Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Scenes That Demand to Be in Your Stories 3: Undermining your hero

The scenario from the first in this series where power dynamics made the most difference in my scenes  was this one.

The protagonist’s main rival invites her to discuss her current project.

Because the analysis this confrontation was so fruitful, I’ll cover that here. (A detailed treatment of power dynamics begins with an earlier post.)

I’ll begin by explaining the title. Why would you undermine the hero of your story? Because making the situation more difficult for your protagonist provides more drama and pushes the character toward growth and change. Writers have to be cruel to be kind (to readers and, often, the main characters).

The exploration of the power in the scene has three stages:
  1. A review of how power is important to the point of the scene.
  2. Listing the powers of the characters in the scene.
  3. Exploring how the elements of the scene might be manipulated to facilitate a power shift and add more drama.
The point of the confrontation. This scene gives the villain knowledge of the heroine’s weakness (her love for the man who is her “project.” The ruthlessness of the villain makes it clear something very bad is about to happen.  It also forces a dilemma because the choice for the heroine is sacrificing her business and career or sacrificing the man she loves. Both of these are deeply personal, and she knows she won’t escape unscathed. The heroine must feel her power diminish in the face of high stakes.

Listing the powers of the characters in the scene. I went through all the forms of power for each character, but I’ll just present a few highlights of the analysis here.
  • The antagonist has money and authority. She's part of the 0.1 percent.
  • The protagonist has analytical skills. In fact, she can go deep and create equations and graphs related to situations.
  • The antagonist has resources for advice (when she listens) and action.
  • The protagonist is able to adjust plans and come up with new options in the moment.
Exploring how the elements of the scene might be manipulated to facilitate a power shift and add more drama. There are a lot of strategies here. If the main character has physical power, handcuff him or her. If the power is by authority, undercut that authority (say with a threat of revealing a change in the organization’s structure. If power comes from flexibility, make it clear some options have disappeared. Here are three I chose:

Secret revealed. Hero(ine) loses power. Part of the heroine’s power comes from not revealing her love belongs the the “project.” Even her typical reference to him as My Project portrays distance and lack of vulnerability. So when the mask slips and she knows her adversary has discovered the truth, she’s sad and frightened (so much so, she fails to realize how her own power rises once she knows the villain is ruthless and cares nothing for the “project.”

Home field advantage. Antagonist gains power. I purposely moved the confrontation to the antagonist’s apartment. And not just any apartment, but a personal space that the heroine had never seen or imagined before. Everything in it is designed to make it easy for the antagonist and difficult for the “climber” heroine. You are up against powers you can never defeat. Quit while you’re ahead.

Knowledge. Hero(ine) loses power. The heroine naively tells an amusing anecdote about her “project.” At the beginning of the scene, it seems like fun between people who would never betray the poor guy. By the end it’s clear the she has put a weapon into a dangerous adversary’s hands—one that could be used against her and the man she loves.

In each instance, more power to the antagonist or weakening the hero(ine) leads readers to worry more about the hero(ine). And makes the goal more elusive. Of course, it’s possible to go in the opposite direction. In many love stories, disparities in power are increased and control is shifted favoring one, and then the other, lover. And a (legitimate and earned) twist the puts the hero(ine) into the power position at the end often works and can be explored by using this undermining strategy in reverse.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Scenes That Demand to Be in Your Stories 2: Knowing the point of the scene

Usually, when I add a scene to a drafted story, it's for one of three reasons: a reader comment, a character nudge, or a vague feeling that something is missing. None of these, of course, tell me what the purpose of the scene is, and that's vital to correctly fitting it in so it feels as if it has always been there.

The most common reader comment that causes me to go back and make changes is "my attention lagged here." (People are usually so rude as to phrase it that way, but I actually explicitly seek that feedback.) Most often, lacking attention is caused by the "darlings." These are the parts of the story where characters make clever speeches or I get rhapsodic about nature or something technical. But holes in the story can also cause readers to disengage and "darling" scenes may be more than just author intrusion. They can be patches over the holes.

When a character nudges me, it's usually because his or her (or its) story is incomplete. I've forgotten to say what happened to a secondary character. I haven't really provided the reason why so-and-so did something so drastic. Or the character just wants to share something interesting. Characters never asked me to cut their lines for their scenes. When they tapped me on the shoulder, it's because they want more attention.

Those vague feelings? My gut knows when the scene is wrong, and also knows when I need to do something more dangerous or even create a new character, a new incident, or uncover a secret that has remained hidden from me. Often this feels like a piece of music has dropped out of a song or one musician missed his cue. I'd say missing scenes that are indicated by discomfort pushed me to the point where they are unavoidable most often when I read the work out loud. It is not unusual for me to begin adding sentences right then, or to put the manuscript down and pace around until I find an answer or commit to a lot of hard work.

What's missing? What's the point of the scene that needs to be added? It may be a face-to-face confrontation between two major characters. It may be a quiet scene that sets up drama. It may be a scene that provides relief for the reader, a break in the tension.

Often, omitted scenes are those that feel too personal or too on the nose. The work in these cases is to probe a wound or write something flat and then use my understanding of the characters to create real dialogue.

You may have noticed that many of the scenes that are both essential and left out are problem children. They include work that is challenging, seemingly beyond my capabilities. (Certainly beyond my feelings of competence.) They may force me to relive painful moments in my life. Or they may just promise a lot of hours at the keyboard working the prose, fixing other parts the manuscript, or collecting the full story from a gabby character, knowing I'll need to chop down 10 pages to three.

So, for one of the scenes I just reworked, the starting point was the reader's request for an action scene. Fair enough. My heroes tended to stumble across problems that led to pursuits, attacks, captures, traps, and impossible dilemmas. I certainly know how to brainstorm material like that. But I couldn't just drop it in. It had to have a point. And I went through using this to reveal hidden dimensions of my protagonists, to underline the conflicting values of the characters, and to bring readers more thoroughly into the odd world I'd created. All good purposes for a scene.

But what I settled on — which dictated exactly where this scene would fit in and showed me beats that were missing in the scenes on either side — was a recommitment to the quest by the protagonist. He had to do this, and I'm not sure why I didn't see that as I was drafting the story. Because, at about this time, things get really tough. It becomes clear that it takes more than a promise or dedication to honor to go forward when your life will be put into jeopardy and your best friend might die.

Knowing what the scene needed to do helped me go forward to the next step in creating the best scene for that part of the story. And that next step was looking at the power dynamics which is what will be the subject of my next post.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Scenes That Demand to Be in Your Stories 1: Purpose, power dynamics, character challenges, and choices

My works in progress provide laboratories for this blog. Often, what I'm writing – especially if I'm facing difficulties — will find its way into approaches I recognize as worth sharing, or I'll be forced into experimenting and end up documenting the experience.

Recently, I've been involved in developmental revisions on a few stories. It occurred to me that this effort was worth analyzing and this would be a good place to offer what I've learned. While I have several ways that I go about adding scenes, in each of these cases, I used the same method.

1. Purpose — Write a sentence that states why this scene is needed in the story. What's the point? What does it accomplish?

2. Power dynamics — Survey all the characters in the scene (and as needed, characters who overshadow the same) and look at what powers they had. Minimally, determine who begins the scene in the strongest position. (Often, that person sees a power shift before the scene is over.)

3. Character challenges — How the character's status, identity, plans, hopes, opportunities, etc. were knocked out of equilibrium during the scene? What might push the character into taking action, making a decision, saying something publicly, or reevaluating a position?

4. Choices — What are the options the character will have during the scene? As a result of the scene? Think in terms of who the character is, motivations, current state of mind (especially in terms of what most recently happened), and what traumatic triggers might need to be handled. In addition, experiment with the character just accepting what he or she has been given or what would happen if he or she made a decision without consideration were thinking. One choice the author should always investigate is one that would have the worst consequences.

I'll go through each of these in future posts. For today, I'll touch on some of what happened with one of my scenes. Here are the four scenes I had in front of me:
  • The protagonist’s main rival invites her to discuss her current project.
  • The main character must avoid capture by law enforcement while attending a party with someone he cares about.
  • The heroine must listen to the confession of her best friend about how she betrayed her.
  • A secondary character abandons the project, leaving wreckage in her wake.
Those sitting down and actually writing the scenes in ways that are true to the character and fit elegantly into the rest of the story isn't easy, each of these offers fun opportunities. A roll in the ditch, and escape, a betrayal, and a messy exit? There's built-in drama no matter which you choose. Let's look at the third scene.

1. Purpose – The point of this scene is to reveal information to the protagonist. Fundamentally, she needs to understand that she was humiliated because of a deliberate act by someone she trusted. It wasn't a mistake. And she hadn't caused it herself.

Now it’s possible to elaborate on this. The friend was not being cruel. She was acting in a way she thought would be helpful. The friend, in confessing, relieves herself of a secret, but she takes the chance of ending the friendship, facing revenge, and (in this story) losing her job.

2. Power dynamics — In terms of wealth, authority, and reputation, the main character has advantages over her friend. The friend's advantages are softer. She has better social skills. She is dependent upon by the main character as a confidant and emotional support. Overall, the decisions following the revelation are in the main character's hands, but both characters face important consequences.

3. Character challenges — With the revelation, the main character could become a victim and lose status. She will definitely be forced to change her relationship with her friend, which is frightening to her. The friend has already broken trust and must accept moving into a relationship where she will be doubted, at best. A likely beat in the scene is an explanation for the betrayal. How it is expressed and received will probably determine the emotional texture and shape subsequent scenes.

4. Choices — 1) cool: betrayal? That's no big deal. It's over. Let's move on. 2) warmer: betrayal? How could you? I was protecting you. Okay, thanks. 3) still warmer: betrayal? You scoundrel! I did it for your own good. You had no right. 4) hot: betrayal? You rat!! It was payback, and I'm glad I did it! We'll see how glad you are when I finish eviscerating you in public!

Okay, I hope you get the idea. In practical terms, I found that I was revisiting each of these four steps as I worked. I also wasn't afraid to jump ahead. And the choices? About 20 were explored before I was done.

Note, this isn't a scene writing machine. The details are all contingent on what else is going on in the story. The choices are somewhat constrained by who these characters are (although my inclination was to push hard to make a choice work before it was rejected. I actually ended up drafting half pages of three choices before I made a decision and completed the scene. (At times, I've experimented with writing the same scene as humor or melodrama or from a different perspective. When I got really stuck once, I wrote a scene in the voices of half-dozen favorite authors.)

One reason why I made such an investment in the scenes is because each of them provides the opportunity to really elevate the stories in which they take place. In addition, I hate the idea of anyone's noticing they were added in revision. When fixes and addenda are too obvious in the story, they can wreck the whole experience. On the other hand, when they feel like they belong, they can become the best parts of stories.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Last Word - How to end scenes so readers stay engaged

Ending a scene well is a way you keep readers turning pages or reward them (especially in the final scene). I've talked in the past about cliffhangers, questions, and reveals. These are all valid, but this post will take a deeper dive on ending scenes.

Much of this comes from what I've been learning this year working in a writers’ room for a Web series. In particular, the director is sensitive to making the endings effective even if it means cutting material. Two key criteria have come to the fore: emotion and character choice. The emotional response for the reader (in this case, the viewer) needs to be strong. Whatever comes out of the draft needs to be questioned. With regard to the character, there's power in who has the last word. This is both in terms of where the emotion belongs and in story emphasis.

Okay, that's the basics. Time to dig deeper.

Cliffhangers raise questions. Minimally, that means they should get readers curious. But Hitchcock says curiosity is not a strong emotion. Stakes create concerns. We worry about the characters we identify with. So the ideal cliffhangers either put characters we care about in serious jeopardy or threaten goals we hope they achieve (or push goals we don't want them to achieve toward success).

Cliffhangers often and best with the action or statement of the person who opposes the viewpoint character. And, naturally, actions and words – especially promises and strong statements of intent — by the hero or heroine can create anxiety and anticipation in readers. Since the protagonist often is in the dark about important implications of choices, I like to bring in a secondary character to end the same, often with a question that implies unexamined consequences.

Sometimes a reminder can have power at the end of the scene, shifting the perspective on what has gone before. Similarly, a reveal, especially one that has been set up well, can reorient readers in ways that make them wanting to find out things they didn't know that they wanted to know.

A good joke can make readers turn the page. Because we want to get to another joke that will give us a laugh. This is true even if the humor isn't intrinsic to the plot of the story question. Sometimes, it's just a reminder that we like a character (and this could be a secondary character) and we want to spend more time with him or her. Of course, this can be accomplished with an interesting action or poetic language as well. Anything that makes us reluctant to say goodbye to a character will be engaging.

While visuals are always part of the primary tools of those working on films and videos, they can be neglected in prose works. The power of ending a scene with a compelling image can work in a novel, or short story, or any other medium that has scenes. In particular, a powerful final image for work can move readers in ways nothing else can and make the whole work memorable. So, though it may not always be effective, choosing an image to close the scene should be considered often. In fact, for a longer work, it's worth looking just and how scenes end throughout the work and making sure opportunities for images have not been missed that can elevate that whole work.

I'll end with a lesson I got in the writer's room that delights me. The director seem to look each time — even when the scene ended well – for the moment of emotion that came before it. If that one could make a better ending, his bias was toward either cutting or moving the words that followed it. The only things that could prevents his making that choice were loss of information needed by the viewer (as, for instance, a set up), something that would mess up the beginning of the next scene (such as what might appear as a jump cut with the speaking or acting character), a harmful shift in tone, or problems with emphasis that took away from the main story. When the "weaker" ending had to be kept, the momentum that came from analyzing a different potential ending seemed to inspire the writers’ room to raise the quality from weaker to stronger.

I've taken what I've learned here and brought it to my other works. It turns out that the payoff, in terms of making the writing difficult to put down is more than worth the time invested in questioning endings that are basically solid, but hold the promise to be better.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

How to Bring Emotional Immediacy to Your Stories — Including important moments

According to Joss Whedon (Buffy, Firefly, Dollhouse), writers should “fall in love with moments, not moves.” Moves are easy enough to identify. They are the big plot points, often involving actions that propel the story forward. Or payoffs for high concepts. Moves are more subtle. Again from Whedon “some extremely relatable thing that everyone has gone through… that’s your moment.” (Both quotes from Showrunners by Tara Bennett.)

When I read this, I think I immediately connected it to my blog series on Pivotal Scenes, probably because away from this blog I had used those questions to mine personal moments in my own life. All of these present a high bar for emotional content, and many make me feel vulnerable. And I think the moments in movies that deal authentically with breakups and realizing a power or a flaw and terrible dangers or losses and wonder all live just beneath the story moments Whedon wants to protect, to hold onto with both hands.

I think it also links to dealing honestly with the deep themes of your stories. Stand by Me (adapted from Stephen King’s The Body) takes an unflinching look at how our real identities fit in with our social identities. Gordie can never be his brother, but he doesn’t have to live the disappointment of his parents and the neighbors. Chris does not have to be a no-good Chambers boy like the others in his family. He is allowed to open his heart and use his mind.

Both King’s characters share moments of pain that feel real and daring. Neither of them can voice their greatest betrayals (Gordie’s being emotionally abandoned by his parents, Chris’s being used by a teacher he trusts). I have to believe King found moments like these in his own heart.

That’s the job. Not the whole job. Stories need the big events and the structure and everything that creates contexts for moments. But finding these moments in your own heart, and having the courage to write them, is how moment that matter end up in your own stories.

How do you find moments?

The muse offers them from time to time. When you show up often enough to tell stories, you’ll hear a whisper. And the trick will be to capture what you hear without making it save (or making yourself safe). A poorly formed moment can be fixed in a rewrite. One that is reshaped by the editor in your head before it is fully captured is likely to have its value carved out and disposed of before it hits the paper.

A diary or journal entry, cooled by time, may provide the kernel of a moment. Its truth can inspire. The wisdom of experience can reveal its essence. And the right character in the right story can allow its full expression. The same can be true for old memories that come rushing back. Sometimes they may be prompted by a smell or an evocative image or pattern. Often, for me, they come back when I’m trying to explain something or provide an example that clarifies a problem or opportunity. This can be an explanation for myself, but it is more likely to be for someone else. The one constant with these memories that become moments is that they come back to me meaning something different and new in some important way. They arrive with insights.

Moments are also prompted by articulating and exploring themes in works I’ve drafted. Getting a handle on what a story is about leads to realizations, discoveries of possibilities within the work so far, and illumination of wrong turns that can be righted. Looking more closely and making fixes, especially over time, leads me to moments. Often, I wake up with them after having put in a lot of work the day before. And, once again, I have to have the courage to welcome them. It’s very easy to cheat or dismiss moments. Because it feels more reasonable. And safer.

At this point, personalizing answers to the questions from my pivotal scenes post has been the biggest recent source for me of moments. There is no How to Write Fast post that I’ve returned to more often. I’m not sure how long my luck will hold, but that particular slot machine keeps paying off. I’m not putting quarters in. Its currency is blood and tears most of the time. Laughter, joy, and wonder can also makes those cylinders come up jackpot, but that currency is harder for me to come by.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Putting Holes in Your Stories - Making space for reader engagement

When you leave things out, you provide openings for your readers to enter your stories. An important example I've offered in the past has been using clues and secrets. Obviously, mysteries rely on these, but they are fundamental to most storytelling because readers like seeing the spaces where they can imagine completing the puzzle.

Another example is loss, especially when it creates a sense of nostalgia. When someone from the future uncovers an artifact from our own time (or one we know well), our knowledge of its context and our ability to understand and regret what has been destroyed makes that moment in the story more personal. The Statue of Liberty at the end of the original Planet of the Apes may be the most famous example, but I still remember when I read Stephen Vincent Benét's By the Waters of Babylon and the main character's discovery of post-apocalypse New York. Philip K. Dick provides examples that indicate a twisted past, as when a character shows off the cigarette lighter Franklin Roosevelt was carrying when he was assassinated.


Irony is a classic way to gain reader participation. When readers have information, especially contextual information, that the point of view character does not, the reader is forced into the position of seeing bad choices and having no way to advise a character with whom he or she identifies. Movies love to do this, perhaps most famously in those directed by Hitchcock. In fact, his description of suspense is all about the audience knowing a bomb is present when the characters don't. The sort of "Get out! Get out!" reaction is delicious. It's why a lot of people at horror movies advise characters (often shouting) not open the door the monster is behind.

When a historical person is depicted as the opposite of what we expect, that can also create a kind of ironic recognition that puts the reader into a space that's both uncomfortable and familiar. I think part of the appeal of stories that include Nicola Tesla as the hero is the way they challenge myths that Edison was a great benefactor who invented much of the modern world (though the mythos seems to be shifting enough, so the Edison switch may be losing its punch). Taking someone who is part of the contemporary Pantheon, like Einstein or Lincoln or Mark Twain, and exploring their dark sides at a distance through a naïve character who only sees the bad is a (somewhat dangerous) way to get under a reader's skin.

Antiheroes take things further. How can we both want Walter White or Tony Soprano to succeed and be horrified when they do? Certainly, empathy and identification with the protagonist is elegantly established in the best antihero stories. But there's more. The writer must be willing to follow through on the antisocial behaviors, often taking them further than readers or audiences might anticipate. Strangely enough, I believe antiheroes who go too far and evaporate excuses we might make for what they do draw us more deeply into the stories because we are forced to re-create our emotional landscapes.

And, though many readers are offended by ambiguous or bittersweet endings (much less tragedies), these are often among the most memorable. The spinning top at the end of Christopher Nolan's Inception forces audiences to write many endings. And if Rhett Butler had said, after Scarlet's pleading, "Okay, I'll stay," I suspect Gone with the Wind would have lost much of its power and its ability to capture the imaginations of generations of moviegoers.

Suggest things. Leave things out. Create questions. Turn things upside down. Surprise. Startle. Don't be afraid to challenge, discomfort, and even irritate your readers. Purposely create invitations throughout your stories so readers are encouraged to participate and stay engaged.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Drawing Readers In — Elements that will make your story's scenes more compelling

My brain has been throwing ideas at me that make my scenes more vivid and memorable. I listen to the muse and obey, but the analytical part of my mind tends to ask questions. So I started ranking what perks up scenes, and I put these into a larger context.

The first rule is don’t undercut yourself. This can happen when what you write is unclear or distracting. Get the facts right, keep in logical (without confusing non sequiturs), use words that are correct but don’t send your readers to the dictionary, and never have characters act out of character. The best protection here is having someone else read your work, asking them if anything was unclear or confusing or took them out of the story, and listening to what they say. Most writers will take this kind of correction unless it means killing something they love. Beware: Such self-indulgence gets in the way.

Often fun facts and fancy prose need to be cut, especially if they stick out. But they can actually keep readers engaged if they are slipped in smoothly enough and support the story. My model for doing this right was author Charles Sheffield. He is the only person I’ve ever spoken with regularly who could toss in a few lines of poetry or an analogy explaining an arcane concept in physics and never sound pretentious. Elegance personified.

Curiosity can hold readers. Most stories raise questions people want answers to. Big question. Little questions. Time them right, pay them off, and make sure they sit in readers’ memories with just the right emphasis. It’s a critical part of story telling. I just did an analysis of a Web series I’m working on, and the biggest concerns I ended up with were questions paid off too early and questions forgotten. I think the temptation to reveal rather than to withhold is driven by writer enthusiasm for the answer—they can’t wait to share it—and concern that if they withhold it too long, impact will be lost. But if you study your favorite stories, almost all of them withhold until readers are clamoring for the answers.

The questions forgotten thing is easier to deal with. Creative minds tend to raise more questions and throw up more options than a story can handle. In revision, it’s to cut those that don’t contribute and to pay off those that were overlooked.

Similar to questions are surprises and humor. Twists and turns add novelty, force readers to take fresh looks at what went earlier, and lead to new questions. Clues, misfortunes (for sympathetic characters, not villains), and secrets uncovered make stories fresh and unpredictable.

And, if you give your readers a good laugh, they’ll keep coming back for more. Humor may be the best way to pull things together and comic relief can amplify emotional engagement. But it doesn’t have to. Humor is so highly valued, it is one of the few elements that can be kept without harm when it doesn’t really fit. As the experts say, never cut funny. The biggest concern is audience. What’s funny often doesn’t translate to different cultures. And taste can become an issue.

One of the best tools is escalation. If there is a pattern, making it more intense with each instance promises more and keeps readers hooked. For instance, someone’s car breaks down. Then the character is robbed. Then he trips and twists his ankle. Then there’s a city-wide blackout.

Stakes and consequences can be part of this. What if the character is on his way to give blood for emergency surgery. And his blood type is rare. And the patient is his younger brother. Who is the only witness who can testify against the city’s corrupt mayor.

The most powerful tool for reader involvement is empathy for the character. The more we identify with the hero or heroine, the more intensely engaged we’ll be. We have to make sure they’ll be all right or succeed. Damon Knight said empathy could be turned on by making the character funny, skilled, or wronged (or some combination of these).

I don’t think that exhausts the possibilities. For instance, familiar situations often can trigger me as a reader to keep turning pages just because the protagonist is going through something I’ve gone through. If a character’s voice is distinctive enough, I may be drawn into his or her life and discover touchstones that matter. And care. That’s the main thing. Whatever you can do to make me care about your character and keep me caring is likely to succeed.

This list is not complete. Images can hold readers. Sex and violence may act for some (most?) readers in ways similar to humor. I just bought a book because the whole story takes place at my alma mater, and I’ve done the same when I’ve found stories about cities I’ve visited or lived in, about people I’ve known, and about organizations I’ve been a member of. I’m the natural audience for those stories, and, chances are, if your story has recognizable specifics, there’s an audience for it. And often the specifics illustrate the universal, as with Fiddler on the Roof and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. You don’t have to be Jewish or Greek to enjoy those stories.

As I said, my path to this list was looking at the elements that were inveigling their ways into my scenes. When the muse goes to work, just say yes. When he/she doesn’t, it’s great to have a tool for revision that provides the same kinds of elements, which is why I looked at my experience and wrote this as a way to explore my already drafted scenes and make them more vivid.