Tuesday, August 29, 2017

20 Questions 4 - True Goals for your story’s hero/heroine

Fundamental to storytelling is having a character who wants something. In commercial fiction, the character wants something external and tangible. Michael Hauge says you should be able to take a picture of it.  (Think of the Death Star exploding or Rocky still standing at the bell for the last round.)

This is not to say that there can’t be goals like gaining respect or that internal needs, like managing anger, can’t be satisfied. These add to the texture and depth of any story and can make a commercial story more engaging, valuable, and artistic. But, without a clear goal, a story can lose focus.

Some goal development has been covered in other posts, especially in Problems with the Premise series and John Marlow’s lesson on writing loglines, but here I’ll present 20 questions that might be a good reference and prompt fresh thinking. As usual, work with those that fit your intentions and feel free to ignore the rest.

Note: In many stories, the main character has a goal that changes to the fundamental story goal by the beginning of the second act. That’s fine. It provides a way to ease readers from a familiar world to one that is more challenging. Ultimately, however, the goal is part of the story question that keeps readers turning pages. Will the two lovers get married? Will Ulysses get home?  Will Frodo destroy the Ring?
  1.     Is the protagonist’s goal clear? Heinlein wrote that his best writing education came from a Naval Academy course where students had to write unambiguous orders. If anyone could read them in a different way, it was a failed lesson.
  2.     Could one picture capture achievement of the goal?
  3.     Is the value of the goal apparent? Can readers connect with the benefits for the protagonist or society?
  4.     Does failure to achieve the goal carry a price? Will something really bad happen or something important be lost if it is not achieved?
  5.     Is commitment to the goal irreversible for the protagonist? Is there a point where he or she cannot go back and live the life presented at the beginning of the story?
  6.     Is the protagonist the right person to achieve the goal? (This one is tricky. Often it is best if the protagonist appears to be completely overmatched, even the least likely person. Frodo is a great example.)
  7.     Does the protagonist have the agency necessary to achieve the goal? That is, is the main character able to take the actions needed to succeed? (Also, tricky. Actions could include training to get the required skills or dealing with a personal flaw or inducing others to help.)
  8.     Is the goal personal for the main character? Does it connect with a need and carry emotional weight? (The truth about this one does not have to be apparent to the protagonist, but it must become apparent to the writer.)
  9.     Does the goal itself suggest tasks that must be accomplished? Does it create expectations that engage the readers?
  10.     Does the goal suggest obstacles and even seem impossible?
  11.     Can the goal be bigger? Can it mean more and be harder to achieve?
  12.     Can the goal be stretched to cover several levels of Maslow’s hierarchy?
  13.     Does the goal have emotional impact? Either directly or through empathy with the main character?
  14.     Can you list all the contextual information that must be clear to the reader before the goal can be fully appreciated? (For instance, the hero’s reputation or past failures, society’s rules, and consequences for those who have tried to achieve this goal in the past.)
  15.     Is the goal appropriate to the genre and tone of the work? (In general, love stories are not central to horror stories and would be at odds with Poe-esque dread or Lovecraftian grue.)
  16.     Does the goal’s achievement bring a boon to society?
  17.     Does the pursuit of the goal force the character to deal with a flaw and grow as a person?
  18.     Will success require face-to-face engagement between the protagonist and the antagonist, a classic “roll in the ditch”? (Obviously, this is not relevant for every story, but it is always worth considering.)
  19.     Is the goal, as understood by the protagonist, worth the sacrifices and effort needed? (The reader should never think that, if the hero/heroine had any brains, he/she would quit.)
  20.     When the goal is achieved, with it be unmistakable that the main character earned the success? Or will it seem as if luck or outside forces played a hand?
I’ve written these with the assumption of the main character’s success, but failure is an option. And bittersweet endings can be delightful. Also, the paths to even the clearest goals should have surprises along the way. Clarity does not mean an absence of twists or secrets.

I’ve worked one-on-one with dozens of students as they’ve developed the premises for their stories, and making a goal as good as it can be is the second hardest task. (The hardest is giving a beloved protagonist a real flaw.) The most common problem is the writer presents a goal that’s internal, usually tied to the protagonist’s wellbeing. You can’t take a photograph of that. After that, goals usually need to be tweaked to be more ambitious. And then, the protagonist, as described, is not the best one to take on the goal — which leads to work in character development.

Next time, I’ll present questions on obstacles so you can properly torture your poor protagonist.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

20 Questions 3 - Exploring your story's world

A common problem with stories I judge for contests is the inclusion of scenes that are set in empty space, with the writer providing no genuine sense of setting. A deep understanding of the plot and the protagonist is essential, but orienting readers in a clear and believable setting is the only way to get them lost in your story.

In addition to inviting people into a place (and time) you've created and making them comfortable, the setting can contribute to the overall tone of the story and situate readers in a genre. Perhaps most important, it situates the characters, reflecting (and sometimes creating) the challenges they face, providing contrast, and heightening tension.

Of course, for science fiction, fantasy, and horror, the setting can be essential to what the story is about. Writers working in those genres frequently need to build their worlds in great detail and set up the rules in clear ways so what happens makes sense. In fact, I've advocated using some of the techniques of speculative fiction worldbuilding for contemporary, mimetic fiction.

The bottom line is setting has value and the detail with which you plan and present it will depend on the genre, the readers' needs, and the purposes you have in you scenes (and the overall novel). So please keep that in mind as you look through these 20 questions to explore your fictional world. Some will surely be more valuable than others, but I hope a least a few will inspire new ideas for you.
  1. Are your readers oriented in space? Does they have the clues they need to imagine the room or landscape in which the action takes place? This includes the size of the space (open? claustrophobic?), the people present, and the significant objects (certainly, any that will be put to use, but also those that contribute to tone)?
  2. Are your readers oriented in time? If it's a different era, are clues to this clear or is is made explicit? If it is relevant, is the time of day obvious? Are their clues to what season it is? If time has passed since the last scene or if this is a flashforward or flashback, do readers know this from the first paragraphs?
  3. Is the weather accounted for in some way?
  4. Do the senses help immerse readers in the scene? Does this go beyond sight and dialogue to include ambient sound, touch, taste, heat, and humidity? Is the setting comfortable? Or uncomfortable in some way?
  5. Is the setting experienced through a point of view character, with attention to what the character would know and notice?
  6. Does the environment include threats (weapons? cliffs?), disturbing elements (foul smells, dirt, dead bodies, creaking floorboards), or attractors (beautiful scenery, pleasant smells, a banquet, sexy people)?
  7. Is gravity relevant? Is the floor tilted or slippery? Is the earth quaking? Is there a thirty-story drop just outside the window?
  8. What emotions does the setting evoke in the viewpoint character? How do these change throughout the scene? 
  9. Does the setting trigger phobias for the point-of-view (POV)  character? Or does it prompt memories? 
  10. How is the setting assessed by the character? How does it figure into his or her strategy and attainment of goals?
  11. If this scene revisits an setting shown earlier, how has it changed? How is it different or more meaningful for the viewpoint character?
  12. Does irony play a role? Do readers know things about the setting that the viewpoint character does not?
  13. Are there any clues planted in the setting that will pay off later on in the story? Does what is described set up and justify answers, endings, surprises, and revelation of secrets?
  14. Within the way the POV character presents the scene (either by first-person narration or the third-person limited perspective), are their indications of who the character is on a deeper level?
  15. Without distracting readers from the story, is the scene appropriately entertaining and interesting? Does it provide information, paint pictures, and invite further investigation?
  16. Are the elements of the setting the best choices to create conflict, expose the protagonist, heighten tension, and set the mood? 
  17. Does the setting align with the theme and help to build the story?
  18. Have you, as the writer, been selective? Including all elements that are essential to the scene and the larger story? Eliminating that which is not essential?
  19. Does the setting have its own history? Its own future?
  20. Are any of the elements symbolic? Do they add to the story's effectiveness at an unconscious level, allude to myths, or provide keys to deeper interpretations?
Pacing the description of the setting so the story doesn't stall often takes trial and error. Getting the balance right between the amount of description and the amount of action and dialogue can be tricky. Because of this (and because beginning writers overdo it), some writers skimp on providing information about the setting. The way I approach it is considering the setting like a secondary character in the story. This helps me to be sure that it is presented completely without taking over.

Next time, I'll provide 20 questions on the protagonists goals.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

20 Questions 2 - A closer look at your hero or heroine

The argument about what's more important, plot or protagonist, goes back over two thousand years. (Aristotle said plot.) What's indisputable is that readers must identify with the main character. They don't need to like him or her (though that helps), but they do need to have empathy for the protagonist.

As I poke at main characters, my mind is apt to run Rogers and Hammerstein's Getting to Know You as background music.

Getting to know you
Getting to know all about you
Getting to like you
Getting to hope you like me

Well, who can account for brains overdosing on caffeine? 

In the past I've written about getting to know your charactersdeepening connections, and bonding with them by asking revealing questions. So it makes sense to go at this from the angle of 20 questions. The goal here is to build your appreciation for the main character (though you can use the same approach for other characters) and to have a better sense of the specific ways he or she will respond to challenges (aka, tortures) you'll hit them with.
  1. What is my protagonist's external goal? What is he or she willing to sacrifice (and change) for? 
  2. Why does the story's protagonist want the goal so much? How will its successful attainment be fulfilling?
  3. What does my protagonist really need? What will make him or her a more complete and fully realized person?
  4. What does my protagonist fear? What would damnation be in his or her eyes?
  5. What is the protagonist's main virtue? Main flaw?
  6. What would the story's main character do only under extreme duress?
  7. How has the protagonist been hurt or traumatized?
  8. How do I connect with the protagonist? What part of me gives him or her life?
  9. Have I gone past the default of imagining a character like me to explore characters of different sexes, cultures, religions, abilities, etc., respectfully taking advantage of the full range of human experience?
  10. How will readers connect with the protagonist and why?
  11. What are the protagonist's most distinctive and important mannerisms?
  12. What are the protagonist's most distinctive and important physical attributes?
  13. Have I imagined the character in motion? Walking? Running? Climbing stairs? Dancing? Playing a sport?
  14. Have I imagined the character in a comfortable place, completely at ease and able to be his/her unguarded self?
  15. Have I imagined the character in a strange or hostile environment?
  16. Have I imagined the character celebrating, grieving, enraged, determined, joking, and otherwise emotionally aroused? Have I imagined transitioning from one strong emotion to another?
  17. Have I placed the character in relation to other characters? Do I know him or her as a social creature?
  18. Do the protagonist's most important aspects come across in a timely manner in the story?
  19. What is it about this protagonist that makes him or her the best character to act in the story?
  20. Does the protagonist have agency? Can he or she act to achieve the story goal and answer the story question?
Okay, I could go on, but I hope there's enough here to intrigue you. While I had to work to get the questions for testing your plot, these gushed out, and I had to select those I thought were essential or most apt to provoke fresh thinking. The list could have been 100 questions. You might see if you can build your own list and discover which provide the biggest payoffs as you develop your stories.

Next time, I'll provide 20 questions on story settings.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

20 Questions 1: Testing your plot

Under the best of circumstances, plotting can be tricky. The goal of the story, after all, is to get readers engaged and keep them engaged all the way to the satisfying conclusion. It's easy to miss steps or to get diverted into subplots or to have the story plateau.

The first thing you need to avoid this (unless you have an amazing memory) is some sort of summary of the plot. This may take the form of an outline or a narrative that takes a few pages or Post-it notes populating applying board. The important thing is to have something concise enough to make it easy to identify the problems and opportunities in your work – whether that is simply the plan for the story you intend to write or a completed draft.

If you have that, you're ready to take a closer look at your plot using these 20 questions.
  1. Which scenes are part of your main plot and which are related to subplots? (There can be scenes that serve more than one purpose.) The best way to determine which scenes are part of your main plot is to look at your logline. If it doesn't relate to the purpose of the logline and move the reader toward the answer to the story question, it's either part of the subplot or it doesn't belong in the story.
  2. Is the story of logic solid? Does one scene follow inevitably from the previous scene? (I test this with Kitchen's reverse logic approach. You can also use the simpler approach from the South Park guys -- That is, scenes can be connected by "therefore" or "but.")
  3. Is the protagonist's goal clear? Often, the goal changes at the end of the first act, but readers need to sense that they know what the protagonist is trying to achieve every step of the way. And, for commercial fiction, the goal has to be external (although there also can be an internal goal).
  4. Is there a set of tasks the protagonist must achieve to succeed? It's good to list these out. You should have enough tasks to support the length of the work and the level of difficulty should rise as the story proceeds.
  5. Does the plot include twists, turns, and secrets? Every protagonist approaches achieving the goal with imperfect knowledge and faces and setbacks. This is what makes the story more interesting than going to the grocery store to buy ingredients for dinner.
  6. Are there obstacles? Usually this comes in the form of somebody who opposes the protagonist – the antagonist, often a villain. But there also can be institutional problems and the protagonist's flaws can get in the way (which is great, because that allows for growth and the character arc).
  7. Does the setting makes things more difficult for the protagonist? This doesn't mean that every story should be set in the desert or prison. Ordinary People is set in a comfortable, middle-class household – but it's as neat, sterile, and cold as the story's antagonist. (Also, a rich, evocative, and intriguing setting may be more important than one that supports the plot. It's your choice.)
  8. Does the plot fulfill genre requirements? Most commercial genres bring with them expectations for readers. Romance readers, for instance, expect a "meet cute" scene, a first kiss, a grand gesture, etc.
  9. Does your plot have a beginning, middle, and end? Aristotle says the story should begin as late as possible and end as early as possible. If the story can still be told by cutting early scenes and removing some of the last scenes, that's the way to go (usually).
  10. Are there any momentum killers? Are there scenes that exist just to provide back story? Are there scenes that belong in a different book? Are there scenes that develop character but don't move the story forward?
  11. Do your subplots reflect and support your main plot? 
  12. Do your subplots demonstrate other possibilities, especially things that might go wrong?
  13. Is the motivation of the protagonist reasonable and are the actions taken within his or her level of competence? Though it is essential that a protagonist change within a story, radical and unearned powers or actions taken just to move the plot forward, without good reason, we can the plot.
  14. Is this plot original enough? Are the developments and the choices made by the characters cliché and familiar? Is much of the story to predictable?
  15. Is there another story that can serve as a reference point or a model for this story? Do you know of a work that is worth comparing your story to so that possibilities for pacing and developments and reveals aren't missed?
  16. Do you feel a connection to the story? A lot of good ideas aren't good ideas for every writer. Looking at the plot as it exists, is something missing for you? 
  17. Do you have a passion for this story? 
  18. Could some changes bring that out for you?
  19. From the plot alone, will readers get excited? 
  20. Is this plot inherently emotional and intriguing?
The point of these questions isn't to have good answers for all of them. Plenty of excellent works break rules and deliberately leave out elements that are reflected in these questions. The goal here is to determine if there are hidden flaws in the plot or if there are ways it could be pushed to make it better. I'm also hoping that some of these questions will be fun for you to think about and explore.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Writing Experiments 2 - Four tougher exercises to build your skills

Last time, I provided some simple exercises so you could deliberately challenge yourself as a writer and deepen your skills. I ended with a promise to suggest more challenging work this time.

As a pure expression of story and one of the toughest exercises, I'd suggest creating a logline. You need to know who the protagonist is, what he or she wants, what the obstacles are, and what the stakes are. John Marlow provides an excellent tutorial on how to do this. You also might want to read my Problems with the Premise series.

You can dig more deeply into this by writing an introduction to the work (or a chapter), with the characters, situation, goals, and risks involved. If you want to have some fun and really push yourself, write it as a poem. Copy the form of a narrative poem or the best of epic poetry, if you wish. The Iliad? Not bad. But, for this exercise, I prefer doing something more like The Ballad of Gilligan's Island.

Something about expressing the essence of a story in rhyme provides focus and, as an extra advantage, gets your premise stuck in your head.

To know more about your characters, I recommend interviewing them. Character descriptions and lists of traits help, too, but they tend to be bloodless and a lot less fun.

To dig more deeply into a setting, visualize every detail you can. Use the best words for each object (goblet or tumbler, rather than glass). Qualify with textures, colors, light and shadow. This should be a long list. Now take in the other senses. Music? Other sounds? Odors? Drafts? Dank air? Is anything in motion? Changing?

Now, look at your list and highlight whatever will be noticed or will influence the protagonist (or other key character).

Finally, think about the setting in terms of the reader. In particular, look for two things: critical information and mood.

By the time you're finished the setting exercise, you should have a deep understanding both of the elements that come together to create a sense of place and how they impact readers.

Exploring theme is another classic way to poke at your story. It's too easy to come up with a "There's no place like home" answer, so I use an essay method. This can provide a real push to get to the heart of a story, especially after the first draft is complete.

One of my favorite exercises (and a very tough one) is to reverse or invert a solid, well-known work. The best example of this is It's a Wonderful Life, which takes Dickens's A Christmas Carol and replaces the miser Scrooge with the overly generous George Bailey. Nothing gets your head into the structure of a story more completely than this exercise.