Then

09.17.2008
Structural Integrity, Baby

When I start a story, I figure out pretty quick what that first turning point is going to be and where the plot (and subplots) will have to get to for it to happen. I’m a pantsy plotter. That also sets me down the road of “What happens next?” Well, the whole world just turned on it’s side–for good or bad, or both–and people (characters) are going to be scrambling to figure out how this new world works, where they fit in it, and how the heck they get to their goal now.

Don’t think of it as outlining, which still makes me cringe, and doesn’t really allow for narrative structure, anyway.  It’s a road map.  It’s where you’re going, where you’ve been, and how you’re going to get there.


Now

I am a die hard plotter and outliner. I plot the story. I plot the acts. I plot the scenes. I plot the beats in the scene. Not all at once. At first, I immerse myself in the story with pictures of the characters and settings, a soundtrack, and handwritten biographies. Then I write several thousand words. Then I stop. Then I get annoyed because it’s going somewhere I don’t even get and what is the stupid motivation here, anyway? Then I rip up what I have, plot the entire story, in acts. Then I start writing. Before I start each scene, I note the beats of the scene. What happens, what changes, where does it get all twisty?

I’m a control freak. But I write a better story for it.

“I’m a control freak. But I write a better story for it.” ~ Click to Tweet

Image courtesy of Kimberly Vohsen via stock.xchng

Alicia Rasley (blog) is a wildly talented writer and teacher who should get more recognition than she does. I bought her e-book in PDF, Discovering the Story Within, before people were even reading e-books. (My only complaint: it’s full of awesome worksheets, but the PDF is protected against copying, pasting, highlighting–anything you right-click to do, so filling them out in a word-processing program is impossible.)

Plotting

But, for today, and for GMC month, I’d like to point you to an article she did on her site called Plotting Without Fears.

In this article she tells you the quick and dirty way to plot a story. Find your one-sentence idea, your theme,  and your hero. Then, she shows you how to figure out what questions your story will answer and the goals and conflicts.  Finally, taking that information, she shows you how to use structure to form a plot.

There’s a lot of vital information packed in this article.

Motivation

This article, also by Alicia, on motivation is made up of three parts to help you get GMC right.  First, knowing the difference between your (the author’s) goal and your character’s goal. This is a crucial distinction. Nothing should ever happen in a story because you need it to happen; rather, it should happen organically from the character’s goals, motivation, and because of conflict with the antagonist.

Second, she says motivation should pro-active:

Pro-active: Motivating movement TOWARDS something. Success is a pro-active motivation because it draws the character forward towards itself.

Reactive: Motivating movement AWAY from something. Guilt is a reactive motivation because it propels the person away from itself.

Finally, she urges us to know the difference between external and internal motivation.  To help you understand the difference, she says:

External motivations tend to be more or less universal. Internal motivations are what will individualize your character. Most of us want success; the question is why? Your internal motivation for wanting success (to win the love of your father) might be different from mine (to get revenge against those who scorned me).

Then, she includes a fantastic list of some external and internal motivations that are worth the click there, just by themselves.

She concludes by distinguishing between story and backstory,  goal and motivation, motivation and action.

Motivation is the past.
Goal is the future.
Conflict is the present.

I urge anyone who writes, whether they’re just starting out or have been doing it for years, to explore the wonderful articles on her site.

Photo by Patrick Hajzler used with permission. Find Patrick on stock.xchng.

 

Character Development Series

Turns out, I had so much to say about developing characters, I wrote a series of posts. Here they are, in order:
Develop Characters Without Worksheets
Writing Free Form Character Biographies
How to Find a Character’s GMC?
My GMC “In the Wild”
Plotting and Motivation

So, I needed some creative inspiration. I keep coming back to these characters. Their story stalled on me. It lacked direction, I think. But the characters. I love these characters.

Then, a series of blog posts came across my computer, on Tarot cards and writing from Raelyn Barclay (@raelynbarclay on Twitter). I remembered a Material Girl post I did, years ago, about using Tarot cards to help write. I’d even picked out the deck I wanted (which is good, I’d never have remembered after this long).

I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I checked out the cards again and they’re just beautiful. Modern, girl-powery, bold. I chose the Vanessa Tarot and you can see all the cards here.

The cards are due to be delivered today. Besides Raelyn Barclay’s site, I’ve also been researching with info from Biddy Tarot, and I bought Tarot for Writers (which I’m still reading, but it’s wow).

I will definitely update you in the next few days. I’m dying to get started!

If you’ve used Tarot to help you write, I’d love your input in the comments or on Twitter.

 

I bought another pack of index cards.  I’m at this point in my story where I’m chucking what doesn’t work (after 11k words, trust me when I say: it could be worse).  I’ve got to keep what works (mostly the characters) and dig deep and find the goals and the antagonist(s) and the conflict.

(Why do I forget these things when I first start writing?  It’s like I have to play with my characters for a bit before I can rip them apart and say, “You’re not quite right.”)

So, I’m in the grocery store and there’s this pack of index cards. A big stack, probably a 100.  And they’re unlined… *sigh* (The lined ones restrict my process, somehow).

Next thing I know, despite the fact that the last time I tried using index cards to plot it was a colossal failure, I bought index cards.  Again.

I get so caught up in how well it works for authors like Roz Morris (who convinced me to do it last time with her very good book, Nail Your Novel
, and she’s just so passionate and convincing) and Johanna Harness (who I’ve linked to before about her use of magic index cards).  They make it sound so fun, and creative, and organic.  But, that’s where it doesn’t work for me.

I think I crave the structure that goes with them.  Being able to make sense out of something huge and messy. As first drafts tend to be.

I write down everything floating in my head, and really, that’s a lot.  But it’s not a whole novel. And, so, I have my index cards, which amounted to about 20 for the first act, 8 for the second act, and 2 for the fourth act (I write with a 4 act structure) the last time I tried.  Nothing for act three.  The middle. Which, you might’ve heard, has been known to sag.  Be boring.  Or be full of crazy, not-organic stuff, that a writer just makes up to fill her damn index cards.

I need what happens next to come from the choices and actions my characters take before.  And I just don’t know how to do that with index cards.  It doesn’t work that way, for me.

What works for me is a notebook. A big, fat notebook with lots of pages.  Where I will just write scenes down all over.  Make outlines. Draw conflict boxes. Write letters from my characters.

Does anyone need any index cards?

I learned a few years ago, when I lost an entire weekend to the time-suck that was Seasons 1 and 2 of Grey’s Anatomy, if you watch a television series in order, for at least a season, you can actually learn a lot.  A season of television (good television, anyway) has story structure, character arc, and escalating conflict.

Think about it.  You get 22-25 or so episodes in a season of (most) TV shows.  A season is structured to introduce the season’s conflict, build the tension, tie up the plot in a nice bow, and introduce next season’s story question.  An episode does the same thing, only on a smaller scale.  Look closer.  That’s right.  You can divide an episode into about four parts, usually where they place commercials, that have those same elements.  And, ideally, a scene would do the same.  I think some writers miss this, but a novel should be the same way.  Novel > Acts > Chapters > Scenes.  And they all perform the same way.

Just like story structure, a season of television has characters who have to grow.  Bob Mayer explains perfectly why a character needs an arc:

If you take your protagonist as she is at the beginning of the book and thrust her into the climactic scene, she should lose to the antagonist.  A key portion of the story is her growth into a person, that by the climactic scene, can defeat the antagonist.

If they could beat the season’s big-bad at the beginning, then what’s the point?  Each episode shows the character face a challenge and grow to become the hero who can win in that final battle.

And, of course, every episode ratchets up the stakes in the conflict just a little more so that, by season’s end, you’re begging for the showdown.

Read More →

And the birds sang, the trees swayed happily, and I was free.  Free to spend as long as I needed filling in character, backstory, synopsizing scenes, and outlining.

I have this from very reliable sources.  I recently took a Write It Forward workshop from Bob Mayer (on Twitter @Bob_Mayer) on Plot and Outline.  He says:

Failing to do this essential background work sabotages the story before you type your first word and becomes very apparent to readers as they progress in your work.

(Truly, this workshop was chock full of empowering, on-target info.  It would be worth the money to invest in one of the Write It Forward workshops.)

And then, there’s Roz Morris’ (on Twitter @NailYourNovel) Nail Your Novel (now on Kindle!  Yay!).  She says:

You’ll be prepared to start writing.  The preparation you have done will make the writing go faster.   You are less likely to get blocked and more likely to sail through to the end.

Buy Nail Your Novel or read the first 15 pages first.

I needed time before I started writing.  There’s  no end to the things I can do before writing.  Character bios and pictures, apartment layouts, city street maps, pictures of clothing, snippets of dialogue, whole scenes.  My One Note notebook already has about 15 pages in 3 sections and I haven’t even started plotting yet.  Okay, I have.  But not a lot.

The point is, I used to feel so bad for this time.  I love this creative time, where the ideas just come willy-nilly and, like a medium, I just jot them down as fast as I can and let them speak.  It’s so fun I actually have a name for it: writer crack.

But now, I’m giving myself permission to take this time.  To let my muse say everything she needs to say, to research whatever she needs to know, to act out scenes in my brain completely out of order and out of context.  Sure, a person could get lost on writer crack forever.  Maybe even need writer rehab. For me, though, when the times comes to start writing and I’m prepared, this process has generated so much excitement that it’s just the next step.

I guess people who get stuck in this are the same people who re-edit the first chapter over and over instead of finishing.   If there’s a glaring plot hole that you fixed, but your previous chapters are still pointing down another road, you should take some time to fix that.  Or see if you’ve made other holes that need filling now.

And that was total digression.  My point is, if a person is looking for excuses not to write, then those people just aren’t going to write.  Doesn’t matter what anyone says.  They’ve either got the guts to jump in or they don’t.

Don't confuse creative process knocking on your door with stalling. Click To Tweet

Maybe we just need to trust our instincts, and do what feels right.  And read those craft books and take those workshops and attend those conferences because if we are onto something, odds are someone else (with more experience) has already been there.

On Kathy Carmichael’s awesome site, she has a form to aid in creating a short synopsis and plotting your story.  You should go download that now.  I’ll wait.

She suggests, on the first page, to list ten events that will help change a character’s core belief and to keep in mind the stages of change.  This opened up a whole new way of looking at structuring character arc for me so I wanted to share what I’d found on the stages of change.

The earliest stage of change is known as precontemplation. During the precontemplation stage, people are not considering a change. People in this stage are often described as “in denial” due to claims that their behavior is not a problem. If you are in this stage, you may feel resigned to your current state or believe that you have no control over your behavior. In some cases, people in this stage do not understand that their behavior is damaging or are under-informed about the consequences of their actions.

via Stages of Change – Precontemplation Stage.

We’re going to be dealing with 4 of those stages, so it would make sense, I think, to divide this arc into quarters.  For example, the precontemplation stage would be the first 1/4 of your story.

During this stage, people become more and more aware of the potential benefits of making a change, but the costs tend to stand out even more. This conflict creates a strong sense of ambivalence about changing. Because of this uncertainty, the contemplation stage of change can last months or even years. In fact, many people never make it past the contemplation phase. During this stage, you may view change as a process of giving something up rather than a means of gaining emotional, mental, or physical benefits.

via Stages of Change – Contemplation Stage.

Of course, our heroes and heroines will make it past this stage because that’s what makes them heroic.

During this stage, you might begin making small changes to prepare for a larger life change. For example, if losing weight is your goal, you might switch to lower-fat foods. If your goal is to quit smoking, you might switch brands or smoke less each day. You might also take some sort of direct action such as consulting a therapist, joining a health club, or reading self-help books.

via Stages of Change – Preparation Stage.

What’s key here is small changes.  Our hero or heroine isn’t ready to full on commit yet, so explore ways to make small concessions to change.

During the fourth stage of change, people begin taking direct action in order to accomplish their goals. Oftentimes, resolutions fail because the previous steps have not been given enough thought or time. For example, many people make a New Year’s Resolution to lose weight and immediately start a new exercise regimen, begin eating a healthier diet, and cut back on snacks. These definitive steps are vital to success, but these efforts are often abandoned in a matter of weeks because the previous steps have been overlooked.

via Stages of Change – Action Stage.

There’s another stage, maintenance, but I think that stage comes after the HEA.

To me, it makes sense to structure your characters change, and that what it’s all about–the character’s journey–in a way that is scientifically proven to be how real people handle change.

Again, you should check out Kathy’s site or follow her on twitter (linked above) because she is clearly brilliant.

Excellent article about how to plot your novel so the reader can’t put it down.  Also, will explain what an “HCM” is.

Today’s best novels make readers so desperate to know what happens next that they’ll stay up reading well past midnight, blistering thumbs and all, until THE END. Then and only then will they be able to relax, their souls flooded with satisfaction, relief and peace. Only to be followed—ideally!—by a gnawing sense of unfulfillment, anxiety and a compulsion to read more books by you.

via Writer’s Digest – How to Make Your Novel a Page Turner.

There are as many ways to plan out a novel as there are writers. Each writer goes about it a different way.

via Planning, Outlining, and Organizing Your Novel – Or Not! « Word Sharpeners.

This is an excellent article on the many ways to plot your novel, even if you write by the seat of your pants (pantser!).