Posts Tagged plotting

Write About Inner Demons Without Boring the Reader into a Coma

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One of the toughest concepts to grasp in writing fiction is this notion of “inner demons.” In all my years working with writers and busting apart countless manuscripts, the single greatest weakness I’ve witnessed with writers is a failure to truly understand how to plot. And before anyone breaks out in hives that I am encouraging detailed outlines, I’m not.

But the problem with inner demons is they are…well…inner. This means that our job as writers is to draw the demons out so they can be destroyed. It’s kind of like The Exorcist, though green puke and spinning heads is all your call.

You might laugh but if you have ever seen any movie involving an exorcism, what is the general progression?

The victim starts acting weird. Not herself. At first it might be written off as depression or lack of sleep or not enough caffeine. Then as the demon gains a toehold, the outward symptoms become more pronounced. Maybe physical changes (growling voice, speaking in Latin). Priests intervene and stuff gets cray-cray but to defeat the demon, what has to happen?

The demon must give its NAME.

You know you watch far too many horror movies when you are no longer scared, but are yelling critique.

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But the point of this I want to make clear is that the one thing these exorcism stories pretty much all have in common is the demon must be NAMED and manifest OUTWARDLY to be defeated.

Same in fiction.

Inner demons are tricky for a number of reasons we will talk about today. The trick is finding the plot problem that will drive the demon to the surface so it can be defeated.

Inner Demons are Inner

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Yeah, I already mentioned that but this is kind of a big deal. Many new writers begin the novel with a character doing a lot of internalization and thinking and thinking and more thinking.

This is problematic for a number of reasons but the biggest is we (readers) just don’t care. We haven’t spent enough time to be vested in a stranger’s emotional baggage.

Do any of us like spending time in person with folks who do nothing but talk about their character flaws and problems? NO. So we are unlikely to want to pay to endure this too much in a book. Can we get there eventually? Sure.

Just like dating. I would hope by the time we dated someone a couple months we might know they haven’t talked to their father in three years and we would care about this problem. In the first fifteen minutes of a first date?

*backs away slowly* *slips barista a $20 to create a distraction to cover ex-fil*

Demons Hide in the Blind Spot

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One key thing to remember about demons is they hide really really well. If they didn’t then shrinks would starve and be treated like writers.

Wow, you’re a psychotherapist? Really? What’s your “real” job? Seriously, people PAY you to listen to their problems?

This is another reason we don’t begin with a protagonist thinking about her inner demons. Odds are, she is oblivious they are even there. She isn’t yet that self-actualized.

Denial is more than a river in Africa😉 . In fact, the stronger the denial, the better the story (or if you’re a therapist, the better the $$$$$). This is why your protagonist, if pitted against the antagonist in Act One should lose. He/She has not grown enough in order to defeat the core story problem.

Plot is What Exorcises the Demons

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The plot is the crucible that will fire this demon to the surface so the character can then defeat it. This is why understanding plotting becomes so vital. A great plot problem is going to sprout directly from that inner demon. Why?

Because fiction is the path of greatest resistance. What good is a plot problem unless it pits the character against her deepest flaw and weakness?

Some weaknesses might be fairly obvious—grief, betrayal or addiction. The problem, however, is no one wants to read 300+ pages of someone whining about a loss or a compulsion. We would probably want to smother such a person to get her to shut up.

Whining is not a plot.

Also remember that there is a reason for the grief, feeling of betrayal or addiction and THAT is the real inner demon that must show its head. There must be an outside challenge that forces the character to eventually choose to remain the same or to evolve (Act III).

You gonna keep hiding in a bottle? Or are you gonna face/defeat WHY you drink so you can walk your daughter down the aisle?

Not all inner demons are as obvious, though. The tricky demons look a hell of a lot like our greatest strengths, because…..um, they are.

Remember that every character strength has a corresponding weakness.

These inner demons are a real bugger to spot because they serve the character really well (or at least the character believes they do). In fact, this inner demon might be the very reason the character has always been successful…until you Evil Author Overlord hand her a problem where the old tools no longer work.

New level, new devil, baby😉 .

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For instance, maybe your protagonist has a heart of gold. She is always there to help a friend, lend an ear, or fix a problem. Helping is the core of her identity.

But what happens when she wants to open a new cupcake bakery but then realizes she is spending too much time helping people who really don’t want to help themselves?

The plot forces her to recognize she sucks at putting down boundaries. She might even realize that she wasn’t helping after all…she was enabling or even controlling. She might come to finally see that the dark side of her helping. Deep down she doesn’t trust and so she always has to keep the ledger balanced in her favor. Or she could really believe she doesn’t deserve to be successful and helping others is a way of avoiding risk of failure.

Well, as soon as I get my brother sobered up, THEN I can focus on the cupcakes.

When the outside challenge—opening a cupcake bakery—reveals the BS of her core identity, what will she DO? See, before she had a dream of a cupcake bakery, she could be there for everyone and every problem. The plot problem, however, drives the demon to the surface and shows its real face.

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Notice how the problem (outside goal) helps this become a story, not just 300 pages of tedious navel gazing and infighting. Without the goal, there is no real way to see if our imaginary protagonist succeeds. Yet, add in a cupcake bakery and it is pretty easy to spot failure. If, in the end she is still nagging her brother to stop drinking and does not have a successful cupcake bakery?

She failed.

Every side trip to rescue others that stops her from realizing this dream makes us worry (dramatic tension).

In the end, all great stories involve inner demons (character arc). But even in literary fiction, the outside problem is what is going to make that inner demon manifest. So take time to really think about how your outside plot problem can make the protagonist squeal then make them suffer…a lot. It’s good for them😀 .

***NOTE: Pick up a Positive Trait Thesaurus for help finding your protagonist’s weak/blind spots.

What are your thoughts? Does this help you understand how to better make readers care about the internal struggles of your characters? Any questions? Suggestions? Additions? Recipes for holy water?

Remember I am holding the very first BATTLE OF THE PAGES and slots are filling up FAST! (Information below).

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

May’s winner will be announced next time😀 .

Upcoming Classes

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Again, I am trying something new and offering an open and interactive workshop. Is your first page strong enough to withstand the fire?

Battle of the First Pages

June 16th, 7-9 EST. Cost $25

This is an interactive experience similar to a gong show. We will upload the first page and I will “gong” when I would have stopped reading and explain why. We will explore what each writer has done right or even wrong or how the page could be better. This workshop is two hours long and limited seats available so get your spot as soon as you can!

So You Want to Write a Novel 

June 17th, 7-9 EST. Cost is $35

Just because we made As in high school or college English does not instantly qualify us to be great novelists. Writing a work that can span anywhere from 60,000 to 120,000+ words requires training. This class is for the person who is either considering writing a novel or who has written a novel(s) and is struggling.

We will cover the essentials of genre, plot, character, dialogue and prose. This class will provide you with the tools necessary to write lean and clean and keep revisions to a minimum.

Character & Plotting (NEW CLASS!)

June 24th, 2015 7:00-9:00 P.M. EST. Cost is $35

All great plots are birthed from character. The core plot problem should be the crucible that eventually reveals a hero in Act III. This means that characterization and plot are inextricably linked. Weak plot, weak character. Blasé character, blasé plot.

This class will teach you how to create dimensional characters and then how to plot from inner demons and flaws. Get inside the heads and hearts of your characters in a way that drives and tightens dramatic tension.

This is an excellent class for anyone who wants to learn how to plot faster and to add layers to their characters.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

 

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Trouble With Your Plot? Three Reasons to Kill Your Little Darlings

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Frederik Andreasson

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Frederik Andreasson

I love helping writers and one service I offer that’s been particularly valuable is plot consult. Writers who are struggling to finish or who start off with one idea after another only for that great idea to fall flat? They call me. Querying and getting nowhere? Again, contact me.

I’ve busted apart and repaired hundreds of plots. Thus far I’ve yet to meet a plot I couldn’t repair.

But, in my many years of doing this, I’ve seen enough troubled plots to note some common denominators for a failed story. One ingredient for plot disaster stands apart.

Little darlings.

As writers, we are at risk of falling in love with our own cleverness. The “cool” idea, the super amazing mind-blowing twist at the end. We get so caught up in how smart we are that we fail to see that we are our own worst enemy.

Yesterday, I spent three hours talking to a new writer who was simply stuck. No matter how he reworked his novel, it was just going nowhere. This is one of the reasons I like to get authors to be able to state what their book is about in ONE sentence. Paring away all the pretty prose makes little darlings easier to spot…so you can then terminate with extreme prejudice.

But, since this writer was 60, 000 words deep into his own woods? He needed my eyes.

Hey, sometimes it takes a Viking to raze a village…of little darlings😀

At first, I wanted him to explain his story to me…

Ten minutes later…

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Huh?

After listening to his idea, I pointed out the problem fairly quickly. He’d created what he believed was the world’s most interesting virus. Problem was, the only thing his virus killed was all the conflict in his story.

Because he was SO married to this clever virus, he’d built everything around it. The virus was a little darling and needed to go. Once we repaired THAT? The plot fell together effortlessly…and is pretty fantastic, btw. OUCH! I got a cramp patting myself on the back!

Seriously, once he got out of his own way? He had the story. It was there. I just helped him see it.

In fact, my biggest job consulting on plot is to pull the distraught writer off the body of the little darling and offer grief counseling and the assurance it was for the best.

What’s a Little Darling?

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Niki Sublime

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Niki Sublime

Almost any of us who decided one day to get serious about our writing, read Stephen King’s On Writing. Great book, if you haven’t read it. But one thing King tells us we writers must be willing to do, is that we must be willing to, “Kill the little darlings.”

Now, King was not the first to give this advice. He actually got the idea from Faulkner, but I guess we just took it more seriously when King said it…because now the darlings would die by a hatchet, be buried in a cursed Indian flash drive where they would come back as really bad novels.

…oops, I digress.

Little darlings are those favorite bits of prose, description, dialogue or even characters that really add nothing to the forward momentum or development of the plot. They can also look like “never before thought of ideas” and “wicked twist endings that put Shyamalan to shame.”

To be great writers, we must learn to look honestly at all little darlings. Why? Because they are usually masking critical flaws in the overall plot. Why are little darlings so dangerous?

Because th-they come back….but *shivers* they are…different.

Let me explain why it is important to let go. Here are three BIG reasons your little darlings need to die.

#1 We Risk Mistaking Melodrama for Drama

Drama is created when a writer has good characterization that meets with good conflict. The characters’ agendas, secrets and insecurities collide.

As my awesome friend and talented author/writing teacher Les Edgerton mentioned a while back in his lesson about dialogue, subtext is vital. It’s more than what’s said. This can only happen when 3-D characters meet with real baggage that gets in the way of solving a CORE STORY PROBLEM.

In the new book I’m working on, my bike officer Landri had a father who wanted a son. She never quite lived up to his expectations. The need for his approval, in part, propelled her to become a cop. When she is reckless and legitimately criticized by a fellow officer that she should have waited for help, she takes it personally. Why?

She doesn’t hear that another cop is genuinely concerned for her. She hears the old recording from her father that she isn’t enough.

Fiction is a lot like life (only way more interesting). In life, we sometimes strike out at others not because of what they did or didn’t do, rather we are punishing them for unhealed wounds from our past often inflicted by other people. If my protagonist is pushing away the one person there to help her, she is five steps back from solving the core plot problem that’s upended her life.

Conflict.

Since little darlings are often birthed from a flimsy plot, the writer is left to manufacture conflict (melodrama). This weakness often manifests in pointless fight scenes, chase scenes, flashbacks or hospital/funeral scenes.

Zzzzzzzzzz.

We are creating bad situations, not authentic dramatic tension.

#2 We Mistake Complexity for Conflict

Complexity is easily mistaken for conflict. I witness this pitfall in most new novels. I teach at a lot of conferences, and in between my sessions, I like to talk new and hopeful writers. I often ask them what their books are about and the conversation generally sounds a bit like this:

Me: What’s your book about?

Writer: Well, it is about a girl and she doesn’t know she has powers and she’s half fairy and she has to find out who she is. And there’s a guy and he’s a vampire and he’s actually the son of an arch-mage who slept with a sorceress who put a curse on their world. But she is in high school and there is this boy who she thinks she loves and…

Me: Huh? Okay. Who is the antagonist?

Writer: *blank stare*

Me: What is her goal?

Writer: Um. To find out who she is?

Me: *looks for closest bar*

Most new novels don’t have a singular core story problem. It is my opinion that new writers, deep down, know they’re missing the backbone to their story—A CORE STORY PROBLEM IN NEED OF RESOLUTION. Without a core story problem, conflict is impossible to generate, and the close counterfeit “melodrama” will slither in and take its place.

I believe when we are new writers, we sense our mistake on a subconscious level, and that is why our plots grow more and more and more complicated.

When we fail to have a core story problem, often we resort to trying to fix the structural issue with Bond-o putty and duct tape and then hoping no one will notice. How do I know this?

I used to own stock in Plot Bond-o😀.

“Complicated” is Not Conflict

We can create an interstellar conspiracy, birth an entirely new underground spy network, resurrect a dead sibling who in reality was sold off at birth, or even start the Second Civil War to cover up the space alien invasion…but it ain’t conflict. Interstellar war, guerilla attacks, or evil twins coming back to life can be the BACKDROP for conflict, but alone are not conflict.

And, yes, I learned this lesson the hard way. Most of us do. This is all part of the author learning curve, so don’t fret and just keep writing and learning.

Little darlings are often birthed from us getting too complicated. We frequently get too complicated when we are trying to BS our way through something we don’t understand and hope works itself out.

Um, it won’t.

Tried it. Just painted myself into a corner. But we add more players trying to hide our errors and then we risk falling so in love with our own cleverness—the subplots, the twist endings, the evil twin—that we can sabotage our entire story.

“Complicated” is the child of confusion, whereas “complexity” is the offspring of simplicity.

#3 We Fail to Spot/Correct Weaknesses

We fall so in love with our fun characters, our witty dialogue, our amazing inter-stellar conspiracy that we never finish. We can’t finish.

Since we aren’t being honest about why the book isn’t working, we aren’t doing the hard work that would make the story publishable and we end up playing Literary Barbies.

In the end, be truthful. Are your “flowers” part of a garden or covering a grave? We put our craftiest work into buttressing our errors, so I would highly recommend taking a critical look at the favorite parts of your manuscript and then get real honest about why they’re there. Make the hard decisions, then kill them dead and bury your pets little darlings for real.

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You’ve rewritten me 14 times. You think I’m going to leave without a fight? Hssssssss.

So what do you do with your little darlings? What’s been your experience? Do you have any tips, tools or tactics to help us dispose of the bodies? I really recommend taking my log-line class that’s coming up. I help you pare your story to ONE sentence and this is invaluable for spotting little darlings, honing your plot and you’ll need it for pitching later anyway. Or if you need a Viking to raze your village? E-mail me at kristen at wanaintl dot com.

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MARCH, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.

Before we go, I want to give you a heads up especially if you are thinking on attending a conference.

I’m holding my ever-popular Your Story in a Sentence class. Can you tell what your book is about in ONE sentence? If you can’t? There might be a huge plot problem. This also helps if you are ever going to query or pitch an agent. The first ten signups get their log-line shredded by MOI for FREE.

Also speaking of FREE, I’d like to mention again the new class I am offering!

How and WHY are we using FREE!?

Making Money with FREE! As a bonus for this class, my friend Jack Patterson who’s so far sold over 150,000 books to come and teach us how to ROCK the newsletter. This is in excess of two hours of training and the recording (as always) comes with purchase.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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54 Comments

How to Make EVERY Page of Your Story Interesting

Golden Goose

Image by DonkeyHotey/Flickr CC

Today I have another post from that kick@$$ writing teacher I’ve taken hostage *slides food through the slit in wall*.  Actually, Alex Limberg is a friend of mine and total rockstar and seriously, check out his free ebook about “44 Key Questions” to test your story; it will help you make your scenes tight and compelling and detect any story problem you might have. Today, Alex is showing us a very interesting recipe to keep every single part of your story interesting. Frees me up to continue working out my plan for global domination.

Take it away, Alex!

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Uh-oh! It’s showdown time.

In your heart-stopping thriller piece, Tinky the milkman has just found out who poisoned Lady Chatterbee’s canary. Now he is driving to the ash grove for the faceoff in the old mill.

Your scene before and your scene after are sweat-inducing, ear-wringing, eye-popping pieces that keep your audience glued to the page.

But this little scene in between, when Tinky is quietly sitting in his car, motor humming and wheels turning… well, there is just absolutely nothing happening.

It’s a little dull.

Sleep-inducing?

Face it. It would make a dog with rabies put on his pyjamas.

Let’s say you still want it in there. You need a connection piece, you want to slow down the pace a little to ramp it up more effectively later on. Maybe you even want to weave in a bit of backstory, so we better understand where Tinky is coming from.

But how can you do it in a way that doesn’t completely choke off any excitement in your reader?

How do you make a scene that is naturally not very exciting interesting in its own way?

This post will give you a practical roadmap for how to make the in-between sexy. Also, because I know long-winding and unmotivated story parts are often hard to detect for the writer himself, you can here download a free goodie to check your story for superfluous parts and any other imaginable weakness (it uses test questions).

This is how to keep your story fresh and exciting in every scene:

1. If You Can? Trash It

Your first choice should always be to get rid of any in-betweens that don’t advance your plot. To show your protagonist getting out of bed, showering and preparing her breakfast cereals would slow your story down ridiculously, destroy its rhythm and bore the boots off your readers.

There is a storytelling rule that says: “Get into the scene at the latest possible moment and out at the earliest possible moment.” You can observe this rule in meticulous action in screenplays and movies.

Filmmakers in particular can’t afford to bore their audience for even one second. With the ultra-short attention span of today’s YouTube culture, viewers will just cold-bloodedly move on.

Look! Emojis!

However, sometimes you will have your very own reasons to show an additional scene: You may want to show your character in a different light, display her personality or habits or slow down the rhythm on purpose. Maybe you want to give your reader a feeling for passage of time or show social surroundings, working space or landscape. There are a million possible motives.

So should you decide to hang on to your scene, here are a couple of helpful techniques to keep your audience hooked.

Garbage Can

2. Introduce Personality: Make It about Character

Instead of worrying how to fill those pages, see them as an awesome opportunity to breathe more life into your characters!

Look at it this way: In most scenes, your plot carries the burden to advance your story.

But now, in your little in-between scene, your character has a chance to fully take the stage and showcase a brand new side of herself. If the story is about her professional life, make that scene about her private life; if the story is about her bright side, make that scene about her dark side – or the other way around.

You might also use the scene to introduce new relationships we don’t know about yet. New relationships can give a deeper glimpse into your character’s personality and show her in a different light.

Each of us human beings is a complete drama on his own. We are also utterly entertaining in our own ways… Use your pages so your reader gets to know your characters better and your entire work will profit!

3. Introduce Action: Make It about Drama

Better yet, when you get several of us together, the drama is exponentiated. So you could involve several characters in your scene and use it for a mini-plot, a play within the play.

Your mini-plot doesn’t have to be connected to the main plot, nor does it have to be about some big and important theme. Depending on your genre, it could be everyday drama and as mundane as a girl forgetting her handbag on the bus.

The overarching plot plays from beginning to end of the entire novel. In turn, your mini-plot could play from beginning to end of the scene, with a similar structure; for example:

  1. Introduction
  2. Problem arises
  3. First attempt at solution
  4. New twist and problem even worsens; Climax
  5. Problem gets solved; Happy ending

If you want the complete ballad of the forgotten handbag, how about this: Girl cheerfully rides on a bus, thinking of happy days (introduction); while she is waiting for her connecting bus, she realizes she has forgotten her handbag (problem arises); she enters the first bus again, only to discover the bag isn’t there anymore (attempt at solution, problem worsens in climax); she asks the driver in desperation and learns that somebody has found the bag and taken it to a lost property office (problem solved); happily she goes to pick it up (happy end).

Of course, you can also let a character play through the whole sequence solely in his mind. For example, let him worry about horrible outcomes of the main plot. At that point, he won’t even have to interact with anybody to create drama; he doesn’t even have to move or to do anything. Just let a worst-case scenario play out in his head.

If you are bored, just make things more difficult for your characters: A nightly walk through the park is a lot more suspenseful if you are not sure if somebody is following you. If nothing else helps, you can always fall back on conflict to spice up your tale.

Make sure your mini-plot fits the kind of story you are telling and doesn’t overwhelm your main plot. A comedy with the mini-plot of a mad axe murderer can be done, but you have to make sure to hit the right note…

4. Introduce Questions: Make It about Suspense

Suspense is always about questions: Who is the murderer? Will Godzilla eat the city? What secret does Martin hide from Sharon?

Your readers will never get bored as long as there are nagging questions on their minds.

Question Garden

Image by Dennis Brekke/Flickr CC

In your in-between scene, you have two choices to raise a question.

Option one: You could spin a question of the overall plot further. For example, letting your character contemplate if Craig can even be the murderer, because he was on vacation the entire time; letting your readers know that Godzilla has just eaten another city block; hinting at that breathtaking secret of Martin’s.

Option two: Your mini-plot could create suspense by raising a question on its own. In the example above, it would be the question: Will the girl ever get her handbag back?

In the end, dealing with in-between sections is about giving your scenes a life of their own. This, of course, is something you should always do in any scene, so it’s excellent practice.

You are a storyteller, and if you want to be a really good one, know that not only the raisin parts of your story are worth telling. Any part of your story should be worth writing well and making it at least a little bit interesting.

And if you do take the effort to polish every part of your story, it will feel continuous and complete and shine on like a crazy diamond. Your story will engage your reader continuously, draw her in deeply and take her on a rollercoaster ride she will never be able to forget.

Photo, Alex Limberg

Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Check how tight your scenes are and much more with his free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.

***

Thanks, Alex!

Kristen here again.

Now let’s hear it from you: What do you usually do with a connection scene? What happens in your story if nothing happens? Do you sometimes let dull story parts slide? Do you proceed to tell people the cookiemonster ate your exciting version? Wouldn’t it be a lot easier if all of our scenes could be as dull as watching water condense?

Remember that comments for guests get double love from me for my contest!

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of FEBRUARY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

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44 Comments

Fueling the Muse—How to Mentally Prepare for “The Novel”

NaNoWriMo is kind of like Christmas for writers—suffering, drama, no sleep, heavy drinking and really bad eating habits. Also, we start talking about NaNoWriMo months before it actually happens.

If you are a new writer and don’t know what NaNoWriMo is? It stands for National Novel Writing Month and it is held for the duration of November. The goal is to write 50,000 words in a month.

In a nutshell, it gives a taste of what it is like to do this writing thing as a job, because for the professional writer? Every month is NaNoWriMo, so there is NO BETTER indoctrination into this business.

NaNo shapes us from hobbyists to pros, but we need to do some preparation if we want to be successful—finish 50,000 words and actually have something that can be revised into a real novel that others might part with money to read. Genre obviously will dictate the fuel required, but today we’ll explore my favorites.

Movies

I like watching movies to strengthen my plotting muscles. Unlike novels, screenplays have very strict structure rules. Also, it takes far less time to watch a movie than read a novel, so movies can be fantastic for practice (and also our goofing off can have a practical application😀 ) .

Study plot points. Sit with a notebook and see if you can write out each of these major points in one to three sentences.

Normal World

First of all, in recent years, Normal World has become considerably shorter. Actually, it began that way. In Oedipus Rex, the story begins with the kingdom in a real mess. There is a plague upon the land and somehow the king is at fault.

It wasn’t until centuries later that writers at large stopped trusting the audience and Normal World went on and on and on and we followed a character from birth and then about a hundred pages in? Something went amiss and we finally got to the PROBLEM.

I believe this phenomena also coincided with when writers started getting paid by the word…. *raises eyebrow*

These days? People (readers) DO NOT have that kind of patience. Normal World is often seriously condensed or even missing.

But back to the movie you are watching for practice…

If there IS a Normal World (even a brief one) can you detail it in a sentence or two?

What was the character’s life like before it was interrupted by the BBT’s (CORE ANTAGONIST’S) agenda? I will use two divergent examples—World War Z and Steel Magnolias— to make my point and hopefully not spoil the more recent of the two. As far as Steel Magnolias? Y’all have had since 1989 to see it. Tough😛.

In World War Z, we meet a guy making breakfast for his family. He’s hung up some mysterious “old bad@$$ life” in order to be with his wife and kids.

In Steel Magnolias, we meet M’Lynn taking care of all the little details of her daughter’s wedding. She’s a Hover-Mother who takes care of the broken glasses, finds the right shade of pink nail polish, and stops Dad from shooting birds out of the trees. She’s a fixer and she’s in control.

Inciting Incident

This is the first hint of the BBT’s (Big Boss Troublemaker’s) agenda, the first tangible place it intersects with the protagonist’s life and causes disruption. Can you spot it?

In World War Z, we know from watching the background TV noise when they are having breakfast that a mysterious illness has already broken out. BUT, the virus has not yet directly intersected with the protagonist. When does this happen?

Jack and his family are in the car. He and his wife are on their way to take the kids to school when all hell breaks loose. It’s the first glimpse the protagonist sees of the looming threat, but aside from escaping with his family, he’s made no vested decision to get involved.

In Steel Magnolias the Inciting Incident happens in the beauty shop when Shelby’s blood sugars drop dangerously low and she goes into convulsions. Mom tries to help and Shelby swats her away (a hint at her future defiance). This is the first time the audience has met the BBT (Death/Diabetes manifested in the proxy Shelby).

Turning Points

Look for the major turning points in the movie. According to one of my FAVORITE craft books (Story Engineering) in Act One, the protagonist is running. He or she doesn’t know where exactly the conflict is coming from or precisely what IT is. Act Two, the protagonist is a Warrior. He or she has glimpsed the face of the BBT and fights back.

For instance, in World War Z, Jack knows it’s a virus creating “zombies” and he decides to return to the old job and fight. He agrees to search for Patient Zero in hopes they can find a cure.

In Steel Magnolias, M’Lynn shifts from Running (Here’s your orange juice. Have you checked your blood sugar?) to Warrior. Her daughter defies her and decides to get pregnant even though it could (and will) cost her life. Momma puts on full battle gear, determined to “control” her daughter’s fate. Diabetes has shifted from looming “controllable” threat to a ticking time bomb Mom still believes she can defuse if she just tries hard enough.

Act Three, the protagonist shifts from Warrior to Hero.

Darkest Moment

This is right before the turning point to Act Three. This is where EVERYTHING is stripped away from the protagonist and it seems all is lost. The DM is the catalyst that shifts our protagonist from Warrior to Hero. Anyone else would give up the “fight” and go home, but not our protagonist.

In World War Z the protagonist is critically injured, he’s lost his family, outside help, and he’s faced with a crushing setback. There is no Patient Zero, at least no “clear” Patient Zero. It’s a dead end and it looks like time has just about run out for humankind.

In Steel Magnolias Shelby dies despite all of M’Lynn’s tireless efforts to control. She realizes she has no power. She never was in control and now she’s utterly lost.

Act Three/ Character Arc

How does the protagonist mentally shift over the course of the story? What was the critical flaw that would have held them back in the beginning, that would have made the protagonist “lose” if pitted against the BBT.

For Jack, he has to be willing to give up his family to save his family.

For M’Lynn, she has to admit she can’t control life or death in order to embrace the messiness of living.

How is the story problem resolved? 

Pay attention to the Big Boss Battle. How has the protagonist changed? What decisions do they make (or not make)?

What is the outcome? How is the world set “right”?

In World War Z, Jack’s sacrifice gives humanity a fighting chance. In Steele Magnolias we see little Jackson (biological grandson) running and picking up Easter eggs (there is NO mistake that this story is bookended by Easter). Resurrection through Jackson is what ultimately defeats Death. Shelby lives on through her little boy.

Beyond Plot—What Else to “Study”

Dialogue

Great movies have great dialogue. Study it. How do characters talk? When I get submissions, one of the major problems I see is in dialogue. Coaching the reader, brain-holding, and characters simply talking in ways that are unrealistic. For instance, most of us, when having a conversation, don’t sit and call each other by name.

“But, Bob, if Fifi goes base-jumping she could die.”

“Yes, Joe, but it’s Fifi’s life and if she want’s to be stuff on a rock, it’s her decision, not ours.”

“I agree, Bob, but I love Fifi.”

“Joe, then tell her. Fifi’s craving attention.”

*rolls eyes*

Details

The devil is in the details. Details are like truffle oil. A little goes a LONG way and what a flavor enhancer! We writers don’t need to be super detailed about everything (because when we emphasize everything we emphasize nothing). But, a little goes a long way for good or for bad.

Get the details correct and we will love you. Get them wrong?

*brakes screech*

I am a gun person. If your character reloads using a clip? I will toss the book across the room.

This is my BOOM-STICK!

Clips go in your hair. Magazines go in your gun.

I once read a book where the protagonist was putting the safety on her revolver.O_o

Unless the protagonist is a gun collector with some weird @$$ revolver only useful for collecting? No such thing as a safety on a revolver.

Shows me the author didn’t do some basic homework. Granted, details matter more in some genres versus others. Readers of a military thriller will be far pickier than those who read a high fantasy.

I recently had a writer who had me edit her first 20 pages. The story was excellent and had to do with a soldier in Afghanistan. Problem was, there were some main details that were simply wrong that were a pretty big deal (which I fixed for her). There was also a smaller, more obscure detail. The scene was set in 2004 and her protagonist was rescuing a fellow soldier from a burning vehicle. Unfortunately, the uniforms at that time were not flame retardant (a problem the military was forced to remedy in later years).  In 2004, the fabric would have melted to him and the scene (in reality) would have played out very differently.

Granted, this detail about the uniforms is something only a military geek would likely know. But, if the writer worked that in???? Mad respect from the discerning reader.

If you need to know details, use social media. There are all kinds of military folks, law enforcement people, gun experts, history experts, medical personnel and people who do martial arts who are eager to help writers get things RIGHT. I regularly have people write me about hand-to-hand, since I practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

If you’re writing a military book, watch a friend play Call of Duty or Modern Warfare. Game designers use folks from Special Operations as consultants. They use DELTA Force, Green Berets, SEALS, etc for all the world-building, so why reinvent the wheel? Hollywood is notorious for getting this stuff dead WRONG, so if you want accurate military dialogue, games are better. Or, watch movies created by folks who’ve done their homework (I.e. Hurt Locker).

Setting

Movies are great for getting an idea of setting. Pay attention to the terrain and make notes. Work to be accurate.

Grossly inaccurate setting is distracting in books and film. I loved the recent mini-series Texas Rising, because DUH, I am a Texan. But the setting drove me BONKERS.

Just so y’all know, there are no Colorado-Large mountains anywhere near San Antonio.

*Kristen twitches*

So I hope all these tips will help y’all fill that muse to bursting and NaNo will be a LOT easier.

Another HUGE help for NaNo is a solid core story problem. I strongly recommend my antagonist class NEXT SATURDAY. If you’re not too strong at plotting? This class will make even the pantsiest of pantsers a master of story.

Anyway….

What are your thoughts? What are some things you do to prepare to write a novel? What movies have the best dialogue? Setting? Yes, I know I have ruined all movies for you. You will thank me later😛.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Before we go…. It’s BACK TO SCHOOL!:

Remember! THIS SATURDAY, I am running my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages. Beginnings are crucial. As a long-time editor, I can tell almost every bad habit and story flaw in five pages. I rarely need over 20. This class helps you learn to see what agents and editors see and learn how to correct most common writing mistakes. I am offering additional levels if you want me to shred your first 5 or even 20 pages.

All classes are recorded and the recording is provided FREE with purchase.

Can’t wait to see you in class and read your writing!

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What Went Wrong with Season 2 of “True Detective”? Cautionary Lessons for Writers

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Most of the time, I try to use great writing as examples of what TO DO. But, some writing fails so epically, the best use of it is as a cautionary tale for other writers. We can use it to study what NOT to do.

True Detective Season Two does just that. I hate writing this because Season One was a masterpiece, and all I can think of is that maybe Nic Pizzolatto was a victim of his own success. It would be very daunting to top Season One. Scratch that. It would probably put most writers in a padded cell from nerves.

So what the heck went wrong?

This entire blog is nothing but a spoiler alert, but trust me. I am saving you ten hours of your life you can never get back. Before we talk about some of the basic writing issues that derailed the series, I believe there is one core reason this post fizzled faster than a bottle of New Coke.

Pizzolatto forgot the audience and remembered the critics.

Despite resounding praise for Season One, a handful of critics did take shots at Pizzolatto because they are critics and it is what they do. I wish Pizzolatto would have appreciated that most T.V. critics are being paid to watch the show and paid to have an opinion. They weren’t really his audience. The audience LOVED Season One. They bought t-shirts and quoted lines and tweeted and those were the people who mattered because it is basic math.

Fans waaaayyyy outnumber professional television critics. More fans means fans matter more.

This reminds me of the trouble we can get into as writers. This is actually one of the big dangers of attending a critique group.

Thing is, everyone at the table actually could love your pages, but I promise you that there will be ONE dude who will say something negative even if he doesn’t believe his own critique because he is like that jerk teacher who never gave an A because, “No one is perfect.”

Then, instead of the poor writer listening to twenty freaking people who thought the story was written with long-sought-after unicorn tears dripping from the quill made from a feather of a phoenix? Writer tries to appease Jerk Critic who just wanted to have something to criticize because he simply cannot stand the fact that someone in the group might have more talent.

Same with reviews on books. Unless an overwhelming percentage of people are complaining about the same things?

DO NOT WRITE FOR CRITICS.

I feel this is what happened to Season Two of True Detective.

Instead of appreciating the glowing feedback from fans and basking in the knowledge that his series fundamentally changed television…he listened to the critics and changed Season Two to suit them. Maybe not consciously, but yeah. And since I don’t want to spend too much time here, check out this Ben Travers’ fantastic article about it; How Nic Pizzolatto’s Temper Tantrum Toward Critics Ruined ‘True Detective” Season 2.

When we write for critics, more times than not, we end up with Franken-Novel, which I wrote about in my post Franken-Novel, Perfectionism & The Dark Side of Critique Groups.

So, About the Writing…

Every time I write about the “rules” of writing, inevitably, I get at least ONE commenter who wants to toss out the rule book, which is fine. But, I will reiterate that we can break rules but we do so at our own risk. Rules exist largely for readers (the audience) which I hope will become clear as we go through this.

Limit the Number of Characters

O…M…G. I lost count of how many named characters were in this series. I felt like I was trapped at family reunion, smiling at people and pretending I knew them and that I actually recalled that they were the second grandchild of my third-cousin-by-marriage.

Even in the finale, I had to pause because I had NO IDEA who the hell was killing off one of the main characters.

Is it the Russians? Who IS that? Honey, does he look Mexican to you or Armenian? I thought he was cool with the Armenians. Wait…nope, those are Mexicans. What the hell are THEY doing there?

Really, I was Being Serious…Limit the FREAKING Characters

Especially POV characters. I’ve run into this before with my writing classes. Some new writer who wants to get all “literary” demands she has seven POV characters. Oh-kay.

I used to argue. Now?

Have fun storming the castle *waves*.

Thing is, like meeting every person on the planet who is alive and who happens to share our DNA at ONE TIME (family reunion again) we cannot care about that many people. Not at ONE time.

Season 2 had four POV characters and only eight episodes. Basic math tells us this is a bad plan. When we try to cram too many POV characters into a story, we end up with extra parts that don’t matter because we simply don’t have time (and audiences lack the cranial bandwidth) to explore these characters.

Eight episodes is NOT enough time to fully develop a sympathetic mob boss with a barren wife, a hardboiled detective who is the daughter of a hippie guru who allowed her to be sexually abused as a child, a raging alcoholic dirty cop with guilt issues and child custody problems, and a disgraced CHP with a shady past in Afghanistan, mommy issues, and who is struggling with his sexuality.

Have mommy issues. Feel free to have daddy issues. Go for BOTH at your own risk. Every single POV character trying to reconcile extensive and complex child abuse?

Mob Boss Frank Seymon—abandoned and verbally, physically and emotionally abused.

Detective Bezzideres—emotionally abused by guru father, abandonment issues, was abducted and sexually abused (we think, because she never *really* remembers or if she did I forgot it)

Detective Ray Velcoro—emotionally and verbally abused by his father (in convenient flashback-dream-sequence-hallucination thingy)

Officer Paul Woodrugh—extreme verbal abuse by mother and hinted at sexual abuse by mom who is a bitter dancer pissed off that she gave birth to Paul and it cost her her dance career.

*head explodes*

What becomes problematic (other than the sheer NUMBER of POV characters) is that rather than the characters simply being deep (I.e. we can “get” they were abused in their past without the deets) the series teased out details of each character’s past as if these details were salient to unraveling the plot mystery.

We are given all kinds of details in a way that “suggests” we need to pay attention. Instead of Chekhov’s Gun? We got Osama Bin Laden’s gift-weapons-cache from the CIA circa the 80s.

If you show us a gun plot trail in Act One Episode One, use it by Act Three Episode EIGHT.

The same went for the problems these characters were facing in the present. Not only was the audience saddled with unraveling the past mysteries, but we had the characters’ present-drama dumped in our laps as if THIS stuff was salient to unraveling the plot mystery.

Hint: No. No it was not.

I waited SEVEN episodes for that Hollywood bi*&% who tarnished Woodrugh’s reputation to get her comeuppance.

*rails at the heavens*

Nope. They kill him off and just…stop his story.

AAAHHHHHHH!!!!

What happens when we try to develop everyone, is we develop no one. By the end, most of the characters were forced, contrived paper dolls. In fact, Officer Paul Woodrugh was a third-wheel. We could have cut his character and his storyline with zero negative impact to the overall kind-of-sort-of-plot.

Limit the Plot Layers

Some speculate that Pizzolatto was being reactionary to critics who claimed Season One wasn’t deep enough or complex enough. Here’s the deal. There is a difference between complex and complicated.

Lord of the Rings—> COMPLEX

Star Wars Prequels—> COMPLICATED

Complexity is birthed from simplicity. Complication is the child of confusion.

As we see when we try to create a log-line for each.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

A naive race who has never left home must travel vast distances and fight innumerable dangers to drop an evil ring in a special volcano located in the heart of enemy territory before darkness consumes the world.

Star Wars Prequels

A snarky slave kid who works on robots and races pods and who does something, then leaves home, maybe because Mom dies then something about Metachlorians and kid’s INFESTED with them. Then a dude with a painted face and Jedi and clones and much whining and more whining and then kid-now-whiny-adult-Jedi has no other choice but to slaughter a bunch of kids to save preggo wife and hell… I got nothing.

When it comes to the end of Season Two of True Detective, I haven’t been so confused since I forced myself to finish the Star Wars prequels.

Bluntly, I still really don’t understand the plot and don’t get who killed Casper. There were too many layers and subplots and hints and players in action. Maybe I am simply not smart or savvy enough for this series because…

I cannot unravel the Russian mob, the Mexican Mob, the Armenian underground, crooked cops, crooked politicians, crooked U.S. soldiers, crooked shrinks moonlighting as crooked plastic surgeons, crooked Hassidic Jews (NO, I AM NOT KIDDING), a land grab, toxic waste and environmental crimes, prostitution rings, secret sex parties, a missing five million dollars, sex trafficking, multiple coverups, several missing persons, blackmail, government fraud, gender issues, a missing hard drive, diamond theft, trafficking illegals, real estate fraud, and two orphaned kids with multiple identities out for the-most-complicated-revenge-plot-in-history in EIGHT EPISODES.

All we were missing in Season Two was the plot tangent about jaywalking. And some abused clowns juggling secretly gay ferrets.

And I hate picking on Pizzolatto because he is still my hero and is breathtakingly talented. ANY of these Season Two characters on his or her own could have been vastly complex and interesting and remarkable. But ALL at ONE time? That was the mistake.

Characters Should Stay in Character

Should characters be predictable? No. Can characters do unexpected things? Yes. Should characters do unexpected or stupid things simply because we (the writer) need them to? NO.

A ruthless mob boss who has survived into adulthood by being a master tactician and who GLORIOUSLY takes out the Russian mob in one showdown should NOT die because of rookie mistake/decision. He would give up the suit and then kill them all another day. He’d kill them, get back his diamonds and take all THEIR money, too.

When he refuses to give up the suit and some spear-carrying Mexican gang member not even important enough to warrant a NAME kills him?

We call foul and it ticks us off.

Characters Can’t BE Something They Aren’t

The whole sow’s ear/silk purse thing. Ray Delcoro’s son was as interesting as tax law no matter how many lines of Ray’s dialogue tried to tell us otherwise. The fact that Delcoro died (pointlessly) still trying to reach out to the World’s Most Uninteresting Kid still kind of ticks me off.

Someone NEEDS to Arc

Personally, I am with Blake Snyder. Everyone arcs! In True Detective Season 2? Other than Ray Delcoro being sober, every protagonist was the same in the end as in the beginning. No one was inherently changed by the crucible of plot.

The Plot Problem MUST Be Resolved

After gutting it through seven episodes, I was hoping that the season finale would finally tie up all these loose ends and that I would finally understand. Finally, there would be justice.

Nope.

Almost everyone dies for no good reason and the bad guys win. Casper’s murder becomes an afterthought and I can’t even tell you the names of his killers only that his murder is never officially solved. All the shady politicians get what they want and the dirty cops go on being dirty cops.

The season ends with Ani (one of the investigating detectives) in Belize (I think) talking to ANOTHER CHARACTER. A NEW CHARACTER. A reporter. She hands off all the evidence she collected for an expose (????) and is still uncertain anyone will see justice probably because she is as lost as the rest of us and hopes the reporter can figure it all out.

If we want to end our story like a French film and everyone dies? Ohhhh-kaaaaay, but we should give the audience a bone. The bad guys then should be punished. If we want the bad guys to win? I’m not fond of that kind of ending, but all right. It happens. But then we need to give the audience a personal WIN for the characters. Our protagonists cannot all die AND all fail. They cannot all die and fail the plot arc and the character arc.

If they do, the audience will want to stab our story IN THE FACE.

Why all of this is (to me) a shame is because there was so much rich material in this series to work with and it went to waste. I actually enjoyed Vince Vaughn as a bad guy and loved his character (cheesy lines and all).

But there IS some good news to this. When I watched True Detective Season One, it was so good I actually questioned if I could even write. After Season Two? I realize even geniuses like Pizzolatto make mistakes too😉 .

What are your thoughts? Did you watch both seasons? Were you just as confused by Season 2? Were the dudes with the bakery who forged the passports Armenian? I never could quite figure that out.

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Before we go, some upcoming classes. It’s BACK TO SCHOOL!:

Remember! Due to popular demand I am running my Your Story in a Sentence class THIS SATURDAY and participants have their log lines shredded and rebuilt and made agent-ready. Log-lines are crucial because if we don’t know what our book is about? How are we going to finish it? Revise it? Pitch it? Sell it?

This class can help ensure your story is COMPLEX, not COMPLICATED.

I am also running my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages at the end of August. Beginnings are crucial. As a long-time editor, I can tell almost every bad habit and story flaw in five pages. I never need over 20. This class helps you learn to see what agents and editors see and learn how to correct most common writing mistakes. I am offering additional levels if you want me to shred your first 5 or even 20 pages.

I am STOKED about Back to School and am here to help! The first ten signups for Gold or Platinum get double pages (10 for Gold and 40 for Platinum).

In September, I’m teaching my Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist. This class is critical for PLOT whether we are plotters or pantsers. This class will teach you how to have a solid plot that captivates and satisfies audiences, whether for one title or a series.

All classes are recorded and the recording is provided FREE with purchase.

Can’t wait to see you in class and read your writing!

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Time as a Literary Device: Unpacking the Parallel Timeline

One reason we might be tempted to use a flashback is to explain or to expound to artificially prop up weak characterization or a weak plot (the training wheel flashback). This is what good editors will cut. Then there is the other way to use time and that is time as a literary device. This is when our going back in time is used intelligently to serve the forward momentum of the story.

Last time, we delved into the idea of a loop around (one form of flashback as a literary device). Sometimes we see a story that is smack in the action and then after the inciting incident the story shifts back in time until it catches up where we began then continues real-time.

I used the example of Christopher Moore’s Island of the Sequined Live Nun. This is looping back in time as a literary device and I explained how this was done. So go HERE if you’d like to explore this method of storytelling.

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Today we are going to look at parallel timelines.

What happens with a lot of new writers is that they simply see the surface. “Well, in X BOOK the author went back in time quite a lot, therefore flashbacks are AWESOME.” This is true on the surface, but if we dig down and look at WHY and HOW we see a bigger picture emerge. Some of our favorite books or TV shows or movies might appear to be just flipping back and forth in time, but if we can get an aerial shot, we see something more.

Often what the author is doing is running two timelines parallel. The present-day story is the superlative of the two and the reason is that the past has already happened. And when I say “present-day” I mean the most contemporary of the two timelines.

If a woman in The Great Depression is struggling to rebuild her life after losing the farm in the Dust Bowl and she does so by reading letters written by her grandmother during the Civil War, then the gal in the Great Depression’s decisions and thus the RESOLUTION to her struggle will be fed by the secondary timeline.

Unless she has a time-machine and THAT is a WHOLE ‘notha blog😀 .

We will have the A Plot and the B Plot and the B Plot eventually merges and A finishes us out with a resolution.

An excellent example of this is the HBO series, True Detective. There is a tad bit of spoiler in this lesson, but not enough to ruin anything. I recommend watching and studying this series.

And I like using TV series because if we look at the TIME it takes to watch a full season and then cross-compare that with the TIME it takes to read a novel, the two are far more comparable than a movie and a book. Thus, I do recommend studying series to help with writing a novel because the intimacy with the characters and intricacy of the plot is much more relevant.

Anyway, Season One of True Detective has two timelines. The episode The Long Bright Dark starts us off and it involves two detectives (Rust Cohle and Martin Hart) being interviewed separately regarding a serial killer case they worked together back in 1995.

One might first be tempted to claim, “See! Look at all those flashbacks!” but hold up. WHY are we going back in time? We don’t have two detectives just talking about the Not So Good Old Days. If there was nothing important about the contemporary timeline, then our story would actually be SET in 1995.

The “present day” interview sessions would be contrived filler and likely meet a cutting room floor and for good reason. There is no POINT to them being there throughout unless we have a parallel timeline.

If there was nothing relevant in the present, we’d interview the cops and they’d tell an “I Remember When” story and not a very good one because that would actually KILL most of our suspense because we’d know, no matter what happened they LIVED to tell the tale. So I do recommend that if it is an I Remember When Story, try to maintain suspense.

***BTW, this is a MAJOR reason that prequels are a nightmare to write. We knew Obi Wan had to live to be in the New Hope so we weren’t ever worried.

For a parallel timeline story told in an I Remember When fashion, I recommend both the book and the movie The Green Mile.

In Stephen King’s The Green Mile there are TWO stories running in tandem. The contemporary story of an elderly gentleman in a nursing home who is being bullied intwined with the tale of a prison guard working death row. It isn’t until the end that we see HOW these stories fit together and WHY. The past takes up a lot of storytelling time, but it still is subordinate to the present. Eventually both timelines merge for the conclusion of the contemporary timeline (story) taking place in the nursing home.

What happened to John Coffee cannot be changed, but John Coffee changed Paul Edgecome and so the future is still mutable.

Back to True Detective

True Detective is NOT an I Remember When story, it is a straightforward parallel timeline. There is a reason these men are being asked about the serial killer they hunted and caught back in the 90s. And the reason is, they didn’t get the right guy. They only stopped ONE bad dude in a nest of vipers and they failed to cut off the monster’s head. Women and children are still disappearing and being murdered (this is actually a turning point in the overall plot of the series).

Remember our litmus for going back in the past.

The PAST must be related to what is going on in the PRESENT and directly impact the FUTURE (how the story is resolved). 

In the case of Cohle and Hart, the past is the reason they are in the interrogation room. A case they believed had been solved actually wasn’t and they nailed some low-level dirtbag and not the Big Kahuna. Being in that interrogation room eventually thrusts these two partners back to working together to finish what they started.

The reason we (the audience) are given a tour through the 90s is because all of this story is essential for uncovering the identity of the murderer and exposing a vast coverup (resolving the plot problem). It is also vital to see how these men were as young men, how they interacted, how they fought and why to fully appreciate the place they will eventually end up at the conclusion of the journey (resolving the character arc and story worthy problem).

We have to see the bitter, corrosive atheist Cohle and experience him to appreciate how this case eventually changes who he IS. We have to see the self-righteous and hypocritical (yet charming) Hart to appreciate the depth of character this case will create.

The parallel timelines are essential for us reconciling past and present both in story and character.

Thus, when you look at your favorite movies or shows or books, I recommend unpacking the WHY and the HOW so you can get a better glimpse of the magic this writer created.

A Quick Announcement: I ran into the first technical problem I’ve had in three years of running classes with my Log-Line Class (probably because my tech person went on vacation for the first time and wasn’t there to babysit me). We had class and an AWESOME time, but something went sideways with the recording. So I am holding it AGAIN July 8th to be able to get attendees that free recording.

The class on log-lines Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line is $35 and as a BONUS, the first ten sign-ups get to be victims. IF YOU ARE QUERYING AN AGENT, YOU NEED A PITCH. I will pull apart and torture your log-line until it is agent-ready for FREE.

Now that I’ve announced that, what are your thoughts? Does the flashback seem clearer now that we are unpacking the various ways it is employed? Do you maybe see some of your favorite stories in a new light?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less). 

I will announce JUNE’S WINNER next post!

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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Why Flashbacks Ruin Fiction

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean

We have been discussing Deep POV, and yesterday I mentioned hating flashbacks with the power of a thousand suns and promised to explain why next post.

Yay! Here we are.

So you want to be a writer. Okay. I’ll be blunt because that’s my superpower. Check your conscience at the door keyboard. Writers are not civilized humans. In fact, we are the opposite. We are the reptilian brain to the power of a million. We probe and prod and poke the weak places.

Great storytellers are nothing short of sadists. We take a perfectly empathetic/likable person, toss their life in a Vita-Mix and blend, churning that mixture from Level 1-1000.

That is called conflict.

Stories are about people with problems to be solved. Everything else is a travel brochure.

One of the reasons I LOVE teaching craft is I get to see the work/stories of other writers. Last time I held my First Five Pages class (which there is a NEW ONE open *wink, wink*), I could hear the collective groans when I said, “NO FLASHBACKS. EVER.”

But, I am a benevolent dictator and instructed those submitting pages, that if they believed they positively-absolutely-must-have the flashback and had no idea how to extract it? Send it anyway.

One of my students sent her pages and they were the best example I have seen about WHY I hate flashbacks. Fabulous story and the flashbacks absolutely killed it.

***And, so you know the student was cool with me using this example and later fixed the story per my suggestions and it was successfully published.

😀

HOOK

We’ve talked before about how to hook readers. It doesn’t have to be a bomb, a car chase, a murder. In fact, some of the best tension is in the everyday and it is even more intense because regular people can relate. Most of us can’t relate to a bomb ticking down but two words—Family Reunion. One word—WEDDING.

This writer’s story began with a poor wedding planner trying to herd badly hungover bridesmaids to a wedding (in Mexico). She is trying to repair dresses, cater to a prima donna maid of honor, and placate a bride who is passive and used to others walking over her.

Between trying to get enough outlets in a hundred-year-old church, bridesmaids barfing on their shoes, and a meddling mother of the bride, we have the perfect STEW of DRAMA and a FANTASTIC HOOK! Perfect understanding of in medias res.

We feel compassion for the poor wedding planner and worry if she will get these sick-half-drunk girls to the wedding without using a stun-gun on someone.

I was RIVETED…and then the author went back and explained how the wedding came to be held in Mexico.

ER????

NO, I WANT TO SEE A BRIDESMAID PUKE IN THE FLOWER ARRANGEMENTS!

This sample of writing was fantastic, but she did two things that undermined her piece.

NOTHING Should Work

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.

When the wedding planner gives the bridesmaids Pepto, it makes them feel better. Okay, I will go with that. But to enhance this? It makes them feel better…moments before at least one of them (or ALL of them) barfs pink all over the wedding planner’s bag, or the bride’s veil, or the bouquet. Now, the problem isn’t only the sickly maids and bride, but how the heck can the wedding planner get out of THIS?

Character is demonstrated by solving (or not solving) problems REAL-TIME. We do not need to go back in time to explain or tell what kind of person the protagonist is. She didn’t need to go back and tell me about the protagonist’s character when she could easily show me in the current timeline.

Since wedding planner is the protagonist, maybe she has been through this before and just as the bride is about to have a breakdown because her veil is ruined? Wedding planner pulls out…a spare.

She always orders two after that wedding she put together in Oklahoma where the chain-smoking bride set fire to her own veil (showing she is calm and resourceful).

Whatever.

So when you put your characters in any scenario, ask, “Can I make it WORSE?” Then make it worse. Then ask that question again and again until you can’t make it worse without making it weird (I.e. sudden alien abduction in a Women’s Fiction).

Part of becoming a writer is to train out any human sensitivity. When we make life easier on our characters, we are doing it because WE feel tension and are seeking to alleviate that. Ah, but TENSION is the fuel of fiction, so do the opposite of what civilized humans would do and MAKE IT WORSE.

Flashback Fizzle

I could tell this writer was doing a SUPERB job of winding our nerves tighter than a Hollywood facelift. How? She backed off to explain…using a flashback.

When we feel the need to use a flashback and go back in time? Often we are reacting to tension we’ve successfully created and now y’all might see why I feel flashbacks are bad juju. Fiction is all about conflict. No conflict no story. No tension? Good place to stop reading.

How many of you have jerk friends, family or acquaintances? Or all of the above? Or maybe you’ve had a moment where you’ve shown your butt? I have all of the above. What do we do to ease others? To make them relax?

We explain.

Sorry about my Mom. She’s not been the same since my father died. 

Ok, so we leave out the part that Dad died 15 years ago. It works. It makes others give grace to Mom for acting like a horse’s behind.

I apologize for blowing up like that. I had a flat tire, migraine, no sleep, allergy medicine overdose, etc.

EXPLAINING is what civilized humans do to break the tension. STOP IT! CUT! CUT! CUT!

Original image via Flickr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins

Original image via Flickr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins

All of us will feel a NEED to explain why a character is moody, angry, broken, bawdy, whatever. DON’T. Resist the urge to EXPLAIN. In fact, if readers don’t know WHY, they will want to turn pages to find out WHY.

Frankly, as writers, we are GOD, so we really don’t have to explain ourselves anyway. Let the readers suffer until the very end, when you finally allow resolution. Suffering is good for readers (and book sales).

***And, like anything, I am sure someone somewhere used a flashback and it was AWESOME. Like any writing “rule” we can break this one, too. But, we have to know the rules to break the rules😉 .***

Flashback Fodder in Real-Time Adds Mystery

When this writer flashed back to explain how the wedding ended up in Mexico instead of Mom’s choice (Napa Valley), she inadvertently missed two opportunities:

1) Increase tension.

2) Show character.

If she’d had this flashback information revealed real-time, Mom could have come in, seen the sea foam green bridesmaids (faces and dresses matching) and thrown a fit. “THIS is why I wanted to have this in Napa. It’s Montezuma’s Revenge. I told you wine country was a better choice. Why don’t you ever listen to me?”

The poor bride, who never stands up for herself is defeated and losing ground on what should be HER day. Wedding planner can come to the rescue and usher Mom out with the skill of an ambassador in a war zone (or try and fail). Either way, we LIKE her for trying.

THIS is “Show don’t tell.” Having critical information from a flashback in the current thread of time allows readers to see people act and react. It makes us wonder. It makes us tense. We want to ease the pressure and the only way to do that is to KEEP READING and HOPE it will eventually all turns out for the better.

Most Backstory CAN Be Told Real-Time…I Promise

One major reason new writers rely on flashbacks (aside from a possibly weak/flawed/nonexistent plot OR as a tension release) is that there is something that happened earlier the writer wants to share. Backstory.

A lot of writers don’t give readers enough credit. We believe we need to travel back in time to explain the backstory or the reader won’t “get” what’s going on. They will.

Let’s take a quick look at one of yesterday’s hastily assembled examples of Deep POV.

Fifi clutched the baby picture, the one her daughter had given her a week ago for Mother’s Day when they picked her up from rehab. Ninety days clean. At least that was the lie she’d packed along with her swimsuit and the hairspray can with the secret compartment and the only pills they hadn’t found.

The pills that were now gone.

They should have already been at the resort, the one staffed with eager friends willing to help her out. Friends with first names only who took cash and asked no questions.

Fifi scratched at her arms. Millions of insects boiled beneath her skin, invaded her nerve endings and chewed them to bleeding bits. Pain like lightning struck her spine, the section crushed then reconstructed. Pain like lightning spidered her brain, frying her thoughts. She glanced again at the baby picture, then at the fine young woman in back. Her daughter Gretchen.

What am I doing?

Maybe she would be okay. Maybe she hadn’t had enough pills to completely undo her. Maybe she could ride this out. And maybe I’m the Queen of England.

Gretchen bent between the seats and kissed her on the cheek. “I love you, Mom. You okay?”

Tears clotted her throat. She nodded. “Yes, I’m fine, Honey.”

“You mean it?”

She hesitated then smiled. “Yes. Yes I do.”

She tucked the baby picture in her shirt pocket, close to her heart and opened the van door. She needed air. She also needed to change their plans. Visit somewhere with no friends. With no one who took cash.

Look at ALL the stuff we learn without having to go back in time. We learn the time of year. That Mother’s Day was a week ago. That the family picked up Fifi from rehab. We learn she has an addiction to pills that is bad enough she has special drug-hiding containers. We later realize she has suffered a serious injury that crushed part of her spine.

You guys get the idea. We don’t need to go back to her being picked up from rehab. We don’t need to go back to the car accident or the fall or the ambush by ninjas wielding large sticks to see HOW Fifi was hurt. None of that is salient to the current story problem aside from fleshing out the character.

In fact, if I have my addict stranded with a broken down car and STOP and rewind to explain how she injured her back? Odds are it would just confuse you.

The story is about a family breaking down on the way to a vacation destination. Taking side trips back in time is distracting, redundant, confusing and makes the conflict fizzle.

Now y’all know why I take away your flashbacks. I am being mean, but it’s good for you. Flashbacks will ease your nerves, but is it worth losing the reader? And we often don’t recognize we are doing this. Even I have to go back through my writing and hunt for places I backed off the throttle because I was uncomfortable.

We will talk more about flashbacks in the coming posts because, as I mentioned yesterday, often what folks believe is a flashback is actually unorthodox plotting (I.e. parallel timelines).

What are your thoughts? What makes you tense? Do you find you fall in love with your characters and go too easy on them?

Before we go, y’all asked for it so here goes. I have two classes coming up. The class on log-lines Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line is $35 and as a BONUS, the first ten sign-ups get to be victims. IF YOU ARE QUERYING AN AGENT, YOU NEED A PITCH. I will pull apart and torture your log-line until it is agent-ready for FREE. 

Beyond the first ten folks? We will work out something super affordable as a bonus for being in the class so don’t fret. I’ll take good care of you. AND, it is two hours and on a Saturday (June 27th) and recorded so no excuses😛 .

I am also running Hooking the Reader–Your First Five Pages.  Class is on June 30th so let’s make Tuesdays interesting. General Admission is $40 and Gold Level is $55 but with Gold Level, you get the class, the recording and I look at your first five and give detailed edit.

Our first five pages are essential for trying to attract an agent or even selling BOOKS. Readers give us a page…maybe five. Can we hook them enough to part with cold hard CASH? Also, I can generally tell all bad habits in 5 pages so probably can save you a ton in content edit.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Remember, for MORE chances to win and better ODDS, also comment over at Dojo Diva. I am blogging for my home dojo and it will help the blog gain traction.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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