Saturday, 17 November 2018

The Breakdown

The Breakdown;
Or, how to structure your story so that your middle doesn't suck the joy out of everything.

A deconstruction of novel structure, explained via the medium of animation.

I've written a lot of unpublishable novels over my life--with good reason, they sucked. But, reading back over my old work reveals a clear division between those stories confined to the trunk for eternity, and my current publishable projects.

And that's when I learnt how to structure my stories.

3 Act Structure is great and all, but while it teaches good theory, when it come to writing and thinking structure, it fell woefully short for me. My current novel, Guns of Liberty, was originally written as a study on structure and pacing. It's no coincidence that this is the first book I've had the drive to publish.

This blog is my attempt to explain structure in the simplest way I know how, and how that structure applies to story telling, and the pacing and tension of your book.

And since I'm a (regretfully unemployed) animator, I'll be using a little visual aid to explain my thought process.

End of preamble; let's get started.

What's the most important, most exciting part of your story?

Some of you probably said the ending. Some of you might have said the beginning. I'm here to argue that the middle is the most important part of your story, and here's why.

What you see above are two "Key Frames" in a very simple animation. The character is raising her hand from point A to point B. Every motion has 2 keys defining the action. All that's missing is the in-between frames.

Sure, this does the job. It gets our key frame in a simple and effective method. But, other than that there's not a lot of substance going on else wise.

Now, observe how the actions changes when I make a small tweak.

Suddenly the action tells a different story. It's no longer moving from point A to point B. There's a little arc, and with it, a little character. The action being told has changed by adding one important aspect.

Title drop. It's the Breakdown.

Between every key frame is a "Breakdown" frame. The keys define the parameters of the action, but the breakdown is what establishes the character of its motion.

And in storytelling it's exactly the same. Approximately.

Now, back to the reality of writing. The middle is often misunderstood--many writers struggle through the slog of saggy middle syndrome at some point in their lives. If the beginning and ending are your key frames, then the middle conflict is your breakdown. The objective of your story is not to get from point A to B in the straightest, most efficient way possible--rather the story is defined, and given character, by your middle conflict.

The middle of the book is what gives your story context. If the beginning tells us who your characters are, then the middle shows us who they are. It pits them against an obstacle that challenges their core beliefs, and preys on their shortcomings.

And the middle also gives your ending tension. It gives the plot stakes by showing us what can go wrong--what will go wrong if the protagonists can't pull themselves together to resolve it. It's a taste, a teaser of what's to come.

The middle is where everything that could possibly go wrong, goes wrong, and now the characters are left to pick up the pieces. The stakes are piling up. The tension mounts. Everything is on fire, and there's doubt in their minds. Can we really win after all?

Does that sound boring to you? I hope not.

If you've ever struggled with writing the middle of your book, it's because you lack this structure. Fortunately, the solution is simple. Have your protagonists arrive at their goal in the middle of the book.

This might seem crazy. After all, they're supposed to confront their goals at the end of the book, right? If they arrive in the middle, that would be the end of the book!

Nope. Because that's when everything goes wrong. That's when your characters fail so spectacularly that now everything is worse.

This can be done in a couple of ways: you can change what you thought the ending was going to be, or, change what your protagonists thought the ending was going to be.

If this is all still a little crazy sounding, let me ground you in a real-world example. Star Wars, A New Hope. It's just about the most faithful monomyth structure in modern story telling. When Luke embarks on his journey, his goal is not the end of the story. He is not setting out to destroy the Death Star, he doesn't even know what one is. All he knows is he has to get to Alderaan, and the Rebellion.

What happens when he gets there? Death Star. Now everything goes to hell, and the true end of the story is revealed.

If you look through popular media you'll see this pattern all over. This, I believe, is the simplest deconstruction of story structure.

I like to call it Shifting your Goal Posts.

Take a minute to imagine Star Wars if, instead, Luke set out from Tatooine with the goal of destroying the Death Star. He, and Han, would spend an hour of screen time flying around and getting into all sorts of space shenanigans, before finally arriving just in time to deliver the plans and save the day.

Do you see how this version loses all the stakes and tension derived from Luke's first encounter with the Death Star, and Vader?

That's why the middle is the most important part of your book. If you've ever found yourself struggling with structure, this is one way to fix it.

Question of the day: what's your main character's primary goal?

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Conflict and Failure

Plot feeling like it's going nowhere? Or maybe you're racing through your outline and wondering if you'll even have enough story to reach that 50k?

The answer to both problems is conflict, and its resolution.

Conflict Equals Content
Or, why your characters need to fail more.

Using conflict generating content is not a new concept--it is the driving force behind popular NaNoWriMo tropes, like Chandler's Law and surprise ninjas. Whenever you need content something is bound to go wrong: a new problem, another puzzle, a hurdle to overcome, and while there's nothing wrong with content generation in this fashion the real issue starts with conflict resolution.

If some surprise event occupies a chapter's worth of content before our brave heroes, emerge bloodied, but victorious, you find yourself once again in the same situation. What happens next?

These closed-circuit conflicts don't add anything but fat to your story, and don't contain any of the necessary components of good conflict: stakes and tension. Winning too much makes stakes trivial, and conflict that is overcome does nothing to increase tension.

The solution? I should stop putting spoilers in the title--it's failure.

I like to describe a story as a series of failures culminating in a singular success. I'm sure my characters would murder me if they could.

Every time you open a conflict, think of it as a question. Could be: 'will they survive this' or, 'will they kiss', or anything else. Every time you solve a conflict you are answering that question, and the more questions you have open at any one time, the more tension your story will have. If you're asking the right questions your reader will be dying to find the answer--this is how you produce reader engagement!

So, if you're struggling to make your conflicts go anywhere, the solution is simply find a place where your characters succeed, and then have them fail. Not only do they fail, but do so in a manner that makes everything thing worse and makes the problem much larger than it was before.

This accomplishes three things: it makes the conflict personal--nothing makes an issue personal like failure. It increases the stakes--showing your characters can failure makes the fear of failure more real. Finally, it increases the tension--every unsolved conflict is a direct step upward in tension.

Thank you for reading! I think failure is one of the most important elements of any story, and I wanted to get this bumper post out leading up to my next post--how to avoid saggy middle syndrome--which should be up and ready in the next couple days!

I'd also like to share my personal Conflict Commandments that I use to control the pacing in my own stories. This is more useful for editing than drafting, and I intend to write a full deconstruction of conflict, and how it controls the tension and pacing of a story, after November.

But for now, it's a first draft--don't worry about it.

i) Every major conflict shall be established in the first half of the book.
ii) No major conflict shall be resolved until the Final Confrontation.
iii) No conflict shall be resolved at the end of a chapter--unless its resolution explicitly starts an even greater conflict before that chapter ends.
iv) No conflict shall be resolved within a single chapter, nor shall conflict established at the end of a chapter be resolved at the beginning of the preceding.

Question of the day: what have your characters failed at so far?

Thursday, 8 November 2018

The Habit of Writing

Word Count not what you expected? Procrastination sinking its teeth in? Here's a few simple tricks to help keep your NaNo project on track and boost your productivity going in to week two!

The Habit of Writing
Or, how to sit down, shut up, and write.

The reason I love NaNoWriMo is that it inspires productivity through daily word goals. But, if you're like me, sometimes that daily goal isn't quite enough motivation to overcome our distraction-riddled modern world. The distraction of video games, social media, and silly youtube videos is often too much to bear.

When it comes to video games, I have all the restraint of an unsupervised toddler with a bag of potato chips(crisps).
I have no restraint eating potato chips, either.

The solution, however, is quite simple:

1) Don't write in the same place you use the internet

It may not be possible for everyone, but most of us have access to portable electronic devices  these days. I opted to write in local cafes but anywhere away from home will do. Don't connect to the local wi-fi, either! It took about 3 months for me to go from "I have to go write today" to "I want to go write today"--now I feel anxiety if I'm not writing.

This next tip is related, but mostly relevant to fellow writers with day jobs:

2) Don't go home before you write

Again, it may not be possible for everyone, but if you are writing after work then don't go home first. You'll start to relax, feel comfortable, put the dinner on, and put writing off until later. But, if you stay out, you'll keep your brain engaged in productivity mode.

3) Write by the hour, not by the word count

This seems contrary to the goal of Nanowrimo--you need to hit at least 1667 words per day to hit that 50k. But, if your goal is to write 1667 words per day, then you will write 1667 words that day. It might just take you 2-6 hours.

If you're a frequent writer, you might have an idea already of how many words per hour you can write. Use this to estimate how long it will take to hit your daily goal. I write anywhere between 1000 and 2500 words per hour, and I also find it takes 30 minutes to get into the writing zone, so 2 hours is a comfortable session for me.

If you're not certain what your writing speed is, November is a good time to start! I try to keep track of all my progress with nerdsheets.

If you set yourself a reasonable time goal, then you'll hit that deadline without meandering so much.

4) Make use of music

Our brains are pattern recognition machines. If you're not already writing with music this may seem like an added distraction, but I found by listening to the same playlist every day I was able to get into the writing zone faster and more consistently.

I've probably listened to Peaceful Solitude over 6000 times in the last 4 years.

Furthermore, whenever I'm planning a novel I listen to a consistent playlist and learn to associate my story with it. If I ever need to brainstorm I can put on the playlist and go for a walk--the ideas just seem to flow, and exercise also stimulates the brain!

5) Know what you're writing, before you write it

When writing at the scene-level, nothing will boost your productivity like figuring out what you're about to write first. My ritual is to begin every session jotting down notes in my notebook, explaining what the scene I'm about to write contains and how it plays out. Sometimes I'll scribble dialogue exchanges, or action beats, too.

And if you don't complete the scene that day, all you have to do is look at your notes and you'll know exactly where to pick up!

I believe even full-blown pantsers can benefit from this. You're not planning, you're just exploring the purpose of the scene ahead of time, and then when it's time to write you have less head-work to do!

My final tip is probably more relevant for your writing rituals outside of November. But, maybe if you're ahead of the curve you can:

6) Take time off writing

You don't work 7 days a week, you shouldn't write 7 days a week. Outside of crunch-times, like November, I make sure to take a day off just to recover and prevent burn-out.

The most important thing I've learned over the last 4 years of writing is that motivation and inspiration are fickle. But routine is constant, and when you train yourself to write every day then motivation and inspiration will eventually come crawling back.

I hope this overly verbose list helps you conquer November, and beyond!

Question of the day: What are your daily writing rituals to get you through November?

Saturday, 3 November 2018

The experiment so far

Blogging about writing is something I've wanted to do for a long time. For NaNoWriMo this year I set myself an ambitious goal: 30 posts in 30 days, in an attempt to motivate myself to start. 3 days into November, and 4 posts into my blog (including one unpublished) I've run into my first significant obstacle:

It's not tenable for me to continue posting once a day while holding myself to a standard that I find acceptable. My first two posts I was able to take considerably longer to pick through my thoughts, but the following two I had only 2 hours of free time to produce the content. It's just not enough. Furthermore, writing 30 different topics was spreading me thin, as many of the topics I had planned overlap or are directly related to other posts.

The positive reception I've had with the first two posts let me know without a doubt that this is something I want to continue doing. I love talking about aspects of writing with other writers, and sharing my thoughts and experiences in the hopes someone might benefit.

So, giving up is definitely not on the table, rather I'm going to focus my efforts on producing higher effort posts with more rounded and complete points. In the spirit of NaNo I'll still be working on my blog every day, but posts won't be daily. At this point I don't know what release schedule will work for me, but I'm hoping to get out one or two per week, perhaps with some additional content between.

And in the spirit of this blog: have another quick doodle.

Cheers, and write something every day.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Creating a Character Driven Story

The genesis of story ideas can be somewhat of an enigma, but while emergent story is often varied, there is a constant that fortunately grounds us all: characters. They are what drive the plot, and shape the world around them. And more importantly, they're what your readers will care about the most.

Without any further preface, here's:

Creating Character Driven Stories
Or, how to choose the right protagonist for the job.

Think for a moment about the premise of your story. What makes it cool, what makes it different, what characteristic of the story makes it yours and not some other's story.

It is likely that your protagonist is related to this premise, in one way or another. My novel, Guns of Liberty, began with a desire to make a story about airships. Therefore, it was a logical conclusion that my character should either: be an airship captain, or, want to be one. (I ended up with one of each.)

If your book is about dragon riders, then your character is likely a dragon rider. They can be an aspiring, a practicing, or a retired dragon rider, but they will be related to that premise somehow. Otherwise, they're probably not your protagonist.

These are three important characteristics of your protagonist. If they are aspiring, then your book is likely about their journey from aspiring to practicing. If they are practicing, then is their story a rising journey, or a fall? And if they're retired, what forces call them back into action?

It's important to establish where your character begins, because then you understand where they need to go. And if the protagonist is the force driving the story forward, then the antagonist is the force trying to stop them getting there. If your retired dragon rider is trying to get back in the saddle, why can't they? What is stopping them? Who is stopping them? And even more importantly, what force is driving them back into the saddle after they'd previously given it up?

These are the fundamental questions of a character driven plot. It all stems from the conventional trinity of Goal, Motivation, Conflict that every main character requires at a bare minimum. The key here is that we are using our premise as a means to shape those questions, and therefore weaving our characters, our story, and our world together all in one.

Because at the end of the day, these three aspects are three sides of the same coin, and cannot exist as separate entities.

If you're still not sure who your protagonist is, or how they tie into your plot or your world, it's not too late to do so. Your story is a lot more malleable than you might think!

Ask the following questions of yourself, and of the characters:

  • How does this character relate to the premise?
  • What do they want to accomplish most in the world? (External Goal)
  • Why do they want it? (Internal Motivation)
  • What is stopping them? (External Conflict)
  • And finally, what flaw is holding them back? (Internal Conflict)

Your protagonist's goal, and their conflict, are the driving force of your story: the mid-point breakdown, and the final confrontation.

Whether you have already decided on a plot, or you're still pantsing your way through it, having a character goal will keep you steering in the right direction.

Just try not to get dragged behind the cart.

Thank you, and write something every day.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

What makes a first chapter

Welcome to my series of helpful writing tips to get you to 50k in 30 days(or less)! Starting your story is often the hardest step. If you haven't got a clue what to write yet, don't panic it's never too late to start, check out my prep post about how to plan your 30 day novel over here. If you're ready to dive into chapter one, then you're in the right place. If you're starting your story elsewhere, may god have mercy on your soul.

Meeting Expectations
Or, how to nail your first chapter by establishing the premise.

A lot goes into a first chapter. There's characters and worlds to introduce, plots to establish, and of course, catchy first lines to think up. But there's another aspect of first chapters that I think often goes overlooked: establishing the premise of your book, in case you hadn't guessed from the overly verbose title of this post.

The premise of your story is the main selling point. It's what makes your story interesting and different from other stories. When a reader picks up a book they have a certain expectation about what that book contains. This can come from the cover art, the marketing material, the blurb, or even because you gave them a sales pitch. You've already told them what to expect, and now is the time to show them, and fulfill those expectations.

There's a reason sci-fi movies love opening with a shot of a spaceship flying over an alien planet.

Expectations met.
Movies are a great medium to see this effect in action. The purpose of your opening is not just to begin the story, but to hook the reader. Chances are if they're reading you've already piqued their interest, and this is your chance to hook them in for the long haul. And you do that by giving them what you promised. Jurassic Park opens with dinosaurs gone wrong. Pirates of the Caribbean opens with the aftermath of a pirate raid. Lord of the Rings opens with an enormous fantasy battle. With elves.

For instant fantasy, just add elves.
Once you've figured out your premise it will help shape everything in the first chapter, from establishing the story through the inciting incident, to writing a powerful opening line. While I don't advocate spending too much time on your opening line for a first draft--it's more of an editing task than a writing one--having a strong premise will help.

Here's an example from the first-draft opening-line of my 2017 NaNo, the conclusion to my satrical sci-fi series.

That's one of the main themes of the series--and focus of the third book--summed up in one sentence, as well as showing a bit of character from one of the main characters and introducing the mood of the scene. This one will still be the subject of a lot of editing (eventually), but I like it because of its simplicity.

The first chapter is also where you introduce the premise of your main characters, and establish their character arcs. What are their flaws that will have to be overcome in order to achieve their goals? Often, in a first draft, you may not have an answer for this. Or, you may have the flaw, but are unsure about how it will be resolved in the plot to come. If that's the case, then just keep in mind this mantra for your November to come:

It's a first draft. Don't worry about it.

That concludes this introduction to introducing your book. The premise is what your book is about at the most basic level. Once you have that figured out it will make everything that follows much easier!

I'll be back again tomorrow with another post about how to make sure your character is the right protagonist for the job!

Thank you, and write something every day.