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.