Monday, August 3, 2020

What Does Your Character *Really* Want?

What does your character want?

Because confusion can only take us so far. 

Yes, characters are often confused to some degree, but if your story is going to work, at some point the character has to make a decision about what he *really* wants more than anything else in the world.

His choice is what should upset the balance in his story universe, and the actions he takes to get what he wants should drive the plot.

Now, whether the character gets what he initially wants, changes his mind about what he wants, or doesn't get what he wants (but ends up with something better/realizing he didn't want it after all) is up to you--the writer--but the end should satisfy the desire.

Be Brilliant!


Monday, July 27, 2020

Five Reasons Your Scene Isn't Working

You've read the scene over and over, you know it's not working, but you can't quite figure out why.

What's going on?

Well, it could be that 1) nothing is happening. There's no action or any kind of exchange taking place. The content just drags the reader along without offering any kind of real story value.

It could be that things are happening but 2) there's no change. The characters aren't working toward a turning point or make any concessions, and the state of the world is the same at the end of the scene as it was in the beginning. In other words, the scene is "flat." 

Maybe the problem is that 3) the scene is an info dump of a character's thoughts/feelings or includes too much backstory (which naturally pulls readers away from the action).

Perhaps the the content okay, but 4) the rhythm is off. There are beats and turning points, but these don't appear in the best places--the scene is poorly structured.

Or maybe 5) the content is too predictable. The conversation and actions are full of cliches and there's nothing in the story to surprise the reader.

Every good scene will have a purpose as it relates to the overall plot. It will also contain its own mini-arc. Characters will actively do things and respond to things being done to them. Charges will change from positive to negative and back again, and *something* will be different by the end, whether it's the character's thoughts or feelings about something or a new decision that has been made that will lead us in some other direction.     

Scene problems require us to think critically about what's happening in a small section of text and how it fits into the overall story. It requires careful consideration about character interaction and who's driving the narrative as well as the ways in which the story world changes from moment to moment. 

If a scene isn't working, it's worth breaking the content down to its barest bones, determining its overall purpose, and pinpointing the problem so that it can be made better.

Be Brilliant!


Monday, July 20, 2020

On Simple Scenes

A simple scene will only have a very slight effect on the reader.

A sequence of more complex scenes (especially a series of scenes that build) will have a moderate effect on the reader.

A turning point, or a climax, should have a major effect on the reader.

(With a turning point, of course, the change is irreversible.)

(More insights from Robert McKee!)

Knowing this, think critically about every scene in your novel. Which scenes get the bulk of the attention and/or take up the most emotional/dramatic space within your story? 

If the scene is meant to be simple, keep it simple (and don't expect it to do something it isn't meant to do or try to turn it into something it isn't). 

Of course, it's also worth it, then, to determine how this simple scene affects the plot as a whole. If you were to delete the scene would its disappearance affect the story in a negative way? If the answer to this question is no, then odds are nothing of value is happening. In this case, consider removing it permanently or revising so that it carries more weight.

Even simple scenes should move the plot along, but keep them simple. That is, know which scenes should affect the reader most and give those the attention they deserve. 

Be Brilliant!


Monday, July 13, 2020

Start the Fight, Cause the Problem (for your Characters)

What makes for a boring read?

A character who does everything right: who says the best things in the best moments, who considers every alternative then makes the correct choice, who puts out all the little fires with his insight and intellect and wit. . . .

What makes for an exciting read?

A character who says things we'd never dream of saying, who makes irrational (or just plain bad) choices, who goes around causing problems instead of fixing them. . . .

It's okay for a character to be insightful and intelligent and witty, but sometimes they need to say and do the wrong thing. And if your character is the kind of thoughtful person who does everything right the first time, he needs to 1) be paired with someone who forces him out of that comfort zone and into drama OR 2) live in a world that does not react kindly to his efforts. 

As writers, our job is not to keep our characters safe. It's to toss them challenge after challenge: start the fight, cause the problem, then make things just a *little* harder for them. 

As humans, our natures demand we lean toward safety, but "safety" does not make for a compelling reader experience.

Be Brilliant!



Monday, July 6, 2020

On Charges--Advice from Robert McKee

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I frequently retweet writing and storytelling advice from Robert McKee. Well, I had the opportunity to take two of his online seminars this spring (both of which I highly recommend), and one of my favorite takeaways from these sessions had to do with "charges."

Charges are positive and negative energies that inform your story.

What does this mean?

Typically, a story will begin with a problem that's solved by the end. 

This results in an overall negative to a positive charge. Or maybe things start out okay in the beginning, but quickly fall apart. This would lead to an overall positive to negative back to positive charge.

But every scene will have its own charges, too. Either things are good at the beginning of a scene and go south (from positive to negative), or things aren't working out but improve at least somewhat by the end (negative to positive).

We can also break this down further. Every interaction your character has--every conversation with another--will contain its own charges (or they should, at least). A relationship that's okay can improve after a discussion (positive to more positive), or a new understanding can be reached (negative to positive), or a fight could take place (positive to negative).

These are charges, and there are a variety of ways to format them:

negative to positive
positive to negative
negative to more negative
positive to more positive
negative to positive back to negative (or even a "lesser" negative)
positive to negative back to positive (even a "lesser" positive)

A scene featuring an angry girlfriend demanding to know where her boyfriend was the previous night who then accepts his apology is a movement from a negative charge to a positive.

A man who just left his girlfriend's house and stumbles upon an accident his best friend has been involved in is a quick positive to negative change.

A mom who asks about her kid's day and learns he got the lead role in the school play is a positive to more positive change.

You can see the dynamic and how when "things happen" the positive and negative correlation is what moves the story along and ultimately keeps us interested in it.

Again, I can't take credit for this idea--it's all Robert McKee--but this kind of analysis comes in handy if a scene or story isn't working because it's when the charges become stagnant that the plot is no longer moving in any compelling way.

(How boring would a story be if the charges were positive to more positive to more positive to more positive without anything negative ever setting the character back?)

So if you've written a scene that feels a bit boring, map out every charge that occurs. Look deeply at the actions and conversations that are taking place, and pay attention to the directions in which they shift. 

To keep the wave of energy flowing through a narrative, the charges should maintain a constant movement from positive to negative and back again. 

Be Brilliant!


Monday, June 29, 2020

To Flashback or Not to Flashback?

When writers insert a flashback, it's because they need to present information from the past that's relevant to the present.

The problem?

Flashbacks slow down the narrative.

They put the action "on pause."

The desire to know what's happening next is what pushes the reader forward, but a flashback flips this idea, sending the reader straight to the past, or to what happened before the story began.

Therefore, it's safe to say that flashback scenes should be limited. If, as a writer, you're introducing too many flashbacks, you're probably telling the wrong story (or, at least, the wrong part of it), anyway.

Still, there are times when flashbacks are necessary and helpful, so treat every flashback like its own mini-story. Dramatize the events to keep the pace moving.

And remember that a flashback is only as helpful as its location. If the reader doesn't want or need to know the information at the time, then a flashback will only obstruct the story. But if there's no way to proceed without confusing the reader (i.e. she needs this information at this very moment to move forward), then go for it.  

Be Brilliant!


Monday, June 22, 2020

You Might Be a Writer If. . . .

You might be a writer if you think about sentences.

I mean, really think about them--what makes them strong, what makes them sing, what they're saying (as well as what they're not saying). . . .

"A beautiful sentence is a beautiful sentence."

-Francine Prose (Reading Like a Writer)


". . . if you are even thinking in these terms--that is, if you are even considering what might constitute strong, vigorous, energetic, and clear sentences--you are already far in advance of wherever you were before you were conscious of the sentence as something deserving our deep respect and enraptured attention."

So think about it: the structure, the diction, the pacing, the flow, the subtext.

(Think about 10,000 of these and you might even have a novel.) ;)

There's no rule that says every sentence must dance across the page, but if you can, make it beautiful. The discerning reader will notice. 

Be Brilliant!