19 November 2009

Middle: Territory of the Antagonists

(**Coming soon = 2nd Annual International Plot WriMo 
  • Pre-plot new story 
  • Plot revision of NaNoWriMo
  • Final test plot before send-off
Begins December 1, 2009)

The Middle of a novel, memoir, screenplay encompasses a whooping 1/2 of the scene and page count of the entire story. More writers lose their nerve in the middle of the Middle than in any other spot of the writing process.

Two ways out:
1) Develop a list of all the antagonists that will interfere with the protagonist reaching both her long and short-term goals. (For a list of antagonists, go to: Dramatic Action Plotline.) Once you have the list in place, you'll likely find the need to introduce some of the elements earlier. CAUTION: do not go back and do it now. Make notes to yourself and attend to them in the next rewrite.

2) Develop the exotic, unusual world of the Middle. Once the protagonist moves from the Beginning into the Middle she usually enters a new world -- at least new to her. Let us see, smell, taste, feel, hear that world with the use of authentic details.

Links for more on both the exotic world and the use of antagonists:

First Draft versus Rewrites

Writers Travel Two Journeys

Meaning of Crisis and Climax

17 November 2009

Plot versus Character

Funny to have two plot consultations with two different writers with such antithetical points of view when it comes to Plot versus Character.

In my previous blog post, I ranted about plot getting a bad rap. The day after, I consult with a writer who cares only for plot (or, since I believe character transformation is critical to plot, rather the dramatic action side of plot.) This writer states his preference right up front when he declares that he doesn't know how the character changes (Character Emotional Development) or what the story means over all (Thematic Significance). Further, he informs me, he doesn't care about that. All he wants is an action-packed story that will sell. (mass-market airport book as described by yesterday's writer)

Hmmmmm, I know there are writers of mystery and suspense who are quite successful without doing much to develop the character. But, it seems odd to me to think of a character going through all she does and not be affected by the dramatic action on some level -- perhaps not to a level of transformation but at least change. And, at the end of a long, exciting read, why not leave the reader with something to think about?

Oh, well, those are my ideals.

I'm here to support writers in their quest to follow their dreams. Not to judge. At least, not too harshly, but to help writers develop their stories.

When I have a spare moment -- yeah, right!-- I plan to do a survey of writers and ask what is their preference for writing Character-driven versus Action-driven stories AND which do they prefer reading?? Stay tuned....

14 November 2009

An Insult to Plot

At first, I'm offended. But I'm always a little touchy when it comes to put-downs on plot.

A writer gives up dreams of literary genius. Okay... this could be good. Writing a novel is a journey; can't afford unnecessary baggage. Letting go of genius allows her to write what comes to her. Not to censor herself. Let it be crap. Trust the process as she messes around exploring different voices on her search for her own true, authentic voice. 

...for a "mass market deal you buy in the airport." My fur bristles at that -- oh, yeah, I don't have any fur... 

First off, I've never known anyone who would pass up the chance to write a mass market blockbuster novel sold at airports. It's much more of an accomplishment than the writer gives it credit for. Much harder than she thinks. 

Wait a minute. Slow down.... Me being defensive doesn't serve the writer well. 

What she is truly saying is the Dramatic Action plot is easier for her to create than the Character Emotional Development plot

She's approaching the time in the story when she has to peel back another layer of the protagonist. Get closer, go deeper, find the internal motivational stuff behind the character's actions. 

Actions = external. 

Motivation = internal. 

Some writers prefer one over the other.

I say: be thankful you have a strong front story (dramatic action, plotted) in place filled with conflict and suspense. Use that as the base for the rest of the story. 

You want to develop an important narrative voice. 

Okay, write the mass market plotted draft first. 

Think of what you are doing as a layering. 

Get the first layer down = dramatic action easiest for you. 

Ask yourself constantly: 

  • Why is the character doing what he's doing = motivation. 
  • Have him set goals that he hopes will take him closer to his  big , overall story goal. 
If that's a mass market plotted story, so be it...

Finished first draft allows for the next layer to go on.

For more on Character Emotional Development versus Dramatic Action plots:

12 November 2009

Slogging through the 1st Draft

I wrote today's Twitter (1/2 pt. = commits to journey. Things seem to get a bit better. They're about to get way worse = Crisis 3/4 pt.) based on something I heard Andre Agassi say in an interview about his memoir. I missed the part about why he despises tennis from the start but at around the Middle of his journey to wholeness, he quits drugs and alcohol and commits to tennis for the very first time. 

Agassi's Halfway turning point does what all good Halfway turning points do: signals a move from ambivalence to commitment. At that point, as Agassi quickly finds out, rather than get better, the Halfway point signals that things are about to get way worse. 

The writer / protagonist (today's on-going plot consultation illustrates how closely the two are tied) leaves the ordinary world when she signs up for a series of on-going plot consultations with the goal of finishing a writing project she has started and stopped for years. 

She slips into the writers life with ease. Fortunate to have a lifestyle that supports writing and reading and fully sinking into the writers life, she sets up a dream writing schedule. Every morning, write with coffee. Write and walk. Write and errands. Write and eat. Write and read. Write and sleep. Sounds heavenly. Only distractions are those she allows. 

Yesterday she hits the wall. Comes up with two new writing projects in quick succession. Retires to bed sick. Rejects vision of literary genius. 

She hits the exact same point in her writer's journey that the protagonist is about to encounter on the hero's journey. Up until now, the writer and the protagonist have gone through the motions. Now, with full commitment, the writer and protagonist step forward thinking that by making the commitment, the hard work is behind them. They step forward into thin air without a clue that the worst is yet to come...

Crank up the energy. Next is the Crisis...

09 November 2009

Scene Organization

Whether you like to work out the elements of your story on the page or are a pre-plotter, everyone benefits from a bit of periodic organization. 

See how many of the key scenes you can identify in the story you're imagining, writing, or perfecting:

1) Set-up: The set-up you create in the Beginning makes the journey the protagonist undertakes in the Middle feel inevitable. 

2) Inciting Incident: A moment, conflict, dilemma, loss, fear, etc. that forces the protagonist to take immediate action.

3) End of the Beginning: The protagonist's goal shifts or takes on greater meaning and turns the story in a new direction, launching the character into the actual story world itself.

4) Halfway Point: The moment the protagonist consciously makes a total commitment to achieving her goal and does something that signifies she has burned all bridges back and thus can only go forward. 

5) Crisis: The all-is-lost moment.

6) Climax: Just as it looks as if all is permanently lost for the protagonist, she saves the day.

For more on key scenes:

05 November 2009

5 Benefits of Writing a Truly Awful, Lousy 1st Draft

1) Rather than stop and start over again and again, when you allow yourself to write a truly awful, lousy first draft from beginning to end, you actually finish a draft all the way through.

2) Until you write the end, you do not have a clear grasp of what comes earlier.

3) You accomplish what you set out to do.

4) Once you have a skeleton in place, a writer is able to stand back and "see" her story in an entirely new light

5) One of the greatest benefits of writing a truly awful, lousy 1st draft is that it's all up from there...

For more on the benefits of writing a truly awful, completely lousy 1st draft:

The End Is the Beginning

Writer Self-Sabotage

First Draft Twitters

First Draft versus Rewrites

First Draft Blues

02 November 2009

Tracking Conflict, Tension, and Suspense

The Plot Planner I create for writers during an On-going Plot Phone Consultations (and encourage all writers to create for on their own for their individual writing project) is simply a line that divides scenes into "above the line" scenes and "below the line scenes."

Characters grow and change based on the Dramatic Action they experience during the story. If the action is simply action with no conflict, tension, or suspense, the story does not move and the character does not grow.

In today's consultation, the writer has a tagline that is so snappy and compelling, it could sell the project alone. I was excited to hear more about his character who, based on the Character Emotional Development Profile, fits my favorite definition of a great protagonist = a strong, flawed character unafraid of taking big risks and willing to show a bit of a dark side (This writer's protagonist hasn't shown the dark side yet. When we plot out the 2nd half of the project, I'll be curious to find out whether a dark side emerges... or not.)

The plot for his project works, but the execution scene-by-scene falls short. Too many scenes fall "below the line." The potential for popping them above the line is terrific so long as when he writes the next draft, the writer focuses on writing the scenes from this new point of view = creating conflict, tension, and suspense and /or curiosity in every single scene. Well... I exaggerate. A story benefits from quieter scenes, too, but even those "below the line scenes" create more intensity and depth if they have a pallor of tension, a hint of conflict, a whisper of overarching suspense (Gawd, I can tell I'm tired...).

For more Plot Tips on creating scenes above and below the line, go to:

International-Plot-Writing-Month-Day_26 (NOTE: this is a day from last year's International Plot Writing Month that takes place in December and is designed to support writers who are in the process of creating the rough draft of their stories now in NaNoWriMo)

Second Draft

Elements of Plot

Plot & Subplots

Character Development and Dramatic Action

(NOTE: For more articles about creating conflict, tension, and suspense, go to the top, right corner of this webpage and in the white, rectangular box write tag words for what you're interested learning more.)
(NOTE: Another critical element of a good plot that reveals itself on a Plot Planner is Cause and Effect. For a simplistic definition, visit my Twitter.

29 October 2009

A Sophisticated Form of Writer's Procrastination

Two On-going Plot Phone Consultations in a row, with two separate writers, each of whom suffers from a sophisticated form of procrastination.

Both writers, one fiction, one non-fiction, have had the dream of writing / finishing their books for a long time now. Both writers, after years of thinking and planning and researching their projects have both settled down and committed to the process. (Or, so they think.) By signing up for my services they crossed from the ordinary world of stopping and starting, dreaming and waiting to doing something about it = The End of the Beginning. 

The antagonists they faced in the Beginning (1/4) -- life, jobs, family -- are nothing compared to what they face now that they have crossed over into the Middle. Both writers have outrageously important books to write -- important for a multitude of reasons, the most important being, in my mind, to save their very spirits (I know, I'm a bit dramatic here but you know writers...) = the act of completion. Neither writer is able to move on to other writing projects that call to them (many of which they've started but never quite finished) or really much of any other creative endeavors until this one is done.

Now that they have crossed over into this new and exotic world of the Middle -- the writer's life, they face a most formidable antagonist = the dreaded procrastination. Now their internal doubts and insecurities are no longer hidden behind the worthy causes of caring for children and providing financial security to those they love. Now the doubt and insecurity oozes out all over and when they least expect it. Especially now. Always before they were competent and successful and selflessly giving to others.

Now they flounder and feel unworthy and stripped of control (after all, who really can control the creative source. It's more like sliding aboard the Giant Dipper and holding on for dear life). And, where do they hear their doubts the loudest? In the silence of their writing caves and on the blank page.

So what do they do? They do what they do best. They research more, spend hours pondering and planning, and come up with a million and one excuses -- all of them worthy -- for not sitting down and writing.

Though my primary job is to act as the archetype of the Mentor and help writers with their plots and support writers in the process of crafting a story, for these two writers and countless others just like them, I long to shape shift into the Trickster and burn, toss out, throw away their binders of research notes, stacks of reference books, and zip drives filled with information. Each of these two writers know their subject matter to a level of such expertise that they could lecture to thousands. They know so much that the act of condensing it into a compelling read paralyzes each of them.

Neither one has hit the Halfway mark yet. They are still organizing, pondering, mapping out.

Until they keep to a writing schedule and the rough ("vomit") draft is finished, they have not truly committed to the process (what symbolizes the Halfway Point of any great story)(yes, to those of you reading this who are familiar with the Universal Story form, they don't even have a clue about the Crisis that awaits them).

Until they do, I wait.

The muse waits.

Their stories wait.

The world waits....

27 October 2009


The act of writing is not a linear movement from the Beginning, through the Middle and to the End. The act of writing is circuitous and indirect as a reflection of the writer’s own personal strengths and flaws, loves and fears. The writer’s life spirals up and plummets down as characters break through the surface of the imagined world and dive into the murky depths.

The journey the protagonist undertakes mirrors that of the writer’s. A Plot Planner is a visual picture of the plot as a reflection of Dramatic Action, Character Emotional Development and Thematic Significance. The Planner reflects the writer’s journey, too.

The universal story form helps writers hold up their scenes and characters against a backdrop of the whole story. A Plot Planner and a Scene Tracker allows writers to stand back from the words and gain access to a larger context. An entire world emerges along with a better understanding of the significance of each of its parts.


Plot Tips
Introduce the familiar: characters, habits, setting, thought patterns. Do not confuse introduction with passivity. The opening of the project either draws in the reader or the moviegoer or it doesn’t. Dramatic Action calls for conflict, tension, suspense and/or curiosity.

The scenes in the opening 1/4 of the project cause a Separation, a Shift, a Fracture. The effect? The protagonist leaves everything behind. At the end of the Beginning, there is no turning back. The protagonist crosses into the Middle.

Tips for Writers
When you step away from talking about writing a book or a screenplay, your memoir or a children’s book into actually doing it, you join your destiny. Once you begin, there is no turning back. You can stop writing, but the act of writing changes you. The transformation has already begun.

Endure the fear of appearing foolish. The fear is justified. In the Beginning, a writer is awkward, gets lost, and makes mistakes. A Plot Planner helps keep you on track.


Plot Tips
The protagonist leaves behind the life he or she knows for the unknown. New and challenging situations arise. Self-doubts and uncertainty confront the character. She discovers strengths and struggles with shortcomings. The character becomes more and more conscious of her thoughts, feelings, actions and life as she has always known it.

A band of antagonists control the Middle: other people, nature, society, machines, and the character herself. Scenes pop above the line on the Plot Planner. The antagonists’ rhythmic waves of assault spur the protagonist’s vertical ascent. An unordinary world unfolds. A transformation begins on an inner level of the character long before anything observable appears.

Physical, psychological and spiritual crisis ensue. Greater awareness and sensitivity open up. The protagonist perceives and experiences self and the world in a new way.

Tips for Writers
You find yourself unable to drop your characters in the crucible, allow them to appear foolish, lonely, tedious, or ordinary. Until a character experiences failure, brokenness, fear, emptiness and alienation, rigorous change cannot occur.

Just as you kill your story if you are over-protective of your characters, so do you prevent yourself from growing and changing, too. Traveling the path of the writer is meant to feel like being lost, abandoned, alone and stretched beyond one’s limits.

For writers brave enough to dare the underbrush, be aware of antagonists lurking behind every tree in your own life. As you find yourself with no way out of the seemingly endless wanderings, dead-end detours, and a frustrating sense of being lost, stop and jot it on a Plot Planner. When you bargain with yourself to go back and start over again, force yourself to go deeper into the unknown. Use the Plot Planner as a guide.

Trust yourself. The quality of straightforwardness exposes themes and patterns underlying surface attitudes and actions. The better you come to know yourself, the better you will come to know your story.


Plot Tips
The character struggles to take full ownership of her newly discovered consciousness. What started as a twinge at first, in the quick build-up to the Climax, the protagonist more and more recognizes quite painfully each time her actions or speech do not align with her new understanding of herself and the world around her.

The healing of this schism shows itself in the Climax.

The Beginning sets up the scene of highest intensity in the story so far ~ the end of the Beginning. This scene shows the shift or reversal outside the character that sends her into the heart of the story world.

The middle sets up the scene of the highest intensity in the story so far ~ the Crisis. This scene shows the character’s consciousness of the shift or reversal inside her.

The End sets up the crowning glory of the entire story ~ the Climax. This scene shows the character fully united with her new self-knowledge, new understanding of the world, new sense of responsibility through her actions and her words.

Tips for Writers
Writers benefit from fostering perseverance to offset the uncertainty. Success is not always immediate or even obvious at first. Just as the characters in the story are on a journey, so are you.

20 October 2009

Etiquette for Introducing the Character

Have you ever met someone for the first time who proceeds to tell you in the first ten minutes their entire life's story? The pain and suffering, unfair treatment and family drama told to you before you have a chance to remember their name? You may feel empathy for this unknown person, but you may also find yourself backing away, checking your watch, and finding excuses to escape. This is also true for readers and an audience meeting your main character for the first time.

Think about how you introduce yourself to others. Usually, if we're interested in possibly developing a relationship, we are on our best behavior when we first meet someone new. We show off our strengths and keep our weaknesses and flaws in the background, if we reveal them at all. This gives the other person time to get to know and like us before we reveal the darker side of ourselves. We do this because most of know that until we feel comfortable with another person, we are not often ready to learn about their flaws, fears, and prejudices.

Today's plot consultation again brought to mind the importance of how a writer introduces the protagonist.

The writer had pages and pages of backstory and was impatient to share the details with the reader. She was okay with letting go of the Prologue she had crafted -- 30 - 40 pages -- but throughout the plot consultation asked if now she could include the information. I continually cautioned her to wait as long as possible.

Yes, a writer can incorporate backstory into the Beginning (1/4) but it is best if it is done through setting, time frame, authentic details, imbedded in dialogue (without resorting to "information dumping") through word choices, actions, reactions, mood, tone, and thematic significance. Get the front story going first to hook readers and audiences.

Curiosity is one of the most powerful tools to pull the reader deeper into the story. Give away everything up front and you lose that. Plus, you risk overwhelming readers before they have a chance to truly connect with the character.

15 October 2009

Character Makes the Plot

Last night, I furiously jotted down notes during my book group's discussion of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Although I avoid reading and watching violence of any kind, I read this book like one possessed. For a couple of days I was addicted to Lisbeth and have thought of her often since then. 

Yes, there is an interesting mystery plot, historical plot, political plot, dramatic action plot, and possibly other ones as well, but what drew me in was Lisbeth's plot and ultimate transformation.

In the group, I asked why? What about this character drew us in so deeply and emotionally, especially since the protagonist has such a flat affect and shares so little of herself emotionally -- her internal landscape is essential bare.

The following are comments made by the other writers and one non-writer in the group (my personal thanks to each of you for contributing):
  • Rarely in literature is there such an unusual female protagonist survivor with special needs (autistic / aspergers) and one who is so violent 
  • She doesn't belly up and lay down and take the abuse inflicted upon her by a flawed system and pathological men. She fights back and wins
  • She is young and strange and smarter and wiser than the men in the story
  • When she is off the page, the story lags. As soon as she appears, the story picks up momentum
  • She has been abandoned by everyone in her life, as a reader I couldn't abandon her, too.
  • She starts out a victim but does not remain a victim
  • Another reason the plot and this character work well together is that it shows good reversal of conflict: a "misfit" wins and the "powerful" loses
  • Her visits to her mother show her humanity
Writers often encourage me to write a book on character to compliment the book I wrote on plot. I always explain that in my mind character is such a key element to plot that it is impossible to separate the two. Blockbuster Plots Pure & Simple is based on the belief that plot is made up of dramatic action that overtime transforms the character (Character Emotional Development) to provide meaning (Thematic Significance). 

The End of the Beginning (1/4) of Lisbeth's inner plot line happens when her new guardian of the state changes the terms (1/4 mark in this book is page 161, merely twenty pages off the actual page count of 181).

At the Crisis (halfway point) for her inner plot, Lisbeth understands no one is going to save her. Only she can save herself and other women like her. In this scene, Larsson both foreshadows what is to come and also gives the character the insight for what is needed for her ultimate transformation. 

In the end, she is able to outwit the villain by standing in her true power. She is able to show her transformed self at the Climax because of the dramatic action that happens to her earlier in the story. 

Thematic significance statement: One person no matter how young or wounded is able with cunning and patience to conquer evil. 

12 October 2009

When A Scene Just Won’t Do

Most of a writer’s genius comes in the art of the finesse. How finely you craft your project before you let it go is up to each individual writer.

As a plot consultant, I developed the Scene Tracker Kit to help writers finesse their scenes. A story comes alive at the scene level for the audience, be it a crowd or an individual reader. Well-written scenes allow both the observer and the reader to viscerally take part in the story. Some people rather enjoy a more distanced, intellectual challenge. Most, however, engage on an emotional level, too.

Each scene has a plot structure of its own. The scene shows the character step toward a goal or desire. The move forward causes an equal or better effect with conflict and tension. The scene ends with failure or an unanswered question, or a cliffhanger, something that entices the audience deeper into the story.

Moment by Moment

Scenes show moment-by-moment action that causes an effect on the characters’ development as shown through his/her words choices in dialogue, facial expressions, next moves in response to the action, gestures, and every detail down to the breath.

Plot covers a specified period of time, from one moment in the centuries past and those to come. The Blockbuster Plots line of plot tools explains plot at the overall story level and at the scene level, too. In both cases, the focus is on scene.

But, when stories take place over a long time span, one scene cannot always cause the next scene to unfold. In order that the story not become episodic, the use of summary becomes paramount. Cause and effect soothes the audience and makes the story best spent in scene. But, there are times when a scene just won’t do.


You’ve heard the writer’s mantra: “Show, don’t tell,”

A scene shows.

Summary tells.

A story made up entirely of scenes can inject too much conflict and become exhausting for the reader or moviegoer. Summary is a place to rest and make transitions. Instead of every single moment played out in scene, time is compressed with summary.

Summary narrates quickly those events that are not as important enough to the overall story line to show in detail. Summary relates the events in their sequence or tells how things were during a particular period time. The use of summary is helpful in moving the story forward quickly. That way you, as the writer, can focus on creating scenes to show the moments that are the most important to your plot.

Movie and Novel Examples

Always a sucker for a good historical story, I have chosen two epics to serve as examples for the use of summary. Charles Frasier begins Thirteen Moons in Circumstantial Summary. Director Sofia Coppola’s begins Marie Antoinette in Sequential Summary.

Circumstantial Summary

“There is no scatheless rapture. Love and time put me in this condition. I am leaving soon for the Nighland, where all the ghosts of man and animals yearn to travel. We’re called to it. I feel it pulling at me, same as everyone else. It is the last unmapped country, and a dark way getting there. A sorrowful path. And maybe not exactly Paradise at the end. The belief I’ve acquired over a generous and nevertheless inadequate time on earth is that we arrive in the afterlife as broken as when we departed from the world. But, on the other hand, I’ve always enjoyed a journey.

“Cloudy days, I sit by the fire and talk nothing but Cherokee. Or else I sit silent with pen and paper, rendering the language into Sequoyah’s syllabrary, the characters forming under my hand like hen-scratch hieroglyphs. On sunny days, I usually rock on the proch wrapped in a blanket t and read and admire the vista.”

The opening of Thirteen Moons by Charles Frasier is an example of Circumstantial Summary. The general circumstances are described from the main character’s point of view. The audience learns what his life is like now that he faces death. The main character gives us his take on the approaching “Nightland.” The second paragraph tells us in summary the circumstances of how his days unfold.

Sequential Summary

The movie Marie Antoinette begins with a series of snippets like short summaries, some lasting only seconds. The first snippet is of Marie as a 13-year-old girl waking up one morning. Next snippet she plays with her dog while being dressed by her attendant. Next, her mother tells Marie the gravity of the honor being bestowed her. Marie then sets off on a journey. Friends appear along the way. The betrothed is introduced. Marie and friends sleep on the carriage. They play cards on the carriage. They sleep.

The opening of Marie Antoinette relates in sequence the events that happen over a specific period of time, but compresses them. This is an example of Sequential Summary.

Summary is telling and sets us apart from the action. However, in both examples, the use of authentically historic sensory details infuses the summaries with life and immediacy.

Note of Caution

In Marie Antoinette, Sophia Coppola creates Thematic Significance and forces a comparison between the story and the rock star mentality of today. Yet, both Thirteen Moons and Marie Antoinette overuse Circumstantial Summary and Sequential Summary both. Summary, no matter how well written or directed, ultimately distances the audience from the character.

In each of these examples, when we do get an intimate peek into the character, it is in scenes that flow one into the next through cause and effect. However, this happens in few too many scenes and far too short a time.

Yes, summary makes the time pass and history unfold quickly. The audience observes life during a specific time span and truly feels that time. But, ultimately, something is lost at the Character Emotional Development level when stories spend more time in summary and not enough time in scene. 

08 October 2009

Writers' Self-Sabotage

Do you have the dream of finishing your story and then find yourself not showing up for your writing?

Think of today as the start of a whole new schedule. One day at a time.

Everyday make time for writing and for exercise. As you exercise meditate on this:

What you are writing is not hard -- it's the first draft -- it's okay if absolute shit (excuse my rant!) or second or last.
What you are writing is the answer to your dreams -- a giant step toward becoming who you are meant to be -- the big you, the spirit you.
Why does the little you (ego / resistance) have so much power???
Why does everyone else come before you and your dreams??
What are you so afraid of??
Why are you sabotaging yourself????

You can do this. One day at a time. Give your writing time to yourself as a gift.

Okay, enough of that.

You've got a great plan. 

I'm sending you loving healing energy now and now and now... Every day this week you'll stay true to your commitment to yourself. If you can't trust yourself, then who???

04 October 2009

The Importance of Character

A dear, dear friend asked me what I thought of an editor's comments regarding her latest book. Having been told that the book did not have a wide enough appeal to a general audience but rather more valued by family and friends who could fill in the gaps, my friend turned to me. 

First let me say that my friend has had / is having an amazing life and that she is a terrific writer -- she has a wonderful way with words and, though this latest book comes closer to a true memoir than her first book -- a collection of non-fiction vignettes-- I agree with the editor. 

Without having dropped the veil on her own personal story and the deeper story of her relationships, the reader never has a chance to see how she is changed by the journey she undertakes in the story. Instead of more closely concentrating on her inner evolution, she focused on the outside. And, by keeping herself at a distance, the reader in the end is robbed of the true joy of reading -- identification. 

Universal appeal comes through the character -- the inner plot, not though the dramatic action -- the outer plot. The protagonist (in a memoir, that means you, the author) drives the story and the allows for an emotional involvement on the part of the reader. 

Yes, my friend wrote herself in such a way that she comes across strong and both empathetic and sympathetic. However, without a clear goal and an clearly identified inner problem that gets solved, the reader is left to fill in the gaps.

Key elements in the character inner plot:
1) The protagonist must grow throughout the story in a believable and meaningful way. 

2) Protagonist goal = must be specific. The goal is what motivates the character and is what allows the reader to gauge when the character comes closer to goal and when she is thrust further away. What does the character want and why?

2) The character must reveal themselves to the reader. This can be accomplished through dialogue and descriptions, and through the actions she takes. In whichever way the writer finds to "show" the character, the character's emotion must be included = Character Emotional Development. 

3) The secondary and minor characters act as real people who offer comparisons and contrasts to the main character, thus expanding the readers' understanding of the protagonist and of the overall theme itself.

4) Is the character struggling against herself and an external antagonist? Whether an inner demon or flaw and / or an external antagonist, we must understand the obstacles in the way of the protagonist achieving her goal to more fully appreciate the growth she ultimately makes.

For a simple questionnaire to help develop your protagonist's inner and outer plot, fill out the Character Emotional Development Profile.

01 October 2009

Foreshadow versus Flashback

A good story is able to seduce a reader by the illusion created on the page. A story written in scene creates its own time and a sense that the present moment is all that exists for the reader. As the reader sinks into the world of the characters on the page, they surrender even their emotions to the illusion. This strengthens as the reader comes to know the characters and care for them, even to worry about them. The reader's body responds on a visceral level; their hearts beat faster. Perhaps they laugh or weep, present and involved in the story world itself.

Flashbacks serve as a reminder to the reader that they are indeed reading what is only an illusion. This weakens the trance and can even break it.

Foreshadowing, however, is a literary device that alludes to something that will happen later in the story. Foreshadowing is subtle way to draw the reader deeper into the illusion with the promise of the excitement to come.

In the Beginning, or the first 1/4 of the page count or scene count, foreshadows actually appear as introductions.

Harper Lee, in To Kill a Mockingbird, uses foreshadowing in such a way as to strengthen the illusion of the story world. In the Beginning of the story, the reader is introduced, but not shown, Boo as a "malevolent phantom."

At the end of the Beginning we learn that Scout was "so busy looking at the fire you didn't know it when [Boo] put the blanket around you," The reader now has a sense that Boo is not what he first appeared. This act of Boo's in the Beginning foreshadows the Climax of the story. And it is the reader's curiosity about who Boo really is that draws them into the heart of the story.

Burris Ewell is also introduced in the Beginning. The reader comes to know Burris as "the filthiest human I had ever seen." "He's a mean one, a down-hard mean one. He's liable to start somethin'." Soon after we learn that his "paw's right contentious." Because of this introduction in the Beginning to the boy and his paw, when we learn what the paw has done in the Middle of the story, we are not surprised.

At the end of the Beginning, Scout wakes up to snow, something she has never seen before, and screams: "The world's endin', Atticus! Please do something --!" This is a powerful way to leave the Beginning and launch into the Middle of the story -- the actual story world itself because from that moment on, Scout's world as she knows it, does in fact, end.

Much later in the story, in the middle of the End, after Tom Robinson commits suicide, we learn that "Mr. Ewell said it made one down and about two more to go."

Soon after that the Judge, who embarrassed Mr. Ewell in the trial, has an attempted break-in at his house. If the reader had not already figured it out, they now know for sure whom the third party is that Mr. Ewell alluded to. The reader becomes viscerally afraid for Atticus and starts turning the pages faster. Soon after, when Aunt Alexandra stops short in the middle of her sentence, and says, "Somebody just walked over my grave," the reader feels the sensation as well and their fear deepens.

Even as the reader "sees" Scout in her Halloween costume and is caught up in the light-hearted fun of her presentation to the family and Calpurnia, the hair on the back of the reader's neck does not relax. When Jem escorts Scout to the pageant and their friend pops out behind the big oak tree to frighten them, the sense of doom heightens. On the way home after the pageant, when the Jem and Scout approach that same tree, the reader knows the Climax is near.

Reading is a mindful activity. When the writing is good and in scene, a reader reads the words, but rather than pay attention to them, becomes engaged with the characters. This keeps the reader in the present moment -- not real time present moment, but story time present moment. While we are reading in scene, there is only a sense of flow.

This paradigm does not only occur when reading "above the line" scenes or, in other words, scenes filled with tension, conflict and suspense. Even when the character is reflecting on an experience, going inward to find out what they are feeling and thinking, still the reader can stay in the illusion.

However, this sort of inner reflection by the character usually is not necessary because a character's external behavior is directly influenced by their inner state of being both in the moment and as a reflection of the past.

The best reading occurs when the reader is so in the trance of the story that there never seems to be a good enough reason to put the book down. Foreshadowing helps create this feeling. The reader cannot stop until they find out if what they think will happen based on clever foreshadowing does in fact happen. But what about that next foreshadow? The reader is as unable to stop or even slow down as the characters are.

Now is not the time to throw in a flashback, especially not in the final 1/4 of the story. A flashback can give the reader a good reason to stop. Foreshadowing, however, pulls the reader deeper and deeper into the story world and gives more and more reasons to keep on reading.

26 September 2009

Fatal Plot Flaw

Of the 10 elements in the Character Emotional Development Profile, the one of greatest importance to the overall plot of the story is Goal.

The other elements help create conflict, tension, suspense and curiosity -- all critical to a successful story -- as well as create a three-dimensional character.

The #1 problem I find, well... perhaps that's too sweeping but I'm trying to make a point here, is that writers often neglect to create a specific goal that in turn provides specific action steps the character takes to achieve her goal. 

The Goal "to be happy" leads to a vague and meandering story. 

Instead, be specific. What does she need = goal(s) -- to make her happy? The Goal needs to be tangible and quantifiable = in other words, the reader or movie-goer must be able to determine when the character moves closer to her goal versus further away. 

21 September 2009

Plot Tip: Creating an Illusion

Living in the present moment is difficult for most people.

Only while daydreaming or night dreaming, through mediation, under hypnosis, or while in the zone of writing or some other passion and with practice, can we stay mindful or conscious of the present moment for a sustained period of time. Usually our minds are darting into the future, whether the next 10 minutes or 10 years from now, or into the past, what just happened or what happened long ago.

Reading is a mindful activity. When the writing is good and in scene, a reader reads the words, but rather than pay attention to them, becomes engaged with the characters. This keeps the reader in the present moment -- not real time present moment, but story time present moment. Watching a scene unfold on the screen or while reading it on the page, we experience a sense of flow.

A story written in scene creates its own time and a sense that the present moment is all that exists. As we sink into the world of the characters, we surrender even our emotions to the illusion. This strengthens as we come to know the characters and care for them, even to worry about them. Our bodies respond on a visceral level; our hearts beat faster. We laugh and weep, present and involved in the story world itself.

Elements that entice a reader or moviegoer to sink deeper into the dream:

1)      Characters who invoke interest in the reader or movie-goer

2)      Conflict, tension and suspense that sustains excitement

3)      Only enough back story to inform that particular scene and triggers in the reader or movie-goers curiosity and investment in the dream

4)      Clarity into whom and what to root for in the story

5)      Consistency in story pacing versus missteps that can jolt the reader awake

6)      Right sensory details that deepen the overall story (dream) mood

7)      Foreshadowing that offers enticement (flashbacks can create time disorientation).

8)      No hint of the author in the story versus author intrusion

9)      The right balance between Scene and Summary

10)  Payoffs in the dramatic action and the character emotional development at just the right moments.

Once the lights go on in the theater or we put the book down, it takes a moment or two to remember that the people in the story were an illusion. Often, it is necessary to consciously detach from the world on the screen or the page in order to return to real life and regain a sense of real time.

The best stories are when we are with the characters and so in the trance of the moment that there never seems to be a good reason to put the book down or to pause the DVD. Lured deeper and deeper into the dream, we are unable to stop watching or stop reading until we find out if what we fear will happen does indeed happen, or not.

17 September 2009

Word Count for Scenes

(NOTE: I know I said I'd address more about theme, but received the following question. Will continue theme discussion next time.)

I've been working through my scene tracker and planned 20 chapters, each with 3 scenes or a total of 60 scenes. I divided plot into the first 1/4 or 5 chapters, the next 1/2 15 chapters, and the final 1/4 or 5 chapters.

Last evening as I was writing I realized each scene would have to be about 1,000 words to get to 60,000 and right now they are only about 600. What is a good average for scenes? Are my scenes too word light (Oh no!)?

Thanks so much! I appreciate your thoughts!


Sounds like you've done lots of pre-plotting, analyzing and preparing for this new story of yours. Congratulations!! 

Now it's time to forget about the structure and write. Well, that's not entirely true. Don't forget about all the work you've done. Use your guidelines as support as you write your way through the scenes, but don't get bogged down by the pre-plotting.

Some of us benefit from having a road map before setting off on a journey (new story). However, it's also nice to be able to wander off once in awhile if so inspired. So, it depends on if you're writing for fun and for the experience and the learning and the exploring OR if you're writing under a deadline. Under a deadline, keep to the pre-plot work to keep your writing on track. 

The scenes in the first draft generally grow in subsequent drafts as you add more elements -- authentic and thematic details, more emotion, deeper character development, snappier action.

Write your first draft all the way through without going back and without worrying about how long the scenes end up being. Once you reach the end, you'll have plenty of time to analyze what you have and make decisions for the next draft.

Great good luck!!!!

15 September 2009

Plot Your Story's Theme

The Thematic Significance of your story is the thread that holds your story together. The more clearly you can define your thematic significance statement, the tighter your story. Once you have identified your Thematic Significance statement, your scene choices and word choices throughout your story will follow theme. The theme then serves as your compass, determining what fits and what doesn't.

Writers generally begin a new project writing in their strength:
Dramatic Action
Character Emotional Development
Thematic Significance

The writers who begin with an idea they want to explore or a concept they want to prove through their story are beginning with Thematic Significance. For the rest of us, the theme of our stories bubbles up from the story itself in later drafts. No matter what we write, the process of writing is an exploration into ourselves, our own personal themes.

Either way the theme comes to you, the themes we write about most often originate from our own personal past -- at least for the first several stories this is true. Our own belief system and the themes we live our lives by pop up in our stories when we least expect them. Unless, that is, we are aware of the themes we live by and are on the lookout for them.

Make a list of the themes you find that seem to consistently come up in your writing.

Next post, I'll discuss how to take that list and shape those themes ideas into a Thematic Significance statement for your project.

08 September 2009

Theme and Plot

I just finished reading The Geography of Bliss; One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner. Yes, it's a non-fiction book but because it borders on a memoir thus makes an interesting study for a compulsive plot consultant such as myself.

Selected as One of the Best Books of the Year by the Washington Post Book World, The Geography of Bliss is called a travelogue by the Atlantic Journal-Constitution, travel tales by Publishers Weekly (in a starred review). 

However, most of the other reviews label the book as an odyssey ("...a very funny odyssey" by New York Newsday), a journey, a quest -- all of  which sound suspiciously like the hero's journey to me. Only Kirkus Reviews got it right in my mind: "part travelogue, part personal-discovery memoir".

Yes, the book is a humorous read and, for one who rarely travels, a wonderful way to learn about other countries of the world, but what drove me deeper and deeper into the story was the main character -- Eric himself. No surprise there. That's what pulls us deeper and deeper into every great story --the character. 

As in every great story, the character opens up about himself superficially in the Beginning (1/4). 

On page 93 (the Universal Story form 1/4 mark -- the End of the Beginning), he writes that a "crack forms in [my] armor. A crack large enough, if you're lucky, to let in a few shafts of light." We know at that point that something inside him has shifted. He has left the old world behind and has truly entered the exotic, unusual world of the Middle. 

By the middle of the Middle we understand him more deeply and in that understanding truly care about him and his journey toward "personal-discovery."

The book is all about happiness -- what it is, where it is found, who is happiest, etc...

Thematically, the path is clear. Character Emotional Development-wise, we understand the inherent conflict in this story = the main character, the author, is a self-described mope looking for happiness. Perfect!

The theme of most memoirs and fiction and screenplays is not as clear-cut. However, the theme often comes from the author him or herself. Which makes exploring our own themes a worthy endeavor. Look for exercises to help you get closer to the themes you live your life by in my next post. 

03 September 2009

How Much Plot is Too Much Plot?

I know the entire story. I'm just not sure how much to tell.

Tell only the parts that show more about: 

1) the character emotional development -- this info should come in stages, revealing deeper and deeper layers, the deeper and deeper the reader reads
2) the theme -- as the plot advances, the thematic significance of the story deepens
3) the dramatic action -- action becomes dramatic when filled with conflict, tension, suspense, and / or curiosity -- the sense of threat is both internally and externally driven
4) the details that make up with world the characters live in -- use only authentic and specific details and go for as much symbolism as possible

Tell nothing more. Show nothing less.

24 August 2009

Meaning of the Crisis & Climax Cont.

Continued from 8/22 blog post:

One of the most gratifying aspects of reading and going to the theater is the experience of living someone else's life (meaning to enter into the protagonist's skin) and surviving a Crisis. Stories give us the idea that we, too, can survive the dark night of the soul and know that moment when consciousness slays the ego. 

Suspense builds as we read or watch for what the character does next.

When we, in real life, get hit with a Crisis, we can either accept what is and move on OR we can return to unconsciousness, crippled by victimhood. 

In stories, the Crisis (the scene of most energetic intensity in the story so far) serves as a slap in the face, a wake-up call, the moment when the character becomes conscious of life's deeper meaning (thematic significance = look for more on this in the next blog post). 

Stories are about, at their core, their essence, character transformation. After the Crisis, in order for character transformation to occur, the character moves out of unconsciousness to a place of acceptance. 

The author decides whether the character will move from the Crisis to acceptance only, or whether she will move on into enjoyment and ultimately, if she sets a goal for herself, to enthusiasm. 

After the Crisis, the character is now consciously even more aware of all the sensory details around her, more alive, more alert. She is absolutely present in what she does. The reader senses the alert, alive stillness within the character in the background of the action. 

Her earlier goal -- outer purpose -- expands into something much bigger now that she is empowered by consciousness. This new strength, insight, power fills her with enjoyment in the next step towards transformation. Added to that enjoyment comes an intensity and creative power beyond her imagining.

Once the character is awakened -- thanks to the Crisis, -- she moves toward her outer goal and her enjoyment turns into enthusiasm. From this moment on, the story's energy field vibrates. Tension builds. Behind each step the character takes, the story grows in intensity and energy. 

The character is more involved in each step (moment-by-moment action) as she steadily moves toward her goal than she is at arriving to her goal. Stress falls away. Confident she will arrive at her goal, in the knowing, she savors each moment in aliveness, joy, and power.

"[The character] will feel like an arrow that is moving toward the target--and enjoying the journey." A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle.

The Climax is the "target" -- the moment when the character steps out of her ego and into pure alignment with the creative source. 

The Climax (the scene of highest energetic intensity much more so than that of the Crisis) is the place where the character is once again tested. In the Climax, the character is often confronted again by her greatest antagonist. Unlike earlier encounters, this time, however, the character is able to yield, walk around, embrace, or turn the opposing energy into a helpful one. Because of all the antagonists she has been confronted by and learned from along the way (the Middle = 1/2), at the Climax, the character is able to show us yet another way to live life in triumph. 

The reason the story can not continue for many pages moments or pages after the Climax is that when a goal is met the tension is gone. 

In the Resolution, the character surrenders to the return movement in a state of joy and the story ends. 

In a series, at the end of one story, the author promises a new wave of creative energy to come along with renewed enthusiasm.

(NOTE: I invite you to also consider the above elements of the Universal Story form as a template for your own individual writer's journey. In your knowing of the structure, you are able to bypass a Crisis yourself and rather, everyday write with a sense of consciousness more concerned with the next sentence than reaching the end, more concerned with sending out queries than attaining an agent, more concerned with your next story than reviews...)