Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Statements That Can Reveal Your Characters - Forcing reactions

I’m always asking questions (some rude) of my characters so I can get to know them better. So I came upon this recently while reading The Cold Dish (first in the Longmire series). Everyone, including the Sheriff, is spooked by an old Indian gun. Longmire explains to Vic that it’s haunted. There are “Old Cheyenne hanging around the thing looking for people to abduct and take back to the Camp of the Dead.”

Vic says, “Cool.”

I was delighted. That reaction was perfect. With one word, Vic had both surprised me and revealed her character. The passage showed me how a reaction to a simple statement can be as useful as any question.

There’s something similar in Sleepless in Seattle:

Annie Reed - You know that dream when you're on the street naked and everyone is looking?
Becky - I love that dream.

What are the elements about these responses that are so compelling?

1 In each case, there’s a statement (or a rhetorical question) that has an obvious reaction we’re supposed to have. In both these cases, the statements relate to fear, so Vic is supposed to be uneasy. Becky is supposed to feel vulnerable or embarrassed.
2 In each case, the first character has had the reaction we expect.
3 The other character surprises us with a reaction we may not have imagined, one very different from the other character, which illuminates the differences between them.

The wonderful things about having characters respond to statements are:
1 In the best cases, you learn something about them.
2 You can also diagnose a big problem—not enough contrast between characters. If you have a series of statements to which key characters have essentially the same response, you have a problem.
3 If none of the characters give you a response that surprises you, they may be too flat. It’s possible you just know them well, but it’s worth exploring.

I generated fifteen statements by reflecting on common fears and needs. I then thought of contrasting characters I “know,” and put down my first answers for each. I had fun and some surprises. For this effort, I used Annie and Becky from Sleepless in Seattle and Felix and Oscar from The Odd Couple. (More on Felix and Oscar later.)

To try it yourself, you might use a pair you easily could provide answers for:
Spock and Kirk
Burns and Allen
Mozart and Salieri
Leia and Han
Thelma and Louise

It’s great practice, and it will really pay off when you pull characters in from your own stories.

So here’s the fifteen I came up with. Even working rapidly, there were some surprises (underlined) for me.

An asteroid will hit New York City in about an hour.
- Annie  Oh, my god! That’s horrible.
- Becky  I’m finishing the cake.
- Felix   It’s about time.
- Oscar Well, there’s no point writing my column.
Someone planted cameras all over your home.
- Annie  Even in the bathroom?
- Becky  November third. Can I get a copy?
- Felix   Is there a ransom?
- Oscar   Enjoy the show.
CNN is on their way over to interview you live.
- Annie  A cause. I should talk about a cause for good. Which cause?
- Becky  How do I look?
- Felix   Tell them to wipe their feet before they come in.
- Oscar  Tell them I don’t have time.
There’s a hurricane warning. Get into the closet.
- Annie I’ve heard lying in a bathtub is best. With a mattress over you. And if you have a radio and some bottled water, bring those. And…
- Becky And miss it?
- Felix How big is the closet?
- Oscar Okay if I smoke?
We found the alien, in your wrist just under your skin.
- Annie  Ack! Ugh! Get it out!
- Becky  How alien?
- Felix  Take the arm off. I mean it.
- Oscar   Get me a hammer.
Your (wife, husband, lover) has been kidnapped.
- Annie  What do I need to do?
- Becky  Again?
- Felix  I’ll pay any amount.
- Oscar  This is going to cost her husband.
That ring you’re wearing gives you the power to speak with the dead.
- Annie  Grand-dad, I’m here.
- Becky   Can I talk to anybody? Freddie Mercury, I know you’re there.
- Felix   I had a cat. Siamese. Blinky. Can I talk to Blinky?
- Oscar  Uncle Louis, what happened to your coin collection?
We’re lost.
- Annie  Misplaced.
- Becky  It’s the first step in discovery.
- Felix I’m too young to die!
- Oscar  Follow me.
You’re living in a computer simulation.- Annie  But it seems so real.
- Becky  Do I get superpowers? Can I fly?
- Felix  With viruses? Bugs?
- Oscar  Computer. Bring me a beer.
You were in a horrible accident and your brain in now in cow.- Annie Is it a happy cow?
- Becky  Do I get to wear a bell?
- Felix  Are there any other animals available?
- Oscar  Bull.
You’ve lost all your money.- Annie  How?
- Becky Two words: Credit cards.
- Felix  I knew it would happen.
- Oscar  What money?
The building is surrounded by terrorists.
- Annie  Shelter in place. How do we shelter in place?
- Becky  Are any of them cute?
- Felix   I begged for a safe room. I pleaded for one.
- Oscar  Felix said he saw a rat. I called the exterminators.
You’re horribly allergic to coffee.
- Annie  Tea will be fine.
- Becky  I’ll have a double espresso to go.
- Felix   Add it to the list.
- Oscar  Thank god it’s not beer.
You’ll never see your family again.
- Annie  I don’t understand.
- Becky  The best news I’ve had all day.
- Felix  No! No! They can’t survive without me!
- Oscar  Does that include my ex-wife?
The government has an exact copy of all your computer files.
- Annie   Really? I accidentally erased some files I need. Can they help me?
- Becky  Tell them all the good stuff is in the folder marked “Magic.”
- Felix  I’ve never owned a computer.
- Oscar   Are they offering me a deal?

Here are a couple more you can play with.
There’s a recall on kale.
We’ve discovered you have an evil twin.

You can use my statements or make up your own. I suggest doing so without reference to your characters, otherwise it’s like leading the jury.

Feel free to try an event instead of a statement. A great example is in Ghostbusters, when Venkman gets slimed. Venkman is disgusted. Ray is delighted:

Dr. Peter Venkman - He slimed me.
Dr. Raymond Stantz - That's great. Actual physical contact. Can you move?

If you really want to switch things up, there’s no better example than when Felix tells off Oscar in The Odd Couple. Brilliant as always, Neil Simon puts the unexpected piece first:

Felix - All right then, you asked for it. You’re a wonderful guy, Oscar. You’ve done everything for me. If it weren’t for you, I don’t know what would have happened to me.

Oscar comes back with a monologue that does the expected, really tells off Felix. But he has been thrown off so completely, it breaks him. He cracks up. And that’s something that wouldn’t have happened if the monologues had been reversed.

So play with statements as well as questions. Turn things around. Explore whatever provokes strong emotions. And see what these exercises tell you about your characters and your stories.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Bigger Wows – Adding more emotion to story revelations

Burying the lead is one of the classic sins of journalism. It's equally sad when a writer has a good surprise or twist in the story and fails to create the best context to give it the most impact. A reveal is (or can be) more than just an answer to a question or a solution to a puzzle.

Minimally, there should be a reminder of the peril to the character or the stakes somewhere close by in the text. This could be a mention. It could be an action that raises stakes. Or it could be an image that is associated with the concern the character has. Some writers have their stories so well-established in their heads that they forget that readers sometimes put the book down or are distracted. Be generous. Without hitting them over the head, provide readers with what they need at hand to get the most out of the wow moment you're providing.

Of course, a great way to bring the experience of the revelation to readers is through the characters. Oddly, this is something I often find missing in drafts I read. Having a character react emotionally to what's shocking or unexpected cues the reader to respond more fully. It need not be as obvious as a sitcom's laugh track, but a little nudge can go a long way.

In some cases, it might be necessary to change whose point of view the scene is written in (moving from one character’s third person limited or first-person perspective to another’s). Of course, this probably isn't a good idea unless that point of view has already been established in the story, but I've often seen big turns in stories improved by such a shift.

Seeing the consequences of a revelation right after it occurs in the story is a great way to convey its meaning. This may follow naturally, as when a gun is pulled out and someone gets shot. But it also can be accomplished by jumping forward in time. Someone wins the lottery, and the next piece of the story is a tour through the character's mansion.

Consequences may include changes that go beyond the specific character. Families, communities, and even worlds may be transformed by a victory, loss, or a new perspective. For instance, Tolkien illustrated the power shifts in Middle Earth by including his Scouring of the Shire chapter, which showed the story's heroes clearing out the villains who had seized control of their home.

What has become the classic example of a surprise that reorients the audience to the whole story is The Sixth Sense, where the protagonist discovers at the end that he (spoiler alert) is dead. It resets everything that has been seen before.

There are ways that writers undermine good twists and revelations. Primary among these is cluttering the story or the key scene with distractions. Explaining minor questions too close to the big reveal can be irritating and force readers to decide what's important. Especially interesting items that raise questions in the story may create expectations, especially with regard to how puzzles might fit together. Sometimes these are not visible to the writer because he or she isn't making the same kinds of connections as readers. Editors and other people for whom the material is fresh may provide the best indicators that the story includes these kind of distractions.

It's both possible and valuable to have small questions and small surprises within a story. In particular, these can be used to manage engagement and pacing. Comedies, in particular, rely on objectively unimportant twists to build laughs and entertain. But, in general, if you consider the context for any key revelation, you get the chance to highlight it in ways that will improve the experiences of your readers.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Five Ways to Make Story Descriptions Memorable

It seems like a contradiction—many readers skip or speed through description to get to dialogue and action, but they come away with detailed pictures of the worlds and the characters. In fact, I’m guessing that the descriptions in the works of Tolkien, Jack London, Raymond Chandler, and Ursula Le Guin are as powerful and as much bait for rereading as the other elements. Even when we can quote the dialogue and recite the plot points by heart, we come back to their works to reexperience the descriptions.

How do we create depictions that are impossible to skip? Here are five suggestions:

1. Make it brief. Unless it’s unavoidable (for clarity or planting clues), use as few words as possible to help readers place themselves in a scene or visualize the characters. A page of description invites readers to jump ahead (or put the book down). A few sentences can be read thanks to sheer momentum.

2. Make it surprising. If you do research and provide details that are honest, apt, and unexpected, it gets more interesting and it sticks. The only caution here is readers will cling to the bits you provide that grab their attention. It’s best if there is a reason for them to keep them in mind. It’s a mistake to drop a peacock onto a character’s lawn unless it tells the reader something about the culture, the character, or (eventually) who-done-it.

3 Be indirect. The best boxing match announcers spend more time talking about the impact of the blows (both literally and in terms of how the victim reacts) than whether it was an uppercut that landed. It’s fine to say Boxer A threw a right hook, but it’s much more effective to mention, Boxer B staggering back, raising his hands defensively, and bleeding from the cut below his eye.

Be poetic. If the language you use melts in someone’s mouth when they read it aloud, it almost doesn’t matter what it says. Readers will refrain from passing description by it to get the to page of dialogue that beckons them. Besides the sensual experience, poetry includes devices like metaphors that are rich and evocative. With very few words, poetry can convey a lot of information. It also invites readers to come back to the work since it will feel good to return and the same words may reveal more with time.

5 Invite readers in. It’s a paradox that leaving things out draws readers in. Holes leave places for readers to grab on, to participate. A detailed laundry list that provides all the physical details or all the psychological aspects of a character (or complete histories or explanations) does not raise questions or provide opportunities for imagination. Be selective without sacrificing essential clarity. How do you know what to include? That comes down to really knowing your readers.

When I write a scene, the first draft is aimed at one specific person. And once it’s finished, I challenge the descriptions by considering what question he or she would ask. Asking questions because of curiosity or concern for a character is good, and I will rework the material (often making cuts) if there are no such questions. Asking questions because things are muddled or unintentionally ambiguous encourages me to revise so all such questions are answered.

Descriptions are critical to providing an immersive experience, They put readers into your stories. They help readers to distinguish characters and make empathy more likely. And, when done effectively, they keep readers engaged. The story will be a page-turner not because it’s being skimmed, but because it’s impossible to put down.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Creating a Revision Punch List for Your Story - Taking action on critiques

Though it can be harrowing, getting expert criticism (from development editors, agents, qualified peers, mentors, and industry people) on your work can be one of the most valuable steps in taking a good story and bringing it to a higher level. Since I want to get the most out of their time, I don’t hand off first drafts to experts. In most cases, what they get has been revised using every step of my process. Basically that means going from big picture to small.

I have a detailed task list (which is constantly updated). Here it is, greatly simplified:

    1.    Print and make general notes on the whole manuscript, listening to it via text-to-speech. In particular, pay attention to how the concept plays out, the pacing and consistency of tone, problems with clarity, and the soundness of the story logic. I also note where my attention lags.
    2.    Analyze to determine if any scenes can be removed or any might need to be added. Make those fixes.
    3.    Look at individual scenes. Check for conflict. See if any need more or fewer beats. Or description. Take a hard look for beginnings that hook and endings that pop.
    4.    Check characters for motivation and consistency. Make sure I worry about the protagonist more and more throughout. Mark all points of decision and make them harder if possible.
    5.    Read the whole thing aloud for language and sound.
    6.    Fix inconsistencies, spelling, grammar, and word choice.

Note that this is a step-by-step process. Though I always have to do some cycling back I don’t bounce around or try to do more than one step in a single pass.

The punch list becomes something different. When I’ve completed handwritten notes during an oral critique, I type everything out as soon as I can, without prejudice. (It can be tempting to skip some criticism because “they didn’t get it.” That may be right, but maybe it’s just me who doesn’t get it. There’s even a chance that the criticism triggered my defense mechanisms. Eliminating certain criticism is a decision for later on. 

For a written critique, I highlight notes in the document and do what ever I need to do to ensure I’ve got them captured for later with no loss.

For each of these, my records must become full sentences, even if that’s not what’s in my initial notes. And I make sure I capture the nuances (bold and asterisks, for their emphases and mine, respectively).

Then I let things marinate. For a month, if I can. This gives me a measure of distance that helps me to get the most out of what the critics meant (vs. what I heard or interpreted).

When I return to the criticism, it’s now time to strike out or modify what I suspect isn’t right. It’s also time to consider whether there are any problems that doom the project. (Yes, that can happen, and it means abandoning the work.)

Concerns about clarity always are kept, even if I think I’ve provided a map with highlights, complete descriptions, and Orson Welles talking in their heads. Questions of plot logic are tested, using more than one tool. Critic “solutions” are almost always challenged, and I have a strong detector for instances where the story the critic sees is clear and valid, but not mine.

I also allow myself to make notes in the moment. Sometimes, this is ideas for fixes. Sometimes, it’s new ideas to make the story better. Sometimes, images, paragraphs, dialogue, story twists, and even whole scenes fall out of my brain and need to be captured immediately.

With every critique go-through, I pull out questions and areas for research.

Except in the case of research, it’s best to get this part done quickly. Get it roughly right. I try to complete the work of capturing the essence of each item in forty-eight hours or fewer.

Then I begin to formulate a draft punch list.

I don’t worry about creating sterling prose or the best possible solutions to story problems at this stage. Why? Because this work is done out of context. It’s likely to change in the face of the needs of the whole work.

Research is different because it helps to build my knowledge base and generate options. Unless I mess up and go down a rabbit hole or slip into creating a different story, research will have a natural end point. There are no natural end points for story solutions and perfectly written scenes.

The next job is to organize the punch list. You can do this according to your needs and preferences. If  an acquisitions editor or a producer waiting, this may force triage in terms of available time and the power of the person who provided notes. If something on the list is calling to be taken care of or acted upon first, I remove the distraction by taking on that task. (At this point, I often will get irritated by misspellings and grammatical errors—which tend to be limited since the submitted manuscript was proofed—so I clean them up.)

Everything else being equal, I combine items from all critics into one list and use the same big picture to small approach I follow when I’m rewriting before submission.

There are a few differences. For instance, inserting a new character or radically changing one has to be be done early, well before step 4 above. The big picture changes probably need to be inserted without polish, with the cleanup being left to step 6.

Since the action items came from other people, there are likely to be a few that don’t neatly fit into my revision model. That’s okay. I drop these in where they may make sense to me, knowing my choice might be less than optimal. Sometimes, this leads to valuable changes in my revision model.

Once the punch list is completed, going through it is efficient and straightforward. Step by step, the manuscript gets fixed, usually without my having to circle back. And the story tends to maintain its integrity, avoiding the revision problem of losing its distinctive voice.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Five Ways to Make Your Story Better

I suspect most people know about serious problems with their stories, even though it may take a few questions or comments from critique partners to accept the verdict.

Do we also know what could make our stories better? Not serious problems, but those tasks that would have the biggest impact on improving the stories we feel pretty good about? I challenged myself to list five activities each for six of my stories and see what would come up. I liked this so much, I ended up writing down tasks for 8 of my fully drafted works and 3 that are unfinished. For each of these works, nothing feels seriously wrong, and I’m confident I’m on the right track, but listing tasks provided me with a powerful a combination of reminders, quick checks, and experiments.

Here are eleven notes that come up frequently or struck me as especially valuable:

    1.    Read the work aloud. Pretty simple and obvious, eh? In fact, in each case, I had read the stories aloud, but, for the ones that jumped out at me, it had been several revisions ago. I don’t know, but I suspect things have changed enough so the act of speaking the words will provide opportunities to find omissions and points of confusion and to smooth the language.
    2.    Lengthen five scenes. I tend to write very short, and my check on that is making sure each scene has three to five beats (turns, reveals, power shifts). Choosing five scenes in a completed work doesn’t seem onerous, and I’m betting (based on revisions on another work) this will make a couple of scenes better and lead to a few surprises.
    3.    Challenge the dialogue. I’m taking a course on fiction podcasts where the instructor said dialogue has no images to lean on, so it better be compelling from moment to moment. I’m also taking an acting course, and the instructor demonstrated maintaining attention by standing as I worked through a monologue and walking toward the door every time I bored him. I’ll see him and use that awful feeling as I work to set the bar higher for myself.
    4.    Check for strong conflict. The need to provide backstory and to set things up can be so acute that it’s easy to write a scene with weak or no conflict. It feels okay because so much is presented—and the AUTHOR’S problems are solved. Not good enough. Find the conflict. Make sure it provides a knock-out punch.
    5.    Leave them eager for more. Every scene needs to have a strong reason for being in the story. Finding that reason is already a challenge. Deciding what to include can be missed, and that can lead to a scene with complete resolution. That can work at the end of a story, but it might be a problem anywhere else. It invites readers to put the book down.
    6.    Question the point of view. Head hopping is one of the real sins of writing. If the point of view within a scene becomes inconsistent, readers can be confused and are almost certainly going to lose emotional connection. But the care taken for point of view can lead to a loss of opportunities to create more energy by changing point of view in different scenes. A good rule of thumb is determining who has the most to lose in a scene and at least trying to write the scene from that perspective. It might not always work.
           For instance, the expectation in most romances is the story will be told from the heroine’s point of view all the way through or alternate between the heroine and the hero. Violating that expectation can be problematic. Similarly, many mysteries depend upon holding to the detective’s point of view from start to finish so information is present is a fair way to solve the puzzle. In most scenes, the detective in not the one who has the most to lose in a scene. But many stories come alive when more attention is paid to which character should have the point of view.
    7.    Make it more visual. According to common knowledge, Nicola Tesla imagined machines in his head so completely, he often didn’t know whether they had ever been built. I will not claim that the visual in all the scenes reach that level in my head, but it’s all too easy for me to leave out descriptions my readers need to share the experiences I have when I read my stories. I make the stories better when I review what’s actually on the page for readers to see.
    8.    Make me worry. My characters often don’t get into enough trouble as they could. The challenges don’t always exact a price. The stakes of failure can be higher. In my heart of hearts, I am a bit too reluctant to torture them. Going through scenes and looking at what happens through the eyes of those who can’t stand them is a painful but valuable exercise.
    9.    Identify five highly emotional scenes. If I can’t do this in a novel or a screenplay, something’s wrong. In fact, if I can’t figure out what they are without looking at the manuscript, I’m probably in trouble. Most readers show up for emotion, not fine ideas and arguments. Even if the emotional scenes pop out without hesitation, I may not be okay. My next step is always to read each one, to see if they are all they can be. Sometimes, oddly enough, that means going back to a less emotional scene and reworking it. Like jokes, emotions benefit from powerful setups.
    10.    Check the pacing. This is likely to become evident when reading aloud, but it may be necessary to look to the story logic to make sure every scene is necessary. And that there is escalation along the way. Challenges need to get tougher. Stakes need to rise. It’s all too easy to have the energy plateau, often at exactly the wrong time. When that happens, it’s an invitation to put the book down.
    11.    Make the theme perfect. This is a big one. The whole story pivots on it, and this is often expressed fully in one critical scene. I have to know what that scene is. I have to articulate the theme in a way that is clear, concise, and resonant. A great theme is a snatch of poetry, once the story is written. It may not sound like it to someone who hasn’t experienced the whole work, but it should open up someone who has. And, once the scene and the theme statement are indisputable, the whole story needs to be reviewed with these in mind.

You can ignore all of these tasks and still have a good story. But these activities may point to ways to make that story better, maybe as good as it can be. None of my stories will benefit greatly from all of them. I'm confident the right five tasks will do the job, and my recommendation to you is that you explore this list, and choose the five (or three) that seem to be most valuable. It’s YOUR five ways that matter. Before getting to work, feel free to add ones that are not on this list. (I did.) Don’t worry if not everything raises the level of the story. If one does, you win.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Scenes That Demand to Be in Your Stories 5: Interesting choices

One person runs toward a burning building while another gets as far away as possible. When the heroine says, “I love you,” the hero responds in kind. Or changes the subject. One boy gets knocked to the ground and stays put. Another stands up and goes after his attacker, no matter how big.

In stories, choices define the characters. And they don’t have to be diametrically opposed choices, like the ones above. Often the best choices are surprises. A man might step into the street to direct traffic away from the inferno. Han Solo might respond to “I love you” with “I know.” The boy on the ground might rise with a knife in his hand.

This series has been about dropping new scenes in when they are needed by the story. I’ve made suggestions on investigating possibilities by defining the purpose of the scene, examining the power dynamics of characters, assessing the challenges characters face, and, in conclusion with this post, exploring possible choices. You may not need all these steps to create a terrific scene that will elevate the quality of your story, so don’t feel obliged to go through all of them. But, if you’re not sure you’ve found the best answer, this process can take you where your gut alone can’t.

So how do you decide which choice is the most powerful? For me, when I get lucky, the muse tells me. I begin to visualize the whole scene, and it’s like taking dictation.

Unfortunately, that is not my typical experience. When I don’t get help, I need to rely on a process. Here’s my approach:

Capture, specify, combine, compare, assess, contextualize, write the first sentences, and choose.

Capture. Chances are, you already have ideas for scenes. List those that come to mind, even if they are awful and impossible. Don’t reject any of them yet. Feel free to begin with single words or sentence fragments. I try to get twenty distinct options down, but I never stop with fewer than ten. I work hard to include one that is a verbal showdown and one that is all action and would come across clearly in a silent movie.

Those captured phrases need to be put into full sentences now.  As an example of that, here’s a great summary of Jaws. Some scenes are done in one sentence. Some in a few. The point is to clearly state what happens in the scene. Focus on what’s essential.

Specify. Here’s something I got from George Gurthridge’s wonderful book, The Kids from Nowhere. If an idea is not original, it might become more original with what Gutheridge calls “funneling.” Taking the options you’ve listed, especially those that aren’t obviously original, and adding more details and specificity make reveal more imaginative approaches to them.

Combine. Can any of the options be put together to create something stronger? If so, now’s a good time to experiment with that.

Compare. If you still have twenty choices, that’s a lot to deal with. It might be wise to force rank them. I usually proceed with about five at this point, though I never force a tough decision. More is okay.

Assess. This is a serious part. What do you believe makes a good idea for a scene? I like originality (obviously). Surprise is usually a good clue. A scene that both increases jeopardy and reveals a secret can be powerful. Visual qualities or humor can sell me on a scene (depending on the story). One thing I always include is twists or turns. These are usually power shifts, and, if a scene cannot deliver three to five I care about, it’s hard for me to see it as viable. That’s not absolute, but it’s a good guideline.

My most critical assessment has to do with difficulty. Will this scene present my character with the toughest choice I can imagine? Will it torture my protagonist? And, will it be difficult for me, calling up truth, emotion, and the best I can do as a writer?

Contextualize. At this point, it’s good to still have three choices, even if one is beginning to look like the winner. Why? Because that really great scene might not fit into your story. In fact, it might destroy much of what you’ve been working toward. There are set pieces that are so memorable and have such emotional content, you can stick them in without regret. But do that intentionally. Choose them after putting them into the context of the scenes before and after (or the sequence or the act or the whole story).

Write the first sentence. Or paragraph. Or lines of dialogue (especially for a script). The purpose here is to bring together analysis, gut feelings, and language in something that might become part of your story. It’s like seeing if a phrase of music might contribute to a symphonic work, and it’s a wonderful test. Often, I get surprised and my least favorite choice comes alive by doing this. As an added benefit, this small bit of writing can help propel you into writing the whole scene. You are no longer facing a blank page.

Choose. At this point, you probably can see which option will do everything you hope for to enhance your story. If the answer still isn’t clear, you can write out your choices in full, from what seems to be the most likely to one that seems like a long shot. For me, my first choice usually provides a happy solution. In my worst cases, I’ve written three scenes to get what I needed.

This series is about solving a problem that comes up in revision. I would not use it during drafting because that’s the part of writing l like best. I’m not interested in taking the fun out of my efforts. But I have done full, detailed outlines for several of my works that seemed to need that approach, and it may be that hardcore plotters will be able to adapt this approach to their drafting needs. If so, I’ve got no problem with that.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Scenes That Demand to Be in Your Stories 4: Character challenges

People hate to change and so do characters. People may stand still for long periods of time, but characters—if they are taking an active role—are challenged to change in virtually every scene of a story. That’s where the energy, power, and reader engagement come from. (I suspect we get hooked because change often is agonizing for us. There may be the same urge keeping us watching as coming across a disaster. When change is in the balance, we can’t look away.)

I wrote earlier that the way characters are challenged is by knocking them out of equilibrium. Specifically, something vital to them is put into jeopardy. And it is so threatened, they need to act, make a decision, say something publicly (which is really a kind of act), and/or reevaluate their position on something.

What are those “somethings that are vital to them”?

Here’s my list:
  • Status. How do I rank among others and what privileges does my rank give me? What responsibilities must I fulfill to keep my rank?
  • Identity. Who do I see myself being in terms of my moral code, my roles, and, most of all, how I am valuable (or valued)? What is the story I tell myself about myself?
  • Plans. This is not my to-do list. This is what I see myself achieving that matters to me. This is who I see myself (or those I care about) in the future.
  • Hopes. This reaches beyond concrete plans. Often hopes are unexpressed, longings that might be within reach. Expectations I might not dare to expect.
  • Opportunities. Where is the door open? More importantly, where might doors close permanently? Impending loss, even for things that might have been claimed (and weren’t) years ago, can drive change. Think of what happens with couples who’ve lived together for years when one of the pair says it’s time to get married.
  • Relationships. Both the ability to form (or deepen) a valued tie and the possibility a connection might break require responses.
  • Survival. Get through this ordeal or life-or-death moment or there won’t be any more moments ahead of you.
Note that I don’t have power on the list. I’ve covered it [] , but it’s also already present here at a higher level, weaving its way through each of these. This list also has Maslow’s hierarchy of needS lurking beneath it, but I’ve already explored that earlier.

I began this series with four scenes I was developing. Here’s one I’ll look at this time:

The heroine must listen to the confession of her best friend about how she betrayed her.
Jane’s best friend, Mary, has posted her picture and a cooked-up bio to a dating site. This was done without permission in the face of Jane’s losing someone she cared about. Mary just wanted to end Jane’s loneliness.

Unfortunately, Mary didn’t know that site had evolved to be THE place for kinky hookups. Something Jane is not into. Now Jane, who’s made-up bio had unintended double entendres, is being swamped with requests. Some of the online folks are invading her real life, causing her embarrassment and wrecking her reputation. Since Mary has control of the post, she must confess so the two of them can fix this.

It’s already a fun scene (I hope), but let’s see what pops up with the seven dimensions above. I’ll focus on Mary, since, even though she’s not the protagonist, she is the one facing the most pressure.
  • Status. Though Mary is treated as an equal by Jane, her friend is a wealthy celebrity. And her boss. Mary has gone to a lot of fun parties and gotten good tables at restaurants by having Jane along or mentioning her name. Losing Jane would cut a lot of glamor out of her life and possibly lead to her losing a job she loves and needs. If she really messes up with the confession, Jane could strike back and make her life miserable.
  • Identity. Mary sees herself as helpful and kind. What she did was not helpful. Accepting that she overstepped to the point of causing harm means maybe she isn’t as kind as she thought she was. Maybe her ego got in the way. Or, perhaps, beneath it all, jealousy.
  • Plans. The life Mary assumes for herself is staying close to her friend, maybe getting a bit more of the glitter to rub off on her. Certainly, she hasn’t worried about basic needs since she entered the celebrity orbit.
  • Hopes. Could Mary become a celebrity in her own right? A Gayle to her version of Oprah? Or at least marry one of the men who ends up on the cover of People? This mistake won’t help.
  • Opportunities. A whole lot of possibilities could be closed off. It’s hard to visualize this conversation ending with more opportunities. The pressure is on to create as little havoc as possible. (Of course, as a writer, I’m looking for havoc.)
  • Relationships. Clearly, the friendship will take a hit. Will it emerge stronger? Will Jane ever be able see Mary’s good intentions as she lives in that special hell Mary consigned her to? Oh, and what will Mary’s mom and friends think if they find out about what she did. Will anyone ever trust her again?
  • Survival. Okay. Mary is lucky Jane is not a mobster. No one will rub her out. They won’t even break her legs.
I could dig deeper on these. It’s also likely that diving into composing the scene will create connections with the other scenes in the story and among these possibilities. Getting them out there has created a fresh deck of cards for me to play this hand. I’m excited to write the scene and to see what my characters do.

This is what I want when I write, especially when new scenes need to be inserted into a long work that is already drafted. Being reconnected with renewed passion for the project? I’ll take that.
I could just write immediately, and that might be best. But, if I think it will help, my process offers for one more step: generating character choices. That’s what next week’s post will be about.