Friday, March 20, 2015

Plot: Where are we going and why are we in this hand-basket?

Now. I know some of you are pantsers and you're not interested in what I'm selling. But hold on! This isn't about outlining. This is about plot. It's not the same thing. I promise!

And please stop leaning on the door, you're breaking my foot!

Thank you.

A little bit of definition and context for how I'm using the word plot.

Plot vs Story
Look at the term "Plot Twist".

plot twist (noun)
An unexpected event or development in a book or movie.

...event or development... keep that in mind.

The Story is what you want to tell: A janitor on an interstellar cargo ship saves the galaxy from nefarious space hippos! The Plot is how you tell it. It's the details. The series of choices that allow our intrepid spaceship janitor to overcome those space hippos.

Woah! Stop right there. Put that down... Now step away from it...

I know "series of choices" makes it sound like an outline, and it can be part of an outline, but it's not the outline. Plots run through every story, and it doesn't matter whether you figure them out beforehand or afterward. I find defining the plots of my stories key in making them flow and keeping them (hopefully) entertaining.

Choices
You'll note that I keep saying choice instead of events. That's intentional. The character's choices should drive the events of the plot, not the other way around. It makes the story more compelling and raises tension.

Whether you're plotting through an outline process or you've just finished your first draft and you're sketching out the plot for the first revision, try to define each point as a choice. Every event doesn't have to be a choice, but you'll find the most gripping moments in any story come as a result of a character's choice.

The harder the choice, the better the tension. Choices with no good options are best. The character needs stakes, therefore the character's choices need stakes, therefore the plot needs stakes. If you don't have stakes, you are screwed when the vampires come around. Oh, and your story will be boring.

With that in mind, it's time for me to wind up some of the outliners.

A personal hard and fast rule: Never let the plot dictate the character's actions. I don't care if I've plotted something within the outline with a really cool payoff, if the character wouldn't make that choice, that plot point is broken. I've re-outlined my current book twice already to fix broken plot points.

The plot (and in this case the outline), can be changed without changing the story. Don't shoehorn the character's choices and actions to fit it. You'll blow readers out of the story and ruin a perfectly good character's credibility.

Consequences
So, beyond framing plot points as choices, how do I keep them interesting? By having consequences. There's a pretty cool new technology standard coming out that's based on a very old concept. If This Then That. Basically, you set up a series of conditions, and when met, something else is done.

It's a great concept to build consequences around for the choices that make up your plot. Always know the consequences to any choice, even if it's a small one. Whether you call them out in the story or not, it's key that you know they're there. Those unseen consequences can potentially lead to other choices/plot points.

They're one of the coolest toys in the writer's toolbox.

From something as little as a space janitor double-knotting his shoe laces: He may need to take his shoes off in a hurry later to get into an EV suit. Does he cut them or untie them? If he cuts them, what does that mean for when he needs to put his shoes back on later?

To something as large as the major story resolution: Does our space janitor turned impromptu hero release an untested genetically engineered pacifying agent for the space hippos that could save the galaxy? What if it doesn't work? What if it does? What are the side effects?

The consequences of both of those choices can lead to all sorts of further plot elements if you examine them far enough.

But...
Oh. And the choices don't always have to work out. In fact, some of the best choices are the ones that fail spectacularly with the word "but". "But" always adds conflict, and conflict is good. And you can still have your character's deal with the consequences of having made a choice, and the resulting outcome, whether it's from their choice or not.

Our hero space janitor orders a secret release of the engineered pacifying virus, but it doesn't work as intended. Instead of pacifying all of the space hippos, it only has any effect on 3% of their population, and instead of making them docile and non-combative, it enrages them against their own kind sparking a small civil war.

Being the heroic sort, our space janitor sees an opportunity to help the warring space hippos with their incredibly aggressive minority and in doing so he negotiates peace. He's averted a war between his own people and the space hippos, but he's ultimately directly responsible for the death of 3% of the space hippo population. Even if they don't know it (yet), he does, and he has to live with that knowledge. So do his crew-mates, who will never look at him the same again.

See. A simple "but" put in there unleashed a whole LOT of potential plot and conflict.

Trimming the Cruft
Unfortunately, plot can be where a lot of unnecessary stuff and scenes get introduced to the story. This where "Kill your darlings." can readily apply. I know it does for me.

If a scene is there to further the plot, either highlighting a choice or a consequence, but it doesn't actually have anything directly related to the story or growth of a character, odds are, it can go. Figuring out which plot points those are, and whether they're key to your primary or secondary plots is one of the hardest things for me to do.

I've found a good exercise is to write out the "synopsis lines" for each scene. As much as I hate writing a synopsis, those 1 or 2 lines describing what happens in the scene with relation to the story are pure cruft killing gold.

If it's not advancing the story or integral to a character's development, it can go. No matter how cool it is, it can go. Even if it's the scene that triggered the entire concept of the story, if it's not moving the story or characters forward... it... can... go.

Let me know what tips you have for plotting, or your thoughts on any of my definitions or methods in the comments.

-Alex

This is the fifth entry in a series of posts about my evolving writing process.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Characters and Characterization: Who are these people?

Characters are the heart and soul of any well crafted story.

There are many people who will disagree with that statement, and they're welcome to... But they're wrong.

Now wait a moment! Don't go away! Let me pile a few more logs on that pyre being built at my feet by explaining where I'm coming from. I mean, I put it pretty definitively up there. How could I possibly make things worse, right?

Trust me. I'm a writer. I can always make things worse.

What about "idea" stories? What about Sci-Fi or Literature stories about a place, or a technology, or some other thing? Those don't have people at their heart! They're about the idea/place/technology/other thing!

GET THE TORCHES!!!!

Wait! You see, characters aren't always people. They're the subjects in the story that the reader relates to. And if the story is well crafted (and sometimes even if it isn't), the characters are what the reader cares about. Whether that character is a cat, a tree, a car, or an asteroid, if the writer has done their job, you'll care about it and it will help immerse you in the story.

But that's an overly complicated way of looking at things, so let's get back to people (if you want, you can consider anthropomorphized things as people from here on out).

Where you fit on the spectrum between plotter or pantser will likely shape how you grow your characters. I fall somewhere in the middle, so my process might be a little muddled. But from one writer to another: You don't have to colour inside the lines. Do whatever works for you.

Some writers like to figure out their characters as they go along, then fix inconsistencies in revision. Some writers like to know every detail about their characters before the first word hits the page, creating detailed character sheets (I use the one in Scrivener to get started).

Whatever your method, I've found it's best to keep track of any changes or major decisions about the character as you go. It stops you from contradicting yourself or giving a character rainbow-coloured eyes (unless they're supposed to have rainbow-coloured eyes...).

Aside from physical description, you should have a number of other important factors sorted out for your characters. How are they going to grow and change through the story?

It's completely fine if you don't have a character all figured out before you write your first draft. But you had best have them nailed down by the time you finish that draft, or revisions aren't going to help.

Motivation
Your character needs goals. Big ones. Small ones. Ones with polka-dots. Every character needs motivations of their own. And not just one. At no point should a character's sole motivation be "help the protagonist". That, my friends, is a cardboard cut-out, not a character.

Ask yourself: What makes your character tick? What do they want? In a revenge plot it can seem pretty simple... Revenge! In a horror plot... Survival! In a murder mystery... To Catch the Killer! In a bee-keeper memoir... Honey!

But is that all? I hope not. It shouldn't be. That isn't enough. See that cardboard cut-out I mentioned before? It's waving. No... don't wave back. It's cardboard...

Let's look at our revenge plot for a brief moment.
Bruce Lonerman's a solitary road warrior. His one true love, Hilda, his 1984 Ford Tempo, was crushed by the villains at BadEvilCorp™ who were jealous of his cherry ride, and he'll stop at nothing until he gets his REVENGE!

Great! We have a primary motivation: Protagonist's true love snatched away and destroyed by the antagonist!

But wait! There's more!
Our hero Bruce has to get to BadEvilCorp™ and it's all the way across town... and he doesn't have Hilda to do it. He needs a ride... Perhaps he can borrow his best friend Beth's Vespa GTS 300?

Ding! That's more motivation. Granted, it's short term, but it's there.

If you want a compelling character, always look for more layers of motivation. What do they want immediately? What do they want generally? What do they want after? What are the little things? What are their ideals that seem too big?

What's stopping them? Conflict is key. Resolution of conflict builds character.

Internal Contradictions
Have you ever met another human being? Ever been one yourself? If not, then this next bit may not make much sense to you.

People contradict themselves. I don't just mean hypocrites, they're just better at doing it more noticeably. We're all FULL of contradictions. They're what make us unpredictable and oh-so-hard to model artificially. Thankfully we writers aren't trying to build a positronic brain (not a real one anyway).

All of your character's internal contradictions don't need to be on the page or highlighted in some way. But you should know that they exist. What should be on the page are the contradictions that define your character.

Back to Bruce.

  • He's a solitary sort, but he has a best friend named Beth.
  • He also has a cat.
  • He hates the rising price of gas, which is something he wouldn't have had to deal with without his love for Hilda. He mildly resented Hilda for her reliance on fossil fuels.
  • He feels guilty for his resentment of Hilda.
  • His guilt and regret help fuel his thirst for revenge.
  • He really enjoys the open air and low cost of Beth's Vespa

And so on (and that's just from what I've written so far). Contradictions are what make a character not be a caricature. No real person is a set of absolutes, your fictional people shouldn't be either.

Something to Hide
We all have secrets. Whether it's something in our past or present. Something about the way we think and deal with the world. A desire we can't express. A conviction we outwardly hold and espouse and inwardly question. The secrets we keep from ourselves because we don't like what they say about us.

We all have something we hide that we think (rightfully or wrongfully) would change where we stand in society were it ever to be known.

Those are the big secrets. We all have them. We're all afraid of them. Your characters should have them too. They can add a layer of motivation and internal contradiction (oooh, more layers).

Then there's the little secrets. The casual lie. The false smile. The discomfort. The small self-contradictions that we're painfully aware of and don't let others see.

Every secret about your characters doesn't need to be earth-shattering (how does one shatter earth? Do you have to flash-freeze it first? Otherwise it sort of just... crumbles...). You don't have to include your own secrets within your characters (that'd be silly). But they do need to have secrets.

The best place you can dig in for a greater understanding of how secrets have an effect on behaviour is within you. Careful and thoughtful self-examination of your secrets and how you react to anything even slightly related, or even unrelated to them is a great place to start.

Our dear character Bruce has secrets.

  • He's in love with Beth's Vespa, they've had an on-again off-again thing going for months
  • He never took a driver's test
  • His real name isn't Bruce Lonerman, it's Bob Smith, but that didn't seem "actiony" enough
  • He doesn't own a cat. He's cat-sitting.
  • He's really an alien writing an entry on Earth for an interstellar travel guide


Nobody is Perfect
Ok. Except you. No... not you, the person beside you. Yes.

Perfect characters are boring. That's where the terms Mary Sue, and Wish Fulfillment come from. Characters written so perfect or flawless that they can't be real.

Flaws can range from emotional to physical. They can be as little as nail chewing, or as big as being a psychopath who works as a blood spatter expert by day and a vigilante by night. They can be out in the open for the world to see, or a tightly held secret. They can feed ego or insecurity. Flaws add nuance and depth.

Your character could be ambidextrous, but unable to tie their shoes or button their shirt without getting them misaligned at least twice. They could suck at metaphors (or similes). They could be a kleptomaniac, or a compulsive liar, or painfully blunt.

Flaws are what make a character an individual. The best flaws are the ones that run against your character's goals and motivations. Over the course of the story your character can grow and overcome some flaws, but they shouldn't overcome them all, especially if they're a defining flaw.

I won't add any flaws to Bruce at the moment, but you can see how some of the above would shape him into a different person and make him seem less wooden and contrived (OK, maybe dear Bruce isn't the greatest example).

All of the above will add depth to your characters and work together in layers. And if you want to do it right, you have to apply them to all your characters, not just your protagonist. Secondary characters (ones you don't get inside the head of that the protagonist interacts with regularly), and tertiary characters (ones who are big enough to warrant a name and a few lines of speech), all need at least a high pass for motivation.

And all characters, regardless of age, gender, or which side of the story they're on (protagonist vs. antagonist) deserve the same level of effort at adding depth.

Beyond that, your characters should never bend to the plot. Bad books and movies are full of characters who do incredibly stupid an unlikely things in service of the plot. If a character wouldn't do something, don't make them. Fix the story and find another way. It's a painful process, I know, I've been going through it myself with my current project, but it's a necessary exercise.

No one said this writing thing was easy.

Let me know what you think down in the comments!

-Alex

This is the fourth entry in a series of posts about my evolving writing process.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Brainstorming: Building on The Idea

Let's pretend you have an idea. Don't be alarmed! It happens to the best of us.

Walk it off.

As I've pointed out before, sometimes you can't shake the idea off. It sticks to you. It won't go away. It keeps you up at night, like a dryer that squeals because it's lost that little felt ring that stops the metal drum from rubbing against the housing as it goes around and around and around squeaking and squealing intermittently until you jUSt cAn'T TAkE iT aNy mO.... ahem.

So. There's that. What do you do with the idea once you have it and it won't go away? What if, and this is a big if, What if you like the idea? As in, cute little kitten or puppy "like" the idea? I've found one of the best things to do in that case is to hide around a corner until it sticks out it's little head and then BASH IT IN with a crowbar!

The idea!!!! Not the puppy or kitten!!! NEVER the puppy or kitten!!!! You MONSTER!!!!

Now that you've subdued the idea, it's time to shape it into what you want it to be. Whether that's a soul-stretching, heart-wrenching, teary-eyed horror novel, or a pulse-pounding, hair-raising, can't-sleep-without-the-lights-on romance comedy, or any other sort of compound-modifying hyphenated-verbing, run-on-sentencing goodness... is entirely up to you. It's your idea to inflict upon the world.

Let's dig into the meat on how you could go about the exercise of expanding and improving on that idea.

To be fair, some of these processes will work better for Outliners than they will for Pantsers. Others should work just as well for anyone. I'm not covering how to build your entire story, only how to go about brainstorming a single idea. Of course, that idea could be a character, plot point, scene, world, what have you.

The key to story brainstorming is to ask questions, and then keep on asking questions. The same principle questions we were all taught in Primary School. Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. Take your idea and expand it by asking those questions. As for where you get the answers, there are a few avenues you can take. In all cases though, you should always consider looking past the first and obvious answer for a deeper, less expected answer.

And make notes (while you brainstorm, not while you read this post... unless you want to)! This is where I usually break out Scapple if I have my MacBook, or Google Keep if all I have is my phone.

Research
I used to think research was boring. Ok. In so many cases it still is. However! I've found that researching a topic that I'm genuinely interested in can be exciting. So much so that I've lost entire weeks worth of writing time digging into actual, real-live history research! I passed history in high-school with a 51%, exactly what I needed to never do it again!

That said, history isn't the only subject you can research. There's plenty of science, psychology, economics, and so many other things. I urge you to find reputable sources of information for any research you do. It's great to dig into something on the black hole that is Wikipedia, but make sure you source anything you intend to use. I'm not saying you need to put a bibliography at the end of your work (ugh). Just be warned that if you do put something that is both real and inaccurate into your story, people will call you on it.

Remember to take whatever you find and expand upon it even further by asking the principle questions, not only for how they fit the subject of the research, but for how it fits into your story.

Discussion
It never hurts to talk it out. I use this one all the time. My wife and kids hear about sticking points and ideas in my stories constantly. Often they don't even have to respond. Simply throwing it at them seems to help. That said, no one will find gaps or flaws you need to fix in an idea faster than someone who doesn't have a whole lot of context.

Try it. If they're paying attention, I guarantee no matter how much you explain it, they'll have some of those principle questions at the end. Those questions can be the grease that keeps your wheels turning.

A small caveat: One experiment I've tried that you may, or may not, want to avoid is picking a subject of debate and choosing a fixed and intentionally contrary point of view to present to people. Without proper framing and context, this can lead to some very heated arguments (which can still be good). Chances are you want the person you're discussing your idea with to still talk to you afterward.

Theft
Last week I covered some methods of kick-starting your idea engine (oooh, idea engines... sounds cool! I'm going to write that down). One of those methods involved theft. Theft is a fantastic way to expand upon an idea, but here you have to be careful, especially if you stole the idea in the first place. But as I always say: A little larceny is good for the soul. So let's work with theft.

You've got your idea. Find things that have something similar to that idea in it. If you stole the idea and you aren't intending to write fan fiction (and there's NOTHING wrong with writing fan fiction, it's a great way to exercise your writerly muscles), you should really look for similarities in something unrelated to your original source.

That doesn't mean you can't use the same source, but you're only making your work harder on yourself than it has to be. Oh! And comic books or adaptations/sources count as the SAME source, so no you can't claim that the Serenity comics are a different source than Firefly or the Serenity movie.

So, once you've found your source, dig in. Ingest a bunch of it, just like you did for finding the idea. Unlike that searching process, take notes on the ideas and tropes that flow through it. But try to stick to the points that directly relate to your idea, you don't want to steal more than you have to, or you're going to let someone else build your playground for you. You don't want that for an original work.

Then walk away from it and try to think of everything you loved and hated about it and write it down, but in this try to be non-specific.

For example: I've been watching a lot of Buffy and Angel on Netflix lately (I'm not justifying that here, Whedon is a master!). Taking the idea of "My main character is a monster hunter." my following lists could work for one or both.

Loved:
Tight-knit group of friends
Witty banter
Kick-ass fights (yes, they're cheesy, but fun)
Protagonist who just wants to be normal fighting against insurmountable odds
Real-life complications

Hated:
Chosen one
Destiny/Fate overtones
Whiny protagonist
Dumb predictable villains
Same old monsters

From that I get some pretty nice launching points that come back to the principle questions.

  • Who are their friends?
    • Where did they meet?
    • Do their friends know what they do?
    • What sort of conflict do these friendships create for the protagonist?
    • What do they talk about?
  • How do they fight? 
    • Where did they learn to fight?
    • Are they good at fighting?
  • What do they want to do with their life if it's not fighting monsters?
    • What sort of hobbies do they have?
  • If they're not a "chosen one" how did they end up a monster hunter?
    • Why do they do it?
    • Why don't they stop?
  • What kind of monsters are they fighting?
    • What special methods are needed to fight those monsters?
    • Are they killing the monsters or trapping them?
    • What do they do with them once they're killed/caught?

And so on.

Last but not least...

Blending
This is one of my personal favourites. Take two ideas from wherever it is you hide them, and mash them together to see how they taste. Without such a genius method of creation we wouldn't have the wonders of Dark Chocolate covered Pretzels, Dinobots, Firefly, Star Wars, or Jim Butcher's Codex Alera.

The ideas don't even need to be similar to be made into something fantastic. The total can absolutely be greater than the sum of its parts. It may take some work to get two (or more) things to fit together, and all things likely won't fit together without getting a little bit creative. But you're a writer. That's what you do.

I use some or all of the above methods to build on things before I start writing, while I'm writing, and sometimes just for fun. Whatever methods you use, always chase the answers deeper. That's how you make a unique and compelling story.

Let me know what methods you use to expand upon your ideas down in the comments.

-Alex

This is the third entry in a series of posts about my evolving writing process.