Daily Update #27

Ah, okay.

– I finished a short story I titled, "The Lightning Bears."  I haven't done a lot of experimentation with frame stories before, so I thought I would try it.  It's only about 2500 words and I wrote it all in one sitting.  For grins, I posted it over at FWO.  For more grins (highlight for spoiler), this isn't set in Cameron's Avatar world, this story came to mind when I found out Avatar would have a sequel, as this is the only way it can logically end.  Not necessarily an original tale but I hope the "frame" strikes a chord.  I'm about halfway through a second story in the last few days, working title being, "Peerage of the Undying."  Conceptually, I think it is awesome.  In execution, I think I am going to botch it.

– In the course of my daily surfing and such, I stumbled on this list of plotting tools and exercises.  I wish I would have found this months back when I was making my half-assed attempt at talking about building a plot.  This is much more in-depth – maybe even too much so.  Still, good items for consideration … and an exhibit about the persistence of information on the internet (which is why you never want to curse out your boss or post a picture of yourself blowing a poodle, or something, because it will live out there forever).

– Like some kind of half-brained moron (Muse:  Yeah, some kind….), I neglected to mention that my plucky writing cohort Lesli put together a series of writing from our mixed circle of writer friends and popped it out on Amazon.  How I neglected to mention this before, I know not.  Anyway, here's a link to Trespass over on Amazon, an excellent little collection of eight tales, all for a buck.  Go take a look, I'll just be sitting here reading this racing form.  Go now!

– Speaking of Amazon, I started reading a quiet excellent old-school fantasy book by Anthony Ryan called Blood Song.  The story background is about a "barbarian" warlord captured by his enemies, during which he tells his tale to a traveling scholar.  The character development has been engaging.  Very, very good work.  You can check it out here, with it's near universal five stars.  Yeah, so far, it has been that good.

– I saw here that J.J. Abrahms is likely to direct the next in the Star Wars series (number VII).  I have mixed feelings about that.  Though I am not quite of the opinion that he wrecked the Star Trek series, any time you take a major cultural franchise and phase shift it like that, there is always a risk.  (Remember New Coke?)  It might work out all right, so I guess we'll see.

That's all for today, friends.  Thanks for sticking with me this far, if anyone did.

The Art of Plotting, Part IV – Tying It All Together

Okay, I’ve been overdue on this for a while.  Life-n-shit has been busy, you know?

Anyway, I said I would get back to this, so here I am: plotting, and how to do it.  So far ( in parts Prelude, One, Two, and Three, respectively), we talked about the components of the story, how the characters and dialogue tie in, and some of my favorite plot devices.  But what constitutes a whole plot?  And how does the author put together a compelling story?

Beats the hell out of me.

No, really.  Who knows what makes a good plot?  It’s all subjective anyway, right?  My whole point was to provide my readers – all three of you – some thoughts about plotting and I think I did that.  So, we’re even, right?

(Muse:  You louse.  You duped people into reading this drivel, and promised them something useful!)

Sigh.  Okay.

Start with a Plan.  Look, I’m not saying you have to write a five-hundred word summary for every two thousand word story you write.  Nor am I saying (as I have seen some writing texts insist upon) that an outline is a requirement to tell a tale.  But I do think that when you start, you should have some idea – flimsy or firm – of where you’re going.  Yes, you can just start writing and see where a tale goes, and possibly produce a nice story.  But in my vast, rump-sized experience, it helps to have a plan.  You can take off with naught but a concept but I think it leads to more false starts, dead ends, and general thrashing around than otherwise.  Put it like this:  if you’re building a wood cabinet, you can grab a pile of lumber and start sawing or you can draw up a plan.  Maybe there is no need to draw up a plan for a simple shelf … but it still helps to know what you want the shelf to look like before you start.

Hook the Reader.  Now that the plan is underway, sock the reader in the nose with a left hook.  Lead with the a tense power struggle, brilliant dialogue, a wonderful description of a setting, or a lurid recounting of something so unbelievably filthy the reader will have no choice but to keep going.  It’s said that editors expect a pretty quick start to a story.  So do readers.

Pace Yourself.  Okay, the reader is hooked, the story is proceeding.  You wanna build a natural crescendo to the story’s climax.  You know, there’s a reason every pop song goes:  stanza, chorus, stanza, chorus, guitar solo, final stanza.  That’s the natural rhythm and build up to the end of the song.  You want the same build up to the end of the story.  You want to tease the reader along, heighten their anxiety, with hints of foreshadowing and thrusts of tension.  Get the reader trembling with anticipation until their fingers are gripping the pages with white-knuckled joy and then BAM the big pay off !!

(Muse:  Those terms are .. awfully sexual, aren’t they?)
(Me.  Only a naughty person would think that … a naughty person covered with whip cream and wearing a ball gag.)
(Muse:  Uhh…)
(Me.  Yeah.)

Coitus aside, the point is this:  Find a natural peak to the story and build the events up to that point.

Resolve Quickly.  Once you’ve hit the climax, have a cigarette.  And end the story quickly.  This dovetails into the previous point.  If you have the natural peak of the story too soon, the reader will start to loose interest.  I’ve read too many stories that drag on for thousands of words after what feels like the emotional or action high point of the story.  Once the character has vanquished the evil, solved the world’s problems, and otherwise ceased to be interesting, wrap it up and move on.  I mean, they aren’t going to be developing any more after that, right?  Unless you are writing a serial.  Then move to the next episode.

Okay. 

I think that concludes my take on plotting.  Did any of that make sense?  Did any of it help anyone at all?  If nothing else, I think I helped myself by organizing my thoughts.

Tomorrow, I start the Omega Mage revision.  Should be a hoot.

The Art of Plotting, Part III – The Techniques

So….

Back I am, off my desert sabbatical.  Mrs. Axe and I spent some time in Vegas and had a very good time – we saw some shows, did a little gambling, hung out with friends, ate too much….  It was good times.  Now I am a geographic bachelor again.  Bah.  Well, I may as well do something useful.

I talked a bit about characters and about the story.  Now I’d like to cover some of the literary devices one can use in constructing their story.  Like everything else I say, none of this is the holy word, so feel free to pick it apart.  (Parts One and Two, respectively.)

So, what are literary techniques?  Simply put, these are techniques that allow the author to advance the story.  Duh.  There are literally dozens of these but here are some of my favorites:

Chekhov’s Gun – Or How I stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Foreshadowing.  Let’s say an author opens a story by describing a farmer’s hut as the occupant enters.  The author goes into great detail on the farmer’s trusty shovel and then doesn’t mention it again.  The reader is left nonplussed until ten pages later when the monster breaks into the hut – only to be decapitated by a swing of the trusty shovel, right where the character (and author) left it.  That’s Chekhov’s Gun – a seemingly random detail that later assumes critical importance later in the story.  It’s a sub-setting of foreshadowing, as it usually involves something concrete: an object, a word that turns out to be a secret password, or something of that ilk.

Red Herring – AKA The Magician’s Assistant.  I call this the magician’s assistant because a red herring is akin to a showgirl in a skimpy outfit who keeps the audience’s eyes on her while the magician swaps hats for the one with the rabbit.  It’s intended to distract the reader or redirect their attention to an unimportant character or a false trail.  In the Mistborn Trilogy, (highlight for spoiler), Vin is made out for 2 7/8 books to be the Hero of the Ages.  She’s not but another character is.  Another example:  in the movie, Saw, the depicted characters spend a great deal of time blaming each other for the murders but it’s not them.  Most people never guessed the right answer until the Big Reveal, even though the evidence was literally under their collective noses.  This is different from what M. Night Shyamalan does; that’s a twist ending and that’s generally subtle as a brick in the noggin and subject to awful plot holes (and he’s still made more money than any of us … sad).

Unreliable Narrator … ’cause, who can you trust?  You begin to read a story.  After a few chapters, you frown.  The events, as described by the narrator, seem to contain a terrible bias.  You frown again – then start reading.  The underlying truth of the events is slowly revealed, telling you more about the character than ten pages of exposition ever could.  The ultimate example is probably that bastard Humbert Humbert from Lolita.  The author really has to filter the events of the story through the prejudices and predispositions of the narrator – and thus, steer the story to meet their expectations.  Unreasonable actions may become reasonable – or may exist just because the narrator is skewed in perception.  Unreliable narrators are tricky but pulling it off is a great plot device.

The Fourth Wall – and when to smash It.  An old reference to Greek drama/comedy, the fourth wall is the invisible partition between the reader and the characters in the book.  Acknowledgment by the characters that they are just that – characters in a story – is usually a device employed in light or comedic tales but also plays well in some forms of horror.  In Marvel comics, the anti-hero Deadpool constantly talks to the reader; the other characters ask him who he’s talking to and write it off as part of his insanity.  (I believe the Joker has done similar things.)  I personally prefer the light touch, that hints rather than explicitly says it; in one story I wrote, a character laid out a complicated scheme required for them to succeed.  The second character asks what loser came up with that concept and the first responds, "I don’t know; losers with too much time on their hands, I guess."  That meant me, of course.

(Muse:  They knew that.  You and loser go together like Julia Roberts and big mouths.  I swear when that woman smiles, it looks like a shark.)

Oooookay.  Thanks to the muse, now my motivation is gone.

Anyway, there are a lot of literary devices and techniques out there; this has barely nicked the surface.  There are a lot of resources out there, including a quick summary here at SparkNotes, another at Buzzle.com, and some more at UNC-Pembroke.

I’ll wrap this up next time and try to tie it all together.

The Art of Plotting, Part II – The Actors

So, where were we?

Ah yes, I was about to go pogo-sticking blindfolded, on the roof of the Empire State Building, while juggling a chainsaw, live hooker, and dead kangaroo

Wait … what?  Sorry, that goes on the other blog.  Back to the plotting.

In this installment, I want to talk about characters.  Not necessarily how to build convincing characters – there are a million opinions on that subject – but on how they players in your tawdry tale fit into the plot and help move it along.  The character gives the plot intimacy.  After all, without a shoulder to look over, the plot is just history.  A few points:

Characters have goals:  By and large, the story is driven by a character’s pursuit of their goals.  Pretty much, every step in the plot should be a result of the character’s actions.  Passive main characters, who are swept along by the plot, are kind of frowned on.  This isn’t to say a character can’t get herself into a situation in which she has no control, as long as she got there as a result of a previous decision.  Do the plot events support the character goals?  As you walk through the story, ask yourself these questions:  Is the character going over to Super Adventureville because it helps advance the character’s goals … or because there is something neat I want to show the reader there?  If it is the latter, maybe you need to take another look.

Character actions must make sense:  This is maybe one of the fastest ways for an author to derail a plot.  Things are moving along well, the hero and his plucky young sidekick are on their way to vanquish the evil overlord, and win the day.  Without warning, the hero’s ancient and wise adviser suddenly leaves, giving some vague reason about "not tempting the fates."  The real reason?  With the adviser’s help/power/guidance, the hero might have a ridiculously easy time winning the day – and where’s the fun in that?  I table numerous stories because I get to a point where I box the characters into a corner from which there is no logical escape without pulling some non-sensical trickery … and thus, I have to put it aside until I can think of a way to rewrite the events leading up to that point.  Note, this can be a swell twist if the character action that seemed to make little sense at the time is revisited later for effect … but I find it more difficult to pull off than one would think.  You can take into account that you have an unreliable narrator present but that adds a layer of complexity, in that the character actions don’t have to make sense directly, but they do in context to the story.  That’s a narrow edge to walk.

Please don’t dumb down your villains:  I’ve posted about this before.  Villains don’t need to be the mustache-twirling baddies of 1920s cinema.  As mentioned above, they have goals too – goals which don’t line up with those of the protagonist(s).  Call them antagonists if you think ‘villain’ is too simplistic, but there always has to be some opposition to the hero’s plans – otherwise, what’s the point?  Smart villains are a greater challenge for the writer, as they make it harder to avoid the situations I raised in the previous point.  If Dr. No has simply shot James Bond in the head in the first movie, there would have been no more adventures.  There was no plausible reason to keep Bond alive – a prime example of villain failure.  I think you need capable protagonists; they make the story much more interesting.  A smart antagonist helps drive the plot, as it forces the protagonist to be behave in a more consistent fashion.  As a starting point, the Evil Overlord List gives examples of things you should not do.  It’s tongue-in-cheek but the cliches are all too common.

Dialogue, ho!:  There is nothing like breaking open a book set in a medieval archetype world … only to have the main character spout of something more appropriate for Jersey Shore.  That has nothing to do with plot, but it is annoying.  How does dialogue affect the plot?  Well, I find dialogue to be the absolutely best way to throw out plot exposition.  Rather than blanket the reader with paragraph after paragraph of backstory, a few lines between characters can give the reader all they need to know.  And for God’s sake, make it organic.  I don’t write the best dialogue on the planet but I try not to make it stilted.  What works better:

Jimmy:  "So what’s the deal with that sword?"  Peter:  "Well, as you know, the Kings passed down the swords to their son with each passing generation, and based upon this mark on my hand, I am ready to take up the mantle of the King, blah blah blah blah bling bling blah….."

-or-

Jimmy:  "You still have that thing."  Peter gripped the hilt of the sword.  "It … means a lot to me.  It’s come a long way."

Okay, that completely sucked.  Got it.  But the point is, whenever the dialogue starts to read like a paragraph of exposition, then we did it wrong.  The dialogue should have a good flow and dribble the information out a bit at a time.  Better, you can usually just provide the most important details and let the reader’s mind fill in the rest from context.

Okay, I am about to fall asleep here – thus, the last part of this probably sounds like it was written by a slobbering lunatic.  Well, that’s not far off, really.

Anyway, until next time, stay outta trouble.  Or not.  <wink>

The Art of Plotting, Part I – The Tall Tale

Aight.  We’ve established that I have no idea what I’m doing here, right?  Right.  Okay, let’s move on.

So ….

What makes up a plot?

This isn’t the kind of lecture where I say a plot has elements A, B, and C.  I’d rather say that these are some anecdotes I’ve learned about plotting over my writing time.  For what they are worth, these are just my experiences and your mileage may vary.  On the other hand, who’s to say I am not great and smart and right about this?

(Muse:  If you were, you would have sold more books by now.)

Uhm, yes, very well.  Anyway, here we go:

A story has a beginning, middle, and end:  See my previous post for rantings about baby shoes.  In the movie Bull Durham, the world-weary but seasoned player tells the young upstart, "You have fungus on your shower shoes.  When you win 20 games in The Show [the major leagues], you can have fungus on your shower shoes and the press will say you’re colorful.  Until then, it just means you’re a slob."  None of us are Hemingway yet.  When we are filthy rich from writing (as opposed to just filthy-minded), we can write whatever we want and call it a story.  Until then, we should make sure it has a clearly-defined start and finish.

Originality is good; consistency is more important:  By that, I mean, "consistency within the established rules of that universe."  Things happening for no reason, or no apparent reason, are very frustrating to the reader.  If suddenly, at the Battle of Pelennor Fields (in front of Minas Tirith, in Return of the King) , half a dozen A-10s had appeared over the field and strafed the orcs, most people would have been scratching their heads, thinking, "WTF?"  Yes, it would have been original.  It would have made no sense in the context of the story.  This applies to characters, too.  Why do characters suddenly act out of character – or out of line with their established abilities?  This is so common that the TV Tropes site has a section developed to it:  New Powers as the Plot Demands.  Have serfs been forbidden to own weapons for centuries?  Then why does the farmboy protagonist show a sudden mastership of a heavy bladed weapon?  I’m not saying these things can’t happen – but they need to happen for a reason that is consistent in the framework of the story.  My underlying point is that original doesn’t automatically mean good; after all, eight-legged goats are pretty rare, but aside from a few fetishists, no one is clamoring for them.  Make sure your plot events make sense in context.

Setting flavors the plot, not vice versa:  I think a lot of authors make the mistake of saying, "Well, I want my plot to be x, so setting doesn’t matter, I’ll just tie it in afterwards."  On the contrary, brother.  Per my previous point, I think setting is integral to the plot and exerts a great deal of influence.  The Star Wars movies are often called a space opera.  But how much sense would the epic battle have been at the end of Episode IV if it had been several dozen log rafts sallying out to face down an aircraft carrier?  It would necessitate a substantial change to the ending of the story.  Better yet, take Sleepless in Seattle and move it to the Middle Ages.  By the time Tom Hanks’s second message – via horse, I guess – reached Meg Ryan, she would have been married off to some feudal lord and would be on her second child.  I’ve read a lot of submission guidelines for spec fiction.  They almost always say the speculative elements need to be essential to the plot – i.e., "If I can extract the speculative elements without changing the story, it’s not speculative," is a common phrasing.  Folks are not taking their setting into account.

Conflict is not plot; meaningful conflict is:  Okay, so the hero gets in a fight with three clods and beats them all.  Then What Happened?  Were they ancient enemies?  Does their beat-down/death mean something to the antagonist?  Does the character feel remorse?  Slip a little towards the dark side because of it?  Is there *any* character advancement?  Is there *any* plot advancement?  Does anyone care?  That’s what I’m getting at; when there is conflict, it should be for a reason.  Writing conflict is easy.  And on that note, even though I am certain offender, blow-by-blow fight scenes are best used sparingly – and the more of them there are, the less meaningful they become.  I also think this true of, uhm, blow-by-blow scene description for that other subject.  (That pun was fully intentional.  "And visions of smut danced through their heads….")  The conflict doesn’t have to be driven by the protagonist, either.  Bad guys do bad things for various reasons, but I’ll cover that in a later installment.  Bottom line:  make the struggle mean something to someone other than the author’s bloodlust or just regular lust.

Don’t lose yourself in the message:  I’m closer to Ayn Rand’s political view than many in the spec fiction reading sphere.  But Atlas Shrugged is all but unreadable because it devolves into lengthy diatribes based on the author’s viewpoints.  Heinlein gets close in places.  And lest something think I am picking only on my conservative homies, Pullman’s anti-Catholic rants leap off the page in the Dark Materials series.  And some people thought A Handmaid’s Tale was subtle.  I thought it was overbearing and yawn-inducing.

(Muse:  Get to the damn point, you put half your audience asleep and you can’t afford to lose two readers!)

My point is this:  if you want to involve politics, be subtle.  Don’t put your characters on a soapbox; let the reader finish, sit back and digest the tale and figure out for themselves what message was intended.  I don’t think a message is worth wrecking the plot over.  I mean, if you want to write about politics, there are lots of political journals.  I read newspapers, news websites, and said journals when I want to deal with the real world.  I don’t mind some politics in my fiction but it should be secondary.

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Okay, is everyone worn out?  Me too.  But I will be back in a few days with the next installment.  Hopefully, y’all will tune in again.

If not, please do something fun with your time.

Ciao!

The Art of Plotting – Preface

Okay, folks:  this is where my ego gets really out of control.  (Muse:  You mean it wasn’t already?  Me:  Quiet, you slut!  SMACK!)

There’s some debate (meaning, I took a random internet thread and inflated it in my mind to encompass the entire writing-o-sphere) over whether certain authors are in fact writers, or storytellers.  The idea of telling an engrossing, compelling story is by no means the same as having a knack for tying together a string of delightful words, that tantalize the reader.  There’s a lot to love about both skills and a lot to dislike about the lack of either skill.  A lot of authors seem to be able to do one without doing the other well.  Some are accused of not being able to do either.

Maybe it’s just anecdotal but it seems to me that the storytellers favor novels and those with magic syntax favor the short story.  I have my own nasty opinions about why that is but without being a complete snot by saying it outright, I think the respective lengths play to those strengths.  A longer story allows for a more complex, more in-depth plot.  A shorter story can make use of dazzling imagery, evoking some captivating thought in the reader that would probably be diluted in a longer work.

Sure, sure, there are exceptions.  Nabokov demonstrated outstanding control of his language through the entire length of Lolita.  Though I may be the lone voice in the wilderness here, I thought the plot was basically dumb and Humbert a completely unlikeable douchebag (I’ll cover characters a few installments from now).  Yes, yes, I get the concept of unreliable narrators.  Still hated it, despite the pretty wording, which I agree was of enviable quality.  And I see some short stories with incredible plots – plots that haunt me from the dark bowers of night as I try to decode and absorb them.  To me, these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

If I had to categorize myself, I think I am certainly in the vein of being a storyteller more than a literary writer.  Fancy command of the language is impressive and I wish I could do it better.  But to me, the essence of a story is "Then what happened?"  Without that, is it a cohesive story – or is it just a vignette?  A character study?  An exercise in mental masturbation?  (Or if reading Laurell K Hamilton, the real thing?)  Nobody is going to remember my writing skill – and those that do, will question my intelligence, sanity, and probably bladder control.  But I would like someone, somewhere, to read one of stories and yell, "Now that’s entertainment, baby!"

A story has a beginning, middle, and end.  I’ve had people throw that Hemingway nonsense about baby shoes at me, as an example of a story.  If you don’t know the anecdote, Hemingway responded to a challenge of writing a story in under ten words.  He puked out, "Baby shoes for sale.  Never worn."  And the women swooned, and the poets gnashed their teeth at Papa’s genius.  Rubbish, says I.  That’s no story.  There are more questions than answers, there are no characters, and there is no context.  For crying out loud, the old chestnut about combining religion, sex, mystery and royalty into a concise story was 10x more entertaining ("My God, I’m pregnant," said the Queen.  "Who’s the father?")  If you disagree with me on this, then please press ALT + F4 now.  No, seriously, don’t …. but do beat yourself in the head with a whiffle bat for a few minutes.  I want to read  why Character X has a problem, how they cope with it, and Then What Happened.

(Did anyone really beat themselves with a whiffle bat?  I hope not … but I would still have to laugh.)

In one of my peer groups, I recently reviewed a story that was everything a literary writer could hope for.  The imagery was brilliant.  The emotions were raw and incredible.  The heavy context of the characters’ fates was palpable.  But it had plot holes one could push a manatee through – plot holes akin to suggesting that mankind had doomed itself by forgetting two thousand years of science overnight, without any attempted explanation as to why.  When I wrote as much to the author, the response I got was (no shit) , "Thank you for your review.  But I disagree; this story doesn’t need a stronger plot."

Words fail me.  For once, my smart mouth had no response.  As The Man said, a complete failure to communicate.

Anyway ….

This is the start of my series on how to construct a meaningful plot.  I can hear you thinking, "What makes you qualified to do so?"  Not a damn thing, so take it all with a grain of salt.  Take it with a shaker of salt, as you should with all my blog posts.

This doesn’t have to be a one-way conversation.  If I am in error or taking a narrow view of this, tell me.  Tell me I’m wrong.  Tell me I’m high.  Tell me I’m a Nazi tool.  Tell me Humbert was a Nazi tool (please do).  Whatever, just tell me what you think … persuade me through the power of, er, persuasion.

Next up, Part One – The Plot itself.  It’ll be up later this week, pending my motivation and the aforementioned bladder control.

(By the way, as I write this, I ‘m listening to parts of George Harrison’s album Gone Troppo.  Golden Earring and Eagles on deck.  Sigh.  Today’s music is so much sluice through the waste disposal grate.)