Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Dilemmas Drive Stories - The power of tough choices

In the Old Testament, God demands that Abraham sacrifice his son. That’s a heck of a dilemma. Abandon a god with whom you have a loving relationship or murder your son. Personally, intolerable. But story gold.

Writers have been using dilemmas since the very beginning. In general, it’s about having to choose between to horrible, irreversible alternatives. Sophie’s Choice includes a powerful example. She must decide who will live, her son or her daughter.

Extreme choices reveal character, both in terms of how the choice is arrived at and in terms of the aftermath, how the person deals with its consequences — especially psychologically.

Abraham chooses God, confirming his faith. He is stopped from sacrificing his son and, through his son, becomes the patriarch of a great nation. Sophie sees her daughter taken away to her death and is traumatized. She becomes an alcoholic and kills herself.

As a writer, giving characters dilemmas forces dramatic story choices because it evokes emotions — in you and your readers.Explorations that would otherwise become impossible become necessary. (That is, unless you fudge it by some device like time travel. That trope is called upon in Harry Potter and isn’t a complete failure because the mechanism is foreshadowed effectively. In Superman, where the hero gets both choices by making the world spin backward, all the drama and joy of the movie is sucked away.)

To create a dilemma, it is essential to know who the character is and what he or she values deeply. (The biggest writing failure is making the dilemma too trivial. Some writers have a difficult time making things tough for their characters.)

The dilemma should be between two bad options, not two good. I had a friend who had to choose between attending Johns Hopkins Medical School and the University of Pennsylvania’s med school. It caused her some stress, but was not the stuff of great drama.

While the main character may lack some knowledge, it’s best if the choice is not driven by the character being TSTL (too stupid to live).

The choice must be clear. There can’t be a third option or a compromise choice. It might be necessary to consult with other people to identify and close down creative opportunities.

The choice must be irreversible. This may take some thought. Many times, I’ve worked with writers who thought choices could not be reversed. But readers are very good as sniffing out ways they can be. A dilemma must put the character into a new world and make the old world inaccessible. Ideally, that new world will come with some surprises. Unintended consequences are a good thing in stories.

When the character makes the choice, it must be “in character.” While before the choice is made the readers must doubt which way the character will go, afterward it’s best to see the choice made as being inevitable. (This is very difficult to pull off, and works best if plants that point to the decision, such as an earlier decision, come earlier in the story. Another good way to make it work is by buttressing the decision after the fact. For instance, a friend saying something like “I knew you’d make the right choice” can make it easier for the reader to believe the decision.)

Ideally, the choice should do more than change the fortunes of the character. It should be tied to his or her flaws and change them as people, too.

Sometimes a dilemma only emerges after a series of small choices lead the character into a corner. Think of stories where a less than alert or willing to compromise character takes the bait and ends up beholden to a villain.

There are what I call dilemma plus stories. In most cases, these include a choice that seems awful, but has a logical bonus that makes a happy ending possible. But it is also possible to make things go very bad.

What is a dilemma for a character may not be a dilemma for readers. Irony may be in play, either because the reader has superior knowledge or, more interesting, because the reader’s values clash with those of the character.

The potential for dilemmas in a story may not be obvious. It's worth looking more closely at the important choices your characters make to see if they can be constrained in ways that force dilemmas. This takes some courage because, ultimately, it will take you, as a writer, into uncomfortable territory. But it will pay off in terms of reader engagement and deeper insights.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Character Virtues Become Vices - Extremes, contexts, and differing values

When I was in my 20s, someone accused me of being so broad-minded that I was flat headed. I was reminded of this as I attended a workshop with Donald Maass, based on his book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction. He went through a series of positive traits that, when taken too far, became questionable. One that struck me in particular was a protagonist who would go from being helpful to interfering with others recklessly.

These progressions seemed natural to me, and perhaps provide alternative solutions to advice I've given about giving main characters important flaws. So I decided to explore it further.

    •    What happens when a confident protagonist becomes egotistical or narcissistic?
    •    What about a carrying character who becomes indulgent or spoils someone he or she loves?
    •    When does a trusting person become so naïve it threatens the welfare of those around him or her?

I was reminded of a man who spoke at my church about tithing. He had made this a priority for himself and his family, to the point where, despite he and his wife having jobs, the family often became dependent upon social services. His generosity had, to my mind, gone so far he put his children at risk. It's an interesting thing to think about of virtue that would be admired in a monk becoming a threat to offspring.

I know many people whose humility made them self-effacing to the point where they did not fully share their gifts and talents with society. Perhaps this is another case where what is good for the individual can get so big that society loses.

    •    Can a protector become a bully?
    •    At what point does a courageous person become foolhardy?
    •    What stops a man with an iron will from treating others with disdain?

Can someone absorb with curiosity damage others in seeking answers? Certainly there were people who worked on the atomic bomb who concluded their session with knowing had led to a turn in history that put humanity in jeopardy.

I've been fascinated for a long time – and not in a good way – by the idea that a true friend will take your call in the middle of the night and go out to bury a body, no questions asked. To me, this is loyalty taken to extremes. To others, the value of friendship trumps other values. The concept of omertà – the Mafia code of honor – does not allow for ratting on a family member, no matter what crimes have been committed. My values differ.

An empathetic person can become a busybody. A funny person can become bitingly satirical and verbally abusive. A respectful person can become a toady.

Some virtues can, when amplified or twisted, can become bad in any context. Some reflect differences in values as they are transformed (corrosive to individual morality or relationships or society or humanity or future generations). Some people become possessed by their virtues and go out of control, acting without thought, deliberation, judgment, or prudence.

Is the road to hell really paved with good intentions? For writers, virtues and good intentions can be pushed to create stories when sharper conflicts and more interesting character arcs.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Working With Your Story Ideas - Connect, nurture, shape, and grow

Developing ideas is a natural step after discovery and collection (the topics of last week's post). I previewed this a bit when I mentioned "maybe withs." It's time to dig into this a little more beginning with making a fuzzy distinction between random ideas and those that seem to along with identified projects. Why a fuzzy distinction? Because, while your brain is noticing and selecting facts, insights, images, relationships, and other story fodder, its initial classifications should always be suspect. While an idea might seem to, at first blush, fit with other ideas or be matched to specific projects as it’s collected, your muse may have something — much better – in mind. This is why I recommended adding question marks as he took notes.

When your idea already has a home and you want to work with it, the easiest of idea development is fitting it into what you already have going among your story notes (e.g., efforts on your Work In Progress). But, while it's tempting to put the ideas to work immediately, many ideas will be improved if you take them to extremes. For descriptions, this may mean making them more eccentric and specific. For something that a hero or heroine might put at risk, raise the stakes if you can. Make obstacles you identify more tortuous and major protagonists less capable of meeting them (or raising the price for doing so).

You can also consider applying ideas in places they "don't belong." Be mischievous with mismatches. It's common, for instance, to adapt a great line by a villain so that it can be used by the hero or heroine. You can make a different character face and obstacle or have a surprising characteristic. For one of my stories, I took a talent that interested me and first gave it to a woman, then a middle-aged man, and finally to an adolescent boy. It only became fully alive with the last choice.

What about the fresh ideas? For these, I like to ask questions. Obviously, I look for extremes and for other ideas with which they might be matched. But I also ask how they might fit in with the zeitgeist (and sometimes that means looking at the Google Trends listings). I see if there is something within the idea that suggests conflict, especially a moral conflict. If it naturally creates a true dilemma – where both choices lead to horrible consequences – I know I really have something.

I play with ideas in different geographic settings, in different eras, and in different subcultures (such as military). I explore the possibility of using the idea in different genres. I especially work to discover the unexpected. Sometimes this means brainstorming. I love to create lists of 20 possibilities off of an idea and see which ones are the most surprising.

Two things I've added to idea development in recent years have been especially fruitful. One was to bounce ideas off of things I'm obsessed with. By definition, anything that connects in such a deep way that it causes a compulsive dedication of time and resources is an obsession. Knowing what these are (for me) makes it easier for me to put more work into using an idea, once it's attached to one of my obsessions.

The other thing I've added is examination against themes that recur in my work. I have plenty of stories completed at this point in my career, not to mind for values, situations, and questions that are important to me. As with obsessions (but at a grander scale) storytelling themes naturally drive effective and sometimes inspired use of ideas that have been discovered and collected. If you haven't written on the stories to identify themes that matter to you from your work, lists 10 or 20 of your absolute favorite stories and see if you can identify their themes… And if there are themes that show up often.

These are some hints on how to develop ideas. It's in no way exhaustive. I fill pages with questions to ask and ways to push around and connect captured ideas. I've also written blog posts (Writers, Try This at Home 8 - Developing your story ideas and A Closer Look at Your Story's Topic 2 -- The story essay shortcut) that fit into this general area that you might find useful. But analysis, pattern matching, questions, and systems will never quite do everything in terms of idea development. For one thing, the choices you make along the way will have to do with your intuition and instincts. And, there may be a little bit of magic that shows up from time to time, if you let it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Ideas for Writing - Jot this down

Ideas are the lifeblood of writing — both for fiction and nonfiction. A systematic approach toward discovering, managing, and developing  ideas can make a big difference in productivity. Here are some things to consider:

Curiosity - Many people become writers because they want to know everything. By actively developing curiosity — both broad (lots of areas) and deep (digging into the details) -- a writer creates more opportunities for insights and connections.

A prepared mind - Writers need to continue to learn. This means studying the craft and reading, of course, but it also means taking courses and researching a variety of areas, including those that are not for the current work in progress. A future work in progress is likely to come from an interest in mastering a new skill, traveling, or immersion in new experiences. In my opinion, actively seeking out topics that are outside your comfort zone can be especially valuable.

Openness - None of us is immune to filtering information. We choose, judge, and categorize what comes to us. As Harry Nilsson said, “You see what you want to see, and you hear what you want to hear.” Paying attention. Listening. Suspending attempts to interpret and create a narrative. These open you (and your stories) up to new possibilities. Give yourself the chance to be surprised.

Okay, now unexpected perceptions and facts, insights, answers, and connections begin to make themselves available. How do you respond?

Cast a wide net - Be willing to collect what’s useless. Grab anything that your intuition says is worth another look. Utility and relevance are valuable criteria, but they aren’t the only criteria for collection. Create new criteria. Include questions.

Actively search - Take time to brainstorm, to create lists of possibilities that go beyond the obvious, and to chat with people (including people outside your circle) about what you’ve discovered, the questions you have, and what you wonder about.

If all of this has become part of your routine, you’ll have a steady flow of ideas. Through much of my life, I jotted these down in journals or on stray bits of paper. For instance, lots of random notions are jotted in the margins of my college notebooks.

Much of what I noted down is now inaccessible to me, either because it is stored away or written in an incomplete way. 

It takes a lot of discipline even to collect notes for writing. Keeping them ordered is another level of seriousness (or maybe OCD). But capturing ideas in an organized way has a big payoff in terms of richness of opportunities and time saved. I've used computer notes and digital audio memos. The best solution for me is carrying around a tiny notebook of Postits.

From the time an idea is collected, it goes into a specific category. Here are some I've used:
  • Titles (This is the only category that does not require full sentences.)
  • Incomplete story concepts
  • Complete story concepts
  • Good references (always includes notes on value to me)
  • Setting descriptions (Great when I'm stuck in a place that might be used in a story)
  • Notes for stories in progress or in development (always labeled with story titles)
  • Character physical descriptions
  • Character insights
  • Character motivations
  • Character tortures
  • Story obstacles
  • Story stakes
  • Loglines
  • Fun facts to know and tell your friends
  • Physical reactions (especially to emotional experiences)
  • Descriptions of action/movement
  • Experiences that provoke
This isn't a comprehensive list, but I’ve found it to be a useful set of buckets for me. Not much falls into “miscellaneous.” And, yes, some things go into more than one category or get moved later on.

Either weekly or when I know I have a good number, I copy or just put these Postits into notebooks in under the appropriate categories. It's mindless, so I can do it while listening to an audiobook or watching television.

By the way, discovery and management can be different in cases of collaboration. A well-run brainstorming session with the right people can be productive and a lot of fun. And when I was on an innovation team, my ideas went directly onto a white board. More often than not, people on my team added their own questions, comments, and connections over time. It was like having elves at work as I slept.

The focus in this post is on managing the ideas as they’re discovered, but I’m happy to blur the task when idea development opportunities come up as I work. There are the “maybe withs” that come when my intuition says ideas might belong together. Sometimes, the reason why the idea caught my attention or its potential utility will occur to me, and I’ll write that down alongside the idea. Or there may be a suggestion that a fact or notion belongs with a specific story. I’ll include that, too.

I work to keep all of these development bits tentative. As a reminder of this, they are always followed by question marks. This keeps my options open, and it is not unusual for development bits to be put aside or radically changed (for the better) later on.

Someday, I promise myself, I'll mine the many notebooks and tiny slips of paper that have ideas written down. Someday. But, for now, I'm not adding to the chaos.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Short (Non-Scientific) Quiz on Your Writing Craft — Find your strengths

Different writers have different strengths. Does that seem strange? I'm not sure why it should be, but I continue to run across people who only separate writers into "ones I like" or "ones I don't like." Often this translates into who they consider to be good writers or bad writers.

This is fine for people who don't write themselves, but it lacks specificity, and that's problematic for those who hope to create and sell works -- especially fiction. Happily, most writers learn to critique along the way, and that leads them to a better appreciation of the strengths of the writers they read. Curiously, it doesn't seem to lead to close examination of their own strengths.

About a year ago, I created a productivity quiz. People seemed to like that, so how about a strength quiz? You aren't stuck with one answer for each. Choose all you feel (mostly) apply.

As a storyteller, I:

A. Hook readers into stories with us and downs and satisfying endings.

B. Create logical stories that make their points.

C. Get down impressions that people find engaging.

D. Tell stories clearly enough so that people don't get confused.

E. Throw things together and hope.

In creating characters, I:

A. Introduce seemingly real people who go through distinct, emotional, and transformative experiences that readers can't forget.

B. Freshen and individualize archetypes that engage readers and encourage them to come along on their journeys.

C. Present goal-oriented protagonists who face obstacles take on risks.

D. Assemble a cast required to act out the story I've chosen.

E. Grab a copy familiar characters from stories I know.

My descriptions:

A. Immerse readers and engage their senses so they feel as if the stories are happening to them.

B. Make sure readers have a sense of time and place, can visualize action, and are clear about important aspects of the setting that will impact the story.

C. Include enough cues to the physical dimensions (place, character appearances, tasks) so they are oriented effectively.

D. Provide enough description to keep readers from getting lost.

E. Describe a lot or a little depending upon what comes out as I compose the story.

My plots:

A. Are fresh, full of surprises, logically sound, and deliver both emotional impact and insights.

B. May get crazy and cheat a little, but they are always entertaining.

C. Have plenty happening and don't confuse readers.

D. May include digressions and omit potentially effective scenes, but always come across to careful readers.

E. Include what I believe readers need to understand, along with my favorite scenes.

My writing style encourages readers to:

A.  Read aloud and reread my work just for the joy of the language.

B. Engage so thoroughly they forget they are reading.

C. Read quickly to get to the good parts, skipping portions as appropriate.

D. Work past difficult passages so they can get to the end.

E. Ask someone else to read it for them and provide a summary.

Okay, that gets things started. I could easily add choices here that would reveal strengths and developing high concepts or mastery of genre tropes or humor or dozens of other skills and talents that attract readers to their favorite authors.

I hope you have lots of "As" and "Bs," but don't fret if you don't.

Here's the point: you can look through these areas of writing (and add your own) to get a better understanding of where your strengths are. Weaknesses, too, but don't let those dominate your thinking. Though it might be tempting to devote yourself to shoring up your weaknesses, knowing your strengths gives you targets for education and practice at what you do best.

Since readers come to writers for their strengths and usually excuse all but their most glaring weaknesses, it might be a good idea to spend at least half your efforts at improving your craft in the areas where you are most strong. These are opportunities to become so good, you'll stand out as a writer.

"Going with your strengths" has been a successful strategy for athletes, but I rarely hear it recommended for writers. So, while you may want to put some work in wherever your answers were "E," don't neglect those for which your answers were "A" or "B." You may find that slight improvements where you're strongest will get your work noticed.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Three Protagonists I Love and Worry About - The flaws will set you free

It is amazingly tough for writers to give heroes and heroines really big flaws because they love them and identify with them. (There are similar problems with creating real obstacles, genuine losses, and real pain.)

The argument that there is no big character arc if the protagonist only has peccadilloes and that villains can’t be as interesting unless the main character has a big sin to exploit is not heard by many writers I work with. In an earlier post, I recommended giving heroes and heroines a deadly sin, one of the classic ones (Greed, Wrath, Lust, Sloth, Envy, Gluttony, and Pride).

But with many writers, a trait like shyness becomes the “sin.” Usually, the response is usually along the lines of “my hero cares too much” or “my hero is too giving.” Fidelity, honor, respect, and so on are brought out as the major flaws. Hmm.

I hope this is clear:

Virtues are not vices, no matter how they get twisted.

They may need management and balance, but they are essentially good. With some exceptions (like revenge tales), few readers wants to see a hero or heroine jettison kindness or courage or loyalty or generosity or empathy or gentleness or self-sacrifice.

A good test is whether, in any context, the behavior caused by the flaw would be problematic. If not, maybe it’s not a useful flaw, storywise.

Let’s look at three flawed protagonists, beginning with the villains.

Singing’ in the Rain

Villain Lina Lamont wants Don Lockwood and to stay on top at the studio. Ultimately, by grabbing Kathy Seldon’s voice, she rescues her career and has a contract written so she can take the studio away if she’s crossed.

The hero, Don Lockwood, is prideful. He lies about his past. He holds onto the matinee image he hates because it is tied to success. He offers up Kathy’s voice as a way to save his career.
Until the end, he is willing to humiliate and sacrifice Kathy to spare himself failure.


Villain Jaws is a big shark, malevolent, eats people. The shark’s ally is the Mayor who keeps people in the water despite the dangers.

Hero Chief Brody faces problems like a terror of water and ignorance of the community and the environment, but — until the mother of a lost child slaps him in the face — he doesn’t own the responsibilities of his job. While the stink of cowardice about him is intense, I’d tag him as someone who is Slothful. (As I recall, in the book, he is a cuckold who just takes it.) He doesn’t see himself as someone who can take charge of dealing with the shark, either indirectly or directly. The Mayor seems to know this, and gives him “outs” to avoid taking charge and to back away from his decisions.

Working Girl

The villain, Katherine, has everything. Looks, education, and power. She wants to keep all of these, and is willing to connive and lie at the end.

Before she figures out what’s going on, this story's villains are people who are supposed to be the heroine's friends — Cyn and Mick. They know about all her bad choices (usually going along to get along) and use them to great effect to keep her in her place.

The main character, Tess, lies, steals (identity and possessions), and uses her sexuality to get ahead. Sloth (in the beginning, not standing up to others), Greed, and Dishonesty are essential parts of her behavior. The dishonesty is probably the worst of these, and that is what she gets entangled in at the end. Truth, truth, and more truth are what turns the ending for her.

I like all these protagonists, but they are all seriously flawed. I like them anyway. It is normal to like flawed protagonists. Heroes and heroines don’t need to be perfect.

More importantly, their flaws make me worry about them, and they give them plenty of room to grow and to sacrifice or act with courage in the end. I cheer when they finally find what they need to be all they can be by the end of the story. All of the stories above are big and memorable… and they all include serious growth for the main characters.

If you want to explore this further, analyze a favorite movie where you see a big character arc. Dare to name the flaws of your beloved protagonists. It will set you free to give the main characters of your own stories big flaws.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Elevating the story experience - Creating moments that matter

We read stories for experiences. Some pieces of fiction deliver through an accumulation of images and dramatic action. But, occasionally, there are moments that connect with us. Hallmark used to do (and maybe still does) advertising that touched heartstrings by creating what seemed to be authentic moments in very brief commercials.

These could prompt genuine memories, similar experiences, and, when done most effectively, deep empathy for what we all, as humans, goes through. I actively work to achieve this in my writing – often in nonfiction as well as fiction. So, first let me define what I call a "moment." Then I'll discuss some ways such moments might be created. Finally, I'll talk about some things to consider when using moments in your work.

Moment — a brief, authentic, crystallized experience conveyed to others in a work of art.

A moment may occur in other than prose works. In fact, I was inspired to write this piece after having read a poem by a friend that brought back an experience I had in a museum. And I strongly suspect that the van Gogh featured was a moment captured and shared by the artist — one which touched both me and my poet friend. Music often conveys moments in its own way (and I think it can do so by prompting memories, even when the intention of the composer and the work's artistry is questionable). Photographs, scenes in movies, and an expressive sequence in dance — any of these can create moments for us.

By authentic, I don't mean factual. Art often tells the truth by re-composing, recontextualizing, adding to, or taking away from real experiences. Oh, and sometimes artists just make things up.

So, as a storyteller, how do you create moments?

Memories – There's a lot of power to drawing on your own experiences, the ones that really matter to you. The ones that provided insights and shaped you or that are connected to turning points, changing the direction of your life. These memories, I suspect, are just below the surface for much of our lives. One of the great things about being a writer is having a great reason to note them when they pop to the surface.

One caution about using memories is the challenge of taking a fresh experience and turning it into art. When the memories haven't had a chance to age, it's difficult to tell which elements matter and can be communicated to others.

Listening — As characters become more fully alive, they are more likely to transform scenes into moments. For me, this happens when I let the story deviate from the outline. When a character does something unexpected, it seems like it's often a challenge I don't want him or her to face (or that I don't want to face). I get pulled into the moment, but only if I allow that to happen. I have to cede some control, and I always have reasons not to.

Listening to characters comes up more easily and naturally for me during rewriting. This might be a jump away from the established plot, but it's more likely to be experiencing a deeper connection with a scene that is too sparse. When I come across a scene that is important and I don't feel fully immersed in it, that's an indicator. I need to slow down. I need to let the character live in that moment — which often creates a fiction moment that is organic and highly effective.

Art — Just as my friend created a poetic moment from van Gogh's painting, stories can be enhanced by referring to the works of others. This doesn't have to be so explicit it mentions the work you experienced. In fact, usually, capturing the response itself within a different context works best. Think of how sense memory works in acting. The point there is not to bring your memories to the audience, but to bring your authentic response to the experience of playwright's work evokes.

One way I actively work to improve scenes is to look for inspiration in the works of other writers. I have a catalog in my head of emotional moments in short stories and novels. When I want to create a similar moments in my stories, I read and analyze one of these reference scenes. I don't reproduce them directly. I worked to understand what the writer did. (Often, I'll look at three or four references when creating a moment that is important or difficult.) Once I see what the possibilities are, I can use my own approaches more effectively.

The main warning I have on creating moments is to make sure they serve the story. It's tempting to put in a moment that is powerful, but belongs in a different story. It's easy to give the character a moment that isn't right for him or for her. And there are moments that can disrupt the balance and the flow of the story. It's extremely difficult to cut a well realized moment, but if it doesn't fit, it needs to go.

Creating the right moments for your story may not be easy or feel natural. For me, it often requires a deliberate effort. And things don't always work out, even after I've invested time and imagination. Still, I resist the temptation to abandon my attempts to include moments in my stories. Why? Much of the delight I take from reading stories comes from the moments other writers have included. If they can take the trouble to do that, so can I.