Editing — How fiction differs from other forms of writing

edit manuscriptIn the previous blog I discussed some of the important lessons I learnt from editors in the field of business publications many years ago. In this blog I want to look at how I needed to adapt to the world of fiction. As we shall see, it’s not just about spellchecking and grammar checking. Fiction has it’s own needs, conventions, and style.

With fiction, the writer is seeking to create an emotional response in the reader, by making the reader identify with the main character and submerge themselves in an imaginary story world. It’s all about the story and how it makes the reader feel. This is very different from business books that are intended to convey information or advocate a point of view.

There are three different levels of editing to consider in fiction writing:

  • Development edit — does the story work and evoke an emotional response in the reader? And how can the characters, story world and story be improved?
  • Copy/line edit — is the text free of errors, superfluous wording and inconsistencies?
  • Proof reading — is the final proof error free and formatted according to publishers style.

It is also important to understand that all fiction is written from a point of view. A writer will need to choose a point of view and a tense to write in and apply them consistently. The choice of point of view is usually between:

  • First person POV‘I wondered why I was here. Did Harry betrayed me?’
  • Third person limited POV ‘He wondered why he was here. Had Harry betrayed him? But equally the following works too: ‘He wondered why he was there. Did Harry betray me?’
  • Third person omniscient POV‘John wondered why he was there. Harry had betrayed him.”

There is also a second person point of view (‘you’), but it is rarely used in fiction writing.

First person point of view and present tense is often used in YA novels. The difficulty with first person is that the reader only sees what the main character sees. So you can’t write a scene in which the main character is not present.  The advantage of first person POV is the intimacy it creates between the reader and the main character.

Third person omniscient is very much the author’s point of view telling the story to the reader knowing everything that is happening in the story. In the example above, the author knows that Harry betrayed him and is telling the reader this information. Third person omniscient POV creates a distance between the reader and the main character and is therefore less intimate than first person. That isn’t to say that some very successful writer have used this omniscient POV, such a JK Rowling.

Third person limited is my preferred approach for the type of books I write. Like first person, the point of view character in a scene can only see what he/she sees in that scene. But the advantage is that you can have a different point of view character for different scenes. Third person limited is often used in complex plots where the reader needs to know what other characters are doing when the main character is not present in the scene. Third person limited is usually written in the past tense.

Another difference between fiction writing and business writing is that in fiction you can break some of those so-called rules you learned at school. For example, you can:

  • Use sentence fragments. Even one word sentences.
  • Use contractions (Can’t, Won’t etc..)
  • Ignore dialogue tags where it is obvious who is speaking.  For example, after an action beat by a character. And by using paragraph breaks to show a change of speaker.
  • Ignore some grammar rules where it is gives a more natural vocal style. For example starting sentences with a conjunction, splitting infinitives (‘to boldly go..), or ending sentences with a preposition.

Fiction editors also dislike the overuse of adverbs and adjectives, and many dislike the use of semi-colons and exclamation marks. Here are some important quotes from famous writers about adverbs:

The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.
— Stephen King

Overuse at best is needless chatter, at worst it creates the impression that characters are overacting, emoting like silent film stars. Still, an adverb can be exactly what a sentence needs. They can add important intonations to dialogue, or subtly convey information.
–Howard Mittlemark

Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can. … It is comprehensible when I write: “The man sat on the grass,” because it is clear and does not detain one’s attention. On the other hand, it is difficult to figure out and hard on the brain if I write: “The tall, narrow-chested man of medium height and with a red beard sat down on the green grass that had already been trampled down by the pedestrians, sat down silently, looking around timidly and fearfully.” The brain can’t grasp all that at once, and art must be grasped at once, instantaneously.
–Anton checkhov

And on the the subject of exclamation marks and semi-colons:

Cut out all those exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
― Kurt Vonnegut

So as we can see from the above there is a lot to the subject of editing fiction other than just correcting typos and inconsistencies. In the next blog I’ll look at some of the tools and techniques I’ve used to help me through the editing process.

 

Editing – early lessons learnt from professional editors

edit manuscript

In this blog I want to discuss editing, why it is so important, and when to do it. I also want to draw upon some of my early experiences with professional editors and communication in the business world.

A simple definition of editing from Google is as follows:

Editing is a stage of the writing process in which a writer or editor strives to improve a draft ( and sometimes prepare it for publication) by correcting errors and by making words and sentences clearer, more precise, and more effective.

I think all writers will agree that the quality of a publication depends in part on the effectiveness of the editing process. There is nothing more infuriating than finding errors in a published work, or having a review that disparages your work because of errors. Patricia Fuller explains the importance of editing in an interesting way as follows:

Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing out of the house in your underwear.

So if we are all agreed about the importance of editing, who should do it? The first stage of the editing process should always be done by the writer before submission to an editor. The second stage of editing should ideally be done by an editor, subject to a final review and edit by the writer.

CJ Webb explains the intensity of the writer’s process as follows:

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 a writer cannot use and editor, then he/she should leave the material for a significant period of time (months) before attempting to edit the material, and approach his/her review as if he/she were reviewing someone else’s work. The time gap will help to enforce an element of objectivity over your work. However, if you wish to publish your work I would always recommend the use an editor.

So how should the writer prepare his draft for the editor? Should he wait to complete the first draft before starting to edit, or edit as he/she goes along?

This is one of those areas where writers will have differing views in much the same way as they differ in their attitudes to detailed planning.

There are writers that write a scene, and then edit the same scene the following day before starting a new scene. And at the opposite extreme, there are writers that refuse to edit until the first draft is complete. For example, Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones says:

Don’t cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.) Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying in the margins and lines on the page.) Lose control. Don’t think. Don’t get logical. Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, drive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)

This is what I would describe as ‘free’ writing. I have tried it in ten minute bursts, and it can be wonderful for developing a scene. But while you might find some gems in the material you will also generate a lot of garbage. I couldn’t bear to endure this approach for a 70-90,000 word first draft. I guess like many writers I am a bit of a perfectionist and leaving something wrong would continue to irritate me until I corrected it. But I can see the merits of Goldberg’s idea of getting the story down in writing as quickly as possible, and not being paralysed by perfectionism. If you’re like me, there is a happy medium somewhere between these extremes.

As W. Somerset Maugham once famously said:

There are three rules of writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.

The point I am making is that writers write and revise in many different ways. You need to find out what works for you. The one point writers do agree on is that revision is a vital part of the process.

My first experience of external editors was in the 1980s. In those days I was the editor of a technical newsletter for a global firm of accountants. I was also the author of four technical books published by Euromoney, Tolleys and Farringdon Press. I won’t bore you with the details of the publications. But they were subject to detailed technical review by a large number of technical experts, an internal communications expert and an editor from the publishing industry.

I learnt a very important lesson: there is nothing more permanent that the published word. It follows that any technical publication has to be correct. The more technical eyes that review the material, the better. But technical eyes are not enough. It also has to be clear and concise, and this is where an editor or communications consultant can add value, even if they are unfamiliar with the technical nature of the material.

My first experience of a consultants review was a painful experience. He congratulated me on the excellent quality of my draft, but returned it to me covered in red ink. Any writer that has received his/her manuscript from an editor like this will understand the emotions that this can create. I thought I could write — and all this red ink! But as writers we can learn an enormous amount from this process.

One of the first lessons I learnt was the need to write where possible in the active voice. You have probably heard the same advice. For example, if you say “I slashed my sword across his throat…” It sounds much more effective and in character’s point of view.  Whereas “the villains throat was slashed…” sounds like we are in the author’s head, not the main character’s head.

But there is another reason for using the active voice. It is so much clearer about who is doing what to whom. For example, if I write “It is recommended that…” It is unclear who is recommending the action. It is far more clear to say “The Government recommends that…” 

Many of the lessons I learnt when writing business publication about the importance of consistency, clarity and brevity helped in the transformation from business writer to fiction writer. But there is a world of difference between technical writing and creative writing. In the coming blogs I want to deal with how editing fiction is different from other writing, the grammar rules you can break to write creatively, and some of the editing tools that helped me.

Story Shapes and Emotional Arcs

Kurt Vonnegut was the author famous for his novels including Slaugherhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. But he was also famous for his for his concept of story shapes, which was the subject of his rejected Master’s Thesis in Anthropology. He called his story shapes his prettiest contribution to culture.

In simple terms, Vonnegut believed the shape of any story could be mapped on a diagram showing the protagonist’s change in fortune during the course of the story. On the vertical axis he mapped fortune (good-ill). And on the horizontal axis he measured the time-line from beginning to end.

Boy meets girlFor example, he described the classic Boy Meets Girl pattern as a rise-fall-rise pattern. It is not the only pattern that behaves this way, but it’s the easiest to remember.

Boy meets girl (fortune rises).

Something goes wrong — they quarrel or some external force keeps them apart (fortune declines).

Then eventually they reunite (fortune rises).

 

Man in holdAnother example is the Man a Hole pattern. This is a very common profile in action movies, where the protagonist encounters  a serious problem or threat to him/she or those he/she cares for. For example, Die Hard, Hunger Games etc.

The protagonists starts at a good point, but experiences a severe problem that sends them on a downward spiral (fortune declines).

Then gradually he finds the strength to turn the problem around and fortune rises.

 

 

CinderrelaYet another example is the classic Cinderella story pattern.

Here Cinderella starts from a low point (her father remarries and she is badly treated by her step mother and sisters).

With the help of her fairy godmother she goes to the ball and meets the prince (fortunes rise).

The bell tolls midnight and she returns to he low point (fortunes decline).

Finally she fits the glass shoe and marries the prince (fortunes rise).

In 2016, a study by a group of students at the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont proved Vennegot’s premise that the emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes.

Using complex computerised analysis to measure the scale of happiness or pleasure in some 1327 stories from Project Gutenbergs collection they identified some six basic story arcs:

1. Rags to Riches (rise)

2. Tragedy or Riches to Rags (fall)

3. Man in a Hole (fall-rise)

4. Icarus (rise-fall)

5. Cinderella (rise-fall-rise)

6. Oedipus (fall-rise-fall)

They also found that three patterns were more successful than the rest: Icarus, Oedipus and Man in a Hole.

Of course, at a detail scene level a character’s emotional state can change in an instance. If we mapped a scene at a micro level it will often show its own emotional arc (which could be any of the six arcs above). The nature of drama is about emotional change and if no emotional change is taking place then there is little or no drama.

Kurt Vonnegut’s contribution was to show that these story shapes or arcs also take place at the story level. And understanding these patterns gives us an insight into the nature of the underlying story.

So when you’re designing your story do you consciously think about the emotional story arc, or is it just something so natural that you don’t have to think about it?

 

Amazon eBook offers

Those of you that regularly follow my blog will realise most of my blog content is dedicated to the art of storytelling and my own learning adventures into the realms of story development. Occasionally I use this blog to bring news about my own books, and on this occasion I am unashamingly promoting two of my Amazon offers.

Currently, I am running two campaigns on Amazon that expire on the 8 July for AndroDigm Park 2067 (FREE) and Alien Hothouse (75% discount) as follows:

ADP 2067 BB

AH BB

I hope you like the ads and take advantage of the offers.  And if you enjoy the books, please leave a review on Amazon. It’s not difficult and only requires a brief comment and rating. It would be greatly appreciated– reviews are the lifeblood for Indie authors.

If you are interested, both ads were prepared using the free version of the BookBrush, which is an amazing easy tool to use for preparing ads. I would note I have no connection with the company, and no financial interest in endorsing their products. It just strikes me as a very easy product to use.

 

Conflict, Tension and Audience Participation

screenwriting
Novel writers can learn a lot about story development from the  screenwriting industry. In my previous blog, I dealt with how screenwriters use Story, Plot, Arc and Theme to develop a story.

This month I want to look at how screenwriters use Conflict, Tension and Audience Participation to grip an audience. The essential elements of what makes a good story well told according to David Howard and Edward Mabley in The Tools of Screenwriting — A writers Guide Craft and Elements of  Screenplay are:

  1. The story is about somebody with whom we have some empathy.
  2. This somebody wants something very badly.
  3. This something is difficult, but possible to do, get, or achieve.
  4. The story is told for maximum emotional impact and audience participation in the proceedings.
  5. The story must come to a satisfactory ending (which does not necessarily mean a happy ending).

I doubt whether there are many screenwriters or novel writers would disagree with this analysis. It’s a simple analysis, but that doesn’t mean that it is easy to apply in practice.

The first three elements are all about a conflict. The protagonist desperately wants or desires something (an objective) but struggles to get it (because of difficult obstacles), and in the course of the story this struggle escalates until it reaches a climax and resolution. It follows that the objective should be something big that has serious consequences for the protagonist, or for those he/she cares for. For example, life or death either in the literal or figurative sense.

The First Act is normally all about setting up the story premise (what the story is going to be about) and introducing the protagonist. By the end of the First Act the protagonist should have found his objective, which will drive the story forward for the next two acts. The Second Act is all about the protagonist’s struggle to reach that objective, and the Third Act is about resolving it.

So how do you tell the story for maximum emotional impact and audience participation? Have you read a book you couldn’t put down, or watched a movie that kept you on the edge of your seat? How did the writer do it?

Many years ago I read Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. It’s an amazing book. For the first third of the book I found it very slow. For the final two-thirds I couldn’t put the book down until I finally finished it at 4:30 in the morning.  So I didn’t get much sleep that night! How did Forsyth keep my attention? He did so by switching between different character points of view from chapter to chapter. So one chapter about a character would end at a crucial point where you wanted to know what happened to him/her next. But in the next chapter Forsyth would switch to another character’s point of view, which meant you would have to read through the next chapter before getting back to the first character again. And guess what — that chapter would also end at a critical point or cliff hanger for that character. And so you would have to read on and on.

Therefore, the way to tell a story with maximum emotional impact and reader/audience participation is to focus the reader/audience’s attention on what happens next, and according to Paul Joseph Gulino there are four simple screenwriting tools:

  1. Telegraphing/pointing/ advertising. It means telling the audience/reader what is going to happen, so they are waiting for it to happen. A character says he’s going to kill someone and goes off to do it, but we don’t see what happens next until later. This telegraphing can also be used to falsely lead the audience so there is shock when something different happens. Another form of telegraphing is a deadline, or ticking clock. For example, a bomb that is due to explode and the protagonist only has limited time to find it and defuse it. Note that tension here is created by the expectation of the event happening — the bomb exploding. An unexpected surprise event by itself ( the bomb exploding) doesn’t create tension.
  2. The Dangling cause. When something happens (a cause) the audience expect an effect. But what happens if the effect is delayed? The reader’s/audience’s attention is focused on the future. Someone makes a proposal of marriage, but we don’t see the other party answering it until much later. It keeps the audience guessing what might happen.
  3. Dramatic irony. This is where the reader/audience knows more information than the protagonist or other character in the story and this creates an anticipation that the information will be revealed  at some later point in the story. The effect is the audience is waiting for it to happen. Hitchcock was master of dramatic irony. Remember when the detective in Psycho was climbing the stairs. The audience knew who was waiting for him at the top of the stairs, but the detective didn’t.
  4. Dramatic tension. This is where the protagonists wants something or wants to avoid something and is having trouble doing it. This often involves chases or escapes. The uncertainty of what might happen to the protagonist is what generates an emotional response in the reader — hope they will succeed or fear that they will fail. Dramatic tension is probably the most powerful technique a writer can use. But it only works where the writer has created a strong empathetic bond between the reader/audience and the protagonist.

So tension is about the reader’s/ audience’s emotional connection to the protagonist — their concern for the future of the protagonist and those the protagonist cares for. If there is no future uncertainty or consequences for failure, there is little or no emotional connection between the reader/audience and the protagonists. If the protagonist is not fearful, why should the reader be? Also if the protagonist’s future is predictable, there is no uncertainty and therefore no emotion.

We have all read stories that have failed for one reason or another. They may have attractive plots or interesting characters, but if there is no serious conflict and tension then the reader’s or audience will quickly lose attention. It is important to remember that conflict is a struggle between competing forces. It is not necessarily action sequences such as car chases or shoot outs. Some of the most powerful conflicts arise where the protagonist has to make a choice between two equally unacceptable bad outcomes. Does Superman save Louise  or does he stop the nuclear rocket exploding on the San Andreas fault? Dilemma is therefore a powerful source of tension.

A specific scene of sequence will normally have its own specific tension, but there is  also a Main Tension that lasts for the whole duration of the Second Act. The Main Tension can normally be expressed as a question. For example, in Star Wars, New Hope, Luke and Obi Wan set off at the end of the First Act to take the battle plans (in R2D2) to the rebels. During the Second Act they get deflected from his course by being caught in the Death Star’s tractor beam, rescuing Princess Leia and escaping the Death Star.  But at the beginning of the Act 2 we could have asked the question — will Luke get the Death Star plans to the rebel alliance? The question was answered at the end of Act 2 — Yes.

Act 3 has a New Tension — will the rebel alliance be able to destroy the Death Star? The question is answered at the climax of the story with Luke destroying the Death Star. It is also interesting to note, that Luke’s objective, determined at the end of Act 1, was to help Princess Leia and the Rebel Alliance, and this ultimately led to him helping them destroy the Death Star. So only one objective should drive the protagonist, but different Tensions apply for Act 2 and Act 3.

When writing it’s easy to get caught up in the flow and tension of a particular scene. However, as story writers we need to understand how these scenes and sequences work together. Understanding the Main Tension for the Second Act and New Tension for the Third Act will ensure your writing is properly focused.

To some extent there are significant differences between story telling in movies and story telling in books. They are different mediums and use different effects. For example, movies are very visual whereas a novel may tell you what the main character is thinking. But this does not mean that as authors we can’t learn something about story telling from the movie industry.

So what do you think? Do you think that these screenwriting story tools could be helpful for you as a writer, and if so, would you consider using them?

Story, Plot, Arc and Theme — how they work together

Story, Plot, Arc and themeAny new writer might well be confused by some of the terms used in writing such as story, plot, arc and theme. Aren’t they interchangeable terms? It’s easy to see why the terms might be confused.

The first person to distinguish story from plot was E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel (1927). Forster wrote a story ‘can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.’

‘The king died and then the queen died is a story. But the king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.’

This is a reasonable definition of plot. But is story just narrative? In screenwriting, the term ‘story’ is often used in a much wider sense to explain the deeper meaning that the audience experience through the protagonist’s inner struggle to deal with the plot points.  It is what the story is really about. Kate Wright in Screenwriting is Storytelling Creating an A-list Screenplay that Sells explains this approach as follows:

Story and plot are intricately woven inside story events, and while the audience cannot tell them apart, each is distinct: Plot is self evident, and we experience it objectively, scene by scene. Story is the deeper meaning behind the plot, and we subjectively infer its moral truth–or absolute truth–sequentially, by identifying the inner moral struggle of the main character.

Under this approach both Plot and Story are separate important elements. An audience (or readers) may be fascinated by the progression of events that a human being encounters in the plot, but what really engages them emotionally is how the main character reacts to this progression of events and this insight is what the story is really about.

Audiences and readers don’t fall in love with a plot, they connect with the main character and experience his/her emotional struggle to deal with those events. As the conflict escalates, audience/reader tension rises until tension is finally resolved at the climax of the story. This release of tension is what Plato described as catharsis: the release of emotion that makes us all feel better. At that point, we figuratively punch the air and celebrate our main character’s victory, or we cry if the story ends in tragedy. This emotional effect is the primary reason why we engaged in the story in the first place. We empathise with the hero/heroine and want to see them succeed. Story is therefore more about the emotional experience of the audience/reader.

How the main character changes over the course of the story is the character arc, or what some screenwriters describe as the hero’s inner journey. It will be part of the audience’s/reader’s emotional experience. For example, it’s Luke Skywalker inner journey from a scared farm boy to courageous Jedi knight.

As explained in the previous blog, the main character usually has a flaw at the start of the story, and during the story the plot challenges the main character to overcome his flaw. And as we have seen from the previous blog, the main character’s flaw or weakness should be the right type of flaw to be tested by the story. Depending on the type of story, the main character’s initial weakness could be anything. For example: naivity, lack of confidence or self belief, hubris, or some negative believe which he/she needs to overcome during the story in order to reach their story goal.

The underlying story is often about what the main character learns during the course of the story. If he/she changes for the good, then the story ending is normally positive. If he/she refuses to change, the story may well end in tragedy. Either way there is a moral undertone that we can attribute to the theme of the story. The theme is the moral of the story or some self evident truth about human nature. For example, even death cannot defeat love (Romeo and Juliet).

So the deeper meaning of story, plot, theme and character arc are all different aspects of a storytelling, but they are closely linked together.

 

Character Arc

nutshellAs a writer, if you want to study story telling there is no better source than world of screenwriting where Hollywood has turned the art of story telling into a science. Of course, writing a novel and writing a screenplay are very different mediums: movies are visual and novels are written. But they both share the same important elements of storytelling. So studying movies is a great way to study how stories work.

Over the past eight years I have read many of the books on story structure, plotting, and character development. So much so, that I thought it was impossible to find a new insight into story development. But once again I’ve been proved wrong. Jill Chamberlain’s The Nutshell Technique provides a fresh new perspective to the subject of character arc.

Generally when writers talk about story structure it is usually about the three-act plot structure and in particular the big turning points in the story at the end of act one (a.k.a turning point one/act one break/point of no return)  and act two (a.k.a turning point two/act two culmination/crisis). Some writers, such Michael Hague and Christopher Vogler, also draw attention to the inner emotional journey our protagonist makes as the plot effects him/her. For example, Luke Skywalker changes from a frightened farm boy into a Jedi knight. This is what we generally refer to as character arc. Not all stories necessarily have a character arc. For example, James Bond and Indiana Jones rarely change in character over the course of a movie. But most do.

Most writers agree that a protagonist should have at least one flaw in order to be three dimensional. No one is perfect. But what makes Chamberlain’s perspective different is that the protagonist’s character arc from Flaw to Strength should be uniquely linked to the main turning points. Or put another way, the protagonist changes because the plot challenges his particular flaw and his view of himself and the world.

A story should be unique to its protagonist. The events of the story should uniquely test traits specific to the protagonist. If I can take your protagonist out and replace them with a completely different character, and with a few tweaks make your script work just as well with a new protagonist, your script is presenting a situation and is not a true story.

Thus a protagonist should not just have a flaw; he/she should have the right flaw to be tested by the plot.

Identifying a central flaw in your protagonist is an essential component of screenplay story structure.

The Nutshell approach is to identify eight important elements that are linked to the protagonists character arc.

  1. Flaw (The protagonist’s initial flaw)
  2. Strength (The final protagonist’s position )
  3. Set-up want (In initial scene )
  4. Point of No return (Plot Point 1/Act One Break)
  5. Catch (at Point of No Return)
  6. Crisis/Triumph (Plot Point 2/Act 2 Culmination)
  7. Climatic Choice (Beginning of Act 3)
  8. Final Step (Final scene)

To do justice to the Nutshell approach requires a detailed reading of the Chamberlain’s book, which explains each of these elements and how they relate to examples in blockbuster movies. What is new and novel in this approach is the Set-up Want and the Catch, which require some further explanation

The Set-up Want is something the protagonists wants from the first scene. It is also the opposite of what the protagonist wants to happen in the Crisis. As the maxim goes sometimes you should be mindful of what you wish for, because the protagonist gets his want at the Point of No Return (Plot Point 1) together with the Catch. For example, Luke Skywalker longed for adventure and to get away from the farm. At Plot Point 1 he finds his aunt and uncle murdered and the farm burned. So In one sense he got what he wanted (an adventure) but the Catch was he had no family left and had no choice but to go with Obi Wan to take the droids to Alderaan.

The Climatic Choice is what gets the protagonist out of the Crisis and into Act 3. And the Final Step is the final scene that shows the protagonists has completed his character arc.

The Nutshell Technique places character arc as an integral element of the story rather than as an optional add on or choice for the writer. The point being that the character arc must fit the story to work. That I believe is a valuable insight that is worth thinking about.

The writing process

untitled-design.pngIt is almost eight years since I started writing novels, and I’ve learned an awful lot in that time. It hasn’t been easy. I had a story I wanted to write and I wanted to start writing it as soon as possible. But I soon found out that you need to make some key decisions before you even start to write about point of view, person, and tense. And you need to have an understanding of story structure. So I did what I suspect many other writers have done. I read a whole host of ‘How too…” books on the subject. Many of which were helpful, and some of which lets say were a waste of time.

Remember that stereotype writer we often see portrayed in movies. The guy (or girl) with glasses who sits in front on a typewriter and bashes so many thousand words each day. Or who, stares at a blank page, swills whisky and suffers from writer’s block. This stereotype is often reinforced by successful writers, who say to be a writer you need to write every day as though this is the only process a writer needs:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down a typewriter and bleed.” ― Hemingway.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” ―
Stephen King
“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” ―
Ray Bradbury

It’s true that if you want to be a writer you need to write and you need a determination to see it through. Writing a book is like running a marathon you can’t give up when you hit the wall. You have to keep going or you’ll never reach the end. But writing is not just about bashing words into a keyboard. There’s a creative process by which a simple initial idea is grown into a complex narrative we call a story.

Unfortunately, analysing a writer’s published work does not necessarily give a great deal of insight into the process the writer used to get to that final point. We may well identify the key turning points in the story but this does not tell us how he/she found them or developed them.

To add to the confusion some writers claim to be ‘pantsers’ doing very little preparation work for their stories, while others are ‘outliners’ using detailed outlining techniques. Although I suspect most writers are engaged in some level of planning and analysis even if it is only in their heads developing the main character and his goals.

The point I would like to make is that you don’t have to write a story sequentially starting on page 1 and finishing with “the end”. It’s a daunting task to carry that level of detail in your head. Some pantsers might say they don’t have to know the story at the outset as they just follow the main character until they get to the end. Maybe that works for them, but not for me.

The approach I take is a layering approach, which starts with the basic elements of story and gradually expands to a basic draft and then grows into a final draft in an iterative process.

Stage 1: Brainstorming ideas.

A story has to start somewhere with an initial idea. The purpose of brainstorming is to create as many ideas as possible without making judgement. Usually the idea will come from one of the five main story elements:

  1. A character
  2. A challenge:  a problem or opportunity or unusual situation that will drive the story
  3. An antagonist
  4. A storyworld 
  5. An ending

Stage 2: Developing the story premise, the broad story line, and identifying the main characters.

A story idea can be turned into a story premise by bringing together the story elements into a single statement explaining who the story is about, what he or she wants, what stands in their way of getting it, and why the want it. In simple terms, the premise is a statement about the hero’s big story challenge.

The story line or main plot line is broadly what happens to the hero. Does he/she succeed or fail and what are the main sequences that get him/her there.

At this point we need to understand the main characters, their role in the story and their primary motivation.

Stage 3: Developing a beat sheet for the main story line

The Beat Sheet lists the main stepping-stones in the hero’s storyline. It will usually include the main turning points and key hero sequences of the story.

The main turning points would be at least:

  1. The catalyst/inciting incident – What starts off the story conflict and motivates the hero to eventually act
  2. Act One Break – The point where the hero commences his quest or challenge
  3. The Mid Point – Usually a major revelation or reversal
  4. The Act 2 Culmination – Usually the darkest hour for the hero
  5. The  Climax

And the key sequences are hero’s quest broken down into 6-8 logical stages.

Stage 4: The Main Scene list or outline

The scene list or outline is a bullet list of scenes that can be easily identified from a the beat sheet. (It is not the final list which may be much longer). It is usually at this stage that I set up scene cards using Scrivener, breaking the list of scenes down under four headings:

  1. Act 1
  2. Act 2A
  3. Act 2B
  4. Act 3

The scenes themselves may well have one or two lines of text explanation. I may well add further notes where they occur to me. (Other writers may well want to turn this scene list into a more detailed outline with bullet points within each scene. I find it more effective to add detail at the time I am working on individual scenes rather than laying out all the scenes in detail in advance of the first Basic Draft.)

Stage 5: First Basic Story Draft

My first drafts are usually just the bare minimum to get the basic story down on paper. The word count will be substantially shorter than the eventual final draft 40-60%.

Stage 6: The Expanded Draft

This is the stage where I organise my scenes into chapters and where I add the missing scenes to the text. These could be sub plots, the story lines of other characters (eg the antagonist), or transitions. It is also where I take a further look a dialogue and descriptions and layers of further story content. This is an iterative process that continues until I reach the final draft

Stage 7: The Final Daft

My final drafts are usually complete except for proofing. I tend to edit as I go, so the final edits other that proofing are usually limited.

Looking back at what I have described above may give the impression that my writing process is planned and logical. It never feels quite like that in practice. New ideas can enter the process at any of the stages forcing a re-think, and they often do.

So there it is — my take on the story writing process. What do you think? Maybe you have something better to offer?

The big idea, concept or premise

ideaTo be successful, any new story has to be built around an idea, or concept that makes it new and exciting. A school for wizards is an idea or concept, but it’s not a story premise. A story premise needs both a character (for example, Harry Potter) and  a central conflict or problem that drives the story along (for example, overcoming Lord Voldemort who wants to subjugate all wizards and muggles).

Often this premise can be expressed as a one sentence  log line about a type of character, the central story conflict they face, and the consequences if they fail. And Hollywood is rife with stories about movie moguls who have either accepted or rejected a movie simply on the strength of their log lines.

The log line or story premise tells us who and what the central conflict in the story is all about and why it’s important to us and the central character. And if it’s not the type of central conflict your readers care about then the story will almost certainly fail.

So how do you find these magical ideas and premises? It’s not easy. Since publishing my first three novels I’ve been working on the plans for my fourth. To date I have developed two different  outlines as potential stories, but I am having difficulty is choosing which is the better story. So when I came across Erik Bork’s The Idea I thought I would give it a whirl.

Firstly, Bork doesn’t distinguish from ideas that are just ideas and those that are story premises. To him an idea is synonymous with the story premise — it has to be about a big problem. And that problem should be big enough to take the weight of the whole story to resolve it. There are many other potential problems that writers might think of but which do not measure up to the task. The test is does it really matter to the main character and if it doesn’t, it won’t matter to the reader or audience.

Bork identifies 7 attributes of a good story ideas with the acronym PROBLEM

  1. Punishing (pushing the character to the limit. Practically every scene must be about resolving the problem)
  2. Relatable (character)
  3. Original (or at least fresh)
  4. Believable
  5. Life altering (high stakes)
  6. Entertaining (an emotional experience)
  7. Meaningful (for the reader or audience)

Bork dissects and analyses each of these attributes and provides a summary checklist for each of them that is both detailed and helpful.

There are many books out there on screenwriting and story telling that look at the importance of  a workable story premise or log line.  But what I like about Bork’s work is that he brings a more detailed perspective that is both useable and practicable in assessing the viability of a story premise.

Was the book useful in resolving my own dilema as to which story to choose? Yes, I think it was helpful to a degree. But it is important to remember a story premise is just the starting point for a story. To see if the story works you still have to flesh out some of the detail in a plan or outline, at least that’s the way I way I do it.

Save the cat writes a novel

41xpmolk3vl._sx327_bo1,204,203,200_One of the first books I read on screenwriting was the late Blake Synder’s Save the Cat. I liked it so much I also bought and read Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies and Save the Cat Strikes Back, both of which are great books on story and genre structure. I therefore wondered what more I could possibly learn that’s new from Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat Writes a Novel. 

The answer is that it covers almost all the material from the original three books in a comprehensive manner but is clearly focused on novel writers rather than screenwriters. So if you are a novelist and you haven’t got the original three books then this is good choice. It is also well written and explained, possibly even better than the original books. For those of you that have not encountered the Blake Snyder’s beat sheet before, seeing it for the first time may come as a bit of a shock since it gives approximate timings of 15 key story beats that are evident in most great stories. These timings should not be taken too seriously as novels are much more flexible than screen plays and therefore should be regarded as a broad guide. These timings have been adjusted by Jessica Brody from screenplay timings in minutes to approximate percentages of a novel.

  1. Opening Image (0-1%)
  2. Theme stated (5%)
  3. Set-up (1-10%)
  4. Catalyst (10%)
  5. Debate (10-20%%)
  6. Break into Two (20%)——————————
  7. B story (22%)
  8. Fun & Games (20-50%)
  9. Mid Point (50%)
  10. Bad Guys Close In (50-75%)
  11. All is Lost (75%)
  12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-80%)
  13. Break into Three (80%)————————-
  14. Finale (80-99%) (with five possible sub beats)
    1. Gathering the team
    2. Executing the plan
    3. The High Tower surprise
    4. Dig Deep Down
    5. The execution of new plan
  15. Final image (100%)

Beats 6 and 13 are hero actions that split the structure into three Acts. Act 1 roughly 20%, Act 2  60% and Act 3 20%.

The blue beats are multiple scene beats, the most important of which are Fun & Games and Bad Guys Close In, which take up most of the second Act. Fun & Games are not necessarily fun for the hero/heroine, but they cover most of the high tension action sequences that provide fun for the audience (or in this case the reader) in the first part of the second act.

At the Mid Point the hero usually experiences a false victory or false defeat, the stakes rise (new revelation, twist or ticking clock) and the A & B stories intersect.

After the Mid Point, generally it is down hill for the hero as the Bad Guys Close In, culminating in an All is Lost moment.

The Debate sequence and Dark Night of the Soul are multiple scene sequences where the hero reflects and reacts to the story Catalyst (the event that sets the main story in motion for the hero) and the All is Lost moment (the hero’s lowest point).

The red beats are what Jessica Brody refers to as ‘foundation beats’ — the important beats that hold the story structure together.  These are not necessarily unique to Blake Synder’s beat sheet as they appear in other three-act structures.  Jessica Brody suggests that when designing the story from scratch these ones are best determined first ahead of the rest.

At the heart of the Save the Cat approach is the believe that stories are about a flawed sympathetic  hero/heroine that through his/her journey goes through a transformation. Thus the Opening Image and Setup show our flawed sympathetic hero/heroine in his/her initial state.   And the final image shows how he/she has transformed. This transformation is linked to the theme of the story, often articulated by a character in beat 2 and rejected by the hero/heroine. Through the course of the story the hero transforms recognising his own weakness at the Mid Point, and later transforms during the reflective moments of Dark Night of the Soul, and the Finale. An important element of the hero/heroine’s transformation will be the influence of the B Story characters introduced at the beginning of the second act. These can be the hero’s love interest, side kick or mentor who help him to find his/her true self.

The idea that a story should be about a flawed sympathetic hero undergoing a transformation as a result of the story is not unique to the Save the Cat approach. Michael Hague and Christopher Vogler both talk about the outer and inner journey of the hero in some detail. And they are not the only ones that identify what some prefer to call character arc. Most successful stories are about heros that change. Take Star Wars, New Hope where Luke Skywalker transforms from a feeble farm boy to hero. Alternatively they can be about steadfastness of a hero under enormous pressure – Indiana Jones, for example, rarely changes. In either case there is usually an underlying theme to the story that is expressed through the character’s actions and resolve.

For those reading about the beat sheet for the first time the approach might seem somewhat formulaic. It doesn’t have to be. If you manage to have more major twists and turns than the beat sheet suggests then it shouldn’t be a problem. No one is saying that these are the only beats you need to be concerned with. The Fun & Games multiple scenes, in particular, require high tension actions sequences with twists and turns and highs and lows. Without them your story is going to be flat.  And when the Bad Guys Close In there should be plenty of opportunity to make the hero’s life pure hell. But if you are missing  any of the big foundation beats or they have turned out flat then you may find your story is in trouble.

It’s easy to try to dismiss the save the cat approach as just another formulaic plot structure and I suspect many have. But they are probably missing the point. It’s not about following a mechanical list of plot points. It’s all about weaving together the A (main story line) and B (main character arc) stories in such away as the theme emerges through the hero’s character transformation. The plot points are just the milestones along the way.