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.