How to Make Your Character’s Lowest Moment Truly Nerve Wracking
Every story should have a tragedy. Even stories with happy endings need at least one.
Disney’s animated classic Cinderella has three. The first two tragedies happen during the opening narration. Cinderella’s mother dies. Her father marries the wicked step mother and dies shortly after. Cinderella is forced into a life of servitude. The third tragedy happens when Cinderella’s step-sisters tear her dress apart. That tragedy seems inconsequential compared to everything Cinderella has been through, but we’ll see why of all these events the destruction of the dress is the most important one. Continue reading Why Every Story Needs Its Own Pit of Snakes→
How the Lost School of Storytelling Blurred the Line Between Intriguing and Confusing
I love writing mysteries with vast casts, layered subplots, and dozens of twists. My favorite mysteries contain elements of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. They’re the everything and the kitchen sink approach to storytelling. The TV show Lost inspired much of my love, and apprehension, for this facet of the mystery genre.
Lost has taught me a lot about what to do and what not to do when writing mysteries. It featured emotionally involving character arcs with themes like regret, the wages of sin, and crisises of faith. It set up intriguing plot lines about psychological manipulation, international conspiracies, and time travel. Lost successfully followed through on its character arcs, but fell short of bringing its plot lines to completion. Continue reading How to Make Sure Your Mystery is Satisfying→
I used to have a nervous tick that manifested whenever I spoke in public. My leg shook like a cartoon bunny. The severity of the tick increased the worse I thought I was doing. If my audience folded their arms, checked their watches, or rolled their eyes my brain sent a message to my thigh, “It’s rattling time!” The worst was when the momentum rode up my spine all the way to my neckline. I turned into a chatter-mouthed bobblehead. My words came out in a pulsing vibrato like I was talking into a desk fan.
I went into rabbit mode when I read an essay in class and mispronounced one of my fifty-cent buzz words. It happened when I pitched a script and the producers rolled their eyes toward each other, and when I gave technology tutorials and my coworkers interrupted to ask questions about what I’d just covered. Continue reading A Storyteller’s Guide to Public Speaking→
No. Dream logic isn’t story logic. Transcribe a dream, and you’ll see. Or better yet, tell someone an important dream – ‘Well, I was in this house that was also my old school, and there was this nurse and she was really an old witch and then she went away but there was a leaf and I couldn’t look at it and I knew if I touched it then something dreadful would happen…’ – and watch their eyes glaze over. Continue reading Syphoning Nightmare Fuel→
How do writers get their readers to identify with their characters?
One method is to make the character as basic as possible. This way the reader can fill them with their own details. Have you ever played a role playing game where you get to select your character’s class, hair, and armor? This is taking the default option: the bland blonde fair skinned male human, the rice cake of warrior classes. This option keeps the character so empty, the audience has no choice but to fill him with their own back story.
The X-Files defined dramatic science fiction in the 90s. It inspired fans to write spooky stories of their own. Rumor has it, the show is returning for a limited run. Mulder and Scully will wave their flashlights across our TV screens one last time.
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.