Isolation: A Vital Element of Story

Your main character, the hero of the story no matter the genre, must be isolated to make a logical, powerful story.

I don’t mean stranded on a desert island isolated, but cut-of-from-help isolated.

It’s amazing how many pictures of “alone” and “isolated” are negative. Am I the only one who likes to be alone?

Consider, your hero encounters a problem in the first act of the story. We learn who the hero is, what their normal is, and then something happens… this is the inciting incident. What happens next is the isolation of your hero. It isn’t enough for the problem to be solvable, it must only be solvable by the hero.

Such isolation takes on many forms. It could be they (the hero and the merry band of support characters, or the ensemble) are literally cut off. Their plane crashes in the dinosaur-infested jungle and there are no other humans for miles.

Or it could be a matter of skill set. The president is dying on Air Force One and the hero is the only doctor. It all on the hero.

It could be relational. The hero estranged from his dying father is the only one who can fulfill his last request. Or a terrorist will only deal with the hero, no one else.

This is vitally important because, hey, if there is someone better suited to save the day, why is your character the hero?

This is particularly difficult in today’s society where everyone has a cellphone. You either need to get rid of the phone, out of range, broken, or dead battery, or isolate through time; there are others more suited, but they don’t have time to get there, or are unmotivated, or in league with the villain.

How is your character isolated? Make sure it’s clear and strong or your story will be unbelievable.

How Supple A Spine

Along the lines of last week’s post, we’re going to look at the flexibility strong writing gives us. There are two schools of thought, literally.

Look at writing programs around the country and you’ll find that most concentrate in one area, such as Technical Writing, Communications (Marketing), Instructional Design, Creative Writing… the only problem with that is that most of those disciplines don’t take a strong writer that long to learn.

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Be Twisty with Skill!

The other school of thought is to focus on strong writing the first year, then hit each area of writing for a semester. Pensacola Christian College’s writing program (my daughter is now rolling her eyes because I talk about this program a lot), is just that and it’s the best program I’ve seen.

As someone who hires Instructional Designers, you’d be amazed at how many can’t write.

I’m not saying you have to go to school to learn how to write. I am saying that if you are a very strong writer, you can learn another writing discipline quickly. The reason I like PCC’s approach is because it was mine across 30 years. I began with writing essays and short stories, then in college, papers, and in my major plays where I learned structure and that every kind of writing has its own unique structure. Plays and screenplays have rigid structures, stories and novels, less so, but still structure. It gave me the ability to look for structure, and once you have that, the rest fills itself in.

I continued to learn writing though trial and error after school, a bad novel (with potential), more plays, a couple screen and teleplays. Then working at Boeing, I took a class in Technical Writing and found it easy.  Years later, I learned instructional design in an afternoon. Still later got a certification in copywriting. In all of these, I was at the top of the class. Not just because I’m handsome, but because I had the foundational tools to begin with. Then I worked for a company writing resumes and got the best editing I’d ever received, that served all my other writing.

For a few years, I was a ghostwriter. My theatrical background helped me easily capture someone’s voice. I wrote a dozen books, learning from each of them.

PCC shoved that all into 4 or 5 years. Of course I’m a fan.

I have other friends who wrote newsletters, skits, blogs, and produced a wonderful novel with more to follow (read about her in my forth-coming book around the end of the month (you’ll see an announcement here)).

I’ve spent the last 20+ years making a living with different forms of writing. Typically for a company because I suck at self-promotion. It began with strong writing skills.

If you’re a strong writer, you have amazing flexibility. Having a dream is important, but paying the bills is pretty good, too. I’ve heard someone say if you want to finance a writing career, dig ditches because if you write for your day job you won’t have anything to give your dream. There’s some truth to that. But not always. It might slow you down or it might fire you up, because, hey, I write every day. And I have three books of my own and three strong screenplays. It works out.

Refine your skills and enjoy the suppleness it gives your creative spine!

The Writing Dream

Much like the American Dream, the Writing Dream can be a bit tricky.

It begins somewhere before, during, or just after the first story, be it a short story, a blog, or a book. You realize it isn’t so hard after all (that first one seems like a mountain, the future like hills. It’s a misperception because they are all mountains but go with it for now). And you begin to dream.

A long time ago, I would have guessed that dream is to have J.K. Rowling’s sales, yet after talking with hundreds of writers, the dream goes all over the place. Some want to use writing to travel, others to burn their high school English teacher (figuratively, not literally).

Dream Big – Be Ready if it Changes Capes.

However, like the American Dream, what you think is the goal may just be a weigh station, or even a lodestone that gets you moving so you can get to where you’re supposed to go.

After a while, once you perfect the craft of writing, things will pop up. Opportunity or distraction? Hard to know. William Goldman was happy being a novelist. He wrote half a doze books and then one got turned into a movie. Marathon Man, starring Dustin Hoffman and Sir Laurence Olivier, became his fork in the road. He just wanted to write novels, but the studios wanted him to write screenplays. So he did, and became one of the best at it. In fact, he worked on most Hollywood movies in the last 40 years doing rewriting, polishing, or mentoring of screenwriters before his death.

He said he wrote screenplays for money and novels to keep his sanity. Yet he wrote no more novels (too bad, because I love his novels). Was this a slap to his personal Writer’s Dream?

Not at all.

The better you get at writing, the more opportunities arise. Sometimes you have to say the second hardest word, “no.”  Sometimes the number 1 hardest word, “yes.”

How do you tell the difference between what should be yes and what should be no?

Ask yourself a couple questions:

  • Will this further my goal?
  • Will this give me a new, brighter goal?
  • Will this detract from my goal?
  • Is this a worthy philanthropic task? Because sometimes you need to do right without reward. It’s just a truism of life.

It also helps to be honest about how focused you are on your goal. If you say no to something, like writing Sunday School curriculum, for example, because you need to focus on your book, but instead eat bon-bons and watch TV, it’s time to honest with yourself. If you do, in fact, work on your book, happily say “no.”

Say “yes” when you can see the next step beyond the request. Is it moving you where you want to go? Are you gaining skill or finding a new application for your writing? Sometimes a detour is helpful. And sometimes the other parts of your life need attention. Turning down PTA meetings to write misses how important your kids are.

Ultimately, keep building the skill to be desired. And don’t be surprised if a new path springs up. Determine what’s important to you. For Goldman, it was money. For you it may be something different.

Your Writer’s Dream can be edited, just like a story.

Book Design

I’m currently designing my latest book. It’s non-fiction, and let me tell you, designing a non-fiction book takes days and often weeks to get right. Novels, fairly easy, but if there’s special formatting, that takes a long time too.

I’m not complaining, far from it. I’m making a point about using a publisher such as us rather than self-publishing. For a lot of writers, the written word is their strength, layout and design, not so much. Covers! Oh, my, there is so much that goes into that!

Don’t be a lonely wolf just howling at the moon.

It doesn’t matter what publisher you have, traditional, independent, or self, marketing and publicity is going to be on you. Publishers help, but platform building is a writer’s job. Layout and design? ISBN, registering, loading and categorizing to Amazon the most effective way… these are where 90% of writers need help.

If you’re a designer and writer, and you’re confident you can do it alone, good luck and best wishes. Not sure about all that? Want a little help and fellowship along the path? That’s what Prevail Press is about.

If you’re not a Lone Wolf, join our band of merry writers. We want to help.

Small Print: We don’t take everyone. You have to have a quality book that fits our profile. But I’ll talk to everyone.

when he tells a story… he TELLS a story!

I’m currently reading The Reckoning by John Grisham.

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Clearly, no one has ever told him to Show not Tell. John Grisham is the master of telling, and I mean TELLING a story. He has a vast narrative distance, never walks us beside a character when he can just tell us, and rarely makes us feel for a character.

And yet it works.

Originally, I thought it was because his characters were nasty and lawyers and since everyone hates lawyers, he found his niche. Then he started writing about non-lawyers who were often nasty, and yet many who weren’t.

My favorite Grisham novel is still his first, A Time to Kill, which I think had more passion, but I’ve enjoyed all of them. Largely because he plots in the micro and macro very well.

This, however, is not a book review. It’s about how he tells a story his way and makes it work.

YOU can relate a story your way and make it work.

Yet there are some non-negotiables. Accurate grammar and spelling and punctuation everywhere except in dialog and maybe if you’re first person narrating, but even then vernacular speech should be weighed carefully and in small measure. Struggling to understand what’s being said gets old fast.

Everything else is up for grabs. Linear or non-linear? Yes. Truthful narration or false narration? Yes. Flashbacks? Dream sequences? Sure, why not? Take a rule and break it? Yes if you know what the rule is.

Find your own unique angle. It may become your signature.

Write on!

A unique publisher who is Author-Centric and Reader-Sensitive