Monthly Archives: January 2013

Upending plots to find holes

I had an interesting experience recently which gave me ideas about finding – and solving – plot problems. In the course of playing too many games of Free Flow on DH’s new iPad mini, I solved all but a small set of the 14 x 14 levels included. It irked me that, no matter how many times I went back to the remaining small unsolved set, even starting completely from scratch, I couldn’t find the trick to the solution.

A minor problem, you say. Agreed. But games can be useful (I know – this doesn’t justify all that time spent gaming) – or humans wouldn’t have invented them, and wouldn’t get so much stroking from them, so much pleasure, that they can become addicting. There is a sense of completion that releases endorphins and other good brain chemicals when a puzzle is solved.

So, I continued to come back to this set of unfinished puzzles.

But it wasn’t until, in desperation, I turned the iPad upside down that I found my answers: even though I had started each level from scratch, the orientation of the dots (you are trying to connect each colored dot with its mate in such a way that all squares on the board have a color in them and NONE of the squares is EMPTY) had locked into my brain prematurely, and I literally could not see them in a different way.

It actually HURT my brain to turn the iPad upside down, and to view each puzzle WRONG – but in a new way.

I told myself anything that made my brain hurt must be good for it (on the theory I hold that the brain is a muscle-like object, and it must be exercised).

I deliberately tolerated the stress – and quickly solved the remaining puzzles I had been struggling with for more days than I care to admit. Immediately. The skills I had developed for this particular little game had settled too soon into working on the default orientation – a technique that got me successfully through most of the 750 puzzle levels that came with the game – but not all.

I’m doing something similar with the scenes I’m revising now: I have text for these scenes, text that I like, and a flow through the plot that strokes my brain (we all write, first, for ourselves), but it isn’t good enough.

Revising in place, just taking the words that are there, the order of words in a scene, and making them better, is good and useful and satisfactory – after all, I worked hard to write them originally,

But it doesn’t solve all the problems. I’m stuck, in some scenes, with a feeling that I haven’t done my complete job, that there are unexplored empty ‘squares’ on the grid. A feeling that if I notice a tiny void, a reader will, too. My brain hurts.

But the reader can’t fix the problem. That’s my job. If my writing isn’t satisfying me, it has no business going out into the world.

So I’ve been taking the elements of a scene, and going back to ‘start.’ Rearranging the order, re-thinking, re-visioning.

Letting my brain hurt. Turning the scene completely upside down, asking beginner questions: What does this scene do? Why is this scene in the book? What can the reader only learn here? Even, Why the heck did he do that?

I’m hampered by the fact that I can – as an end result of many years of reading – turn out clean copy that LOOKS finished with relative ease. And once it is fixed in black and white on the page, it is very hard to question what looks ‘published.’

It takes time. It isn’t strictly necessary.

But if I identify the plot problems – the little bugs which irk the brain – those empty squares – and solve them, I get the endorphins. And a scene I have to admit is vastly better.


Feedback: the priceless gift

Had an experience that made me take notice – so I stopped to figure out what happened.

I had gone to a new website – looked mildly interesting – for a writer. This writer put up the cover of his first book as kind of a teaser for his second – so far so good – and it sounded interesting enough that I clicked through to Amazon – considering buying.

So: he’s got me as a live one.

I read the description of the second book, and my brain goes, ‘Wait a minute – something not quite right here.’

The description for the second book was for a science fiction book. Conspiracies and space warfare and etc.

It was supposed to be a sequel – to his first book, written a while back.

But here’s the problem: the cover for the FIRST book hadn’t said a word about SF, just a one-word title and a name (of new writer – not one who is known to write SF).

The ARTICLE he wrote was about the importance of COVERS. So I was primed to actually consider HIS in more detail than I normally would have done.

And it didn’t say, to me, what it was supposed to say. To me, the image and the title did NOT convey ‘SF inside.’ My opinion, of course.

So, being the nice helpful person I am, I bothered to go back, think it through, and tell this writer my impression of his cover strategy. As mildly and inoffensively as I could. I don’t do this often, and only when I think I have something to add to a thread. It takes a bit of time,

And he ARGUED with me! When I happened to go back to see if there was further discussion (being interested in covers, as a writer who will be self-publishing one of these days, because that’s what drew me to his website/blog in the first place), I read that he thought I was wrong, that there WERE SF elements on the cover, and I had somehow missed the signals.

Which miffed me, again mildly. [By way of credentials, I have been reading SF since the 1960s, and even had a membership in the SF Book Club which kept good SF coming regularly.]

I stopped to think why, and realized that there is a lesson there for ME: If someone does you the favor of giving you unbiased feedback about any aspect of your writing from THEIR point of view, your only acceptable response is “Thank you – I will think about what you said.”

Not to argue that your visitor and commenter is WRONG.

I have done this before, left careful feedback, and clearly labeled it ‘my opinion.’ Heck – I did it at Hugh Howey’s website (before his current fame – not that long ago), and his response was exactly right: Thanks for the suggestion, and I will consider it carefully. As a commenter (and now a fan – having gone to Amazon after his response and bought the whole WOOL omnibus), I felt listened to and appreciated. As if, in a small way, I had been able to contribute something.

So I got a valuable lesson from the experience: the one thing you cannot buy is the unvarnished opinion of a new true commenter. It is a gift when someone offers a considered opinion of your writing. It is feedback from a new READER. And it means you have made a connection. The last thing you want to do is discourage or discount the flash of inspiration you get. The aphorism is “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” It is TRUE.


Appreciations: Stuff that has to go somewhere – Scene template, Part 7

There are marks that a story has to hit to be considered complete.

For example, Blake Snyder, in his Save the Cat series on screenwriting, lists what he calls beats (on his ‘beat sheet’), things such as Opening Image, Theme Stated, Catalyst, and Dark Night of the Soul.

James N. Frey, in The Key: How to write damn good fiction using the power of myth, has a similar set which he calls a stepsheet that includes marks to hit such as the Call to Adventure, the Confrontation with the Evil One, or Obtaining the Prize; and a set of mythological characters to encounter such as The Armorer, The Evil One’s Sidekick, or the God with Clay Feet.

Other theorists have their own sets of points to hit for a novel or screenplay, and other structural systems such as Dramatica have their own collections of ‘pieces’ to include somehow in the finished product.

The last part of my Scene template is the section where all these systems have space to assign their points to particular scenes. I call these appreciations, or apps, from the original Dramatica version terminology.

Many of these systems have points in common, and are different ways of interpreting features that stories need. Odds are that people evaluating a novel or screenplay for acquisition will have their favorite system- and there is no reason why different systems can’t be accommodated within the same story and story structure.

The appreciations remind me that somewhere within THIS scene, I have elected to show, say, my protagonist preparing for the quest ahead by consulting The Wise Woman, or that this scene is the place to illustrate what Snyder calls the ‘All is Lost’ moment.

The illustration (‘encoding’) of the appreciation could be a bit of description or setting, a phone call and one or both sides of the ensuing dialogue, or a character’s thought expressing the theme for the reader. My choice – and where the writing and the artistry happen.

There are an infinite number of ways to illustrate any appreciation.

When done, a list of the appreciations showing the required points, scene by scene, could show an editor or studio exec that the story follows his favorite system* – and ‘validate’ the story’s structure. The point is that if the story needs to have a ‘consultation with a Wise Woman’ in it, I need to know which scene I’ve chosen to put that into. When I’m writing/I’ve written the scene, I can check the beat/story point/mark off my list once it is illustrated somehow. It is bookkeeping – that’s what templates are useful for.

The remaining few lines at the beginning and end of the Scene template situate that scene within its Chapter, and keep track of the action on a larger scale.

It looks like a lot of work to create and maintain this much structure. I think of it as preparation before going into battle. I know that when I reach the end, each of my scenes has done its job, and I haven’t left things out.

And it frees me up to do what I really want, which is to write the scenes: the stage is set, the actors are costumed and ready, and we get to Action!

*This is not an original idea – that you somehow include different ‘systems’ into the same book or screenplay – but I can’t remember where I ran across it. It makes sense – many systems are different ways to accommodate the same structure, and are not necessarily incompatible.


There will be one final post on tucking all this structure into Scrivener, and using the Scrivener features to keep track of things; if any of this is useful to you, and/or you have pieces you add to what you do to keep track of structure, I would love to hear about it.

Beats: micromanaging the action – Scene template, Part 6

Fiction is not real life. There is purpose to fiction, order. Reproduction of reality is both impossible and boring. Things happen as the author arranges them to happen, and the author is in charge of selecting, out of the huge number of events going on every second, which will get chosen and which will be detailed.

If the author tells you the color of the bathroom fixtures, there had better be a very strong story reason for wasting words on such trivia when they could have been used to tell you about the main character’s childhood – and how it influences her choices right now.

Writing fiction is fundamentally fractal:
The book has a beginning, middle, and end – and tells a story.
Each chapter has a beginning, middle, and end – and tells a smaller part of the story.
Each scene is like a short story, complete in itself – with a beginning, middle, and end.

But it doesn’t stop there. One of my favorite tools is breaking up what happens in a scene into a series of beats, each beat a tiny chunk of the action with a purpose, and a beginning, middle, and end. In the scene template it looks like this:

First beat: Description of first unit of action
Purpose: Why beat is in scene
Introduction – How scene starts (evokes FIRST LINE)
New – What happens to get scene going
Conflict – Character vs. self, other characters, Universe
Resolution – How conflict is resolved

Beat: Description of unit of action
Purpose: Why beat is in scene
Transition – How scene continues from previous beat
New – What happens to get beat going
Conflict – Character vs. self, other characters, Universe
Resolution – How conflict is resolved

(repeat as many times as needed)

Each beat has a single nugget of information for the reader, a single piece of the puzzle: the Conflict. Each character in a beat has a goal – and that goal is in conflict with the goals of the other characters in the beat. And in each beat, one and only one character wins.

Why micromanage to this level? Because it is the most efficient way to get and keep the reader’s attention.

If you’ve ever fed a baby, you know how this works. Your goal is to get the food into the baby without taking forever and driving yourself crazy. (The baby’s goal is to play with his food and maximize the pleasant parts of the interaction.) The most practiced feeders keep up a constant stream of spoonfuls going into the little maw (along with patter – you have to have patter – Here comes the train!) so junior neither gets bored nor chokes. Anything missed is collected and re-offered. The next spoonful is prepared and ready as soon as the current one is swallowed, but not offered a moment before that – because that distracts the baby from the bite IN her mouth. An attentive parent keeps up just the right serving size coming, and balances out the favorite sweet potatoes with the required amount of protein, planning the experience so it all comes out even, and a reasonable amount of dinner ends up INSIDE baby.

In other words, the feeder PLANS and EXECUTES the delivery, a bite (beat) at a time.

The food (information) comes in right-sized chunks, at appropriately-spaced intervals, just as the baby is ready to swallow (absorb) it. This is the author’s JOB.

The more complex the story, the more the author has to control the delivery of the pieces to avoid confusion – and keep the story moving always forward.

In Writing the Blockbuster Novel, Albert Zuckerman calls these beats ‘Story Points’: he details Chapter 45 of Gone With the Wind, showing how Margaret Mitchell relentlessly keeps the story moving forward by delivering one blow after another, in pieces just big enough for the reader to grasp before being assaulted with the next one.

The experience of the reader is PLANNED. Which is as it should be: the writer already knows the story, and is trying to get it across to the reader in the most exciting way possible.

For me, planning a scene as a series of beats, each with its own internal logic and conflict, makes it easier to write, because I can hold a whole beat in my head, as a unit. Think flash fiction. Thing anecdote. Think haiku. Heck, think Lego building blocks.

If I know the goals of the characters in a beat, I can choose which character wins – and build up a scene out of a series of win/lose moments between the characters. I can deliberately alternate to create a scene that is an argument between the two characters, showing first one winning and then the other. I can create the impression of a cowed character – by showing the other character ‘winning’ all the interactions, one after another. I can escalate the conflict – by showing the ‘win’ getting more extreme in each beat.

Again, I find it helpful to write play scenes as a way to duplicate the experience of being constantly kept off balance by what comes next. Theatergoers are spoiled: they want SOMETHING happening every moment – or they get bored and start to fidget. And once I have the spine of the story, with anticipation going into each beat, conflict in the middle, and a tiny bit of resolution at the end followed by things getting even worse, all the rest of the story information (setting, theme, backstory, …) can be tucked in as decoration.

This works for plotters in the planning stage – and pantsers in the revision stage. In revision, I take all the good bits, number them, literally cut them into strips, and group them into blobs that somehow ‘go together.’ Then I organize a beat out of each stack of strips by putting them into some kind of order that makes sense out of them, leading up to, through, and out of a tiny piece of the story.

As a side bonus, if I need an outline or a synopsis, the fractal nature of writing fiction surfaces again: a list of chapters provides a one-two page summary. A list including the titles/descriptions of each scene provides a more detailed outline twenty to thirty pages long. And if I need an incredibly detailed outline, I simply add the beat descriptions within the scenes.


What does this scene DO? – Scene template, Part 5

We don’t put scenes into a story because ‘something happens’ and we need to make it visible. Well, we do, but that isn’t the primary purpose of a scene.

And until there is a clear reason for a scene, just putting dialogue, description, and interior monologue around something that happens (Joe meets Sally; they kiss) isn’t enough. All fluff, no substance.

The template entries that help me organize a scene in my head are like anchor pieces in a puzzle: once I have them in place, the scene becomes a living entity in my mind, instead of a list of point to hit. All the bits interact, and out comes something new – but connected. It is the raw material the Muse needs. The entries are:

1)    Action: What happens in scene
2)    Purpose: Why scene is in book
3)    [Question: Main question to be answered by scene – see Scene Template Part 1]
4)    Reader emotion: Emotion to be evoked in reader
5)    Setup – How scene starts
6)    FOCUS: PLOT, CHARACTER, or THEME [Description of focus]
7)    REVEAL: What of me is in this scene

Action: What happens in this scene? is basic. And usually obvious: there is some nugget of information the reader has to get to move the story forward. Maybe several. The action is paired with the Scene Title, explaining and expanding for me what is the ‘box’ I’m putting around this event. It is pure plot. A list of Scene Actions would be a bare-bones summary of the plot, in sequential order: this happens, and then this happens, and then the other happens.

By labeling it ‘action,’ I also remind myself that people sitting together and quietly talking are risking boring the reader. No matter how well written and how well described it is, a scene where nothing happens is not my aim. Some people might say that literary values would rescue such a scene – and they may be right – but it would bore me to read, and isn’t my style to write.

Purpose: is where I make a deliberate choice: why this scene to advance the goal of the scene’s point of view character? My purpose in choosing this scene – and not some other with the same characters – is that I’ve considered other ways to accomplish the character’s goal, and that the scene I’m electing to write is somehow ‘best.’ I may not articulate the details, but there is a richness and a rightness I hope for when including a particular scene in the book, almost as if I were including a particular story in a given anthology. It FITS. It has connections to the rest of the book. It has RESONANCES.

Reader emotion: is MY goal in the writing: what do I want a reader to FEEL by the end of the scene? What reaction do I want? Do I want the reader to pity the characters – or blame them? Am I trying to create anxiety or peace? I figure I have half a chance to evoke an emotion in a reader IF I know specifically what I’m aiming for – and almost none if I’m writing at random. It makes my word choices – words have nuances, and synonyms are never equivalent – easier. Making my goal explicit instead of fuzzy ultimately means less rewriting: my Muse is given a tool with which to cull the desirable from the generic, to set a tone, to select the right synonym from the Thesaurus (if I can’t find it in my brain). I get the correct word up front – or know it isn’t right yet.

We read fiction, essentially, to have our emotions exercised vicariously. We read to be scared or warmed, worried or self-righteous, to feel pity or disgust or romance, and above all to take risks we wouldn’t dare take in real life – they might get us killed! If taking the reader on a wild ride is the equivalent of entertainment, and I discover that I have six scenes in a row where the best ‘goal’ emotion I can list for the reader is ‘intrigued,’ I’m in big trouble: I am certainly not creating an emotional ride.

And if all I can manage is ‘intrigued’ for how a reader should feel when the scene has been read, I’m not trying hard enough, and I need to get off the soft little emotions and make the reader truly believe bad consequences are in store for my characters. Otherwise, I’m not doing my job.

Setup: there are a large number of ways to start scenes and I need to sort through them and PICK one to ease the reader into this scene. Something logical for a beginning, and different types of beginnings for different scenes. Dialogue? Description? Interior monologue – superficial or deep? What is the first impression I want to give, the hook, that which makes the reader continue on into the rest of the words? Do I need to set the physical scene? Or indicate time has passed? Comedians do this all the time (they are great at giving us tiny stories): “Three men walk into a bar – a priest, a rabbi, and a Scientologist…” and we’re off, expectations high. What is the reader going to need to orient and not feel lost? That’s my setup.

Focus: for the scene, on Plot, Character, or Theme, is not exclusive; a scene can have bits that develop a character at the same time some of the action exposes how the character (or the author) feels about one of the themes evident or intended in the book, but selecting one primary focus – and then alternating them in different scenes – makes sure the finished product isn’t all plot, or the book as a whole isn’t a panegyric to one of its themes. Choosing the focus with awareness can either lead to balance – or The Fountainhead – author’s choice. But it should be deliberate. Writing it down makes me think about it. And gives me a touchstone for when the scene is completed or revised.

Reveal: the final entry in this section of the template, is my own contribution, both to the template and to the story: if writing exposes our deepest secrets and fears, and that makes us better writers, if sitting at the keyboard requires us to ‘open a vein,’ this is where I choose the vein. I may go through later and delete all record of the reveals; in any case, all our stories come from somewhere within ourselves, and not to acknowledge that – and USE it – is leaving in the subconscious something of great power. The Reveal WILL be there – anyone who thinks she can write without telling the world who she is, is fooling herself – but if I write it down, I at least have some chance of controlling HOW the exposure happens.

I’m not sure you could call all of the above necessarily being a plotter vs. a pantser – it doesn’t matter ultimately whether I do this thinking before or after I actually write a scene – but it works for me to do this kind of thinking at SOME point in the process.


Who, what, where: the Scene Header – Scene Template, Part 4

The scene header in the template contains critical information for me to situate the scene in time and space – and point of view.

Here is a sample:
Scene 10.1 – Karenna comes to set as Andrew’s guest; meets MH / pov Kary
1 pm; BH set in Hanover, NH; Kary, George, Michael / Wed., May 25, 2005

Before writing a scene I have to locate it in the space/time continuum of the story – someplace before the end and after the beginning.

The Scene Title, written with care, can serve to bring the whole scene back into my memory. I like to keep it to a similar length for each scene, for listing convenience. Brevity is more important than correct sentence structure – anyone who tweets has plenty of practice phrasing things economically.

A list of these headers (or of the information contained) serves me as a timeline. The title – and having this kind of a title for each scene – can point out continuity problems and plot holes.

Physical books (except Choose your own Adventure stories) appear in some kind of order on the page; even ebooks come at us in some order. Lists of header information helps me note such things as:

1)    Too many scenes in a row from one point of view. If not deliberate, does it need fixing?
2)    Simple stupid things like Wednesday May 25th is followed by Thursday May 23rd – because I changed the year in the story and haven’t cleaned up my calendar sequences.
3)    Oops! George can’t be here – he already went back to Ireland.
4)    If there are two scenes where ‘meets MH’ are listed, it may point out that I changed my mind as to when they met, and that I need to do some cleanup.
5)    The story says it rained at noon and brought filming to a close, but this scene is listed as happening at 1 pm – I should either mention it stopped raining (and there was mud – they were filming outside), or write the scene in the rain.

In addition, keeping track of which characters are in a scene is very useful if I need to add an interaction between two characters that lets the reader in on a key piece of information; a list of places in my story where the two characters appear together in scenes gives me a choice of places to tuck in a nugget.

Having a list of several places where two characters could interact makes it easy for me to motivate a tricky action in a later scene by going back and putting in increasingly-obvious pointers for the reader, so that, when the motivation is needed, the reader remembers having seen something about this before. This keeps the tricky action from seeming to be added on randomly because the plot requires it. If I want Billy murdering Sue by the end of the story, I can show the enmity developing in increasingly acrid interactions. Otherwise, I have a long search through my manuscript and my memory.

I note whether characters appear physically in a scene, phone in (so they are actually interacting with someone in the scene), or are discussed by someone in the scene.

It doesn’t really matter when the Scene Header is completed, but it is worth my effort to make sure it stays accurate as I go along with the writing OR making sure it is current before revising.

One additional benefit: if I need to write a Synopsis, a list of scene headers reminds me of the major plot points and character interactions to tell the condensed version of the story.


Added TOO LATE (Fiction) to free short stories

The story is set early in the 21st Century, when unmarried Irish fathers could not even request a DNA test to confirm paternity. Irish law on marriage and children has changed significantly, and is in flux. The stories are legion.

TOO LATE is one of those stories.