Monday, July 6, 2009

When Stories Fall Flat

What’s more important—character or plot?

I find myself frequently embroiled in this debate: Should the character or the plot drive the story? Many of my writing peers like to start with an “interesting” character and ask themselves what sort of situation fits the character. They start by developing a history for the character—family, hobbies, lifestyle, and those deep abiding questions of the soul, which could range from “Why am I here?” to “Am I really from this planet?”

What would happen to this character if…

  • She were about to be evicted from her home?

  • She’s shy, but competing for a job she really wants against her nemesis?

  • He’s a nice guy, socially inept (bad conversationalist, poor fashion taste, cheap), but wants a wife?

These writers have a character and develop a situation to challenge some aspect of the character’s life or way of thinking.

The other camp of writers, at least the ones with whom I have coffee or online discussions, want a plot first and then carve out a character suitable to the action. They start out something like…

  • There is this person who wants to go to medical school because her father died of cancer, but she is poor and failing chemistry. She will never get a scholarship with poor grades.

  • There is this guy that wants to get married because he is lonely, but he is already married to a witch who won’t give him a divorce.

These writers have a situation and develop a history for the character based on the situation.

Either way you go, this tends to lead to a situational perspective—we end up with a character for whom we create an event or an event for which we develop the perfect character. In the end, it seems to be that both processes are leading to the same result. Either or both can succeed or fail, so why do so many stories seem to fall flat, no matter which approach is used?

While both character and plot are important, something is missing? It could be that I have over-simplified the definition of plot. Perhaps I am calling an event, sometimes termed an “inciting incident,” the plot, though one of these two points tends to be where writers begin. How do these starting points become meaningful, with enough substance to stay with a reader?

If a story focused on events and character falls flat, whichever point you start from, what’s missing? Is it something like baking a cake? Does it really matter if you mix the flour into the sugar and butter or vice versa? Or is it more like baking without salt and soda? What constitutes those extra spices of a story?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Does Story Structure Crush Creativity?

Plot development recently came up in a writers’ discussion, and I was surprised by how much the group seemed to resist the idea of creating a plot outline before beginning the story. Stephen King’s book, On Writing, came up, along with King’s assertion that he doesn’t outline a plot before he begins a novel.

I am a long-time fan of Stephen King novels, but this claim by the King—whether you like his books or not, he’s sells them by the boatload—leaves me doubting. The books that got him on the map certainly had a solid, basic plot. In Carrie, King’s first big success, the protagonist wants to get revenge on her high school peers because they tease her. She uses her telekinetic powers to get even with her classmates, but these powers get out of control.

In Salem’s Lot, Ben Mears returns home because he wants to face his fears caused by a spooky old house, but a vampire has decided to take up residence in the house.

King wrote that he imagined the situations and some of the key scenes that follow in these novels—from Carrie “becoming a woman” to the night she goes to the prom. In Salem’s Lot, a child disappears and it escalates to Ben’s love interest being taken captive.

Doesn’t seem to me that he’s writing blind.

However abstract, whether he’s outlining the plot in his head or on paper, King is not just taking some interesting character and telling us about his or her daily routine. He is putting them in very difficult situations than get worse until the end.

King also wrote at least two books that he couldn’t get published before he had his first success with Carrie. I read The Long Walk, and it’s not my favorite King novel, but it has a plot too: Win the race because if you do you will have all the riches imaginable, but if you quit then you’d better be dead or you’ll be killed. Then King walks the reader through all the challenges that the protagonist faces on the “long walk.” Stephen King’s plots are not complicated, I like his characters, but he does create a plot, and from what I have read, he starts out with a bare bones sketch of where he is going.

I know of another award-winning writer who takes this approach, but he does 70 or more revisions on a book. He says it takes a lot more time to go back and write in the plot (which he still says he has to have) than writers who plan and/or outline. It’s the way he likes to do it, but he still has to face the need for plot at some point in the process. Perhaps plot can be different to different people, and acceptable outcomes aren’t the same based on culture and expectations.

People don’t think in a linear fashion, I’m told. Nonetheless, people seek out patterns. People seek structure, even where none exists.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Writer's Path

At present I’m taking a writing course, and sometimes I find the instructor’s comments a little raw. More than once, I’ve asked myself if I should just throw the story out. At least once I’ve asked myself if I’ve got what it takes to be a writer.

I have to remind myself that real writers are constantly asking themselves these questions. Regarding the latter question, I think I should be asking myself, “Could I stop being a writer if I wanted to? Could I put down the pen or get up from the keyboard and never write again?”

No, I couldn’t do that. Writers—whatever our level of talent and training—write because we must. It’s a pleasure, a joy, maybe even an addiction. We can’t stop. We shouldn’t.

What we should do is keep trying to improve our skills, get closer to our authentic voice, and keep writing.

As to the first question: Should I throw the story out?

I have three answers to that question, but more than three answers exist:

Sometimes the answer to that might be yes. I wasn’t always comfortable with that, but now I see that everything I write makes me a better writer. Maybe not all of it will be worthy of publication, but it’s valuable to the process.

Other times the answer to that question might be that the story isn’t fully realized. I need to keep working on it. I can make it better. I do make it better.

Occasionally, I have to remind myself that everything is a matter of taste. There are plenty of successful writers whose work doesn’t speak to me. Someone published the work, but I don’t like it. Not everyone has to like our work for our work to be of value.

Seek balance. Listen, evaluate, decide. Letting go is one of life’s constant and mostly difficult challenges. Perhaps, sometimes, we need to let go of a story. Other times, we might need to let go of someone else’s opinion. So evolves the writer’s path.

Picture: Traveling the country roads in Ireland.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Writing: Hard, Powerful, Scary, Dangerous

I’ve been told on more than one occasion that writing is the hardest job in the world. I think to myself, There are a lot harder jobs. Why do you say that?

Last week I visited the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, and it occurred to me why someone might think that writing is a hard job. The museum is full of the stories who gave up their freedom—or their lives—to speak up on moral and ethical issues. They disagreed with someone powerful on how the world ought to be. They voiced their opinions and ended up in jail or in a grave. Okay, that makes writing hard, powerful, meaningful, scary, dangerous.

To tell the truth, I hope I never find myself in that position. But that doesn’t mean that I write without responsibility. What I write can be powerful, meaningful, live changing. For a writer to get to that place, though, she has to speak from the heart. She has to risk exposing some part of herself that others might disagree with; risk criticism and censure. I just read a Hugo-nominated story that Alexander Field highlighted in his blog on writing: “Article of Faith,” by Mike Resnick. The story presented an age-old question in a fresh, new light.

The story touched my heart, and to get to that place Mike Resnick surely must have infused his story with some of his own passion and angst. It takes courage to speak your heart. That’s what makes writing so hard, so risky, so worthwhile. Congratulations to Mike Resnick on the nomination. You can read more about him and other nominees on Alexander’s blog, The Magic and The Mystery.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Elements of Good Writing

The other night I watched Morituri with Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner. The movie really called to mind how a great plot—and the absence or abundance of conflict—can make or break a story. Although the movie was set in 1942 during WWII, this wasn’t a beat ‘em up–bang ‘em up flick. Good story development and strong characters came together to create a suspenseful plot with goals that the viewer could really care about.

The protagonist and antagonist had opposing goals, but in spite of their imperfect natures, they were both likeable. It was hard to know who to root for. In fact, this added another dimension to the conflict. These two characters had clear and understandable motivation, deeply held beliefs that were challenged by circumstance, and both were changed by the events that took place. It’s perfect:

Two men on a freighter in the middle of the ocean with nowhere to go and—in Brando’s case—only two days to achieve his goal. Brenner’s character doesn’t know what Mr. Kyle (Brando) is up to but still manages to make his life impossible. That makes for a fast-paced, engaging story. Set against the backdrop of WWII and Hitler’s Germany, this story not only changed these two imaginary characters; it changed me too. That’s good writing!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Crossing the Line

A writing colleague of mine and I were discussing the components of a good story. Mary analyzed Clint Eastwood's latest film "Grand Torino." I'm including a link so that you can download her analysis, but in the spirit of not ruining the movie, only posting the conversation that surrounded the analysis...

Mary: I just saw Grand Torino. What a great movie. The ending was very powerful. Did you see it? Watch it if you get a chance!

Kate: I haven't seen Grand Torino, but I only hear good reviews. Does it fit the hero's journey?

Mary: I think it does fit the hero's journey. Clint Eastwood is this crusty old SOB, a bigoted, opinionated loud mouth who doesn't give a damn about anyone. His wife has just died and his kids and grandkids are horrible, insufferable dolts, largely due to the fact that he never spent any time with them. He lives in a rundown neighborhood in Detroit now populated by Southeast Asians from Laos, Cambodia and Thailand displaced after the Vietnam War. Eastwood fought in Korea and has nothing but disdain for them. (Component of Hero's Journey: Ordinary World)

The next door neighbors are good people and there are rival gangs terrorizing the young boy who has no male role model. His cousin's gang is trying to get him to join and he is resisting. (Component of Hero's Journey: Call to Adventure, continued in the Download)

I was surprised and yet pleased by the ending. (Download the complete analysis, but if you haven’t seen the movie you may want to wait so as not to spoil the ending. (Mary's Analysis of Grand Torino)

Kate: This might be the reason why Eastwood has been so successful in his career. Everybody laughs at the spaghetti westerns he started out in, but my guess is that those movies pretty clearly followed this archetype of stepping over escalating thresholds that result in a change (however small) in the character. Almost all his stories have his protagonist starting out as self-absorbed and then taking someone under his wing and through that growing from caring only about the self to caring about someone else which results in a better world and someone who can take the next step.

Some writers shy away from literally having characters step over thresholds to achieve this, but I think it helps us as new writers to clearly define our scenes and identify the change we want to occur. And I'm noticing more and more that movies use the funeral/burial scene as a representation of the resurrection. The body dies but the idea lives on and will benefit the world.

I bet if we looked at the New Testament story of Jesus, we would find each of the elements of a hero's journey, which is why it speaks so powerfully to so many people. My guess is that the story of Buddha's life would also fit the hero's journey. Off on a tangent here, but I do believe that as we become more adept at putting our stories into this structure, we will also reach a point where we can make crossing the threshold more sublime.

Maybe we can do that without following these steps, but I look at the process like the theory of the "Hundredth Monkey." I'm stretching that concept, but I suppose we could randomly write a hundred stories and get one that accidently fits the structure, thereby grabbing the reader. That's a lot of writing though.

Or we can consciously apply the steps and grab them nearly every time, slowly working our way from the concrete realization of the steps--where the protagonist literally steps across a doorway or some other physical boundary line--to one that is more abstract. Some writers might get to skip the in-between steps, but I don't think I'm one of those charmed few.

Mary’s Analysis of Grand Torino

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Take Me Along

How does a story come into being? Quite a few of my peers start with an image—an old woman trundles down the street pushing a baby carriage full of aluminum cans. How did she get there? A dirty child sits in a corner sucking his thumb. Why isn’t he playing with the other children? A man snaps at a woman, and she runs away, crying. Are they married? Why are they fighting? These are writers’ questions. Fair questions. Good questions.

They are also a trap. These questions create great back story. They give the character a history and bring the protagonist to life. But these kinds of questions lead to a bad ending. While we tell the story of all the things the man did to the woman that caused her to end up crying and fleeing him, we as writers are likely to miss the key elements that make stories most intriguing to readers. Examine satisfying stories, and you’re likely to find protagonists making decisions that affect their life. Writers often run like terrified rabbits from the responsibility of making decisions for their characters. Yet that is what readers want most to participate in, even if the protagonist makes the wrong decision.

Part of the fun of watching B-rated horror flicks is cringing, biting our nails, and muttering under our breath, “Don’t, don’t, don’t open that door…” We can’t believe how stupid the blonde girl is when she reaches for the doorknob, but we are totally engaged in Blondie’s decision-making process. The best stories invoke an emotional response in the reader, and that reaction hinges on the decisions made by the protagonist, right or wrong, we want to go along.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Finding Time to Live the Dream

One of the first hints I get that someone knows his or her purpose in life is when they are simultaneously pretty sure they can’t have the dream and security too. Most dreams don’t seem to have anything to do with paying the mortgage, feeding the kids, setting aside a nest egg for retirement. They almost seem mutually exclusive. My greatest fear about living the writer’s life was living it under a leaky roof and eating peanut butter three times a day. I wasn’t about to jump willingly into that world. I wanted a compromise, a way to test the water before it started pouring down on my head.

I found my compromise in a question: What would you do if you had an extra hour a day? (And you can’t say sleep.) That came out of a Stephen Covey time management course I took. My answer was always the same. (I took the course twice, but asked myself that question many times.)

The answer: Write novels.

The fear: Starving while shivering alone in a hovel.

The solution: Devote one hour a day to writing novels.

Right away I realized that I might not have an hour every day, but I also knew that I could probably find extra time some evenings and weekends. If I set a goal of seven hours a week and only achieved half of that, I was still ahead of wishing but not writing. Before the year was out, I had the first draft of a novel completed. On top of that, I met people who wanted to help and support me. The road was wider than I could see from behind that first little crack that I opened in the door. That’s what happens when you give your dream even half a chance. It picks you up and carries you away, without demanding you give up on the mortgage, the grocery bill, the nest egg. It’s a safer journey that it seems, and then again, it’s not. It wouldn’t be any fun if there weren’t a few surprises.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Finding the time to sit and write can be a challenge. I’ve heard a few successful writers say that they write every day, seven days a week. I’ve done that before, but I also find that time away from the page can be invigorating. Chances to meet people, watch the world, listen, and live. While vacationing in Cancun last week, I thought I would find writing time every day. It didn’t happen. But I came away refreshed and full of new experiences. I met interesting people from different parts of the US and from around the world, people with ideas different from my own. If I had it to do over, instead of taking my computer, I would have taken my Little Book of Ideas.

I agree with the adage: A writer writes, but that is not all a writer does—she observes, contemplates, and forms opinions. I’m leaning toward a goal of six and six—six hours, six days a week. How important is downtime to your writing? Do you get your best ideas staring at the page or from your life experiences?

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Writing Process

Sometimes it’s fun to sit down and just start writing, see where it leads. This might start with a character, a setting, or a situation. The writer sits down on the park bench and observes two lovers arguing or climbs aboard a bus and watches the world go by. Taking off on these journeys to points unknown can be delightful, but they can also lead to dead ends. The writer pours out thoughts and images and suddenly she stops and asks, “What am I doing here? Where do I go now?”

Adopting this process can lead to a lot of retraced steps, which in a writer’s world means going back over recently traveled territory. I like meandering. I don’t like rework. That isn’t to say that I don’t like rewriting, but I like to start with a first draft that feels as if it has at least landed in the general vicinity indicated by the flight plan. Of course, that means I have to start with a flight plan.

I find that my chances of getting a story where I want it to go increase when I have done some background work—character sketches, summaries of the main conflict, and descriptions of the setting. I’m still surprised by the twists and turns the story makes as it glides over unexpected air currents and runs into storms that weren’t predicted by the original plan. I have more fun because I stay on track and arrive at an interesting destination. I can’t predict everything that might happen along the way, but I have tools to help me stay the course. I find I can cut back the rewriting process by as much as 75 percent. I use that time to develop new stories.

How do you feel about using outlines or other tools to guide your fiction writing? If you do use them, what tools are you using? Does the planning process improve your stories? Save you time?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Embarrassing Moments Enrich Stories

Embarrassing moments make better memories than current events. I don't want to live through them, but they are great fodder for stories, books, and movies. Some of my favorite stories center around the most mundane events—like running into someone wearing the same clothes as you (or me). Events that turn the cheeks red even in retrospect. Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” explores one potential result of living through just such an embarrassing moment.

My last personal embarrassing experience was seeing someone and waving as if I knew the person (I thought I did), only to realize it was a case of mistaken identity. Why I should feel stupid because someone I don't know reminded me of someone I do know remains a mystery.

Willing to share some embarrassing moments, either lived through or experienced vicariously?

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Adjectives and Adverbs: Should we use them?

The temptation when writing seems to be to use loads of adjectives and adverbs. Why are we so fond of them, when renowned writers, at least as far back as Mark Twain, speak of these parts of speech as if they were viruses?

Newspapers and magazines use word counts to manage the space dedicated to articles, opinions, and advertisements. Thinking back to my school days, when teachers (and professors) assigned essays in terms of pages or number of words, I remember losing points for coming up a paragraph short on a three-page essay.

In moments of desperation, when I started writing school assignments on computers, I played with line spacing and font size, edging up to 26-point line spacing and 12.5 font. Are editors and educators to blame for our affinity for adjectives and adverbs, for encouraging the padding that improved our acceptance rate on freelance assignments and bumped our English grades from middle B to B+ or even A-?

Does the very best writing include bucket loads of adjectives? How often should we use words like “very,” “great,” and “interesting”? A friend of mine traveled frequently to Finland during his days as a consultant. His Finnish friends commented that, for Americans (at least those of us in the United States), we always felt “good,” and everything was “interesting.”

Mark Twain suggested the following: “Substitute "damn" every time you're inclined to write "very"; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

Do you agree or disagree?

Just answering yes or no would be too simple, so here is the challenge…

Write your best sentence, or provide a quote from your favorite writer. Keep the example to two or three sentences, please. And don’t wander down the middle of the road, you’re liable to get run over coming and going.