Friday, March 27, 2015

Problems with the Premise 2 - Actions and Obstacles

Last time I wrote about the elements of a good premise, and I discussed problems writers have in adding backstory and establishing goals.

The formulation for a premise is this:

To achieve an important Goal, the Protagonist must Act and overcome Obstacles, or Calamity will occur and she/he will not get what she/he Wants and/or Needs.

And you can find several examples from movies in my previous post.

Some writers have problems with what they include in the action. While how the Protagonist Acts my be expressed in a very net way in the premise, here are the general requirements for action:

  • Actions should be visible, defined, and often time-bound. 
  • They are not internal (decisions, changes in perspectives, new understandings, feelings, opinions, values, or knowledge), although these may mix in.
  • The actions that the protagonist takes must involve sacrifice. 
  • They must be difficult and get more difficult as the story progresses. 
  • There must be a coherence and reason for the order of the steps taken.
  • They can involve convincing, compelling, tricking, or commanding someone else to act in a visible, defined way, though this often leads to problems with a lack of investment by the main character. 
  • They can also involve stopping someone from acting, but this needs to be done by way of a scene that involves conflict that's usually more than a simple argument is almost certainly more than providing knowledge that could have been provided earlier in the story.
  • Actions should be distinct. A common problem is repeating the same action (such as escaping from bad guys) over and over again.

The Obstacles can cause problems for writers, too.

Most often, the obstacles are too easy (and the risk is too low). As above, it's not good if the problem can be solved with a simple conversation. Having someone else solve the problem (except when they do it for an onerous price) can feel like a cheat, bordering on deus ex machine. 

It's good to remember that the more extreme the challenges are and the more difficulty the protagonist faces, the better the story. If, even in the premise, it seems as if the task is impossible, you'll hook readers. So take the protagonist out of his or her comfort zone. Keep raising the stakes.

Next time, I'll conclude the look at the premise with some thoughts on Calamity, Needs, and Wants.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Problems with the Premise 1: Backstory and goals

To achieve an important Goal, the Protagonist must Act and overcome Obstacles, or Calamity will occur and she/he will not get what she/he Wants and/or Needs.

Not too difficult or complex, right? There are six or seven elements to be filled in. You can try it out with famous movies.

To save Tara, Scarlett must fight union troops and carpetbaggers, feed her family, get the crop in, marry men with money, and run a business, or Tara, her family, and much of what she holds dear will be destroyed.
To save the rebel alliance, Luke must escape Tatooine, rescue a princess, learn Jedi skills, and destroy the Death Star or his friends, the leadership of the alliance, and a planet will be destroyed.
To win the love of her life (Sam), Annie must discover his identity, send a note that stands out from many competitors, defy advice and her own sense of what’s reasonable, dump a fiancĂ©, and make it to the top of the Empire State Building before it closes or she will end up settling for a life that has only a pale shadow of the true happiness she longs for.
Okay, all of those could be improved, and none delve into important subplots, but they should demonstrate how a premise can come together. It is hard to write a good premise, and making one that is compelling is an art that even some wonderful writers have a difficult time mastering.
John Marlow has an excellent lesson and example (JURRASSIC PARK) on writing loglines (all of which explore and articulate premise) worthy of your attention. I’ll go at this from a different angle, what can go wrong, but first one more.
To go the distance in a prize fight with the champ, a washed-up fighter Rocky, must work with a hostile coach, deflect mocking press and naysayers, train physically and mentally, and handle powerful punches in the ring, or he will be humiliated and lose his only chance to demonstrate his quality as a person to his community.
In this last one, as opposed to the others, I slipped in some backstory. It is important to our understanding that this is a redemption story. The others didn’t seem to need any backstory, but this one cried out for it.
Most writers are in love with backstory, and it can be fatal to a clear premise. It distracts. It confuses. It can hide weaknesses. And I often get premises from students that have more words devoted to what has happened before the story began than to what happens in the story. It is great to know the backstory. Focusing too much on it can misdirect the writing. Solution: Create a version of the premise with no backstory.
Another common problem is the Goal. If it is too generic or (for a commercial story) only internal, it won’t work. Michael Hauge recommends testing goals by asking, can you take a picture of it? Crossing a finish line. Slaying a dragon. Bedding an object of affection. Graduating from college. Escaping prison. All of these qualify.
Learning a lesson? Adjusting to old age? Finding peace and self-acceptance? All of these are good things that may lousy Goals in a premise.
Saving Tara means restoring the house and farm and paying the taxes. Crops growing, fresh paint, and handing over the tax money can all be photographed. Destroying a Death Star is a vivid, memorable image. Sam, Annie, and Jonah taking the elevator down TOGETHER (as a family) is a visible statement of Annie winning the love of her life. Rocky still standing after the last round is the picture we’ve been waiting for through most of the movie.
Now, there is no picture of Scarlett paying off the taxes or Sam and Annie marrying, but that has more to do with cinematic presentation than story. In either case, these scenes would have fit and been accepted by audiences.
Premise, it seems, is a little more complicated than it first appears to be. And problems show up for the other elements, too. I’ll cover some of these in the next blog post.
Upcoming classes

April 15-April 29 Story Bootcamp (face-to-face) Westchester Community College
April 20-May 25 Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Workshop (face-to-face) 
May 1-May 29 Bigger Stories (online) 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Outrageous Characters -- Deepening reader interest

Think of your favorite characters in fiction. Chances are, they behaved badly from time to time. Sherlock Holmes is excessive and frequently rude. Scarlet O'Hara is wily and audacious. Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp is sweet, but subversive. Many of the characters loved in fiction have moments in their stories that would fit nicely onto the covers of tabloid newspapers.
We like our fictional characters to be outrageous. According to Jack Bickham, we need them to be outsized so we can see them through the dusty lens of language. In his book, Writing Novels That Sell, become talks about how he tried to make this point to his class by designing an absurd cowboy. He got plenty of laughs and, later, plenty of sales with that character in several books.

As much as writers enjoy outrageous characters, they often find them difficult to write. They are caged in by their own reasonableness. None of us wants to look silly. But we don't want to be boring, either.

In general, it is much easier to write an over-the-top character and tone him or her down than it is to take a more conventional character and add some zip. So, let me offer some suggestions.

Mine your childhood memories for characters. When we were kids, we experienced a lot of people via a big, ridiculous, and emotional view of the world. Over time, they may have become legendary to us. That makes them fair game for your stories. Give them a chance to live again in your head and in front of your readers.

Investigate heroes villains from history. Since history is written by the winners, there is a built-in level of exaggeration in the records. The losers are cast as more evil and the heroes are cast as more virtuous and stronger. It doesn't take much to grab someone like Hannibal, put him into your story, and discover what I guys you would march elephants over the Alps might do in a science fiction story or an action story or even a love story.

Read the Tabloids. Yes, they (and weird online sites) are out there. And they are as valuable to writers as they are to the Men in Black. It seems like Florida and Texas provide the best fodder for stories.

Would your characters do outrageous things? Try. See if you can make it work.

Minimally, list the most extreme things they would do. You can think in terms of story, but consider mundane things like how they eat, how they walk, what drives them crazy, what they are passionate about.

It's also a good idea to push them as far as you dare with one of the seven deadly sins.

For some reason, it's easier to give villains the best stuff.  Give your hero an outrageous act you've assigned already to the villain.

Then think of the story goal. It must be pretty big to carry a whole novel. And life or death for your characters. What they would do to achieve their story goal? Consider all the outrageous stuff you've been exploring, and imagine them doing these things in service of the story, maybe even as a final test.

As an exercise, I force myself to come up with outrageous things respected people, like Nobel Peace Prize winners (well, some of them that are respectable), would never do, and then I imagine them doing these. It works often but not always. Some things, they would never do, unless...

And then I think of what the unless would be.

Free your characters. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Celebrating Success in Writing: Give yourself a gold star

There is a bottle of champagne sitting in a drawer in my refrigerator. It has been there for years awaiting a big success in writing. Which is sad because writers, like everyone else, need to celebrate successes, big and small. And, since we are an emotional bunch with plenty of opportunity for regret and disappointment, our needs may be greater rather than smaller.

Rejection notices, abandoned stories, criticisms, contest losses, ugly illustrations, backhanded advice, and snide remarks about the time we waste and our inevitable failure (often from relatives and "friends") -- these are common and continuing elements of the writer's life. It is easy to forget or dismiss the victories, big and small.

But these are also part of our lives:
  • Well-turned phrases.
  • Characters that delight us.
  • Great hooks.
  • Finished chapters, short stories, and books.
  • Compliments.
  • Fan mail.
  • Sales.
  • Awards.
  • Successful readings.
  • Great classes completed.
  • Milestones like getting an agent, getting rid of a bad agent, publishing indie, selling a book, selling a series, being invited to speak or join a panel, book signings, making a bestsellers list,and getting a box full of printed books with your name on them.
All of them are worth celebrating. Maybe not by setting off fireworks or cracking open a bottle of champagne, but proportionally with a status in Facebook or a piece of chocolate or a kiss or a bouquet of flowers or a document suitable for framing.

Do this at least: Get a box of stars. The shiny ones teachers put on assignments and tests well done. Take a calendar and put a star on each day with a victory. Color code them if you want, but use them. Don't miss a chance to celebrate. And, when you suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, look over a few pages and see how many successes you've had. And smile.

Upcoming classes

March 2- March 27 Novel in a Month (online)
March 9-April 3 Career Planning for Writers (online) 15-April 29 Story Bootcamp (face-to-face) Westchester Community College
April 20-May 25 Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Workshop (face-to-face) 
May 1-May 29 Bigger Stories (online)