What Akira Kurosawa can teach us about writing

I recently watched an excellent short analysis of some of director Akira Kurosawa’s film-making techniques by Tony Zhou, and it got me thinking about how we prose writers could apply some of Kurosawa’s techniques to our own work.

So, before we begin, take the time to enjoy Tony’s short 8-minute video. It’s well done, and just watching it makes me want to run out and watch all of Kurosawa’s films just for their sheer artistry and beauty…

Akira Kurosawa – Composing Movement from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

Okay, now you’re up to speed, let’s talk about how some of his key ideas can be applied to writing.

Now, my first takeaway from Kurosawa is the obvious one- nothing in a story should be wasted. Everything down to the last period should be in a story for a reason, and should be working to make that story into the best possible story you can make it. Since as a writer you have absolute control over what’s on that page, and what your reader perceives, you can control what they see much like a camera does, and like Kurosawa you should be using every tool at your disposal to bring your story to life with the greatest effect.

Let’s look at a few specifics:

The Environment

One of the first things Zhou discusses is Kurosawa’s masterful use of the environment- Kurosawa uses it to create both visual stimulation and to show the mental states of characters. While it might be trickier for we prose writers to use the environment to create direct visual stimulation, it’s definitely a good reminder that we shouldn’t underestimate the power of weaving the environment into our writing. It’s very easy to write everything as happening during sunny days and breezy evenings, but aren’t you missing an opportunity if you do so? Think about what environmental conditions could help to push your scene or theme to the next level, and weave them into the story in a way which supports and reinforces the story in some way. Whether it’s swirling fog to represent a character’s confusion, or a distant blazing forest fire that progressively fills the character’s world with smoke and indicates looming trouble, it can only make your story stronger.

Groups

Dealing with groups of people might seem a more visual element than a prose one, but it can still be useful for writers to consider. It’s very easy to picture characters doing things alone or with only the other main characters, but having groups of other people around can help to remind the reader that characters do have a place in society. As with the image of the showgirl crying while the other actresses rush past her from Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949), how groups of people react to a character can very much represent a character’s inner life as well as their greater place in society.

Key Gestures

Kurosawa liked to have each actor take on a unique gesture or way of moving so that the audience would instantly recognize him or her. This isn’t a bad tip for writers in general, either. Just as you can use visual cues like clothing, accessories or appearance to bring your characters to life in the reader’s imaginations, you can use gestures and movement as well. If you give each of the central characters a motion they consciously or unconsciously perform on a regular basis, it acts as another layer of characterization and something to play with. Of course, the gesture shouldn’t be overdone or comical (unless that’s your goal), but if subtly worked in it could reflect a lot about the character and their inner life.

Movement

There are many ways to look at movement and how it could benefit writing prose. The most direct one would be to try to have your characters doing actions or activities in their scenes, which both make the scene a little more lively (avoiding a “staged” feeling) and allows for a lot of subtext where you connect the actions with the inner life of the characters or themes playing out. I can’t recall who it was, but there was a famous author who said that they always started scenes with characters in motion in some way and finished in similar form.

Of course, movement can also be played out with the “camera” of the descriptive prose itself. Looking at description as a camera and thinking through the effects that different “shots” would have like a cinematographer could definitely benefit your writing in subtle ways. For example, did you know that each of the standard camera shots (close up, medium shot, long shot, worm’s eye view, etc) actually have a psychological or emotional effect on how the viewer interprets the character and scene? There is a whole language to film that’s developed over a hundred years and that we learn as children on a subconscious level. Learning the different shots and why directors use them could benefit your writing by letting you tap into that treasure trove of audience psychology.

Regardless of what you decide to use (or not use) from Kurosawa’s approach, thinking through your approach to scenes in a visual or cinematic way can only enhance your final work. However, do remember that the power of prose over video is that it can go deep inside characters and to places that video can’t, and you should be taking advantage of not just the visual and audio, but also the other senses in your scenes as well.

Rob

P.S. Check out Tony Zhou’s other videos, they’re really something else and will give you a new appreciation of the power of film.

Random Dramatic Scene Generator

I’m feeling rather proud at the moment. I managed to code a simple webpage that generates a pair of naturally conflicting characters and an action verb which defines their relationship in that scene, in other words a Random Dramatic Scene Generator.

Of course, by “code” I mean I found an already existing webpage that did something similar, copied pieces of that code and modified it to suit my own purposes. ^_^ So, coding in the truly classic sense!

In any case, I made this page for use by my students in my scriptwriting class since they need to do short 5-minute dramatic scenes for one of their assignments, and I wanted a random way to give them a starting point in their scenes. Of course, it can be used by anyone who needs a quick dramatic situation for their stories as well.

Enjoy!

Rob

Good Advice from Author Scott Sigler about Writing Your First Novel

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. When I have time, 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