Take What You Need

A little widget told me it’s been a year since my last post.

During that time, I’d been on a quest to work my way through Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days. It was more like 30 weeks. I didn’t finish that quest or continue to blog about it mostly because I realized I didn’t want to plan the crap out of my story.

And a first draft is really much more difficult than just writing an expanded outline. But I don’t have to tell you.

Unfortunately, I’m the type of person who believes that if I don’t write the way _______ writes, then I’ll never be a good writer. (I also believed everything my teachers told me because they were supposed to be the experts.)

So after finishing Wiesner’s book and realizing that wasn’t the process for me, I read Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (and it’s not as much a book written by him as it is a transcription of the writing classes he taught).

This book=polar opposite. His premise is that, to write literary fiction, you can’t write from your literal mind. You can’t logically, intellectually, consciously plot and plan. You must go into your writer’s trance and “dream” up your characters, scenes, and structure. You cannot write summary, generalization, or what teachers like to call “telling.” You must create yearning in your character and describe everything sensually, i.e. through the five senses. It is not okay to write something like, “As she walked into the party, she looked around and saw her ex-husband standing at the bar.” That is telling. There is no yearning or sensuality in that sentence. (Actually, you’re not even supposed to write, “She looked around.” Or, “She walked into the party,” for that matter.)

So for about six more months, I felt like crap because I couldn’t do what Butler was telling me to do–write first thing in the morning before doing anything else so I was closer to the dreamworld than the realworld, describe every scene sensually, stay away from summary and generalizations (there are some interesting chapters in which Butler deconstructs his students’ stories sentence by sentence to illustrate his point), and use an object to highlight this yearning which creates a metaphor which becomes a motif.

(Oh, and if you’re looking for him to tell you how to get into that writer’s trance, A.K.A. the flow, he doesn’t.)

Don’t get me wrong, there are many things I like about this book. For instance, visualizing your story, your scenes, your characters from a dreamlike state (even those you will eventually throw out) and how to write using film techniques like shots, close-ups, cuts. (This chapter, using a brilliant example from Hemingway, explains why you should never write, “She looked around.”)

But the thing that gives me the biggest niggle is that Butler chooses to distinguish “literary” writing from “entertainment” writing in a not very nice way. He even goes so far as to call Stephen King a “non-artist.” He does this because he thinks “entertainment” writers have an agenda before they even start to write (as in, King wants to scare you). Butler says, “These writers know the effects ahead of time and so they construct an object to produce them.” Real artists, A.K.A. literary writers, don’t know ahead of time what they’re writing because the characters, their yearning, their metaphors and motifs happen organically.

Are we to believe, then, that “literature” (as opposed to “commercial” writing) should not be entertaining? Is this why so many people hate English? But what’s the point of reading fiction if not to be entertained in some way? To escape where you are, who you are, what you think, what you feel at this moment. Writing “entertainment” fiction does not mean the author, or the reader, cannot also explore the human condition in some deep, meaningful way. It just means something actually happens in the story.

To sum up, I think it’s important to not follow just one author’s method or process of writing. Even if it’s Stephen King’s process. Read books and blogs, listen to podcasts, watch interviews and TED Talks by writers about writing to give you ideas, not force you into thinking there is only one right way to be a good writer.

And by all means, use your sixth sense. If your gut gives you a niggle that the advice isn’t right for you, trust it. Take what you need and leave the rest.

The End

The end, also known as the conclusion, resolution, falling action, or denouement, should be the shortest section of your story, so don’t worry if your outline looks a little skimpy. Indeed, you may only have a few scenes or only a few setting changes.

(We’ll discuss more on what exactly a scene consists of in a forthcoming post, but for now, think of a scene as taking place in one distinct setting like bedroom, boardroom, stock exchange floor, police interrogation room, hospital room.

Don’t confuse it with other distinct areas of a general setting. For instance, in a police station you might have several different settings such as Captain’s office, breakroom, interrogation room, holding cell, dispatch cubicle, detectives’ desk area, etc. Each time your protagonist [or POV character if writing in third person omniscient] moves into a new area of the police station, you can label it as a new scene.)

Basically, the end section of your story begins after your main conflict has been resolved. You’ll know when this happens because all the tension will have been released. You, along with the reader, are finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. In a mystery, this may be when the police finally arrest the criminal. Or when two lovers finally profess their feelings for each other in a romance novel. Or the ragtag crew of bandits overthrow the evil queen in a fantasy novel.

It’s a chance for you to tie up any loose ends in one or all of the subplots (though not all subplots have to be resolved) and a chance for your readers to view the aftereffects of the resolution. If your protagonist was fighting for the good of humanity, we will need to see how humanity reacts to the outcome of the conflict. Maybe the town is rebuilding after being devastated by the evil queen, or a community holds a candlelight vigil for lives lost during the battle. Maybe no one even notices that anything has changed (think government conspiracies that happen unbeknownst to the general public). But your characters know because they have changed during the process.

Use the end of the story to show us these aftereffects both physically and emotionally, but keep it brief. If you’ve outlined your story well, the ending will be both logical and satisfying without the need for lengthy explanations. If you find you do have too much to explain, you many need to rework your main plot or consider tying up various subplots earlier. All of your plots should not be resolved at the same time.

Many writers find it helpful to craft their ending scenes in such a way that their protagonist and important minor characters can congregate in one place to tie up loose ends. Settings that can bring everyone together could be at a wedding reception, birthday party or school dance, in a bar, a restaurant, the village commons–any place and/or event that seems logical not only for your story but for your characters as well.

So see? The end is not as complicated as you thought.

The following is my first pass at outlining the conclusion of my story. There are actually only two distinct settings: outside the school and inside the headmaster’s office, but I broke the scenes down into which characters were interacting with each other and which subplots were being resolved.

  1. Back on campus, Insp. Hunt drives True and Nils to the administration building. True’s mother is waiting for her and doesn’t look too proud that her daughter is getting hauled up in a police car.
  2. Inspector Hunt talks to the administrators alone. Bettina, Nils, Tucker on crutches, and Konstantine, hand in hand with Bettina, are all anxiously awaiting the plight of their friend.
  3. True and her mother meet with Headmaster Wickingham alone. The school feels that though True did break every rule, it was her tenacity that broke this case wide open. Though she would still be placed on disciplinary probation, they would like her to continue her studies at this school. If it’s ok with mom. Mom broke up with David because she didn’t want to lose her only daughter and her husband in the same year. She can stay.
  4. Outside everyone claps and cheers. True tells Hunt she knows he put a good word in for her. And she thanks him. Nils tells True she can write the kind of article about this experience using the first person if she still wants to. True says she’ll start on it right away just as soon as she and mother take a little time together. She asks Mr. Bartleby to pack their bags in the car and take them to the train station bound for London.
  5. Rumpleton brings up a basket with freshly baked goodies for True and her mother to eat on the train. She winks that there might be a nail file baked into the cinnamon apple braid bread.

You can’t do any worse than this, so take heart and plot on.

The End

A Word About Antagonists

No matter what you call them–antagonists, bad guys, villains, opponents–they always get a bad rap like 7th grade bullies.

Who's the real bully?
Who’s the real bully here?

It only seems natural that we think of antagonists as evil because they make it increasingly difficult for our main characters to reach their goals. And because we love our main characters and want to protect them and watch them succeed, we make sure we create antagonists our readers will hate.

But antagonists don’t have to be evil, and we shouldn’t always think of them so one-dimensionally.

Regardless of whether it is your protagonist or antagonist, all characters are motivated by something. All characters have a distinct and specific internal need that drives them, however subconsciously, toward their goals.

Antagonists are no different, though usually they are motivated by ignoble desires like greed, lust, power, and revenge. But if we truly look at what causes those characters to embrace their dark side, we’ll see some sort of tragic event in their backstory. Perhaps they were subjected to neglect or abuse, witnessed corruption or violence, were bullied or humiliated. Enslaved even.

We aren't born bad.
Antagonists aren’t born bad.

These are all events that could have happened to our main characters too. And in either case the internal need for each type of character is the same: the need to be protected or to protect, the need to be loved or to love, to be accepted, to be recognized, to face fear, to just be happy.

Unfortunately, while our protagonists take a more worthy approach to fulfilling these needs (saving the world, kittens, old people), our antagonists take a slightly different, selfish path to reach them.

So when dreaming up your antagonist, try to sketch him as a complex, multi-layered character and not just a vehicle to make your protagonist’s life hell. Ask yourself what he is motivated by and what need he is trying to fulfill. For instance, a teenager living in the ghetto whose father always told him he’d amount to nothing may choose to join a gang and prove he is worthy of his father’s respect. Not evil (though he may do evil things), just a bad choice in how he goes about proving it. Another kid with the same history may choose to further his education, become a lawyer (much more evil), and move away. The same need, a different, more moral (cough) response.

Which brings me to another bit of advice. There are two different reasons your antagonist and protagonist will clash.

First, your antagonist may want the exact same goal as your main character. For instance, two men fighting over the same girl (if only).

The same goal motivated by different reasons.
The same goal motivated by different reasons.

Obviously, they will both do things to stop the other from getting her. Your protagonist will choose more righteous actions while your antagonist will generally be a douchebag. Is the latter evil though? He may be, but he may also be your main character’s best friend. What makes it wrong for one man to fall in love with that girl and not wrong for the other? Both inherently need to feel loved, though one may be motivated by feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, or jealousy.

Secondly, your antagonist and protagonist’s goals may be mutually exclusive. That is, one may not want the other to reach it. For instance, the Nazis wanted the Ark of the Covenant for power. Indy didn’t want them to get it.

Now this is a villain.
Now this is a villain.

Did either achieve their goal? Technically, yes, but not in the way they had imagined. And that’s okay if the goal doesn’t turn out the way your characters think or want, if the ark ends up in some military warehouse where another power-hungry leader can get to it. At least your main character saved the day for now. Not for reasons of power or greed or lust. For humanity.

And that, my friends, is my humble opinion on the difference between protagonists and antagonists. It’s not that their needs or goals are necessarily different; it’s that the antagonist, growing up jaded and cynical, is motivated by selfish reasons and makes bad choices.

In the Middle of Things

If you’ve been diligently working on your timeline or outline, you’ve probably noticed the middle (and longest) section of your story is a little sparse. Lots of writers panic when it comes to the middle because they automatically think they’ll never be able to come up with enough interesting stuff to happen. Lies! Stuff happens all the time!

If you understand what the function of the middle is, you will have no problem torturing your characters.

Think of the middle of your story as one of those really bad days when everything seems to go wrong.

Your external goal is to get that promotion at work. And in order to do that, you have to nail a presentation to a bunch of Japanese business men. Great! We’ve already established your goal in the beginning of your story, which probably took place the day or night before when we first met you and your cat family.

Your cat family
Your cat family

Here’s where the middle starts:

You oversleep, wake up in a panic, jump out of bed and land in a pile of cat puke. “Damn, cats!”

You fling the bezoar off the bottom of your foot and hop into the kitchen where you start the coffee maker before hitting the shower.

Someone in another apartment flushes her toilet and your water turns scalding. Curses abound.

While pouring your coffee, you drop the pot, breaking it and spilling more scalding liquid all over your power suit.

You’re cranky because you don’t have time to stop for Starbucks and losing self-confidence because you have to wear a different outfit.

Power Outfit
Power Outfit

Of course there’s a traffic jam. Some idiot got in an accident. You’d go around but cars are blocking you in. The only thing you can do is lay on the horn and scream obscenties.

Phew! You finally get to work (late) but still in plenty of time to make the presentation. After grabbing a cup of sludge in the breakroom, you head into the conference room to set up before the others arrive.

Fire up the computer, take a deep breath, access the file.

The presentation you worked so hard on and stayed up all night perfecting is gone. Hard drives, soft drives, thumb drives; it’s nowhere to be found. Your blood pressure rises, you start hyperventilating, and the thoughts in your brain start to swirl. You look for it again. You try another way. You go through a back door. Fuck! you scream silently.

You sweat, you feel weak, you sink into the chair and ask yourself how you’re going to tell your boss you screwed up.

And then you remind yourself that even though the promotion is out of the question, you still need a job or your cats will go hungry.

Hmm, less food means less barfing…

No, that’s just cruel.

And then you start drawing from memory your diagrams, graphs, and charts on the whiteboard. And you give the worst presentation of your life.

Okay, so that’s the end of the middle of your story. Easy peasy.

If you look closely a each of the scenes or events in my outline, I started with small events that are easily overcome:

Oversleeping, stepping in barf, scalding shower, coffee break (literally).

They start small; annoying, but you can move past them. You don’t really have a choice.

To increase tension, I added some conflicts that are outside of your control or that you can’t readily get around:

Traffic jam; sorry, you’re stuck there, so deal with it.

You're stuck in it
Did I mention it was raining?

Presentation file gone. There is nothing you can do to retrieve it except drive all the way back home, and that is so not going to happen.

You hit rock bottom, your lowest moment. You want to give up. You failed. You will never reach your goal. Everything you’ve worked for up to this point has been for nothing.

Why am I such a loser?
Why am I such a loser?

But you don’t give up because your cats depend on you. Because you’re not a quitter and neither is your main character. He has to see it through to the end, regardless of obtaining that goal. It’s a matter of fulfilling something bigger. And that something bigger is your internal need. What do you need to make yourself truly happy, fulfilled? Seeing a tough situation through to the end, the sense of accomplishment you get when you try no matter what, the increased self-confidence that you can go out there and face those Japanese business men without a shred of technology. Your dignity. Your courage in the face of adversity. A sense of humbleness and humility. Whatever it may be, you have achieved it because you did your best in a losing situation.

To recap in the middle of things: an event or conflict happens that tries to thwart your main character from reaching his goal (coffee spills all over his power outfit). He reacts to the conflict (spends a few seconds cursing) then devises a new plan (changes from his power outfit into one that makes him less confident but is still going to make the presentation anyway).

Repeat this sequence as many times as you want, increasing the difficulty level with each new conflict thereby increasing the tension (will he make it to work on time? will he be able to pull off the presentation without his file? will he get the promotion? will he get fired?), really making it difficult for your protagonist to reach that goal. Because after all it’s not really the goal that matters, it’s what he learns about himself through overcoming obstacles, what he gains internally, that is the real prize. Business-Hero

You know that quote about, “God only gives us as much as we can handle?” Well, you’re God and it’s your job to bring your character to that breaking point and then make him try one last time. Insert your climax here.

So as you work through your timeline/outline for the first time, don’t worry too much about not having enough conflicts. Just aim for a few events, keeping in mind what it will take to bring your protagonist to almost quit and how you want your climax to play out. How does your character react to those conflicts? What new tactics will your character use to get through all those barriers?

And remember, this is just one of many passes you and I will take as we continue to outline our stories.

Next time we’ll visit The End.

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.