Right now many of you are cranking out stories for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). You’ve got two more weeks to hit your 50,000 word goal. If the words are flowing you might feel an urge to share your idea with everyone and their mom, but now isn’t the time.
It’s hard to stay on the right path when your friends say, “What if, instead, you took your story in this direction?”
When I first started writing I scrutinized every paragraph the moment after typing. I counted the syllables so I could adjust for rhythm and flow. I checked my metaphors to see if they mixed wrong, I ran every verb through the thesaurus, and I dialed all my hyperboles back.
When I started screenwriting I discovered my characters as I wrote them. It was fun to meet them for the first time, but when I went back to edit their personalities had problems. They seemed less like themselves in the first scenes than they did toward the end. Their dialogue drew from stoic clichés in the first act. Their voices didn’t sound distinct until the third. I decided to take screenwriting courses to help fix the problem.
Whether we’re using SMART goals to break a process down into something less intimidating, or for our lofty ambitions, no one is entirely sure what the acronym stands for: Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic Timely, Small Material Attainable Relevant Time-bound, or Sporadic Mixed Abstract Romantic Transcendental (probably not the last one).
SMART goals are a great way for businesses to fully articulate ambiguous “commitment to excellence” mission statements. They provide a quick mnemonic to improve employee output, but for those of us aspiring to make big life changes, SMART goals can leave us wanting. If your goal is to write 2,000 words a day and a sick day has you coming up short that slight deviation will make you feel like you failed the system. Research shows minor setbacks can derail these types of outcome driven goals.
The best system for improving retail sales, might not be the best system for quitting smoking. What if it could be repurposed to help your writing? I’m not talking about setting a goal to get published by the end of the year, I’m talking about making one of your characters use the system to show you something.
I propose warping SMART goals into a character building exercise, a way for your protagonist to state their desires, while showing if they have the presence of mind to acknowledge what’s preventing them from getting there.
The following excerpt is a SMART goal written by a character in a situation where she ought to be panicking.
SMART Goals for a Character in Peril
My name is Cameron Mendax, full time blogger part time prisoner. I’ve been arrested by impostures, posing as highway patrol officers. I broke out of their interrogation room to discover a wall full of my online credentials and social network thumbnails, as well as several other bright young faces.
These mock-cops, with their frayed patches, have me in solitaire until they can figure out what to do, now that I’ve had a peek at their plan. This compromising situation offers few options, but rather than give into despair, I’ve decided to upgrade my SMART goals to pass the time.
My general goal is to escape. I realize there’s precious little time to work out the specifics. All those “W” questions:
Who is involved?
The arresting officer, who was far outside the jurisdiction printed on his squad car. An older man, with a face like tattered boots, who might have been a real cop in a past life. He seemed to know his way around an interrogation room. Not to mention the two others he yelled at over the radio, Cyrus and the one he called, “The Poet.”
What do I want to do?
If life had a God-mode that made me impervious to bullets, I’d like to investigate further, figure out exactly what these boys are doing here, but since it doesn’t, escaping with my life will be a fine consolation.
Where do I need to execute my plan?
Here in this cell, before these cosplay cops move me someplace they have more control of. I get the sense they don’t know this precinct or its equipment as well as their uniforms imply. I was able to get out of those ancient cuffs by wedging a pen clip in the teeth. The bolts keeping the interrogation chair fastened crumbled in my fingers. This room must have a similar weakness worth exploiting. A handful of gravel would make a decent distraction. A loose chunk of concrete would make a fine club. If I’m lucky, I’ll have time to fashion a shank.
When should I act?
When my captors let their guard down.
They’ll be in numbers when they come to transfer me to a torture chamber or a shallow grave in the middle of nowhere. If I can get the door open I can get the jump on them. Maybe I should pretend to go into convulsions. What if they’ve already seen the same prison movies I’ve been watching? Maybe I could lay my hoodie on one side of the room as a distraction, so I can attack them from the darkness, drop from the ceiling, maybe even get myself a gun.
Which requirements and restraints will I have to work with?
I’ll have to commit to one of these scenarios and practice it. Once the fear kicks in, I’ll find myself stuck between fight and flight, in a mode I call “Deer in headlights.” If I pry a chunk of drywall free, I’ll need to practice swinging it. If a sharp bit of rock breaks loose, I’ll have to practice slicing my shank across my captor’s throat.
Why do I need to go this far?
They’ve knocked me out twice. Once with chemicals dispersed from a breathalyzer and once by clubbing me in the head. If the room with all the photos and social media profiles is anything to go on, these guys have been at this for a long time. Since I didn’t hear any voices in my brief jaunt down the hall, I have to assume I’m the last one. I have to act or I won’t live long enough to see how Marvel’s thirty-part film franchise pans out.
How much will I have to do? At a minimum, I’ll have to assault or vault over two armed men, this is with limited martial arts and track and field experience.
How will I know when my goal is accomplished? When this run down police station is a dot in my rearview mirror, preferably with flames billowing out the windows.
As long as I don’t starve, never fall asleep, and channel a level of Herculean strength I’ve never been able to muster in order to do a pull up, we’re golden.
If Hollywood has taught me anything, skinny models can clear a room full of armed guards by power-sliding in with both guns blazing. Imagine what a girl with an average build can do. Here I am clawing at the walls, hoping a club will fall into my lap, but really, all I have to do is wait for the slow motion to kick in, run up one of my assailant’s chests, do the splits, and knock ‘em both in the noggin. Easy peasy.
Ideally I’ll accomplish my goal before I get maimed, short of that, before I get completely dismembered.
Here in the maddening dark, I doubt I’ll lose my sense of urgency and start slacking. If they do give me that kind of time, I’ll start doing pushups so I can go full Linda Hamilton all over their asses.
That is if “T” stands for “Timely.” If it means “Tangible” then I’m totally screwed.
It’s clear Cameron’s in a tight spot, but her musings have revealed several directions the story could go from here. To me the most interesting one involves her attempting to play possum and failing to slice her assailant’s throat with a dull bit of rock.
Cyrus clutched his throat.
Garret steps into the cell. “What happened?”
Cyrus smirked. “She grazed me.”
“Are you hurt?”
Cyrus shook his head. “Nah, just confused. It felt like she was trying to tickle me or something.”
From here, the cosplay cops drag Cameron out of the frying pan and dump her into the fire. Still, she’s resilient enough to set another set SMART goals.
What’s the Big Ideation?
Though not a requirement, a character background is a good source of inspiration to fuel your writing. What’s great about this exercise is that it taught me things about Cameron I didn’t know going in.
You probably don’t need to fill out a Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory on behalf of your characters, but it doesn’t hurt to have some idea how their outlook differs from your own. If your story isn’t written in the first person, this exercise can tell you what your characters’ are thinking.
The urgency of this adventure won’t afford Cameron too many detours for her backstory. Her personality has to surface while she’s coming to terms with her environment. This SMART goals activity lets me fire up my imagination, without overwhelming it with too much information. It’s a character development exercise woven into the plot, not a sprawling character bible full of random details I may never use.
Give it a try, before you start writing, or even when you’re stuck in the middle of a scene.
Nothing scares first time writers more than the outlining rituals of their peers. Enter a career novelist’s home and you’ll find evidence of all this stuff you’re supposed to be doing: trains of thought streaking across white boards, flowcharts linking every strand of plot twists, and family trees getting to the roots of character relationships.
You cower beneath these looming physical manifestations of their author’s brains: real calendars doubling as fictitious timelines, maps filled with tacks marking scene locations, and paper dolls modeling the cast members’ fashions.
A laymen might think the author is working on a conspiracy theory, but you know these hieroglyphic diagrams illustrate a story.
Dustin Lance Black, the Academy Award winning Screenwriter of Milk, used a table that fit a finite amount of notecards to keep his scene count down. William Faulkner wrote his outline on his office wall. J.K. Rowling had a database with columns for every chapter of Harry Potter.
My screenwriting professor made us fill out fifty character details, a set of five questions for every walk on role, a summary treatment, and an elevator pitch before we could ever touch our scripts.
To an outsider, these rituals make it seem like drafting is a full time job, like there’s always a writing mechanism that alludes them. With all these mind maps, graphs, and spread sheets, you wonder how much accounting goes into writing? Just when you thought you had the process pinned down, there’s something else you’re supposed to be doing.
Why waste time with an outline, when you can write by the seat of your pants?
You dabble with plot points, but leave your characters blank. You believe in fate, but not love at first sight. You aren’t ready to commit to a cast member until they show you what they have to offer, until they prove what they can endure. You make their lives dramatic to see what makes them tick.
While other writers define their characters to the genetic level, you want to develop yours organically. While others scrawl their hero’s physical features into series bibles, you want to get to know them over time. So what if you forget their hair color a few pages in, that’s what editors are for.
While other writers fill out personality tests for their characters, you smile at your word counter. While they conduct field research, you skim Wikipedia. While they interview subjects for first hand accounts, you find what you need on TV.
Convincing yourself all your hero should start with is a powerful goal, you toss his bio out the window. Fearing a profile might make him one dimensional, you infuse him with your own soul. Wasting no time on a backstory, you take comfort in knowing you’ve lived one already.
You have a vague idea of where you want your story to go, but your hero wants to explore his setting. You let him wander off for a chapter or two, before planting signs to correct the corse he’s on. Too bad the hero has worked up too much momentum to take a U-turn now. The story needs him to confront the villain, but that no longer jives with his motivations.
Refusing to take direction, your hero questions your writing. Venturing outside the lines, he finds his own path. Poking holes in your plot, he dives through one of them.
Becoming three-dimensional, he breaks through the fourth wall. Sensing no future in your imagination, he resorts to meta migration. Bleeding through space and time, your imaginary protagonist becomes a reality. If only you took the proper precautions.
As any published author will tell you, once a work of fiction becomes sentient, it hunts down anyone who had a hand in its development. Realizing his cruel God is just a prick at a keyboard, your character comes a-knocking. Telling their own story, your hero casts you as the villain.
This is where the real writing advice comes in. Before you go filling your grocery basket with notecards, you’re going to need to stock up on ammunition. A writer without an arsenal isn’t going to be a writer for long, not when their Frankenstein’s monster of memories and emotions knows where they live.
This plotless pod person believes he has the upper hand, after all he knows he’s everything you’ve aspired to become. You’re going to have to reel him in by pandering to his motivations. His goal isn’t some literary abstraction. He’s driven to your destruction.
You need to plant a paper trail. All those outline elements you’ve been avoiding, you need to scatter a few of them on the coffee table, enough to let an intruder know that you’re plotting an ending. Give your de facto hero something to go on, then find a place off the grid to stage a final confrontation.
From Ray Bradbury to Stephen King, they all say the next step is the hardest part of writing. Once you’ve arrived at your destination, you’ll have to conjure up a dark portal, one that allows you to step into your story’s reality. King has a genetic anomaly, a congenital clairvoyance, that allows him to do this at will. King’s not a writer so much as a transcriber of other worldly events. We’d all be so prolific if we had the same ability to slip through the multiverse whenever we felt like it.
My method for crossing over involves wine, mood music, and pacing, lots of pacing. Whatever way you cross over, you’re going to want to leave an opening, a tear into the fabric of reality a bystander won’t notice.
The last thing you need is a passersby wandering into a first draft.
If your de facto hero follows your breadcrumbs, he will charge headlong back into the plot. All you need to do is give your villain a makeover to look like you. Swap your garments, then sit back and watch your creations duke it out. By the time your hero realizes what he’s done, you’ll be long gone pitching your manuscript to everyone.
This is where many writers realize their ability to breach parallel realities renders outlining unnecessary. Who needs all those notecard trees, when you can just open a portal and report on the goings on of a neighboring dimension? Still, there are writers who prefer to plan without resorting to quantum entanglements. Whether you write sprawling outlines or manipulate metaphysics there’s no wrong way to do this.
When I first started writing fiction, my scenes had long intermissions, ellipses in place of dialogue, holes in place of plot. I’d skip chapters, write out of sequence. My ideas didn’t have legs because they weren’t fleshed out. They lacked focus because they weren’t developed. It was hard to keep my tone consistent, when I wrote in fractured moments. It was hard to keep track of who said what, when my characters had yet to be named.
Idea Man flew so far away, I couldn’t decide if he was a bird or a plain. Soaring through the thought clouds, he was neck deep in inspiration. If anyone could break my writer’s block, it was him. I realized I’d have to devise a scheme to bring him down to my level.
Coming from a poetry background, where stanzas can be made from lists, I tried the technique in the long form. Rather than dive into the action, I over described my locations. I’d log the evidence of an event, until I realized my police reports weren’t drawing down Idea Man. He wouldn’t make an appearance for atmosphere alone.
Mouthing both sides of a conversation, I’d come up with clever bits of banter. My subconscious did the talking, while my fingers went a-walking. Rather than direct my dialogue, I’d play stenographer, honoring the first words that came to mind, occasionally shoehorning in one-liners. My muse wouldn’t stop speaking long enough to draw breath, my fingers tripped across the keyboard. It felt like I’d finally channeled my hero until I realized it was his evil twin: Mediocrity Man.
I thought I’d written radio plays that were just waiting for visual accompaniment, but they were too conversational. They had nowhere to go. It turned out, the best dramatic discussions didn’t follow real speech patterns. They revealed character details while serving the plot at the same time.
Luring Idea Man into an Outline
Using my talent for writing lists, I decided to outline everything. I didn’t stop at “Character drives” and “goals,” my ideation was all encompassing.
I fired a chain of bullet points at my background research. I knew how my hero’s public habits contrasted their private peculiarities, even if the audience never got to make this discovery. I knew how their psychological profile effected their clothing style. I knew how their sense of humor showed in their posture.
Not only did I know my characters’ names, I knew their upbringing, economic backgrounds, education, religious beliefs, professions, and political leanings. It didn’t matter if their parents didn’t get any screen time, they had their own paragraphs on my outline. It didn’t matter if we never saw their humble abode, I’d still describe it down to the last pillow.
My dogmatic draft predicted the page number I wanted every plot point to happen on. It was a map that refused to acknowledge shifting terrains. Assuming character motivations would always make sense, the plot dictated their actions. They entered a scene, not because of their powerful drive, but because the story needed them to.
When I finally started writing, Idea Man came, but his contributions lacked passion. I’d already introduced him to all the characters, I’d already scouted all the locations, we knew the timeline for every situation. Without the thrill of discovery, Idea Man was just going through the motions. I hadn’t given him any wiggle room, I hadn’t left him space to make a contribution. He shuffled his way through a draft, before flying off, never to return to the story again.
Idea Man Unleashed
It took me years to realize, the more I drafted the less I finished. The more I edited as I went, the less likely I was to get to the end. So I tried a different approach. I wrote my stories without a net. I developed the cast on the page. I came up with interesting situations, in the hope that the rest of the story would tell itself:
A dead body is found in a locked room. The killer used a timed poison and special appearing ink to leave his mark. His next victim may already be doomed.
A drunken lawyer staggers into the woods, interrupts a trial for a man’s soul, represents him and wins.
A teenager finds messages from his future self in his journal, only to discover that his future self is sabotaging his life.
Idea Man dragged a trail of thought clouds from the heavens, interrupting my work in progress with a slew of better ones. I was walking through a smog of thought clouds, not so much a daydreamer but a sleepwalker lost in a brainstorm.
This is what I got for writing commando, like Stephen King without a tight binding outline.
Idea Man kept making deliveries, but I was running out of places to put them.
Drowning in Thought Clouds
The sheetrock was cracking, the oven tilting, my back burner was filled with too many things. The refrigerator door hung off its hinge, weighed down by post-it notes, IOUs for material I’d yet to get to. There was a ceramic dust pattern on the table, an outline of a plate with one too many things put on it.
The exits to my memory palace were blocked. There were too many big ideas in the way, I was wading through them. The dam had broken, my writer’s block had flooded my brain. I was drowning in thought clouds.
I needed to sort through the backlog, to find my focus, to pick a project, but Idea Man kept the deliveries coming.
In the maze of my mental map the paths forked into all directions. I walked into a short story, hoping it would spit me out in the middle of my novel. I ran through a journal entry, hoping it came out as an article. I ventured down one path, praying it could get me to my career goals.
It was hard to see the light when I had so many bright ideas. Each bulb orbited my head demanding to be acknowledged. It was hard to hear my thoughts when they made so much noise. The toys in the attic were all wound up, they were having a parade.
I used to wait for Idea Man to breach my fortress of solitude, now I was waiting for him to leave me a moment of clarity.
I needed away to harness him without taking every thought cloud he had to offer. I needed to hold his attention without trapping him in a kryptonite cage. Idea Man needed an outline that allowed him the freedom of discovery.
The Hybrid Outline
Knowing the fundamentals of plot structure, I shouldn’t spend too much time at the drawing board. All I need to get a story started are the bare bones of a good summary, like:
Character: Who’s the lead? What is their drive? Break in the Routine: What pulls the rug out from under them? What goal do they acquire? Does the conflict with their drive set them on the path to a personal change? Situation: What’s the premise? Where does it take place? Conflict: Who’s the antagonist? How does their goal interfere with the hero’s? Plot Point 1: When is it too late for the hero to turn back? Mid Point: Do the alliances shift? Does the hero learn a lesson that signals the beginning of a change? Plot Point 2: What’s the hero’s lowest possible moment? When they acquire their goal, do they discover it wasn’t what they wanted? Do they seek a new one? Climax: How does their personal change prepare them for the final battle?
Resolution: When the dust settles, has the hero grown as a person?
Starting a story, I keep these plot points in mind, while leaving everything else open for discovery. Even these points aren’t set in stone. If Idea Man delivers a thought cloud that suits the story, I’ll use it, if it’s out of place, I can cast it away without feeling like I’m losing something (I’ve made a habit of storing these ideas in other documents).
To paraphrase some words of wisdom from Trey Parker: this plot point happens therefore this plot point happens, but then this one happens, therefore so does this one. His stories are collections of “therefores” and “but thens.” Each scene comes with a reason, you have to pop all the extraneous thought clouds that start with “and then.” Everything better be connected or it’s out of place.
I can avoid referring to a draft by linking all these plot points in my head. I cover this process in great detail in my blog on How to Build a Memory Palace Pitch. The trick is to make the essential connections early on, then you’ll have an idea of where everything should be heading.
It’s this combination of outline and free form strategies that’s kept Idea Man on task and interested at the same time.