Tag Archives: plot

Setups, Flawed Characters, Ginger or Maryann?

Last night I finally got my files uploaded for the print version. They’ve been reviewed, and I had a problem with my title page, so I have to get that fixed this morning, and then upload the interior file again. But it seems like that was the only issue, so I might be able to order a proof copy tonight.

This morning I’m doing some thinking about first acts, how I understand them, and how I approach them. What follows may be a lot of me talking to myself, so don’t let all the yous get to you.

For me, the first part of a book is all setup. The actual story, the thing your characters are going to have to work through—you’re not into that yet. In fact, the point where you actually get into that doesn’t even happen until the end of this section.

Now, you can’t just do nothing here. You can’t just go about describing the characters, their environs, their backstories, etc, and not having anything going on to engage the reader. That’s about as much fun as watching someone else play Barbies. There should be something going on, something the reader is going to want to know more about.

So you’ve got a character (or characters) and a something going on. And part of what the reader wants to know is: how is this something going to affect the character? When is she going to a) either become aware of what’s really going on, and/or b) have to deal with this? And then what’s going to happen? While she’s reading on, to get to that moment when things come together and you come to that point of shoving your character through the door into the story world, you’re feeding her lots of important information about the world and the people in it, you’re planting seeds, doing a little foreshadowing, but, most importantly to me, you’re setting up your character arc.

The stories I love best are those in which a character learns and grows, is changed by the events of the story. I think I probably especially love characters who seem a little hard to love when they’re first introduced.

Take Lost’s Sawyer as an example. (Oh, I’d like to.) He’s not a nice man. In fact, he’s a criminal. Not only is he nasty to everyone on the island with the name-calling and the constant lashing out, he also does things like gathering up and “claiming” as many supplies as he can so that he can profit from everyone’s plight. I think there’s a part of Sawyer that remains inherently selfish at the core, which keeps his character consistent. But in a show in which the challenges presented by the island transform many characters, helping them find the inner hero that may lie within all of us, I think Sawyer is the one whose change is the most dramatic, and therefore the most moving. (Or I could be just blinded by the dimple. It happens.)

Spike is another example of this kind of character. Someone who starts off really enjoying the killing, especially of slayers. Until he falls in love with one, and is changed by that love, and by his story into someone who ultimately—does something spoilery that’s pretty selfless. You know what I’m talking about.

So yeah, I guess I’m into that. Characters need to have a starting off point in which they are somehow less that they’re going to be at the end point. And in a series, in which they’re going to appear in more than one story, that means they’ll need even more room to grow.

They have got to be likable in some way, and often, with flawed characters, that’s a matter of empathy. When a reader talks about characters that seem real, what they’re saying is that they felt empathy, they recognized something that they’ve felt, or at least something that they understand, in something that your character feels. There has to be something they connect to. This is why they tell us to make the character care about something.

Spike had Drusilla, for example, showing that he was capable of some kind of love, even if it wasn’t the nicest relationship to watch. Later, he formed the same kind of obsessive attachment to Buffy. And we really got to see how it hurt him, to be so constantly rejected by her, to feel that she was so unattainable, because he was so unworthy. To feel the hopelessness of that obsession, even if one hasn’t been a vampire obsessed with a slayer who won’t have them–a lot of people can still relate to, and be moved by, those kinds of feelings. And that’s what keeps them tied to Spike as he waits for his moment, his opportunities for growth (internal, not always conscious), and to win the Slayer’s affections (external).

But be advised, it doesn’t work for all readers all the time. If you present flawed characters, not everyone is going to connect, empathize, or wait around for them to get better. Sometimes a reader will be so turned off by something your flawed character did or said that, not only will she give up on them, but the book, and you as an author. Our different tastes, experiences, the issues that can pull us in or make us throw the book at the wall, that’s all part of what it is to be human and sentient, and makes all these varied stories possible.

After all, it’s this variation in taste that makes possible questions like:

  • Angel or Spike?
  • Sawyer/Kate or Sawyer/Juliette?
  • Marvel or DC?
  • Ginger or Maryann?

And where would the internet be without that?

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Blueprint Series part 12: Fleshing Out Part 4

You know what you need to bring your story to a conclusion, but how are you going to make that into a whole quarter of your story? Does it have to be? We’re going to talk about that and some other stuff today as we work prepping part 4 of your story. (Click here for part 1 of this series on story development.)

To answer my own question above, my personal opinion: No, your 4 parts do not have to be equal quarters and your Part 4 doesn’t have to be quite as long as Part 2 or Part 3. But neither should it be so truncated that it seems a lot shorter.

This is one of the many balancing acts we face in writing. Your final act should be that exciting thrill ride we talked about yesterday, full of jarring impacts and forward motion. But it also should not be over so quickly that your reader feels she’s just invested hours in a build-up to something that was over too quickly. That’s a risk if you move from your SPP directly to your final showdown against the antagonist. At the same time, if there’s a long and complicated sequence of events to set up that showdown, your risk slowing everything down and disappointing your reader in a different way.

I just thought I’d throw some worries at you while you think through this, because I’m mean like that. As you’re outlining, you may find that you have more scenes or fewer scenes in your Part 4 than you did in other parts. Maybe it will take you more words to describe all that action, and that will maintain your balance. Hopefully you’ll be writing your climax using the kind of exciting language that will make it a fast read, make your reader power through to keep turning pages to see what happens, and that will provide the balance you need.

What you do not want to do here, is to plan a lot after your exciting climax. Don’t you DARE make me walk back to the Shire with you. Seriously. I’ll go home with your character to see how it all worked out, to see her get her reward, but I don’t need another journey right now, and I certainly don’t want another adventure of any kind.

I’ve got my post-victory buzz on. Don’t bring me down, man.

So let’s look at the Blueprint…

Step 12: Fleshing out part 4

  1. What is the climax of the story?
  2. How do the characters come to terms with their inner demons?
  3. Are there any loose ends to tie up?
  4. What is the happily ever after moment?

Not a lot of questions to work with there, but, at this point, you don’t need them. There is nothing extraneous in your climax. It deals with setting up the antagonist and knocking him down. And to do this, the protagonist overcomes her inner demon, that thing that’s been holding her back all along. It’s her grit, determination, and what she’s made of herself through the training that living through this story has given her, that allow her to win. Not luck, not some guy (unless he’s a co-protag and she saves him right back), not some kind of out of nowhere magic. Your protag saves the day and defeats her foe. She couldn’t have done it back when we met her, but she’s a different person now. Right?

Do you have any loose ends to tie up? Any subplots that need resolving, mysteries to be explained, identities to be revealed Scooby-Doo style? Like I said above, once you’ve impacted the reader with the emotion of the win, getting to THE END as quickly as possible is usually best for everyone. Every page she has to turn after that risks diluting the emotional high she paid for in the book price and hours invested in reading.

(It’s probably obvious that I don’t believe in epilogues. Epilogues that do not advance the series are most often gratuitous frolicking in the story world for an author who just doesn’t want to let go yet. Some readers also don’t want to leave the story world and these characters, and enjoy a drama-free scene of martial bliss 9 months later or whatever. Put it on your website and give those readers a reason to check that out and look at your other projects. The only epilogue type I favor is one with the purpose of dropping a seed that will grow into the next book. Horror movies are good at that type of final scene, but then, making you uncomfortable is the point of a horror movie. And making you feel WIN! is the point of romance, IMO.)

What’s your Happily Ever After moment? You’ve just saved the world from a monstrous, soul-sucking demon from hell? What are you going to do next? This is where you give the protagonist her reward, or the clear promise of it, for all her hard work through the story. Because what’s harder than changing and growing? Sometimes part of this moment in your story is about your protagonist realizing what she’s learned and how she’s changed, especially in stories for younger readers who expect that moral of the story, -what we’ve learned from this after school special- type moment. Often stories end with a punch line. This isn’t so much a joke (although it is often humorous and further breaks reader tension) as a bit of an emotional punch, and is often particularly affected when it is seeded throughout the story in some way.

It seems like we’re done (except for writing), but I still have at least one more thing I want to talk about. Tomorrow I’m going to talk about Battling Threads in your story, and how you might consider dealing with your subplots. Even if you don’t plan to add a subplot, there are still threads of different types that weave in and out of your main action story, and it’s important not to leave them hanging or let them grow into a tangle that impedes your main plot.

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Blueprint Series Part 11: Fleshing Out Part 3

I hope yesterday’s post helped you start to think through what my CP calls “The Valley of the Shadow of the Middle.” Middles are hard for a lot of writers. Today we’ll be working our way through the second half of this often desolate landscape. (If you’d like to start from the beginning, check out part 1 here.)

Part 3 of the story takes us from the MP (midpoint), which changed everything yet again by providing us with a whole new picture of what’s going on, to the SPP (second plot point), the event that will send your characters hurtling toward the story’s climactic end. Smack in the middle of those two points we’ll place PP2 (pinch point two), a reminder of the antagonistic force that’s more terrifying than ever.

Step 11: Fleshing out part 3

  1. How does the hero react to the Midpoint event? What’s different now?
  2. How does the heroine react to the Midpoint event? What’s different now?
  3. How do the characters take proactive action?
  4. How are the characters fighting their inner demons? How will you show that?
  5. What is Pinch Point 2? How will you show the evolution of the antagonistic force?
  6. How do the characters react to PP2?
  7. Is there a Black Moment in the sense of a break-up or break down of relations between the hero and heroine?
  8. Is there an all is lost moment where everything seems impossible for your characters? How do they react to that?
  9. How does the SPP come about?

In part 3, your protag is a different person than the one we’ve seen before. She’s not doing this for the same consequence avoidance reasons that dragged her into this mess. She’s in it now, and she’s becoming the Warrior we always knew she could be. If she could just learn that lesson, fix that skewed world view that would let her get past her inner demon, you know she’d be kicking some serious antagonist tail. But she’s not quite there yet.

So yesterday we talked about what a big deal the MP was. Something happened that really changed things in the story. How? What’s different now? How does it change your characters, and how will you show that?

Now that your characters have survived the the first half of the story, they’re hardly the wilting pansies they once were. They’re done running and hiding and trying to avoid conflict. What’s their plan of action now?

Remember how I said your protag wasn’t quite ready to win because she has to overcome her inner demon first? Remember to remind the reader about that too. Because this flaw she has is probably going to cause her problems come PP2…

Know who else has survived the story this long? Your antagonist. Remember that you’re keeping the odds stacked against your protag team and as they evolve, so does your antagonist. He’s bigger, meaner, and more bad-ass than ever. And he shows that by whooping your characters’ butts at PP2.

This may lead to an all is lost moment for your protagonist. I know I’m often very moved by those story moments in which the protagonist has taken such a beating, the odds seems so impossible, you almost want them to give up and go home, to stop taking all this punishment in a battle that seems hopeless. But that’s not who your protag is. It’s just not in them to give up (because you’ve got a fabulous climactic ending planned!), so they’re going to have to pick themselves up. Give them a story moment to wallow first, if you want to.

Note to romance writers: So much of romance now is action-oriented. Back in the day, we had a lot of historical and contemporary tales that were mostly two people moving through a story together, and much of their conflict was with each other. Today, with the huge popularity of subgenres like romantic suspense and paranormal romance, it seems wise to follow the advice of those who write in the thriller and suspense genres. But to do it with the kind of character depth, interpersonal drama, and loads of sexual tension that make romance what we love.

The “Black Moment” in romance, is something that happens that breaks your two characters apart, at least for a time. It is often followed by a “dark period” in which the characters brood separately and secretly long to patch things up. If you’re writing romance and working with this popular construction, your Black Moment and dark period will probably happen through this second half of part 3.

And now the SPP. In this scene, we turn that last corner that sends us into the sequence of events that make up your climax. In roller coaster terms, we’re at the top of the big rise, and the SPP is the thing that’s going to push us into a downhill sequence of terrifying and exciting events over which we have no control. (Ok, we do, but this is what a good part 4 often feels like for a reader.)

So what is the Second Plot Point? One way I like to think of it is as the delivery of the missing piece of the puzzle. After PP2, your characters are pretty defeated. It doesn’t seem like they’ll be able to go on. But the SPP brings some information that allows them to act. And through acting, they bring about the story’s final showdown.

And look! A middle! As someone who’s wandered the Dreaded Valley many times, there’s not much that’s more satisfying than laying out a rich middle and seeing my characters’ path running through it. I hope this helps you map out yours. And if you get bogged down and depressed listen to The Middle for a pick me up.

The last of the 4 main parts tomorrow! We’ll be filling in some of the detail that lead us to The End.

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Blueprint Series Part 10: Fleshing Out Part 2

If you’re like me, you have some solid ideas for the beginning and ending of your story, but the middle is a little bit mushy. I’ve found that there’s nothing like a little story architecture to help you set up some intermediate supports and start getting inspired. (If you’d like to see how we got to this point of story development, click here for part 1 of the series.)

Looking at my Blueprint, I can see that this pretty much all comes out of what I learned from author, Larry Brooks. If you haven’t checked out his Story Structure series, bought the ebook, and subscribed to his blog, let me just suggest those steps again. I don’t get anything for mentioning it, Larry doesn’t even know who I am. I just recommend this because it made a huge difference for me in terms of how I work and my ability to finish things. Also, if you don’t know what these terms mean, you might want to read for that, or at least check back to part 5 of this series.

Part 2 starts in the aftermath of the FPP (first plot point) and ends with the MP (midpoint). Halfway between those two points is PP1 (pinch point one). So here’s what we’ve got:

Step 10: Fleshing out part 2

  1. How does the hero react to the FPP event?
  2. How does the heroine react to the FPP event?
  3. What are the characters’ new goals?
  4. What is their retreat and regrouping?
  5. What is their plan to take action and how is it doomed?
  6. What is Pinch Point 1? How does the antagonist force take center stage in this scene of Part 2?
  7. How are the main characters affected by PP1?
  8. How will you move into the Midpoint scene or sequence?

Part 2a might come together fairly quickly for you, once you get these questions answered. Something big happened at the FPP, something so big that it forced your characters into the story world. And because of the stakes you set up in part 1, there’s no going back for these guys. So now what do they do?

Well, first they react to what just happened, because, in some way and to some extent, it was life-altering. So how do your main characters react to the FPP event? Do they pack everything up and leave on their quest? Do they go into hiding? Do they turn to someone for help? Do they do something really stupid? Do they seek out a guru to teach them karate or some other skill that will help them defeat the antagonistic force?

Sometimes, this part of the story is about the protagonist gathering forces. That could mean seeking out a mentor to learn a new skill, going on a quest for an important magical item, finding and assembling a team and possibly training them…

At the FPP, your antagonistic force was really revealed. It shook up your protag’s life. Now she’s got to pull it together, so she pulls back from the situation to think a bit. Write out whatever you can think of about this process of reacting, retreating, and regrouping.

Your protagonist, being a proactive character, then comes up with some sort of plan. Whatever it is, that alone isn’t going to do it. She just doesn’t know enough yet, doesn’t have the experience, doesn’t have what it takes. Because really, if she did, this story would be way short. So where the flaw? How do you see this failing?

Now get ready to put the smackdown on your protag, but here comes PP1. The antagonistic force shows itself once again. Even if your heroine has retreated to the mountains to learn kung fu and recruit ninjas, the reader will still benefit from being reminded how badass the antagonist is, and so will your characters. Be afraid. Be very afraid. We always admire people who are afraid, with reason, and move forward anyway. So right in the middle of part 2, plan how to remind us of your antagonistic force and highlight the weakness of your protagonist.

What does this do to your protag and her team (if she has one)? She might have to do some damage control to keep people from leaving. She might have to get a new idea or new direction. She might have to find her way back from the alternate dimension to which the antagonist flicked her like lint off his robe.

The second half of part 2 is building the sequence of events that will lead to your midpoint. At the MP, something is learned or revealed that changes everything. Maybe it just changes it for reader, or maybe everyone’s in on it. But whatever it is, it puts this whole situation in a different light. The MP brings in the element that turns your protag from a Wanderer into a Warrior. Up until the midpoint, she’s probably been governed more by the avoidance of consequences than anything else. What happens at your midpoint that makes her go, Oh, honey, it’s on now.

Figure out what that is, how to show it, and the sequence of events and scenes that will get you there, and part 2 will complete itself. (Just add writing.)

Tomorrow we’re on to part 3, the second half of the middle. Hope you’ll join me.

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Blueprint Series Part 9: Fleshing Out Part 1

Thanks for visiting part 9 of the series. We’re really going to start fleshing out your story this week. In keeping with the 4-part structure we’ve been discussing, we’ll be going over one story section each day and working on some of the things that will help you build your outline. I’ve added a section into the Blueprint that deals with following up with your different threads and subplots. Check the download page to get the latest version. And if you’re just finding the series, click here for part 1.

Step 9: Part 1

  1. What is the hook or question that happens within the first few scenes?
  2. How will you introduce the hero? What will allow the reader to connect with the hero?
  3. How will you introduce the heroine? What will allow the reader to connect with the heroine?
  4. When and how do the hero and heroine meet?
  5. What is the theme(s) of the story?
  6. How will you allude to the theme(s) in Part 1?
  7. What events will you foreshadow and how?
  8. What are the hero’s inner demons? How will you show that?
  9. What are the heroine’s inner demons? How will you show that?
  10. What’s at stake for the hero? When the FPP happens what does he have to gain and lose?
  11. What’s at stake for the heroine? When the FPP happens what does she have to gain and lose?
  12. Are there other characters introduced in Part 1 who will continue through the story? List them, their relationships to the characters, their functions in the story.
  13. How does the FPP come about?
  14. How does the FPP unveil the antagonistic force?

Part one of your story is all about setup. It’s showing us what your character’s life is like before everything changes and she is pulled into the story proper. This is the place where you’re really doing a lot of planting and foreshadowing. You’re showing us what your characters want and need, what they’re afraid of. You’re planting elements that seem like background now, but may become oh-so-important later. When the FPP comes around at the end of part 1, a lot of these pieces will take on new significance for the reader, as she will automatically be in a position to understand how the FPP changes everything. She’ll know, without having it spelled out in exposition, what your character has to gain, what she’s afraid to lose, and why she must move forward into her story. Because you’ve shown all that in your setup.

Opening Hooks: Questions are important to me at the beginning of a story. What will happen next? Will she or won’t she? Why does she feel that way? How did this circumstance come about? What kind of a world is this, where things like this are possible? … Whatever it is, the books that really draw me into a story are the ones that give me some kind of a question that makes me want to turn the page and find out more.

Perversely, nothing turns me off of a story like feeling strung along and left in the dark. There’s a balance between creating intrigue and creating reader confusion. Good critique partners and beta readers will be invaluable to you in deciding if you’ve done your job right. For now, just remember throw the reader some breadcrumbs and answer some of these questions while you create others.

Getting readers invested: Readers follow your story by identifying with, and investing emotionally in, you characters in some way. Figure out what it is about your characters that will make your reader root for them and want them to succeed, whether it’s some need or trait we all tend to have in common, or something compelling that your character really cares about and needs to accomplish. Once you’ve figured out what that is, remember to find a way to show (not tell) it in your setup.

Theme: Some people hate the idea of theme. I love it. I believe in it. And no, I don’t believe writers always have a theme when writing or planning, but theme emerges all the same. I can usually find one in anything that’s been worth reading. It’s really about the question What is this story about? and the answer that doesn’t just summarize the plot. It could be about finding your place, discovering or embracing who you are, the places where Truth hides–this is the place to think a bit dramatically, I suppose. It’s about what you’re saying, beyond simply telling a series of events. It’s about why you’re passionate about telling this story. You may not know what your theme is at this point, but once you find it, you’ll be able to craft details and dialog to enrich the thematic experience for the reader.

Inner Demons: This goes back to your character arc stuff. These are the things your character needs to get over in order to win at the end of the story. In your setup, you can choose to show us what the character is afraid of and why, or you can save the why for later. You can present us someone who’s so distrustful of others that he’s never going be able to be the kind of team player your characters need to achieve the story goal. You can show us someone who is so beaten down by past failures that they can’t even conceive of trying again. Lots of different kinds of demons to slay out there.

Stakes: FPP’s Happen. Should be a bumper sticker. When yours happens, what’s at stake for the character? She must move forward. Why? What will happen if she doesn’t? What will she gain if she succeeds in gaining the story goal? Of course, she’s reluctant to go forward. Why? What will she lose if she tries and fails? Set it up and show us, so you don’t have to tell us.

Other Characters: Since these are notes you’ll be using to develop your part 1 scenes, it’s a good idea to list all the players you need to introduce, so that you can start thinking about at least giving them a mention or a walk-on in your setup.

FPP: If you don’t have some kind of an idea of how your First Plot Point happens by now, you really should. This is the most important moment of your story. The moment that makes it a story. If you’ve got no idea how it happens, make figuring that out a priority.

You might have introduced your villainous character somewhere in your setup. At the FPP, something else is revealed about him. He’s not just the mean, he’s evil. He’s not just greedy, he’s a demon (literally). He doesn’t just casually hate your main character, he actually has a plan in place to destroy her.  What new thing about the antagonistic force are you going to show the reader through the FPP?

There are a lot of questions to think through here, but that’s what makes Part 1 the easiest chunk to put together. By the time you get all of this stuff answered, it pretty much builds itself. Good luck with it.

Tomorrow, we’ll be on to fleshing out the first half of the middle.

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Grade A Top Choice Meat

No, Glen, not a hot waitress, not a flight attendent.

Today I’ve been thinking about choices characters make.

I’m currently planning through a story I refer to as TC.  On another day I’ll probably tell you some of the recent breakthroughs I’ve had on it.  I’ve got characters, I’ve got a loosely outlined plot, I’ve got the major scenes and why they happen.  Yesterday I did some work on making sure the ending was a follow-through from the beginning, rather than just something I threw on, you know, at the end.  That was more an exercise in working through the story as a whole.

This morning I started thinking about the ending itself.  I had in mind a fight between the hero and an old foe from his past.  And the old foe brings some friends along which up the stakes and makes the threat larger than just to the hero and heroine.

In my head it’s always been: Naturally, this, that, and the other thing happens.  The hero and heroine work together to save the day, get over their interpersonal issues, and live happily ever after.

No, wait.

Naturally?

Is that what I want to read?  What naturally happens?  If I already know what’s going to happen because it’s the natural and expected conclusion to what I set up–what’s the point of reading it?

So today I’m working on choices.  Choices that are difficult to make.  Choices that involve sacrifice and risk.  Choices that are effectively motivated by who the characters are and what they’ve done so far in the story.

It sounds obvious when you say it–ever notice that lots of things do?

Kettle and I tend to do a lot of choose your own adventure.  Meaning we get to a point where we have different options, different ways we could write a scene or different paths characters could take and we tend to give multiple choice options to each other: what do you think should happen next?

It occurs to me that we should make an effort more often to have the character ponder these decisions.  That we should work on making these choices more important, more difficult.

And that we should also continue making the effort to think of what _could_ happen next and find something interesting, rather than thinking in terms of what makes the most sense.  Because sometimes what makes the most sense also made the most sense in the last six books you read and is not the most interesting thing to read again.

I guess my thought for the day is that a lot of writing seems very straightforward and innate, but crafting a good story is…um…another story.

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