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.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Scenes That Demand to Be in Your Stories 1: Purpose, power dynamics, character challenges, and choices

My works in progress provide laboratories for this blog. Often, what I'm writing – especially if I'm facing difficulties — will find its way into approaches I recognize as worth sharing, or I'll be forced into experimenting and end up documenting the experience.

Recently, I've been involved in developmental revisions on a few stories. It occurred to me that this effort was worth analyzing and this would be a good place to offer what I've learned. While I have several ways that I go about adding scenes, in each of these cases, I used the same method.

1. Purpose — Write a sentence that states why this scene is needed in the story. What's the point? What does it accomplish?

2. Power dynamics — Survey all the characters in the scene (and as needed, characters who overshadow the same) and look at what powers they had. Minimally, determine who begins the scene in the strongest position. (Often, that person sees a power shift before the scene is over.)

3. Character challenges — How the character's status, identity, plans, hopes, opportunities, etc. were knocked out of equilibrium during the scene? What might push the character into taking action, making a decision, saying something publicly, or reevaluating a position?

4. Choices — What are the options the character will have during the scene? As a result of the scene? Think in terms of who the character is, motivations, current state of mind (especially in terms of what most recently happened), and what traumatic triggers might need to be handled. In addition, experiment with the character just accepting what he or she has been given or what would happen if he or she made a decision without consideration were thinking. One choice the author should always investigate is one that would have the worst consequences.

I'll go through each of these in future posts. For today, I'll touch on some of what happened with one of my scenes. Here are the four scenes I had in front of me:
  • The protagonist’s main rival invites her to discuss her current project.
  • The main character must avoid capture by law enforcement while attending a party with someone he cares about.
  • The heroine must listen to the confession of her best friend about how she betrayed her.
  • A secondary character abandons the project, leaving wreckage in her wake.
Those sitting down and actually writing the scenes in ways that are true to the character and fit elegantly into the rest of the story isn't easy, each of these offers fun opportunities. A roll in the ditch, and escape, a betrayal, and a messy exit? There's built-in drama no matter which you choose. Let's look at the third scene.

1. Purpose – The point of this scene is to reveal information to the protagonist. Fundamentally, she needs to understand that she was humiliated because of a deliberate act by someone she trusted. It wasn't a mistake. And she hadn't caused it herself.

Now it’s possible to elaborate on this. The friend was not being cruel. She was acting in a way she thought would be helpful. The friend, in confessing, relieves herself of a secret, but she takes the chance of ending the friendship, facing revenge, and (in this story) losing her job.

2. Power dynamics — In terms of wealth, authority, and reputation, the main character has advantages over her friend. The friend's advantages are softer. She has better social skills. She is dependent upon by the main character as a confidant and emotional support. Overall, the decisions following the revelation are in the main character's hands, but both characters face important consequences.

3. Character challenges — With the revelation, the main character could become a victim and lose status. She will definitely be forced to change her relationship with her friend, which is frightening to her. The friend has already broken trust and must accept moving into a relationship where she will be doubted, at best. A likely beat in the scene is an explanation for the betrayal. How it is expressed and received will probably determine the emotional texture and shape subsequent scenes.

4. Choices — 1) cool: betrayal? That's no big deal. It's over. Let's move on. 2) warmer: betrayal? How could you? I was protecting you. Okay, thanks. 3) still warmer: betrayal? You scoundrel! I did it for your own good. You had no right. 4) hot: betrayal? You rat!! It was payback, and I'm glad I did it! We'll see how glad you are when I finish eviscerating you in public!

Okay, I hope you get the idea. In practical terms, I found that I was revisiting each of these four steps as I worked. I also wasn't afraid to jump ahead. And the choices? About 20 were explored before I was done.

Note, this isn't a scene writing machine. The details are all contingent on what else is going on in the story. The choices are somewhat constrained by who these characters are (although my inclination was to push hard to make a choice work before it was rejected. I actually ended up drafting half pages of three choices before I made a decision and completed the scene. (At times, I've experimented with writing the same scene as humor or melodrama or from a different perspective. When I got really stuck once, I wrote a scene in the voices of half-dozen favorite authors.)

One reason why I made such an investment in the scenes is because each of them provides the opportunity to really elevate the stories in which they take place. In addition, I hate the idea of anyone's noticing they were added in revision. When fixes and addenda are too obvious in the story, they can wreck the whole experience. On the other hand, when they feel like they belong, they can become the best parts of stories.