In the Beginning

Chances are, if you’ve come up with a story idea, you’ve probably got a few opening scenes, the climax, and maybe a handful of random ideas or bits or dialogue you have no idea where to put on your outline.

Fantastic! Because writing isn’t math (thank god) and a story isn’t a formula. You don’t have to start at the beginning of a problem and work your way through the equation, following hard and fast rules, until you come to a finite solution. You can start anywhere along your timeline and work forward or backward through your scenes until you’re satisfied. And you can do this over and over again, Substituting, Taking Out, Adding, and Rearranging, until the story is exactly the way you want it.

So where do you begin?  First, categorize the scenes you do have (I’ll call these scenes “guideposts”) into one of the following categories: beginning, middle, end. That was a stumper, I know. This is best achieved using the index card method where you actually lay your scene cards out on the floor, a desk, a table, or a bed in three separate groupings. This gives you a visual representation of your story and the ability to physically manipulate the scenes as you try out new ideas. (You may even choose to talk to yourself while you do it, and I hope you do.)

So here’s a guide as to what scenes you might categorize as the beginning.

The Beginning:

Generally, you’ll want scenes that introduce your main characters and give your readers an idea of who your protagonist is before anything interesting happens. Take yourself right now.

  • Who are you? How would you describe your personality and then what actions do you take that show it? If you’re an emotional person, you might cry during commercials with animals in them (think Budweiser ads during the Super Bowl). If you are a fitness enthusiast, you might be slogging it out at the gym or measuring cups of spinach for your salad.
  • What is your daily routine? How do you feel about it? If you’re miserable in your job, show us. If you’re a self-centered diva, maybe you boss people around and freak out over brown M&Ms.
  • Who are the important people in your life? Do you talk to your mother on the phone every night? Do you go out drinking with the guys after a hard day at the construction site? Do you run ragged trying to get your kids fed and bathed and put to bed at a decent hour.

You’ll also want something interesting to happen that will change your main character’s life forever. This is called an inciting incident. This will be the first major event in your story, and it will accomplish a number of things.

  • Define what genre you are writing. Is the major event a murder (mystery), a chance meeting with a stranger (romance), a letter of admission to a school for wizards (fantasy), etc.
  • It will provide an external goal for your main character to try to reach despite a lot of trials and tribulations.
  • It will in some way fulfill your main character’s internal need. What does your main character need more than anything to be happy? If you answered with items like more money, a better job, a fresh start, a spot in the dance company, you are actually talking about an external goal. Like the word says, anything outside of your character’s body is external. Ah, but you might say an athlete pushes his own body in order to win a specific race. Well, winning the race is the external goal, but why does he have to win it so badly? Because his internal need is not just to win but to be recognized, appreciated, admired, etc. (Funny how all these things originate within the core.) Perhaps your main character felt his father never loved him, so he tries to prove to himself over and over again through winning race after race that he is worthy of being loved. See, the internal need always stems from some deep self-need that has gone unfulfilled. Until now. The external goal is just the vehicle to help him achieve it. Some examples might be to learn compassion, to be loved, to be accepted/to accept, to be tolerant, to trust/be trusted. More often than not, your character won’t even know what he or she needs to be happy. That’s why he keeps pushing himself to win those races, working more hours to make more money, sleeping with every guy who looks her way.
  • The inciting incident will also come through a catalyst in one of three ways: a piece of information (a death, a pregnancy, a weather report), a situation (being electrocuted, being fired/getting a raise, witnessing a crime), or another character (a dame looking for her sister, a traveling lightning rod salesman, a bully).

This inciting incident will always be rejected by your main character. At first. Think Scully: your protagonist is skeptical. Or scared or lazy. Or even believe that she isn’t worthy of such a dangerous mission. This is your character’s main flaw. And figuring out this flaw will help you plot out the whole middle of your story because it will rear its ugly head over and over again, taunting your protagonist to quit every time it gets too hard. And it will get too hard.

Life for your main character may go on seemingly as usual; however, there’s always that little question of “what if?” going on in the back of his mind. What if I do take that job? What if there really is life on Mars? What if I do have the power to save the world and all my little hobbit friends?

Maybe he even has a conversation with some of his friends. Maybe they try to convince him to “go for it.” Or maybe they tell him he’s crazy. Either way, your protagonist’s life will be changed forever because he tried going after that goal or be changed forever because he didn’t.

Make sure he tries.

And last but not least, the end of the beginning section of your story will be a scene in which your protagonist takes that first step out of the shire, off the cliff, or onto another planet. She has accepted her fate, risen to the challenge, and taken action.

Now, check out the guidepost scenes you grouped in the beginning category. Where do they fall in the spectrum of the beginning scenes? Can you think of anything that needs to come before or after them? Write down a brief description of any scenes on new index cards and arrange them in an order you think works.

And remember, you don’t have to keep this order or these scenes. The idea is just to get something down to work with.

We’ll tackle what happens in the middle next time.

 

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Rosewood Lane: From a Writer’s Perspective

Kudos to creepy paperboy(s) for making this movie slightly unsettling, despite the paperboy looking like he’s about 19 and still riding a bike. A 12-year old would have been creepier.

Though as bad as Rosewood Lane, starring Rose McGowan, is, a writer can learn a lot about plot by using this storyline as an example of what not to do.

Here is my top 10 list:

10. Never play the “crazy” card, using it as an excuse to let your antagonist do whatever he wants. Even if your bad guy is paranoid, schizo, delusional, psychotic, or just a generic form of mentally ill, your antagonist will always have a motive for why he does the things he does. It may not be logical to sane people, but it at least has to be plausible to the audience. Your bad guy will encounter an inciting incident and have an external goal much like your main character. You should never use the excuse that “he’s crazy” to justify his actions.

9. Never write an animal into your story just to kill it off later. (Unless you’re Stephen King.) Having your antagonist kill an animal just to prove he’s evil is like beating a dead horse. The audience should know he’s evil long before he gets his hands on Fido or Fluffy especially if you’ve spent as much time creating your villain as you did your protagonist. Don’t fall victim to the trope. Instead, do something less cliché like getting Fido or Fluffy help your main character vanquish the villain.

8. On that note, never have your main character leave her pet outside or alone in the house when she knows there’s a psycho murderer on the loose. And certainly don’t leave it outside if the murderer has a history of killing animals. It’s completely irresponsible of your main character, and your audience will hate her and you for it.

7. Never place a weapon into your plot just because you think it’s cool. I mean, what lawyer for the District Attorney’s Office lets off steam by shooting a crossbow? And don’t let said lawyer leave the weapon lying around in the basement with a psycho murderer on the loose who has already broken into the basement. While it is true that if you introduce a gun in the first chapter, you need to make sure someone uses it, you should also make sure your weapon du jour has a credible reason for being used. Police detective>Gun; Hunter>Crossbow; Ex Special Forces soldier>sniper rifle; Lawyer>Crossbow=NO! Baseball bat, maybe. Wusthof Cook’s Knife, more likely.

6. Never mention bits of backstory without explaining the significance of it. For instance, if your creepy paperboy spouts off nursery rhymes and your protagonist mentions off-handedly that he must have heard one of her radio shows on nursery rhymes, then please explain what this show was about and what the correlation between nursery rhymes and abuse victims and/or psycho paperboys is. Because if we don’t know, we won’t be able to understand your psycho paperboy’s motive (See #10.)

5. Never introduce subplots you have no intention of following up on. If your protagonist has a conversation with another character about having been in therapy before, make sure the audience knows exactly why she was in therapy and how her actions now seem to warrant more sessions. I mean, I don’t think Googling the paperboy’s address to talk to his parents after he’s broken into your main character’s house, stalked her on his bike, rearranged her porcelain knickknacks, and tried to kill her boyfriend is unjustified or abnormal behavior needing counseling.

4. For that matter, never write a story without at least two-to-three subplots as they provide the audience relief from all the tension of the main conflict. Many subplots include elements of humor, romance, and every day nuisances to allow the reader to catch her breath until the next big upheaval happens. It is often these subplots that show the depth and complexity of your characters because they are not just reacting on adrenaline.

3. Never introduce a supernatural element into your story then explain it away in the resolution. Yes, this may be construed as a plot twist, but it is also misleading. Your reader wants to know what kind of story she is reading and will allow herself to invest in this world as long as the author delivers. If you have not provided any clues that the other-worldly, adopted paperboy with the reptilian eyes who can be in two places at once is really just one kid in a set of triplets, your reader will feel duped and cheated.

2. Never write a resolution that fails to tie up major events. That’s the whole point of a resolution–for the audience to see the widespread effects of the main plot and most subplots. What happened to the lawyer boyfriend who was buried alive somewhere? Your main character just spent two hours trying to find him, digging through piles of dirt in her backyard to no avail, so it must be time for a bath, and we must never mention his fate again.

And my #1 thing to never do in your story is:

1. Never ever have your pscyho paperboy shoot your main character in the back with a crossbow then rip out the arrow as she runs to her car (because how else is she going to sit in the seat) only to have her beat the crap out of him with a baseball bat one-handedly, get in the car, spend 30 seconds trying to start the car with her left hand because apparently she is now paralyzed on her right side, make a 3-point turn, slam her car into the paperboy who is now riding his bike straight into her, watch the bike fly over the car without the paperboy on it, then get out of the car to look around the street for his body. If you can’t find all the problems with this scene then I can’t help you.

There you have it. Ten things you should never do in your plot. Hope this helps.

Plot Happens

I know you’re scared, but there’s really nothing to fear. Plot happens every day. You’re living plot right now, albeit probably not as epically as you’d wish. You make plans, a goal, or a to-do list for the day; something happens to screw it up; you react emotionally; then you come up with a new or revised plan.

That’s plot. Over and over again. With each new conflict making it seemingly harder for you to accomplish your goal.

With each new conflict creating tension and raising the stakes because now you’re losing precious time to get through your list.

With each new conflict forcing you to find alternative and creative ways to make things go according to your plan.

The secrets of plot revealed.

And so for the next several days or weeks, you’ll be figuring out what your character’s goal is, throwing a wrench (or screwdriver) at it, showing us how the character reacts, then showing us how your character revises his old goal or comes up with a new way to reach it. Repeat this several times and by the end of your story, your main character will have grown as a person because, “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” (Friedrich Nietzsche).

Here’s another analogy: Plot is like planning a vacation.

You probably have some idea of where you want to go and some idea of things you’d like to see and do, but you don’t know how to get there or where you’ll stay until you start figuring out your itinerary. Plot is the writer’s version of an itinerary. And these are a few suggestions of how I came up with my itinerary.

The first thing I did to plot out my story was make a timeline. first timeline

I used bright pink stickys (the top row) to plot out the actual timeline of important events in the Jack the Ripper murders. Beneath that, I used orange stickys to map out the major scenes of my storyline in the corresponding order. I used stickys because I like having the ability to move things around, step back, and see how everything plays out.

Plus, as any teacher knows, writing on a blackboard (or a reasonable facsimile) uses different neural pathways (which is why teachers make more spelling and grammatical errors when writing on one than on paper) and forces your brain to work more “creatively.” And who doesn’t want to be more creative?

From this timeline, I wrote a synopsis of each scene on a half-sheet of paper (some writers use index cards but I’m cheap and used old notebooks) and arranged them in oder on my bed (you may wish to use a table or the floor). Again, I like having the flexibility of moving scenes and sequences around while being able to see how logically the whole story unfolds. This took several hours, but with each new pass at my plot, I came up with new scenes and subplots to fill out the outline.

second timeline

After a generous amount of time working on my scene “cards,” I moved back to my wall timeline with a fresh sheet of paper (I cut sheets of paper stores use to wrap breakables and taped them to my wall). Keeping the original Jack the Ripper stickys up for reference, I plotted my corresponding murders with the orange stickys.

Next, I wrote a brief sentence or two (or three or four) summarizing each scene. I even used different colored markers for each plot and subplot thread as an easy visual guide to make sure I wasn’t leaving any one thread for too long. My color system is basically purple for the main plot, pink for romance (I know), green for family relationship problems, turquoise for suspect scenes, dark blue for journalism themes, orange for scenes that hide clues as to the killer’s identity, and magenta for school conflicts. Yours will depend on what genre you’re writing and what threads you think are most important.

One other outline tool that I use from my studies in screenwriting is a beat sheet. This is basically a numbered list of scenes, each described in only a few sentences. I revised mine two or three times while working on the wall timelines.

The best thing about the beat sheet is that it’s portable. You can bring it to Starbucks and not have people looking at you funny when you spread out a 3-foot long roll of paper with a bunch of colored writing on it. (Although I think I’m going to try it someday just to see how people react.) beat sheet

 

So these first couple of passes at the outline were just to get my scenes down in a somewhat logical order and fill in as many gaps as I could. The wall timeline nor the beat sheet are the final version of my plot. There is more work to be done, and I’ll have more suggestions/tools for you too.

For now, work on writing out your ideas/scenes in whichever format feels comfortable or try different ones. Keep those neural pathways working.

Next time, we’ll go more in depth about plot points, scene structure, and how to fill out your beginning, middle, and end.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; Who Knew?

Like many Americans, I don’t know squat about U.S. history despite having been subjected to it year after year after year. I know even less about Abraham Lincoln except that he was the 16th president (I think), he had something to do with ending the Civil War, and he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre.

I was even more skeptical of how one could possibly pull off a story about a giant, gangly, top hat-wearing lawyer who kills vampires in his spare time. I mean, there’s only one slayer in all the world, and it’s not Van Helsing.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

To my surprise, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a really good movie! Like most action adventure stories, Abe: VH executes the elements of storytelling well. He’s got a backstory (best friend taken into slavery, Mom infected by vampires and killed), he’s got an external goal (revenge), he’s got an internal need (to believe in himself), and he even has a mentor to show him the ropes (Henry Sturges). There’s conflict, twists, and turns, and awesome fight scenes. And I for one am glad they did not turn this movie into some kind of campy slasher film–that would be a disgrace to the seriousness of the slavery and Underground Railroad subplots.

But the thing that pulls this story together is the way in which historical people and facts are woven into the tale. It amazes me how much research must have gone in to writing the novel and screenplay. For instance, Lincoln’s boyhood friend, William Johnson, was real, as was Joshua Speed. I know it came out with horrible reviews, but critics spend their time looking for faults and only focus on them. Just ask Edgar Allan Poe.

So what can we learn from this? No matter what kind of story you are writing, you will inevitably have to do research. And while not all of us are writing historical fiction or some kind of weird hybrid genre, historical (or otherwise) accuracy of details is what lends all stories their credibility. Yes, even fiction needs to be credible, and actually more so than reality.

For those of you who have been following my posts on First Draft in 30 Days, the Karen S. Wiesner method, the next step of the journey is research. This doesn’t mean that you have to spend a week looking stuff up, but it should mean that you keep a running list of things you will eventually need to know to make your story credible. Research may span any number of story elements, including character, setting, and plot and, as you start looking for information, you’ll find that you come up with a whole bunch of new ideas for your story and may even find your story takes off in a direction you hadn’t expected. That is the beauty of knowledge; knowledge is power and, in this case, it also inspires creativity.

Throughout your writing process, keep a running tab of information or details you need to research. You may also want to list the chapter or page number at which you will need to include this information. My list is usually kept on any number of scrap papers that I’m working on at the moment and looks like this:

General research list
General research list

 

 

 

 

This is not exhaustive by any means, and it doesn’t even mean that as things progress and I learn more about certain details that all of these items will need to be researched. This general list is just a tool to get you to start thinking about what you don’t know yet.

Another element of research is the interview. In this case, you should write up a list of questions you will need to ask but also include relevant information from your story in case the interviewee needs more specific information. For instance, if you’re interviewing a police officer on procedure or laws, you may need to know all the extenuating circumstances of your story to get the most accurate information (how old the suspect is, what kind of weapon was involved, if any, if the suspect has prior charges, etc.).

Interview Questions
Interview Questions

At this stage in the writing process, though, don’t worry about doing all your research at once. Many writers get so caught up in the research process that they lose their original vision, or worse, they lose their interest in writing altogether.

For now, keep a general list until you finish your preliminary outline (and keep adding to it throughout the process) then you will have a better idea of what you actually need to spend your time trying to figure out. You may also want to keep a list of specific questions that will need to be answered to inform your characters, setting, or plots. And remember, not everything you find out about a specific topic will be used directly in your story but it will all help your story grow organically. Again, this is just about figuring out what you don’t know yet but may need to.

Setting the Scene

By now you’ve probably done extensive work on most, if not all, of your story’s characters. And even if you haven’t filled in every section of whatever character sketch template you decided to use, that’s okay. You can, and should, continue to work on character as ideas come. This may mean adding new information you hadn’t thought of before as other elements of your story, such as plot and setting, come together, or it may mean deleting certain ideas that no longer seem valid. Just last night I finished a character sketch for a pivotal character, the red herring, that I hadn’t been able to work on before without some research on setting.

Here’s what I mean: I decided my red herring, tentatively named Andrey/Sergey/Yuriy, would work in the meat-packing district in the East End of London. I didn’t know if there was a meat-packing district there, so I had to do some research on setting. Come to find out, the closest thing to one is the Smithfield Market where a variety of butchers sell their goods.

This couldn’t be more perfect because, in the 1888 Whitechapel Murders, there had been a suspect named “Leather Apron” and a theory that the killer could have been a butcher because of the way the victims’ organs had been removed.

So now that Andrey/Sergey/Yuriy works for one of the butcheries, his job might take him to the English countryside where the farms are and could place him in the village during the time of the murders. Without knowing this information on setting, I would never have been able to link my character to both the story I am creating and the original historical event I am using for inspiration.

In fact, every element of storytelling will inform others and generate new ideas you hadn’t been able to conceive before. Let this process happen naturally. Nothing creative can be set in stone.

Coincidentally, the second phase of Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days process is setting.

Setting is not just time and place. It encompasses landscape, climate, political/religious/social milieu, clothing style, language, food choices, employment opportunities, architecture, cultural values, behavioural norms, laws and the justice system, education, and most of all–secrets. You get the picture!

Unless you’re concocting a fantasy world where you are in complete control of all these categories, or you’re basing your story on a setting where you have spent significant time, like your childhood hometown, you’ll probably have to do some research. Obviously, taking a trip to desired setting will give you firsthand information, including atmosphere (mood), textures, smells, sounds, etc., but if that’s not possible you may have to resort to books, magazines, maps, travel guides, and Internet searches. Even better if you know someone who has been to your desired setting. Don’t hesitate to ask them questions and ask for any photos they may have. This will help create at least some authenticity. No one wants to read a story that takes place where s/he lives and find blatant errors like setting a ghetto housing project on St. Germaine Street when in reality it’s the swankiest neighborhood in the city.

My favorite way to research setting is through images. I am a visual learner and have files of images on settings for all my story ideas. From those images, I can make general assumptions about what things feel like, sound like, smell like based on similar places I’ve been. Here are some of the images I’ve collected for this project.

East End Pub
East End Pub
North Yorkshire moors 
Dorm room windows
Dorm room windows
Architecture
Architecture
Quaint village street
Quaint village street

 

 

 

 

School Dining Room
School Dining Room
Village alley
Village alley
Dartmoor National Park
Dartmoor National Park
Whitechapel 1888
Whitechapel 1888
Drive to campus
Drive to campus

 

 

 

 

 

It also helps to read other books that take place in your desired setting as long as the author is credible. Think James Joyce writing about Dublin. And then there is National Geographic, Rick Steves’ travelogues, B&N discount book section in which I’ve found no less than 10 huge coffee table books on the history of ancient Egypt, newspaper articles, etc. Reading as much non-fiction about your desired setting can give you valuable information that just may play a role in your story. And even if it doesn’t, whoever said knowledge was a waste of time?

Some categories to include in your general setting sketch are Time (Day, Year, Season, etc.), Location (City, State, Country, Region, etc.), and Language (Dialect, Vernacular). Other categories to consider depending on the genre of story you’re writing are Dominant Religion and Attitude, Cultural Customs, Political Climate/Government, and Dominant Social Class and Attitudes.

Now that you’ve got a feel and description for your general setting, it’s time to work on specific settings your characters will inhabit, such as their homes, places of business, schools, restaurants/bars, cars, etc. This should require little effort if you’ve done some research on your general setting. For example, you wouldn’t describe your protagonist’s home as being American Colonial style if he lives in southern California; however, you might describe it as being in Mediterranean or Spanish style. Likewise, you probably wouldn’t see too many convertibles in Alaska in winter but might see a lot of 4WD vehicles with plows on them.

Depending on what point of view you’re writing from (whether first-person, third-person omniscient, or multiple third-person limited), you’ll want to create a list of each specific settings your character(s) will inhabit during the course of your story. For instance, I am writing from a first-person POV, so my list will only include settings my protagonist will inhabit: private school grounds/quad, dorm room, common room, dining room, school newspaper office, classroom, village streets, village pub, moorland path, police station, and killer’s lair. I’m using some of the images above as inspiration only.

My protagonist’s roommate’s style is Bohemian gypsy/eclectic packrat, and I used the image below as inspiration for her dorm room decor.

Bettina's style
Bettina’s style

Then wrote this description:

It was like walking into a bohemian palace. Every wall covered in textured fabrics, woven throw rugs scattered on the hardwood floor, and Bettina’s bed enshrouded in what looked like a canopy of colored mosquito netting. In the fireplace, a lighted candelabra blazed and dripped wax on the hearth inches away from a pile of overstuffed pillows.

So this week, channel your inner fashion designer/set decorator, gather as many images as you can, and write sketches of what each specific setting might look like. You can write either brief notes to yourself and worry about the exact wording later, or you can write actual narrative as I did above and then copy/paste into your draft. If you choose to do the latter, remember that your description may well indeed change from this brainstorming phase to the actual drafting phase, so it’s best not to marry yourself to anything yet. Just remember to go for descriptions of all five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch.

Setting is one of my absolute favorite things to research and write about because a few well-placed descriptions can conjure up any desired atmosphere and make your reader feel whatever you want. For instance, the setting above not only reflects the character who resides there, it becomes a magical, fantastical place where the characters can escape from the harsh reality of young murdered homeless, drug-addled women and where legends of jackals are learned. Here, it’s okay to think outside the box. In a sterile police station, it would be a different story.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my next blog on plot!