Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Brilliant Scenes for Your Story 2: Some Like It Hot milks a joke

I suspect the reason why most people don’t get the most out of high-potential scenes is because the same parts of the brain the concepts boil up from contain a lot of disturbing and embarrassing material. Of course, it could also be a lack of persistence. (The thrill of a good idea can be enough of a payoff.) Or even laziness. (Exploration takes work.)

Last week, I began a list of things to look for in a scene, including conflict, escalation, power shifts, imagery, and meaning. Ultimately, I’ll build this into a list of questions that can help you make sure that being squeamish, walking away too soon, or not making a big enough effort is not shortchanging your story.

This time, let’s look at a scene from a comedy, Some Like It Hot. The purpose of this scene appears to be to show Jerry (Daphne) the price of his pretending to be a woman. More immediately, his intent to get alone time with Sugar is frustrated. The natural stopping point would be his attempt being aborted by Joe (Josephine). After all, Jerry has been warned, and their lives are in danger. But here’s what happens. (Again, you can see the scene yourself via 36 Of The Greatest Movie Scenes Ever Made.)

Beat 1 Banter with a caution. We can’t be discovered.
Beat 2 This may be a surprise party. (Secret)
Beat 3 Double entendre stated related to the secret.
Beat 4 Telling intruder it’s private.
Beat 5 Cocktails. And it’s a party now.
Beat 6 Many people. Food. Crowding. “Daphne” fights against the tide.
Beat 7 “Josephine” is asked for cherries.

All this happens in about two and a half minutes. We are SHOWN Jerry is reckless, persistent, and horny.

This great scene:
  • Begins with a deception.
  • Hints at a secret (which is also a promise).
  • Private becomes public, with the intrusion.
  • Jerry and Sugar work at cross purposes.
  • The humor leans heavily on irony, 
    • since the audience (but not Sugar) gets “Daphne’s” joke
    • and understands the sexual frustration.
    • And the audience also sees the growing danger, something Jerry’s distracted from and Joe is sleeping through.
  • There is escalation. The growing number of partygoers continues to be obliviousness and their increased participation in the party (more complicated drinks, food, enthusiasm) makes it tough to back out. The widely shared event raises the risk and stakes.
  • Imagery is pajama party sexual, something Jerry can’t indulge in.
  • The power shifts from Jerry’s sexual designs and a powerful secret to Sugar’s desire for alcohol and fun.
  • Still, as Jerry’s frustration grows, he acts obsessively. He doesn’t give up. Even as things get crazier and crazier.
  • Ultimately, authority is brought in with Joe’s awareness of the situation.
Much of the scene is adding to the complication by making a romantic tête-à-tête into a party. But the humor is milked by raising the complications, number of participants, obsession, and dangers. Underneath it all is growing panic that turns a chuckle into a belly laugh.

This adds a promise, escalation, and irony to the list of elements of a great scene, but there’s more to come. Next week, a look at a horror scene.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Brilliant Scenes for Your Story 1: Lessons from Casablanca

There are places in a story where you get to really know a character. Or places where the writer makes a promise. Sometimes, tension will build to an unbearable level or laughs will cascade, one upon the other.

Each great scene has a promise, but that's not enough. It must include a beginning, middle, and end. There must be careful balancing of the elements, whether that's imagery, dialogue, narrative, or description. Curiously, there must also be timing. Scenes that are too abrupt or too padded never work. How long do you extend the tension? How much should you milk the joke? How detailed do the descriptions need to be to suggest just enough of the experience?

For most writers, getting the timing right means cutting away clutter that's disguised as brilliant prose. I think 90% of the professional writers I know write "long." My own first drafts are almost telegraphic. There's nothing to cut. Much to add. And the inspiration for looking more closely at how great scenes are given the space they deserve came from some recent critiques I've gotten where readers asked for me to extend scenes.

So, first I made notes on my assumptions regarding great scenes, based on a lot of wonderful reading experiences and my own struggles to put what's in my head onto a page. Then I explored great scenes in film (because sharing these in a blog post works better than quoting from novels and short stories). Here's a source I'll work from 36 Of The Greatest Movie Scenes Ever Made.

Some scenes on this list are less useful than others. The one from Atonement leans heavily on the work of the director and cinematographer. The scene from Singin’ in the Rain depends on music and dancing. And many of these are climaxes, endings, or reveals. Those scenes follow slightly different rules. They may work because they pull together bits of information from across the whole story or they may intentionally leave pieces out so the film continues to resonate with audiences long after they left the theater. In most cases, scenes that carry the story forward provide the most insights.

Let's start with Casablanca's dueling anthems scene (one of the 36, if you want to look at the video). The purpose appears to be to provide Victor Laszlo’s bona fides as a heroic leader. We’ve already heard about him. Now we get a chance to see him at work.

Beat 1: The annoying Nazi’s treat the bar to a patriotic German song.
Beat 2: Which causes irritation and fear.
Beat 3: Victor moves to take control.
Beat 4: Ilsa notices (and becomes the viewpoint character).
Beat 5: Victor instructs the band to play The Marseilles over the Germans.
Beat 6: Rick gives approval.
Beat 7: Led by Victor, the singing of The Marseilles, bit by bit, drowns out the Nazis.
Beat 8: The Nazis give up their singing.
Beat 9: Victor is at the center of it all, the focus of the shift in power from the Nazis to the French.
Beat 10: People react, including those we doubted, joining in with tears and urgency.
Beat 11: Ilsa sees the man she worships.
Beat 12: It all culminates with Viva La France!
Beat 13: The defeated Nazis scowl.
Beat 14: People applaud and cheer.

All this happens in less than two minutes. We are SHOWN Victor is a hero.

This great scene:
  • Begins with a conflict.
  • Is engaged by a character’s (Victor’s) deliberate (and courageous) intention.
  • Builds in terms of those engaged and the intensity of the gesture.
  • Is sensual (music, great faces).
  • Involves multiple (in this case, the three main) characters.
  • Includes growing role by and risk to a character (Victor).
  • Shows an unmistakable shift in power.
  • Advances the story.
  • Supports the theme with imagery and meaning.
  • Includes both action and reaction.
  • Provides a stand-in (Ilsa) for the audience and demands attention.
The essentials are Nazis singing, Victor cuing The Marseilles, and the Nazis being drowned out. But these alone would not have been enough for a great scene. Without the time investment made in showing reactions, including other characters, and presenting an intensifying struggle, it would not have been noteworthy.

Next week, I’ll look at another scene with some different lessons.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Humor Between Characters - Disconnection, reactions, and affection

I've been studying Neil Simon's work as part of an acting class. Inhabiting the role of Oscar Madison (in The Odd Couple) got me thinking about humor from the inside. Neil's brother Danny was the model for Felix Unger and was one of the great teachers of comedy. In fact, he is the one who told a generation of writers they needed to focus on relationships over what he called "joke jokes."

One practice that helps create humorous relationships is contrasts between the characters. (The Odd Couple, with slob Oscar and fussy Felix is an obvious example.) Big differences create conflict, which can drive your story. And though it's not always the case, most comedies have strong stories. But sharp contrasts create commitment, which makes compromise and connection difficult.

A major characteristic of a good comic character is determination. In general, great humor comes from obsession and the unwillingness to explore alternatives. When two characters both are convinced that they are right and they know what must be done, sparks fly. From their points of view, there is nothing funny or strange about their decisions, actions, and positions. Those of us who observe these characters find humor in this sort of blindness. I suspect, on some level, many of us are aware that we have acted in similar ways without going as far as comic characters do. Being in a superior position (or presuming we are) allows us to laugh while still embracing the characters.

Both characters can't be right all the time. But both characters tend to feel they are only being sensible. They miss the absurdity, but we don't.

The disconnection between committed characters is funny, but also creates tension. It keeps us involved in worried about the characters. (Really bad things might happen, but unless it's very dark humor, we can assume there is a tacit agreement between us as readers/viewers and the writer that no one will truly be hurt.)

While occasionally characters may (with feelings of justification) intentionally hurt others, usually the negative impacts they have are surprises to them. They are not looking to alienate or harm the other characters. Felix is a great example of this. How could he be anything but the perfect roommate when he keeps things clean and organized and he serves up gourmet meals? He doesn't see his lack of flexibility or the way he constrains Oscar.

So announced that the humor when good intentions lead to horrible consequences or surprising reactions from others. Often, we can see it coming while the character can't. This terrific plan or perfect solution will be disastrous. And it ends up being even worse than we suspected to our surprise and, mostly, to the comic character's surprise.

And here's an important point. While it's all funny to us, it's deadly serious to the characters. One thing I saw over and over in my acting class was if the actor seem to be in on the joke or trying to make it funnier, it lost its spark. Playing it straight was always funnier. So it's the human obsessions, not ironic behavior, that provides the foundation for much of great humor writing.

There is a third thing beyond disconnections and surprising reactions that is invaluable to relational humor. That's affection. First, we usually have affection for the characters. There's a level of empathy even if they are ridiculous. Even as we can see them stumbling, our hearts go out to them.

And this is made more powerful and compelling when the characters have or discover affection for each other. As different as they are, they don't want the inevitable conflicts to pull them apart. They really want to find legitimate connection with each other. Oscar Madison and Felix Unger really care about each other. Even when they want to kill each other, they have affection for each other. That's a subtle kind of writing that works well in tragedy as well as comedy. Exploring the common humanity between very different characters elevates all kinds of stories and makes them unforgettable.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Writing Efficiently Despite Having All the Answers 2 — Five ways to work in a connected world

Last time, I offered guidelines for a writer using the Web to get the work done with fewer distractions. This time, I have  recommendations on good habits that might save you from the Internet's siren song.

1. Track your activity. This does not have to be the lawyers habit of logging every 15 minutes (although that works well). Simply writing down your estimates of how much time you spend online in the morning, afternoon, and evening can be eye-opening. Get a good sense of where your time is going to see if it is in proportion to your goals. One week of tracking every few months can help you see how close you are to activity that will help you reach your hopes and dreams.

2. Start your day without connection. While the Web is not all junk food, it offers a lot of sugary treats. (I almost wrote tweets.) Just as starting your day with candy pretending to be cereal is a bad idea, hitting all your favorites (email, social media, videos) before you’ve gotten any work done will not help your productivity. Two suggestions: Three suggestions:

First, get something started at the end of the day and put it where you can’t miss it. I usually place an ideas paper on the kitchen table (since I often wake up with story solutions or concepts), as well as a page with three to five open questions (in case I don’t wake up with things I need to get on paper right away).

Second, turn your wifi off before you go to bed. This puts temptation a step away.

Third, avoid anything digital for the first hour of the day. The morning is the best time to cultivate connection with the tangible world. It helps if you actually turn a mechanical timer to one hour and give yourself those minutes as a gift.

3. Time box distractions. Being open most of the day to every bell, buzzer, and alarm that pulls you into email, Facebook, and other Internet lure hands control of your time over to other people. It’s also hugely inefficient since most of these are not valuable. Interrupt mode work is less productive that batching your responses. So set times during the day where you permit yourself to respond and keep to those times. It helps, again, to set a timer for these activities.

Time boxing is difficult if you normally have no barriers to these activities (or worse, find yourself checking email or social media repeatedly during the day). Rather than enforce optimal rules right away, it might be good to turn your computer’s sound off or reset alerts or just  set an hour or two of quiet time you know you can commit to. Building good habits gradually (perhaps with each step on your calendar) is often less discouraging and painful.

4. Have “insteads” ready. One vulnerability for writers is unexpected free moments, especially 10-20 minutes that becomes available unexpectedly. I often hear that writers “reward” themselves for getting something done early by checking on social media. The ten free minutes easily become 30, 40, or 50 minutes of low-value engagement. Having something valuable to do, designed for short openings, can help support good habits.

I call these interstitial tasks “insteads.” Instead of making yourself vulnerable to a time sucking activity, read a poem or memorize something or make a list of possible titles for a story or answer a plot question or interview one of your characters or read an article. All of these (for me) have natural stopping points that allow me to use open time well, and then get on with priority work.

It’s best if these task require Web searches or the possibility of real-time interactions. Writerly things (like marketing, cultivating an audience, looking for opportunities, or discussions with peers) carry the risk of being snared into bigger (and less valuable) time commitments.

5. Make physical activity part of your routine. I stretch every 40 minutes. It helps keep me healthy, and it also makes it impossible for me to keep my hands on the keyboard longer that I should. It stops my brain from restless cycling. And even if I’m productively engaged in the Internet (say, by doing research), it forces me to reflect on the purpose and value of the activity. It makes it harder to make excuses for less than productive activity.

The focus above is on positive activities, good behaviors that can support productive work without invoking shame or (currently) impossible objectives. You don’t have to do them all at once. You don’t have to do any of them perfectly. And you can substitute your own positive activities, these are not rules that must be obeyed.

No matter how obsessive your relationship with the Internet may be now, you can take small steps to keep things proportional. To not be a slave to alerts or twitch behaviors. Those steps may help you to prioritize how you use your time so you can do your best writing. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Writing Efficiently Despite Having All the Answers 1 — The Web as a tool, not a distraction

What makes a great writer? Curiosity? Inspiration? Knowledge? Care?

Let's take them one by one, and explore them in relation to the essential tool of our time — the World Wide Web. And for each, I'll suggest some efficiency guidelines so that the web can become a help more than it's a hindrance.


If you're writing instruction manuals, curiosity has limited use. Basically, the steps need to be expressed clearly, without a lot of opinion and nuance. But art happens when unexpected connections are made and often the impact depends upon the spaces in between. This makes the thrill of collecting bits and pieces of life and exploring them in enough detail so that their relationships become visible a positive practice for writers.

Even before the Web existed, I remember getting lost in libraries, often learning more from adjacent books than the ones I came to refer to. The web provides this library effect on steroids. With a few clicks, arcane subjects can be run down, often providing bizarre discoveries that are totally unrelated to the original intent.

This is a good thing when not taken to extremes. Unfortunately, it's easy to spend more time collecting artifacts (which can range from data to quotations to intriguing biographies) than creating new works.

Guideline 1. Spend no more than half as much time feeding your curiosity online than you spend drafting stories.


Articles, news stories, images, and opinion pieces can provide delicious, often nearly formed prompts and ideas for fiction. And this can be true from the inception of stories to their development to the drafting of scenes and chapters to finding just the right piece to complete the revision of a draft which includes an important hole.

For me, complete stories have come from a chance remark or a little-known fact. The shapes the stories have, at times, been determined by the structures of successful works that parallel my intentions. And I've often stumbled across an article and had it come to mind as my subconscious was busily searching for the answer to a story problem.

It's good to read regularly and broadly. But it's not very useful for writer to read opinion piece after opinion piece that dissects the latest outrage in the news, especially if these all come from similar perspectives. (That's just one example of feeding anger or hardening positions or be obsessive urged to read about subject past the point of diminishing returns.)

Guideline 2. Set a timer before you begin reading articles on the web, and choose the time of day that is other than your most productive writing time. (Give preference to your writing.)

One reason people read books, including fiction, is to learn new things. James Michener made a career out of elegant, in-depth novels that promised readers they would know more about a subject, essentially developing college course level expertise painlessly. Research into a region or a business or a time in history or technology can differentiate a work of fiction and support storytelling. It can, however, become a great excuse not to begin (or finish) a story.

In addition, I suspect some writers get to the point where the facts get in the way of the storytelling. It's very easy to dismiss options, include real facts that are difficult to believe, and magnify elements that are unrelated to the story's theme. I usually rely on my intuition when deciding when to stop research before a draft is written. I also may collect information about something specific over years before I know what story needs to be told.

When I am doing research as part of revision, that work is targeted toward filling holes and answering questions.

Guideline 3. What a story is not set, collect topic information in one file (preferably with some useful subcategories) that is clear, organized, and accessible over years.

Guideline 4. For revision research, clearly articulate what is needed, the specifications for satisfactory information, and how what is learned will be used for the work in progress.

When drafting, I go to extremes to keep forward momentum. When I lack a fact or have a less than perfect word in the text, I'll mark it off with brackets.  If I don't have a near substitute, I'll simply put in the word, "bagel," and fill in those blanks with references once the draft is complete.

Getting it right, my care for the work, is secondary while I’m engaged in the creative process. But I need to move beyond that in revision. Before others see the work, I need to make make sure my facts are correct and my language choices are as good as I can make them.

A writer depends upon keeping the confidence of readers. Mistakes in language and facts can cause a reader to doubt or even abandon the work. Getting it all right matters. And this can't be dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders and dependence on editors (as essential as they are). It's part of the responsibility to not be sloppy and to demonstrate respect for the work and the readers.

Guideline 5. Judiciously use Internet references (including fact checking sites) to make your manuscript as close to error-free as possible.
I hope this is a good starting point to explore your use of the Internet as a writer. Other uses (email, social media, entertainment, and marketing) may have more of an impact on productivity than these, next time, I'll provide some guidelines on avoiding distraction and generally fitting the Internet into the life of the disciplined writer.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Windows to Reveal (Just Enough about) Mysterious Characters

In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab doesn't show up until after the ship has been at sea for days. And it's chapter 28.

Talk about intriguing. Talk about building the tension. Herman Melville was not afraid to withhold information, and that practice can especially valuable when you have a character who must be bigger than life. By leaving things out, readers' imaginations are engaged and can create dimensions that are deep, meaningful, and personal.

When I was a kid, most of the horror movies did not share the monsters. They hinted at them, making them all the more terrifying.

One important tool for providing some but not all information about a character is using other characters as windows. These provide readers with indirect (and incomplete) experiences of mysterious characters. Their filters give readers the option to pick and choose between descriptions, characterizations, and opinions. This permits them to assemble their own images (and can, with the best of fiction, reward revisiting these stories over the years).

If you make the right choice, the window can be a single person, as with Nick Carraway who narrates The Great Gatsby. Though Nick has direct experience of Gatsby, much of what he gathers about that character comes from rumors and the statements of others. His interest, skepticism, and opinions all shape, without defining too much, our own experiences of Gatsby.

Citizen Kane doesn't begin until after Kane is already dead. The story is basically told as a series of interviews, dramatized by flashbacks, with people who had contact with Kane. The interviewer, Jerry Thompson (who is mysterious in his own way, never seen on camera), has had no direct experience of Kane. The testimony of others provides windows into who Kane was. These are shaped by the questions the interviewer asks, but not by his providing his own point of view. (Of course, there is an ironic perspective as well. The viewers of the film know the Rosebud answer, something which is never learned by the interviewer.) The windows approach is recreated by the film’s promo, in which Welles is heard, but never seen.

How do you choose your windows to best present an intriguing character? Having a naïve character, probably the narrator, is a very effective starting point. This character, like your reader, is seeking knowledge. I think it's good to have characters who have biases as well. It's tricky to handle unreliable characters, but, if you balance them, with advocates and enemies, victims and beneficiaries, skeptics and believers, these can give you powerful ways to provide the right mix of hints to deliver a memorable character.

Of course, this technique works for characters who aren't so mysterious. More might be learned about a shy character from his or her friends than from direct experiences. Think of Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. Or an inarticulate character, like Edgar in Men in Black. Or a neuro-diverse character. Or someone suffering from memory problems.

I love how, in Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber, the protagonist, Corwin, discovers who he is, often through other people. We discover who he is at the same time, and the brilliant twist in the story is how Corwin comes to dislike who he was and reform himself.

Using characters as windows into other characters are does not need to be limited to characters who have a lot of hidden aspects. Windows can be used for any important characters in your stories. But, at least as an exercise, it's worth considering creating a character who is mysterious and discovering how to balance hints and scope for imagination when giving readers a direct experience of characters is deliberately limited.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Satisfying Stories Turn on Characters Learning Lessons (or Not) - Authentic Change

I'm a sucker for stories where the hero or heroine goes from being greedy were self-absorbed to generous and open. But I only connect with such stories if the transformation makes sense. Fundamentally, characters only grow and change if they're forced to. And, the bigger the transformation, the more pressure the character must experience.

This isn’t easy to achieve. While there are a lot of stories where characters learn a lesson, many of these fail because they are less than convincing. As a kid, I got a steady diet of these in TV shows, especially in situation comedies that featured families. This one so far that it became a cliché for a parent (usually the dad) to puff on his pipe and explain to the child the error of his or her ways in the end. There was absolute certainty that the lesson was taken to heart.

Ultimately, my memories of those shows tend to focus on jokes, frustrations, embarrassments, and the nasty characters more than the bland heroes and heroines to barely edged away from the straight and narrow and were easily brought back into line.

The Twilight Zone — even though it often terrified me — was more memorable. In general, it was more likely to have a just desserts ending than a happily ever after. My preferences still are toward darker material and earned happily ever afters. (And, as I looked at some favorites – A Christmas Carol, Groundhog Day, It's a Wonderful Life, the original Star Wars — I was surprised to discover it was easier for me to find happy endings in fantasy and science fiction.)

Shawshank Redemption and Casablanca are two mimetic stories with characters who change to allow happy endings. Both of these are also stories of healing,. I think this is because it's easier to show basically good people being restored and becoming better people than it is to show (as with Scrooge) and unpleasant character becoming positive without leaning on magic.

Nonetheless, there are some principles and play to keep in mind when you want to create authentic change in a character, a transformation that touches people's hearts.

Make it a big change. Within the bounds of the time you have to tell your story, a bigger change, from evil to good, will be more compelling. It's easier to engage with strong contrasts than subtle differences. This works best with longer stories, where there is room to support change.

Make it difficult. Characters only change when they are pushed hard, don't have alternatives, and have something that matters they might lose. No one changes dramatically if they can shrug off pain, dodge obstacles, and have little to lose. Go for torture, no escapes, and high stakes.

Give the hero agency. While it is perfectly permissible to have change catalyzed by misfortune or someone else's action, the hero or heroine needs to have the power to take action to resolve the situation – at a price. The hero or heroine cannot be saved by someone else.

Support the protagonist. In most cases, part of the inspiration and motivation for change is someone who cares for the main character. Lovers and friends encourage, inspire, and nudge the protagonist to make good choices and take action.

If possible, require courage. There are lots of reasons why the best choices are made by characters. Very often in stories, it comes down to the character trying things that worked in the past that aren't sufficient for the new circumstances. That happens in real life. In addition, laziness and ignorance can keep people from doing the right thing (although these two tend to weaken the drama of the story). But fear is probably the most accessible and visceral reason that can be presented to audiences. Because of this, happy endings tend to be most effective if they require courage on the part of the main character.

Show the choice and the action. The only way I can explain why (usually in amateur works) big moments where the protagonist finds the answer, makes the choice, and does what's necessary are skipped in stories is because the best ones demand so much from the writer. These scenes of transformation, in my own experience, require vulnerability and openness to feelings that are painful and frightening. Even writers who know enough to include them may protect themselves by making these scenes less specific or unclear. Since so much of the story depends on the scenes, the best work demands that nothing is hidden and no punches are pulled.

Show the results. A lot of "clever" stories leave it to the reader to figure out what happened when the protagonist takes action. This always feels incomplete to me. I don't think extended endings are necessary, but I do believe in making most consequences — in terms of the hero or heroine benefiting and getting rewarded – explicit.

As I said previously, I'm fine with darker stories (and the best tragedies have much of the above, with the main character NOT learning the lesson). My tendency in my own work is to have bittersweet endings. But happy endings are the most satisfying, provided all the pieces are in place for them to be justified.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Story Weather - A powerful way to give readers fuller experiences

LA Story is one of my favorite movies for a lot of reasons. (I love the Shakespearean references.) Weather plays a central role in the story. It's a magical element. The irony for me is that I blame LA for replacing wind and cold and rain and snow and blazing heat with the ambient, invisible weather of Southern California. (I'd point to Hollywood films and Raymond Chandler to blame for reducing the importance of weather in fiction.) LA Story seems to recognize this by making the hero a weatherman and mocking the uselessness of his job.

But weather is too valuable to skip.

You can use weather to set the mood of the story. (It was a dark and stormy night.)

You can use weather to test and threaten characters. (Think stories where hurricanes, floods, droughts, and ice storms play a major role.)

You can use weather to demonstrate contrasts between characters. Obviously, some characters will have unexpected reactions to changes in weather, and these will reveal them. My father-in-law always felt it was necessary to get out on the road during a blizzard. I'm more likely to hunker down.

Weather can shape and illuminate characters in the story, and it does not need to be extreme to do this. One way is by demonstrating differences in challenges presented in obligations. Think of a week of rain with the family on vacation, and how that can make the experience miserable for the mother who needs to keep the children entertained and calm.

Weather also provides sensual experiences for readers. Most writers know enough to include visuals, sound, and smells to bring readers into stories, but often these seem to be tied to scenery or human – made elements. Yet, weather is an immersive and may be deeply pleasurable or supremely uncomfortable. There are a few more effective ways to bring readers into stories.

Weather can also be used artistically. Some of the most charming prose has been written describing weather — both directly and as it's experienced by characters.

While cinema may have undermined the use of weather in our fiction, it's still a strong positive influence because, as opposed to sitcoms, theatrical films tend to include a lot of exterior shots. Not doing so can make a film feel claustrophobic. (In fact, that's taking advantage of with prison pictures, horror, and even tense dramas.)

Science fiction, with its emphasis on world building, often takes full advantage of weather. Historicals, referencing novels from other eras, also give whether its due. But other contemporary works neglect to take advantage of the possibilities of weather (and often, even time of day). In the extreme, there can be a white space effect, where the story seems to be taking place without a location.

In addition to following the examples of ambient weather in fiction, I suspect a lot of writers are leery of dealing with weather because the first words that come to them are probably clichés. We are buried in descriptions of weather that are all too familiar. You will never be the first one to describe wind in the character’s hair or sunshine on their shoulders or sleet tearing at their cheeks. It takes some thought and effort to keep things fresh.

The best way to avoid clichés (for anything, not just whether) is to mark them for revision. Once they are noted, it's best if real experience can be drawn from. That means paying attention to weather, both in specifics (especially change) and in effects (on the observer and on people around the observer). Language comes next. A richness of vocabulary, similes, and metaphors may come from wide reading and imagination. Or a writer can approach it by brute force, making a list of 10 to 20 alternative phrasings. Ultimately, I think the richest opportunities for fresh descriptions come by way of showing the impact of weather rather than directly portraying it.

If it sounds hard, it is. But it's part of the job. Good writers make things fresh every day. How many times has a first kiss been described in a romance novel? Yet romance writers, time and time again, present unique examples of first kisses to their readers.

Ursula K Le Guin brings the ice world, Gethen, featured in The Left Hand of Darkness, to readers through a character who is an alien on that world. A powerful way to bring weather to readers is through a character for whom the experience is new. This need not be on another planet. Someone from LA experiencing winter in New York City might take what a New Yorker would fail to notice and make it something special.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Fiction Writer’s Aptitude Test - A non-scientific way to explore your strengths

I’ve read a lot of wonderful work, both by professionals and amateurs. For those I know, it’s surprisingly common that writers don’t appreciate what they do well. They tend to focus on problems or to get hypercritical about where they are “lacking.”

I suspect more success (and writing joy) comes from going with your strengths than focusing on weaknesses. Yes, unless you have a talent that trumps major shortcomings, you do have to achieve minimum levels across most elements of writing. But why not make the most of where you’re really good? Why not celebrate the gifts you have?

So below is a far from scientific aptitude test. I think the topic areas are worth exploring, especially if you haven’t considered them in isolation. The choices under each topic may add some perspectives, but they mostly are here for fun. My hope is that you’ll get a fast, entertaining read, with a few pointers toward deepening your understanding of what you have to offer as a writer.

As a writer, I am adept at:

1 Creating wonderful, memorable characters.
        A. People find protagonists in my story empathetic and believable.
        B. My main characters have voices so distinct, they are readily distinguishable.
        C. My characters reveal who they are through relationships with other characters, both in speech and action.
        D. You can understand my characters through the decisions they make.
        E. My characters are layered and surprise without contradicting who they are.

2 Giving readers powerful emotional experiences.
        A. My stories dare to include the most powerful emotions, not just lighter ones: Rage, not just irritation. Delight, not just contentment.

        B. My characters depict emotion through action and expression, not just words.
        C. Emotional experiences are given the proper space, with words and images that provide readers with time to absorb and react, without diluting the feelings with excess verbiage.
        D. Emotional moments are deftly set up for the most impact, e.g., by using comic relief.
        E. Emotion feels fresh and authentic, with no cliches or melodrama.

3 Producing dialogue that pops, crackles, advances the plot, and reveals characters.
        A. My dialogue has no extra words and avoids the dull parts of how real people speak.
        B. Dialogue is witty and distinct.
        C. Dialogue is organic, fitting the character and the situation rather than showing off.
        D. Dialogue is not “on the nose.” It includes subtext.
        E. Most of the dialogue, including humorous quips, serves a story purpose.
4 Composing with lyrical language that delights readers.
        A. It’s a smooth read.
        B. The work (appropriately) uses poetic techniques.
        C. The best of the lyrical phrases feel so natural, they open readers up rather than bash them with their cleverness.
        D. The words invite rereading and expose fresh undercurrents each time.
        E. Reading the work out loud is a sensual experience. The words feel good in my mouth.

5 Telling stories with plots that twist, turn, and resolve in a satisfying manner.
        A. People feel compelled to tell my stories in their own words to others.
        B. Surprises delight and seem inevitable in retrospect.
        C. Characters seem to create the plot through their decisions and never feel like they have been pushed around to make the story work.
        D. The story questions are clear, even though they may not be explicitly articulated.
        E. The ending answers the story question clearly, supports the theme, and ties up important loose ends.

6 Hooking and holding readers so they compulsively turn the pages.
        A. The title, first sentence, or first paragraph creates curiosity and deep interest.
        B. The story escalates with greater stakes.
        C. Every revelation until the end raises more compelling questions.
        D. The reader can’t put the story down.
        E. The outside world disappears as the reader gets lost in the story world.

7 Building worlds that invite readers to immersive themselves.
        A. My story world makes sense and doesn’t break its rules.
        B. There is enough description to allow readers to imagine the world.
        C. There is enough left out of the description so the reader has the opportunity to participate in world building.
        D. All the senses are engaged.
        E. The story world shapes the characters. They belong.

8 Presenting fresh, authentic perspectives.
        A. My protagonist’s point of view takes the reader out of his/her comfort zone.
        B. The expression of the perspective invites curiosity and engagement.
        C. The code of the unfamiliar character (or society) is clear and relatable.
        D. There are elegant transitions from strangeness to empathic responses.
        E. A lesser known aspect of the human experience is illuminated.

9 Providing prose that is so clear and logical the reader pushes forward with no confusion.
        A. No lines need to be reread.
        B. The logic is unquestionable.
        C. All characters act in character.
        D. Goals, stakes, obstacles, and questions are all specific and clear.
        E. All ambiguities are intentional and fair to the chosen audience.

10 Deftly slipping in knowledge, wisdom, and experiences that broaden real-world understanding.
        A. My story dares to have something to say, and says it artistically.
        B. Facts, including fascinating ones, are metered out in a way that is clear without feeling out of place in the story.
        C. The act of writing exposes unexpected or freshly nuanced truths.
        D. Some of what is depicted feels risky and creates vulnerabilities.
        E. The thoughts dare to go as far as they should and no further.

11 Illuminating the human experience through humor.
        A. The audience laughs.
        B. Humor emerges from character as much as situation.
        C. Some humor can reach those who might disagree with its premise.
        D. If any characters are made the butt of jokes, I punch up, not down.
        E. The basics could have been expressed in an interesting way without humor.

12 Offering imaginative images that resonate beyond the text.
        A. Metaphors, whether they are in descriptions, circumstances, or how stories evolve, are fresh and apt. They aren’t stretched too far.
        B. Images are vivid and memorable.
        C. Images invited different interpretations.
        D. Imagery is consistent and has unity.
        E. Imagery does not disrupt or distract, it deepens the experience of the story.

13 Choosing and learning about readers in ways that enable strong connections.
        A. I have written a draft with a known person in mind.
        B. I have talked to those who might be interested in such a work.
        C. I have gained experience of the challenges, values, and interests of audience members.
        D. The knowledge, idioms, and areas of curiosity of the audience are understood.
        E. The attention spans, likely distractions, and taboos of those in the target audience have been assessed.

14 Drafting freely, with compassion, audacity, and acceptance.
        A. The first draft explores and is playful.
        B. The process puts editing aside and allows experimentation.
        C. There are parts of the draft that are disturbing and risky to share.
        D. Even when the draft is done with an outline, there are surprises during the process.
        E. The drafts almost always have enough in terms of tentative beats, elements of character, and theme to be worthy of revision.

15 Revising efficiently and persistently so the full value of the work can reach readers.
        A. Even if new approaches are used during revision, success is assured by a documented fallback process.
        B. All the key dimensions of revision (completeness, story logic, structure, description, language, etc.) are addressed, usually by multiple passes.
        C. At some point, helpful readers are invited in and listened to.
        D. I have a process for assessing criticism and responding appropriately.
        E. The endpoint for revision takes the full value of the story and makes it available to readers.

16 Imagining and developing concepts and premises that prompt cascades of ideas and draw readers in.
        A. Curiosity and taste drive the collection of possibilities for stories, and these are recorded in full sentences and sorted for easy retrieval.
        B. My ideas, from images to complete loglines, are captured, developed, and evaluated to provide strong writing options.
        C. The expressions of concepts arouse interest and suggest high value.        
        D. Each premise is expressed through specific characters that raise the story’s payoff.
        E. My concept is of genuine interest to me, not just marketable.

17 Constructing scenes that are paced and structure to both achieve their purposes elegantly and serve the larger work.
        A. Each scene explores something important to the story.
        B. What is at stake in each scene is clear.
        C. Power shifts within the scene make readers worry about characters.
        D. The rhythm of each scene shifts seamlessly among actions, descriptions, reactions, and rumination.
        E. The outcome of the scene (often negative in terms of the main character’s goal) is clear and suggests what might need to be explored next.

The above is not comprehensive, but I hope you found some points to ponder. (If you actually came up with things that make your work wonderful that I missed, that’s even better.)

There’s plenty of reason to feel good about your work if you said yes to even one note under each category. And, depending on you genre, you might be happy even if some are missed entirely. YOU get to decide. Though there might be some places where improvement is possible (and that’s great), I hope there are no reasons to feel unhappy. Improvements may open new doors, but you can also see those areas where you have demonstrated aptitude already. For these, the doors are already open. Now it’s about mastering these areas so you can burst through the open doorways and reach your dreams.

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.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Scenes That Demand to Be in Your Stories 3: Undermining your hero

The scenario from the first in this series where power dynamics made the most difference in my scenes  was this one.

The protagonist’s main rival invites her to discuss her current project.

Because the analysis this confrontation was so fruitful, I’ll cover that here. (A detailed treatment of power dynamics begins with an earlier post.)

I’ll begin by explaining the title. Why would you undermine the hero of your story? Because making the situation more difficult for your protagonist provides more drama and pushes the character toward growth and change. Writers have to be cruel to be kind (to readers and, often, the main characters).

The exploration of the power in the scene has three stages:
  1. A review of how power is important to the point of the scene.
  2. Listing the powers of the characters in the scene.
  3. Exploring how the elements of the scene might be manipulated to facilitate a power shift and add more drama.
The point of the confrontation. This scene gives the villain knowledge of the heroine’s weakness (her love for the man who is her “project.” The ruthlessness of the villain makes it clear something very bad is about to happen.  It also forces a dilemma because the choice for the heroine is sacrificing her business and career or sacrificing the man she loves. Both of these are deeply personal, and she knows she won’t escape unscathed. The heroine must feel her power diminish in the face of high stakes.

Listing the powers of the characters in the scene. I went through all the forms of power for each character, but I’ll just present a few highlights of the analysis here.
  • The antagonist has money and authority. She's part of the 0.1 percent.
  • The protagonist has analytical skills. In fact, she can go deep and create equations and graphs related to situations.
  • The antagonist has resources for advice (when she listens) and action.
  • The protagonist is able to adjust plans and come up with new options in the moment.
Exploring how the elements of the scene might be manipulated to facilitate a power shift and add more drama. There are a lot of strategies here. If the main character has physical power, handcuff him or her. If the power is by authority, undercut that authority (say with a threat of revealing a change in the organization’s structure. If power comes from flexibility, make it clear some options have disappeared. Here are three I chose:

Secret revealed. Hero(ine) loses power. Part of the heroine’s power comes from not revealing her love belongs the the “project.” Even her typical reference to him as My Project portrays distance and lack of vulnerability. So when the mask slips and she knows her adversary has discovered the truth, she’s sad and frightened (so much so, she fails to realize how her own power rises once she knows the villain is ruthless and cares nothing for the “project.”

Home field advantage. Antagonist gains power. I purposely moved the confrontation to the antagonist’s apartment. And not just any apartment, but a personal space that the heroine had never seen or imagined before. Everything in it is designed to make it easy for the antagonist and difficult for the “climber” heroine. You are up against powers you can never defeat. Quit while you’re ahead.

Knowledge. Hero(ine) loses power. The heroine naively tells an amusing anecdote about her “project.” At the beginning of the scene, it seems like fun between people who would never betray the poor guy. By the end it’s clear the she has put a weapon into a dangerous adversary’s hands—one that could be used against her and the man she loves.

In each instance, more power to the antagonist or weakening the hero(ine) leads readers to worry more about the hero(ine). And makes the goal more elusive. Of course, it’s possible to go in the opposite direction. In many love stories, disparities in power are increased and control is shifted favoring one, and then the other, lover. And a (legitimate and earned) twist the puts the hero(ine) into the power position at the end often works and can be explored by using this undermining strategy in reverse.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Scenes That Demand to Be in Your Stories 2: Knowing the point of the scene

Usually, when I add a scene to a drafted story, it's for one of three reasons: a reader comment, a character nudge, or a vague feeling that something is missing. None of these, of course, tell me what the purpose of the scene is, and that's vital to correctly fitting it in so it feels as if it has always been there.

The most common reader comment that causes me to go back and make changes is "my attention lagged here." (People are usually so rude as to phrase it that way, but I actually explicitly seek that feedback.) Most often, lacking attention is caused by the "darlings." These are the parts of the story where characters make clever speeches or I get rhapsodic about nature or something technical. But holes in the story can also cause readers to disengage and "darling" scenes may be more than just author intrusion. They can be patches over the holes.

When a character nudges me, it's usually because his or her (or its) story is incomplete. I've forgotten to say what happened to a secondary character. I haven't really provided the reason why so-and-so did something so drastic. Or the character just wants to share something interesting. Characters never asked me to cut their lines for their scenes. When they tapped me on the shoulder, it's because they want more attention.

Those vague feelings? My gut knows when the scene is wrong, and also knows when I need to do something more dangerous or even create a new character, a new incident, or uncover a secret that has remained hidden from me. Often this feels like a piece of music has dropped out of a song or one musician missed his cue. I'd say missing scenes that are indicated by discomfort pushed me to the point where they are unavoidable most often when I read the work out loud. It is not unusual for me to begin adding sentences right then, or to put the manuscript down and pace around until I find an answer or commit to a lot of hard work.

What's missing? What's the point of the scene that needs to be added? It may be a face-to-face confrontation between two major characters. It may be a quiet scene that sets up drama. It may be a scene that provides relief for the reader, a break in the tension.

Often, omitted scenes are those that feel too personal or too on the nose. The work in these cases is to probe a wound or write something flat and then use my understanding of the characters to create real dialogue.

You may have noticed that many of the scenes that are both essential and left out are problem children. They include work that is challenging, seemingly beyond my capabilities. (Certainly beyond my feelings of competence.) They may force me to relive painful moments in my life. Or they may just promise a lot of hours at the keyboard working the prose, fixing other parts the manuscript, or collecting the full story from a gabby character, knowing I'll need to chop down 10 pages to three.

So, for one of the scenes I just reworked, the starting point was the reader's request for an action scene. Fair enough. My heroes tended to stumble across problems that led to pursuits, attacks, captures, traps, and impossible dilemmas. I certainly know how to brainstorm material like that. But I couldn't just drop it in. It had to have a point. And I went through using this to reveal hidden dimensions of my protagonists, to underline the conflicting values of the characters, and to bring readers more thoroughly into the odd world I'd created. All good purposes for a scene.

But what I settled on — which dictated exactly where this scene would fit in and showed me beats that were missing in the scenes on either side — was a recommitment to the quest by the protagonist. He had to do this, and I'm not sure why I didn't see that as I was drafting the story. Because, at about this time, things get really tough. It becomes clear that it takes more than a promise or dedication to honor to go forward when your life will be put into jeopardy and your best friend might die.

Knowing what the scene needed to do helped me go forward to the next step in creating the best scene for that part of the story. And that next step was looking at the power dynamics which is what will be the subject of my next post.