Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Beat Goes On

Last week I shared the three-act framework I use to begin a plot. It’s the same pattern most Hollywood films follow. For our fairy tale example it would look like this:

                       What now?                                   We’re doomed!  
Hansel & Gretel are lost=è  Hansel & Gretel are captured by witch ===è 

Hansel & Gretel escape & kill the witch =è Hansel & Gretel get home.

With this framework in place it’s time to find a secondary plot. There should always be something else going on to distract our hero.  Maybe he has to save the world from nuclear destruction, while at the same time keeping his wife from running off or keeping his kid from using drugs or studying for that test so he can finish his degree.  This is the human drama that goes on in the shadow of the larger mission.  This makes it easier for the reader to relate to our guy or gal, because whatever it is, the secondary plot is something they’ve had to deal with too.  It helps to complicate our hero’s life while making him a bit more human.

Now the real fun begins.  That is, fleshing this line out into a real outline.  I always outline.  I sometimes get stuck on how the outline should be, but once it’s in place I always know what comes next.  Therefore… no writer’s block.

To flesh out the outline, I create a number of events that I call beats.  Beats, because like music and comedy, novels have a rhythm to them.  Our hero faces a barrier, climbs it, rests, faces another barrier, breaks thru, rests, etc.  This is how you control the pace.  Moments of high tension alternate with chances to take a breath.

Each beat is a scene, like in a play or movie, with a definite when and where the event takes place. They are the challenges our hero must face to attain his goal, and they need to appear in a logical progression.  Each leads logically to the next.  They also need to generally get harder as he goes.  And each beat must offer a real challenge to our hero. It is never easy.  Each time he is less sure, or at least the reader is less sure that he will succeed. 

The other essential for a strong plot is conflict, and there should be some in every scene. We’ll discuss that in more detail next week.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Build Your Plot Framework

Last week we laid the groundwork for building the plot for a novel. My approach to plotting can differ, depending on the genre I’m working on.

My thriller plots usually start with the villain’s project. What’s the bad guy trying to do? Whatever it is, that’s what my heroes have to stop from happening.  My mystery plots usually start with the big challenge. What must Hannibal Jones do? I don’t generally start with “solve a murder.” because it’s just too simple. Police procedurals can start that way but Hannibal is a private investigator so he doesn’t get into cases that are obviously police business. I usually start with a “what if.” For example, the idea for Blood and Bone came from a news story i was working on at the time about bone marrow donation programs. What if someone needed a transplant and the only possible donor was missing? What Hannibal has to do is find the missing person.

That’s where it starts: Hannibal needs to find a missing person.  And I know where it ends.  Hannibal will find the missing person in time and save the day.

Now if you didn’t notice, I just gave you the outline of a story. 

Hannibal is asked to find a missing person =è hannibal finds him and saves the day for that

One classic may have started with this outline:

Odysseus needs to get home ===> Odysseus gets home.

For a popular fairy tale, the outline might be:

Hansel and Gretel get lost=è Hansel and Gretel get home.

This is the basic outline and from here we just add more and more detail until we’re ready to write.  Notice that the basic story starts when the normal state of things is disturbed, and ends when the normal state is restored.   

Beyond that, the basic structure I use for my books will work for just about any kind of genre fiction.  Here’s the simplest diagram of what’s in my head:

                          Now what?                              We’re doomed!                       
Problem presented==è much bigger problem appears --à  high speed finish=è hero saves the day.

That first section is about a quarter of the book.  It only looks like our hero has a big problem until the second part starts, at the point I call “Now what?” This is the spot at which our protagonist is temporarily at a loss for what to do next. This second section is around half the book.  At the end of it is what I call the “we’re doomed!” point, when all appears lost. Then the hero figures out the solution and it’s a race to the finish.

Of course there’s a lot more to it. I’ll fill in some of those details next week.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Make Your Idea into A Plot

You’re ready to start your first novel. You know what genre you want to write and you’ve got this great idea for a story: aliens colonize earth. So, now what? That idea could or the new TV show Colony, the old TV show V or even the classic War of the Worlds. What distinguishes them is the plot.

The plot, simply put, is what happens. It’s the series of events that take place in the story.  A good plot starts with conflict and ends with resolution.  So the first thing you need to decide is, what is your central conflict?  What is it that my protagonist wants? And what are the obstacles to him or her getting that thing.  In all of the above examples the protagonists want to be free of their alien oppressors. The aliens want to maintain control. That’s where the plot starts. But as you can see, the three stories go in very different directions from there.

So, your plot starts with someone who wants something important, and follows them as they strive to get it.  They need to do that striving themselves, and they need to learn something from the effort.  What matters in plot, unlike football, is not whether you win or lose but how your hero plays the game.

In a really good plot, each of the lead character’s successes leads to another failure, and each of the character’s failures is somehow caused by his own flaws.  You can see these points in every bible story, every fairy tale, and most classic long poems like, say, the odyssey.

The protagonist is the lead character whose plot we’re following.  The antagonist is the person or force that is trying to stop our protagonist from getting what he so dearly wants.  It could be Goliath or Goldfinger or Mt Everest if your hero feels the need to climb it.  The antagonist – the bad guy – has to offer serious competition, maybe appear from the beginning to be too much for our hero.  And the barriers our hero faces have to be logical and believable.

Exactly how do you do that? Well, everyone’s process is different. No two writers work exactly the same way.  So I can only tell you how I do it.  I didn’t learn this from a book or another writer.  I learned this by outlining three or four of my favorite novels, trying to figure out just how the writer did it.  It wouldn’t hurt you to do that.  Or, you can start out using my style and then your own way will evolve on its own.

I’ll share the details of how I do it next week. Meanwhile, you might want to find your favorite novels and outline them.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Step One – Let’s Get Started

So you’ve got your computer set up to begin creating your manuscript. You’ve settled on your genre. you have a theme in mind, and you know who your intended audience is. You even have a pretty clear picture of a couple of your primary characters. All you need now is a story line. An idea that will drive your book forward. A starting point from which to grow a plot. But where do good ideas come from?

If you are one of us crime writers – in which group I would include mystery, horror, thrillers and suspense – lots of ideas are as close as the nearest newspaper. Pick up your daily paper and read every story about crime, terrorist activity, or mysterious events. Remember that the person who wrote the articles was telling a story based on what they knew. In each case, separate the known facts from the conclusions. Then ask yourself, what if the reporter got it wrong? How else could those facts be interpreted. When you’ve created a protagonist who discovers that alternate series of events, you have a fine  idea.

More into science fiction? Your ideas might be in a science or tech magazine. Whichever new tech or theory captures your imagination, ask yourself what effect it might have on society. How might this great advancement go horribly wrong? Or, how might it help a hero avert some other unforeseen disaster?

No matter what genre of fiction you want to write, you can use some variation of this “What if?” approach to generate story ideas that will intrigue you. And if they make you want to see where the story goes, they will do the same for your eventual readers.

And don’t be reluctant to use ideas untapped in other writers’ work. Marvellous books have been written from the point of view of Captain Ahab’s wife and Dr. Jekyl’s maid. You might be wondering what kind of street gangs they have in a Harry Potter-like universe, or even what those kids do when they grow up. What if baby superman had landed on a Conan-esque world? 

It’s a good idea to keep an ideas notebook. Once you’re in the habit of looking, you will see them everywhere. Sometimes a great idea will sit in your notebook for years while you work on other projects but when you get to it, it will feel fresh and new.

Next week we’ll talk about how to turn your idea into an actual story.  

Sunday, January 3, 2016

So You Want To Be a Writer

Last week I shared my New Year’s resolutions with you. Now I’m curious about yours, especially if you’re thinking this is the year you become a novelist. My next few blogs will be for those who have decided to make that step – to write that book they’ve been thinking about, talking about and threatening to write.

First, let me salute your decision. Everyone wants to have written a book, but precious few are willing to devote the time and effort to create a full length manuscript. So if you’ve decided to, I want to help you get started.

What do you want to write?  The answer to that question should probably be the same as your response to: What do you like to read? If you’re a mystery fan you know what mystery fans like. If you’re a science fiction buff, you know the conventions common to the genre. If you’re read a lot of fantasy or paranormal books you have a sense of how far you can go before you exceed the readers’ suspension of disbelief.   

Beyond your genre choice, do you have a story to tell, or a point to make? Is there a social issue you want to address, or a lesson you need to share? Fiction is the idea way to do those things, but you need to know at the beginning what your objectives are. Even if your only objective is pure entertainment, you need to know that before you start writing.

You’ll also want to consider who your audience is. Who are you writing for? Will your novel appeal to men or women, young folks or more mature readers? Maybe you’re aiming at members of a particular race or cultural group. In any case, knowing your audience will help you shape your story.

So if you’ve decided you want to write a novel, spend the next week considering your genre, your theme, and your audience. In coming weeks I’ll help you figure out your story and your process. I’ll try to keep you motivated, help you find ideas and deal with those inevitable steps in the wrong direction.

Come back next week and be prepared to start writing. Time to get your first novel started.