Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Core events, focal motivation and a little bit of ES

It's been awhile since I blogged. I've had family issues, and not stuff you can talk about on-line unless you have a mommy blog or something. Enough to say it ate my brain, and I haven't had an independent thought in months, although I can answer questions, which is weird in itself. I suspect independent thought, and creative stuff live in that little dark place in your head where "things you don't want to think about" also live. Sometimes there's room for everything, and sometimes, there's only room for putting one step in front of the other...and I've been slogging. It hasn't been caviar and good times.

The last time I was here, I archived most of my core event workshop. Since then I've been doing a lot of thinking. Maybe I needed to get everything together to realize core events are simply focal motivation. Or…maybe I just needed a bigger sample group. Over the last three years, I've had a lot of opportunities to put my theories into practice, and the last two workshops (Emotional Structure and the Transformational Arc) solidified a lot of my thoughts on exactly what a core event does and what it controls. 

Warning: You might have to click on the pictures if you can't see them clearly. That should (I hope) enlarge them as blogger jpgs. It took such a long time to create the original powerpoint I really want to use the pictures. SLIDES FIXED. All thanks to Tanja who helped me figure out how to add in the right kind of pictures. It should all work now.

Let's look at Kim, my Emotional Structure heroine.

She has stats, a childhood and I know what she's supposed to do (in a general sort of way), but numbers and facts aren't "flesh." Stories driven by emotion are stories driven by character, because story emotion can't exist without real people to feel them. While a story can be "plot-heavy" and still get emotion across (The Silence of the Lambs), it can't be plot "driven" (The Stepford Wives). Plot-driven stories work with the thinking part of your brain (wow! How horrible is that??) (Figure out the Code or die!) 

A story laden with emotion is a story driven by character, because people care about people. Characters shouldn't simply exist to serve the needs of the plot because they tend to get slapped down when they rebel (my characters won't do what they're supposed to do) or just sit there. Although it's an easy fix to "write" them through the motions, you get the emotional connection between your story and reader by finding out the reasons your characters act the way they do.

Let's give Kim a cliché job.
Kim is a struggling bed and breakfast owner who is taking care of her child after the death of her husband. 

And conveniently make the hero useful.
Jason owns a small construction company and in his spare time he's an amateur chef.

Kim needs to add a bathroom to the "Honeymoon suite" and hires Jason. He was the low bid because he just relocated his company and he needs to show people what he can do. Jason hits it off well with Cleo (Kim's daughter) and since Kim can't boil water without burning it, invites them over (he's the single dad down the street) for dinner. Cleo and Tyra connect and become friends. He lost his wife because she refused to settle down, and Kim lost her husband. It should be a marriage made in Heaven—or is it?

It "sounds" like there's an emotional component, but it's just set-up for the story.
1. Kim hires Jason, the new single dad down the street to fix her bathroom.
2. He likes her kid (and her!) and invites them over for dinner with his kid.
3. Their kids get along.
4. Can they find love together?

Why not? Nothing is stopping them. Although a story can be "real" like life, there needs to be a reason for the story to exist. It needs conflict, which means motivation—not motivation in the terms of GMC where the character is trying to get to a goal. Kim's goal is not to win the hero. The writer's goal is to get Kim and Jason together.  Kim just wants to take care of her kid.

This is motivation as a focal point for the character's actions and reactions in "this" story because a character driven story is hard to pin down in terms of pure GMC. GMC is a plotting tool. Focal motivation is a story driver, which is why a character focused story is called character-driven, because something pushes Kim from pt A to pt B.

There are three reasons why creating the emotional structure of a story starts during the pre-thinking stage:
  • You are writing for a reader in addition to yourself.
  • Small changes to the character's core event mean big changes in story events and the depth of the emotional arc.
  • You need to understand your character's motivation for the story they're in, not their motivation for your story goal.
    For the time being, Kim's story is very simple. I’m writing a contemporary romance. I have a widowed heroine, adorable child, hot studly construction single dad, and another adorable child with a golden retriever. I’ve hit three inclusive things, children, the protective/self-sacrificing instincts of a parent and second love because I want my contemporary to appeal to as many people as possible and I strongly believe in the love a parent feels for their child, in addition to a second chance at love. 

    I picture Kim as a widow. Her husband passed away two years ago. Cleo is about eight. Kim owns a B&B. She needs to remodel the honeymoon suite because without a private bath it’s not doing well.

    Jason just moved into the neighborhood. Him and his former wife had an amicable divorce, and are still friends. He owns the construction business Kim hires to fix her bathroom, and he’s a hands-on owner.
    Unity of emotion is the primary emotion your protagonist feels during the story, which changes at the transformational point of a character arc so the end can happen. So far, Kim is a blank slate. I know her dress size and relationship with her kid, her B&B and a huge amount about Jason.

    Which means Kim's core/focal event needs to address a couple of things:
    • Her relationship with her kid
    • Her potential relationship with Jason
    • The reason she’s running a B&B instead of settling down in a normal job
    • And her relationship with her former husband
    We are all products of our past and environment. Things happen to us to make us who we are. When something bad, traumatic or on the flip-side, good, happens it creates a set of reactions, attitudes and emotions that are associated with the event. It doesn’t have to be one set “time” like a twenty-four hour period, but one set of actions, like a car crash with the memory of the crash itself, the aftermath, throwing up on the side of the road, x-rays at the hospital and being unable to take a deep breath for the next two weeks. Or a car crash where your kid dies screaming next to you,  the gut-wrenching feeling of being unable to help “and” throwing up on the side of the road, being unable to take a deep breath for the next two weeks and the closed casket funeral.

    One event is lighter and has the potential to create less conflict. The other is dark and serious, and has the potential to create horrible trauma. It's the same event, but the second event has more emotional weight because now you’re focused in on what your reader fears (a key component of strong emotional structure; getting the reader to "feel"). A character's core event has the power to change your story. It's not just a focal point, or a nexus, or even the beginning of the transformational arc. It also controls the emotional depth of your story, and what happens in it.

    Kim’s baggage and issues create conflict with Jason and his daughter. Not just outwardly, in her reluctance to talk to, or touch Tyra. Or in her nightmares and crying jags, but emotionally in her internal conflict.
    She's fighting herself at the same time that she’s attracted to Jason. How can she love another man? Isn’t it a betrayal of her husband, and won’t loving Jason cause her to lose control of her tightly ordered life? What happens if she loves him so much she hurts Tyra, another person she’s starting to love?

    Can she ever leave the B&B? It was her husband’s dream to own a B&B, and her daughter loved running up and down the halls. It hurts to live there, but it’d hurt more to leave the few memories she has.
    Her emotional arc is her movement from pain, grieving and loss (which is manifested as being overly controlled and cold) to accepting love back into her life. Her transformational arc is from overly controlled and cold to open—which allows the pain in. The pain is the fallout of her realization that she can’t allow it to control her. She needs to work through it to have a future with Jason.


    Ken Myers said...

    I do not believe a single mother who was caretaker to her deceased husband during his declining years, and who is also the owner of a B&B to boot, "cannot boil water." Does she have her guests make their own breakfast?
    If you want this story to appeal to the masses, she should lose her B&B. It is a luxury job. How many people would kill for a job like that, if they could afford the kind of home that is needed to operate as a B&B? She could pretend she can't boil water in her initial interactions with Jason, when she finds out he likes to cook, in an attempt (successful) to get invited over to dinner at his place. Later she has to maintain the charade when he is over at her house to fix things while she is cooking for guests, with some comedic potential. This minor white lie can foreshadow a larger deception, that she is hugely upside down on her mortgage, her home is in foreclosure, and she's not even sure she can pay Jason. Maybe she was hoping to fix up the home quick and short sell it. Her major dishonesty makes her feel unworthy of him as things get serious, she may do things to sabotage the relationship or drive him away. If she comes clean, will he feel used? Can he trust she's not trying to hook up with him for his money? For a real happy ending, maybe they work things out and with his help, she can keep her B&B because he sells his house to raise the money to save it. Or, for a deeper ending, perhaps she loses her home, but regains her integrity, and we see later on she's married & sharing his home, and she spends her day at a shelter for abuse victims, making them breakfast and fixing the place up, as a parallel to what she did at her B&B, but even more rewarding (in non-monetary terms). And she's happy. This ending can be foreshadowed if one of Jason's early selling points is we find out he volunteers some time doing free repairs for the shelter. This can be one of those very early "make this character lovable' moments. It can be built on midway through when she's fighting with Jason, maybe throwing this out as an example of how he's too good for her, and in a rage he confesses he only volunteers there for the PR and doesn't give a shit about the people there. It may not be entirely true, but there is some truth that there was a profit motive underlying it. We see no one is perfect. Well, there's one way to go... all rights reserved...

    Jodi Henley said...

    Thanks for the input, Ken. I never really thought...well, sometimes--about how I appear to the outside, or what tropes are ingrained in me. But I always pictured Kim as a SAM (stay at home mom) who is totally reluctant to get involved with another man. Guess I'm a diehard romantic and after everything shakes down, a romance writer to my toenails. :)