Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Plot and Character: Grand Unification Theory

by Deren Hansen

Carrie Vaugh, sharing a, "7 Things I've Learned So Far," post on the Guide to Literary Agents blog, wrote:
6. Plot and character are the same thing. A story's actions should arise out of the decisions and reactions those particular characters make. Different characters would drive the story in a different direction. Why are these things happening to these particular people and not someone else?  Changing the characters, the kinds of people they are, would change the story. If the events of a story would happen no matter who the characters are, then the characters have no impact on what happens, and why should I want to read about them?
I wanted to expand on this idea.

We're often told to raise the stakes in our stories: why have the bad guy threaten to blow up a city block when he could blow up the entire city! But there are diminishing returns as you continue to raise the stakes. The terrorists are about to detonate a home-made nuclear device that will kill a million people. That's frightening. Now we raise the stakes by adding a nuclear scientist to the terrorist line up who knows how to make a better bomb, one that can kill ten million people. Is that ten times as frightening?

The scope of what's at stake is at best secondary to the significance of what's at stake. That's why a quiet book about someone's heart being broken by an untimely death will elicit more tears than a shoot-em-up where bodies fall faster than autumn leaves.

I'm sure you've heard literary fiction characterized as character-drive in contrast to plot-driven commercial fiction. But the deeper truth is that good stories, regardless of the genre, are about things that matter.

And how do we know what matters?

Because someone cares about it.

Significance is a fascinating attribute because it is not an objective property. Significance only exists because we attribute it. Washington, D.C., sits on a patch of ground that was utterly insignificant until George Washington argued it should be the capital. Once a few people cared about it, a great many others came to care about it too.

Carrie Vaugh's suggestion that plot and character are the same thing leads us to a grand unification theory: character and plot are internal and external aspects of the deeper, underlying unity that meaningful stories about the people and things that matter to the people in the stories that matter to us.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.

Monday, September 26, 2011

We Love Them; We Love Them Not

By Julie Daines

Ever read a book with a main character that you don't like no matter how hard you try?

Well, apparently I'm writing one. So, I've been studying up on how to make your main character likeable. A must if you want readers to relate and be drawn into the story. If a reader doesn't like your MC, they won't care about what happens to him/her, and consequently, they have no reason to finish your book.

So, here is a list of traits that make a character likeable as told to me by award winning author, Martine Leavitt:

1.  Physical Attractiveness: Sounds biased I know, but hasn't the Edward craze proved it to be true?

2.  Altruism: Think Charlotte in Charlotte's Web. 

3.  Plans, Purpose, and Dreams: Characters are more likeable if they have justifiable, purposeful goals. Then readers can cheer them on.

4.  Courage and a Heightened Sense of Fair Play: This always makes me think of Harry Potter.

5.  Attitude: I take this to include personality. No one wants to hang out with someone who is boring or constantly negative. Find the balance.

6.  Cleverness: Like in the TV show House. He doesn't have a lot of social skills, but he is brilliant.

7.  They Love and Are Loved: To be loved and to love is something that every person wants, so this makes a character especially likeable...dare I say loveable?

8. Are In Jeopardy: When things the character cares about are at stake: life, love, hopes and dreams... 

Of course, no characters should have ALL of these traits. They must have flaws, but we need to have some kind of reason to like him/her. The trick is to balance your character's flaws and issues with only some of these traits.

Important note on attitude--Ms. Leavitt also gave us this great advice:
When the main character cares too much about his/her self (woe is me), the reader does not have to.
So there you have it. Go back to your creation and take that clay and mold it and bend it into a fully fledged, deep and meaningful character. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Playing With Clay

by Scott Rhoades

In a presentation at work this week, a coworker used his experience from when he studied pottery as an analogy for a businessy thing. The analogy worked well. It occurred to me during the presentation that the pottery metaphor applies to writing as well. With apologies to my colleague, and despite my own lack of pottery experience, I'm going to give comparing the three steps of making pottery to writing a try. So cue up some Righteous Brothers and let's get our hands dirty.

1. Center the Foundation

When you throw your clay on the potter's wheel (do I sound like I know what I'm saying?), you need to make sure the foundation of your pot is centered, so your pot is correctly balanced and doesn't get all wobbly and collapse while you're forming it.

This is the planning stage of your novel. Even if you are the kind of writer who prefers to let the story unfold as you write rather than planning ahead, you still need a foundation. At the very least, you should have some knowledge of your main characters and the premise of your story. Without that, your story will wobble and will likely fall apart while you try to spin your tale. Even if it does not collapse completely, your story is probably going to be an asymmetrical mess, something your mom will say she loves if you give it to her, but eventually you'll find it in the back of that cupboard above the refrigerator, the one nobody can reach, and whose contents become a mystery after a few years of collecting dust.

If your foundation is centered and you're aware of the basics of your story, you're ready to get started.

2. Give It Shape

This is where you start turning the wheel and the pot starts to spin. Slowly, your lump of clay begins to take shape. Your hands are constantly busy, getting dirty as you stretch and squeeze and do whatever else you do to shape a pot.

The shape you want doesn't come immediately. You have to use your skill and make constant adjustments, patiently working your story until it takes the form you see in your head.

Once you have your story, it's ready for the kiln. But it's still not finished.

3. Glaze for Success

You have your story. It's shaped nicely, but it's dull and not very beautiful. Your scenes are well constructed, the pacing is about right, but it's missing the shine and color that will make your mom proudly display it prominently in her living room.

This is when you apply the glaze, painting your story so it's colorful and exciting. It might require a few layers of glaze before you have the shine you want, but when you're finished, you have a beautiful work of art. It's well balanced, so it doesn't wobble on the table or shelf and is less likely to fall and break. The shape is perfect. And it's gorgeous, painted just right and shining in the light.

Now you're ready to sell to the highest bidder. And who wouldn't want to pay top dollar for something this wonderful?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ah... Seasonal books are in the air

Halloween seems to be the start of seasonal book season. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas books abound. Every year there are even more that hit the market. 

So what's your favorite Halloween book? 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What Makes a Strong Female Character (LTUE)

by Deren Hansen

One of the panels I attended at the 2011 Life, the Universe, and Everything conference addressed the question, "What makes a strong female character?"

Here's what the panelists had to say:

Bree Despain
"Someone who makes their own decisions."
Clint Johnson
"All great characters are problem solvers: they do things. Women tend to solve problems differently than men. Where men often try to attack the problem head-on, women build teams and solve the problem socially."
Jaleta Clegg
"A strong character must have courage."
Sheila Nelson
"There are more kinds of strength than the 'kick butt' kind. The women who had the greatest influence on me all had a quiet, daily kind of strength."
Jessica Day George
"Strength doesn't mean they're never vulnerable. Perfect characters are dull. Characters whose strengths and weaknesses play off each other are much more interesting."
Clint Johnson
"In the best stories, the strongest characters are those that act with the greatest strength in spite of their weaknesses."
Echoing Clint's comments, the fundamental answer is that the things that make a strong female character are the same things that make a strong  male character: someone interesting who does something, and whose actions give us insight into who they are.

The panel touched on the fact that, for reasons ranging from biology to culture, the ways in which men and women can or are expected to show strength differ. If you're not careful--if you work from stereotypes--you're likely to make mistakes like writing "men with boobs" in the name of "strong female characters." Instead, the best strategy is to approach each character, regardless of gender, as an individual with their own collections of strengths and weaknesses.

Clint Johnson also said, "Strength in narrative has to be proven." Again, regardless of gender, the best way to show strength in narrative is to give the character two real choices and show that they are able to choose either way (I call this my Second Rule of Two). If a character has consistently chosen safety over conflict during the course of a story, and if at the end they are offered a safe and honorable way out, the fact that they stay and fight says a great deal more than if they are simply cornered and have no choice but to fight.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Health in Writing

After that post on Maslow’s Hierarchy I wanted to post a couple of other things I saved from 10th grade health that are helpful in my writing.

I think it is helpful to know how each character processes their emotions; here is one of the health lessons on anger:

Anger is a strong human emotion that is a signal that one or more of our basic needs are not being met.

Ways to process anger:

1 Turning it anger inward through avoidance. The person who behaves this way is often depressed. In addition, because he/she never expresses his or her anger, no one ever knows what he/she thinks, wants, or needs. As a result, he/she seldom get their needs met.

2. Aggressive confrontation. Being aggressive means verbally or physically attacking another individual. This includes fighting, yelling, name- calling, put downs, and so forth. Generally, aggression turns people off, or they choose to react in a similarly aggressive way, and the problem gets worse.

3. Passive-aggressive compromise. A person looks calm on the outside but is really angry inside. She/he might show anger by rolling her/his eyes, interrupting, or refusing to cooperate. He/she might grudgingly "meet someone half way" only to hold it against him/her later. Others tend to avoid the passive aggressive person or choose to get angry in return.

4. Assertive collaboration. The assertive person knows he/she is angry and chooses to express that feeling in an appropriate way. He/she knows what his/her wants and needs and can ask for it without showing disrespect for the other individuals’ wants and needs. Dealing with anger by being proactive and assertive makes it much more likely that people will be able to cooperate and reach a mutually satisfactory solution.

Obviously the lesson is trying to teach us to be the person to use assertive collaboration to process our anger, but it’d be no fun if all of our characters handled things that way!

Things are supposed to get bad for our characters right? Somewhere in the story someone will probably have to feel grief, here is Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief that people often experience after a serious loss:

At first you may deny that the loss has taken place. You may need to gather more information before the loss can sink in.

The next stage is anger. You may feel furious at the person who caused your sadness, even if that person is dead. You may feel anger at your belief system, yourself, the world. You may feel responsible in some way for letting the event take place, even if there was nothing you could have done to change the outcome.

At this point in the grieving process you may feel unable to face what has happened. You may make bargains with your higher power to change the events that caused your sadness. It is natural to want to avoid facing up to your loss.

During this time, you may feel numb, with anger and sadness just below the surface. You are not certain how, or what to feel. This stage may last a few days to a couple of months.

This is the last stage of grieving. At this point, you are able to accept the reality of the loss. As you move through the grieving process you are able to have more and more pleasant memories and move back into the routine of daily life.

This was kind of a different post, tell me if it is helpful!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

"Doctor, Doctor!"

OK, so here's the question:

Do you find a "diagnosis" for your character first and then write it in  ***OR***

Do you write about your character's illness first and then find a diagnosis to match?

How do you make sure your medical ailments & diagnoses are accurate? Or do you through current medical convention aside and invent your own illnesses as you go?

I have a manuscript that is still sitting undone because a blind professor who heard parts of the mss read to him said it wasn't practical for my main character to go blind so fast. Drat! I'm still not sure how to fix that.

I have another manuscript with a character who needs the drama of a blood clot in her lungs. I think I researched enough to make it believable, but I haven't asked a medical doctor yet. After my blindness failure, I'm almost afraid to!

So what you do?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Scene and Sequel: Looking Back

by Scott Rhoades

This is the final part of my series about crafting a successful scene.
  1. Scenic Overlook
  2. The Goal of Your Scene
  3. Conflict and Disaster
  4. Sequel
If you've read this whole series, you now have the basics to create a good scene. It would be a good idea to go back to the first part and check out some of the references I mentioned. They'll give you more detail, and explain each element of a scene in greater detail, and probably much more effectively than I have.

You might also be thinking that feels like a paint-by-numbers approach to writing, one that stifles your creativity by trying to enforce a formula. I admit, that was my first reaction when I had this method thrust upon me.

But if you really think about it, this whole thing makes a lot of sense, even if it's cast in somewhat academic terms that seem bent on imposing structure over what is more-or-less a free-form art of storytelling.

All this scene and structure mumbo jumbo says, really is that, to have a story, you have to have conflict, which creates a problem that makes things get worse for your character. As a result of that problem, your characters have to react, which leads to the next problem.

That makes sense. And there's still plenty of room for creativity and innovative plot devices. You don't have to be like everybody else, even if you follow this structure religiously. You will, however, have a pretty solid plot and an interesting emotional story.

This structure does something else for you as a writer. It helps you combat writer's block. Because scenes and sequels lead to more scenes and sequels in a natural and sensible progression, you always know what you have to do next. If your last writing session ended with a disaster, you know your next one will begin with a reaction to that disaster, which leads to a decision, which leads to more conflict and goals for the next scene. And on and on it goes until your goals are achieved, conflicts are resolved, and the story ends. You know what needs to happen next, so there's less opportunity to get stuck.

Most importantly, your reader closes the book reluctantly after reading the last page, sorry that an emotional roller coaster of a read is over, ready to tell her Facebook friends that they really need to read this book.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Oh! The Places You'll Go!


(Warning! This post is not to ensue feelings of jealousy or the possibility of hitting the post author. These pictures are to help segue into a possible thought process.  Please continue.)
Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!

I've been here
(Adventure story waiting to be told involving vagrants, trains and buses).

Been here too
Santorini, Greece.

I've traveled a lot. My travel bug may have come from being an Air Force darling, not brat. We moved twenty-eight times before I was a freshman in high school.
I'm not sure if traveling affects my writing as much as people watching does. Half of my stories have come from National Novel Writing Month, a third from my dreams and the rest from somewhere inside my brain.
I do believe traveling or the very least, exploring, adds richness to our lives which comes out in our writing. Trying new food, music, artistic outlet all will add to our viability.

Do all the places you've visited help you in your writing? Are you able to write more realistic characters or settings or stories?

What if you write science fiction? Visiting places might not help sci/fi writers. Or maybe it will...

Can writers get along on pure imagination? I think yes. Then again, if you're going to set your novel in Paris, you'd better know your way around, what the police are called and how yummy the food is because guaranteed someone will know too.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Characters, Expectations, and the Maslow Hierarchy

by Deren Hansen

Stina Linderblatt shared a post, titled "Deepening Your Character's Needs," on the QueryTracker Blog. She described Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which range from the basic (like food) to the esoteric (like morality), and how characters are more realistic and more compelling if their behavior is driven by needs from more than one place in the hierarchy.

People and, by extension, characters generally work their way up the hierarchy, satisfying needs at one level before moving up to the next. This means, for example, that your readers will cry foul if your characters stop in the midst of sudden peril to worry about their self-esteem (or, more commonly, have a romantic liaison during a lull in a gun-battle).

But it reveals a great deal about a character if and when they violate a lower-level need in favor of a higher level need. For example, someone may place themselves in danger (violating their need for safety) if by doing so they can save a loved one (satisfying their need for love and belonging).

In order to get away with violating your reader's common sense about the hierarchy of needs, you must establish the character's overriding need before they act against expectations.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Battle of the Century: Story vs. Writing

By Julie Daines

This is the question I've been asking myself lately: What makes for the best books--sublime writing or an amazing story?

If you hope to win a Newbery Honor, you might need to lean toward perfect writing. If you want to make it to the New York Times best-seller list, then a well crafted story could be enough.

I read a book a few months ago where the writing was so awful I wanted to throw the book at the wall. How could this much telling and repetitive language make it to the NYT best-sellers list? Didn't this author know anything about good writing? But the truth is, I couldn't put it down. I had to read all night to find out what happens. The intense, original story and great characters drew me.

Last week I read book with some fantastic writing--clever, moving, full of meaningful imagery, great dialogue. But I had to force myself to finish it. I didn't care about the main character, I didn't care about her friends. All that beautiful language was wasted on yet another story of a tortured teen who suddenly discovers she has super/paranormal powers and then finds herself in cliched situations. It was so predictable, I already knew the ending by reading the jacket cover.

Of course the best answer is C) All of the above. Writing and plot working together in perfect--and perfected--unison.

So, what do you think? Story versus Writing Throwdown--who wins?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Exploring Worlds within the Pages of a Book

We are excited today to have another wonderful guest blogger, Fiona Ingram. She has been a journalist for the last fifteen years and has writing a children’s book, The Secret of the Sacred Scarab, an unexpected step, inspired by a recent trip to Egypt. Ingram has finished the second book in the Chronicles of the Stone series, The Search for the Stone of Excalibur—a huge treat for young King Arthur fans—which is due to release soon.

Ingram has been kind enough to share some tips on exploring worlds and how parents, teachers and children can go beyond the pages of their favorite book.


A recent blog survey by Susan Orleans (in the New Yorker) on books that have changed children’s worlds reveals that many times the books are possibly the parents’ choices. This could be because until the child can go out and choose and pay for their own books, the parent is usually the book buyer, and therefore, is by default the book chooser. Parents may purchase enchanting classics because they want their children to enjoy the books they grew up with. It could also be that parents consider some books to be inappropriate. Perhaps the subject matter is too shocking in some cases. For example, when I first read Lord of the Flies (now a classic) at a very tender age, I was shattered. Violence and death seemed impossible. Nowadays, the number of instances of child on child violence is rising. Or is it? Possibly, with wider media coverage and the age of the Internet, more cases are being reported because the dissemination of information has become so much easier.

When I taught my adopted daughter, Mabel to read I naturally turned to my old favorites, children’s classics, because many of those books changed my world. Mabel loved lots of them but began to spread her literary wings as she grew up. Your child may not enjoy the beloved books of yesteryear that were your friends and companions. Times change, technology marches ever onward, and children’s tastes develop. Any parent wishing to foster and develop a love of reading in their child should be aware of the new and often difficult pressures on children today. Issues that did not exist thirty years ago may be of compelling importance now. Subjects that were never spoken of such as child abuse, incest, violence, drug use, death, a dystopian world, global warming, war, racism, nuclear threats, etc. unfortunately rear their ugly heads in today’s society. Children are also bombarded from an early age with media messages that create confusion. Are kids growing up too soon, parents wonder? Should they be reading this or that?

Some practical tips for parents wishing to enhance their child’s reading pleasure:
  • Subscribe to children’s book review sites or publisher newsletters to keep abreast of kids’ books. Often reviews are helpful in deciding whether to purchase a book or not.
  • Look at what your child is reading at school and discuss whether they are enjoying it, and if not, why not.
  • Visit a good bookstore with your child and look at the books most prominently displayed. Get the store assistant’s opinion on what is popular, and what they would recommend. Find out if, any authors will be doing book readings or if there are any book launches coming up.
  • Local librarians are a fount of often-unappreciated knowledge. Ask about book readings or library sessions where there is a fun activity planned.
  • Buy books that target your child’s interests and hobbies.
  • Encourage your child to make their own choices.
  • Depending on the age of your child, help your child expand their experience by getting the movie about the book, or purchasing a ‘companion guide’ (usually illustrated) to a compelling book series. If the book is set in a particular historical period or geographical location, go online and look for images or extra information to enhance your child’s understanding.
Don’t be afraid that any one book will change your child’s viewpoint in a negative way. Life is full of all sorts of experiences that they must eventually confront. Books are a way for kids to dip into another world or explore topics safely. 

Fiona Ingram’s earliest story-telling talents came to the fore when, from the age of ten, she entertained her three younger brothers and their friends with serialized tales of children undertaking dangerous and exciting exploits, which they survived through courage and ingenuity. Haunted houses, vampires and skeletons leaping out of coffins were hot favorites in the cast of characters. 

Naturally, Ingram is a voracious reader and has been from early childhood. Her interests include literature, art, theatre, collecting antiques, animals, music and films. She loves travel and has been fortunate to have lived in Europe (while studying) and America (for work). She has travelled widely and fulfilled many of her travel goals.

Remembering kids today are computer savvy, ALL of Fiona Ingram’s books are available both in hard copy and eBook.

You can find out more about Fiona Ingram’s World of Ink Author/Book Tour schedule at There will be giveaways, reviews, interviews, guest posts and more. Make sure to stop by and interact with Ingram and the hosts at the different stops by leaving comments and/or questions. Ingram will be checking in throughout the tour and is offering an additional giveaway for those who leave comments throughout the tour.

In addition, come listen to Blog Talk Radio’s World of Ink Network show: Stories for Children. The hosts VS Grenier, Kris Quinn Chirstopherson and Irene Roth will be chatting with Fiona Ingram about her children’s book series, writing, the publishing industry, and the trials and tribulations of the writer’s life.

The show will be live September 26, 2011 at 2pm EST. You can tune in at the World of Ink Network site at

Friday, September 9, 2011


by Scott Rhoades

This is part 4 of my series on scenes:

  1. Scenic Overlook
  2. The Goal of Your Scene
  3. Conflict and Disaster
A well-structured scene, according to writing gurus like Jack Bickham and Dwight Swain, is followed by a sequel. This makes perfect sense. A sequel is no more or less than the result of the scene. (I always thought the gurus gave the sequel an unfortunate name, because it brings other things to mind, but "scene and sequel" are easy to remember and have become the standard terms, so I'll use them here.)

A sequel contains three elements:

  1. Reaction

  2. Dilemma

  3. Decision


Your scene ended with something happening, probably something bad. So, naturally, your characters have to react to that disaster. If your wizard fell into a pit white battling a fire demon (to use an example that's probably never actually been used in a book before--what? Oh.), your characters need to respond somehow. They could just stand there and watch him fall. It would be better for your story, though, if they actually did something.

A reaction should have two components, emotional and physical. Good writers have no problem, usually, coming up with a good physical reaction. That the characters have to do something is obvious. Great writers, however, recognize that the emotional reaction is just as important.

Remember, the action is the plot, but the characters' emotions are the story, the reason why we care about them and spend hours following their travails when we could be watching America's Got the Next Dancing Idol Chef Survivor.

So, when your wizard falls into the pit, your characters should try to save him if they can. If they can't, they need to save themselves from sharing his fate. They also need to react emotionally. Are they relieved to be rid of the meddling geezer? Are they distraught at losing their friend and companion? Are they frightened? Lost? Let the readers know. Remember, though, that you need to use your best show-don't-tell techniques when writing about emotion ("Never Name Emotions" by Julie Daines).


After the characters react to the disaster, it's time to regroup. Regroup involves recognizing that there's now another problem, or a new set of problems. The characters recognize that, sure, they made it out of the underground passage alive, but Things Have Just Gotten Worse. There's no wizard to entertain the party at night with fireworks, smoke rings, and interminable stories of the past. Oh yeah, and without his powers, the quest just became far more dangerous, for a specific set of reasons.


The dilemma has its own set of emotional and physical reactions. Don't short-change your reader by forgetting to react, but these reactions need to lead toward a decision, an OK-here's-what-we-do-now moment.

If multiple characters are reacting to the disaster, this is also a good place for conflict. Remember, each character has his own agenda and goals, and comes to the problem with his own perspective. This naturally creates conflict as they try to decide what to do next. That conflict might bleed into the next scene, or it might be resolved when the decision is made. Maybe the party agrees that the next thing to do is to keep on with the mission to destroy the magical talisman. But one character--maybe he's the neglected younger son of the kingdom's steward, say--thinks the talisman should be used to help defeat the Big Baddy. Maybe your main character wants to protect his friends and run off to finish the task alone. These plans create conflict and up the peril.

The decision leads into the next scene. With a new set of problems, an increased sense of peril, and heightened conflict, you are ready to start the pattern all over again. You have everything you need for another well-crafted scene.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Entertainers vs. Artists

by Deren Hansen

Writing in the November 2010 issue of Electronic Musician, Steven Wilson said, "This, for me, is the distinction between an entertainer (cater to an audience) and an artist (create your own audience)." [Emphasis mine.]

I found Steven's distinction enlightening, not because the artist is more noble than the entertainer but because of the way in which it clarifies the nature of the audiences.

This is not about selling out or maintaining artistic integrity. I've already discussed the notion of meeting the market half-way. That's something you must do whether you're catering to an audience or creating one. In the catering case, you've got to bring something new to the existing audience: without some variations on the theme, they'll get bored and go elsewhere. In the creating case, you've got to frame your novelties in familiar terms so that the audience you attract can get their bearings.

The distinction between catering to an audience and creating an audience is like the distinction between promotions that are compelling or enticing. When you're catering to an audience, you need something that will compel them to pay attention to your project. When you're creating an audience, you need to entice them to explore something new.

How do you know what kind of audience you should address?

If you're writing something that fits comfortably in one genre, like epic fantasy, where readers expectations are fairly clear, the audience expects you to cater to them. If you're writing something that mixes genres, you'll likely have to create an audience.

Think about what you're trying to do. Now think about how your audience will find you. I suspect the distinction between the entertainer and the artist will help clarify the issues.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Conflict and Disaster

by Scott Rhoades

This is part 3 of my series on scenes:

1. Scenic Overlook
2. The Goal of Your Scene

In this post, I'll combine the other two elements of a scene, conflict and disaster. These two elements work together.


Last time, I mentioned that every character in your scene has a goal. When these goals conflict, things go bad for your characters. When things go bad, you have a story. I remember hearing a young writer say once that she didn't want to have conflict in her children's stories because conflict is bad and kids are exposed to enough bad stuff without having to have it in stories they read for entertainment. She wanted to write happy stories without danger, strife, or anything negative, a rosy story world where all is happy and peaceful.


Without conflict, there's no story.

At its simplest level, conflict arises when two characters either want the same thing or want opposing things. It doesn't necessarily have to be that one character wants good and one opposes good because he's evil. Think, for example, of two people who run for public office. As tempting as it is to say the person running against the candidate you support is evil, the reality is that each candidate, from his own perspective, is running for the office because he genuinely believes his ideas are better than the other guy's. Each side believes--whether it's actually true or not--that his plan will provide a better result than his opponent's. One might be right and one wrong, both could be right, or (as seems to be the case quite often) both could be wrong. The point is, their ideals conflict and they both want the same office.

It's not necessary to have good and evil to have conflict. Conflict is in everything, even among friends. In your story, the best conversations and actions will take place, even between buddies, when each character's personal agenda comes to the fore and they don't match. Conflict can be big or small, but it has to be there or your scene will be like a game with no scoring or a class with no grades. Might be interesting, in its way, but nothing will happen and the character will not to be grow.


In your goal, the outcome of conflict, more often than not, is disaster. Disaster doesn't have to mean that the world explodes. Most of the time, it means that the main character doesn't get what he wants. Or, if he gets what he wants, there's an unintended consequence. One step forward, two steps back. To keep the story going, something has to go wrong. Conflict has to deepen. Danger needs to be ratcheted up a notch or two. Disappointment, peril, loss, failure--all the things that writer I mentioned wanted to avoid--are the makings of a strong, memorable scene that keeps the story moving and keeps the reader going.

It's like the old Saturday matinee serials your parents told you about. Something bad happens to create a cliffhanger ending to your scene.

One thing to watch out for: beware of the false disaster. A false disaster occurs when you end a scene or chapter with a cliffhanger, but when the reader turns the page, they discover that there was no problem after all. Although some very successful writers have relied heavily on false disasters, you should avoid them. They do not satisfy your readers, and they don't move the story forward. They don't increase the character's peril and don't give you the two steps back that you need to keep a reader from turning off the bedside lamp. Although a false disaster can be useful from time to time, if you use more than one or two in a book, then the reader won't trust your disasters. The reader will know it's OK to stop reading at the end of a chapter because that cliffhanger probably isn't really a problem. Suspense has been killed, and when that happens, all excitement is drained from your story. Too many false disasters and the reader might not even bother to pick up your story the next day.

Disaster keeps your story moving forward by giving your character an urgent problem that must be reacted to, a new scene goal. We'll get to that later.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Madeleine L'Engle on Ideas

(excerpt from The Literary Ladies)

"...I am somewhat like a French peasant cook. there are several pots on the back of the stove, and as I go by during the day's work, I drop a carrot in one, an onion in another, a chunk of meat in another. When it comes time to prepare the meal, I take the pot which is nearly full and bring it to the front of the stove.
So it is with writing."

What do you do with the ideas that come to you? Do you have more than one story brewing on the back burner?
I tried to have a notebook specifically for my ideas when they came along. But I didn't carry it everywhere so my ideas are in one story's notebook or on the little pad of paper in my black purse or on the restaurant napkin in the butterfly purse. When I'm ready to put the whole story together, I usually glance through my notebooks and purses to find my ideas. I've come to enjoy my time spent searching for tidbits. It's almost like searching for gold; even a little nugget is worth it's weight or wait. :)

Are you more organized than me? Do you have any tips on keeping ideas or on how to come up with ideas?