Friday, April 27, 2018

You know how when you choose a path?

So anyway, there I was (I always start out with this in real life, not sure why), way back when--thinking, man all this retraining stuff just isn't working out, I wonder what I can do to make money and support us? And I sat down, staring at the wall. This was way back when, back in the early days of ereaders and stuff. I'd just gotten a job with a small press, but the money wasn't rolling in. I knew I'd have to go back to work (because one of those huge, ultra-changing life events had happened), but I wanted a potential way out that wouldn't suck the soul out of me.

Then Sharon came along. She was looking for someone to present an online RWA workshop (that turned out to be the first workshop I ever did (Running in the Dark for the Black Diamond chapter), and she said--everybody talked to you! She was amazed. Until that point, I didn't know most people lurk. I mean, I talked like crazy (and still do), and when she moved on to help form savvy, I went with her. Between workshops and edits, life has gotten a lot better. I offered my opinion for years before hanging out a shingle, and I still do--I'd probably do it for free if I didn't have a mortgage (a house paid for with edit money! In the Seattle area! The mind boggles) and limited time.

Recently (okay, a couple of years ago) I was fortunate enough to meet Dianna Love, and she's just as nice as she seemed when I first saw her at RWA '09 presenting a workshop with Mary Buckham. She's been fabulous, letting me work with her over at All Writer's.

We've been doing this blurb workshop that keeps selling out and I've been thinking of more quick 1 day workshops that will focus on little bits of workable craft. I dunno, I've been thinking there's got to be a way to distill dev edits into a day--maybe a check list with actionable bits? But anyway. It's been good. And the more work I do, the better life gets. It's crowded, and busy, and sometimes it's freaking insane. But I wouldn't trade it for the world. I'm doing what I like, working with stories, talking to people who like stories, living the dream. And I suspect--if my paths diverged in a yellow wood, just like Frost said, it'd have all circled back.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Excerpt from a workshop #4 (emotional through-lines)

Also remember—and this is one of the most important takeaways from this workshop. Say what you mean, unless you are showing emotions the character doesn’t know they have, or are controlling for some reason or another.

Looking at this paragraph, you used the word and phrase “furious” and “really angry”. From a glance at the rest of the chapter, Jane is “really angry”, she isn’t furious. Furious implies a totally different set of actions and reactions. "Really angry" implies the stuff you already have in place. It’s like a scale. Unless the progression of emotion is still continuing (you know, like she’s moving from angry to furious), then just name it and move on, so you can work on other stuff. The emotional through-line, where she is really angry, will keep going until you do something to derail it. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Story Lines In Plain English

So there I was (and as my daughter says, I start all stories with this phrase), wondering how to explain why it was so important to connect the end of the story to the beginning. Which pretty much means I've dropped into the middle of "this" story without even pausing to explain where I came from. If you've talked to me over the last few years, you know I've been on a "the end and beginning need to sync" kick. Kicking it around, kicking it around, thinking about it.

It's not that the info isn't usable. I think it's more like it's not relate-able. I mean, everyone knows their story works. They write and it ends up where they wanted to go, more or less, and listening to me say a storyline is a force, and should be straight sort of blurs.

A storyline, or at least how I use it, is the story's narrative or all the stuff in it, the plot or sequence of events, the characters, the motivations, the setting, the...everything. I think of it as "stuff" or the story as an integrated unit. Storyline = all the stuff, moving toward the end where something happens. In a romance (because it's the easiest example), it's the happily ever after.

So, storyline = all the stuff moving toward the end of the story where the hero and heroine get together now and forever, or just for now.

Now, strip that down to the word "line", and change line into "plain". We are now on a plain, sort of like the Midwest or something. Chicago is on the plain. NY, Seattle, LA, Alaska. They're all on the plain. Along with people and cars, and houses and supermarkets. It's all a world, contained by a plain, where everyone walks around and does stuff (like in a book :) ).

Imagine we're going to Happily-Ever-After, which is in NY. However, we're still in Seattle, so we're going on a road-trip.  The heroine packs her car, and hits the road. It is 2,854 miles to NY, and somewhere on the road between Seattle and NY the hero is standing on the side of the road, leaning against his sexy black motorcycle, stripped down to a pair of jeans, muscles and tattoos. However, we're going to detour to Hawaii for a tan because we can't go to NY without looking bronzed and gorgeous for the hero.

However, one thing leads to another, the trip takes a long time, the hotel has fleas, and there are all these hot young lifeguards. Before you know it, Sea-tac Park and Fly is calling about your car because it's about to get towed. So, you get back on the plane, fly back to your car and start for NY.

Or, maybe you feel the call of the wild, and head to Alaska. Up the coast, bumping along the Alaska Highway, stopping here and there to look at elk or take in a glacier. You've got friends and your sister in the back seat, a couple of playlists, and long snug nights in cute cabins in the great outdoors. What hero? There's plenty of time to squeeze him in somewhere.

Now imagine Hawaii is the home of backstory. The heroine grew up there, loves the food, has relatives there, and can't let go. It might very well be that her memory hotel turns out to have fleas, but that's the point of a visit, to remember the fleas and have something to eat. A reader can't understand the story without seeing what shaped the heroine before it starts, right? And Alaska is full of friends, family, fun times, and sets up perfectly for a series.

However, Hawaii and Alaska are not on the way to NY, and unless the heroine is on the way to NY, she isn't going to meet the hero and start their journey together. This doesn't mean she can't stop in at a Hawaiian deli and get some takeout, or cruise through a park with the hero, another couple, and a cute puppy. While a storyline is a line, it doesn't mean stuff can't happen. It just means stuff needs to be on a straight line. It needs to be integrated. It needs to be takeout, or a fun day with the hero (and others) at a park. Why does it need to be Denali? Denali is in Alaska. Why not Cuyahoga Valley? Cuyahoga Valley is on the way to NY.

Lines are not just a line. They are a plain. A plain contains all kinds of things, including a road, and sometimes that road includes (minor) detours which quickly get you back on track again. Which leads back to the "end and beginning need to sync."

If you are road-tripping from Seattle to New York, and find yourself starting in Hawaii or Alaska, maybe the story needs to start earlier, or it's not really about the heroine, but someone else.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Psychoanalytic theory--another name for character-driven writing?

So I was reading wikipedia the other day, looking for something, and stumbled on this>

Psychoanalytic theorists believe that human behavior is deterministic. It is governed by irrational forces, and the unconscious, as well instinctual and biological drives. Due to this deterministic nature, psychoanalytic theorists do not believe in free will.

It's from the wikipedia entry on "psychoanalytic theory," which strangely enough I've never read. Freud has a bad reputation these days, but this one bit "human behavior is deterministic" is a gem and the entire theory behind character arc.

Characters react according to their backstory, which makes them deterministic, which makes stories causal, which--yeah, well anyway. I like it and wrote it down on a sticky. 

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:

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!