The writer’s toolbox (iii)

In my last two blogs I covered two of my favourite tools that I use for writing novels.

  • Scrivener — my go to software for researching, planning, writing and book formatting software. Scrivener has virtually everything you need to plan, produce and publish your novel. It’s a very powerful application, but it takes time to learn just the basics of the program. However making that time investment is well worth the effort.
  • Plottr — a relatively new visual planning tool that lets you quickly map out the story’s timeline.

And in a previous blog I covered ProwritingAid, which is wonderful application to help editing drafts that identifies poor grammar, inconsistencies, punctuation and style errors.

But these are by no means the only software I use for writing. Scrivener is great if you’re writing a novel length book. But if you just want to write a blog, or some advertising blurb, then it’s not necessary the right tool for the job. I have a number of wordpocessors that can do those kinds of jobs quickly and more efficiently:

Ulysses — a powerful wordpocessor in it’s own right with some of the functionality of Scrivener, but without the same level of complexity. Some authors use it for novel writing. I like to use it’s markdown features and preview the output with Marked 2 (a markdown previewer).

iA – another powerful word processor that uses markdown and has it’s own inbuilt markdown reviewer. It also has clever filters for syntax and style, which can be useful when editing.

Pages –again another powerful word processor from Apple. These days I tend to use it only when I need to edit word.docx files. I also have Microsoft’s Word on a separate PC, but find it easier to use Pages on my iMac than firing up my old PC.

Hemmingway — a great little app for editing small amounts of text.

So these are the main software applications I use for writing and the applications I am most comfortable with and which work for me. They are by no means the only choices a new writer faces. And I would suggest you look around a find what suits you best. I’m not going to review every single choice, but some are well worth a mention here.

The Novel Factory — this is an integrated application that gives a step-by-step guide to writing a novel.

There are a number of applications like this on the market, but this in my view is one of the best. It has a planning section which build the core idea into an outline. It has plot outlines for popular genres, including romance, thriller and the hero’s journey. It has a detailed character development section. And it has drag and drop tools for planning and editing.

But what I like most about the application is the workflow design that takes you through each stage of writing and which is supported by comprehensive explanatory videos. If you’re new to writing, then you’ll find these videos excellent. If you’re an experienced writer like me, then you’ll probably think why did I not find something like this 10 years ago. It would have saved a huge amount of research of the methodology of writing. But for the experienced writer the benefits are small.

Dabble — this an on-line planning and writing application. It’s marketing line is “It’s like Scrivener. Minus the learning curve.” And to be fair it lives up to its marketing line. It has similar planning and writing functions of Scrivener, without the complexity of book formatting. It’s therefore a writing system to produce a draft manuscript. The good news is it will take less than fifteen minutes to work out how the system works. It’s simplicity itself. And it has a great plotting tool. It has a free trial period and is worth taking a look at. The drawback is that it is priced on a monthly subscription service.

Wavemaker — this is a free novel writing application by Iain Wood, which you can support by donation or simply by spreading the word about the app. It’s similar to Dabble and has some clever planning tools. It’s worth taking a look at.

Vellum — This is a dedicated ebook and print book formatting application that produces beautiful eBooks and print books from a word.docx file. Some writers use Scrivener from planning and drafting a book and then use Vellum as a book formatter (rather than Scrivener’s own formatting features). The drawback is the cost, $249.99 from Printbooks and $199.99 for Ebooks.

I hope these three blogs help you understand the needs of a novel writer. Writers generally need software tools for a number of reasons: holding research information, planning and outlining, writing and editing, and formatting files for publication. Scrivener has features that cover all these areas from end to end. But some applications that cover less than the same spectrum are more effective at their chosen elements. As with all software it comes down to personal choice and preference over which combination of software works for you.

The Writer’s Toolbox (ii)

In last month’s blog, I looked at Scrivener, the primary tool I use for writing and publishing. This month I want to look at another tool, which is relatively new– Plottr.

Plottr, is essentially a time line planning tool. It allows you to quickly map out a story’s timeline with scene cards. It also allows you to see the same timeline through an outline format.

Screenshot 2020-07-25 at 13.52.23

So why would you need Plottr? I asked myself the same question. I’ve got Scrivener, which can switch between cork board, outline, and text modes. And I already have Plot Control, a sophisticated screenwriting tool, which does the same thing over a 3-Act Structure. So why do I need Plottr? Well, the answer is I saw a demonstration and was immediately hooked.  What impressed me was how easy it was to create scenes and plot lines, insert new scenes and chapters, and move them around with drag and drop. And scrolling along the time lines is so easy. There is also a vertical format, if you prefer, with a simple click.

You can create as many plot lines as you like. In my current novel, I am using three lines: The Main Plot Line, The Internal Plot Line, and The Antagonists Plot Line, so I can see how each develops over the course of the story. But you can have as many as you like. If you prefer you could have a plot line for each main character. Or you can see different units to mark out the time line other than chapters. For example, Acts or sequences. It’s up to you how you want to work.

Screenshot 2020-07-25 at 14.34.21

And it also has sections for Notes, Characters and Places to identify with the scenes, with standard templates if you want to use them. As you can see from the screenshot. I don’t map out a lot of detail for the characters. In my current project I already know my characters well and have written a considerable amount of the text. So I’ve been using Plottr primarily as a tool to analyse the different plot lines and scene structure. It’s been helpful.

Overall, Plottr is clever tool for doing what ifs in story development and exploring different ideas before committing further effort to writing. And it has the ability to export a .docx file, which means you can  can import into Scrivener the chapter and scene structure. As an initial planning tool it gets my vote.

The writer’s toolbox

In this blog I want to look at Scrivener — a software tool that changed my life as a writer, and which today I couldn’t do without.

What does a novelist or writer need in order to write? Comparatively little. Remember Shakespeare only needed a quill, ink and paper. And he did quite well with those tools. Some of our greatest writers of our time used only pen and paper. But today there are so many great tools we can use that make the process so much easier. So I’m always on the lookout for new technology that might make the process simpler and more efficient.

What is Scrivener? Well, you could call it a word processor, and it has all the functionality of a word processor, but lots more. What I love about it is that manages your manuscript in a different way to that of a traditional word processors, by breaking the manuscript down into manageable chunks — scenes, chapters and parts.

Each scene has a scene card associated with it, where you can use a heading and couple of lines of text indicate the contents of the scene on the card. And Scrivener allows you to toggle between, viewing scene cards (like a cork board), as traditional outline format, or as a continuous manuscript of the full text. Thus Scrivener encourages you to write in a scene structured way. And if you decide to change the order of the scenes you can simply drag and drop them into the new order. So as you write you can stand back from the detail to view the scene cards, or outline, to give you a helicopter view of your story structure.

Could you do the same thing in Word or some other word processor. Yes, possibly. But you might need to create perhaps up to 80 separate files for each scene and keeping track of them might be a nightmare. With Scrivener you can move from one scene to another in a click, and move scenes around just by dragging and dropping them.

You can also operate with a split screen, where you can have two scenes open on screen at the same time. So you could refer to your earlier scene as you write. Or you could use one of those screens to show your character and location templates or other research information in your research files.

There are also some important features about text handling, such as automatic backups of files. There is also an ability to take snapshots before editing a scene. So you can compare the edited version against the original, or rollback later if you’re not happy with the edit. Another feature is a floating scratch book that allows you to take notes as you go along. And there is an ability to attach notes, and labels to each scene card. For example, you might label each scene by the point of view (POV) character. This would enable you to view a collection of scenes as one document for each POV character.

Once you have completed your manuscript you can compile these scenes together and output the detail to a variety of different formats including, html, rtf, docx, doc, pdf, mobi and epub formats as required.

I could go on and on about the detailed features of Scrivener. There are many. And there are many good reviews of the software on the internet. But if you are interested it would make more sense to take up the free trial and look for yourself. There are also lots of you-tube videos that will give you a start on how to use it.

Are there any downsides to this software? If you want to use some of the most powerful features of the software then there is a learning process. And I’ve heard that some writers have been turned off by this. All I can say is in my case it was well worth the effort. I’ve been using Scrivener now since 2011 and I’ve published three eBooks and print books using it.

In the next blog, I will look at some of the other technology aids a writer can use to make themselves more efficient.

 

Eliminating the saggy middle

Choosing a topic for this month’s blog was a difficult choice. During the month I finally managed to see the Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker and commenting on the unbelievable bizarre ending could easily fill at least one blog post on story design. But I don’t like to give negative reviews and there are more than enough from the Star Wars fanbase already. So I decided to focus of something a little different and much less high profile to illustrate some story design points.

salvationSalvation is a 26 episode (two season) sci-fi drama on Netflix, which I recently binge watched. The critics of Wrotten Tomatoes rated it only 44%. The audience score was higher at 88%. IMDB gave it 7/10. One critic described it as “40% romantic drama with 30% sci-fi, 30% political thriller and expect 5/10 from all three genres, you will not go crazy and may even enjoy the fast ride.”  I can understand the criticism. It is an almost comic-book plot line. But if you’re prepared to suspend disbelief and put up with a little melodrama, it is a rip-roaring ride. And as a writer it’s an object lesson in how to write tension and suspense.

The log line for the drama is innocent enough: “An MIT student and a tech superstar bring a low level Pentagon official a staggering discovery — that an asteroid is just six months away from colliding with Earth.”

Now, if you were developing a story from this premise for a novel, where would you go? There is clearly a protagonist Darius Tanzanites (an Elon Musk-like tech superstar) and his protege MIT student (Liam Cole), who discover the problem.  And then there is an obvious antagonist (the asteroid) but what next?

Well, the two have to convince those around the president of the problem and then devise a plan to deal with it. But in this case, the Secretary of Defence already knows about the problem, and they have a plan to deal with it. At his point I would most certainly struggle with the story. The first Act of the story is easy — introduce the characters and the problem they face. Act Three is also relatively easy — write the climax and resolution of the story. But what happens in the long Act 2? This is where most writers find the greatest difficulty. How do you stop the storyline sagging in the middle?

With this story premise I would struggle in the second act of a novel. But writing a 26 episode series would be a massive challenge. So what did the writers do to maintain the story tension?

The answer lies in a plethora of sub-plots (or perhaps more precisely parallel plots) and an array of new antagonists to frustrate the protagonist. So here is a list of some of the sub-plots the writer’s used to give you a clue.

First there are the romantic conflict sub plots.

  • Darius’s romantic interest is with Grace Barrows –the Pentagon  press secretary– who is also romantically involved with Harris Edwards (Assistant Secretary of Defence).
  • Liam’s romantic interest is with  Jillian Hays — a sci-fi writer later who is later employed by Darius. But he is also later involved with Alycia Vrettou (who works for the terrorist hackers organisation RE/SYS)
  • Grace ‘s daughter and Harris’s son.

There are some parental-child conflict sub plots

  • Harris and his son (who belongs to RE/SYS, a terrorist hacker group)
  • Grace and her daughter (Who belongs to Cope, a suicide cult).

But the most intriguing subplots are the political ones:

  • A coup to poison the the president President and replace her with the Vice President.
  • A plot by the coup group to destroy the USA’s enemies (Russia and China) by redirecting fragments of the astroid towards them using stolen Tanz Industries technology.
  • Another plot to shoot the President.
  • A Russian plot to steal Darius’s em drive to be used to move the Astroid off course.
  • A plot by terrorist hackers RE/SDYS to start a nuclear war and take over control of Russian nuclear missiles to threaten the USA.
  • A plot by Darius’ uncle to take over his company and Darius’s pet Salvation project.
  • A plot by a suicide cult called Cope to destroy Darius’s rail gun.
  • A plot by Darius/Grace to steal uranium from the US Government for his Salvation space ship backup plan (a rocket to take 160 people to survive the Earth’s demise).

We also have a long list of new antagonists to frustrate the storyline:

  • Malcolm Croft, Liam’s professor at MIT who is also a Russian agent.
  • Claire Rayburn, Senior Advisor to the White House Chief of Staff, who in cahoots with Vice President to poison the president.
  • Monroe Bennet — Vice President who leads a coup against the the incumbent president and later seeks to blow up the Supreme Court judges.
  • Nicholas Tanz — Darius’s uncle who plots to get Darius’s company and the Salvation rocket in cahoots with Bass Shepherd.
  • Bass Shepherd— the leader of a suicide cult, Cope, who plots to destroy Darius’s rail gun.
  • Dylan Edwards (Harris Edwards’ son) who  is involved with the terrorist group RE/SYS and while naive and well intentioned is prepared to destroy New York to get the US government to obey their demands.
  • Amanda Neel — an investigative reporter that concentrates on collusion between Tanz industries and the government withholding information.

And we have some characters that act as both helpers and antagonists at different time  as the plot enfolds. These I call changelings:

  • Alonzo Carter — a D.C . Police Officer who seeks revenge for his sister’s death (Claire Rayburn who is shot by Grace Barrows), but later turns good guy to help Grace.
  • Alycia Vrettou — Darius’s former protege that turned against him to work for a terrorist group RE/SYS, but who eventually helps Darius.
  • Jillian Hayes –Liam’s romantic interest that is caught into the Cope suicide cult, who steals the Rail Gun plans for the cult, but who eventually comes to her senses.
  • Liam Cole— who for a time he abandons Darius to work with RE/SYS to save the planet. But eventually realises that Darius is the only one that can save the world.

For those of you who haven’t seen the series the list of sub-plots and antagonists above must sound pretty crazy. The political aspects alone could have made a good thriller on their own. The sci-if in some respects were largely incidental. And of course there is a wonderful twist ending to the series, which I won’t reveal here.

So if you’re a writer like me that struggles in the long second act to keep the tension going, then the most interesting tool in your writer’s toolbox is to introduce new antagonists with their own sub plots to freshen up the story line. Maybe this is obvious to you, but it wasn’t to me. In many action adventure stories you have one ‘Big Bad’ villain character and maybe a henchman or two. Think Emperor Palpatine and Dark Vader. But if you look more closely at these stories there are other antagonists that frustrate and deflect the path of the hero’s journey. Not all antagonists are villainous and some are changelings. But they are needed in the storyline to complete the picture.

Tell me, do you suffer from saggy middles? And if so, would another antagonist help to complete your story?

Finding a story from chaos

collieOne of the tasks I have been putting off for some time is a limited re-edit of my debut novel, Collision. After its release in 2012, I noticed some irritating typos had crept into the final proof. Well, as you can see it’s taken me quite some time to get around to doing it. But now it’s done.

One of the great advantages of using Amazon and Kindle is that it is possible to re-upload the text files and make corrections like this. So for the past few days I been re-reading and re-editing my original work and uploaded the revision to Amazon today. The process has been illuminating for me in many ways.

Let me explain some of the background to my novel. I had written books before Collision, but they were all dry technical accounting texts, which I suspect no one reading this would ever want to read unless they suffered from insomnia. Writing fiction was going to be a huge challenge for me and I had no idea whether I could do it.

I had snippets of a story in my head. A man is jogging alone along a beach at night when a UFO flies over his head and crashes further up the beach. It was going to be  a love story. That’s about as much as I had of the story at the start of the project. Twenty months later I published the novel on Kindle. In between, I learnt a huge amount about the world of writing and story telling. And if I had known at the beginning what I know now, I would have probably gone about it in an entirely different way.

What struck me on re-reading the novel so many years later was just how good the storyline turned out. I did some limited planning at the start, but the final story was far more complex than I ever imagined at the outset. And it wasn’t something I could have planned in that level of detail. Instead, it emerged by itself out of constant rewrites, revisions and incremental changes. As a writer, I’m a planner/plotter at heart rather than a ‘pantser’. But like one famous general once said ‘no plan survives engagement with the enemy’. I plan, but if something doesn’t work, I replan. And so the Collision story is very much the product of a somewhat chaotic trial an error process of finding the story.

Since Collision I have written two further sci-fi novels: “Alien Hothouse” and “AndroDigm Park 2067”. Both these novels were the result of painstaking planning and certainly didn’t take as long to write as Collision. But neither has been as successful as Collision or attracted the same quality of reviews. Maybe this is partly because the stories are very different and attract different tastes. But I suspect it might be something else.

For a good story to emerge from a writing project you need to challenge it, revise it, test it until the story works. It’s a painful process of destruction and creation that isn’t easy. Writer’s are often told to ‘kill their darlings’ during the editing process. To be successful the killing has to get bloody. Maybe the reason Collision was good was because so many scenes were cut, or revised or replaced by new ones. And maybe it was because I wouldn’t publish until I was absolutely sure I had a story that worked emotionally.

I’m sure every writer is attached emotionally to their debut novel. If I wrote Collision again today I’m sure I could improve on the execution of the writing. But writing isn’t just about technique. Readers don’t have favourite writers based on how they construct their grammar. They relate to the emotional content of their writing. And that depends on how they connect to the main character and the emotional journey that character takes during the story.

If you are a writer, let me know whether you feel the same way about your debut novel. And if you’re still in the process of writing your first novel, let me know how well you really understood the story before starting.

 

Daydeam Believer

Not many people are old enough to remember Daydream Believer. It was a single released by the Monkees in 1968 with lead singer Davy Jones and headed the US charts for four weeks. It’s a catchy tune, with cryptic lyrics about a daydream believer and his homecoming queen. But I can still remember the chorus.

Why do I start this blog reminiscing over the a 60’s pop song? I wasn’t even a serious Monkees fan. Well, it’s because all creative writers need to become in some respects daydreamers. Our best ideas come to us when we daydream and often when we least expect it — in the shower, before we fall asleep, on a walk in the countryside, or listening to music. Basically, it’s when are brains are in neutral and they allowed to drift away.

Often a single idea can form the catalyst for a story. In Hollywood, this is often expressed as a log-line. For example: A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea. Any guesses which movie this inspired? It’s not that difficult — Titanic.

Whether you’re a novelist or a screenwriter, the nuts and bolts of your writing will come from your imagination. Those ideas can come from anywhere. The skill of the writer is to harness them.

TitanicBut a single idea doesn’t make a story. A story has to be developed and that requires a succession of ideas. We know the story of Titanic is about two lovers meeting on the ill fated Titanic. So that gives us some historical perspective in terms of facts and the pattern of events. We know the vessel sinks! But we’re really concerned about the love story and how it enfolds.

Often we can use a series of questions to help us develop that story line. For example, we have a young man and woman from different social classes. So which one is from a higher class than the other? How do they meet? Why are they onboard the vessel? What are they looking for? What brought them there to that moment in time? And what do they expect to happen when they arrive in America? Who are the other characters onboard? What do they want? And how do their motives conflict with our lovers? And so on…

So we are now beginning to develop a story line for the two characters (Jack and Rose) and an antagonist (Rose’s fiancé Caledon Hockley). But we still don’t have enough to fill a 194 minute movie or a 400 page novel. We still need a lot more ideas.

Let’s look at some of the ideas the writers actually used. In the movie, Jack and Rose meet when she is contemplating suicide (unusual).  They fall in love (that’s the easy part). Jack is a poor artist and draws a nude sketch of her wearing the Heart of the Ocean necklace. And Jack is later accused of stealing the necklace.

How did the writers find these ideas? Obviously they needed to create conflict and tension between the lovers and Rose’s fiancé. And one question might be how to we create this conflict. But the ideas themselves don’t automatically flow from the Titanic story, they flow from the creative imagination of the writers.

How does the movie start? Again the writers start the movie in 1996 with Broch Lovell, a treasure hunter, and his team searching for the wreck of the Titanic and a rare diamond necklace (The Heart of the Ocean). What made them think of the diamond necklace? Hitchcock once talked about the importance of a McGuffin (an object of desire) in movies. Not all movies have a McGuffin, but they can be very useful. The McGuffin is something the story is built around, but is not what the story is really about. Titanic is love story — the diamond necklace is just device in the story to create conflict between the characters.

Interestingly, most of the movie is set in flashback. Again the choice of how to deliver the story is interesting.

So could you have written Jack and Rose’s story from the original log-line? Perhaps not the same way James Cameron developed it. But maybe something like it. It’s a love story and I’m sure there are different ways that story could have been portrayed. Switch the characters around — make Jack the aristocrat and Rose the fiancée of an Irish emigrant. There are hundreds of ways to write this tragic love story. All you need is to do daydream.

So what have you daydreamed about recently that might make a good story?

Structure and character arc

Some writers don’t like the idea of story structure and reject it on the grounds that any such approach would be too rigid for them. Structures like the Hero’s Journey, the Three-Act structure, and the Sequence Method may appeal to some writers,  but not all. But even if you don’t like to write in a structured manner, understanding the rhythms and patterns of stories can provide an insight into understanding the basics of why a story works or doesn’t work.

Recently I have been looking at ways to simplify the approach and connect more with character arc. Here is my simplification which is loosely based on a Three-Act Structure, but without drawing too much attention to the three Acts. Those familiar with the Three-Act Structure will see which blocks fit into each Act, but for now I want to concentrate on the different types of narrative that fit naturally together in a pattern.

The light blue narratives are the setup and main action sequences in the story. The dark blue narratives are the important Plot Points through the story, all of which are outside the control of the Main Character (“MC”). The yellow narratives are periods of reflection when we see into the MC’s persona. Examples and references to Star Wars used below are to Star Wars New Hope.
outlineThe Setup is where the MC is introduced in his ordinary world. We see why we should empathise with him/her as well as their faults and desires.  We may also see or glimpse the antagonist and the ‘McGuffin’ or ‘Object of Desire’, if any. (Eg. the Plans to the Death Star.)

The Catalyst, or Call to Adventure, is the big event that starts the main conflict of the story running. (Eg. In Star Wars,  Luke gets the message from Princess Leia ‘Help me Obi-Wan’.)

After the Catalyst the MC may try to avoid dealing with the new situation or may seek help. (E.g. Luke initially rejects Obi-Wan’s offer to go to Mos Eisley Spaceport.)

Plot Point 1 is a major shock that forces the MC to act. (Eg. Luke finds his uncle and aunt killed and farm torched and goes on the quest with Obi-Wan.)

The first part of Act 2 is taken up by a series of action sequences where the MC is reacting to the new situation.

At the Mid Point the MC may be subject to a new shock or revelation that complicates his/her quest or throws the story into a new direction. (Eg. The Millennium Falcon is caught in the death Star’s tractor beam.)

The Mid Point shock may force the MC to re-examine his commitment to the quest and strengthen his/her resolve. (Eg. Luke finds that Princess Leia is about to be executed and commits to rescuing her.)

The second part of Act 2 is an action sequence about the execution of the MC’s new plan.  (E.g. Luke, Han and Chewbacca rescue the princess and escape the Death Star).

Plot Point 2 is another devastating event that affects the MC. (Eg. Obi-Wan is Killed by Darth Vader).

Sometimes after Plot Point 2, the MC retreats into self examination — the dark night of the soul. (Eg. In Star Wars, this is merely a brief moment of pain for Luke, but it has a profound effect on him).

At the end of the dark night of the soul, the MC usually discovers what he/she needs to do to succeed. (In Star Wars, the ‘discovery’ is the  Death Star’s weakness.)

The final action sequence takes us into he Third Act. It is the final attempt by the MC to complete his/her quest, but there is a new goal. (Eg. In Star Wars, it is to destroy the Death Star.)

Often there will be a Twist before the climax. (Eg. In Star Wars, Luke is at the mercy of Darth Vader, when Hans Solo returns in the Millennium Falcon to save him.)

The Climax is the ‘obligatory scene’ which finally resolves the story. (Eg. when Luke destroys the Death Star.)

The Aftermath is the scene the shows what life is like after the resolution and how the MC has changed. (In Star Wars, it is the scene when Luke, Hans and Chewbacca are given medals. Luke has changed from from farm boy to hero.)

So how is this different from some of my previous blogs I hear you ask — the narrative is pretty much the same? That’s right. But what the analysis shows is that there is a natural pattern that alternates between action scenes/sequences and more reflective scenes/sequences. The yellow text is pretty much where we see the Main Character changing during the course of the story.  That isn’t to say that there are no reflective moments in the blue narrative — there will be. But what the diagram shows is that structure is not just about plot, it’s also about the character arc of the main character.

It also illustrates the importance of pacing. You can’t have a story being just about action sequences. The audience or reader needs time to relax and reflect just like the main character. Stories therefore have to have a natural rhythm to them that alternate between action sequences and reflective scenes that show character insight. I hope the diagram shows that.

Tell me what you think.

 

Heroes and Villains

After the Christmas break, it’s been difficult for me to get back into a writing routine again. Not that I ever switch off completely from the writing process — I’m always thinking about my current novel and where the story is heading. And that’s just as important as time spent at the keyboard. But one the things I did over the Christmas break was to spend a lot of time with my family binge watching the NetFlix series “Once Upon a Time”.  Apart from being highly addictive and entertaining series, it is also a great way to study character development of heroes and villains.

For those of you that haven’t watched the series, I will try to avoid spoilers. All the characters are taken from fairy stories such as Snow White, Peter Pan, Aladdin, Cinderella Rumpelstiltskin, Frozen, Wicked and some stories not-so fairytale such as Doctor Jekyl and Mr Hyde and Frankenstein.

The story starts in the real world of Storybrooke, which is inhabited by fantasy characters who have been transported from their fantasy realms  (the Enchanted Forest, Neverland, Oz, etc.) and have lost their memory due to a curse. Only Henry, a young boy knows their true origin.

What makes “One Upon a Time” different is the characters are nothing like their traditional storybook characters. Peter Pan is quite evil; the Evil Queen, and Captain Hook are bad guys struggling to reform; and some of the good guys end up doing some evil things. It’s as though everything you expect from a fairy tale is turned on its head. It’s a fast action series with rapid plot development, and as the series unfolds we begin to  learn about the backstories of the characters, why they developed their evil traits, and perhaps why they deserve a second chance. As we discover, one of the themes is that not no one is all-bad or for that matter all-good. Everyone deserves a chance at a happy ending. One of the fantasy tropes is that magic always has consequences — they must pay a price for its use. So, sometimes a character’s actions backfire on them.

evilWatching the series reminded me of Sacha Black’s book  on “How to craft Superbad Villains – 13 Steps to Evil.” I read her book some time ago and it impressed me at the time. As writers, we love our heroes, and part of delivering an emotional rewarding story is working on the hero’s character arc — what they learn from their experiences and how they change as a consequence. But do we give enough attention to the villain of the story?

Of course, not all stories will have a villain. Most stories will have an antagonists that stands in the way of the hero reaching his goal. Otherwise there is no tension and conflict. But an antagonist doesn’t have to be evil or acting with evil intent. He/she maybe acting with the best of motives providing their goals conflict with those of the hero.

However, a villainous antagonist is a great plot device for showcasing the hero’s courage and abilities. What would Batman be with Joker or Penquin? How can a hero be a superhero without a supervillain who’s at least as powerful as the hero? If the hero does not struggle for success, why should we care what happens to them? Villains should therefore be be strong and resourceful.

We all do things for a reason and a villain is no different. A villain will have a goal — what he wants to achieve or destroy — and he/she will have a reason or motive for wanting it. Just like the hero, the stronger that desire the more difficult it will be to defeat them and the more tension there will be in the story.

And if you know the source of that character’s desire then it will help to understand their behaviour. The things that most shape us most in life are the experiences that have the biggest impact on us. Sacha Black describes these as ‘soul scars’. Although these experiences help to form our personality, it is how we react to them that defines who and what we become.

Sacha Black explains that a ‘complex’ is a pattern of experiences that from in a person’s unconscious mind and influences future behaviour, attitudes and thoughts. To understand a villain’s complex you need to understand their soul scars, negative traits, and values.  Yes — even villains have values although their response to breaches of these values (eg loyalty) may be violently disproportionate. From the villain’s perspective their behaviour is quite normal and logical. For example, the Evil Queen’s mother describes love as a weakness and if you are a power-seaking evil guy maybe there is some truth in that. The Villain is the hero of their very own story. It’s just their behaviour seen through the hero’s eyes is seen quite differently.

What ultimately separates the villain from the hero are the decisions and choices they make. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the villain Belloq tells Indiana Jones that they are much alike. They are both archaeologists with a passion for antiquities. But of course they are the not the same because Belloq resorts to working with the Nazis to find the Ark of the covenant — something Indiana Jones would never do. Actions and behaviour are therefore what ultimately defines our characters and whether they are a hero or villain.

Story structure

In recent months, I have done far more reading than writing, much to the detriment of progress on my latest novel. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed catching up on the works of other Sci-Fi writers from whom I can learn a lot, and I have enjoyed re-reading  some of the technical screenwriting material on the subject of story structure.

Story structure has always fascinated me. I have a small library on the subject. Movies and novels have a lot in common — they are both about story telling although they use different media. Much of the science behind story structure is provided by the screenwriting movie gurus, who have sought to capture the DNA of what makes a good story. They all have their own particular methodologies and terminology, but in practice they are looking at the same story model from different viewpoints, and they have more in common than they would care to admit. Whether it is a three-act structure, a four-act structure, a six-act structure, a 15-step beat sheet, or a sequence method (such as the Mini-Movie Method), they all are trying to capture the same thing — breaking down the narrative structure of a story into its essential logical elements.

Let’s start with the simplest version — the Three Act Structure, which can be traced back to Aristotle, but became firmly established in the early days of the movie industry. The approach was popularised by Syd Field in his books on screenplay. The paradigm is as follows:

Syd field paradigm

According to Syd Field the narrative of a story can be broken down into three elements:  the Setup, where the characters are introduced, the setting explained and the story premise is established; the Confrontation where the hero battles to reach his goal; and the Resolution of the story. Each act is separated by a plot point that precedes the Act change. Syd Field defines a Plot Point as a story progression point being — “any incident, episode, or event that hooks into the action and spins it around into another direction”.

Eric Edson takes a narrower view describing Plot Point I as a “Stunning Surprise 1” that requires the following elements:

  1. It must happen to no one but the hero and create a life changing emotional impact.
  2. It must take place in an instant.
  3. It must truly shock and surprise the hero.
  4. It must fundamentally change the hero’s circumstances.
  5. It changes the hero’s destiny.
  6. It tells the audience what the movie action will be about.

I like Eric Edson approach, which focuses on the plot point as an event that hits the hero like a punch. Other gurus have focused on the decision or action taken by the hero as a result of the event. For example, some gurus label this moment “the Decision”, “the Commitment”, “the Door”, “Crossing the threshold” or “the Break into 2”.  However, the timing difference between the event, and subsequent decision/action taken by the hero is usually quite minimal.

In Star Wars New Hope, Luke hears the message from Princess Leia conveyed by R2D2, “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” This is the Catalyst of the story, which is also known as the “Call to adventure”, “the Inciting Incident”, “the Disturbance”, or “the Opportunity”. It is the point where the the hero becomes involved in the central story problem. Later in Star Wars, Obi-Wan tries to convince Luke to go with him to Alderaan. But Luke refuses the call. And later Luke stumbles on a Jawa massacre and realises the Imperial Stormtroopers are searching for the droids. He races home to warn his aunt and uncle, but finds them dead and the farm torched. This is Plot Point I where Luke is so shaken to the core by what he sees.  He says “there’s nothing for me here now” and sets out with Obi Wan to go to Mos Eisley Spacepor to find passage to Alderaan.

Eric Edson describes Plot Point II as “Stunning Surprise 2” which serves a similar purpose to Stunning Surprise 1, but with a twist. It comes out of the blue at the end of Act 2 and changes everything, destroying the hero’s plan for victory. It is also called the “all is lost moment” and can lead to soulful moment called the hero’s “darkest hour”.

In Star Wars New Hope, Plot Point II is when Luke is about to escape in the Millennium Falcon from the Deathstar he witnesses Darth Vader striking down Obi-Wan. Luke subsequently succeeds in getting the plans to the rebels’ base, but the story is not over. Act 3 sees a new phase of the story with the attack on the Deathstar and resolution of the story.

Syd Field noted that the Mid Point of a movie normally has a ‘centrepiece’, which is often a culmination of an action sequence, a major new revelation, or a reversal and an important moment of character change.

The Mid Point is not necessarily just one scene, but is a gathering of scenes with several important functions. It is a structural crossroads: the possible culmination of a false victory or false defeat from a major action sequence that precedes it, a new revelation that raise the stakes, and the moment of truth for the hero. It is the time the Hero understands for the first time what he is really up against. He has reached the point of no return and must become fully committed to the quest.

The Mid Point also neatly divides Act 2 into two different “Dramatic contexts”. For example, the first half of Act 2 of Star Wars is all about Luke and Obi-Wan going to Mos Eisley spaceport in order to find passage to Alderaan. At the Mid Point they find that Alderaan has been destroyed and they are caught in a tractor beam of the the Deathstar. The second half of Act 2 is about rescuing Princess Leia, who they find is scheduled for execution, and escaping the Deathstar.

Now let’s put some more plot points on the diagram: the Catalyst and the Climax. As already explained, the Catalyst in Star Wars New Hope is when Luke gets Leia’s message from R2D2 “Help me Obi-wan…” The Climax is when Luke uses the force to target the Deathstar and destroy it.

We now have five plot points, which break down the story into six stages as follows:

Hauge

This is broadly the six stage approach advocated by Michael Hauge. The six stages are:

  1. Setup – the story setting and the every day life of the hero. It ends with Turning Point 1, which Hauge calls the “Opportunity” (a.k.a the Catalyst).
  2. New Situation –  the hero reacts to the new situation by trying to figure out what’s going on. It ends with Turning Point 2 which Hague calls the “Change of Plans” (a.k.a Plot Point I)
  3. Progress – the hero makes some progress towards his goal. It ends with turning point 3  which Hauge calls the “Point of No Return” (a.k.a. Mid Point).
  4. Complications and Higher Stakes – the hero’s obstacles become more difficult until he hits turning point 4 , which Hauge calls the “Major Setback” (a.k.a Plot Point II).
  5. The Final Push – beaten and battered the hero risk everything in a final push. It ends with the Turning Point 5 – – the Climax to the story.
  6. Aftermath — we see the hero now have complete his journey and transformed by the process.

As you can see, this approach breaks down the story into more manageable chunks of narrative. Hauge also uses the same stages to identify the character arc of the hero. So there is both an outer journey and inner journey for the hero.

The Second Act of a movie is approximately an hour long and in the case of a novel, possibly 200 pages of narrative — a large chunk of narrative. An approach that breaks down the narrative even further is the Sequence Approach.

Script reader Pro describes a sequence as “… a collection of scenes roughly tied together by a singular goal and that results in a specfic outcome that changes the protagonist’s chances of achieving the overall movie goal either for the better or worse.”

Chris Soth describes his mini-movie in a similar way as “a series of scenes defined by its own mini-tension on which the main tension of the story rides.” In this respect “tension” is the effect the story has on the audience’s hopes and fears that the hero will or will not achieve their story goal. Both definitions are therefore about a hero pursuing a goal related to the overall story goal.

A sequence has its own beginning, middle and end, where the hero pursues a goal until he either achieves it, fails, or gives it up and follows a new one.

The Mini-movie or 8 Sequence Method can be illustrated as follows:

Sequences

To arrive at an 8 sequence model we need only include the sequence climaxes — S1 and S2 — to break up the narrative into 8 components.

Sequences A, B, G and H are broadly the same as Hauge’s Stages I, II, V, and VI.

In the Star Wars New Hope movie, sequence C takes place at Mos Eisley Spaceport and culminates with the shoot out as the Luke and friends escape in the Millennium Falcon.

The next sequence D ends at the Mid Point with the Millennium Flacon caught in a tractor beam from the Deathstar.

Sequence E starts with Luke and friends hiding of the Millennium Falcon and finishes when R2D2 finding out that Princess Leia is onboard and scheduled for execution.

Sequence F begins with Luke convincing Han Solo and Wookie to rescue Princess Leia and finishes at the same times as Act 2 with the Obi-Wan being struck down by Darth Vader.

Does there have to be 8 sequences? No. It just seems to happen that most 2 hour movies fall into eight sequences of approximately 15 minutes, but some are longer and some shorter. The first Act normally has have 2-3 sequences: the second act 3-5 sequences and the third act 2-3 sequences. As no one sees how the writer has constructed the story it is up to the writer to determine how many sequences they want to use to group their scenes under for planning purposes.

A sequence has it’s own mini-story structure with it’s own rising tension, crisis and climax. Different schools use different terminology to describe the sequences. One of the best examples I have seen of this approach adopted by Paul Tomlinson , who describes the nature of each sequence as follows:

  1. Set-up, Foreshadowing & Challenge
  2. Responding to the Challenge
  3. Responding to the strange new world
  4. First attempt, First Failure & Consequences
  5. Reacting to the MidPoint & Raising Stakes
  6. The Second attempt, The Fall & the Crisis
  7. The Climax
  8. Resolution and Denouement

All the approaches above are built on the foundations of a Three-Act Structure. But what about the four, five or six act structures? That depends, of course, on how you define an Act. For example, in the first diagram above of the Three-Act Structure we divide the narrative into four different components. Would it be simpler to call this  a “Four Act Structure” as some advocate? Possibly yes. But three-act terminology is well known in the movie industry and is part of the vernacular.

An interesting variation of the methodology is that of Marsall Dotson who advocates a Six Act structure. Each Act has it’s own Catalyst, Turning point and goal. Based on Dotson’s own analysis of Star Wars New Hope and timings would match as follows:

  1. Act 1 – Dealing with an imperfect situation (Same as existing Act 1 – 43 mins)
  2. Act 2 – Learning the rules of an unfamiliar situation (Same as Sequence C – 16 mins)
  3. Act 3 – Stumbling into the central conflict (Same as Sequence D & E – 13 mins)
  4. Act 4 – Implementing a doomed plan (Same as Sequence F- 24 mins)
  5. Act 5 – Trying a longshot (Same as sequence G -21 mins)
  6. Act 6 – Living in a new situation (Same as sequence H – 3 mins)

One aspect of Marshall Dotson’s approach I admire is the evolving nature of the goals and the nature of the opposition identified in each Act as the story intensifies:

  1. Act 1 Initial goal/ oppressive opposition
  2. Act 2 Transitional goal/incidental opposition
  3. Act 3 False Goal/ intentional opposition
  4. Act 4 Penultimate goal/self-inflicted opposition
  5. Act 5 Ultimate goal/ ultimate opposition
  6. Act 6 New situation.

For example, in Die Hard John McClane’s initial goal is to travel to LA and reconcile with his estranged wife, Holly. But when the terrorists invade the building he takes a new goal not to defeat the terrorists, but to call the police. When this fails he has to alter his goal. So gradually his goal evolves into the ultimate story goal of defeating the terrorists.

However, I still find it difficult to treat Dotson’s analysis as six acts. Particularly as the sixth Act is only a few minutes long. I don’t wish to get into semantics but in my view it is simpler to think of this method as a five-act model or five-sequence method. The effect is to split the narrative into five main components.

Other approaches

The two methods that haven’t yet been discussed are Blake Synder’s 15-Step save the Cat approach and Chris Vogler’s 12 Step Hero’s Journey. Both frameworks can easily be overlayed on the Three-Act Structure:

Save the Cat

  • Act 1: Beats 1-5
  • Act 2: Beats 6-12
  • Act 3: Beats 13-15
  1. Opening image
  2. Theme stated
  3. Set-up
  4. Catalyst
  5. Debate
  6. Break into two (a.k.a Plot Point I)
  7. B Story
  8. Fun & Games (multi scenes)
  9. Mid Point
  10. Bad Guys close in (multi scenes)
  11. All is lost (a.k.a. Plot Point II)
  12. Dark Night of the Soul
  13. Break into three
  14. Finale (a.k.a Climax)
  15. Final Image

The “Fun & Games” covers most of the first part of the second act. It’s Fun & Games for the the audience but not the hero. It is where a lot of interesting action takes place. Similarly, “Bad Guys close in” is a multiple scene section that shows the hero going down hill until he hits the “All is lost moment.” The B story is usually love interest element, buddy relationship or mentor relationship. The Save the Cat model is a transformational story where the hero changes, the most reflective moments being at the Mid Point and Dark Night of the Soul. The difference between the Opening Image and Final Image should reflect the transformation the hero has gone through.

Chris Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey

  • Act 1: Steps 1-5
  • Act 2: steps 6-10
  • Act 3: steps 11-12
  1. Ordinary World
  2. Call to adventure
  3. Refusal
  4. Meeting the mentor
  5. Crossing the threshold (Plot Point I)
  6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
  7. Approach to Inner cave
  8. Ordeal (a.k.a. Mid Point)
  9. Reward
  10. The Road back (aka Plot point II)
  11. Resurrection (a.k.a Climax)
  12. Return with the elixir

Vogler notes that not all the steps may apply and those that do may appear in a different order. The approach is meant to be flexible. Also the terms are mythical metaphors. For example, ‘Resurrection’ is the re-emergence of the Hero’s changed character in the story climax. Not some strange metaphysical occurrence.

Like Hauge, Vogler also looks at both the Hero’s inner journey and outer journey. And he explains how the character develops at each of the 12 steps.

Are there simpler solutions that don’t use the three-act model? Yes there are. Both Nigel Watts and Eva Deverall use very simple eight-stage structure without the need for plot points. But if you look closely enough the same underlying structure that appears under the three-act model but without the same technical detail.

Nigel Watts’s 8 point story arc is as follows

  1. Stasis – the every day life of the hero.
  2. Trigger – something outside of the hero’s control sparks off the story.
  3. Quest – the trigger results in a quest.
  4. Surprise – at the mid point of the he/she encounter surprises.
  5. Critical choice – the hero has to make a crucial decision.
  6. Climax – the crucial decision leads to a climax.
  7. Reversal – as a result of the climax the hero’s character has changed for the better.
  8. Resolution – the changed hero returns to the stasis world, wiser and enlightened.

Eva Deverall’s One page formula uses 8 stages as follows:

  1. Stasis – the character is not living to their full potential.
  2. Trigger – and internal or external impulse or both forces the character to the first step forward.
  3. Quest – the character enters the new world, meets mentors or allies and makes a bad plan to solve the problem created by the trigger.
  4. Bolt – something unexpected — the plan inevitably goes wrong.
  5. Shift – the character makes a paradigm shift of character.
  6. Defeat – the character makes the ultimate sacrifice.
  7. Power – the character finds a hidden power within themselves to win the prize.
  8. Resolution – the character is living up to their full potential.

Conclusion

As already mentioned, most of these variations of story structure are based on the foundations of a Three-Act Structure.  Although the use of different terminology can be confusing they all attempt to break down narrative into it’s main components.

From a writer’s point of view, no one will see your plans before you write, and no one that reads your book or sees your movie will have much idea of the methodology you used to get there. Of course some writers won’t want to use any framework to plan their writing and may still be successful because the underlying story patterns are hard coded into their DNA. For all the other writers the frameworks are there to help. So use whatever works for you.

Editing — my tools and techniques

edit manuscriptIn the first of my previous blogs on editing, I looked at the lessons that I had learnt a long time ago from the world of business book publishing. In the second blog I looked at what I had to learn more recently to adapt to publishing fiction.

In this blog I want to look at the editing tools and techniques I use. It is not meant to be a comprehensive review of all the software tools available. It is my personal choice of what works for me.

I retired from the accounting profession in March 2011 and decided to write my first novel. One of my first decisions was to buy an Apple MacBook, and the application Scrivener that I had heard so many good things about. I wasn’t disappointed. The software is amazing. After using Microsoft’s Word for over two decades I had finally found my ideal writing tool for writing books. I published my first novel, Collision, in October 2012; my second Alien Hothouse in November 2015; and my third AndroDigm Park 2067 in April 2018.

There are many powerful utilities in Scrivener, but for me the most awesome is that you write in scenes and can move the scenes about by dragging and dropping them. And as each scene has it’s own summary card you can easily switch presentation to a cork board mode, or outline mode and see your story set out in a visual way. For planning purposes, you can map out the major scenes of the story to see the cards across your screen. And when you have completed your first draft you can export a scene list to a spreadsheet file for further analysis of the scenes. This is invaluable when trying to carry out a development edit. It gives you a scene list and the key actions, features and turning points of the story.

It follows that my next important tool is a spreadsheet. I have a great love for the power of Microsoft’s Excel (as most accountants do!). But these days I can accomplish most of the scene analysis I need to do using Apple’s Numbers.  By visualising the story in a columnar way, you can see all the important elements of the story set out.

Now for detailed editing. I perform all detailed editing in Scrivener, so the in-built  spellchecker is the starting point for any edit. However, spellcheckers don’t pick up all errors such homonyms (eg to, too, two) which may be spelt correctly but used in the wrong context. And they don’t pick up a host or errors such as poor grammar, inconsistent use of  hyphenation, capitalisation, punctuation marks and poor style. There are programs that can help the writer identify these issues. The major ones are ProWritingaid, AutoCrit, and Grammarly, but there are many more. Some of these applications have free on-line versions with limited functionality (e.g. ProWritingAid, EditMinion, Grammarly, Ginger and Hemingway).

My preference is the premium version  of ProWriting Aid. Like many of the systems it has a version that works by uploading files onto the internet. But I prefer the standalone version that works with Scrivener. To me, the ability to edit Scrivener files directly gives the system the edge over other applications as I don’t need to convert files back and forth.

Edit software will never replace the need for a professional editor. But such software can help the writer to identify potential problems, inconsistencies and poor style. But not all suggestions generated from this type of software will be appropriate. It is up to the writer to determine how they deal with them.

However much you use these software aids there is a still need to carry out the most detailed review of the text as objectively as you can. This is best achieved by leaving the manuscript for a period of time before undergoing this review. It can also help to use different reading mediums: screen, paper and audio (getting the software to read to you). And by changing fonts and page sizes.

You will also need a good dictionary and style manual for reference. I personally use the Oxford English Dictionary and New Oxford Style Manual for reference, as I write British English rather than American English. But I have at least another ten books on grammar and editing to refer to where necessary.

Editing is an intensive process. It is difficult to look for all types of problems in one pass-through of the text. A different approach is to focus on different types of problems  in each pass-through. For example, the final pass might just look at punctuation problems. As explained in the quote from CJ Webb in the first of these articles.

Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorized every last word. Then when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity… edit one more time.

If you want to be writer, you need to be able to edit. Successful writers are all re-writers.