Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Heroes - Not too sweet

Nice guys are boring. Dependable? Reliable? Consistent? Caring? Send him away. No one wants to hear his story.

Bad boys are more likely to catch and hold the attention of your readers (something romance writers are well aware of). And yet, we do want heroes who have positive qualities. From some contest entries I've been reading lately, the two requirements for good guys who aren't “bad” are courage and a sixpack. And the heroines are often sweet and compliant with physical attributes that would turn the heads of anyone with a Y chromosome and a pulse (with allowances for orientation).

In my opinion, the least interesting stories submitted to contests tend to have protagonists who are disabled by virtue. Does this sound cynical? It shouldn't. None of us are perfect so we tend to identify with protagonists who our flawed. In addition, there can't be much of a story arc if the protagonist is so wonderful that there is no room for growth.

One thing I advise new writers to do is to include an important flaw in the hero or heroine from early on in the story. Many respond with “flaws” like my character is to giving or my character doesn't appreciate his/her greatness. When in doubt, make the flaw big and ugly. The Seven Deadly Sins provide a good reference point.

A good person with a big flaw is intrinsically interesting. But be careful about having the story be about the character becoming a saint. In many ways, it is more interesting to have a hero or heroine end up within insight that allows adaptation to the world around them rather than a full-on conversion.

Beyond having room for growth, there can be flaws that rub against other characters or just get in the way. In a comedy, flaws can be a constant source of humor. Damon Knight advised having a ratio of about 70/30 good to bad for protagonists and the opposite ratio for villains. It's not a bad rule of thumb.

Of course, ratios and sins need to move beyond abstract character development. They need to be shown within the story. If lust is the hero's problem, show an attractive woman fleecing him out of his bus fare. Or, better yet, show him caught in the act of entertaining a woman while she's supposed to be minding the cash register. (It is a good idea to reveal the dark side after the positive qualities have been set in the reader's minds.)

There are other ways to deal with upright characters. I think it's engaging to have a character who goes out of his way to do the right thing, but has a secret past. I'm particularly a sucker for those stories where the hero has renounced a skill because it led him into trouble. (I'm still caught by how Atticus Finch was reluctant to use a rifle even in dire circumstances and had never revealed to his children that he was a crack shot. What had happened that made him hide that part of his life?)

Stories were the hero is actively seeking atonement can also be compelling and balance out sweet behavior that otherwise might be intolerable. Even if his or her secret is never revealed in the story, the pain and self judgment can be made evident. One technique that can be effective is heaping praise on a hero who has not yet (at least in his own mind) redeemed himself enough to feel he deserves it.

Here's another possibility. A protagonist whose overall character is good but whose goal is horrible or even shocking. This works especially well when the audience is absolutely clear that achieving the goal (say, vengeance) will harm society or severely damage or destroy the protagonist.

So, if you feel compelled to create a sweet protagonist, find a way to make this character interesting to the audience. Give him or her a flaw, a past, or a questionable goal. This will add tension to your story, and it will create questions and concerns that will keep the reader turning pages.

My intensive on plotting the novel will be held on March 5 at the Hudson Valley Writers Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY.
My online "Novel in a Month" class begins March 2.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Fear and Hope - Bad boys

Okay, I'm pretty much a straight arrow. I work hard to be dependable, straightforward, and honest. It's easy for me to write that sort of a character, with flaws that will make them interesting.

My writing of villains gets a boost from having come across them in my life (and I have the scars to prove it). I've had to work for and with people who had hidden agendas, dodgy pasts, and empathy deficiencies. Crafting a villain with multiple dimensions requires my getting into their shoes and reminding myself that each of these characters sees him or herself as the hero.

My problem: Rogues and bad boys - I don't get them.

They are popular in lots of fiction and almost required in romances. (I suspect there are female equivalents to bad boys, but I don't think there would be a consensus description. I'll leave that to others.)

The rogues and bad boys always have baffled me. And I may not have them "solved" even now, but I do have a few thoughts. What set me off was the idea, presented in Jim Davies Riveted, that humans are easily engaged by fear and hope. For obvious reasons, we pay attention to scary things since some of these, when ignored, can damage or even kill us. We are especially attracted to stories and situations where fear is connected with something we suspect might be trouble.

Hope, in this context, points toward making things better. It often gives us answers that can quell our fears.

Combining the two is riveting. We are likely to find articles, shows, novels, and courses that include both fear and hope to be irresistible. A slot machine provides this combination time after time and is among the most addictive devices ever made.

Maybe people who combine fear and hope are irresistible, too.

With this in mind, I did a little more research into bad boys, including reading advice to would-be bad boys and talking to a woman who had married one. What I found seemed to indicate I was on the right track.

Bad boys do not reliably pay off with attention, compliments, and love. They don't always respond to texts and phone calls. They may ignore bids for attention. They are likely to respond with powerful anger to slights and lack of respect. They even will, at times, react to gifts and offers of affection by going cold, disdain, mocking, paying attention to other women, and hurting feelings. They are never a sure thing. It is easy for those who seek their approval to mess things up.

On the positive side, they may respond in big, affectionate, romantic ways, bathing their lovers/suitors/friends in acceptance and love. But, like slot machines, they only are riveting, gaining attention (and building power) if they pay off intermittently and unpredictably. As the woman I interviewed said, easy, dependable, and safe is boring. Bad boys bring drama, and lots of it.

We know that good stories need conflict and drama. No wonder rogues and bad boys are so common in novels and movies.

I'll add one more element. Davies says we love to figure things out. We like to solve puzzles. Perhaps this is why so many rogues and bad boys also have secrets. It's just the right spice to keep us intrigued and to provide an excuse for their bad behavior.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

How to Write an Outline (Fiction) - A five-step process

I've written novels and scripts by plotting out each scene in detail and by the "seat-of-the-pants" approach (as well as variations in between). While most professional writers work from outlines, there is not "right" way. Still, no matter how you prefer to write, it might be valuable to have a specific process to refer to. I'm going to make it easy on myself by passing on the one I use, while aware that it might not be right for everyone. 
  1. Develop a good logline. It doesn't need to be perfect, but you need to know who the protagonist is, what he or she wants, what the obstacles are, and what the stakes are. If you can create one that makes people say "wow," so much the better.
  2. Write down everything you know. What do you already know about your characters? What scenes are in your head? What might the ending be? Which unwritten scene has stolen your heart?
  3. Make the promises are inherent in your work so far explicit. These are implied in your premise, the genre you've chosen, and some of what you know. In this step, consider these in terms of what the audience will expect and especially in what you will need to provide to satisfy their expectations.
  4. Brainstorm the possibilities. I begin this with a list of powerful questions and multiple answers to each one. My lists of possibilities go on until I surprise myself and engage deep interest. Then I write down some things that might happen in this world that is starting to take shape. Again, I keep writing things until I have elements I can't wait to write and parts I want to find answers to as I work. I like at this point to have 40-60 scenes I can report out in full sentences, but it's possible to create a useful outline with seven, if they are the right seven.
  5. Beat it out. I usually use Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! beats (which can be downloaded in a form for free), but I often add in explicit genre beats (like "meet cute" in romance). What the beats do is take the many scenes I have and begin to order them in a useful way. (I usually put each beat into Scrivener so I can reorder them and create a good template for drafting.) They may be defined enough at this point to be checked for story logic, but I don't require that.
That's it. One approach to an outline. Modify to fit your needs. You may, for instance, add a research step. Or, especially for SF or fantasy, you may need to include world-building. Don't be reluctant to skip steps or shuffle them around. The outline is a tool for you.

What do you use your outline for? Obviously, it can be your roadmap for drafting your story. But it can also be the bones of a synopsis (which you'll have to write sooner or later). It can even help you to distill your story for a pitch or a query.

I always allow myself to skip scenes in the outline. I let them come in there own time, and sometimes I make them prove they belong. I also am not reluctant to rework the outline of a work-in-progress (keeping the original in a safe place, of course).

I never feel obliged to stick with my initial outline--though I do commit to finishing the work, even if that means returning to the outline to get find my way to "The End." For me, straying keeps me engaged, serves the muse, and, even when scenes I write get cut, adds dimensions to the story.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Writer's Resolution 6 - Deep Reasons for Writing

Yeah, yeah -- self expression. Fame. Fortune (ha!). I can write a better (romance, space opera, sports) novel than what I'm reading. These are what you might say when people ask you why you write.

All fine in their own ways, but you need better reasons than those to write a novel or a screenplay (if it is intended to be sold or published).

I have been vividly reminded of this when I've mentored other writers and asked them why they were writing a novel. (Often because what they were writing confused me or didn't seem compelling.) To date, very few have had good answers -- to start. When they come up with better answers, lots of problems are solved.

What's a good answer? Here are some that seem to drive good storytelling:
  • The characters won't shut up.
  • This is a high concept and it engages me.
  • I can take this further than anyone else has.
  • It's what I want to find on the bookshelf.
  • I don't have any choice.
Even one of these can have enough power to push writing to a higher level. And this is especially true if the statement is followed by paragraphs of enthusiastic elaboration.

At times, there can be other explanations:
  • This illuminates an under-appreciated social problem and could ignite change.
  • This educates people on an important scientific topic.
  • This is an emerging topic with depth.
These answers result from analysis, and, though the first one suggests emotional commitment, aren't obviously personal.

The explanations that are most questionable (if this is all the has going for it) and put me on alert that more is needed are:
  • It seemed like a cute concept.
  • I've got a great scene in my head.
  • I won't need to do research.
  • This actually happened to me.
  • It gives me an excuse to deduct a trip.
  • I already have pages written. 
None of these are bad. But when something is amusing, it is not likely to be engaging or necessary. And utilitarian arguments show no respect for the audience or the authors own time.

Spending an hour or even a week poking at a project that won't pan out is fine. Spending months or years of your life without at least one powerful reason -- clearly articulated -- is madness.

Why are you writing your novel or screenplay?

My online "How To Write Fast" course just began on Feb. 1 You can still sign up.
Face-to-face romance (love scene) is set for Feb 13; SF (plot) on March 5 at the Hudson Valley Writers Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY.
My online "Novel in a Month" class begins March 2.