Legend of Korra Finishes (spoiler lite)

And with tonight’s episode, Avatar: The Legend of Korra reaches it’s final conclusion with the end of Season Four.

It’s been a rocky road for what has turned out to be one of the best animated series Americans have ever produced. The show itself was only meant to last a single season, and then suddenly given three more when it turned into a mega-hit, which left the writers scrambling to continue a story they’d rushed to finish at the end of Season One. Then, once Season Two didn’t get the ratings of Season One, the executives at Nickelodeon lost faith it in to the point they pulled it from the air halfway through Season Three due to “low ratings”. (Low ratings on a show that they didn’t advertise, and which they threw onto the air during the notoriously low-rated Summer season. Surprise!) In the end, it only got a fourth season because it was already in the can when Season Three was stuck online-only, and because it still got great ratings in overseas markets.

Despite all this, the writers and producers of Avatar: The Legend of Korra managed to produce a fine show. A series with unique characters that grew and had a life of their own, a setting that actually changed with the story, and some amazing heroic action sequences that could be mind-blowingly good. Korra started as a unique lead, a hotheaded “female jock” who didn’t fall into the stereotypical “strong female lead” traps, and changed as the series went on into a balanced and considerate person. She suffered, and grew from her suffering, and since the theme of the show was “change and transformation”, she exemplified those ideas in the best possible ways.

Each of the villains represented a different philosophy- equality, harmony, anarchy, and order taken to a radical extreme (mostly in the pursuit of power) and that gave the show a thoughtful edge that challenged the preconceptions held by the main character and the audience. It forced Korra to expand her way of thinking about the world, and in doing so also made the audience question as well. Even if it was all in the service of some great action/adventure stories, it gave the show a subversive depth you rarely see on TV anywhere, much less on a Nick cartoon.

It wasn’t a perfect show, of course. There was the horribly rushed ending during the last 15 minutes of the first season, and then the second season didn’t come anywhere near the quality of the first in terms of writing. (It was very much a generic “evil villain wants to take over the world because he’s evil” plot.) And, while the third and fourth seasons were amazing (and even managed to make the second season look better in retrospect of what we learn later), there was a lot of character randomness as the writers struggled to make characters designed for one season work over four seasons. (This was especially true of Asami, but more on her shortly.) There was also the decision to “break” the link between the Avatar and her past selves during Season Two that I maintain was a big mistake that even the writers felt later on. But, what’s done is done.

And, in the end, it all came together in a spectacular fourth season that echoed real Chinese history, with Kuvira standing in for Shang Kai-Shek and his Nationalist Army. The finale played to the show’s strengths, and the whole thing showed how Korra had really changed the world and herself through her actions and choices. If Korra hadn’t come along, the ending never could have happened, and that’s the mark of a good story- where everything fits together.

Everything except one small piece…

SPOILERS from here on in! Don’t read if you haven’t watched the ending yet and care.

So, first, let me say that I don’t care who Korra ended up with. I’m not a (relation)shipper, and don’t often invest in character romance stories or pairings. In fact, Korra could have ended up with Kuvira, or Tenzin, or even the Ghost of Uncle Iroh for all I care. That said, I didn’t like the pairing of Korra and Asami at the end, and in fact it pissed me off.

When I first saw it, I actually smiled. Both because it was nice to see Korra start a new relationship, and because I was impressed a Nick show would end with such a LGBTI friendly ending. It took guts to end the show that way, and they must have worked hard to slip that past the Suits. (I wouldn’t even be surprised if it’s edited for later airings after a flurry of “concerned parents” write like crazy to Nickelodeon.)

However, something bugged me, and after a bit of thought I realized what it was.

You see, one way to see a story is as an argument. The whole story is an argument for why it ends the way it does. It sets up evidence and puts into motion events that produce the ending we get. A perfect example of that is Varrick and Ju-Li. Varrick starts as a heartless capitalist rogue with Ju-li as his assistant, and then after he loses everything she still sticks with him. When he loses her too and goes on a journey of self-discovery he comes to realize that she is the most important thing in his life, and eventually appreciates her and asks her to marry him. (Something the Varrick we first meet would never have done.) She also grows in her will to be a person, and in doing so, earns his love by not just being his assistant, but by being his partner. You can think back and examine the trail of evidence, and reach the conclusion that this was the proper ending for their story.

Not so for Korra and Asami.

When Asami was introduced, it was as a romantic rival/femme fatale/non-bender character who represented the new technological age and stood between Korra and her love-interest Mako. She was intricately tied into the story for Season One, since her father was one of the main villains, and so when Season Two came around the writers struggled with what to do with her and ultimately stuck with the romantic-rival role. Finally, partway through Season Three, she took on the “best friend/confidante” role, and that’s where she sat until literally the last second of the story when it’s implied she and Korra are starting a romantic relationship.

Now, over-viewed like that it doesn’t look so bad, but in actual presentation there was zero clues or hints of anything romantic between the two of them until the very very end. Like nothing. After more than two seasons of chasing a man and being passionately in love with men, and being heartbroken about losing men, they suddenly decide to run off together. How does that work? This would be like if at the end of Harry Potter, Harry and Ron suddenly decided to run off together after spending the whole story chasing girls. It’s a valid ending, but is it the valid conclusion to the argument the story makes?

Now, you could make an argument that Korra wasn’t emotionally in a position or ready to take on a relationship like this until the end of the story. She’s a changed person, and as a result she’s ready to try something new and go in a new and more balanced direction. That would be fair, however, it takes two to tango, and Asami was never shown to have any romantic interest in Korra either. If she had, I could have bought the ending, but we’ve never had even the slightest hint that Asami also likes women, and every piece of evidence in the show tells us the opposite.

So there’s the problem, we have not one, but two characters making total left-turns at the end of the story out of the blue. I can only guess that the writers/producers wanted to do something controversial, or perhaps please the Korra/Asami Shippers by giving them the ending nobody expected to get. Then again, it was the ending that nobody expected because it didn’t make any sense, not because it was socially radical.

For the record, I was rooting for Korra and Bum-ju. (It had just as much evidence to support it.)

Rob

Parkinson’s Law for Writers- Introduction

Although he was not entirely serious at the time, Cyril Northcote Parkinson once declared one of life’s truisms- “The demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource.”

What does this mean?

Well, let me give two examples:

1) If you only have $10 for food that week, you will find a way to make do with $10 worth of food, but if you have $100 you will spend $100 on food that week even if you could have made do with $10.
2) If you say you have one day to get a project done, it will get done in one day. If you say the same project will take a week, it will take you a week to get it done.

Because of many factors, be it laziness, practicality, or procrastination, it’s just human nature to make maximum use of resources like money or time for our own convenience, even if using them more wisely might bring us long-term benefits. Maybe it’s a side-effect of short-term thinking, or our selfish natures, but this is a problem that keeps popping up again and again, and often we let this side of ourselves keep us from doing what we want to do. This is what’s known as Parkinson’s Law.

I’ll give you an example (the one which got me thinking about this topic)- National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo) is a month where would-be writers are encouraged to pump out a 50,000 word novel (or 50,000 words of a novel) in an effort to force themselves to write. It creates a time limit, sets a clear goal, and forces writers (who are horrible procrastinators) to actually commit to using that month to produce the book they’ve always wanted to write. The idea is that 1,667 words a day (50,000 roughly divided by 31) is an easily achievable goal for almost any writer, even one with a day job, and if they just reach that goal consistently for 31 days they’ve got their book finished!

It’s a great idea, and for many people it works. It gets butts in seats and words on the screen, and overcomes many of the hurdles that writers tend to find themselves facing in an effort to make their dreams into reality. But, what really made me think was what writer Matt Ahlschlager did- he finished NaNoWriMo in 1 day! In fact, he did it in less than a day, while bogging about it as he went, and this November he did it 3 times!

So why does it take other writers 31 days? Yes, Matt is a fast typer, but couldn’t most people carve out a weekend (2 whole days) and produce a book, especially if they wrote “Chinese Style”?

Isn’t this just an example of Parkinson’s Law in effect? Writers give themselves 31 days, so it takes 31 days, but it doesn’t HAVE to. Writer Michael Moorcock wrote an essay called “How to Write a Book in 3 Days“, and it outlines exactly how to write a book in one weekend. Even most professional writers (the prolific ones) often talk about writing a novel in 2-3 weeks at most, and author Rachel Aaron discusses how to do it in one week by writing 10,000 words a day. It can be done.

Think about it- if you had 2 days to write a 50,000 word novel or pay a $100,000 penalty, could you do it? I bet you could. I bet most people with at least some writing talent could, especially if given a bit of preparation.

So why don’t you?

Every book you write is a potential “lottery ticket” which could actually make you $100,000 (in the long run, if it sells well) and the more stories you write, the better your chances are of writing that winning book. So why are you capable of that kind of productivity only if it’s penalty? Why can’t you do it as a reward? (Yes, I know, one is certain, and one is a gamble, but if you don’t write anything you’re guaranteed to make nothing from it.)

It’s this thinking that got me wondering about how writers could find ways to use Parkinson’s Law to their advantage. If this is a part of human nature, how can we “hack” it to benefit ourselves as writers and make ourselves more productive and profitable in the process?

So let’s explore this “law” and see what it can do for our creativity. Over the next few days, I’m going to write a series of posts on this topic, and my thoughts on how we can benefit from it.

First up- TIME!

Rob

Why I Hate Football Plots

I hate Football Plots.

I hate them with the passion of a thousand suns.

What are Football Plots?

Football Plots are when the whole story centers around a piece of information (or item), and the story is basically about the characters trying to get that “Football” to the other end of the “field” while avoiding the people trying to stop them.

Now when you read that, the first thing that might come to mind (if you’re a geek) is Lord of the Rings (Frodo tries to get a ring to Mount Doom while dodging Orcs) or perhaps even Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (Luke tries to get the plans to the Death Star to the Rebels) and while yes, those do fit the criteria I list above, real Football Plots take it to a whole other level.

I first noticed Football Plots when I was watching Korean Historical Dramas, and they are masters of the Football Plot. In a typical Korean Historical Drama, very often a character will find out a piece of information (say X is a spy for the enemy) and then the moment they find out that piece of information the whole world turns against them. Why does the world turn against them? Because if the character were able to say a single sentence to the right person, then the whole plot would end there and then. So, as a result, anything and everything has to happen to keep that character from being able to give that piece of information to the right person until the appointed time (or page count) in the plot.

This commonly includes:

  • Being interrupted before they can speak.
  • People falling sick at bad times.
  • Old enemies being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  • Friends (temporarily) turning against them for plot-convenient reasons.
  • Family members who have known them their whole lives suddenly not trusting them.
  • The people they need being in hard to reach locations at just that moment.
  • The people they need being distracted by something else at just that moment.
  • Nobody believing them.
  • Doing things that they’d know they shouldn’t do if they just stopped and thought about it for a moment.
  • Accidents happening at just the wrong time.
  • Everything they’ve ever done wrong in their life coming back to haunt them at just that time.
  • Amnesia.
  • Being Kidnapped.
  • Misunderstandings with almost everyone around them.
  • Just missing the people they need to see.
  • And every other possible coincidence you can imagine that would prevent them from being able to pass that one piece of information along.

Now, while a few of these in a story is hardly a cause for annoyance (they’re tricks for building drama, and they work) if you use too many of them, it can quickly turn a dramatic and thrilling plot into a silly soap opera where the audience feels strung along, and when it reaches this level I call it a Football Plot because that’s all it is, an endless series of plays and interceptions as Character B tries to stop Character A from talking to Character C. Of course, in a real Football game, a single goal doesn’t decide the whole game, but here it does, which is part of the problem.

Football Plots are inherently weak, because they’re dependent on a single action. To give an example, I’ve seen Korean Dramas where twenty or more episodes of plot could literally have been skipped or avoided if Character A said “I’m sorry” to Character C. Literally skipped, as in it would have made no difference to the story whatsoever overall, and wouldn’t have changed the characters or their relationships. That was twenty episodes (20 HOURS, give or take) of time and events which didn’t need to happen, but did because the writers wanted to pad the show out, thus a Football Plot was used to fill time and create fake drama.

And this is one of my main problems with them, most of the time they’re used there’s no reason to use them at all, except to create fake drama where it feels like something exciting is happening, but in reality there’s nothing important going on. They just serve as filler to keep a story moving that otherwise should have ended a long time ago. Of course, sometimes they really do have consequences, but even then they can run off the rails and into “Why Does God Hate Me?” territory.

“Why Does God Hate Me?” is a type of Football Plot where the main characters are trying to accomplish a goal that is important to everyone involved, but literally everything that can go wrong goes wrong to ridiculous levels, as though God has a hate-on for the main character(s) and is betting on their opposition to win. This is usually the result of the writer taking the old writer’s adage “Put your characters in trees and throw rocks at them” and turning it into “Put your characters in trees and shoot at them with a 50 calibre minigun”.

And, lest you’re thinking “Oh ho! Those silly Koreans and their crazy Dramas” this whole post was inspired by one of the most beloved of American speculative fiction writers- Jim Butcher, author of the Dresden Files and Codex Alera series. For at the moment I’m reading his almost 700 page novel The Furies of Calderon (Book One of Codex Alera), and it is one of the most maddening examples of a “Why Does God Hate Me?” Football Plot I’ve ever seen. One that would make the Korean drama writers point fingers and laugh ironically.

How bad it is?

Well, you see that list up there. The list of crazy weekday afternoon soap-opera plot twists that you were probably mocking a moment ago as you read it? Well, Butcher does ALL of those twists in the first 400 pages of the book, and we’ve still got another 300 to go.

Go back and look at that list.

Then think- ALL of it, to the main characters, in 400 pages.

All because if the main characters spoke to the wrong person for five seconds, the whole story would come to a screeching halt and the heroes would win. So he’s pulling out every single trick he can think of to keep that from happening, while at the same time giving his villains every bit of good luck they can handle.

Actual condensed (non-spoiler) scene from the story:

Villain: This sucks. I’m randomly lost in the middle of nowhere, the heroes will win and have no shoes.
(A messenger carrying the information the villain can’t have get out happens to pass that exact spot out of the whole valley at that moment, and the villain kills him.)
Villain: Hurray! Now I have stopped my enemies, know where I am, and have gained shoes!

This is sandwiched next to a scene where the heroes almost reach their goal, and a literal random act of god knocks them back halfway across the story field for no reason except to keep the plot from stopping there and then.

I swear, I nearly threw the book at the wall at that point. But I like my wall.

It’s a decently written book, with interesting characters and ideas, but my god is it one of the most maddening things I have read in a long time. The heroes get almost no breaks (except in ways which don’t threaten to prematurely end the plot), and the villains get all the breaks they need to keep the plot going and people running around. A good story should have a balance between successes and failures that keep the reader interested and make them believe that what they’re reading is there for a reason, not just to keep a weak plot alive.

Which I guess is why I hate Football Plots so much. They’re usually more flash than substance, and aren’t really giving the reader anything new, just stringing them along until the writer can get their payoff. They’re the opposite of creativity, and a cheat.

Now, as I said before, there’s nothing wrong with using some dramatic twists to keep the reader interested and make the main character’s life interesting, in fact you need to throw a few in, but like a good chef, you need to know just the right amount of spice to use to make the dish nourishing and tasty at the same time. A Football Plot is all icing and no cake, and that makes Rob an unhappy boy.

Rob

Reading for Better Writing

Occasionally, I get asked by students who want to write fiction what they should read to become better writers. My immediate answer to this question is always the same- On Writing by Stephen King. It’s THE book by one of the greatest literary craftsmen of the last hundred years, and in itself almost functions as a perfect introduction to the art of writing fiction.

However, what about once you’re ready for something a little more advanced than King’s essential starter?

Until recently, my answer was to recommend people read Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, it’s a book on scriptwriting, but much of what’s in that book applies to writers of fiction just as well. Snyder’s unique Genres are a great tool for focusing your story, and his master plot outline can bring a story into clear (if formulaic) shape. However, it’s a book of structure and tips, not so much about the nuts and bolts of writing fiction, and that always left a bit of a gap.

Well, now I have something to fill that gap- advice that will take an author’s writing to the next level, or at least give them piles of tips from the hands of another master writer.

36 Writing Essays by Chuck Palahniuk

As the name suggests, this is a collection of writing essays by Chuck Palahniuk originally done for the writing site Litreactor.com. They were done between 2005 and 2007 on a monthly basis. Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, is the writing teacher you wish you had, and the advice he gives as he pulls back the curtain in those essays is invaluable to anyone who wants to write fiction. He’s the graduate class to Stephen King’s undergraduate class, and I cannot overstate what an effect reading those essays had on my own approach to writing.

I highly recommend anyone who has started writing, and perhaps finished a few stories, to go and find a copy of that essay collection. The official collection is only available on Litreactor.com as part of a paid membership, which I recommend you go for, however if you’re lacking in cash there are a number of bootleg collections floating around if you do a simple search. These essays will be most helpful to people who have written a bit already, and are meant for people who are serious about writing, but if you are they’re worth every second you spend reading them.

Palahniuk also starting writing occasional new essays for Litreactor.com, such as this gem about thought verbs, and it will give you an idea of what to expect. It was the reason I sought out more of his writing advice in the first place.

Happy Writing!

Rob

 

Little Gou and the Crocodile Princess New Release Sale!

Crocodile Princess  Front-med

Little Gou’s first novel-length adventure is now available on Kindle for just 99 cents for the month of September. Grab it now while you can!

The story:

“Every last member of the Mao family will die by the Hour of the Rat a fortnight from now.” 

With these words begins a race against time, as the roguish martial artist called Little Gou hunts across the back roads and waterways of Old China to find a young bride-to-be who has become a pawn of the mysterious Lady Moonlight. He must outwit friends and foes alike, all of whom are dancing to the Lady’s song, and unravel a scheme that could see thousands dead or enslaved and the Middle Kingdom aflame with rebellion if he fails. But, worst of all, he has to face the woman who abandoned him in the name of family duty- the love he can never be with, or forget. 

Influenced by Legendary Wuxia novel writers Gu Long and Jin Yong; and in the spirit of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Little Gou and the Crocodile Princess is a martial arts action & adventure thriller set in the Jianghu martial underworld of Old China. Through a combination of wits, swordplay and kung fu, the martial artist Little Gou, and his companion the warrior nun Sister Cat, must uncover the truth behind a deadly plot to bring the martial underworld to its knees, or die trying.

 

End of the Month/Camp NaNoWriMo Report

Well, July 2014 has now come and gone. How did it go for writing?

Well, I dedicated myself to participating in Camp NaNoWriMo and writing 50,000 words of fiction in July.

What was my total for July? 19,872. (Average 595 a day.)

Verdict: Crash and burn!

So what happened? I’m a writer who has done 60,000 words in a month before (2000+/day) and it’s not like I haven’t finished a novel. (I’ve finished two, so far.) I should have been able to pull this one off handily, right?

Well, I made a few mistakes, so let’s go over them.

  1. I stopped a novel I was already working on to start a new one for Camp NaNoWriMo. Officially, you should be doing a new project for NaNoWriMo (although many of my fellow campers just finished old projects) and so I decided that I’d put my current book #3 on hold to try and whip off Book #4 over July before going back to it. Big mistake! My passion and mental energy was already in Book #3, so shifting gears to Book #4 took a lot of time and all it did was take time and energy away from Book #3.
  2. I tried writing in a completely new genre with Book #4 that I have never written in before and don’t normally read in. I tried to write a fair-play modern mystery novel thinking I’d seen my fair share of episodes of Murder She Wrote, and read more than my fair share of Historical Mysteries. (I love historically set mysteries.) You would think my experience reading Historical Mysteries would translate to writing a modern one, but it didn’t at all. You see, Historicals use the mystery as a device to explore a historical setting and culture like Ancient Japan or Tang Dynasty China, which give them a very different flow and style. Modern Mysteries, on the other hand, are all about the mystery and characters, and often about the troubled dramatic lives of the central character, which is something I’m not used to writing about. (I’m more of a plot/idea/adventure type writer.) So, I went in to a speed-writing competition already hobbled by not knowing my new genre, and not realizing that I didn’t know my new genre well enough. End result was a mess!
  3. Speaking of plot- despite all my talk about preparation and plotting techniques in June, I ended up deciding to just Pants my NaNoWriMo novel. I actually did plot out the mystery side of the story, so I knew what happened and whodunnit, but I didn’t plot anything out about the main character’s journey or the dramatic twists that would happen in the story. I also didn’t think deeply about the characters, as I thought I’d create and explore them as I went. While this was a reasonable approach in theory, in reality it meant that 8000 words in I hit a wall so hard I gave my bruises bruises. The tone was off, things weren’t going anywhere I wanted to go, and every day I spent trying to fix it meant I was falling behind on my word count. Going in without a fairly solid plan of some kind for the overall story was a disaster, and I paid the price for it.

So, the end result of all this was that at 8000 words in, I hit a creative wall and got so frustrated fixing it (and falling behind in word count) I eventually just gave up on the whole thing and quit. Instead, I went back to Novel #3, and found that I was still in love with and it that it flowed much better than Novel #4 ever did. It’s not a modern mystery (it’s a Young Adult Fantasy Novel), but it is something that I feel natural and comfortable writing because it suits me and my style. (As a result, I’ve added almost 12,000 words to it in the last two weeks.)

And I think that’s the key really. If you’re going to do a NaNoWriMo competition:

  1. Write a book you’re passionate about at that time.
  2. Write a story that feels natural for you and your style as a writer.
  3. Plot and plan as much as you can.
  4. Know your characters and their place the in the story beforehand.
  5. Don’t try writing in a genre unless you know it (very) well.

One last thing I discovered about myself is that I’m more of a “little piece at a time” writer, where I write best when I’m slowly working at something a little bit each day. Speed-writing just doesn’t suit me for some reason, at least not at the moment, and I find large writing targets more of a distraction than a benefit. As a result, I don’t think I’ll try NaNoWriMo again, but will instead keep writing in my own way at my own pace. That said, it was totally worth a try, and I would strongly recommend any writer or want-to-be writer give it a go. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and your writing whether you succeed or fail- I know I did!

Structuring Your Story

Today I came across the blog Storyfix, and author Larry Brook’s 10-part Story Structure Series. In it, Brooks lays out his take on the 4-act structure, and presents it in a straightforward and easily useable way for writers of screenplays and novels to make use of when planning their work. Here’s a sample:

Introducing the Four Parts of Story

Some writers like things in nice little boxes.  Others, not so much.  Either way, you can look at your story like a box, of sorts.  You toss in all kinds of stuff – pretty sentences, plot, sub-plot, characters, themes, stakes, cool scenes – then stir it up and hope that somehow, by the grace of God, it all ends up in some orderly fashion that your reader will enjoy.

That’s one way to write a novel or screenplay.  At the very least, you’ll have to pour the box out and start over again, time after time, before any of what’s inside begins to make sense to anyone but you.  You can get there doing it this way… but there’s abetter way.

If fact, if this is how you go about telling your story, you’ll be reorganizing your box, time after time, until you do finally stumble upon the structure you are about to learn here. Or, more likely, you’ll abandon the project altogether, because nobody will buy it until you do.

Tough to hear, but it’s true.

Now think of that box as a vessel holding four smaller boxes.  Which means, things just got clearer, if not easier.  Imagine that each box is different, designed to hold scenes that are categorized and used differently than the other boxes.

In other words, each box has a mission and a purpose unique unto itself.  And yet, no single box contains the whole story.  Only all four, viewed sequentially, do that job.  Each scene you write is in context to whichever box it goes into.

Imagine that these boxes are to be experienced in sequence.  There’s the first box, the next box, the one after that, and then a final box.  Everything in the first box is there to make the other boxes understandable, to make them meaningful.

Everything in the second box is there to make the first box useful by placing what we’ve come to root for in jeopardy.  The first box may not make sense until the second box is opened, and when it is, the reader is in there with your hero.

Everything in the third box takes what the second box presents and ratchets it up to a higher level with a dramatic new context.  By now we are in full rooting mode for the hero of the story.

Everything in the fourth and final box pays off all that the first three boxes have presented in the way of stakes, emotional tension and satisfaction.

The things that go into any given box go only into that box.  Each has its own mission and context, its own flavor of stuff.  Or, more to the point, scenes.

When you lay out the four boxes in order, they make perfect sense.  They flow seamlessly from one to the next, building the stakes and experiences of the previous box before handing it off to the one that follows.

If you take something out of one box and put it into another, the whole thing can go sideways.  Only by observing the criteria and context of each box with your scenes will the entirety of the collective boxes make sense.

When you add something to the mix – when you’re wondering what to write next – you need to put it into the right box or the whole thing will detonate.

Because the box tells you what it needs.  And it will accept nothing else.

And that, folks, is the theory and opportunity of four-part story structure in a nutshell.

It took me about 90 minutes to read the entire series of articles (which are like a condensed 10-chapter textbook on story structure), and I found that even for someone as familiar with story structure as myself it was still an interesting read. Brooks presents his ideas in a clear approachable fashion, and the way he frames and explains his way of structuring a story is insightful.

One thing I got from the article is the realization that I’m what Brooks calls a “Blueprinter”, which is another take on the whole Plotter/Panster dichotomy. A Blueprinter outlines the key elements of the story structure, but not the details, and then just writes the parts in between those key points. So far, that seems to be the best way to write for me, since I like an element of improvisation, but at the same time I need to know where I’m going so I can direct my writing towards that goal. I’m still trying different styles of planning stories, but this resonated as it’s already something I’m doing.

The one critique of this series I have is that I found the articles tent to get less specific and more vague as they go along. The initial articles are pretty solid, but the later ones (like the one on Pinch Points) get extremely unclear as to what exactly he wants the reader to do with this idea. (Short version- Pinch Points are where the audience (but not necessarily the hero) gets to see what the antagonists are really up to and how screwed the protagonist really is, so that we can build tension.)  He also pretty much ignores the whole issue of climax and how the Second Plot Point is a lead-in to that climax. I can forgive some of this because how a story ends can really vary a lot depending on who writes it, and it’s hard to set down hard and fast guidelines, but I have seen other writing instructors (like Blake Snyder) do it better.

Speaking of Snyder, Brooks has his own version of the Beat Sheet to go along with his story structure, which you might find useful to take a look at after you’ve read the articles. (Since it’s a condensed version of that advice.)

In any case, this series is definitely worth reading, especially if you’re someone who has trouble with structure or are trying to figure out the best way for you to plan your work. The way he presents the parts of a story as working together is pretty solid, and I will be taking some of what he says to heart when thinking about and planning my own stories. Overall, I found this series to be an elaboration on Lester Dent’s Formula in many ways, and I think that’s a good thing, since he takes what Dent offers and reframes it in a way that works for stories as a whole, not just pulp adventure works.

Rob

June 2014 Writing Report

A month ago I wrote a post entitled How Much Should You Write a Day, where I talked about a minimalist approach to writing where you aim for a small daily writing goal instead of a larger one to keep word count from becoming a barrier to writing. Saying you want to write 2000/words a day is nice, but it can easily become an obstacle if you start to think it isn’t worth writing unless you have time to achieve that number. So, instead I opted for the smaller 250/words a day as my goal for June.

How did I do?

Well, my total word count for June ended up being 21,478 words of fiction. (Almost all of it on a Young Adult fantasy novel I started at the beginning of June.)

My average word count a day was 704/words a day, with only Seven days have a word count of zero out of the month. (This was mostly due to my dog Penny being spayed and needing constant care for a few days.)

Overall, it turned out to be one of my most productive writing months in almost two years, and the “it’s just 250 words” strategy ended up working perfectly because not only did I feel I could always pull off 250 words, but I never once wrote less than that. Once I was 250 words in, I was always warmed up and wanted to write more, and it tended to be life that made me stop rather than not wanting to write more. The 250/day word count was not only do-able, it was inspiring.

Of course, I should comment that there were a few more factors involved. During June I learned to finally just let myself go, and dump the words on the page whether they were perfect or not. Also, I had an outline to work from, so I never really had to worry about where the story was going so much as what I wanted to do with a particular scene. If I wasn’t sure about a scene, I wrote down something that roughly worked and will go back to fix/replace it during editing and revision. This improved my productivity during the first draft stage immensely, and let me really just tell myself the story.

I also became a Spreadsheet user, after years of resisting tracking my productivity I gave in, and it actually helped a lot more than I expected it to. Seeing those numbers line up for my daily word-counts was a real motivator, and wanting to go as long as I could without a dreaded 0 appearing on the spreadsheet was also a big factor. I took every 0 personally, and it made me really want to write harder to make up for them.

Now, since I’m a masochist, in July I have an even bigger challenge! I’ve signed up to write another book (a mystery) for Camp Nanowrimo, and that will require approximately 1667/words a day for July to complete. Not only that, I still plan to continue my 250/day on my YA novel to keep it from going stale in my head.

Can I pull this off? Well, check back in a month to find out!

By the way, if I don’t post to the blog as much during July, you’ll have to forgive me. I’ll be buried in Camp Nano writing. Gomen!

Rob

Classic 12-Chapter Murder Mystery Formula

(Note: This has been floating around the internet for years, and I don’t know who first wrote it (if anyone does, let me know!) but it’s worth archiving and Camp Nanowrimo starts next week, so here it is.)

The classic mystery is popular fiction which follows a specific formula. Clever writers may try to change the formula, but the most clever will cling to it for a very good reason. They work within the bounds of the formula because it works!

The following outline serves the modern mystery novel, as defined by editors and publishers. A typical story will contain 60,000 to 65,000 words (205 manuscript pages) and will be divided into 12 chapters, each approximately 17 pages in length.

The Classic 12-Chapter Mystery Formula

Act I

Introduction of the crime (mystery) and the sleuth

Chapter 1

A. Disclose the crime and mystery to be solved. The crime must capture the imagination. It should have been committed in an extraordinary way and either the victim the perpetuator, or both, should be unusual. Give the reader enough information about the victim to make them truly care that the perpetrator is found out and that justice is served.

B. Early in the story, clues should be revealed which suggest both physical and psychological aspects of the initial crime. Those clues should point to suspects and motive which will cary the sleuth to the end of Act I. Some clues should point the sleuth in the right direction, others may not be obvious or be recognized as actual clues unto later in the story.

C. Introduce the sleuth who will solve the crime early, and have him or her do or say something very clever or unexpected which will establish that person as unique. Create this character with care. His or her personality should be interesting enough to sustain the interest of the reader to the very last page. (or through an entire series of books). It is not necessary to disclose all aspects of the sleuth’s personality at the onset. Let the description unfold gradually to sustain interest. Do reveal enough background to let the reader understand the world in which the protagonist functions. (Small town sheriff, Scotland Yard detective, Pinkerton agent in the old West, country squire, investigative reporter in New York City, etc.)

D. Ground the reader in the time and place where the crime occurs. It is often useful to include some sort of symbol, an object or a person, in the opening scene which serves as a metaphor for what occurs in the story. The reappearance of this symbol at the conclusion of the story will create a certain organic unity.

E. Begin with a dramatic event. Some writers offer a prologue, describing the execution of the crime in detail, as it occurs, possible from the point of view of the victim or perpetrators. The same information could also be revealed by a character, through dialogue. Sufficient details should be furnished to allow the reader to experience the event as though he or she were actually there. Another good opening would be to put the sleuth in a dire situation and allow detail of the crime to unfold in due course.

Chapter 2

A. Set the sleuth on the path toward solving he mystery. Offer plausible suspects, all of whom appear to have had motive, means and opportunity to to commit the crime. Select the most likely suspects, and have the sleuth question them. One of these suspects will turn out to be the actual perpetrator.

B. At the approximate mid-point of Act 1, something should occur which makes it clear to the reader that the crime is more complicated than originally thought. Hints may be given to allow the reader to actually see possibilities not yet known to the sleuth.

Chapter 3

A. The sub-plot should be introduced. The plot will continue to maintain the progress of the story, but the sub-plot will carry the theme, which is a universal concept to which the reader can identify. Sub-plots tend to originate either in a crisis in the sleuth’s private life, or in the necessity of the sleuth to face a dilemma involving a matter of character, such as courage or honesty.

B. The ultimate resolution of the sub-plot with demonstrate change or growth on the part of the protagonist, and will climatic on a personal or professional level. That climax may coincide with, or occur as prelude to the climax of the main plot. The sub-plot may be a vehicle for a romantic interest or a confrontation with personal demons of the sleuth. The author can manipulate the pace of the novel by moving back and forth between the plot and sub-plot.

Act II

Direct the investigation toward a conclusion which later proves to be erroneous.

Chapter 4

A. Reveal facts about suspects, through interrogations and the discovery of clues.

B. Flight, or disappearance of one or more suspect.

C. Develop a sense of urgency. Raise the stakes or make it evident that if the mystery is not solved soon, there will be terrible consequences.

Chapter 5

A. The investigation should broaden to put suspicion on other characters.

B. Information gathered through interviews or the discovery of physical evidence, should point toward the solution, although the relevance may not yet be apparent.

Chapter 6

A. The sleuth’s background is revealed as the sub-plot is developed. Tell the reader what drives the protagonist, what haunts or is missing in his or her life.

B. Make it clear that the sleuth has a personal stake in the outcome, either because of threat to his or her life, or the possibility of revelation of matters deeply disturbing to the protagonist on an emotional level.

Act III

Change of focus and scope of the investigation. This is the pivotal point in the story where it become evident that the sleuth was on the wrong track. Something unexpected occurs, such as the appearance of a second body, the death of a major suspect, or discovery of evidence which clears the most likely suspect. The story must take a new direction.

Chapter 7

A. Reveal hidden motives. Formerly secret relationships come to light, such as business arrangements, romantic involvement’s, scores to be settled or previously veiled kinships.

B. Develop and expose meanings of matters hinted at in Act I., to slowly clarify the significance of earlier clues.

Chapter 8

A. The sleuth reveals the results of the investigation. The reader, as well as the protagonist and other characters, are given an opportunity to review what is known and assess the possibilities.

B. The solution of the crime appears to be impossible. Attempts to solve the crime have stymied the sleuth. Misinterpretation of clues or mistaken conclusions have lead him or her in the wrong direction, and logic must be applied to force a new way of grasping an understanding of the uncertainties.

Chapter 9

A. Have the sleuth review the case to determine where he or she went wrong.

B. Reveal the chain of events which provoked the crime.

C. The crucial evidence is something overlooked in Act I, which appeared to have been of little consequence at the time it was first disclosed. That evidence takes on new meaning with information disclosed in Act III.

D. The sleuth (and perhaps the reader, if a keep observer) becomes aware of the error which remains undisclosed to the other characters.

Act IV

Solution

Chapter 10

A. The sleuth weighs the evidence and information gleaned from the other characters.

B. Based on what only he or she now knows, the sleuth must seek positive proof to back up the yet undisclosed conclusion.

Chapter 11

A. Resolution of the sub-plot

B. The protagonist, having been tested by his or her private ordeal, is strengthened for the final action leading to the actual solution of the mystery.

Chapter 12

A. The Climax – a dramatic confrontation between the sleuth and the perpetrator in which the sleuth prevails. The more “impossible” the odds have been, the more rewarding the climax will be.

B. Resolution – Revelation of clues and the deductive process which lead to the solution. Establish that the case has been solved and justice has been served to the satisfaction of all involved (except, the villain).

Helping Writers Become Authors

There are a few writers out there for whom the act of structuring and planning a novel is as much joy and fun as the writing of the story itself- K.M. Weiland is one of those writers. She has turned her love of structure and the writer’s craft into not only a blog, but also a video series on YouTube, a podcast and several books, all of them deeply focused on how to make writers produce better work by discussing the many components of a story in great detail. It’s actually quite impressive how she turned her former Wordplay podcast into an actual writer self-help industry unto itself called Helping Writers Become Authors.

I’ve been listening to her Podcast, and I have been quite impressed by the level of thought she puts into each episode (and there are 247 episodes to date!), which have even made me rethink some of my own perspectives on writing. Ms. Weiland has a real passion for the writer’s craft, and seems to be working hard to not only find the best ways to write, but share them with the world. The only criticism I have is that sometimes the podcasts can get a little too abstract, or have a few too many examples for my taste (which can slow the show down), but those are both the result of her depth of study in whatever she’s researching and sharing with her audience.

In any case, if you’re looking for a very focused and practical writing podcast or blog, this might be one worth checking out. She has a lot of useful resources on the blog as well, and even a tutorial for getting the most out of yWriter, the free writing software and structure templates for use with Scrivener.