Deeply Held Convictions

What constitutes story fodder? Or more importantly, what’s off limits? Anything?

That’s an odd question, but in our polarized society, some topics seem taboo. I would suggest that if it is a strongly held belief that you ache to reveal, then by all means, write it.

In fact, you probably SHOULD write it.

A story digs deeper into the brain than a debate or discussion (see my forthcoming book Creativity Wears Boots to see just how much further).

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Go ahead, you have it in you!

Let me share the wisdom of my daughters. The idea of “Feelings aren’t Facts” is a common conservative argument, and it’s 100% true, but that isn’t all there is to it. My girls informed me that “Feelings are Valid.” They may not be based in right beliefs, but feelings need to be acknowledged.

And they are right. Ben Shapiro may lecture, and Steven Crowder may mock, but they don’t dwell. Martin Luther King Jr. made amazing speeches, but Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird made me burn inside in ways King’s speeches didn’t. I got goosebumps when I heard I have a dream!  but I cried when Scout learned the truth about the world.

I think A Time to Kill was John Grisham’s best book. It was his first, written in long-hand and then transposed, it was raw and—goodness!—actually showed a story (Grisham is the foremost teller of Show don’t Tell stories). It made me angry in the right way.

What’s your story? The horrors of abortion? The refutation of LGBT? The affirmation of them? Are you a Flat Earther? Do you struggle with evolution? Do you think Starbuck’s is of the devil (YES!)?

Write your story.

Yes, you might give thought to who within your immediate family would be offended. I have topics I won’t broach for that reason. For now.

The truest way to power through the expanse of the second act is to believe in your story. To be passionate about your topic and themes.

A quick story: Many years ago, I wrote and mounted a play set during WWII. We almost cancelled a week before production because America had just gone to war and we didn’t want anyone to adversely affected. We decided to go ahead with it nonetheless and deal with any consequences. After opening night, a woman came up to me crying. I thought, “Uh-oh” but instead she told me her husband had been deployed and she couldn’t sleep for fear, and that our play had made her see that God was in control and she wanted to thank me. Let me tell you, there is no greater feeling. For every person you hear from, there are many more who say nothing to you but are changed for reading your story.

You were given your deeply held convictions to share. Sometimes, as Frances Assisi said, “you might use words.”

Write your story, be true to yourself.

Who knows? You might change the world.

No One knows what works

In William Goldman’s (may he rest in piece) great book, Adventures in the ScreenTrade, he makes the most true statement ever:

No one knows what works.

He was talking about movies, but it’s true for any story. Twilight made the author rich (why? Who knows?). 50 Shades of Grey, a bad story about bad bondage IN THIS DAY IN AGE, was phenomenally successful. Why?

In the movie trade, thousands of things can go wrong that makes a bad script good or a good script bad.

You may have a crazy concept. You may think it isn’t salable, but if 50 Shades of Grey can be successful in the Me Too era, there isn’t any crazy idea that can work.

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If this guy can go outside with a straight face, you can write your crazy story!

When you begin writing, don’t think about “is it publishable?” Think instead, “how do I make this crazy idea work?”

If you need permission to write that wacky concept, consider it given. Get writing.

In Your Head and Talking Heads

Let’s look at two pace-killers; A character bogging down in his/her own head, and just two people talking.

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Talking Heads… Not the Band

It’s so tempting to get inside the head of your beleaguered character to let us hear what she’s thinking, but therein is the problem: That’s telling, not showing. Consider:

“Tara desperately wanted his masculine arms around her, encompassing her, but what about her fiancé? What would people think? But I want him, I need him, he makes me feel…”

Yuck on two levels:

  1. Telling us isn’t visceral; we don’t feel what Tara is telling us she feels.
  2. People don’t think like that. We only form thought into words when we are formulating thought to tell someone, or when we are constructing an argument (in essence, what we might write down if we were so inclined). Rather, we feel, we imagine. So, to the reader, it doesn’t feel real.

So much better to show Tara’s inner turmoil through her interactions with her fiancé, and whoever “he” is. Does she start arguments? Stay away from her fiancé? Shudder at his touch? All of these are infinitely more interesting than being told what she feels. It also forces action, since there must be two or more people in the scene, and conflict because she herself is conflicted.

Stay out of your character’s heads as much as possible and play out scenes that show us the anguish.

When you do, though, beware the talking heads.

In playwrighting, talking heads refers to scenes where people are just… talking. How boring. Worse when they’re talking about their feelings. Think about the Avengers scene, when Steve and Tony are talking… while they split wood. They take their frustrations out on the logs, culminating with Steve ripping apart a giant log with his bare hands. Best scene in the movie. Of two guys talking. Followed by Tony and Nick Fury just talking while repairing a tractor.

Non-examples are in Star Trek Discovery (if you have seen the last episode but plan to **SPOILER ALERT*** don’t read any further (for my personal opinion of Star Trek Discovery, and more spoilers, see here).

Hundreds if not thousands of drones are ripping apart starships, whittling down shields, and like so many times before, Michael and Spock are just standing there talking… for a long time… about their feelings!  Every second they dither, people are dying, ships are exploding but they keep talking. Now, if something weren’t working and they were talking while fixing it, working their frustration and feelings into the task at hand, I wouldn’t have been yelling at the screen so much (something I do regularly).

This is a particular problem in visual media, but it informs prose, as well. Great dialog that is fast and clever can cover inaction but still, add the element of action to show us what they’re feeling! Go through your story and find scenes of talking heads and lengthy inner monolog and set them in action!

Stories Without Pacing are a Drag

When a beta reader tells you your story is uneven, she means you have a pace problem.

Writing a good story, any story, is traversing a mountain range. When you’re going up a mountain, pace is slow; when you’re going down the mountain pace is fast.

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Don’t be a drag

Beginnings either start in the foothills for a slow build or drop down a cliff for the explosive start. Once your character has reached the inciting incident, the point of no turning back, then you should be immediately plunging down a small mountain. The beginning is over, it’s time to start the middle.

In the middle, each mountain is higher, but plot can slow down. Think of each mountain as being jagged with little peaks and valleys the higher you go.  Once you’re at the top of the last mountain, you plunge down, slipping into the end without even being aware of it.

At the end, even if you pause, you have so much kinetic energy it doesn’t feel like you’ve stopped. Once you’ve reached the conclusion, you’re again in the foothills for a quick wrap up.

How do you control pace?

  • Action – Action should be described in short sentences and short paragraphs with crunchy words.
  • Conflict – Not all conflict is action, yet even if it’s not, it’s fast, short sentences, short paragraphs.
  • Structure – You don’t always want short paragraphs and sentences. Sometimes you set up the fall with longer sentences, longer paragraphs, followed by a choppy sentence in a one-sentence paragraph.
  • Words – An intelligent person uses multi-syllabic words, but the tenser things get, the shorter his words get. The unintelligent use 10-cent words and devolve to grunts.
  • Dialog – Punchy dialog, fast interplay, spare description, interrupting one another all increases the pace.
  • Emotion – Sliding up through the emotional register, bundling up their feelings, tension speeds things up.

But you don’t want your reader exhausted, so sometimes you have to pull back on the pace.

  • Setting Description – Slow the pace by showing the setting.
  • Pondering – Your characters need to think and preserve their energy. They do this in several ways, but pondering, introspection, thinking slows things down.
  • Crisis of Faith – If your character is forced into participating, they may not be fully committed. Losing confidence can slow things down.

If you need to, chart the rise and fall of the scenes and chapters of the book. Where do things slow down and where do they speed up? Does the pace ratchet up? Does it vary?

Can you name some fast-paced books and slow-paced books?

Act Three

Act 3, the Ending, ties everything up, answers the dramatic question, and vanquishes the opposition.See the source image

Cue the trumpets, lower the spotlight, this is the stage of the final battle. The kind of battle is up to your genre and subject matter. It could be a fight, it could be a realization that leads to quiet action, it could be a negotiation, it’s entirely up to you.

Endings can be:

  • Positive – your hero gets what she wants and it’s good.
  • Bittersweet – your hero gets what she wants, but it isn’t what she expected.
  • Negative – your hero doesn’t get what she wants and it’s bad.
  • Nega-sweet – your hero doesn’t get what she wants and it’s good.
  • Whimper – things unfold, it is what it is, and nobody’s happy.
  • Armageddon – everybody dies.

All roads lead here. Themes are tied up, motivations are aligned or eliminated, the character arc completes, red herrings are revealed to be false, the real endgame is revealed. There’s a lot to do and you can’t let the wires show through. Nothing should be forced, everything should be a surprise, but still logical.

Not every string has to be tied up and resolved; it may be implied that it’s going to happen later or that it becomes inconsequential, and the character’s growth means it no longer matters.

Ultimately, an ending has to be satisfying. You’ve built up expectations and promises throughout the story. In the Wizard of Oz, Act Three happens once the witch is dead, and the Wizard’s requirements are met. They think they’ve won. Dorothy will be able to go home. But the Wizard isn’t a wizard (reversal), BUT he has a balloon (redemption), BUT he can’t fly the thing (dashed hope), and finally, Glinda reveals she has the power all along (resolution), BUT now she has to say goodbye. The act ends when Dorothy wakes up and discovers it was all a dream (the ONLY time “it was just a dream” works!). She resolves the family relationships, discovers everyone loves her, and… draw the curtain.

A lot happened right there! Dorothy’s battle with the witch in Act Two was loud and showy. The Final Battle was surprisingly laid back. It was high hopes dashed by a fraud, hopes revived by the same fraud, and all hope is lost… before Glinda reveals the power of the shoes (something all women know). It was an emotional roller-coaster, but not a physical melee.

Here’s what an ending should NOT be: “To be continued in the next stunning novel…”

If your book is part of a series, let the reader know up front. The surprise that the story isn’t going to resolve in this book is a betrayal to the reader. You want to tease the reader, excite, surprise, and allow the story to betray the reader, but YOU should never betray the reader.

If your story is part of a series, it still needs its own stand-alone dramatic question and resolution. Leave the reader hanging at your own peril!

 

 

This is the end of the April Blog Challenge, but not the end of the Prevailing Thoughts blog! While frequency will not be daily, I’ll aim for posting at least once a week. Question for you: Do you want to see writing tips for plays, teleplays, and screenplays as well as novel and non-fiction posts?

Stuck in the Middle

Act Two – the Middle of the Beginning, Middle, and End – is a Poker game…where the cards are razor sharp, on fire, and your hero is wearing kerosene gloves.See the source image

It’s a poker game because your hero has a questionable grasp of his own cards, isn’t sure of the rules of the game, and has no idea what anyone else is holding.

Now that we’ve gotten to know the hero in Act One, your job as writer is to break the hero down, beat him up, insult his mama, and make him rue taking the first step of the journey.

With your eye on the dramatic question, you the writer need to construct an obstacle course that pushes, pulls, subverts, and stretches your hero. In the process, the hero picks up what’s eventually going to be needed (physical items, character traits, knowledge, faith, what have you), while divesting herself of wrong beliefs, weaknesses, etc., shaping the hero into exactly what is needed to win in Act Three. The hero’s relationships will be tested, trust will be lost or gained.

Yet you also have to set up red herrings… other ways for the story to end.

All of this sounds extreme, right? I must be talking about thrillers and adventures.

Except I’m not. This is true for all stories. The stakes may be higher or lower, depending on the story, and the trials your hero goes through maybe be more funny than scary, less or more dire.

In my book, Do Angels Still Fall?, Bungy is picked on, disciplined by his parents, afraid his brother will die, afraid he won’t ever have friends, and experiences a major loss. For Bungy, these are stratospheric stakes, but to us they may feel more pedestrian… and yet because our hero experiences them as huge, the reader will as well.

Here in the middle, your characters’ wants/motivations collide, align, re-align, and refine.

The middle is the bulk of the story, there are few hard and fast rules for it other than shaking up your hero and setting up Act Three. There is great freedom, but it should always relate to your dramatic question, or the spine of your story. Luke Skywalker doesn’t get a haircut or learn graphic design because that doesn’t tie into “Will Luke become a Jedi?”

If I had to make up a rule, have at least three increasingly difficult problems (betrayal, reversal, crisis of faith).

Further, think in terms of equipping your hero with the tools and will to win, without the hero necessarily knowing that’s what’s happening.

The rising crescendo culminates in the final battle. Act Two ends when the hero commits to the final battle.

We’ll look at Act Three, the Ending, tomorrow.

In The Beginning…

I love writing the beginning of a novel. I must, I have half a dozen in my “to write” folder that are still waiting for a middle and end to be written.See the source image

The beginning, or Act One, of a book is where the magic kicks off. You’re creating new characters, their world, their hopes and desires (aka, their motivations), your planting seeds of what is to come. The dramatic question is set up and asked, and you’re teeing up the football that is the inciting incident.

There’s a lot going on here!

Let’s define some terms here:

  • Worldbuilding – This isn’t just for Science Fiction. Your setting may be in the here and now, but your main character’s world needs to be established. What’s our hero’s normal? In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s world is a working farm, where she isn’t raised by her parents but her Aunt and Uncle. It’s the past, Kansas, and she feels in the way. She’s a burden on her Aunt and Uncle, she gets in the way of the farmhands, and a nasty neighbor has it out for her. Her best friend is a dog.
  • Character Building. We meet and get to know Dorothy, a young reckless teen, but scratch the surface and her insecurities come boilingng out. In the movie, we meet the farmhands and their chief character trait, who become the main players in the story (albeit in different forms).
  • Character Arc: Your hero is flawed, and in the course of the story, your character will be changed by the circumstances encountered.
  • Dramatic Question: This typically encompasses the hero’s character arc. Will Dorothy find her way home? Will Luke become a Jedi? These aren’t difficult questions, but the dramatic question becomes the spine of your story. Things that don’t relate to the question can be trimmed away.
  • Inciting Incident: That’s the no-going-back point. It is NOT when Dorothy runs away, it is when she opens the door on Oz.

There are many methods to start the first page. Your best bet is to start with Action, something that typifies the hero’s normal. In my book Me and the Maniac in Outer Space, Hud is contemplating the hell that is middle school in the boy’s locker room, where he is frequently assaulted by the school bully. That beating is interrupted by his best friend the Maniac.

My novel Do Angels Still Fall? began in France during the plague as the angel Donel conducted his charge to the afterlife who asked the title question, something the angel had never considered before. This established Donel’s world of flesh, spirit, and time displacement, and ushered him to this new normal of mentoring a child of today.

Another tried and true method is to drop right into the midst of Act Two action, then either jumping back to Act One (as in cold openings of TV shows… 3 day earlier…) or using flashbacks to bring us up to speed.

Framing devices are also possible, in which the “frame” is someone else telling the story, or the hero’s older self looking back.

The key is to start as late in the story as you can without losing critical detail.

From there, creatively establish whatever else is required of world, relations, motivations, and drive to that inciting incident that disrupts the old normal and forces the hero to move forward to the new normal.

Then it’s. On to Act Two. Tomorrow…

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