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Monday, January 27. 2014
One last detail I didn't think of when I wrote the original addendum. A weak point to the story that I hadn't really thought about until a forums post made me think.
In a sense, this story could be viewed as a coming-of-age story about Joe. There's even a moment in the story that could have been used to perfectly encapsulate that moment -- in fact, that's what it was meant to do, I just didn't realize that I hadn't grounded it well enough for readers to recognize it as such.
When Joe tells his Moms that he's taking the car, that he's *taking action*, that's the moment he grows up. He tells them, he doesn't ask, but he tells them what is going to happen. Everything else from that moment is just make-work, checkboxes that have to be checked off. High school graduation, turning eighteen (twenty-one), college... none of those matter anymore. This is the moment he becomes a man.
And they let it happen. Joe might not be a man in his own eyes, yet, but that is the moment he becomes one in theirs -- and mine. He's chosen his own course, come Hell or high water, and no one -- no one! -- will turn him from it. A course chosen not in a fit of childish pique or because it's something he wants, but because it's something his character demands that he does.
In this moment, he is a man. And I just let that slip through the cracks, where most readers will never, ever catch it.
This blog article, instead of expounding on some theoretical point, will instead provide a concrete example of revision. Simply put, I'm going to go through the story 'Family Values' as if I was planning to rewrite it before submitting it to a publishing company. Please note that this is not contradictory to the NaNoWriMo challenge I originally wrote under, but rather part of NaNoWriMo's 'secondary' stages. NaNoWriMo focuses on the month of November, with the 'first draft', but it also touched on -- and does not exclude! -- the revision process that comes later. Insofar as I was under a time-limit to handle revision, it's because I wanted to get this out for Christmas.
I'm going to come up with the 'good' things that I need to keep, the 'bad' things that I need to remove, and make a few comments on things that should be changed.
The first and most obvious of the good things is the characterizations. Joe and the twins are sharp, well detailed characters, and the Moms aren't far behind. The Moms could use a bit more work, but even then it isn't too bad. Unfortunately, that also brings us to the start of the bad points -- the girls are barely even bit actors. They're props for the story to revolve around, not characters in their own right. In many ways, this story could probably have worked if I removed the girls in favor of having the twins occupy their role. At the very least, I should have experimented with trying that.
Moving on, we have a strong sense of drama and conflict in the story. This is helped in part by the fact that I outlined the story, and then deliberately chopped and pruned until I could get to the primary conflict by the third chapter. This story was *planned*, and as such the tension is carefully adjusted upwards chapter by chapter. Unfortunately, however nicely the major conflicts are picked out, the minor ones are just touched on and then droped, such as Joe's conflict with his father. The man probably should have been given a 'walk-on' role, just so Joe could deck him -- or better yet, cut altogether. This 'mention and drop' flaw can also be seen with characters, where instead of bringing Joe's friends from Chapter 4 forward to chapter 10, I instead introduce new characters. I 'patched' this with a quick reference, but bluntly that save on the part of my editor's doesn't help the fact that the characters should have been brought forward and referenced -- or I should have gone back and yanked them in favor of people I used again. I need to either develop or completely cut these points.
And finally, perhaps the biggest weak point, the most obvious one in the entire story, is the twins. They aren't the main character, they are at best a supporting character. You could cut every single scene written from their viewpoints, and you'd barely change the overall storyline. Only their final scene, when they walk back -- with Joe in tow -- would require replacement, and at that only the second half. (That scene was written from their viewpoint because Joe's viewpoint was a bit dull; maybe I should yank the first half of that scene.) Otherwise, yank their scenes and the story still stands, more or less fine. There are two reasons why the twins get so much 'screen time'. One is that I originally intended for them to be much more major characters. I could, instead, rewrite the story to give them even more material, and then their time would be justified. But as it is, I either need to cut or enlarge, and I haven't. The second reason they get so much screen time was that this entire story 'grew' out of the twins. The twins were the 'source' idea, characters who were likely to show up in Resistance one day. It's just that this story, covering their background, didn't need them very much.
As a final note, I'm not actually planning to follow through with these changes -- I didn't have the time to manage this if I wanted to give the readers their Christmas present, and while I vaguely regret that, I'm still glad to have given them something. Family Values has had it's run, and it's time to move on to something else, happier and wiser for knowing how I screwed this story up.
Saturday, November 9. 2013
There are ten thousand right ways to tell a story, and a hundred million wrong ways. Part of those ten thousand right ways is choosing the right way to make your story different, unique, and memorable.
Tolkien created the popular concept of 'elf' from scratch. Before him, elves were not tall. They weren't blond. They didn't have pointed ears. And they most definitely were not so wise.
Since then, fantasy novels have prolifferated into million different varieties. Dark elves have joined their fairer cousins, who have split into high elves and wood elves and a thousand other varieties. All tall and fair, except for those that are dark, dangerous, and still tall. Sometimes their own creatures, sometimes part of the fairy courts (which are always divided between winter and summer, seelie and unseelie), sometimes something else entirely.
I've touched on this concept before, that you should be aware of the concepts and ideas present in a given genre of fiction before you write in it, but my focus then was on conforming to those distinctions. Today I'm touching on it differently, to focus on the differences you need to create. It's not enough to use the expected paradigm, you need to subvert it, challenge it, make it grow somehow.
You may have noticed that these blog articles usually touch on something I've read or watched recently. It's because I get ideas, spark thoughts of of what I'm doing. Today I'm going to touch on "Lord of the Fading Lands" by C. L. Wilson. I've only read the first three books -- I'm picking it back up to read the next two now. And this series, in addition to it's entertaining writing, has a rather interesting concept.
In this novel, the Fey live apart from humans -- as usual -- and are -- again, a common conceit -- a fading race. They're dying out, their power fading away. But what is interesting about this version of the Fey is that they're weighed down by their deeds. If a Fey kills a man, he feels the weight of that man's death... forever. Endlessly. Until, at least, he's lucky enough to find his truemate, who eases the pain of the lives he's taken.
This concept, by itself, can't make an entire novel. But the author weaves it in further and further, making it a core aspect of the plot. A single, small difference between 'traditional' fey and the novel's fey makes them distinct, easily remembered, separate from the crowd.
It's important, yes, to follow the conceits of the genre. Just don't forget to put your own spin on it.
Saturday, November 2. 2013
In the last article, we discussed paying attention to how stories are written. Today we're going to move past the nuts and bolts. Don't just pay attention to the micro level of how sentences are constructed, also pay attention to what sentences are constructed.
I've touched, somewhat, on this concept previously. The Lord of the Rings doesn't have the hobbits go from great battle to great battle -- at least not at first. There is an overabundance of smaller, more human moments where they show themselves to be nothing too incredible. Sam even touches on this concept himself at once point, that what makes the story great isn't the great deeds, but the people who do them. People who could choose to turn back, to give up, to yield... and refuse to.
The great brilliance of David Weber's works isn't in Honor Harrington, however wonderful a character she is. It's in the cast that supports her, the people who fight beside her, and all to often die for her. If you removed the 'bit' characters, the books would probably be half as long... and not a tenth as good.
In Dan Kirk's Do Over series, the greatest moments aren't based on the premise of 'going back in time and doing it right', they're based on the characters themselves. The single high point of the entire series has nothing -- nothing I say! -- with going back in time. It's in book three, 'Doing it Right', chapter ten, when Jeremy's AIDS infection is made public. Davey is so angry, so enraged, that his mere grip breaks a desk in two. (Admittedly, it's a public school desk so it's probably pretty flimsy...) The way Davey and his friends rally, instantly, around Jeremy...
Of course, at a fundamental level I'm an incredibly conflict-oriented person, so your mileage may vary. Perhaps another point in the series is the high point for you, but that scene magnificently displays my point. Davey cooly, calmly, and rationally works his way through events, placing A before B to deduce C and then move on to understanding D. And then by the way, he's so pissed off he broke his desk. In the hands of another author, that could be an abrupt shift, a detail brought in far too late and in contradiction to the character. In DKStories' hands it's something far different, it's a brilliant execution of a critical character design. Davey is at his most dangerous when he's too pissed off to realize he's lost his temper. He's angry, so angry, but still able to cooly, calmly, and rationally analyze, digest, and respond to 'enemy' action. The execution here helps expose an underlying factor of concept.
This time, your 'homework' assignment isn't to just pay attention to the next published novel you read. Nope, no way. You see, the fun part about the concept stage is that inspiration comes from wherever you find it. I'd recommend avoiding 'fan' work, but this time the field is wide open. Pay attention to how these details are executed in movies, in TV shows, in books, comics, in song, in plays.
For example, the anime series Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is incredibly powerful, and I'm learning a lot by re-watching it with a more critical eye. I can't use the anime 'hokey' scenes in my own writing, but I can learn from them anyway. I can watch them, analyze, and learn about how they use exaggeration and deliberate stylization to create an effect. There are limits, of course, to how much I can apply to my own work. There's an entire language there that you have to learn by watching various anime shows, but even without that language, you can still see how they use exaggeration to help make the characters look more, not less, human.
So keep your eyes open. Don't just enjoy your favorites -- pick at the seams, see what lies underneath.
Sunday, October 27. 2013
Been a while since I bothered to write a blog article, but perhaps now I have a decent subject. The title, in a lot of ways, says it all. "Learn from the masters". I first ran into this concept way back when in high school, when we were studying art. Specifically, artists will sometimes attempt to perfectly duplicate the masterpiece of an older, more experienced (and generally famous) artist. This isn't an attempt at plagiarism. It's an attempt at *study*.
There are two important components to a piece of art. Today, we're going to discuss skills. Artists attempt to copy the masters as part of developing the skill to execute a design. The most brilliant idea in the world won't make a good painting if the artist can only manage stick figures. Ultimately, whatever greater skills you hope to develop, you must first master the more basic skills of how to put paint onto a canvas.
How, you might ask, does this apply to writing? An artist paints on canvas with a brush. A writer similarly works on a canvas, only a writer's canvas is the empty page, and his medium words. But words alone don't make a story, any more that brushstrokes on a page make a picture. It's how you connect the words that makes your story.
I've touched on this before, but even the greatest of ideas is nothing if you don't take the time to work on your implementation. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation aren't there to get in the way of your writing, but they are critically important **to** your writing. If your writing is crap, no matter how good the underlying premise is, the result remains crap. Insofar as I'm a 'skilled' author, I'll freely admit that this is my skill. I'm not as good at character design, scenes, emotions as others. But dammit I write -- I craft -- a fine sentence.
Next time you read a book -- and for your own sake, make it a published book -- pay attention to how it's written. How does the author combine words, how does the author present information. You just might learn something by studying the master.
Saturday, July 6. 2013
If I asked you what science fiction or fantasy was, you'd probably give me a very simple answer. "Oh, it's star ships," or "Oh, it's a story with elves in it." Or maybe you'd take a couple of seconds, and instead of just listing out what you see in science fiction and fantasy, you'd come up with a more thorough answer. "Science Fiction is a genre of stories containing science or meta-science beyond our current understanding." (ESP comes to mind as the best example of 'meta science') Fantasy, of course, is the same thing, just with 'magic' instead of science and meta-science.
But in answering the stories in that fashion, however accurate, you've managed to shoot past the key goals of science fiction and fantasy, of which I choose to acknowledge two in this blog article. This bypass can allow you to create a wonderful, deep setting, and then totally forget to create a story to go in it.
A while back I was privy to a conversation about someone wanting to write a story, and they didn't focus on the story. They focused instead on the *setting*. They didn't focus on who-does-what-why, they focused on some aspect of science fiction or fantasy to hang their story on. This, to my mind, is a fatal flaw in their approach, one that could seriously jeopardize the quality of that story. At the same time, it's an easy mistake to make -- one that can even help a beginner get through his first, struggling words.
The issue is that good science fiction and fantasy stories are never, ever, ever about the science fiction or the fantasy they contain. Not because the fantasy or science they contain isn't interesting, but because of the way human beings think, feel, and act. A story about how a tin can gets crushed up by a black hole would be *boring*. There's nothing there, no point. Ah, but what if that tin can had someone inside it? It's an escape pod, drifting too close to the stellar equivalent of reefs and shoals. What does our protagonist think, feel, do? Does he divert his efforts to trying to boost his engine to get away, or to the radio to call for help -- or maybe to deliver one final message home.
The physics of the story are nothing more than a backdrop, a *setting*, for the actual story. Which is about people, and conflicts, and the things those people do to resolve those conflicts.
So then, we've dismissed the initial definitions of science-fiction and fantasy. Let's move onward. What is the purpose of using fantasy or science fiction in a story? There are, to my experience, two major options. The first option is to show us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Perhaps someone lives on the moon, in tunnels under the ground, with a vast chamber that they can actually 'fly' in under their own power -- with the aid of specialty equipment. All of that makes a great *setting*, but what made Heinlein's 'The Menace From Earth' great is the story told using that backdrop: that of Holly Jones, and her love for Jeff Hardesty. It's a classic, everyday story of a woman who doesn't realize she loves a man she works with every day, who just happens to love her back and just can't say it.
The science fiction in the story doesn't change the story at all! It's just a backdrop -- a way of exploring a concept that 'the more things change, the more they stay the same'.
Now let us go in the other direction, and look at Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings. The setting there is most definitely not incidental to the plot. But at the same time, the purpose of the settings remains to support the plot. The fantasy allows Tolkein to explore concepts that wouldn't make sense in reality, like how the Ring of Power corrupts everyone who draws near it. It slowly subverts them. How can someone destroy such an object, if it can so quickly act to make it impossible for them to act against it?
And yet, for all the fantasy trappings of the story, in the end the important bits aren't about the fantasy itself. They're about the almost human struggles even the least-human characters undergo. Should the Ents remain at home, at peace, and enjoy their last days, while Allowing Sauron and his forces to take liberties with their lands? Or shall they march forth to war, to uncertainty and death, not knowing if their sacrifice will have any meaning or effect on the struggle against an impossibly powerful foe?
A modern American could be excused from missing the comparison, but I can only imagine that the Nazi expansion in Europe, and Britain's choice to stay out of the affair, or stand up against Hitler, was heavily on Tolkein's mind. England had a choice to let Nazi Germany continue to take bites out of the European map, or stand up and say 'no' -- just as the Ents had a choice to make.
Not only does Tolkein tell a unique story, not possible in the modern world, of how a small band of friends undertake an impossible quest, he also effortlessly weaves in moments that also serve the first cause of science fiction and fantasy by showing that people, no matter how different the setting, remain *people*. The same hopes, dreams, struggles, and joys.
So then, I'd say that the key to Science Fiction and Fantasy is this: "Science Fiction is a genre wherein stories use advanced science or meta-science to explore old themes in a new light and / or explore themes that would not be explorable in the real world." Fantasy could easily be substituted in there, with no effect -- which I believe is why Science Fiction and Fantasy is a single section in most book stores. They're the same thing at heart!
So then, knowing this, my advice to new writers -- as shocking as it may seem -- is to avoid science fiction and fantasy like the plague, at least until after you have your feet under you. Not because they're in any way 'bad', but because they make it to easy to mistake the science fiction (or fantasy) for the story.
Saturday, June 8. 2013
Last month, I discussed how write what you know applies not to the story itself -- the story of your life is probably pretty boring! -- but to the components you use as building blocks for your stories. An engineer can use engineering stuff, a teacher can use a school, a soldier can use tactics. You know quite a bit about whatever you specialize in; use your knowledge of that subject to help inform your writing.
This week, I'm going to address another concern, which is genres. There are a lot of genres out there, and they all have their own rules and expectations. Be very careful violating those rules, be very careful ignoring those expectations. A good author can (and will) undercut or subvert those memes, but you need to know them and acknowledge them first. If you're writing high fantasy, your characters are probably getting together in a tavern to drink ale, not a bar to drink beer. If you're writing sci-fi, FTL communications are generally done via ansible, not some random made up term. Exceptions exist, obviously, and I'll even go so far as to say they're the best reading out there, but you need to be aware of the rules before you can bend them.
Yes, you can just randomly write something that ignores all those expectations. Maybe your elves aren't tall, long-haired, pointy-eared forest lovers. But that's what readers expect when they see the world 'elf', so be very careful to help ground them in this new world. Otherwise, you'll loose your readers before you begin! What's more, by being familiar with a genre, you can be familiar with the tropes that already exist. If I'm writing a fantasy novel, I'm going to avoid having my character find a magical trinket that belongs to the Big Baddie, and even more careful about giving it a nasty habit of corrupting people near it, and I'm probably never going to have the Big Bad's power rely on keeping that trinket intact, and I'm most definitely not going to have him travel the world to drop it into a volcano to destroy it! Avatar was not Pocahontas in space, but I will concede that the people who made that comparison had a very good point. It was a point that overlooked some of the best parts of the show (one that comes to mind is the question: is some part of who we are dependent on our body?), but it was still a valid point.
So, before you jump into a new genre, spend some reading it. Maybe you'll pick up some ideas; maybe you'll avoid rehashing old ground; maybe you'll avoid annoying or loosing your readers.
Saturday, May 4. 2013
It's one of the first and largest pieces of advice out there that every writing student learns. 'Write what you know'. There are many articles out there on the concept, and I encourage any aspiring writer to delve into them. It's an important concept, if easily misunderstood. 'Write what you know' doesn't mean that you have to restrict yourself to writing about your bus trips to school. It's about grounding your work in the things you know. I know loneliness, confusion, depression, and rage. I don't know, and probably never will, real, genuine introspection. I can't write about trips to a bar to have fun, or study sessions where friends joke around. Or at least, not effectively.
The problem is I don't 'know' those things. Introspection, the ability to analyze yourself and your emotions, is a skill I'm singularly weak at. It's one of the effects Asperger's Syndrome has had on me. And while I don't normally like to 'play the Asperger's card', the fact I that's far from the only effect it's had on me -- I've never had a study session with a group of friends. I've never gone to a bar to meet people, and the very idea of doing so evokes something I can only call 'panic'. Oh, I play around with the idea, but actually going from 'wouldn't it be cool' to 'lets try it' is enough to send me running away, screaming in fear (metaphorically speaking).
So when I try to write 'social' scenes, they're weak. They're limp. They suck and they take me ten times as long to write as anything else, and then I have to go back and scratch them until I get it halfway right. But eventually, with time and effort, I can get them halfway right and get on to the 'easy' stuff.
But the key here is that I do write them, and sometimes they come out halfway decently. But the really strong, really powerful scenes, those are based in who and what I am. The start of the last scene of chapter 17 of Trillion Dollar Family is powerful, and effects me deeply, because I'm a navy brat. My father never said farewell before taking off specifically for combat, but he was often gone for months at a time when I was a kid, including two 'WESTPAC' deployments that had him gone for six months at a time. I still remember our family driving out to pick him up, and when we got to where he was (I honestly couldn't tell you where), I didn't recognize him. I was all of six or seven, and *I didn't recognize my own father*. Thus, I could write a scene with a father saying farewell to his children in a single try, and to this point I can't come up with a single improvement.
Writing what you know is about situations. It's about emotion, it's about characters, it's about the things that help ground even a science-fiction or fantasy story in 'reality'. It's about the things that are universal to the human condition, and the things that are specific to a given personality. If you know the navy well enough, you can write at-sea scenes like those in Dan Kirk's 'Do Over' series. I, despite my extensive time spent around the military and even more extensive reading, have had to come to accept that I can't. I don't have the military science background to do an effective job of that sort of thing -- hence why my Trillion Dollar Family 2 story never really took off, and was allowed to gently die. Maybe I'll revisit the universe another day, but just as likely I never will.
On the other hand, a story involving an emotionally damaged young man willing to put it all on the line for love of country? That, that I can (and am) writing. Maybe it'll trip up on something -- like those damned study scenes I'm trying to use to introduce his friends -- but the character himself is sharp, strong writing.
Write what you know. Use what you know to create a reality, ground yourself in that reality, and your story will be the better for it. Next week, I'll continue on that theme.
Saturday, March 30. 2013
I've spent time discussing theory, lets move to some more practical matters. The tools of your trade. Lets start with the actual, physical tools. Some people use pen or pencil on paper, typewriters, whatever. Some have upgraded to word processors like word.
In the days of 'there's an app for that', it should never surprise anything that yes, there is an app for this. Allow me to introduce 'Scrivener'. I recently bought a copy of this on the recommendation of Wolfwalker, and all I can say is that I absolutely LOVE this thing. It's got a 30 day trial, and I strongly recommend that any serious author look into it. It's not a word processor by any stretch of the imagination -- it has relatively limited formatting options, and it's not designed to give you a precise idea of what will come out of the printer when you hit 'print'. It's not supposed to!
What it will do, what it does do, is focus on helping you write a story. Lay out scenes, with descriptions, rearrange them to your hearts content, then actually write them. It keeps all your notes and research materials in one place. It has a tagging system to help you find things. It also helps break your text up for you, making it easier to find specific scenes and events.
It is, IMO, a vital tool for any writer, and I'm looking forward to seeing what people do with it.
There are, of course, other options. There are a few other pieces of software out there that purport to be specifically for authors. I've never liked any of them, but maybe I just never gave them a fair shake.
You also have the good old standby of word processors. Libre Office, Microsoft word, etc etc. In my opinion, too many authors who use those wind up spending time thinking about fancy formatting tricks, rather than focusing on letting the words carry their own meaning. Which is why I'd suggest taking a step down from these, and starting with a markdown editor.
'Wots markdown', you may ask. Please, go ahead and ask... ah, Markdown! I'm glad you asked about it! Markdown is a very simple formatting language that allows you to very easily mark text up for HTML. It lets you focus first and foremost on the text, and then later come back and apply the necessary formatting. I'd strongly recommend a tool like 'Mou' for Mac, or MarkdownPad for windows. (Note: MarkdownPad does not currently have spell check; if you know a better markdown editor, let me know!)
If you go with more basic software, you'll also need to break things out yourself. I'd recommend having a file folder on your computer for your stories, and then have a folder for each individual story. From there, break it down into a file for notes (or more than one), a file for your current writing, and files for every 'finished' chapter. Break those out into two folders: ones that are really and truly final, and those that are still being tweaked. Trust me, don't try and keep a long-form story in a single file -- it's a disaster waiting to happen!
In the end of course, all a piece of software is, is a tool. Pick the one that works best for you. If you really, really, really need to fiddle with fancy formatting, maybe a word processor makes sense. But... spend some time thinking about it, first. And never be afraid to try something new.
Saturday, March 23. 2013
OK, you've read my last two articles. You've spent some time thinking about it, and you want to start writing. So, you sit down and start writing something, right?
I once heard a story about a writer who was having a chat with her friend. Halfway through the chat, she stopped, suddenly. Her friend asked what was the matter. She replied, "I just finished my latest book."
Her friend asked, "Oh, can I read it?"
The author replied, "Oh, I still need to write it down."
The very first step, before pen touches paper, before fingers touch keyboard, before you even begin actually writing, is thinking. You can't spin a story just by having an idea. You have to spend time refining it first. Everyone has different ways of doing this. Initially, I just rattled it around in my head until I had an overall plot structure, of late I've been doing more formal outlines. (They get rewritten as I write, but I have them).
Also, consider the following points. If these look an awful lot like the 5W's + H of a news story... well, it is. But each of those questions is important and should be considered.
Who is this story about? You need to introduce the characters, but first you need to have characters. Who are they? What makes them tick? What interesting quirks do they have?
What is the conflict? What is the story about? You can write a story about everyone sitting down to dinner and having a good meal, but frankly it gets boring, fast. Your story doesn't necessarily need an antagonist
Where is this story happening? And, closely related, when? Modern Chicago? Post-Modern New York? San Francisco of the nineteen-thirties? Mars, a million years ago? High Fantasy realm, sci-fi realm, urban fantasy, etc etc etc.
How does this story get told? First person? Third person? Think it through, I love first person, but sometimes you get the best results from second person, and he'll tell you that third person is what most professional authors seem to use. More than that, what plot devices will you use -- and not use. Flashbacks, point of view jumping, dream sequences (avoid, avoid!).
Why is this story interesting? Here's the key question. What makes this story different, unique, interesting. Make sure, please, that you aren't writing boy meets girl version 999,999,999. These stories get very repetitive, very fast.
Saturday, March 16. 2013
Last week, I used a joke about where to start to segue into a homily on how important it is to work at writing. It was an OK piece, but only OK. All it did was say the same thing, over and over again: writing is work.
So lets move on, and discuss something more useful.
The structure of a story can be broadly divided into five separate, important stages. These phases are introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution (also called denouement).
Introduction is, pretty obviously, the start of the story. Who are the characters? What is the conflict? (Meet Prince Charming, a five year old prince who is meeting his bride to be, the newborn princess Beauty... but oh, no, a wicket witch has cast a curse upon her! For her own safety, she must be taken from the castle!)
Rising action, despite being the second item, is actually the majority of the story. Most of your story should consist of advancing the plot, ratcheting up the tension, and building towards the next phase. (The princess, now grown, meets the prince -- with neither knowing who the other is. The wicket with works her evil magic, trying to interfere, but is constantly thwarted by the three good fairy godmothers who have protected the princess thus far. Finally, she conjured up a deadly spinning wheel and calls the princess to it. THe princess pricks her hand upon it, and falls into a deep slumber. The force of the spell is such that the entire castle is drawn into sleep with her, except for our dashing hero, who was out... hunting. Near the hut of a very pretty farm girl.)
Climax, as the name implies, is the high point of the story. It's the moment where everything comes together, and the die is finally cast. Do the good guys win? Do the bad guys win? Does your story even have 'good' guys vs 'bad' guys, or is the conflict something more personal? (Prince Charming has battled his way to the heart of the Wicked Witch's domain, and has faced the worst of her evil magic. Holding her at sword point, he demands she break her wicked spells or die.)
Falling action is where you let the readers down, gently easing them out of the story. Begin collecting up dangling plot lines and closing them off, one by one. (Having been shown mercy, a quality she could never understand, the wicked witch breaks into tears and undoes all her evil spells. In so doing, she transforms... revealing the face of the sleeping princess. In the faraway castle, the princess wakes up, and finds that her face has transformed into that of the wicked witch. And as the rest of the castle wakes up, her memories fade away, until she realizes she is the wicked witch... who wanted to steal Sleeping Beauty's 'happily ever after' by being the one kissed to wakefulness. But her spell was broken by mercy instead, leaving the princess free to take back her place.)
The resolution, or denouement, is the actual close of the story. (And they lived happily ever after... except for the wicked witch, who wound up married to an ogre with an iron fist)
By now, you are no doubt looking at this structure and trying to apply it to stories you know. How does this structure apply to story X, or story Y, or story Z. It's different every time, but also be warned: many authors screw this up, and don't properly utilize each phase. Sometimes this is a deliberate stylistic choice -- my English professor used the book 'Hunt for Red October' as an example, where half the book is falling action. In many ways, that's a bad design.
And, of course, some serially published stories get caught up in this. They keep rising the action, ratcheting it up, backing off, ratcheting it up, backing off, and just repeating that loop for ever and ever, each time ratcheting higher... and being the weaker for it. You wind up with a conflict that's too big for the characters, too enormous for them. Something winds up giving way, and often it's the quality of the story that suffers.
Saturday, March 9. 2013
Every story starts somewhere. There has to be some point, some instant, where the curtains pull back and the main story begins. The question, of course, is when and where. Where is the beginning for this story?
I can't give any kind of one-size-fits-all answer to this type of question. Every story is different, every writer different. I can't track down the original quote, but it's a pretty good one:
There are ten thousand right ways to tell a story, but there are a million wrong ways.
Similarly, this blog needs a starting point. And it's hard work to find a good one. Which, of course, gives me the perfect starting point!
Finding a right way to tell a story is hard, it's work. That's why writers, good writers, are so rare. It's not ability that's lacking, it's not talent -- though those can be hard enough to find -- it's the willingness to work. To write a story even once, then ruthlessly find every flaw and crush them under the heel of your red pen. Ask any author. However important their writing is to them, however vital it is to their life, they have to put energy into doing it. They have to put time -- oodles and oodles of time -- into the work.
Writing is work. Hard, hard, hard work. Nothing can change that.
Have I scared you off yet? No? Good! Writing is work, but there is nothing, nothing, like having someone email you to tell you that your work has touched their life somehow. There's nothing like being asked if they can borrow your character's words to use in their wedding vows (that idea still makes me shiver).
That said, it takes time, effort, more time, and even more effort before you get there. Writing is a skill, an artform, not an equation to be mastered by understanding the theory. Theory helps, the theory and rules of the craft are vital to crafting a good story. But they aren't the secret. The secret is learning to apply them, and learning how, and when, and why, to break them. For every rule, there is an exception -- but don't think your masterpiece will be the shining glory of that exception. It won't be.
When you first start writing, what you right is going to be... bad. Once the glow and joy of having written something wears off, if you go back and take a critical look at it, you'll realize... it's not all that good. It's actually, well, kinda bad.
And that's great news! You haven't simply written something, you've written something you can learn from. Every journey begins with a single step, and you've taken it. The second step is to edit what you just wrote, and make it better. Ask your friends what they think, and value, really value, the ones who tell you what they think rather than just pat you on the back and say 'oh yeah, it's good'. The friends you want to talk to are the ones that point out the flaws, that bring forth the hammer of their wits and the chisel of their criticisms, and bring them to bear mercilessly upon the block of stone you've produced. It's painful, oh is it painful, but learn. Use this as an opportunity to improve.
I still have my first stories around on my HDD, I think, but I won't -- I will never -- try to finish them, never try to clean them up and republish them. They just aren't good enough. Good starts, maybe, but... that's all: a good start. They are, frankly, embarrassing. Guardians is OK, (it needs work, but... it's got some potential in it). But my first works? The ones I originally released, elsewhere, and got feedback on? Good grief, they suck. The biggest help I received from them was with the crafting of sentences -- something that, to this day, remains my primary strength.
Treasure those first steps for what they are: the baby picture's of your life as a writer. Treasure them... and blush bright, bright red whenever anyone digs them out of the deep, dark, dank pit you've hidden them in. Nobody likes having their baby pictures shown. Nobody.
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