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Monday, July 8, 2024

Writing Scenes Without Conflict: Incidents, Happenings, Sequels, & More

Ideally, nearly every scene in a story will have conflict, because nearly every scene should have these primary plot elements: goal, antagonist, conflict, and consequences. And nearly every scene should have a turning point, which will be its climactic moment. With these things in their proper places, nearly every scene will follow basic structure:

In writing, all of these elements work in fractals. Yes, the overall narrative arc should have these things, but so should each act, and so should each scene.

. . . Generally speaking, anyway, because every rule is made to be broken.

As long as you know why and how you are breaking it.

With that in mind, sometimes you may have a scene that has no conflict.

Or no important goal, or antagonist, or consequences.

And on rare occasions, no turning point (though almost always there should at least be a turning point).

But these are exceptions, and the writer should implement them intentionally, not out of laziness or ignorance.

And when I say that most scenes should have conflict, I'm not saying they need shouting matches or flying fists. Conflict is simply what happens when a character runs into and deals with resistance (antagonistic forces). 

In any case, let's go through some types of scenes that don't require much, if any, conflict.

Monday, June 24, 2024

Writing & Structuring Multiple Plotlines (with Visuals)

Writing multiple plotlines can sound difficult and daunting. How can you keep the storylines straight? And relevant to each other? How do you handle all the moving pieces and subplots? 

One of your biggest helps for writing such a story is understanding how to structure it, which is what this article is all about. And it may be a relief to hear that you've likely already written with multiple plotlines . . . now you are probably just adding more than you are used to . . . 

Monday, June 10, 2024

Looking for a Writing Group?

Hi friends! 

I've been busy putting together my next writing tip article, but its topic is rather complex, and writing about it is more time-consuming than a lot of my other posts, so it's not quite ready yet (but it will be worth the wait 😉). If you can't wait that long though, I did put up my quarterly post on Writers Helping Writers that you can check out in the meantime: "Structuring an Ensemble Cast with Plotlines." 

I also have some other exciting news to share . . . 

A while ago, Ben from Apex Writers Group reached out to me and invited me to be a monthly guest on their Zoom calls. I will be teaching the first Monday night of each month, starting in July. Obviously I love teaching others about writing, so this is gonna be awesome for me (and hopefully the writers 🙃)!

My first class will be on negative character arcs, and the next will be on positive steadfast/flat arcs.

Of course, though, if you are reading this, you probably "hear" from me all the time, so it might be helpful to know Apex Writers Group has a lot more than me 😆

They host multiple Zoom calls a week where they invite professionals to teach writers how to write better. They have had guests like best-selling authors Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn and The Stormlight Archives), James Dashner (The Maze Runner), Kevin J. Anderson (who writes in the Dune universe (and worked as a producer on the recent films), and Orson Scott Card (Ender's Game). They've also brought on Angela Ackerman (The Emotion Thesaurus), Joanna Penn (prolific writer and podcaster), Dave Chesson (owner of Kindleprenuer), and more. (I think you get the idea.)

As the name suggests, it's also a writing group, so there is a community element where you can connect with other writers online for writing sprints and virtual get-togethers (and sometimes participate in competitions). 

Apex was founded by one of my writing mentors, David Farland, who taught Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, James Dashner, Brandon Mull, Stephenie Meyer, and others who went on to have very successful writing careers. Unfortunately, David passed away, but fortunately, Apex has recordings of his writing courses that you also get access to when you join.

Here is what Apex says about itself: Apex offers an incredible set of resources for writers, regardless of your stage of development. Whether you want to break into the publishing field, level up to bestseller, or begin selling more books than before. Apex members get access to the training, motivational tools, and supporting community that they need to achieve their personal goals.

It's $47 per month to join, and you can learn more or enroll by visiting their website.

In any case, I hope to see you next time for another tip 😉 (and you can always peruse my previous tips in my Writing Tip Index). Thank you for sharing this journey with me.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Overwhelmed with Writing a Book? Try These.

How do you not get overwhelmed writing a book? Well, honestly, "writing overwhelm" is not something most of us can avoid completely. It's normal, and probably even natural, to get overwhelmed from time to time. Writing a book is a big undertaking, with so many moving, developing pieces--all of which we hope will sing off the page in the final published product. So perhaps it's better to ask, how do we deal with writing overwhelm? This is what I want to talk about today.

If you haven't noticed, I almost entirely focus my blog on the writing craft. But every once in a while something outside that scope is brought to my attention, and I feel like I need to do a post on it. So while I won't be going deep into the nitty-gritty of plots and characters today, I hope this article is helpful to someone reading.

Here is what helps me with writing overwhelm, in the order I try them.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

12-Step Checklist for Writing Beginnings (Act I)

Beginnings tend to be the most difficult part of a story to get right, at least for many writers. There is so much Act I needs to accomplish--the hook, the introductions, the turns. 

And if your opening doesn't interest readers, they won't stick around for the "good stuff."

Well, recently I was looking for an Act I checklist . . . and I didn't really find what I wanted, so . . . I decided to make my own (and share it with you, of course). 

For most stories, the beginning--or rather, specifically, Act I--makes up the first quarter of the narrative arc. Let's go through what it should contain.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Writing a "Hollow Victory"

What is a "Hollow Victory"?

In writing, a "hollow victory" happens when the character gets what she wants, but ultimately isn't thrilled about it. It's as if the character feels "hollow"--empty, unfulfilled, unhappy.

Simplistically speaking, it works like this:

The protagonist has a goal.

She runs into antagonists, which creates escalating conflict.

At the peak of the conflict, she succeeds (at least seemingly).

And so everything should be amazing . . . right?

Only something seems to be missing . . . so the victory didn't land how the character imagined.

This all breaks down more, and we can get more detailed. Let's talk about this in relation to structure.

Monday, April 8, 2024

"All is Lost" vs. "Dark Night of the Soul"

Recently at a conference I attended, an audience member asked what the difference was between the "All is Lost" beat and the "Dark Night of the Soul" beat. The speaker gave her answer, but I found myself itching to answer as well (of course I didn't--the question wasn't directed at me). And one of the reasons I wanted to answer, was because I used to wonder this same thing.

In the writing community, "All is Lost" and "Dark Night of the Soul" are story beats that come from the Save the Cat! approach to writing. People in the community, though, sometimes use these terms interchangeably with each other or other terms, and some use them at different places in a story. And even if you look directly at Save the Cat!, it can be a bit tricky to differentiate them. Are they kind of the same? Are they not the same? If they are not the same, what's the difference? And do they show up in Act II? Act III? The climax? These are some of the questions that come up.

First off, if you are unfamiliar with the term, a story "beat" is basically a moment in a story. Often these are scenes--one scene or multiple scenes. But it's possible it's a moment smaller than a scene. Honestly, part of me dislikes the term "beat" because it's rather ambiguous. Not only is the term used to reference these moments in the overall story (narrative arc), but the term "beat" also gets used at the microscopic line level, which can make everything rather confusing when you are new to writing and trying to understand the terms. But I digress a bit. 

If you aren't familiar with Save the Cat!, it's a popular approach to writing that originates from Blake Snyder's book by the same name. Snyder was a screenwriter, and while his book contains other things related to writing, it's best known for its beat sheet--which outlines common story beats. And now when people say, "Save the Cat!" it's pretty much a given that they are referencing the beat sheet, specifically. (I've already gone over the Save the Cat! beats here.)

With that out of the way, let's go over these two major moments . . . 

Monday, March 25, 2024

The Difference between a Plot Turn and a Plot Twist

Most writers are familiar with the terms "plot turn" and "plot twist," but a lot of writers have a vague understanding of which is which. Some may wonder if there even is a difference, and if there is, what is the difference?

Sometimes "twists and turns" is used to describe a plot, even if the plot doesn't actually have a twist. This only makes things foggier. (And by the way, every story has a turn, but not every story has a twist.)

On the other hand, some people can sense the difference when consuming a story in the "wild," but can't verbalize the difference. They know a good twist on sight, but explaining it? "Well . . . uh . . . it's something like . . . um . . ."

Yeah, I get it. I used to have all those same problems. 

And when I went looking online for help back then, I couldn't find any articles that simply explained the difference.

So today, I've written one.

Let's talk about the difference between plot turns and plot twists . . .

What is a Plot Turn?

A plot turn is also called a "plot point" or a "turning point," so we have three terms for the same element. It turns the direction of the story. The story was going one way, and then information is revealed or an action is taken and the story is now going a new way.

I like to use the metaphor of a railroad to explain it. Simplistically speaking, your protagonist is a train engine pursuing a goal, on a railroad. The tracks lay down a pathway, a trajectory, to get there. A plot turn (or plot point or turning point) is like that train track that switches the direction of the train. The character was on trajectory A, but is now on trajectory B. 

As Robert McKee points out wisely in his book, Story, a plot turn can only happen one of two ways (well, or both of them): 

- A revelation (information is dropped)

- An action (which may also show up as an event)

For example, in Star Wars IV, Luke learns (info) that the princess is on the Death Star. This changes the direction of the story, because now Luke's goal shifts to saving Leia. His trajectory changed.

Likewise, when Luke destroys the Death Star (action) at the end, it changes the direction of the story. He succeeded in his goal, and the story now drops into falling action (it's time to breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate). 

After a turning point, the goal and/or the plan to get the goal, should have shifted in some way. If it didn't, it wasn't a true plot turn, because it didn't carry meaningful consequences. And the revelation or action needs to carry consequences in order to turn the trajectory. (Yes, I know I'm talking in circles a little bit.)

The biggest, most recognizable plot turn of any story, is the climax.

Notice that in basic structure, it visually turns the direction of the plotline. It turns the story from conflict to falling action. 

Luke destroying the Death Star is the biggest turn of Star Wars IV, because it definitively stops the antagonists and saves the "good guys" (at least until the next installment). Luke succeeds in getting the goal, and life as we know it changes for the characters.

But the climax shouldn't be the only turning point in a story. If it is, the story will feel monotonous and repetitious (and likely predictable), because we are on the same pathway from beginning to end.

In reality, each structural unit should almost always have a plot turn. Each act should have a plot turn. Each scene should have a plot turn. The difference is that the plot turn of an act will be smaller than that of the whole narrative arc, and the plot turn of a scene will be smaller than that of an act.

Commonly Act II is split in half.

Luke learning Leia is on the Death Star (after discovering Alderaan is gone and the Millenium Falcon gets pulled in by a tractor beam) is an act-level turning point, because it shifts his goal (in fact, all those things shift his goal and could frankly be dissected in more detail but let's keep it simple) to rescuing Leia, for the next quarter of the story.

And when the gang is in the trash compactor, Luke getting R2D2 to successfully shut down the compactor is the turning point of the scene.

Worth noting is that the term "plot point" commonly references act-level turning points. "Plot Point 1," "Midpoint," and "Plot Point 2" from 7 Point Story Structure are all act-level turning points. Technically though, you could call turns of smaller units a plot point, and the climax certainly is a plot point (the plot point of Act III, as well). It's just useful to know that when you hear the term "plot point" in the writing community, it's likely referring to act-level plot turns.

Every successful story needs regular plot turns. 

In contrast, not every successful story needs plot twists.

What is a Plot Twist?

A good twist will also contain a turn (though technically it can exist without one, it's just usually not very effective that way). A twist will turn on information being revealed, but it's more than that. The information being revealed has to change the audience's interpretation of what they knew or assumed to be true prior to that moment. It "recolors" their understanding of what came previously. It changes the context. The audience looks back at what happened earlier, and now they have a new interpretation of it, a new understanding of what was meant or what was really going on.

For example, in Star Wars V, Darth Vader reveals he is Luke's father. This is a twist, because until that moment, the audience thought Luke's father was dead. That was the context the audience was provided, the lens they had viewed the story through, what they had believed since the beginning. But it wasn't the whole truth. It was missing a piece. That piece is the fact that others were speaking of his death figuratively. Luke's dad didn't literally die, but he figuratively died, because he transformed into Darth Vader.

The twist is even more shocking because the audience had heard how Luke's father was a great Jedi--someone on the light side of the force. Darth Vader is on the dark side. He's the one who supposedly killed Luke's father.

Confused, the viewer's mind races back through earlier parts of the story, and realizes this new interpretation fits--it's been foreshadowed right under his nose. He just misinterpreted it.

He misinterpreted it because he didn't have the whole truth. He also made inaccurate assumptions about the information that was given.

Unlike turns, twists must work off ambiguity (which is not to be confused with vagueness)--there are at least two interpretations for the same moments (but the audience didn't realize there was a second interpretation). It's like this optical illusion. The viewer may only see a vase at first, and if we wanted, we could tweak this picture so it emphasizes the vase more. But in reality, it may truly be a picture of two faces staring at each other. When we point out the faces, it changes the viewer's interpretation of the picture.

That's what a plot twist is.

Which I realize, sounds rather different from a plot turn.

But as I mentioned, a good plot twist will also contain a plot turn. 

Because a good plot twist should carry meaningful consequences that shift the direction of the story. If it doesn't, it's probably just put in for shock value. If you can take out the plot twist, and the plot is the same, it's probably just gratuitous.

Consider Luke learning Darth Vader is his father. How does that alter the pathway of the story? Well, now Luke has to choose whether to join his father or continue fighting him, and each option carries more personal consequences than before. Can Luke kill his own father? Will he become like his father? This revelation has personal ramifications for Luke that will affect the whole trajectory of the next installment. It's what leads to Darth Vader's redemption at the end of the trilogy.

A plot turn should always affect the future of the story.

A plot twist should always affect the audience's understanding of the past.

And a good plot twist will also affect the future of the story, because it will also be a turn.

Of course, there are always variations and exceptions, but this is generally how it works.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

How to Fix Talking Heads in Your Story

What is "Talking Heads"? 

"Talking heads" or "talking heads syndrome" is a term used in the creative writing community for a passage of dialogue where all that exists is the dialogue. To the reader, it feels as if heads are floating in space, talking. We don't get any description. We don't get any blocking. We don't get any introspection. Just talking. As an example, it shows up like this.

“Happy Birthday, Cherie!”

“Oh thanks.”

“So, you have any big plans?”

“Nothing much. Just a family thing.”

“Cool, I was thinking we could go to that escape room? It’s tiki themed.”

“My favorite.”

“It’ll be awesome.”

“Is it even solvable with two people?”

“We’ll tell them it’s your birthday.”

While the dialogue itself could maybe use some work, this passage is a problem because the reader doesn't know where the characters are, what they look like, or what they are doing. 

And even if the scene did convey those things in the opening, straight dialogue like this that goes on and on, often has a weird effect on the reader, similar to that of having a blindfold on. (And simply adding dialogue tags isn't enough to fix the problem.)

Instead, it's more effective to flesh out the scene, so the audience feels as if they are there, experiencing the story for themselves.

Monday, February 26, 2024

How to Write Stakes that Aren't Life vs. Death

Writing strong stakes is critical for any story. But a question that often comes up for newer writers is, "How do I create stakes other than life vs. death?" Or essentially, "How do I write stakes that aren't life or death, yet are still effective?"

"Stakes" refer to what your character has to lose, what is at risk in the story. And obviously, potentially losing one's life, is a pretty big risk.

To address the questions, let's first look at why life vs. death stakes are so effective. 

I know, it sounds obvious, like common sense even, and you may be rolling your eyes. 

But understanding why they almost always work, will help you see how to create other similar stakes.

The thing about death is, it has a finality to it that almost nothing else has. 

No one can come back from the dead.

That's it.

Death is the end of the road.



Game over.

. . . Except that unlike "Game over," you can't restart the game.

In storytelling, this is one of the main reasons many of us want to grab life vs. death stakes. Everyone reading the book innately understands this. Death is final, you can't come back from that. It's a "point of no return." It can't be undone.

Great stakes will create a similar effect. 

It's not literally life or death. But to some degree, there exists a figurative life-or-death situation.

For example, in The Office, after Michael accidentally hits Meredith with his car, he organizes a fun run on her behalf. Michael is driven by the desire to be liked by others. And after he hits Meredith, people don't like him. (I am simplifying the actual story just a bit.) With the fun run, he's hoping to redeem himself. He wants to be liked (or even admired) by others. To Michael, that hinges on his success with the fun run. If it's a success, people will like him again. If it's a failure, they won't (or they will dislike him even more).

There are seemingly only two outcomes: Success = liked. Failure = (forever) disliked.

From Michael's perspective, he can't have both.

Whichever path the fun run takes, the other path "dies." 

You can't go back in time and change the outcome of the fun run. 

It's final. 

End of the road. 



The situation also, to some degree, feels like figurative life or death to Michael. He's driven to be liked, and that makes him feel alive. If he's disliked, it feels like "death." It mars him psychologically, and he feels like he can't come back from that. It feels like the end of the road.

The Office is not a high-stakes story (which is one of the reasons I'm using it), but it still has effective stakes that convey why what's happening (the fun run) matters (liked vs. disliked), which is something all good stakes do.

This example also shows two components related to crafting effective stakes: plot and character.

Let's dig a bit deeper into each.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

The "Bathtub Story": Why It's a Problem, How to Fix It, When to Use It

Writing a "bathtub story" is rarely a good idea. It often fits right up there with flashbacks; most of the time you shouldn't use them, but in certain circumstances, you can get away with them. Bathtub stories lack immediacy and as such, often bring the narrative to a grinding halt. 

Yet they are common for new writers to write. So let's go over them, why they're a problem, how to fix them, and when to use one (if you dare 😉) . . . I also have a little offer for my followers at the end, so don't miss that 😊

What is a "Bathtub Story"?

The term "bathtub story" originates from author Jerome Stern, who talks about them in his book, Making Shapely Fiction. He writes:

In a bathtub story, a character stays in a single, relatively confined space . . . While in that space the character thinks, remembers, worries, plans, whatever. Before long, readers realize that the character is not going to do anything. . . . The character is not interacting with other people, but just thinking about past interactions. Problems will not be faced, but thought about.

A bathtub story is essentially a story that takes place in introspection.

While most novels won't literally be an entire bathtub story, many new writers have bathtub scenes or chapters, where the character simply reflects and doesn't do anything meaningful. While Stern likens this to someone in a confined tub, I would argue these can happen even when the character is moving. The character may be taking a walk or washing the dishes, but the story elements only exist in her head.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Circling Conflicts vs. Zigzagging Conflicts

Nearly every writer understands that a story needs conflict. The protagonist sets off to fulfill a goal, runs into an antagonistic force, and their struggle creates conflict. This should happen in the story as a whole, this should happen in acts, and it should happen in almost every scene--the difference is that the smaller the structural unit, the smaller the antagonist and conflict (simplistically speaking).

Today I want to talk about a sneaky problem I sometimes see when editing manuscripts, one that relates to conflicts.

Sometimes the writer simply “circles” the conflict.

What I mean is that after a given conflict, nothing has actually changed in the story. We just completed a “circle.”

For example, say the protagonist is a favorite target of the schoolyard bully. They get into a verbal fight, but when it's over, nothing's different. The conflict didn't have any consequences.

It may not sound that bad.

And if it only happens once in a while, and there are enough other conflicts going on, it may not be.

But if this happens repeatedly or this is the main conflict, the plot isn't progressing. It just did a circle and the characters ended up in the same situation they were before the encounter. Essentially, no matter how exciting the scene may seem to be, you could still cut it and the story would be the same.

Let's look at an even less obvious example.

The protagonist needs to get Object X from Character B.

The protagonist finds a way to successfully steal it.

But then immediately afterward, Character B steals it back.

The scene ends, and the protagonist is back at square one.

It doesn't sound that bad, does it?

And if it only happens once in a while, and there are enough other conflicts going on, it may not be.

But if this sort of thing happens repeatedly--over and over and over--the plot isn't progressing. You're just going back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. And if we just arc that path a bit, guess what? It creates a circle.