Friday, January 13, 2017

Prologue Structure Part 3

Welcome back! Let’s get back to talking about prologues!

How do I find the right thing(s) to show in my prologue?

Define your story.

I know I put that in all italics, but that’s because it’s super important. Are you plot-driven or character-driven? We talked about that during the first lesson and this is where that knowledge comes into play.

The best way to know "how" to create an effect is to know "what" effect you're going for, because the shape of a story as you create it (the people, story events and setting) remains constant, but depending on where you put the emphasis and how consistent you are with your knowledge of where you're going, the contents can be anything from experimental lit to a Harlequin.

A plot-driven story focuses on story events, and a character-driven story focuses on people. In other words, characters react to story events in a story where the plot takes precedence, and story events develop out of how a character reacts or interacts in a character-driven story.

If I opened Starr’s prologue with a demon in a truck of illegals—all of whom were really hot women, and ended with a shot of the doors opening, and a makeshift brothel with a lot of blood and dead bodies, or simply a detached hand falling out of the door, it would be the inciting incident for a story about dead prostitutes, demons/fallen angels and human trafficking. If I changed the focus in my prologue and opened with a shot of Starr cutting his wings off and walking out of Hell, it would be the inciting incident for a character-driven story about Starr, and the prostitutes would be my “vehicle” to show his transformational arc.

It’s all part of what makes up your voice. Where and how you start your story—what it’s about and where the focus is, needs to do one of two things—show the inciting incident (or why this particular story is about to happen (think Da Vinci Code/plot-based)), or a change which then leads to this particular story happening (Jane doesn’t believe anyone except her loves Suzy/character-arc based).
If you’re familiar with my character, Mercedes, then you know the inciting incident for Mercedes is the fire where she can’t bring herself to go through the fire into the Play Place to rescue her little sisters from the pedophile—there’s too much backstory giving her a fear of fire that goes way beyond “I don’t like fire” to “I’m terrified and can’t move.”

Pertinent backstory/the start of a transformational arc (or core events) depends on how much motivation you need. Jane (the heroine from post 1) doesn’t need more motivation to protect Suzy’s house than her years of friendship with the older woman, because she doesn’t need conflicting motivation to “not” save the house. Jane is in a character-driven story, which means the story events develop from how Jane reacts to events, and she reacts to events by thinking nobody except her cares for Suzy. Her prologue, showing whatever event I pick from her years of friendship (the emotional punch of Suzy’s death, the emotional punch of hiding in the library (see the pattern?) although in this case, I think the death would work better) sets the stage for her arc. Which means somewhere along the line, Jane needs to meet a guy who she thinks didn’t love Suzy, and her transformation (since she’s in a romance) is to realize he did love Suzy, so Jane can put down her anger and find her happily ever after.

In Jane’s case, her story is a solid whole, from prologue to end.

Mercedes also has a strong arc, and there is no doubt she really loves her sisters—she is a protective, loving older sister with a capital “P.” However, like John McClain in Die Hard, she’s up against a strong plot. I need to stop her from running into that Play Place so the story can start. I need to show her conflict.

I know her primary motivation is to protect her sisters because she loves them. Protective love is not a hard emotion to get across. However, the depth of her fear is difficult to convey.

That means if I don’t want to weave it into the story, I need to show it. A little thought tells me that nothing I can show my reader will be as strong as her imagination, which puts the beginning framework around what, why and how.

In this instance, the prologue should do three things:
·         Show the second fire (the what).
·         Happen without the twins, since you don’t want them paralyzed, too (how).
·         And be as awful and mentally crippling as I can make it (and why).

In other words, I’m going to show my reader "another"fire to increase the intensity of Mercedes's fear, put her into a situation where she’s (surely) going to die, jack up her emotions to the screaming point—and end the prologue, using the Kuleshov Effect.

The reader now knows Mercedes almost died (because she’s alive in chapter 1), it was godawful horrible, and that’s why she can’t force herself into the Play Place, and even though Mercedes would die for her sisters, she can’t. Her body simply won’t move. It’s only when the pedophile grabs them that her love can push through her fear (way too late). And the story starts.

A thought here would be that she needs to be confronted with a fire again, at the climax, to prove she’s changed and overcome her fear (not of the fire but of inadequacy, which is a totally different workshop, lol, and easy to see here in this powerpoint), so she can become the woman who can be with the hero (making Mercedes’s story a unified whole, too).

Which means regardless if it’s the story with the prostitutes and gore, or the one focused on Starr and his wings, it would still open the same, with Starr walking down the road looking for coffee because of the Kuleshov Effect. What you show first, influences what the reader sees next.

In the first story, you already know it's a murder-thriller-paranormal because of the prologue, so it’s pretty obvious if we open with Starr he’s going to play a large role in the investigation.

In the second one, you know who Starr is, what he’s capable of, and something about his attitude. So when we open with Starr walking down the street it means something is about to happen to start him on a journey driven by who and what he is. Strongly plot-driven versus strongly character-driven.

It’s all a matter of voice. Prologues work if they’re a logical part of the story, and provide either a reason for or a jumping off point to the rest of the story.


Thanks for being here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Updates to the workshop links and a little on the Kuleshov effect (for prologues)

It looks like the server for AWW has crashed. I sent a message to the admins, so hopefully it'll be back up soon if you're checking out the workshops (or just me in general, lol. I'm not egotistic enough to think just because you've swung by you're going to madly rush out and take my workshops). So anyway--let's talk about the Kuleshov Effect!!

The Kuleshov Effect is a film editing method developed by a Russian filmmaker (named Kuleshov :)) back in the earlier part of the last century. It takes advantage of a mental phenomenon where viewers derive more meaning from seeing a series of pictures rather just one by itself. In writing this is the old E.M. Forster chestnut, "The king died. The queen died." Or how changing a few words takes events from "events", to a story, then a plot.

The king died. The queen died (being two events that may or may not be related).
The king died, then the queen died (being a story).
The king died, then the queen died of grief (being a plot, or how the story is shown).

In other words, you don't know what happened to the king or queen if you just show them individually. They're just a bodies in a box. However, if you use a shot of the king laying in state during the prologue, then come back to show the queen's funeral as chapter one opens, you've created cause and effect, or a relationship of some sort where people might not know how (since we haven't got to the plot yet) but what we do know is that it's related in some way and important to the story. Which is why chapter one needs to work with the prologue, because the reader is going to be extrapolating like mad, wondering and making connections, even if those connections aren't there.

Let's take a quick look at the Kuleshov Effect itself. Click on the link in the word for a wikipedia explanation and check out the youtube videos.The first video is Kuleshov's original work, and might not work well to show the phenomenon, since you're not just coming on it out of the blue, but watching it to understand how it works. Then watch the Hitchcock video about montage for forty seconds (he explains the concept behind the Kuleshov Effect well). Then jump to the 5.40 mark so you can listen to him talk about how it works while you watch "his" version of Lev Kuleshov's video.




The Kuleshov Effect is the reason prologues work, and how they can be used to "spin" a story, or influence it in one direction or the other (which sets up for post 3 on prologues, as we talk about how to do that).

Remember I have comment moderation on. I tend to get to them quickly, but I might not see it come in, so I appreciate your patience. Thanks for dropping by!


Sunday, January 8, 2017

Prologue Structure Part 1

Good Morning and welcome to Prologue Structure for Character and Plot-driven Stories! I really have this intense urge to do the “who” I am spiel since I do it all the time, so I will, even though you pretty much know who I am if you’re here. Hi! My name is Jodi and I’m a dev editor based in the Greater Seattle area (which means I live as far away from the city center as I can). I specialize in character-driven narratives of all sorts, broken things and people who’ve hit the limits of what they can do by themselves. My current home on the web is over at AWW, so if you’re interested in checking it out there’s a link over on the sidebar about my current workshops—that said, hey!!! Welcome. J

This is a really old workshop that I wrote, God knows—about seven years ago? I still have a soft spot for it, because it’s something a lot of people don’t really talk about (and I love prologues—epilogues, too. I’m a sucker for seeing everyone happy, weddings, babies, hot guys potentially getting ready to spin off book #2, and dangerous villains lurking in the shadows, you know, stuff like that).

The Pros and Cons of using a prologue

Many writers don’t like prologues and feel readers don’t like them. They might also think a prologue isn’t “needed”, which is true, because a prologue isn’t necessary. Unlike a beginning, middle or end, nobody really “needs” a prologue. It’s not part of your story skeleton. It’s more like a set of braces; an add-on to something that already works fine.

Like braces, prologues are all about personal choice. Maybe you feel your story is crooked and needs a little support, or think it doesn't look right, or maybe your gut feeling says a prologue simply needs to be there. Because a good prologue is hard to write, some people have sworn off them and encourage others to do the same. However, a prologue, regardless of where you stand on the prologue debate, is a stylistic choice. It’s not right, wrong, or lazy writing; it’s simply one of many choices you make during the creation process.

In The Elements of Style, Strunk says, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Not that I’m arguing with Strunk, but good writing sings and dances, it doesn’t plod along like an English textbook. How many times have you seen a book that totally blew away everything you knew was right and reached the top of the bestseller lists? Head-hopping, run-on sentences, goofball plot events and purple prose—you can do anything if you connect with your reader. Good writing tells a great story. Whether you have a couple of unnecessary words, want to go purple, blue or Hemingway, if it works, it works, which is why voice is the hardest thing to teach.

Voice is how you interpret craft.

However, before you start thinking I'm a prologue advocate, I don’t believe everyone should have a prologue. Prologues don’t make weak writing stronger or a weak story better. If you like and want to use a prologue it should be an informed choice and work with the story you want to tell.
What readers don’t like are prologues that don’t work.

What a prologue is and isn’t:

A prologue is not an info-dump.

If you have a romance between John and Jane, but talk about how John’s grandma Suzy owned a Victorian, made friends with Jane and left the house to her which made John upset because he wanted the house to stay in the family, then you show John getting the news, talking to a lawyer and swearing he’ll get the house back for his sweet old mum to set up for the story—that’s an info-dump.

A prologue is not unrelated information that has nothing to do with the story you’re currently writing.

If John practices kendo, or Jane once saw a ghost—maybe John is the founder of the local Veteran’s Day parade or is really a hot alien general, it should only be in your prologue if it impacts the story, comes up again, or illustrates a point. It’s cool that John is well-rounded, but keep it pertinent.

A prologue should not read like the Old Testament, the history of the world or say things like “Little did she know” or “As she was to find out.”

Unless you’re so good an unrelated sampling of beta readers and crit partners agrees your prologue is the hottest thing to hit paper since JR Rowling wrote Harry Potter, toggle back on over-the-top word choices (unless, of course, your entire story reads the same way).

A prologue should provide info that would take a huge amount of time to explain or has more impact when shown.

Remember Jane’s friend, Suzy, the old lady with the house? What’s the important part of that whole scenario? Is it John’s vow to get the house back? Or his meeting with the lawyer?

It’s actually Suzy’s death.

If Suzy didn’t die and leave the house to Jane, the story doesn’t happen. Why did Suzy leave the house to Jane? Could it be that no one in her family cared enough to talk to her? Was Jane her only friend? Did Jane love Suzy?

Showing their connection is important exposition because it is the basis for one of Jane’s primary motivations. When John shows up, wanting to buy the house back from Jane—Jane’s love for the woman she considered a second mother, and anger at Suzy’s family, will provide a major source of conflict.

Narrowing it down still further, showing Jane in the Emergency Room, crying at Suzy’s bedside, holding on to Suzy’s hand provides an emotional hook. There is nothing stronger than the death of a loved one (although this doesn’t mean the death of someone the protagonist loves is the only thing that goes in a prologue, lol).

A prologue should be connected to the story you’re telling.

Not “a” story, or the story of your character’s lives at some earlier or later time, but this story.
If Jane’s mom once took her to a Christmas pageant and Jane fell in love with Santa Claus, which is why Jane collects Santa figurines, Jane's santa-holic behavior has nothing to do with her making a stand in Suzy’s house (see that paragraph about unrelated information).

But if Jane’s mother used to beat her and forgot Jane at school the day of the Christmas pageant, and Suzy was the mean old librarian who found Jane hiding in the stacks, got her something to eat and turned Jane’s life around—showing that makes a good prologue.

A prologue, above all—should be an emotional hook that pulls your reader into chapter one.

If you don’t “feel” it, your reader won’t either. The story of Suzy’s death, or the beginning of Jane and Suzy’s friendship might feel over the top, but there’s a vast difference between a dry recitation of story events and a visceral experience done up close and personal. If you’re throwing a prologue in there, make it count.

Plot-driven v. character-driven?

Before we get started, I’d like to spend a little time exploring the difference between character and plot-driven stories because it makes a difference in what you’re trying to do, and how to do it. Not that either way is wrong. Simply that each way needs to be approached differently.

Plot-driven stories are not necessarily bad, and character-driven stories are not necessarily good. Like anything else, what sells comes and goes in cycles. Sometimes one style does better, sometimes the other does.

When you call a story plot or character-driven, you’re simply describing a construction style. In a plot-driven story, events are the driving force. A good example of this would be when Joan’s sister is kidnapped in Romancing the Stone and Joan has to deliver the package her brother-in-law mailed to her before he died, or the murder of Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle in A New Hope, and Luke’s decision to leave Tatooine.

Joan wouldn’t decide to leave for Cartagena, and Luke wouldn’t make the decision to leave Tatooine by themselves, but since plot events—the kidnapping and murders—happened, the characters have no choice except to react.

Characters are subordinate to the plot, and are moved by the needs of the plot. Joan needs to get to Cartagena to save her sister, and Luke needs to help Leia and redeem his aunt and uncle’s deaths. It’s fast-paced and high concept. If it were a book, it’d be called a page turner, because each page flips in a logical chain. 

The reader needs to know what happens next. Does Luke save the Princess? Does Joan trade El Corazon for her sister? Joan doesn’t spend a lot of time showing her internals, which doesn’t mean she doesn’t have internals. It’s just that the story focus is on externals.

Good examples of plot driven movies would be
Rogue One
The DaVinci Code
And Die Hard

Plot driven stories can be described in a quick elevator pitch.

A good plot-driven story, like Die Hard, can also have many character-driven elements, because the best plot-driven stories grow out of character in the same way a good character-driven story has an integrated plot.

Character-driven stories are a little more difficult to describe because they’re driven by character and sometimes characters do things that don’t make sense or come out of nowhere unless you think about their actions as part of a greater whole. In the Indiana Jones movies, Indy rushes around, fighting bad guys and avoiding snakes. It’s a great adventure. In Witness, another Harrison Ford movie, he also fights bad guys. The difference is that it’s a character-driven movie, so when you remember it, you don’t remember the chases or shootings, you remember Book waking up in Rachel’s bed, freaking out over his gun and changing over the course of the movie.

While plot-driven stories can contain a character arc, in a character-driven story the transformational arc is very pronounced. John Book isn’t the same man at the end of Witness, while Indy is the same at both the beginning and end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Character-driven stories run on emotion.

A good example of character-driven movies would be:
Witness
Casablanca
Zootopia

A character-driven story is more complex emotionally, but might also contain less plot because people are the plot drivers and plot flows out of them (you know—sucking up more word count), instead of being imposed on them.

A good rule of thumb is that if you think of the story as a whole, a story is plot-driven if the largest percentage of word count has to do with what is going on, versus following someone like Rick in Casablanca as he angsts over Ilsa, or Judy Hopps in Zootopia as she tries to live her dream.

When is a prologue chapter one?

A prologue is your first chapter if you can take away the label calling it a prologue; re-label it chapter one and the story flows on without skipping a beat.

There needs to be some kind of focused disconnect between the prologue and the first chapter (which we'll talk about next time), although that disconnect can’t be totally random. The prologue and first chapter must make sense together, even if the prologue is simply a bookend device (creates a resonance with the epilogue).

When prologues work, they work well. When they’re done badly, it’s usually because the writer wants to explain things he or she doesn’t think the reader will catch without having it diagrammed ahead of time or simply has an interesting scene that is way too cool to leave out of the story.

Maybe the prologue explains the war in Heaven, the fall of Lucifer, and ends with the formation of Hell. Then the first page opens on some guy walking down the street looking for a cup of coffee. Five pages later we find out the guy’s name is Starr, he lives in Boston, and someone is killing prostitutes. It doesn’t connect. It might, if the author wanted to set Lucifer up as Starr. But simply focusing on events in the prologue doesn’t make the story a connected whole. “You” might know where the story is going, but you need to give your reader some clues.

Who is this Starr guy? Is he Lucifer? The prologue talks about Lucifer, but chapter one is some guy walking down the street looking for coffee.

If the story is really about an angel who got caught up in the war, decided to hang out with humans, and now he’s a detective/cop/whatever and the plot involves human trafficking—the author probably figured the prologue made sense since it’s what caused Starr to become a cop. He Fell.

Starr’s Fall is backstory but until you also think about the prologue as a focal piece for your story it’s hard to tell if it’s the right thing to show. Besides being a hook, a prologue should be the right hook. Characters, like people, have lives that run in a continuum. Stuff happens before the story and keeps happening afterwards.

The creation of Hell isn’t part of Starr’s story. It’s interesting and was probably fun to write, but Hell is part of Lucifer’s story and even if they were friends and fought together, Lucifer and his issues have nothing to do with Starr and his coffee.

Which means in addition to being the “right” hook, a prologue needs to stay on target.

Next up: Making it work

I have comment moderation on, so don't be surprised if your comments don't show up right away. I get a lot of spammers, so I want to check it out before posting it (plus it makes sure I see it). If you have a prologue and want to talk about it, be aware that I'll probably talk about it on the blog :). Thanks for dropping by!


Friday, January 6, 2017

New Series and updates

You know, back when I read blogs, I used to wonder why my favorite bloggers only updated once a month (or once a year, sometimes once in two or three years). It's taken me years to realize it's simply a lack of time. The busier you are, the less time there is for blogging, or pretty much anything.

The other day I was waiting on my kid. We'd parked outside a Starbucks fronting the Tacoma campus of the University of WA, and I was doing my favorite thing--dubbing the dialogue for people passing by and making comments about puffy black coats, people who wear shorts and sandals in twenty degree weather, and the return of the unisex haircut (shaved on the sides, long on the top, sort of like a carrot). And my other kid says, "I like people-watching," which means she thinks the corny dialogue is funny and we don't go out enough.

I really don't do a lot of anything anymore--except work, lol. And blogging has dropped to maybe fifty on my daily to-do list, but I really wanted to get some of my old workshops out for people who were interested. One of my favorite older workshops is Prologue Structure, and looking back on it, it's a very focused look at how to use structure to make a prologue work for your story, and what it does and doesn't do (so you can make an informed choice). I'll probably start it up later today, or maybe tomorrow, so drop by if you're interested and we can talk. If you're interested in learning to become your own dev editor, swing by All Writer's and check out my new workshop series. It's taken awhile to realize I should play to my strengths. :) 

If you're going to the Wolf Pack Conference tomorrow, I hope you'll ask lots of questions, and if you're looking for some free advice or to talk about your wip, drop by the free All Writer's Open House. You have to sign up, but it's a thirty second thing and it runs all tomorrow. Leave a question, get an answer! See you then. :) btw, comment moderation has been on forever, so if you leave a comment it won't show up until I see it. That's a good thing because I'll definitely see it. :) Thanks for dropping by!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

DIY Developmental Edits

I remember, a couple of years back, I'd go to other story blogs and wonder why the blog's owner hadn't updated in months (if not years). Then I'd roll on to another blog, and it'd be the same thing over again. Nowadays (a year after my last post), I understand. Things were super different when I was just kicking around theories and making powerpoints for fun. These days, I pretty much have a 20/4 hour day. Work twenty, sleep four. Although seriously, sleep is way overrated.

I've been working on a new workshop called, well, in my mind--DIY Dev Edits, which is kind of weird, because all this time I've been trying to make some kind of interlocking system to write, not edit, and what do I end up with? In some ways, I really think it's about about a knowledge base, because it's really hard to explain something isn't working (because it has no arc) to someone who has no clue how arcs work, or what an arc is, which is probably the same thing my kid thinks whenever he fixes my car and tries to talk to me about exhaust systems. I could care less about mufflers and batteries. I just want to know if I get in and turn the key, the engine will turn over so I can go to the store.

Which means I basically I ended up with a lot of exercises that do two things: teach theory quickly, and explain how to use it so you get in the car and drive with minimal effort.

If you're interested, why not drop by? It's coming up soon :)

April 7-14th at All Writer Workshops

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Double Woot!!

After many years (thanks for reminding me, Facebook!) Practical Emotional Structure Part 2 is almost out. I just hit the "publish" button on Amazon and hope to have it live by Saturday, when it'll also be free. Whew, I hope it doesn't take another three years for the next book.