Friday, April 29, 2011

"Building Better Plots" by Robert Kernen, part 14

“How long the [inciting] incident lasts is just as important as when it occurs.”  This too is something I’ve seen in a few stories on Critique Circle.  The writer wants to be subtle about their Inciting Incident, and stretches it out over three or four scenes.  Well, being too subtle for my own good is something I was guilty of myself, and maybe still am.  I will say that for the Inciting Incident for my Work In Progress, “Street Glass”, I’ve always known it’d be something obvious.  Originally it was the scene between Sandy and Neal where Neal holds a knife against Sandy’s throat but Sandy doesn’t wimp out.  Instead, he offers to help.  Surprised that somebody takes him seriously, Neal thinks about the offer.

Critting and being critted made me realize that I need to show a bit of how Neal got to the point of being able to accept help.  Neal handcuffs Sandy, takes his wallet, and scares the crap out of him by pressing a blade against his throat and demanding that Sandy beg for his life.  Then Neal hauls him to his gang’s hangout where the gang’s shot caller (leader) terrifies him again.  After exchanging words, Neal again threatens to slit Sandy’s throat.  Why would somebody like that care about hearing “I want to help you”?  He seems pretty happy robbing and threatening people.

While I’m at it, I also need to show why Sandy wants to help somebody like that, but that’s a separate issue.

That’s why I have to show Neal’s personality and mindset before that all happens.  I might do that by adding a scene with him and Trist, who is Coyote’s (the shot caller) girlfriend.  Neal’s got a love/hate relationship with her, and a short (page or less) scene with her would show Neal’s humanity.  Then, when Coyote pounds him, readers will feel the unfairness of the beat-down.  They’ll understand that Neal feels completely helpless when he meets Sandy, and that’s why he behaves so brutally.

But that’s not the Inciting Incident, that’s set-up.  Geez, do you guys ever feel overwhelmed by categories and descriptions and labels?  I do sometimes, but kept to a reasonable level, they are helpful.  If I can pull it off properly, by the time Sandy offers to help Neal, readers will wonder if he’ll accept or if he’s given up on his life.  Then, when he accepts, readers should realize there’s a long road ahead.

And again, this should all happen pretty quick.  I’m thinking that by the end of chapter two, Sandy should be in the gang’s hangout, and he should already have had one conversation with Neal.  I’ve got a lot to get to once Neal breaks with the gang.

Kernen warns us not to make the Inciting Incident so dramatic and intense that everything else feels like an anticlimax.  That’s something I hadn’t considered.  For example, if Neal tries to stand up for himself when Coyotes thumps him but other gang members join Coyote in beating him, Trist makes a move to break it up but gets punched too, then somebody bursts in saying a rival gang is on their way waving semi-automatics, readers will feel let down when Neal and Sandy talk.  Oh, give up the gang? they’ll ask.  But that’s the exciting part!

Instead, by making the beat-down between just two characters, giving Neal only minor injuries, and keeping it to three or four paragraphs, I keep the focus on the Inciting Incident.  I don’t set the bar so high that the rest of the story reads like afterthoughts.

I like to compare writing well to walking a tightrope.  Performers who really do that practice long, long hours.  You can’t expect to juggle six or ten things without practicing, either.  Rewriting, editing, and revising really do have to happen.  I’ve been working on this project for a solid two years now, and I’m not done yet.  That’s fine.  I could probably find somebody to publish a less-than-good effort, because I’ve read some not-very-good books.  But why do that?  I want to touch people, to move them, to make them think, and that doesn’t happen with half-assed efforts.

Next entry . . . Juggling eggs while tightrope walking.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Robert Kernen’s “Building Better Plots”, part 13

Incite: provoke, inflame, ignite.  These suggest the sense of intensity necessary, I think, for the moment that sends a main character off on the road through the novel.  It doesn’t *have* to be something as dramatic as a beat-down by a street gang, but it should grab readers and pull them right into the story.  It’s pretty much the first thing we notice when we pick up a new book and open it. Okay, maybe *first* we notice the main character, but doesn’t meeting that person make you think, “Why am I reading about you?  What do you *do*?”

Before I start reading Kernen’s chapter 3 “Inciting Incident”, I’ll state that for Neal, his beat-down by his gang’s leader is the action that crystallizes his need to get out of the gang.  That prepares him to grab a way out when it presents itself.  We’ll see if I change my view after reading the chapter.

Kernen does say the Inciting Incident should happen a short way into the story rather than on page one, but this book was published in 1999 and that statement may reflect an attitude that’s passed.  But that’s not a huge issue, really.  As an unpublished (and therefore unproven) writer, agents aren’t going to want 100,000 words from me.  I have a fair amount of plot to spin out so my Incident needs to happen fairly quick.  My most recent draft has the beating start in paragraph one, though I could conceivably move that down a bit so readers can meet Neal before he gets thumped.  That might make it easier for readers to sympathize.

Reading a few paragraphs along, I can compare the Incident to, let’s say, a hammer floating in space.  When that hapless astronaut first takes his hand off it, it just sort of hovers there.  There’s nothing to move it forward.  But then the astronaut creates an Inciting Incident by bumping the hammer, and it spins off recklessly into the starlit gloom stretching out before it.  It’ll keep going until a fleck of space dust bumps it again, sending it in another direction.

*sigh* If I had the head for science, I’d write sci-fi.  I love to read it though.  C.J. Cherryh, Andre Norton, yeah.  Space opera is as close as I can get.

Ooops, sorry.  Bit of ADD there.  Kernen says that many writers wait too long to get to their Incident, because of that issue referred to a few posts back: inexperienced writers feel they have to introduce the Main Character fully, explain why he’s in that particular room, what his hopes and dreams are, why readers should identify and sympathize with him, build suspense by hinting that Something Big really is right on the threshold, and generally talk too much.

I want to spend a minute on this, because it’s important.  As I crit stories on Critique Circle, I see this problem come up often.  I did it too, so I understand the impulse to over-explain.  We want to make sure our readers “get it”.  We don’t realize that the best way to make sure of that is through word choice, and leaving stuff out.  That’s the inexperienced stage.

If you set up the Incident, and plot points that come after, properly and pay close - obsessive - attention to word choice, and readers *will* get it.  Think about novels you are totally in love with.  I bet you feel that way because they grabbed you, kept you interested, didn’t bore you, moved the plot along without making you stop to admire the scenery, and by the end, had you hyperventilating for more.

You need some distance from your own work in order to see what should stay and what should go.  I’m terrible with reducing my plot to short sentences, such as for a synopsis.  Everything is important; haven’t I been working on only including stuff that’s important?  If I leave out any action or reaction for a synopsis, then why is it in the manuscript?

It’s really not contradictory.  The purpose of a synopsis is different than that of a manuscript.  In a synopsis, we don’t need to know *why* stuff happened, only that it did.  If we want to know why, we can read the manuscript.

I’ve pre-empted myself by going off on a tangent.  Another bout of ADD.  Next post will get to the elements of a good Inciting Incident.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"Building Better Plots" by Robert Kernen, part 12

Questions to help make the best of obstacles:
3) “What is my character’s greatest fear?  To draw the most depth from your protagonists, they must face their greatest fears.”
Interesting question.  How are fears different from weaknesses?  Couldn’t fears be weaknesses?  What is Neal most afraid of?  I know that what makes him angriest is being treated like dirt.  Maybe his fear is that he’ll never really have a say in how he lives.  Maybe that’s why he reacts so intensely when his biological father kidnaps him, because he faces his biggest fear and the thing that makes him angriest.

That plays into his friendship with Sandy.  Neal values their friendship very much but is sick of people telling him what to do.

Wait, did I screw up?  I listed Sandy’s fear under weakness!  But no, I really think in his case, they’re the same.

4) “What is my character’s greatest strength?”
Neal turns his biggest weakness into his biggest strength.  He grows into his role as co-founder of a non-profit group, to the point of getting the mayor of Los Angeles to do what he wants.  He accepts who he really is.

I used to think Sandy was as clear-cut as Neal, but I realized I didn’t know him as well.  I think Sandy’s greatest strength is his selflessness.  That sounds cheesy, but it’s a real human quality.  He gradually realizes Neal needs to make his own mistakes but that doesn’t mean Sandy can’t support him.  He learns that by giving his girlfriend room to breathe, she’s more likely to stay around.  He lets both her and Neal do what they need to, to be true to themselves.

Next comes a discussion of the four types of conflict:
A)  protagonist vs. antagonist - pretty straightforward;
B)  protagonist vs. nature - yeah, it’s just what you think, though keep in mind that it’s hard to do when you don’t have a sentient being for your main character to react against;
C)  protagonist vs. society - this rings my bell!  It’s the main type of conflict in “Street Glass”;
D)  protagonist vs. self - the classic struggle against one’s own nature.

Kernen says you should have at least two types in your works to add depth and realism.  I’m encouraged, because I can see all four in my WIP. 
A)  Neal’s biological father is a no-nonsense villain, though he doesn’t show his hand till the second half of the story;
B)  a fire caused by hot Santa Ana winds takes the life of Neal’s girlfriend, leading to the meltdown of his friendship with Sandy;
C)  this is the big one!
D)  the struggle of the:
  • ex-addict fighting cravings;
  • ex-gangbanger against old habits;
  • more-or-less average guy unable to quite believe he deserves the good things that happen to him.
These last three descriptions are all of the same character.

Sandy’s a hard character for me to pin down, because while he’s certainly a major character, he doesn’t undergo the most drastic changes.  Neal occasionally acts as antagonist toward him.  The fire destroys the band’s house so that affects Sandy to some degree.  Rather than fight against society, Sandy attempts to improve it.  I’d say “protagonist vs. self” applies the most to Sandy because the problems he faces all stem from either his naiveté or his urge to control.

Awesome.  I really feel I’m on the right track.  However, I don’t think the hard work is all behind me.  For one thing, I’m only on chapter 2 of 11!

Next post addresses the inciting incident, and involves an astronaut ;)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Guest Post: The Devil's in the (Setting) Details

By Becca Puglisi of  The Bookshelf Muse.

Settings are very important to me. Most of my love affairs with books and movies tie directly into where the characters lived, laughed, and suffered: Green Gables, Toad Hall, the Nostromo, Braveheart's Scotland. So when it comes to choosing or creating a setting for a project, I put a lot of thought into it.

Why is the setting so important? Because the character is strongly connected to it, whether positively or negatively, and any emotional connection that your character has will also create a connection with readers. Bilbo loved Hobbiton like it was a person instead of a place, and so we loved it and wanted it to endure for his sake. The Nostromo, the spaceship from the original Alien movie, was cluttered, narrow, and claustrophobic, and Ripley and her crew were stuck in there with an acid-bleeding, face-sucking monster that could be hiding in any of a million crevices. We wanted her to escape that ship almost as much as she did. The settings in these examples were key to helping the reader connect with the character. When choosing a setting, make sure your character connects with it, and your reader will, too.

But what then? Settings, by nature, are spacious and consist of a gajillion minute details, all of which you couldn't possibly and shouldn't ever include. So how do you decide which details to highlight in your story?

1.  Details should be necessary. This should go without saying, but it's important to choose only details that are necessary to the scene or purpose you're trying to achieve. It's a hard line to walk. Too little description, and your reader is lost and confused. Too much, and they're skimming ahead, trying to end the pain. To find the right balance, ask yourself these questions: What's the purpose of this scene? What details need to be shared to accomplish this? Stick to those details and you'll achieve the goal of choosing the necessary details.

2.  Details should do double-duty. A setting description should tell the reader about the character's surroundings, but it should also do more, like reveal the character's personality, mood, or biggest fear, foreshadow dire events to come, or provide a symbol that will reinforce a theme throughout the story. If you let your descriptions do double-duty, you'll have ample opportunities throughout the story to drop interesting tidbits here and there that will show your reader exactly where in the world the character is while revealing a little something else along with it.

3.  Details should be specific. The shelf in Laura Ingalls Wilder's house didn't hold vague, nameless knick-knacks; the china shepherdess and a brown-and-white dog stood there, items that were especially dear to Laura because of their whimsy. They represented frivolity, and possibly expense, and were among the few impractical items in the house. I remembered those knick-knacks without having to look them up because they were specific and memorable. You don't want to be overly specific with every detail, or the story becomes an inventory of beautifully-described but pointless items. Pick a few substantial details in the scene and make them memorable.

I wish I could put all of this together to create the perfect piece of description, but the planets aren't aligned just so and I'm out of Mountain Dew. So to illustrate perfection, I'll let To Kill a Mockingbird do it for me:

Somehow [Maycomb] was hotter back then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

There you have it. Great setting description, foreshadowing, and symbolism, all in only 64 words.

Now, I don't pretend to be an expert at writing description; if I was, I'd probably be a bestselling, Pulitzer-prize winning author along with Harper Lee. But the ideas above are a pretty good for a jumping-off point. Apply them and see if they don't give your settings a boost in the right direction.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

guest post by Becca!

The Owl is thrilled to announce that in one week, Becca Puglisi of the famous The Bookshelf Muse has agreed to guest post!  As most (if not all) of my readers know, Becca and Angela have compiled one of the best writing resources on the web.  Their group of thesauruses . . . thesauri . . . you know! pull together concepts that often have writers stumped, so we can jump start our brains.

I've asked Becca for a post on setting in fiction.  Setting can make or break not just scenes, but by extension, your whole novel or short story.  Yeah, characters and plot may be paramount, but if you under- or overdescribe your setting(s), or pick the wrong one, readers may be left with an uncomfortable feeling.  Worse, they may put your book down and leave it there!  Setting is not just a pretty vase of flowers in the background.  Please join me next week for Becca's take on using setting effectively.

"Building Better Plots" by Robert Kernen, part 11

Choosing a suitable obstacle (several, actually) completes my conflict and defines the core drama in the story, according to the book.  Kernen’s right: the story of David vs. Goliath is timeless because the odds were stacked against David but he won.  It’s not a boring tale.  Questions to help make the best of obstacles:

1) “What would make the attainment of my character’s goal the most difficult?”
Back to my idea of chasing characters up a tree, throwing stones at them, then setting the tree on fire.  Neal has several things thrown at him:
  • his ex-gang tries to off him more than once;
  • they murder his kids and their mothers;
  • he comes this close to giving up on rehab;
  • he completes rehab but relapses;
  • he faces prejudice from some of the people he has to work with;
  • he’s drawn back to the barrio he grew up in despite trying to forget about his background;
  • he fights against Sandy’s attempts to control him;
  • he meets up with his mother who abandoned him at age ten;
  • he confronts his previously unknown biological father, who knew he wound up in a gang and did nothing to help;
  • he has to revert to gangbanger tactics to keep his friends safe;
  • he feels responsible for his girlfriend’s death.
And those are just the things I can remember! I got a bit of a sadistic streak.  I think most writers do.

For Sandy, the answer is, again, more subtle.  He finds that clearing his conscience isn’t as simple as he thought, and that he can’t go back to life as he knew it because Neal has irrevocably changed it.  Helping somebody sometimes means giving up: your hold on them, some comfort in your own life.

2) “What is my character’s greatest weakness?”
I think that changes.  Early on, I’d say Neal’s greatest weakness is his lack of self-confidence.  Because he doesn’t think, deep down, that he’s worth all the attention he’s now getting, he sabotages his efforts at improving his life.  Later, he can’t let go of a need for revenge that takes him to the brink of murder.

Sandy’s weakness is his fear of losing people he cares the most about.  It leads him to almost strangle his friendship with Neal; it causes a rift with two girlfriends, the second rift being bigger.

Tune in next time for the last two questions, and conflict types.