Sunday, November 24, 2013

Notes For Writers - What, At Its Core, Is A Story?

Last week I taught another 3-day workshop at the Sacramento Fine Arts Center called:

The Hook, The Twist, and The Cliffhanger
What Works, and What Doesn't, in Entertainment Fiction

It was a great group - a dozen writers from as far away as Minnesota, all focused on the most effective ways to write fiction and find an audience for it. As always, the camaraderie, comments, and critique were insightful and fun. The repartee was continuous and funny (writers are very intelligent and quick with the clever, wry observation), and our discussions were interrupted with frequent laughter.
We all - myself included - learned a lot. We went away with new motivation and new friends.
As I've taught more workshops over the last several years, I've realized that there is a strong desire in the writing world for more information about a wide range of subjects connected to writing.
I've decided to periodically do blog posts to add my small contribution to the corner of cyberspace that is devoted to writing.

Here is one called Tell Me A Story. What follows is a short description of those components that make up most popular stories. Farther down is an expanded version.

Tell Me A Story
We are hard-wired to respond to stories that contain certain elements. Tell a story with these elements to the youngest children, and they will identify with the protagonist and demand to know what happens. Children don't need to be taught this response. It is innate.
Look at bestselling novels. Look also at popular movies, which, compared to novels, are simply stories that are somewhat abridged. Movies are great to study because they distill stories down to the most compelling story elements. (A movie usually operates off a screenplay with 90 - 120 pages. The average novel ranges from about 280 pages to 450 pages.)
In all popular stories, the same components appear again and again.

Here Are The Basic Elements Of Popular Entertainment Stories

The story opens with a sympathetic character, the Protagonist/Good Guy, in serious trouble with the Antagonist, which is usually a Bad Guy.
As the character tries to deal with the trouble/Bad Guy, things gets worse.
When the character takes a new approach, the trouble gets even worse.
Just when we think that things couldn't possibly get worse, it gets much worse.
In a final effort to cope with the trouble, the protagonist goes to battle with the Bad Guy/trouble, usually on the Bad Guy/trouble's turf.
Although the protagonist appears to be seriously out-gunned, he wins the battle with persistence, resourcefulness, and ingenuity.
Once the climax is over, the story is wrapped up as fast as possible.

Here is a deeper explanation of the story components:

Tell Me A Story - Expanded

(Joseph Campbell first brought the broad understanding of story to the general public in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces and also, with Bill Moyers, in the PBS series The Power Of Myth. Campbell explained that all of the great mythic stories along with nearly all popular stories, contain the same elements. Throughout history, disparate cultures independently created stories that all follow this pattern.)

How and why is the protagonist a sympathetic character?

The sympathetic character is our protagonist (the Hero). At the most basic level, she has some goodness. Because she is sympathetic, we identify with her. Why? Because we clearly understand her hopes and dreams, her worries and fears, her yearnings, desires, wants. She has emotions and we understand those emotions. Without emotions, she would be a cardboard character, going through the motions of the story, but we wouldn't care. The hero's emotions are critical. The hero also has flaws, which make her more believable and more sympathetic. The hero's flaws are critical.

What is the trouble?

Trouble is the antagonist or the agent of the antagonist (the Bad Guy). The trouble can also be a non-human bad guy, for example, alcoholism. But almost always the trouble is a very nasty person.

How bad should the trouble be?

The trouble should be as bad as possible. The trouble should be life or death. (Think Shakespeare's tragedies.) If the trouble is the likelihood of actual death, great. If not, the trouble should be the likelihood of the death of all that the character cares about.

What does it mean for the climax to be on the bad guy's turf?

When the protagonist goes into the climactic battle, she steps over the threshold into the “mysterium” (mysterium tremendum is Latin for overwhelming mystery), the antagonist's turf, where previous rules don't apply, where all bets are off, where the unknown appears to be in charge. Even more important, once on the antagonist's turf, the protagonist is hopelessly out-gunned. The antagonist has the advantage of greater power, greater skills, and greater knowledge.

Why does the protagonist's ingenuity matter?

When the protagonist confronts a superior antagonist/bad guy, the only advantage the protagonist has is her persistence and ingenuity. Just when we believe that she is going to succumb to the Bad Guy's superior strength/smarts/preparation, she reveals surprising ingenuity and resourcefulness, and that makes the final difference, allowing her to triumph in spite of overwhelming odds against her.

Why should the resolution be short?

After the climactic battle, the tension is gone. The resolution (the denouement) should wrap up a few loose ends (not necessarily all loose ends) and then be done, always leaving the reader wanting more.

If your fiction follows this pattern, you are well on your way to a story that large numbers of readers will want to read.

Keep on writing!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Problem With Great Danes At Talks

When I do events, people always ask me if I have a “real” Spot and if so, why don't I bring him to my talks?
I tell them that we've had three Great Danes, but we're currently dogless. My schedule would make life unfair for a Dane. I couldn't bring the dog along, either. One could put a tiny dog into a “Spot Rocks” bag and carry it into the hotel. But not a Great Dane!
Well, I think you should have 'a Spot' and bring him to your talks,” people say.
It's a fun idea, but the truth is that if I brought a Great Dane to any event I did, no one would pay any attention to me! Everyone would be gaga over the dog, petting and hugging him.
Would my readers prefer to spend time with Spot rather than listen to what I have to say?
Of course!
Which means that any future Spot will stay home for the foreseeable future.

"Was that the microwave beeping? I like my Danishes nice and warm."

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Notes For Writers - Three Simple Ways To Stay Disciplined

People often think that it must be hard to actually sit down and force yourself to write. The truth is the opposite. All you need to know are three simple things that make it all easy.
1) Write something fun.
If you are slaving away trying to create an artistic masterpiece, you are doomed to writer's block. Pretentious aspirations will crush any work ethic. If instead, you are writing the kind of novel you love to read, the writing is fun. At the worst, if you get stuck on a given scene, put it aside until you get a new idea of how to deal with it and start another scene.
2) Consider the alternative.
When you compare writing to any onerous task - doing household chores, standing in line at the DMV, coping with rush hour traffic on the way to your day job, shoveling snow when it is very cold - it is easy. Think about it. You sit down with a cup of coffee and make up a story. How hard is that?
3) Spend a day writing in a new, great place.
Writers have it over those with any other occupation in that you can do it anywhere. So why not do it anywhere? Grab your pad of paper or your laptop and head to the beach, or the lake, or the coffee shop on the corner. Want to expand the concept? November is the shoulder season everywhere. All across the country, tourists have left resort areas. It is the perfect time to take long walks, undisturbed, and talk out your novel to yourself. Use some vacation days and rent a cabin in the woods to channel your inner Thoreau. If you are in an urban area, the city parks are mostly empty, especially on weekdays. From Central Park to Golden Gate Park, a writer can find solitude and beauty.

Bring a chair, bag lunch, and your laptop, and you're set for a peaceful day of writing.

Yesterday, I took a bag lunch and went out to Hope Valley, which is where the Mormon Emigrant Trail came over the Sierra, 15 miles south of Tahoe. While Hope Valley sits at 7000 feet, the fall sun was warm. It was the perfect place to sit on the West Fork of the Carson River and do some writing. The only interruptions were a few trout jumping. It was a perfect location to write some intrigue. I highly recommend such a break!

If you get stuck, a walk to take in the views will give you a recharge.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

How To Change Your Weather

For those of us who live in the mountains, there's a variation on the weather jokes. Don't like your weather? Go up or down a thousand feet.
On a quick road trip up I-5 to Seattle last week, I noticed that the snow on Mt. Shasta came down to approximately 7000 feet of elevation.
Mt. Shasta in Northern California

 Farther north, I noticed that the snow on Mt. Hood came down to approximately 6000 feet.
Mt. Hood in Northern Oregon
We expect this, of course, because it gets colder as you go north.
If instead of going north, we'd gone south the same distance from Shasta we could have been to Mt. Whitney. There, the lowest snow level would have probably been around 8000 feet.
So I wondered if there is a regular relationship between where you are on a north/south basis and where you are on an elevation basis. After a little research, I found out that there is, and it matches what I noticed on the way to Seattle.
All other things being equal, going 300 miles north changes your climate approximately the same as going up 1000 feet in elevation.
Of course, in most scenarios, all other things are not equal. If you go farther from or closer to the Pacific Ocean, which is a huge modifier of climate, that will change things as much or more than anything else.
But it is still an interesting comparison. Going 3000 miles north is like going up 10,000 feet. So if I were to start in Sacramento, which is near sea level, and go to the northernmost reaches of the Canadian arctic (3000 miles), my temperature change in any given season would be similar to going from Sacramento to the top of Heavenly ski resort at 10,000 feet.
Useful information?
Maybe not. But fun!