31 July 2008

When the Character is You

Many writers beyond memoirists find themselves creating a protagonist who is patterned after themselves. This can pose a problem or two.

One, many writers tend to be introverts and thus their character ends up passive and sort of floating from one event to the next.

Also, I've found that although most people are quick to identify other people's flaws and faults, they have difficulty pinpointing their own. Without a flaw, the character arc becomes more difficult to manage.

Do you find yourself creating a protagonist that is patterned after yourself?? If so, do you have trouble getting close enough to the character to create a full-blown characters with good and bad qualities, warts and all??? Just curious.......

28 July 2008

No-plot, Really No Problem??

I recently received the following:

"I've a topic for you. What about the no-plot novel? I've always argued that a novel doesn't need a plot as long as it has a point, also there's the whole "character is plot" argument. The plots in my books are neither here nor there, just things to get my characters to do while I write about them."

I'm not certain what he's getting at here. "...as long as it has a point." I assume this refers to the deeper meaning of the piece or the Thematic Significance. "....character is the plot." I assume this refers to the Character Emotional Development. "...just things to get my characters to do while I write about them." This, I assume, is the crux of his query -- no dramatic action? Perhaps. If the "things" involve conflict that the character then has the opportunity to respond or react to emotionally, I'd say he is writing a novel with plot.

Again, I define plot as a series of scenes deliberately arranged by cause and effect to create dramatic action filled with conflict in order to further the character's emotional development and provide thematic significance. In other words, when the dramatic action causes the character to be changed at depth over time the story means something.

What do you think??? Is he writing with plot or no-plot? Perhaps I'm reading too much into what he's written because I dread thinking he's writing with no conflict involved. Don't get me wrong, I believe character carries the story. Still, even with beautiful language, internal conflict without any external conflict, could end up a slow, boring, flat read indeed.....

17 July 2008

2 Plot Tips for the Middle

Two recent plot consultations revealed the same dilemma -- both writers were faltering as they made the approach to the Crisis, which occurs about 3/4, give or take, through the entire project.

The Problem
Characters, setting, set-up, premise, and action move from the superficial, introductory mode of the Beginning to the gritty, challenging world of the Middle, the heart of the story world itself.

In the middle, masks fall away and the characters reveal themselves for who they truly are, warts, flaws, fears, prejudices, and all. At this point in the relationship, just like in life, the story tends to get messy. Fights can ensue. Feelings can get hurt. Because of that, writers often back away, afraid of what the characters will reveal about themselves, doubting their ability to manage the dark side of the characters.

Writers tend to want to back off when they approach the Crisis. And why not? We shy away from disaster, drastic upheaval, or deep loss in our own lives. Why would we want to do any differently for our characters? Yet, that is exactly what the Crisis is -- the suffering that occurs when the protagonist's whole world shatters and doesn't make sense anymore. Because only out of the ashes of the old self can a new self come into being -- the beginning of the character's ultimate transformation.

When things get messy, writers often long for the good old days at the Beginning of the relationship when things were smooth and happy, and superficial. Don’t give into the urge to go back and start over again. The truth of the relationship and the characters emerge in the Middle.

Plot Tips and Tricks
1) Use of Antagonists
Writers who make friends with as many antagonists as they can create seem to slog their way through the Middle without as much mishap as those who have not fostered such relationships.

The six basic antagonists are: other people, nature, God, machines, society and the characters themselves.

If you are trying to deepen your skill at showing character development, of the six antagonists, the inner workings of the characters themselves offer the richest form of support. In terms of plot, three basic character traits have the potential to create scenes with the most conflict, tension and suspense or curiosity: the character’s flaw, fear, and hatred.

For example, in the Beginning of To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee introduces Scout, the protagonist, with the flaw, among others, of being insensitive to other people’s feelings. In the Middle, Lee turns the tables on Scout. Now, rather than continue to see all the ways Scout demonstrates her insensitivity to others, the reader sees how Scout suffers the effects of others’ insensitivity, from her cousin acts of cruelty towards her to how a white townsperson married to a black woman deals with the insensitivity of the community around him.

Scout’s flaw is not the only antagonist that creates more conflict, tension and suspense in very scene. The Middle is fraught with antagonists of every sort. Her father serves as an antagonist when he asks Scout to control her temper and her fists. Because of scenes in the Beginning showing Scout’s impulsive fits of anger, the reader knows as well as Scout and her father just how hard it will be for the eight-year-old to control these two shadow aspects of herself.

Lee employs other antagonists in the Middle: an old mad dog down yonder; Mrs. Dubose, a neighbor who symbolizes the collective consciousness of the town folk or society at large; Aunt Alexandra; grown men of the community; etc.

2) Unusual world
The Plot Planner mimics the universal story form with a line that moves steadily upward to denote the necessity of giving each scene more significance to the character and more conflict, tension and suspense in the dramatic action than the scene that came before it.

A trick that can help you over the roughest territory of all: the middle of the Middle is to create an unusual world. So long as you keep a measure of conflict, tension and suspense alive, the actual dramatic action can flatten out a bit in the middle of the Middle. Here, the writer can take time to deepen the readers’ appreciation of an unusual job, setting, lifestyle, custom, ritual, sport, belief or whatever your imagination dreams up.

This world, whether real or imagined, comes alive with authentic details most relevant to the unusual world, specific details the average reader does not yet know or appreciate.

For example, in the Middle of Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden shows the world of the geisha as the protagonist herself learns about the expectations, dance steps, joke making, dress and hair.

In the Middle of Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak shows us through six pages of illustrations the unusual world of wild things making rumpus.

In the Middle of My Half of the Sky, Jana McBurney Lin shows the everyday life of a tea seller in China.

The next time you find yourself bogged down in the Middle, don’t resort to going back and starting again. You will only end up finding yourself in a seemingly never-ending cycle. Instead, make a list of all the antagonists you can think of that are relevant to the overall plot or thematic significance. Add the development of an unusual world, and see if you don’t find yourself jumping from one scene to the next, and bypassing the quicksand of the Middle all together.

Do you have any tips to help writers slog their way through the middle??? Any tips about writing the build-up to and the actual Crisis??? Please do share.......

01 July 2008

Dialogue, Introspection and Narrative, Scene and Summary

1) Question:
What is a good percentage mix of Dialogue, Introspection and Narrative? Is there a good mix, or is it just what fits the story? Suspense romance writer -Florida

A story unfolds in scene, of course. And, scene is usually made up of dialogue and always action. But the dialogue I'm talking about is dialogue that advances the plot, NOT dialogue that is mere information dumping.

Introspection can give insight into the inner workings of the character, but is inherently flat and thus slows the plot. Therefore introspection should be used sparingly. This also goes for narrative. Telling--summary--puts distance between the reader and the story. Showing--in scene--draws the reader deeper into the story. Use "telling" sparingly.

2) Question:
I noticed that on page 189 which is Appendix 5, you plotted the beginning Summary in the "A Lesson Before Dying" by Ernest J. Gaines Plot Planner example.

Why is that so? I thought we were not suppose to plot summaries? Is it because this is the very first opening sequence which introduces the inciting incident which happens to be a Summary and not a Scene? You note on this page that "this story begins with Summary, establishing the overarching conflict". I'm confused. Your clarification would help. -New York

You're right -- you are not suppose to plot summaries for the reason stated above.
The Plot Planner is a device meant to give you a visual picture of your story. I stress scene over summary primarily because the #1 problem I see many writers make is "telling" the story rather than "showing" the story. Summary may introduce vital information and thus is helpful to have available on your "visual plot map." However, I would indicate on the Plot Planner, if/when you include a summary. That way you can assess the frequency with which you use telling in place of showing for pivotal scenes.

3) Question:
I'm presently working on my plot planner and was reviewing your book again and was curious again about a few things you mentioned about summaries and would like some clarification please. -New York

On page 74, why do you ask to "determine if there is conflict in the scene or summary you are analyzing" if we are only to analyze and track scenes?

You're right!! Drat! Thanks for catching the discrepancy. I'll delete summary in that statement in the next printing of the book. Thank you.

4) Question:
Also, on page 67, you noted that "if your story begins with a summary there may not be any real action to indicate on the scene tracker. Summary is telling and so it does not usually involve real action." So are you saying that if you start your story with a summary and it has some action that we should track it on the plot planner (and this would be the only scenario to track summaries?)?? I'm only asking this as you noted that summary does not "usually" involve real action. So when a summary does involve real action, is it still a "summary" or a "scene"??

Hmmmm, does summary ever involve real action? Summary "tells" about action that has happened. What is important in a story is the action that is happening moment-by-moment on the page. True action is the step the character takes right now at this moment in story time. Again, I think you have picked up an oversight in the editing of the book. I apologize for any confusion this has caused you and will change the wording in the next printing. Thanks again for your help!

***Any of you writers out there have any comments or help to offer??? Thank you in advance.