system of nerves coiled all up and through the column, so too are there emotions tangled and connected to the beats within the spine. Why does the character do that thing? Do they think they’ll gain something? Do they see no other way? What are they risking, and are they aware of those risks? What obstacles do they face, what obstacles don’t they realize are out there? What can come along to change or challenge everything?

It’s these emotions and this reasoning (ill-conceived and otherwise) that’s critical to the story taking shape. After all, actions need the emotions to connect with the reader. We’re supposed to, and we want to, care about these characters doing whatever they’re doing. The buttering of toast is dramatic because we’ve followed this character’s struggles to use too cold butter on toast. The rescue of the kitten from the tree matters because we followed a character who’s afraid of dogwoods.

But it’s easy to lose track of the spine. It’s easy to get lost in wondering if it’s good enough. It’s easy to start seeing other spines and feeling like yours is bit of balsa wood while theirs are adamantium.

Or maybe you’re saying that since emotions are so important, maybe they’re the spine.

Let’s address both of those. Every spine is different. Whether or not yours is as good as theirs isn’t going to get you anywhere other than in a lot of worry and frustration (says the guy wondering if he’s doing enough compared to other editors and writing people). Is yours the best one YOU could produce?

Is it the best combination of emotions and actions, because emotions are important, but they’re not relayed to us without action. We see how a character feels based on what they do, it resonates with us not just we’ve had that feeling too, but because we’ve done that action due to our feelings. We relate thanks to the symbiosis of action and emotion, building a spine that will posture a story from beginning to end.

Build that spine one beat at a time. A word a time. A sentence at a time. You can do it.

 

I’ll see you guys Wednesday for some inbox deliciousness. Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in living the dream, 0 comments

BonusInbox – Writing & Focus

Good morning. We’re going to deviate from what I had planned for today’s blogpost (you’ll see that on Monday), because I wanted to bring you an extra question and answer from the inbox. It’s an important question, and honestly, I think it’s got elements that need to be discussed more often, so I’m going to do that along with my answer.

Today’s question comes from PJ:

This is a difficult question to ask because like the problem itself, it’s rather complex. I have an issue with over plotting and too many characters. I get to the middle or even the end of a first draft and realize I’ve packed way too much into one story. Which seems a simple enough issue to deal with; just edit it down. My real problem is the thought process I go through that leads me to these messes.
I think the writing itself is okay and that makes it even more frustrating. I have stories to share but it’s like I can’t settle my brain down enough to get one finished. My mind wanders, my attention span is a tad bit short and I’m on a few different medications that make me a little foggy. So with all that and the desire to just get a well-written story out there I get extremely overwhelmed.
Now I’ve written with & without outlines. Both methods fly off course, just one a little less than the other. So I guess my question is should I just admit to myself that being a writer just isn’t going to work? Is it possible to have the skills to tell a story with a mind that is incapable of keeping it on track? Or is there a way to settle myself down and salvage these stories?
On a personal level I’ve lived with a lot of health issues both physical and mental throughout my life and it’s sad to say but I’ve gotten used to wanting to do something but either my body or mind won’t let me. I was hoping this wasn’t one of those and I really don’t want to quit. I just don’t know what to do or when someone in this situation should just throw in the towel.

There’s a lot to unpack here PJ, so let’s go a chunk at a time.

“Too Much”
There’s always caution to be taken when we start tossing around “too” when we’re getting creative. Because the more “too” we spread around, the more judgmental we’re being of our work, and by extension, ourselves. Granted, there’s some wisdom in seeing that you’ve put too much in, so other people may agree with you once they read  it, but there’s still that risk that maybe you’re being overcritical and there isn’t actually too much. Holding yourself back, overthinking the process is a great way to breed frustration about the process, which can lead you to doing less and less of it over time.

Did you write too much, PJ? I don’t know. But your frustration is palpable in the question you wrote. My answer there is get someone to read it. A beta reader, someone who isn’t going to be biased in your favor, someone who you haven’t said, “Hey I think there’s too much in this story, give it a read?” and have instead said, “Could you read this for me?”

Over-plotting, Too Many Characters
Let’s suppose we have a popular television show. Let’s call it “Contest of Chairs.” And on our show we have, oh I don’t know, 180 characters. Sure, we’ll kill off a third of them, leaving us 120. Since we can’t have too many plots, let’s find a nice divisible number for 120, like 5. With 5 plots, that’s 24 characters to a plot.

Wait, you say, this television show is serial, so we can split these five plots over, I don’t know, 50 episodes. So let’s do some math.

50 episodes * 60 minutes to an hour = 3000 minutes
3000 minutes / 5 plots = 600 minutes per each of 5 plots

600 minutes / 24 characters per plot = 25 minutes per character per plot

So over the course of 6 seasons, each character per plot gets 24 minutes of narrative focus, according to my crude math. That’s about 4 minutes per plot per character per season.

Conclusion: Too many characters. Too little time spent focusing on them diffuses the story arc, making it hard for an audience member to do anything other than stay on top the show. The onus is on them to do whatever possible not to skip or miss an airing, and not be confused, because this story train is a-running, and we got not time to be slowly down.

Don’t confuse complexity of plot or character quantity for any mark of quality. Some of the movies collectively loved and appreciated don’t have many featured characters. Do you know why? Because too many characters makes it hard to follow along. And when you get into trying to distinguish Sal from Salvatore from Sally from Sal Jr, you’re doing yourself no great service as a writer.

You don’t need more characters, you need to focus more on the characters you do have.

As for plot? As we learned in FiYoShiMo, plot is a conflict that the character(s) effort to change, and as a result, change themselves. The more complex it is, the more you’re requiring the reader to follow along, and making it harder for them to do so.

I get it, you don’t want to be boring. You don’t want to be like all the other books on the shelf. You want to stand out. Let the quality of what you do be the thing that puts a spotlight on your work. How well you tell a plot, even if it’s “simple”, says way more about your craft than whatever the plot is.

What this tells me PJ, is way more about you as a writer than the specifics of your writing. Whether it’s fantasy or sci fi or Regency romance or who knows what, what your question tells me is that there’s an element of frustration and self-doubt floating around. I don’t know if you’ve asked yourself why you have to make things so big and twisty, and maybe you’ve often chalked it up to, “That’s just how I think of these things…”, but before you answer, this is going to segue us to our next section.

Schedule and Focus
Let me draw back the magic writer curtain. No matter what author you want to talk about, no matter the era they live in, no matter the genre they produce, the single greatest unifying trait, the strand that ties all writers together is that they write. Whether that’s foolscap and ink, typewriter, Macbook Air, dictation to a secretary, or even interpretative dance, a writer writes. And looks for opportunities to keep writing.

You’re on the right track with outlines, and good for you for trying them out, but the downside to an outline is that they can be just as complex as the MS they support.

But PJ, there’s no magic bullet. There’s no one solution to put in place so that all anyone needs to do is outline in this one particular way, and then write paragraphs of a certain length, then draft a certain number of times. There just isn’t.

In that space though, you have freedom, and I think it’s a double-edged sword. Yes, you can go about creating this MS in a dozen billion million different ways, but that can also be paralyzing. Like looking at a closet and not knowing what to wear, but knowing you need to put on something. Like looking at an open fridge and not knowing what you want to eat, but knowing that if you don’t eat, a tiny muse will appear in your office and insist you eat because otherwise you get grumpy and then you’re way less fun to talk to (I may have said too much there, PJ).

Couple that with whatever anxiety, shame, frustration, and anger you’re feeling about being foggy and having some expectation of success (see next section), and it’s little surprise to me that you’re often discouraged. It’s entirely possible for you to write, and write well, with whatever meds and attention span you have. It’s gonna require some discipline and you’re gonna have to challenge yourself, but you can do it.

Smaller successes queue just as nicely as larger ones, although we seem to value them less. We prize getting a promotion at work as being “better” than being able to walk up and down a flight of stairs. We tout qualifying for a mortgage over the sheer fact that last Wednesday you got out of bed. Just because we don’t put it in a Facebook status update or a tweet doesn’t mean it’s not worth celebrating (says the guy who shuffles when he walks and occasionally feels like there’s a conga line of blue whales on his chest). Give yourself credit for the small stuff as well as the large stuff. It’s not small or large, it’s just stuff.

So when you sit down to work, work in small chunks, as your attention span allows. Is that five minutes an hour? 3 minutes a day? Two words at a time? 46 minutes straight? Whatever your attention span, make the most of it. And then, give yourself a fucking break. You just put words on the page, stop judging them, and be proud that you did it. You can hash out if they stay or go when you finish writing and start revising. Play to your strengths.

Expectations
PJ, a big part of your question seems to be about expectations. That you need X Y and Z elements to happen in certain ways in order to be successful, and if you don’t write this, or do that, or submit here, or whatever then … what exactly? Does the world end? Are you going to smash your keyboard on the cliffs? Rigidity in expectation can be a killer.

If your goal is to get published traditionally, so long as someone signs you and the terms are amenable, are you going to quibble over the name on the letterhead? If your goal is to sell a certain number of books, are you going to be upset if it takes more than a week? Especially if the number is large and has a comma in it?

There are many ways to skin the success cat, but holding on too tightly to the idea that there’s only ONE way to have “success” (I’m making airquotes because I mean success in a broad sense), is a great way to never be satisfied and keep those fires of self-doubt and not-good-enoughness burning.

This is also a great way to keep blaming yourself and feeling bad for having attention issues and being on meds for them. I don’t know if that’s what you’re doing, but if you are, I gotta say, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t make you less of a person or a creator if you gotta go take a pill for something. You’re not a bad person for needing meds. I’m sorry they make you foggy, but you’re still capable, so long as you play to strengths and don’t give up.

Find your goal. Boil it way the hell down. Is it to be a published author? Is it to just have a complete story that someone will buy?

And then start questioning it. Would you feel like less of a writer if you serialized the story? Or if you recorded it as audio? Or paired with, I dunno, a theater troupe to perform the first four paragraphs?

How you measure that success is going to often provoke the frustration. Don’t live up to some standard or bar that you’ve set, and you can easily drive yourself to feeling like you should quit. But you shouldn’t. Because you didn’t “fail.” You did something, you wrote, you produced something on a given day, and sometimes it’s just gotta be good enough, because you’re always good enough, whether you wrote 1 word or 10,000.

So What Do You Do?
Start small. Way small. Set tiny goals that you can demolish. Set goals that you can demolish where you can accomplish multiple goals then reward yourself.

When you map out the story, don’t limit yourself to just an outline. Try note cards. Try audio notes. Try visual diagrams.

And keep it small. Write out your characters. Read about plot. Go slow, stay organized.

Maybe this video will help.

BUT DO NOT GIVE UP.

THERE IS NO NEED TO GIVE UP PJ.

FIGHT BACK. KEEP WRITING. DISCIPLINE AND SUCCESS. MEASURABLE PROGRESS AND GIVING YOURSELF SOME CREDIT.

Keep going.

*

I’ll see you guys Monday. It looks to be a good weekend here at Castle Adamus. There are things to read and new shows to feast upon. Have a great time doing what and whoever it is you do.

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in answering questions, believe in yourself, living the dream, 0 comments

FiYoShiMo Day 18 – Plot and Time

Today, we’re talking about time, and how it relates to plot.

Time is one of the story elements that sits in a very unique position – either the story is built around it, or it doesn’t get mentioned outside of passing details that end up being of little consequence. You can’t say that about other elements like setting or description of objects. Time is at once critical and not, flexible and fixed, static and dynamic.

Wrong franchise, but valid idea here.

We need to know the time. It provides a boundary over the scale of a story, it helps gives actions and characters a significance. If we’re telling the story of a kidnapping, knowing the time of certain scenes and beats help us map out the events of the story, even if it gets all chopped up Rashomon style. If we’re telling the story of a planet being forged out of starstuff and gravitic forces, we’re less concerned about the congealing of hydrogen on a particular Tuesday, and more interested in the zoomed out galactic view of millions or billions of years.

The nice thing is that as storytellers we have an infinite supply of it. Even if our storied is bounded within the confines of a single day or a weekend or a few hours, no matter the boundaries we can set up the pacing of the story to allow for lots of actions to be occurring simultaneously within our chronological windows. As I write this post it’s early afternoon. I’m willing to bet that while I’m writing this post, there’s someone elsewhere who is answering a phone, or pouring a glass of water, or thinking about pickles. I’m comfortable with that bet because there are so many people and places in the world that I can’t easily conceive or count them all, so I’m chalking a lot up to possibility.

As a creative, you have such enormous control on what’s possible in your world. How much can someone do in a day?

Well, Die Hard (the movie that’s on in the background while I’m typing this), takes place over one night. John McClane does a lot of things, if by a lot you mean shoot, run, and quip.

I pick that film because it shows a stretching of time. Over the course of an evening, Gruber and his forces infiltrate, take hostages, begin a robbery, and get foiled, all before the sun rises. Outside of a few plot demands that people be released or actions be taken at certain times, you don’t really know how long it’s been from shooting that security guard to the Rickman plummet. And you don’t have to. In Die Hard, time is immaterial. It takes time to do these things, but whether it’s 3, 5, or 7 hours doesn’t matter to you.

Contrast that with Ghostbusters. There’s a pretty generous collapsing of time. How long does it take for the busters of any g-h-o-s-t to build a following, make radio and television appearances and get a small business in New York City off the ground? Sure, it’s all montage with cuts back to Sigourney Weaver, but that montage represents weeks or even months.

Between those two films, you can see the flexibility of time as applied to story.

Ask yourself how critical time is in your story. Do we need to track time as if it’s finite (as in a kidnapping or heist story)? Do we need to stop considering time altogether, because there are more important things at work (like in high fantasy where it’s all warfare and drama)?

Ask yourself what benefit time has in your story. Are your characters challenged by a lack of it? Is time so abundant they can procrastinate without any consequence?

Ask yourself if time is bound or unbound. Bound time is the period of time the story takes place in as a range of days in sequence, but we don’t look past it. A story about a weekend bachelor party where we’re only concerned about Friday to Sunday, is bound time. Yes, we have an idea that time exists beyond and existed prior to the story, but we’re only asked to focus on a specific range of contiguous time.

Unbound time is the period of time the story takes place in, but it doesn’t matter if the days are in sequence or not. A story told in non-linear chronological order, or a story with inconsistent stretches of time (a weekend here, a Tuesday over there, a Monday to a Wednesday later on), gives us a sense that time is a thing, and it’s “sort of” acting as a boundary in our story, but it’s more of a guideline than some concrete rule.

We’ll end today with this – managing time in the story goes a long way to giving it credibility and a feeling of groundedness. Even if you don’t use our Earth-based calendars or time metrics (any of them), even if you rename all the days and months and give them irregular lengths or durations, you’re still giving the story one additional layer that people can hold onto and invest in.

Don’t dismiss time. Don’t put it off. Some of us have waited many many years for some stories to get advanced, so don’t think it’s not important to us.

*I apologize for the brevity of this post. HOLY SHIT TODAY IS STAR WARS DAY! WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT ANYTHING OTHER THAN STAR WARS?!

See you tomorrow, where we’ll conclude our discussion of plot with Plot Crutches.

Posted by johnadamus, 0 comments

FiYoShiMo Day 16 – Plot Padding

Padding. It’s what happens to clothing, taxes, genital length, margins, and -ton Bears.

It also happens to plots. You don’t realize it’s happening until someone else comes along, because padding is insidious – it weaves its way into sentences and paragraphs and concepts at a foundational level, so you can’t just delete certain paragraphs and excise it. You have to go through word-by-word, line-by-line, and scour everything for the bloat.

That doesn’t sound like a fun job, but it’s actually part of the editorial process I like. I see it the way sculptors see the latter stages of their work, you’re fine-tuning the process with expert taps of a hammer to splinter off material.

Today on FiYoShiMo Day 16, we’re talking about padding a plot. Just the plot. There are other types of padding: sentence, chapter, and act, and they’re each deserving of a blogpost or two on their own, but for now, we’re going broad with plot padding.

Write out your plot. Put it at the top of the page. Take as much space as you need, write as much detail as you like.

Then under that, in a column, write out the biggest plot beats. These are the scenes you NEED to have to hold your story together. Not the names of the scenes, we all know you need a climax, I mean what goes on in the scenes.

Like this:

A woman has to save her marriage by taking on a second job – a small-time crook – so she can infiltrate the crime syndicate she believes her husband is a part of. 

The marriage falls apart
She suspects him of infidelity
She follows him
She discovers the Syndicate
She discovers how to join the Syndicate
Her first robbery
The police get involved
Her string of robberies
The Syndicate makes her an offer
The police get closer
She joins the Syndicate
Her husband reveals other secrets
The police and Syndicate square-off
She faces a terrible decision between marriage, police, Syndicate
She decides
Consequences!

You can’t remove any of those elements and leave the story intact. Whether they’re specific scenes or if I could later fold some ideas together is something that can happen later, but for now I want as much clarity as possible.

This is like when you spill all the Legos into a pile then sort them by size before you get frustrated that it’s taking so long, so you just start building. Seriously, take the time to sort your pieces out. The building will happen, just do this first.

What I’ve got above is the main plotline. There aren’t any minor characters here: no kids, no other family or neighbors, no co-workers or anyone like that. I’m only working with the protagonist, her husband, the Syndicate and the cops (it’s unclear who the antagonist is right now, that’s fine), and that’s just so I see the skeleton of the story.

Where could I add things? Well I could add kids. I could make them the B-plot. I could add neighbors or friends who do something tangential to the story, I could give the wife a best friend as a sidekick. I could write a Syndicate goon for a little comic relief. Plenty of room for character-based expansion.

What if I expanded the world? There’s no world in that list, I could set this in any city on any planet at any time. I just need a place where people are married, there are criminals and there are law enforcement.

It’s okay that I don’t know how many words I’ll devote to each part, who knows how long it would take me to write out the bad marriage opening, because I don’t need that kind of boundary yet. Everything is open and there are no limitations. Those decisions come later. Right now the only decision is whether or not something gets written about at all, not how much gets written about it.

The story does need some B-plot. I like B-plot, it gives the reader a little breathing room, and it gives me more characters and situations to explore in the MS.  In a second column, I’d detail some B-plot. Let’s give her a friend, and make them the suspected paramour. All that info goes into a second column, like this:
TWOCOLUMN

You put your B-plot in its own column parallel to your main plot so you can see how things dovetail together. Also, working vertically allows you to see that all the elements in the column form an arc.

So far, there’s not explicit padding, but now I’ve added room for padding. How much detail do you use to cover the consolation and suspicion of her friend? I’d need a transition between suspecting the friend and letting the friend tag along on a crime spree. I’d need to spend some time developing the friend to be well-defined. All of those spots are chances for me to get a little long-winded. (Me? Long-winded? I know, you’re shocked)

Padding happens when you detour, when the boundaries and organization get a little mushy or thin. I don’t think I need a second B-plot, I don’t think there needs to be kids in this story, so there’s no third column. Sure I could write it, but does it really need to be there? What would it add to the story, aside from word count? The story focuses on this woman and her decisions, and the B-plot already reinforces that.

Padding happens when any part of the story could stand to be reinforced, but instead you distract from it. It’s very much stage magic, where you look at one hand while the other is palming the card.

Padding happens for a lot of reasons: a lack of confidence in plot, a want to show off your word skills, a hunt for validation and praise, thinking that writing more words will cover up the fact that you’re not great at wielding words, a lack of decision making, and those are just the common ones I see enough times that I can list them off the top of my head.

The solution is to trust yourself and make some decisions. I’m not saying that all stories need to be slippery smooth with no fat on them. You don’t need to trim everything down in some minimalist fashion, and you shouldn’t. But you do need to give yourself some boundaries.

How far is too far? When you’re multiple scenes and pages removed from plot. When you’re losing yourself to minutiae and extraneous detail. When you’re putting stuff in and telling yourself that you can just cut it out later. Challenge yourself to write stuff for more reasons than “it can just come out later.”

A manuscript is neither gaunt nor obese. There’s quite a range of healthy size between those extremes. It’s such a range that I don’t usually assign broad wordcount to it,  because 75k is as valid as 64k is as valid as 81k, if the words are all working together to deliver the ideas.

There’s a lot to unpack and digest here, and we’re going to get more into it tomorrow, when we talk about Plot Interruption. See you then. Today, keep writing. Keep thinking about your plots. Keep developing, and keep deciding.

Happy writing.

 

Posted by johnadamus in fiyoshimo, plot development, plot stuff, 0 comments

FiYoShiMo – Day 15 – Plot Sustenance

More plot today on FiYoSHiMo Day 15. I hope you’ve been finding this series helpful. Plot is one of the more abstract and variable elements in storycraft, since we can all come up with a different one even if we start with the same components.

Let’s keep at it today, where we talk about plot sustenance.

You have to be able to keep a plot going once you get it started. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking main plot (the big conflict in the book) or a subplot (a lesser conflict in the book) or a character arc (the evolution of the character over the course of the book), because whatever you start, you need to keep it going.

It’s sort of like running. If you stop moving your legs, you’re not running anymore. Thinking about it now, without moving your legs while running, I think you’d be falling. Someone go test that for me.

Or maybe you’d see it like a fire. You have this nice stack of small pieces of wood and then you introduce this spark, and it catches and burns, continuing to do so for as long as there’s wood to consume.

Either way, you need to keep the plot moving.

This breeds three questions:

a) How do I move the plot forward?
b) How much do I move the plot?
c) How quickly do I move the plot?

So let’s look at each question.

How Do I Move Plot Forward?
The nice thing about plot is that it only has one intended direction (forward) and two possible speeds (moving or immobile).

Plot is driven by scenes, and scenes are driven by character decisions and any consequences that arise from those decisions. Any reactions that other characters or the world has to those initial decisions are also decisions, which is also bear consequences, and around the cycle turns. Basic algebra tells me then that plot is driven by character decisions.

And since a plot can only be acted on by the characters involved in it, the number of decisions is actually pretty small. Which means you get to map them out. Go get your opening scene. I’m going to go get a cup of tea.

Ready? Cool. List me all the characters in this scene. All of them. In any order, doesn’t matter. Just make a list.

Now put a star by the main character(s). Include any antagonists. These are your decision makers in this scene.

What decisions can they make? Write them down too. If any characters can make the same (or similar decisions), make sure they each get it on their list.

As an example, let’s say I have 3 people: A, B, and C. They’re going to go holiday shopping. A and B arrive together in B’s car. C meets them there. The mall is crowded, noisy, and busy. A and B get into an argument about a gift. C is tangential to it.

So what can they do?
Both A and B could work out their problems.
Both A and B could concede their position in the argument
Both A and B could use a variety of tactics to win the argument.
Both A and B could drag C into the argument
C could jump in to defend or attack either A or B
A, B, or C could walk away from this scene at any time.

I’m not talking about what could happen, I mean, I could easily introduce D through Q into the scene. Hyperintelligent dinosaurs could attack the mall Santa. Asteroids could strike the parking lot. There could be a sale on handtowels. Tons of things could happen.

But I want to see the decisions that the involved characters could make, because those decisions are going to make this scene feed into the next. The scene needs to resolve itself, but not all resolutions are pretty things with bows on top. Resolution just means conclusion. It doesn’t always need to be satisfactory, it just needs to be over so the next thing can start.

To move plot, make decisions.

How much do I move the plot?
Since we agree you have to move the plot along over the course of however many words and pages you’re writing, now we start to look at pacing.

Pacing is the flow of plot. The first part of pacing is called “plot division” which is a measure of how big each package of plot is. Do you give out plot every (I’m making numbers up here) 3 scenes? Every other chapter? Every tenth page?

There isn’t a single “you must do it this way” answer. Whatever speed at which you choose to lay out the plot, you just need to be consistent about it. Why? Because if you’re inconsistently delivering plot pieces, then you’re not establishing how important each piece is. And your plot is supposed to be important.

This is usually where someone asks, “What about unimportant pieces of plot?” and I have two responses:

a) Why are you giving the reader unimportant plot?
b) If there are many similar items that can be grouped together (like all the evidence at a crime scene, for example), why aren’t they coming all in one package?

As you build your story through the first two acts, as you reach the climax, your rollercoaster should be gaining momentum. The pacing of details and scenes should reflect the chug-chug-chug of the car up the tracks until we have no choice but to rocket down the slope. And on the downturn, the pacing can slow back down until we’re off the ride.

How fast do I move the plot?
We just talked chug-chug-chug. Now it’s a question of how many chugs, how quickly.

How quick a pace can you maintain? That’s an important question to consider, because you have to be writing this thing, and invariably there are going to be moments that are slower than others. And knowing your own development, even a little, can provide a lot of insight as to how you’ll plan to write. And I’m not just talking about the time you’ll spend sitting and writing, I mean the scenes you right as well. Do the intense scenes take more out of you? Does knowing that you have to do the dull scenes tempt you more to procrastinate? You’ve got to do all the scenes either way, but how you view getting them done is going to affect how you write and what you write, even if you don’t realize it.

Move the plot at whatever speed works best for your production and whatever speed works best for the development of the tension you want to build. Rush me through something, I’m going to assume it’s not important. Take your time and set up something, I’m going to look for a proportionally large payoff.

All of this is up to you: based on your plot, how you divide it, how you choose to dole it out, and how large a story you’re telling. Try out a few different pacings, see what feels comfortable. Practice. Try again. Keep trying.

Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about plot filler. See you then.

Posted by johnadamus, 0 comments

FiYoShiMo – Day 14 – Plot Negligence

Let’s go FiYoShiMo Day 14, there’s a good topic on our plate today. Onto more plot goodness!

We’ve all been there – we left a light on in the kitchen, we forget to replace the toilet paper, we skip items on the grocery list. It’s easy to overlook and forget things, especially when we’re stressed (it is the holiday season after all), or when we’re already so busy worrying about whether or not some fascist with a combover might be a legitimate political presence sans a Hugo Boss leather trenchcoat.

Today we’re going to talk “plot negligence”, which is the collective term for all those plot elements that get introduced but don’t get resolved.

It’s so easy to write a thing and forget about it, when page counts climb and larger plot things kick off. “Oh I’ll get back to it,” you say, but then the minor point falls to the wayside. Or maybe it’s not a minor point. Maybe it’s a big deal, but due to time or space or energy, you don’t address it when it needs addressing.

The good news is that you can learn to curb the habit. I can’t promise you’ll never do this again, not without miniaturizing myself and navigating your mind. And I’m not sure you want that, especially if I find out where you store your weird freaky thoughts about that one teacher you had, or the people you work with. Yeah, you should totally give that person your number. And give them my number. Hell, give them all the numbers hashtag ifyouknowwhatiamsaying.

So we begin by figuring out what you’re leaving unresolved. We have to talk about that, we can’t talk plot and not talk about plot construction. A plot is built out of a scenes, like we talked about yesterday, and these scenes are scalar, to some degree.

In shortest, simplest terms, plot is a set of scenes strung together because they represent an arc, or a progression of ideas that show some kind of change from beginning to end. The change doesn’t have to be all positive – you can show someone diving face-first into a habit or addiction, you can show someone on the decline – but there does have to be change and it has to be “visible”, meaning the reader can pick up on it. To be visible, you have to put it into words, because readers read text not minds, so if you don’t say anything about a thing, who’s going to know about it?

An arc has parts we all recognize to some degree: a beginning (inciting action), a middle (rising action), and an end (climax and conclusion). It has to start somewhere, it has to travel to some other point, it has to end at that other point.

Usually the negligence happens during the middle. It’s easy and even exciting to start stuff, but when it’s revealed there has to be a middle, screw that, let’s do something else exciting (you may have heard this same idea expressed around diet, exercise, doing your job, or cleaning). So what is it about arc-middles that makes us not followthrough?

tumblr_n9eulln4nj1rtowb9o1_500

These guys know all about followthrough.

Maybe we can come at this from the ends. What makes plot-start exciting?

New is always exciting. New toys, news people, new experiences. Since we’re early in our exposure to a thing, we’re not sick of it yet. There are things left to discover, and often a lot of unknowns to make known. Plot-starts, also called inciting actions, are interesting to write, because we’re usually writing them as an alternative to what we’ve been writing already. We take a break from the middle of something to introduce something else.

These introductions can happen any time, though they’re best when started in the first act of whatever you’re making, because the later an element is introduced, the less time you have for a payoff and the less native it will feel to the story. Imagine reading hundreds of pages about a questing knight, and only in the last fifty does the knight get a sword, but not the sword he’s been hearing about all book, just a plain old magical sword. If that sword suddenly becomes the go-to weapon that kills the dragon he’s been battling all book, whatever weapons he’s had pre-sword get cheapened.

An inciting action (or incident) has two pieces: a tension, and a release.

The tension is the moment or event the character sees happening that prompts action or intervention. It isn’t the moment where they act (that comes next), this is the moment that leads to them doing something. For a budding superhero, this is the mugging they see and think they can stop.

Tension prompts action. They see the mugging, so they go do something about it. Whatever they do (and if you’re showing a character’s first attempts at something, barring superpowers, that first attempt is often played for comedy. With superpowers it’s played for amusement or excitement), they do something, and that leads to the release of the inciting action (beat). Yes, it’s our old friend, the action beat, making an appearance.

The release is the character doing something about it. They see the mugging, they intervene. The payoff, the reward for seeing action is taking action to do something about it. It’s a cycle of beats. It doesn’t have to get more complicated than “see a thing, react”.

An inciting action (beat) to your character is some other character’s climax, or their conclusion, or whatever, it falls somewhere on their arc already in progress. The mugging our proto-hero stops, if we look at the mugger’s arc, maybe that’s the height of their (the mugger’s) story.

These inciting actions are exciting to write, because they’re new, because they’ve got stuff going on, because it’s a chance to show the character doing something. Doing stuff is a chance to show off your writing skills. It’s also a chance to show off the ideas you have for the character, at least in part.

Once things are started though, they do have to be sustained, and that’s where we start to lose interest. Because it’s work. Because the newness has worn off. Because once you rescue one cat out of a tree, the idea that you have to rinse-and-repeat for all the cats in the forest is tiring, and you haven’t even started yet.

We’re going to talk about plot sustenance tomorrow in more detail, but let me lay out some foundations here – nothing has changed so drastically since the inciting action, just your view and expectation of the idea.

Sustaining an arc is not the same as furthering it or developing it. Sustaining the arc means it doesn’t do anything other than progress at its current pace in its current direction. It doesn’t speed up, it doesn’t slow down, it doesn’t rise or climb, it flattens out and stays in that direction. How could that not be duller than watching hair move?

tumblr_nwjcvclvm81uanzz4o1_540

Topical.

Yes, I hear you, doing things the same way over and over is how we build a habit. But we’re not talking about writing everyday or not eating that candy bar, we’re talking about showing your character do stuff in your story. The specifics of what your character does are immaterial at this point, so long as the character is doing something.

It’s still work, I know. It takes up space and words, and you have way more exciting things to talk about. It’s way cooler to use the computer than to build it, I get it. But you have to get through this stuff to get to whatever you think is the more exciting part.

Here too, I question you, why isn’t talking about a character’s arc exciting you? Why is the arc here? Yes, you need one, but if it’s not interesting, compelling, or exciting to you, why are you writing it, and do you think it will excite the reader if you’re not jazzed by it either?

When I look at discarded arcs, I see either a deficit of excitement, or over complication.

The second part of an arc, the rising action, is a build-up to a climax. This consumes the second act of the arc. It’s what happens after the hero discovers powers, before they go confront the big bad. This is often a montage, but since we’re writing, we get to detail the montage.

Look, complicating a thing doesn’t necessarily make it better. Think about cell phones and your parents. You know they’re just going to use it to make calls and barely listen to voicemails, so why bother explaining to them that they can make a WiFi hotspot or that it can listen to all the music ever?

The climax needs to be reached no matter what, so why clutter up the route to it? I don’t mean get to it quickly (not A-B-done), I mean why make so many digressions? Why dilute the progress with detours? Are you just showing off that you can write? Are you hunting for someone to say “Good job <YOUR NAME HERE>, you’re officially a writer now. Take off your pants and relax” ??

You have the whole second act, so use it. Keep each action beat functioning as the cog in the machine it is. You don’t have to escalate the power level so drastically every step of the way, the increase comes in the potential for success. Just like the montage, the outcome is mastery and confidence, progress from unknown to known.

The last part of an arc is the climax and resolution. In larger terms, if we zoom out, this is just a release for the tension of the first two acts.

A climax is the height of story experience. It’s where all the groundwork of the previous parts gets acted upon, which is why a climax often lives in the back of act 2 or start of act 3. It needs that much time to germinate, it needs that much prep in order to get a proper delivery. Rush your climax, and no one is satisfied.

unsatisfied

You get what I’m saying?

But your climax is built on your prep work. Skimp on the development, and it will read and feel like things are missing (because they are). Diligence, here, dear writer. Keep your focus small and keep going, a beat at a time.

That’s all you’re doing. Yes, you’ve got your outline, your character study, your developmental notes. You’ve got a queue of beta readers, you’ve got all these things in a row like little ducks … but they all come AFTER the part where you tell the story a beat at a time.

Post-climax, there must be resolution. Resolutions are the other part people skip, and I think it’s because it’s either perceived as boring to wrap things up (remember how weird it was that so many 80s cartoons ended with characters in a group all laughing?) or there’s some fear that if this thing ends, you won’t be able to generate a next exciting idea? I know that fear really well, it has kept me from finishing a lot of things in my life.

Ideas are always there, as is your ability to craft and shape them into story. We all got this. We can all do it. We just have to keep at it.

Tomorrow, we’re talking plot sustenance, see you then.

 

 

 

 

Posted by johnadamus, 0 comments

One of the Note Card Tricks

Hello everyone. Hope you’re well and enjoying your creative processes.

I get a lot of questions about “the note card trick” since I talk about it a lot, and usually only demo it in person at workshops or to clients, because it’s easier to see it in person. What I’m going to show you now is a scaled down version, mainly because it’s easier to explain in small bites. I’ve got some pictures here that should help you follow along. You can do this spread for protagonists, antagonists, plots and even whole book series if you wanted. I’m going to show it for protagonists, because that’s an easy place to start.

You’re going to need notecards. A lot of them. Way more than you think is reasonable for any person to own. I’m only showing up to 16 here, but I’ve used these for scripts and stories and had upwards of 100 as needed, if the story calls for that many things to be happening. The note cards that follow have numbers on them, so that you can see their locations.

To put it sort of math-y (I’m sorry, I know I said I’d try and keep math away from this, but I swear this flashback won’t take long), we’re going to make an X/Y axis, where cards spread horizontally and vertically from the beginning to the end of the story. For the example story, let’s suppose we have 4 chapters, but you’re going to have likely way more than that in your book. If so, just keep moving down that horizontal axis as you have to.

We’re going to start at the 0.0 point with a note card, like this:

This is a note card. It is the building block of this system

This is a note card. It is the building block of this system

Notice how I’ve put it at the corner of my table, so that I have a whole lot of real estate to work in. Ignore the holly jolly tablecloth, it was the first one I grabbed out of the closet. On that note card you’re going to put a fact/statement/phrase about your protagonist.

The important thing to remember about this trick is this: When we go to the right, we’re going through the story beginning to end. When we go vertically, we’re adding more details.

The first card is the Physical level of description. So Card (1) is what the character looks like. Is she short, tall, nearsighted, skinny, athletic? If you were to look up from your cards and see your character staring at you, what are the first things you notice?

Now let’s give her some more details. We’re going vertical:

We're going up from Physical, to Mental, then Social, then Aspirations

We’re going up from Physical, to Mental, then Social, then Aspirations

 

Card (2) describes her Mental level of description. Is she nervous? Arrogant? Passive Aggressive? If you were to have a conversation with your character, what’s the first thing you’d notice about your conversation together?

Card (3) describes your protagonist’s Social perceptions and skills. Does she socialize? Does she date? Is she extroverted? This level addresses the question “How does your protagonist interact with the world, and how does the world respond?

Card (4) addresses the protagonist’s Hopes and Dreams. What would make her happy? What goal is she striving for? Remember, this isn’t just talking about the plot of the story, I’m asking you to think of your character as a fully formed person who has more than this particular story’s plot going on in their life. Does she want to own a farm? Does she wish her father paid more attention to her? Does she want a deluxe apartment in the sky where she doesn’t have to wear pants and can eat guacamole all day?

You can go higher. Card (5) would cover a character’s Fears and Doubts. Card (6) would be Closest Relationship and Card (7) would be Relationship to Rival or Enemy. I’ve never gone above (7), because I’ve both run out of space and never thought past those tiers of character development. Feel free to substitute your own as you like, just be consistent with it. And if you do try new stuff, please PLEASE let me know. I’m always on the look out for new methods.

Let’s go to the next part of the story. For me that’s Act 2. For you that might be chapter 2 or part 2 or the next episode. In fact, you can take this time to lay out the horizontal for the whole project or the next chunk of chapters if you want:

Notice that in each chapter/section/whatever, I've got a Physical element represented

Notice that in each chapter/section/whatever, I’ve got a Physical element represented

 

Throughout my four acts here I’m going to mention more physical elements of my character. Not that I’m always going to say she’s a redhead or that she’s got green eyes, but I’m going to talk about some sort of relationship between her physicality and the world – she’s going to get banged up, bruised, a car is probably going to explode and maybe she’ll get muddy. That relationship spreads across the book, so it’s represented in these cards. So, on Card (2.1) I’m going to put down a fact about how she deals with fistfights, because at some point she’s going to hit a dude (play passes to left) (hashtag a-joke-not-enough-of-you-understand).

Add a card with some detail(s) at each level per each part/chapter/act of your story. Remember, this isn’t repeating the same things over and over, it’s about writing down different facets of the relationship the character has on that level to the rest of the world you’ve created.

This means you’re going to regularly ask yourself:

  • How is my character acting and reacting physical to the environments on a scene-by-scene/beat-by-beat basis?
  • How is my character handling the mental stresses/doubts/successes/strains on a scene-by-scene/beat-by-beat basis?
  • How is my character interacting with other people? Is anything developing? Is that development good or bad? Will someone pay a price in the end?
  • How is whatever my character is doing affect their hopes and dreams? Are they moving towards them? Has the plot put the goal on a shelf? Has it changed?

The answers should help you understand (conceptually) what the mindset and experience of the character is, so that you can translate it into words on paper so that other people can read it and relate in the same way.

So this is the story after more cards go down on the table:

This is all four acts mapped out.

This is all four acts mapped out.

 

What you’ll see in that picture are gaps. They’re intentional. A space like (4.2) or (3.4) means that the element doesn’t come up in that section of the story. And that’s an important point. Gaps create importance, and so long as the gap isn’t too wide (I’m sort of stretching it with (1.4) and (4.4), then that re-emergence of the idea makes us take notice – like the guy who keeps a key in his pocket only to remember he has it when he reaches the locked door. It makes both the first instance and its return matter to the story.

However, you might not feel comfortable doing that, so here’s a complete grid for you:

Here's a story where every possible slot has a card for it. This runs the risk of being congested.

Here’s a story where every possible slot has a card for it. This runs the risk of being congested.

I’m going to throw a flag on the play, and not just because I numbered these cards differently. A full story where everything is explored in every chapter can be MONSTROUS to contend with. It might slow down. It might get wordy. It might get confusing. Your mileage varies of course, but please PLEASE don’t think you have to fill every spot, especially if you run cards all the way out to 30 or more.

As I said before, you can do this for a protagonist, or even the antagonist. You can do this for the plot, but then the tiers become more about the impact of the problem on physical, mental and social levels, leading to sort of a zoomed-out picture of the story.

Hope this helps. If you have questions about it, catch me on Twitter, or write me an email.

Posted by johnadamus in by request, check this out, exercises, note card trick, step by step, structure, the process, 0 comments