Friday, March 25, 2011

Robert Kernen's "Building Better Plots", part 10

According to Kernen, I need to know my main character’s psychological goal as well as his physical goal.  He uses the example of Moby Dick.  Ahab’s physical goal is to kill the white whale, and his psychological goal is to have revenge on the creature who took his leg.  Without a clear understanding of why my character wants to reach his goal, I will wind up with either a thin plot or my character will reach his goal well before I wanted the  climax to happen.

That makes sense.  I have two main characters so I need to look at both of them.

Neal’s physical goal is to get out of the gang and stay out.  His psychological goal is to escape the feeling of fate, the feeling that he has no say in his future.  Sandy’s physical goal . . . is less obvious to me.  I know that he wants two things in the beginning of the story: to lessen his guilt over two deaths, and to help somebody who—nah, any way I look at it, it comes back to Neal reminding Sandy of both things:

- how his friend Greg’s life was cut short because of crazy behavior exacerbated by drug use,
- and his cousin Renee’s death from alcoholism.  Sandy feels especially guilty over this because Renee blamed him for her life turning out bad.

Fixing Neal’s problems would be like fixing Renee’s and Greg’s, though Sandy soon realizes Neal is worth helping for his own sake.  Not sure if my difficulty pinning down Sandy’s goals is a failing of that part of the plot, or of my ability to describe it.

Kernen does say I need to make the physical or the psychological goal clear to readers, so maybe I don’t need to spell out both of those for Sandy just yet.  Nah, if I don’t have it straight in my own head, how is his part in the whole story going to make sense?

So far, Kernen doesn’t address the possibility of goals changing during the novel.  Sandy starts out wanting something selfish (to stop feeling guilty) but because he chooses a non-selfish way to do it, he sees the value of helping somebody for that person’s own sake.

I could say that Sandy’s physical goal is to set Neal up with tutors and a job, then go back to life as usual.  Or is that more of an expectation than a goal?  So far, no matter how I look at it, what Sandy wants is simply to stop feeling guilty and to set Neal up to improve his life.  In early chapters, readers won’t know yet that Sandy’s plans don’t work out the way he hopes.  Are those two goals enough to keep readers interested?
Well, if I’m that doubtful, probably not!  Ugh.  I’ll continue reading; maybe I’ll find something that will help me sort this.

Here’s something: “the contrast between where your protagonist begins and where he ends up is one of the key elements of good drama.” 

Well, Sandy starts out assuming he can purge his demons by helping Neal, without upsetting his own routines.  He winds up drawn into Neal’s life to the point of his own life being threatened.  It goes beyond Sandy’s penchant for exerting control over people to protect them.  I forgot about that.  Sandy discovers he can’t just direct Neal from the sidelines, the way he’s done with other people.  Okay, I guess this works then.

Next post: obstacles.  Character obstacles, not just writer obstacles ;)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

“Building Better Plots”, by Robert Kernen - part 9

I should be able to describe the conflict, the crisis, and the resolution in one sentence or a few words each? Because I’m a bunny person, the example of Kernen’s that I’ll use here is The Velveteen Rabbit.
Conflict: rabbit wants to be alive.

Crisis: rabbit sent to incinerator after child gets sick.

Resolution: rabbit learns that to be loved is to be alive.

Pretty simplistic, huh? Out of only that, a heartwarming tale grew. The way the story was told made me really care about that rabbit. Kernen says that writing out these phrases and keeping them in sight will help if I lose focus and give a “clear awareness of your plan.” Sooo, what do I come up with for those three elements?

Conflict: Neal wants to start a new life; Sandy wants to purge his demons.

Crisis: Neal feels unable to leave his old lifestyle behind; Sandy faces personal limitations.

Resolution: Neal accepts himself as he is; Sandy learns that caring sometimes means letting go.

How’s that? I’m not sure Sandy’s plot is enough. Maybe it’s just that Neal’s issues are more obvious and dramatic. When I think about drafts of Sandy’s important scenes, they feel pretty good. I’ll just keep in mind that his arc may need work, as I progress.

Kernen also uses Gone With the Wind as an example of good plotting, but really, by choosing something as huge as the Civil War, half of Mitchell’s work was already done. That’s almost guaranteed to draw people in, especially once it’s personalized with Rhett and Scarlett. I use the 1992 Los Angeles riots, but that doesn’t have quite the same built-in impact. Well, maybe I’m selling the idea short.

I’m going to touch on why the riots were as much about class as race. Since readers will already have seen Neal deal with those issues, there should suspense and sympathy when the issues explode.

Regarding Gone With the Wind, Kernen says that readers are “compelled through the story by the vastness of what is at stake for the characters.” Put that way, I have a good grip on Neal’s part in the story. At times his life is in danger; to stay alive, he has to stay at least one step ahead of forces that have taken direct aim at him. Once we reach the crisis point, he also has to protect his friends and family members.

Sandy’s source of sympathy is, as I’ve said, less dramatic. At first he wants to clear up guilt over his cousin’s and his friend’s deaths, then he genuinely wants to --

Wait, that ties into the issue in post #6 of this series. It would be more believable if Sandy felt Neal had a clear goal for his future but needed help getting there. Just wanting a grocery store job doesn’t do it. Sure, on one hand, Neal might not aspire to something that you or I might; he didn’t have role models who took paths that might be open to him as well.

Neal will say something like, “I want to do X, but can’t afford the training.” Then Sandy can respond with, “I can’t set you up for that, but I can get you started in the business end of the music industry. You’ll learn skills you can take to a lot of places.”

I actually felt a piece of my plot puzzle fall into place.

Oh yeah, that’s why I want to write a novel: when ideas click, it’s so much fun!

Looming ahead, “what’s my motivation here?”

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Cool to have you along, J.  Shine on!

The "repeat" demon

I just realized something.  I'm sitting here working on a crit, and I said that mentioning an effect more than once (like a character feeling a chill) tends to weaken said effect.

It hit me why writers repeat things.  We think it strengthens the effect if readers see it more than once.  That was true for a number of years, but readers' attention spans have changed.  I speak in general, recognizing (and being grateful for) readers who cheerfully read 625-page novels with glee.  According to some writing instructors and some agent blogs, most readers don't want to sit through a lot of descriptions of anything. 

Plus, and maybe more important, most readers assume that something is in the story because it's important.  That means they see it the first time.  There it is - "Fred ambled along the street, hands in his pockets, whistling.  Pathetic how the city wouldn't replace burnt-out streetlights.  A twig snapped somewhere to his left.  That was the third snap in ten minutes.  He felt icy fingers slip down his spine." 

I get the point that Fred's nervous.  It's a darkened street and somebody may be following him.  To use another phrase after that, that also says Fred is nervous, would turn me off. 

But I understand why writers do it.  It goes back to the confidence issue.  We don't have the readership yet that confirms for us "we know how to write".  We get comments from friends and family who will invariably either love or hate our writing.  Crit groups are of great help - definitely - but they often focus on what's wrong and how to improve, not what we're doing right.

When you get a sense that people like what you're writing, you begin to loosen up.  It's like learning how to drive.  Most people need a few weeks or months to change that death grip on the steering wheel.  Once they realize they're 100% in charge of how that vehicle moves, they get profoundly nervous and their fingers lock around the wheel.  That inhibits them from moving smoothly and confidently.  You have to do the same thing in writing. 

Start with a deep love of your project, encourage people to tell you what they enjoy about your writing along with what needs improvement, and believe in yourself.

The other half of that coin is trust in your readers.  Set up each scene right, and you'll only have to mention stuff once for readers to "get it".  Of course, there will be times when something needs to be brought up again, but even that should use different words.

Don't you hate writing advice that says "don't do this, except for sometimes"?  I know, it's frustrating and annoying.  I can swallow it easier with specific examples.  It's straightforward to say "don't repeat yourself, because it tends to weaken rather than strengthen".  Another point bears repeating: writing well is a craft and an art.  It must be practiced before we can be good at it.  For a bunch of us, it takes years of keeping at it before we have something that anybody in the industry can look at and say "That has  promise".

That's why you need an abiding - maybe even obsessive - love of your project.  Me, I've been working steadily on "Street Glass" for half a hair shy of two years.  I've started delving deeper into it using Robert Kernen's book "Building Better Plots".  If your project isn't the thing that keeps your blood rushing, how are you gonna handle those seemingly endless rewrites and tweaks?  And I made that point in another post, so am shutting up about that now.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Robert Kernen's "Building Better Plots", part 8

Chapter two opens with a discussion of the story arc, and using the three-act structure. We need conflict, crisis, and resolution. My problem with the suggestion to take major events and write them in along a drawn arc is that I don’t have a clear resolution or climax yet. I can’t gauge whether or not each plot point moves me along toward the crisis if I don’t know what the crisis is.

Kernen says less about how to find the climax than I like. He spends paragraphs trying to convince me why having all these points plotted out on a graph will help with writing the actual story, but what to do if I don’t have one or more of them figured out? I don’t think just putting down “crisis happens here” will help anything.

He sticks in questions to ask to be sure that scenes are necessary and done effectively, though I think that issue itself might be more effective if left till later. After all, we’re still deciding on major plot points. But, because it’s a valid issue and I don’t want to risk forgetting about it, I’ll add his scene evaluation here.

  • Is the scene absolutely necessary to the central plot line?
  • If not, does it constitute a meaningful, necessary subplot or tangent?
  • If it is a worthwhile subplot or tangent, is this a good place to put it? Would it be more effective somewhere else?
I’d just amend to say “is this the best place to put it?” There are probably more than one “good places” to put necessary scenes, but the best place is where they should be.

Back to the arc and the crisis. Two or three blog posts ago, I said that it seemed like things were pointing toward Neal getting caught in the 1992 L.A. riots and being kidnapped by his father as the crisis point. I don’t like that though, because that would mean the resolution phase has to happen right afterward, and that’s supposed to be a short section.

I have a scene that takes place some time after the riots where Neal has risen to some public prominence, and becomes disgusted at the lack of progress in rebuilding after the riots. He confronts the mayor with a mix of in-your-face Latino pride and a willingness to meet Anglos (whites, Caucasians) half way. He displays a self-confidence only arrived at by everything he’s been through before that moment. It seems to me that the scene, as well as the mayor’s reaction, illustrate Neal’s growth from undereducated, rough-around-the-edges, coke-addicted 18-year-old to self-possessed, hard-working, compassionate man.

I also have a scene in mind, not written at all yet, between him and Sandy that might show how their friendship has evolved and might contribute to a sense of story resolution, if I can do it right.

Kernen suggests thinking of the crisis as “the final sequence of events where the outcome of the story is decided, the time at which control of the characters’ situation slips into the hands of fate.” Well, it seems to me that at least for some novels, the characters lose control early on and the story concerns how they deal with that fact. The crisis could then be the final effort to fight against fate, and the resolution could be acceptance of fate.

I will say that it helps to think of the crisis as the moment toward which the previous parts have been moving. That crucial event should make sense, based on what came before. “Of course that happened,” readers should think.

And yet, it shouldn’t be so predictable that readers also say, “Nothing about it surprised me.”

Tell me again why I want to do this??

On the horizon a breakthrough!

waving at ya!

Hi Robert.  I'm glad you joined us.  Feel free to pipe up with any comments! =)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

"Building Better Plots", part 7

Robert Kernen’s final questions, intended to help define my story arc:
  • What obstacles keep him from his goal? 
  1. attempts by his old gang to kill him;
  2. frequent drug cravings and some relapses, which add self-doubt;  
  3. finding himself living in circumstances he didn’t expect and knows nothing about, causing trouble with being able to fit in;  
  4. a major falling-out with Sandy, leading to personal crises for Neal and Sandy; 
  5. a threat to Neal’s life by his biological father, being caught in street riots, and arrested by the LAPD whom he has a grudge against - these three events combine to bring his personal crises to, well, a climax. 
I’ve hesitated considering that last series of events as the climax because I understand the story arc has a brief time after it to wrap up, and Neal’s story doesn’t wrap up neatly there. But that’s not critical to solve right now.
  • Who is the antagonist?
Coyote, the leader of the gang Neal left; later, Neal’s father; occasionally, also Sandy. I might also add that sometimes, Neal is his own enemy. (How many antagonists can a novel have?)
  • What does the protagonist have at stake? 
His life, sense of self, sense of worth . . . Do I need more?
  • What sacrifices must he make? 
At first, he gives up the only way of life he’s ever known and the friends who’ve gotten him through hell. Later, he gives up the idea of living a private life when he realizes he can make positive differences happen by being a public figure. He really is important, after all.

Kernen goes on to say that if “the answers to these questions are unclear or not compelling, you need to reexamine your story.”

I think I have a good foundation for my story arc, though I know I need to strengthen it. Anybody see anything I might have missed?

Next time: wrapping up the sometimes dreaded story arc, and the three parts of a story.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

another WIP

I mentioned that I’m working on a fantasy short story. One of the neat people on Critique Circle asked if anybody wanted to get involved in a shared writing project, based on a world we would create. We kicked around a bunch of worldbuilding ideas (are still kicking some around, in fact), came up with a rough timeline of geologic and political events, and began brainstorming short stories. The aim is to collect the tales into an anthology.

Our timeline starts with an “archaic” or medieval age, where magic is used, and progresses through an age of advanced technology. I won’t discuss further details because other people are involved and I don’t want to spill anybody’s beans. I think we’ve worked out enough possibilities for those of us wanting to write fantasy with magic and those wanting to write science fiction.

As we filled in certain worldbuilding details, I was reminded of a story idea I had in the 70s. Yeah, that’s kinda dating me, and I don’t care. Fantasy is my first love, followed by sci-fi. I don’t have a head for the science part of sci-fi, but I absolutely love to read it. Back in the 80s I was really into astronomy and planetary science, though some of it went over my head.

I watched Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” when it first aired, because I was already in love with the vast wonders of the universe. Kids, track that TV series down and watch the whole thing. I think Carl’s love of astronomy and of the details of the universe as a whole shine through. And, you’ll discover one of the first instances of the word “google”.

Anyway. So the more our group talked about working in magic use, the more I thought my ancient story idea could be resurrected and reworked. I found myself working up a serious lot of backstory and putting together an outline before I ever wrote a single scene. My first time as a “plotter”! I had to scale back my ideas as I started to have enough for a novel, and that’s not where this project is headed. I had so much backstory and so many possibilities that I needed an outline to keep me focused on what I needed for the short story.

I’m excited about the overall project. The other writers are coming up with story ideas that will showcase our world and tell captivating tales. One of my characters may be a major figure for stories set in future eras, and I am so honored to have contributed the idea. She’s a created being, connected to the planet in a very real way. She’ll have some control over magic, and becomes a serious threat to the planet. But she has limits and can be destroyed. I don’t know what all her flaws and vulnerabilities are yet, though I do know that she will not be all-powerful.

The biggest challenge for me right now is keeping to a short story length. No single story in the proposed anthology is supposed to be grander or longer than the others. I just love creating characters and watching them interact, so once I have core people in my head, it’s hard to rein in the action. I like working on two different types of writing projects. Isaac Asimov supposedly said that he liked having several projects going at the same time, because when he got bored with one, he’d just move to something else for a while. There’s wisdom for you.

Plus, since the fantasy is a short and my other project is a novel, I keep a whole range of writing muscles exercised. Writing . . . I love it. I seldom get tired of it. It can be hard, it can make me want to pull my hair out and run screaming from the room, and that’s not even as frustrated as I get trying to research stuff that happened just before the internet got big. I even like editing, because it makes stuff shiny and new again. I almost always have that sense of “wow, this is really cool stuff!” about my own writing, even when it really is, in fact, kinda awful. But I focus on making it better, not on its awfulness. I’ve decided that both projects have something unique, in a good way. If you guys take one thing from my blog, let it be: never give up. I mean it. Find whatever turns all your lights on, and stick with it as long as you can. You’ll know it when it grabs you.

“Shine on, bright like the sun / When even the sky turns gray”

(“Breathe”, Ryan Star)

another hi!

A "wussup" to John.  Nice to have you along.  Feel free to add a comment whenever you feel moved.  Life's better with friends!