My Freelance Editing Services
Read about me
My writing tips organized by topic.
Read what others have said about me and my blog.
Connect with me on social media.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Creating Mini Character Arcs Within a Scene




Last week I talked about structuring scenes, with a focus on plot. Most scenes should be structured like a mini story:

Hook
Setup
Rising Action
Climax
Denouement

But another element of story that should be in your scene just as it is in the overall novel is how your character changes, or in other words, the character arc.

In a single scene, the character arc may or may not relate to the overall character arc.

But there (usually) needs to be an arc of some kind. Psychologically, the character needs to be in some kind of motion.

For a scene, think of it as a mini character arc.  How your character starts the scene psychologically and then how he or she ends the scene, psychologically. They should be different.

Let's go back to my examples from last time. I had a scene where a character falls in love. Another where two characters discover who the murderer is via discussion. And finally, I referred to a real scene in a story--Newt going into his suitcase for the first time on screen.

In each of these, you could say the mini character arc is quite simple, since each character ends in a new state or has new information (which relates to the purpose or goal of the scene).

Not in love --> Love
Not knowing the murderer --> Knowing the murderer
Not knowing which animals got loose --> to knowing which got loose

However, not being something is sometimes not enough. It's often not very tangible. As you work with scenes, often the state the character starts the scene comes from a previous scene, after all, in a story, we are dealing over and over again with cause and effect. So in a previous scene, Newt realizes some of his magical beasts got out, therefore, he needs more knowledge in order to catch them--which beasts got out? Between him realizing that, to him actually going in his case to count them, there are a several other scenes, which also contribute to the state he starts in. For one, he has to figure out how to heal Jacob, and that's quite important (especially for the rest of the scene).



I've talked about this on my blog before, but when brainstorming and starting a scene, it's helpful to ask these two questions:

What is being brought to the scene?

and

How can I take advantage of that?


This can relate to the mini arc. What emotions, attitudes, worldviews, and behaviors is the character bringing to the scene? How will the purpose, goals, and conflicts of the scene affect that? How will they change by the end of the scene?

In my love and murder examples, I'd probably sit down and think about my character and what they bring to the scene. Maybe my heroine thinks the guy she's about to fall for is a showoff. Perhaps he has a reputation she doesn't like. And if I'm going off what I said last time, to make matters worse, it's forbidden to love him.

In my murder example, the protagonist might start the scene already thinking he knows who the murderer is. Or maybe he's at least convinced he's narrowed it down to three people. Maybe his own biases and arrogance have clouded his thinking.

As the scene's plot (or mini plot) progresses, the heroine falls in love. The hero realizes during the course of the discussion that he was wrong. Whatever it is, they end the scene in a different state.

Again, this may or may not relate to the overall character arc.

Let's say that the overall arc in our murder novel deals with the protagonist realizing and overcoming his own biases and arrogance. Then the example I just gave deals directly with that.

Let's say that the love example happens in a story where love isn't actually the main conflict or focus. Instead, the story is mainly about a young girl following her dreams to be an actress, and her overall character arc is about moving from being insecure and looking to everyone else for validation to being secure and finding validation within.



Whatever the case, the mini arc relates to the main character of that scene.

But there are also characters that may arc.

For example, in the scene of Newt taking Jacob into his suitcase, Jacob has his own mini arc. How he starts the scene is different from how he ends it. He moves from ignorance to knowledge.

In some scenes, all the characters may arc. In others, only the "main character" of the scene may arc.

In rare cases, maybe not even that. In a few specific scenes, the point is to show that a character doesn't change. In my murder example, perhaps the character is still convinced, even after the discussion, that he is right--he is still so blinded by his own biases and arrogance (even if the audience may not be). Some characters, particularly those with extreme characteristics, may refuse to change.

https://twitter.com/i/moments/853063281061187584For example, in the musical Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton is a hard worker to a fault--he's a workaholic. In the number (aptly named) "Non-Stop," Burr, Eliza, George Washington, and even nameless characters, speak to or touch on the idea of him needing to slow down--but he never does. The point of the song is to illustrate how he never slows down. And ultimately the only way to get him to change is to have him wreck havoc upon himself.

However, it should be noted that even though Hamilton doesn't change internally in that song, he still changes as a character externally, climbing career ladder after career ladder. So even if your character doesn't change internally in a scene, they almost always need to change externally at least.

 As I said at the beginning of this article, they almost always need to be in some kind of motion. To what extent and in what way, may be dictated by the point of the scene, or if not, it may be something you need to come up with if only for within that scene.

As with all the other points of a scene I've made so far, remember that you are working on a small scale. It's completely possible for a mini character arc to take up only a few sentences in some scenes.

So dear writers, how do you like to approach character motion in a scene? Let us know in the comments. ^_^

In the future I'll be talking more about how the character's state and the mini plot of a scene work together, defining more points of each.

Also, don't forget that you have until the 19th (Wednesday) to enter our advent calendar for writers! All of the gifts have been revealed, and you can still enter for the chance to win each one, including mine.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Structuring Satisfying Scenes




Last week I was going through some old scenes and reading through them rather quickly but still tweaking them here and there to be more effective. While some I thought were good, they didn't have the same zing to them, and I realized it was because they didn't fully follow a satisfying structure.

You can find a lot of articles about structuring scenes, and I won't have room to cover everything here (though maybe over time I can get them all on my site), but I wanted to start with same basics that can be helpful to everyone.

When we talk about overall story structure and strip everything away to the bare, bare bones, it should follow Freytag's Pyramid.



This was posted online a while ago, and I saw someone commenting and laughing how it was out of date and that for the modern audience, Freytag's Pyramid isn't going to work. This is like saying that because we now have hip-hop, dance doesn't work. But hip-hop is dance. All satisfying story structures embody Freytag's Pyramid even if they add more elements. 7-Point Plot Structure, the Hero's Journey, whatever. All of them follow Freytag's Pyramid because it's the most basic unit of story structure. Just as hip-hop adds more specificity, but is still dance.

And when you start working with scenes, you'll notice that most successful scenes also follow this structure, on a small scale. Like everything, there are exceptions. But as you actually genuinely work at writing a satisfying novel, you may realize that we use this simple structure everywhere--plotting, character arcs, dialogue exchanges, sometimes even within a paragraph. Never underestimate the power of the basics. As Leonardo da Vinci once stated, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

With that in mind, let's talk about how satisfying scene structure actually mimics overall story structure, which may include elements that are often added to Freytag's Pyramid.

Preliminary

Before worrying about scene structure, it's helpful to identify a few key elements of the scene.

Purpose - What is the purpose of the scene? It should be moving the story forward in some way. This might be obvious, like having the protagonist confront the antagonist, but other times it might be a little less obvious, like introducing the audience to a rule in a magic system, revealing a character trait, or stating a theme. But the point is that the scene has a purpose and it's not superfluous. Ask yourself, what is the audience getting out of this scene?

Goal - The main character (of the scene) should have a goal of some kind, something he or she wants. As a beginning writer, it can be easy to want to skimp out on this, but it's very effective in writing a good scene and practically a necessity. It may be something immediately obvious and direct, like defeating the antagonist. Other times it might be more personal or even indirect, like Bilbo Baggins wanting to be left alone in his Hobbit hole--that may not be the main purpose of the scene, but it's there. This is why "purpose" and "goal" are two different categories.

Let me give you another example. The opening of Harry Potter has the purpose of teasing the audience about the Wizarding World and Harry himself from a Muggle perspective. But the viewpoint character, Vernon Dursley has the goal of having a normal day via dismissing all of the peculiar things happening around him

Conflict - What kind of conflicts or potential conflicts (a.k.a. tension) will be present in this scene? Is it the physical wrestle between the protagonist and antagonist? Is it Vernon Dursley being bombarded time and time again with peculiar happenings and people? And him being afraid to call his wife and ask about the Potters? Is it Bilbo having to deal with people wanting to socialize?

Sometimes, all these things line up in scenes, especially toward the end of the novel.

For example,

Purpose: Protagonist defeats antagonist in a sword fight
Goal: Protagonist wants to defeat antagonist in a sword fight.
Conflict: Protagonist and antagonist want to defeat each other in a sword fight

Seems simple right?

But in other scenes, it might be more indirect or sometimes not seem to match at all.

Here is one from a scene in the first Fantastic Beasts movie.

Purpose: Introduce the audience to Newt's magical case and all the beasts/elements inside, while appealing to wonder.
Goal: While Newt does heal Jacob and care for his animals, his main goal is to see which animals are missing, so he can figure out how to find them (notice that healing Jacob allows him to have Jacob tell him about places in New York and that feeding the animals allows him to see who is missing.)
Conflicts: I'm going to argue that the main conflicts center on Jacob being a Muggle--first Newt has to figure out how to heal him when Muggle biology is a little different, then Jacob doesn't know how to interact with the creatures, and finally, he almost messes with the Obscurus and Newt has to stop him.


Ideally, most scenes have more than one purpose, more than one goal, and more than one conflict. In fact, it's practically a necessity.

So in my last example, another purpose of the scene is to foreshadow and introduce the Obscurus. Newt also reveals his goal to release the Thunderbird. And he doesn't want Jacob to be obliviated. He touches on other conflicts--Frank being trafficked, the Niffler always getting out, the last breeding pair of Graphorns. There are mini-goals that I already mentioned, healing Jacob and feeding the animals. And mini-conflicts, an Occamy tries to bite Jacob, and Pickett won't get off Newt's hand.

You'll notice that even if the main purpose, goal, and conflict don't line up directly, they will naturally overlap during the scene itself in some way because they are elements that have to be present and therefore have to be interwoven to be satisfying. In order to fulfill the purpose of the last example, Newt has to go in his case, which means he needs to have a need/goal for doing that, and to show off the animals in interesting ways, there needs to be conflict for balance.

So they overlap, but they aren't directly the same thing, unlike, say the final sword fight between hero and villain.

And this is where I think some beginning writers have a problem--they don't have to all be the same thing. And in many stories, in the beginning scenes, they won't be.

Structure

Remember Freytag's Pyramid? Great. Most satisfying scenes follow that same structure, but on a smaller scale. I don't care if your scene is about a character falling in love with another, a conversation about what the antagonist is up to, or a train ride to school. If it's going to be effective, it most likely needs the setup, rising action, and climax. I should have mentioned above that some say the denouement (falling action) is optional--I strongly argue that in stories, they should almost always be included for validation, but in scenes, I think that can vary a little more, somewhat.

I'm going to add one more element. The hook. And instead of "exposition," I'm going to call it "setup." So here are the basic parts of a satisfying scene.

Hook - Grab the audience's attention in some way. This doesn't need to be clickbait, people. Hooks work on promises--they give the audience something to anticipate. Often this is something to hope for or to dread. But sometimes it's just the promise of more information--the hook communicates to the audience that they need(want) more information.

In my Fantastic Beasts example, I'm going to argue the hook is Newt and then Jacob disappearing magically into the suitcase. Since we know he keeps creatures in that case, we anticipate seeing them.



Setup - Author David Farland calls this part "grounding." We need to ground the audience. Where are we? When are we? And who is present? Give us an idea. How much you need of this may depend on the prior scene(s). In the very first scene of a book, we usually need more grounding (and setup in the large-scale sense, which is one reason why openings are so hard).

The camera shows Newt in the case in the first room with Jacob. Great, they both turned up in the same place. Then later we follow them out and get a glimpse of this case having animal habitats.


Rising Action - Once readers are invested and know where we are, it's time to build rising action. What it is depends on the preliminary elements: the purpose, goal, and conflicts.

If the main purpose is for one character to fall for another, we might cook up sexual tension. If the purpose is to figure out who the murderer is via a conversation between two heroes, the heroes may start talking about conflicts and clues, stakes and goals, and suspects. In Newt's suitcase, the rising action is checking the animals--which appeals to the purpose and goal and incorporates conflict.

Like the middle of a story, the rising action of the scene escalates. This is why it's called rising action. This is what happens in our Newt example. Newt doesn't have too much trouble curing Jacob, then he goes to the Thunderbird, where he has to he warn Jacob that Frank doesn't like strangers. When he tries to let go of Pickett, it's more difficult than the other two things. He shows Jacob the Occamies, but one nearly bites off Jacob's finger. Eventually this escalates to Newt having to stop the most dangerous outcome of all, Jacob messing with the Obscurus.

Alternative to conflicts and tension, you can see the purpose of the scene itself escalate. First we briefly glimpse the Swooping Evil, then interact with Frank, then visit three Graphorns, then four bowtruckles, four Occamies (would be five, but one is missing, but Jacob and Newt both hold one), then a montage of a whole bunch of different animals with Newt and Jacob interacting with them.


(See what I mean about Freytag's Pyramid being used everywhere?)


Climax - This is the high point, where the purpose, conflict, and/or goal reach their max for the scene. This is the moment the character falls in love in our prior example. This is the line in the conversation where the heroes realize which of the suspects is the murderer. For Newt, I actually included the climaxes in the last example to illustrate. For the conflict, the climax is when Jacob is near the Obscurus. For the purpose, the climax is when we get that montage of loads of fantastic beasts. What about the goal? It's when Newt finishes counting the beasts at the Erumpent pen. You'll notice that this climax is much more subtle. That's okay. In some scenes the character's goal may not even climax, because it changes or remains unfulfilled or gets obstructed. You don't need everything to climax, but there should usually be some form of climax.



Denouement (Falling Action) - On occasions, some scenes will not have a denouement. But I think we sometimes misunderstand falling actions. They don't necessarily tie everything up if there is more to the story. This is the same thing with series books. The denouement may tie up the main elements of the novel, but it also keeps us looking forward to what happens next, in other words, it has a promise, a.k.a. hook, that gets us to anticipate, usually through hope or dread, what might come next.

In my hook section, I said the hook for Newt was him going into his case. Some of you might have realized that was actually the end (denouement) of the prior scene. It doesn't have to be structured like that. You can have hooks at both the end of one scene and the beginning of another--in fact, you usually should. But my point is that there should usually be some kind of hook to get us to want to keep reading.

Often naturally, in a scene, the denouement will get us to look ahead. Great, our heroine fell in love--but guess what? We know from the setup that this is a forbidden love, so now what's she gonna do? Our heroes figured out who the murderer is, great, so now how are they going to catch him? Newt knows which creatures are missing, so now how is he going to recover those?

In the overall story, the denouement may validate what happened to the reader. This may or may not happen in a scene. In our love example, we may have a few lines that validate that yes, our heroine did just fall for that guy. Or yes, that suspect has to be the murderer, because look at how this now all fits (and the heroes will be talking about that).

The falling action finishes the scene. In some cases, it may be cut to end on a cliffhanger. Just don't forget that just because you have a denouement doesn't mean you can't have the audience anticipating what happens next. Some beginning writers think you can only achieve that by axing the falling action. If you do that every time, it can get annoying, and make the story feel "gap"-ish as you never "finish" one scene before starting another.



Note - Scenes are much briefer than an overall story. Depending on the scene, these may take paragraphs or they may be as short as half a sentence. For example, you may have the hook and the setup in the same sentence. But whatever the case, they typically follow the same proportions. The rising action takes up the bulk of the scene, while the hook will be the shortest.

There are really so many ways to talk about how a scene works and other approaches, but this is a good one to start on. If any of this is paralyzing to you, relax. If you are an outliner, you can use this to help you outline scenes. If you are a discovery writer, go ahead and discover the scene, then if you are stuck or feel like it's lacking, go through these like checkpoints. This is meant to work for you, not for you to work for it.

I want to go on, but this post is getting rather long, so next week I'll be back to talk about how the character moves psychologically through the scene.


Giveaway - I'm giving away a first chapter edit for our advent calendar for writers! The great thing is, if you are already subscribed to my blog or follow me on social media, all you need to do is click a couple of times to enter. You can enter here.

Check out all the other gifts so far here. You can still enter to win them, too!


Monday, December 3, 2018

Discovery Writing: 2 Tripwires and a Pitfall




As probably a lot of you know, I'm a big outliner. I've talked about this before. I'm not a 100% outliner--I definitely like to leave room for discovery writing, but if I try to discovery write more than half, maybe more than a quarter, I end up writing crap (sadly). And I think it ends up taking more work to fix.

If you are just joining us and have no idea what I'm talking about, let me explain real quick.

Discovery writing is when you start writing your story and "discover" where it goes. (Sometimes people who discovery write are called "pantsers.")

Outlining is what it sounds like. You outline the story before writing it. (Sometimes people who outline are called "plotters.")

Most writers are a hybrid of both, but may lean one direction.

Lately I've really been wanting to do a post on discovery writing. But. I'm not really a discovery writer. Luckily, author Rachel Taylor is! And I asked her to give us her insight on the process. (Thanks, Rachel!)

***

A couple years ago, I read a writing craft book that made me so mad I had serious thoughts of book burning (metaphorically only as I was reading on my phone). The author taught some helpful writing techniques but interspersed were endless jabs at Pantsers (the prior name of Discovery Writers, ditched because it has some unsavory secondary implications). Here’s just one of his comments about us: “It pours out of their head and basically spills all over the place. Two words: a mess. And it often gets even worse from there...”

I wanted to wrap my hands around Dear Author’s neck and give him a giant, head-whacking shake. Being a Plotter vs being a Discovery Writer (which term I will use going forward), has nothing to do with skills, ability, or messes. It has everything to do with how a writer connects with creativity. I connect by fighting things out on the page. That’s where my best ideas come from. Trust me. I’ve tried to plot. I once forced myself to write an entire book based off an outline, and you know what? It was the most boring thing I’ve ever written, and no amount of rewriting or editing saved it from being shoved under the dusty back corner of my bed.

Best case scenario when I try to plot is that I get a couple of chapters in and my contemporary teenage protag suddenly swishes her skirts, dabs a poison on her lips, and says fiddle-dee-dee to her best friend from the Andromeda Galaxy and my carefully devised plot-sheet also ends up under the bed.

I have no choice but to fight things out on the page. And it’s not just me. This is what we Discovery Writers do. Which means we have a whole set of both tripwires and pitfalls that can be (but not always are) unique to us.


Tripwire Number One: The Blank Page Syndrome

This is me staring at an entirely white screen, a frown on my face, a headache forming as I once again wish that I was a Plotter who always knew what needs to be written next. It happens. It happens a lot.

The goal then is to have a plan for when it happens.

My personal plan is simple. Walk away from the computer and go fold some laundry. (I have four kids; there is always laundry. On the rare occasion there isn’t, doing the dishes, cooking something, mowing the lawn, washing the car, and grooming animals also work.) I take with me a notepad of some sort with the last line I committed to the computer written across the top. As I fold/cook/clean/fix, my mind wanders and inevitably ends up on that notebook. (I see this all as boring-the-right-side-of-my-brain-into-action.) Ideas flare up as I work: Pictures. Voices. Motions. Maybe an entire paragraph of words. I race back to my desk and get it all down. Sometimes I’ll manage an entire scene. Sometimes just a few words, but always something comes. Then when I get stuck again, I return to folding laundry. (My house/life/animals get super clean when I’m struggling with a story.)

Now you don’t have to follow my plan for being stuck, but feel free to try if it helps. If you happen to be a Discovery Writer who already knows how to spark your creativity, let us know in the comments as there isn’t one right way to beat the blank page. The important thing is to have a plan ready when the blank page syndrome strikes.

The second tripwire works the same way.

Tripwire Number Two: The "I Wrote Myself Into a Corner" Syndrome

I’ve conquered my blank pages (and fired my housekeeper in the process). I’m at the 75% mark of the book. The protag is facing a Mt. Everest of a challenge (in skirts, with her alien best friend at her side). The love interest is being skewered (emotionally if not physically). All hope is lost. There’s no way out. They are all going to die (but in pretty clothes).

Err… Now what? This is supposed to be an HEA book after all.…

Being cornered is also something Discovery Writers just have to plan for. It happens to me every book, sometimes repeatedly, generally at the turning points and the climax of the story.

What I do is take my trusty notebook and write out exactly what the corner looks like. Where is the story stuck and unfixable? Why can’t my protag resolve the situation (or just plain old get out of it)? Then below this, I number 1-100. Or (when I’m feeling nonlinear) I write the problem dead center of the page and turn the whole thing into a brain map of bubbles and clouds.

I walk away from the computer (more laundry) and force myself to come up with 100 possible solutions regardless of how ridiculous or unrealistic they are. And they get crazy. And stupid. And so, so embarrassing that I’m not even going to give you any examples.

The goal is to get all the crazy answers out. Then once they are gone, my brain has no choice but to come up with something better.

The physical action of writing it all down via pen and paper is super important too. I see myself as freeing up the same part of my brain that insists I have to be a Discovery Writer in the first place. And it totally works. Good ideas do show up, usually after I’ve listed out 80 bad ones.

But that leads us to the one giant Pitfall that I’ve seen Discovery Writers fall into and sometimes never recover from.


Pitfall: "I’m a Discovery Writer, I Don’t Have to Worry About Story Structure" Syndrome

There are writers who never take a writing class, never attend a conference, never use a beta reader, who still go on to publish. It happens (I HATE that it happens. SO unfair), but the majority of us won’t ever do that. Yes, story structure is so ingrained in our culture and our mindsets that whether we understand it or not we will use it. But that’s not good enough. Story structure (whether you look at it from the perspective of Scene/Sequel, Hero’s Journey, Three-Act-Play (or better yet all three hand-in-hand)) needs to be the best-friend of Plotters and Discovery Writers alike.

Plotters do have an advantage in pre-planning their books around proper structure that Discovery Writer don’t, but there are things Discovery Writers can do to overcome this. The first, of course, is making sure we understand structure in the first place. If you don’t, drop everything and go learn it (I mean after you finish reading this article…) I recommend starting with books and classes written for screenwriters. They do a much better job of explaining story structure than craft books for novelists.

Then after the fun/torture of the first draft is done, Discovery Writers can back up and make sure all structure elements are in the right places, happening to the right people.  We can edit our way to good structure.

Sounds simple. And maybe even a bit obvious. But I can’t tell you how many discussions I’ve had with writers who don’t bother to do this and take a "I’m a Discovery Writer, I trust it will all just work out" attitude. Again, for a lucky few, it probably does. For most of us, we need every advantage we can get. Proper story structure makes storytelling more effective and creates a more intuitive connection for readers.

Now, what I do is take it all a step further. In the corner of my office, I keep a giant white board with the three-act play drawn out in vinyl. I fill in the story with sticky notes as I go. This allows me to be hyper aware of my structure as I write, and I find the labels on structure give me ideas for story as I move forward. (Plus seeing my novel unfold visually is just hugely rewarding to me.)

So, there it is. Two tripwires that I fall over regularly and a pitfall I avoid. I wouldn’t be surprised though if other Discovery Writers have additional stumbling blocks in their way. If you do, please give them a share in the comments and explain how you beat them. Because while our stories do just spill out of us, that doesn’t make them a mess and it certainly doesn’t make them irredeemable. It just means our processes, our connection to creativity, and our related challenges are a little bit different.


Rachel Taylor is a YA Fantasy author repped by Rachel Brooks of BookEnds Lit.  She can be found at www.racheltaylorwrites.com.


Saturday, December 1, 2018

Writing Advent Calendar! Giveaways Dec. 1st - 19th

What's better than holidays?
What's better than presents?
What's better than writing?

Holidays, presents, AND writing.




Super Awesome Advent Calendar for Writers







This time of year, there’s always a lot going on and stress can creep in as we rush to prepare for the upcoming holiday. So, to help focus on the good things and celebrate this terrific writing community we’re all part of, I’ve teamed up with Becca & Angela at Writers Helping Writers to bring you an Advent Calendar for Writers. Not only will I be giving away a prize, but some of my favorite writing tip authors are too! 

Our calendar works just like those delightful chocolate-filled kinds, only instead of a nibble of sweetness you get a chance to win some AMAZING prizes that can help you on your writing journey.

These prizes are exceptional, and while I can’t spill the beans on upcoming draws (why ruin the fun?) I can tell you that in total they are valued at over $2000!  

So when you’re online this month, drop by this post because Angela & Becca will be updating it every day between December 1st to the 14th with a link to a new giveaway in the Advent Calendar. If you miss a day or two, don’t worry—all draws will remain open until the 19th of December. Who knows, maybe you’ll win yourself something special for this holiday season!


Happy Holidays!

Monday, November 26, 2018

Brainstorm Your Antagonist's Plotline Earlier





Over the last few weeks I have actually started brainstorming and even outlining my next novel. I still have a lot to figure out but recently, I was reminded again how effective it can be to consider your antagonist's plotline early in the process.

Most of us have a rough idea of what our antagonist is or does by the time we really sit down to brainstorm. At minimum, we at least have a notion. After all, we need an antagonistic force to have conflict for a story.

But it's very easy and very tempting to put all our focus on the protagonist. It's absolutely necessary to spend plenty of time discovering and nailing down our protagonist, but it can be extremely effective to really consider your antagonist quite early in the process.

This is because (obviously) the antagonist will be what your protagonist is up against.

Often we might focus only on the protagonist's view of the plot, thinking about what sorts of obstacles, conflicts, and resistance they will meet and need to overcome and what will be interesting.

However, the antagonist has a very different view of what's going on, even if it doesn't all make it on the page. He or she or it will be "fighting" against the protagonist. The protagonist reacts and battles the antagonist, but so does the antagonist react to and battle the protagonist.

If your antagonist is a person or society (as opposed to nature or self) you should consider how their plot would play out. What would they do next? How would they respond to the protagonist's efforts? What is the cleverest way they would handle this situation?

When you take the time to consider the antagonist's story early, you will be able to brainstorm and map out a more powerful story for your protagonist.

Beyond the protagonist and main antagonist, it's also helpful to take some time to consider what the situation looks like through other characters' perspectives (as long as you don't get too carried away). How does the love interest view what is playing out between the antagonist and protagonist? What about a close family member or friend? Like the main antagonist, it can also be very effective to look at the plot, conflict, or issues from any other antagonistic forces.

For example, in the project I'm working on, the protagonist has to team up with a gray character who is an antagonist-sympathizer. Though he's not the main villain, I have found that I can brainstorm a better story when I take time to think about his view, actions, and reactions, early in the creative process. What this does is give my protagonist more powerful or significant conflicts. I have better quality ideas, and my protagonist needs to deal with them in clever ways. In other words, it produces a better story quicker. I have better ideas in brainstorming.

This sort of approach is also a great way to help you create strong side characters, because it ensures you are creating a plot where the side characters don't only exist for the sake of the protagonist.

When we are learning to plot for the very first time, we are often asked to consider what try/fail cycles and obstacles are keeping the protagonist from reaching his goals, and then trying to brainstorm what those are and how he overcomes them. Then we might go back and see how the antagonist can make those obstacles happen, or what kind of antagonist we need. Then, we might start fleshing out and filling in the side characters to populate the story.

When it comes down to it, I don't really believe there is a "wrong" approach to coming up with your story--you have to find what works for you. But when you are next brainstorming, try taking time to consider your antagonist and supporting cast earlier and see if that helps you actually develop a better plotline for your protagonist.

We talk about the antagonist as a character a lot, but perhaps not enough about his or her or its own actions and reactions when brainstorming.

Here are some benefits to doing this:

- Your story will feel more authentic
- It will be "bigger" than what's on the page
- You'll see elements you can play with that you may not have noticed otherwise
- It helps the plot itself from feeling flat; it adds dimension
- You'll come up with ideas you haven't thought of and would not have come up with otherwise
- Your protagonist will have to work harder to deal with his or her conflicts
- The antagonist and side characters will become more rounded

And that's the tip for the week.


Monday, November 19, 2018

Fantastic Beasts 2: Thoughts from a Fan and Fiction Editor




First, I have to apologize to some of my followers. I met a bunch of lovely people at the LDSPMA conference a couple of weeks ago, and it happens to be that they followed my blog just before I did some atypical posts on it (last week and now this week). But being known for my love of all things Harry Potter, while I tried to resist, I ultimately could not not write about my thoughts and take on the new Fantastic Beasts movie, but don't worry, this post will definitely have some writing insight infused with it, so if you are here just for writing stuff, you'll still get some of that. (Alternatively, you can go to my Writing Tip Index and read a writing tip about the topic of your choice if you prefer.)  

By the way, there are no spoilers stated in this.

Thoughts

I had heard mixed and even disappointed reactions about this movie before I saw it. I had also heard that something somewhat shocking was in it, and I kept getting the vibe that it broke canon. For those unfamiliar with that term, "canon" refers basically to the "bible" of the universe/franchise. For example, if we had a movie where Voldemort actually loved someone, it would break canon, because it has been established that Voldemort is actually literally incapable of love. It goes against rules and boundaries already established.

So I didn't go in with super high expectations. Mind you, I didn't go in with super high expectations for the last one (though I loved it), simply because this series will never be Harry Potter, and they are prequels, and if you've read the books, you already know how the story ends. That's not to say that I didn't go in with tons of excitement. Because I did. Any chance to get more from the Wizarding World is always a mega plus to my muggle mortal existence.

But because of what I'd heard, I kept waiting for something really awful to happen. I kept waiting for really bad writing or a ridiculous rule change that ruined what had come before. Like I mean really ridiculous. If you don't believe me, here are some things that were passing thoughts: Did Dumbledore and Grindelwald somehow magically have a kid? Will someone be brought back from the dead (which would be a huge no-no and would really break canon)? Did Dumbledore make a Horcrux? Is there a fourth Deathly Hallow?

Rest assured that there was nothing as crazy as that! In fact, I really enjoyed the movie. The characterization was on point, and their dialogue exchanges great. One of the insignificant questions I ask myself about characterization, is "Would it be interesting to watch these characters go grocery shopping?" I know that sounds weird, but here's the thing. Grocery shopping is so mundane. So if it would be entertaining to watch that character or characters do that, then they are intriguing enough to watch do anything else. I think our four main characters for Fantastic Beasts meet that. In fact, their characterizations and interactions are one of the best parts of the show, in my opinion. And their acting was great, even all the way to the young actors who played Newt and Leta as Hogwarts students. Man, the one who played Newt--I seriously don't think you could have asked for anyone better. In fact, I found myself wondering how they all got it so right.


Jude Law's interpretation of a younger Dumbledore? Dang, I could watch that guy all day. I loved it. Jacob trying to give advice about girls to Newt? (And then watching Newt try to act on it?) Absolutely adorable! I could see how some people might be upset with Queenie's ultimate direction, but I actually really thought the opening worked well. We got to see another (contrasting) side to her that made what could have become a flat innocent character more complex. (As I've said before, whenever you want to make a character more complex, give them something contrasting or contradictory--the complexity comes from reconciling that within their characterization.) And then there is Grindelwald. When I saw the last Fantastic Beasts movie, everyone laughed when they saw Johnny Depp. Everyone.

Ten minutes into this film, and no one was laughing. In fact, I found myself thinking, "Hedwig, we aren't at Hogwarts anymore!" I mean, we all know Voldemort is really a bad guy, right? But for the majority of the Harry Potter series we don't actually, as an audience, see him being that bad. After all, the epitome of his rule happened prior to the books. It was pretty chilling to see a dark wizard actually do really terrible things--dang there were some really great ways they conveyed that in the opening.

For example (this is a super minor/insignificant thing, but skip the paragraph if you don't want to know) we watch him use a magical creature to escape. After the creature does his work, we see Gindelwald comfort, praise, and care for it--and then throw it out the window. From a writing standpoint: That. Was. Brilliant. The audience's reaction was visceral, to the point that people gasped and cried out in the theater. See, the filmmakers and Johnny Depp handled it just right. They showed us Grindelwald cooing and stroking the beast long enough and convincing enough for us to believe he actually cares it--for me as a writer, I took it as what's called in Hollywood, a "petting the dog" moment, where you show someone petting a dog to make us like the person. "Petting the dog" is usually used for heroes, but sometimes it's used with the villains to convey to us that they aren't 100% evil and have some goodness in them (again, making them complex). So when he so simply threw it out the window, even I was stunned. (Not to mention, it worked as a fantastic foil to Newt.)

The opening was great. The characters and relationships were great. The acting was great. The world was great--I mean, a wizarding circus? Hogwarts in the early 1900s? (With a boggart and the Mirror of Erised?) The Wizarding World in Paris? A glimpse of the Sorcerer's Stone? More fantastic creatures on screen? Baby nifflers?!?! I'm eating it all up. I'm eating up Newt and Tina, Newt and Jacob, Jacob and Queenie, seeing Dumbledore having to deal with the ministry thinking he wants to be minister even clear back then (something alluded to in the books). Seeing Dumbledore cleverly manipulate the pure in heart to do his work, again. Seeing Dumbledore in front of the Mirror of Erised, knowing all the way from book one that he had lied to Harry about what he saw in it. Is this like a dream come true? I'm salivating.


Then there is the plot.

And I think this is where the mixed feelings walk in. Remember, I liked and enjoyed the movie--everyone clear on that?--but I totally see why people are disappointed or have mixed feelings (especially since J.K. Rowling actually wrote this script.) If someone forced me to point to which film of the Wizarding World had the weakest plot, I'd grudgingly be forced to point to this one. *hides face*

Do you remember when after Harry Potter, every other major film series decided they wanted to split their movies into "Part 1" and "Part 2"? (When their story didn't actually need it?) This movie felt like a "Part 1," where the end is really more of a midpoint than an end point. Obviously there are more films in the series, so yeah, I guess that makes sense. But every other Wizarding World film (minus Deathly Hallows because that literally was split in two) can stand on its own plot-wise. This one? Not so much. It either felt like a Part 1, or it felt like one of those middle movies, where it's acting as a bridge to move from the first movie to the next movie.

This might be the part where those who saw the movie go, no, no, it was the reveal! It was the reveal that didn't work for me! --Dude, hold on, I'm getting to that part. Just listen.

As most of you reading this know, I'm a HUGE Harry Potter fan. For those that don't know, I did my capstone project on it in college, and I am a panelist every year at FanX (Salt Lake Comic Con) for the Wizarding World panels. One of my FAVORITE things about Harry Potter is that J.K. Rowling is a MASTER at what I call "undercurrents" in stories. To me, the undercurrent is all the plot stuff that's not on the surface of the story. Rowling is a master at undercurrent plotting, both in each volume of Harry Potter, and then in the series overall. I did a whole post about crafting undercurrents in stories, using Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as an example. (You can read that here.) I personally believe that her ability to craft great undercurrents is one of the reasons the series was so huge.

However, undercurrents are meant to be underneath a surface story. For example, in Goblet of Fire, the undercurrent story is about Barty Crouch Jr. and Peter Pettigrew giving Voldemort a new body and needing Harry's blood to do it. The surface story is that Harry has to compete in the Triwizard Tournament, and he doesn't know who put his name in the Goblet of Fire. Similar thing in Order of the Phoenix. The undercurrent story is about Voldemort needing the prophecy from the Department of Mysteries, but in the surface story, we are largely following Harry dealing with secondary antagonists--particularly Umbridge being at Hogwarts. In Deathly Hallows, the undercurrent story is about the Deathly Hallows, but the surface story is about Horcruxes (which interestingly was the undercurrent story of the Half-blood Prince).

In every Wizarding World installment up to this point, we have had surface stories being paired with undercurrents. Crimes of Grindelwald is the first one that doesn't really do that, which actually automatically causes a few potential problems. Crimes of Grindelwald is only really about the undercurrent. This makes things difficult, because the undercurrent is supposed to be under the surface story--but this installment doesn't really have a clear surface story. Because the undercurrent is the story, we innately can't feel the same degree of tension, because undercurrents don't fully reveal or explain themselves until the end, if even that. And in order to have tension, we need enough context and specificity (not vagueness) to get fully invested in what's happening. We can't feel the same level of tension if we aren't as deeply invested.

Crimes of Grindelwald doesn't have a clear surface story. Instead, every character is chasing after the undercurrent, which we can't fully appreciate because it's underneath what the audience sees.


Let's look at the first film for contrast. What is the undercurrent of the first Fantastic Beasts film? It's that Grindelwald is trying to locate an Obscurus to use to further his political agenda. What is the surface story? It's that Newt has a Thunderbird he wants to release and is studying and traveling to write a book about fantastic creatures, but more than that, it's that he has to catch all his creatures that got loose. He has a tangible (surface) goal that is easy to understand and follow. Because of that, we can experience tension, and progress on the surface story while simultaneously trying to piece together the undercurrent.

But in Crimes of Grindelwald, the surface story isn't there. Sure, Newt wants to be with Tina, but that's not very tangible--it's abstract--nor does it actually take up much of the plot. He's sort of helping Dumbledore, but it's not very concrete (not to mention he's on the fence about it). And everything that relates to the story progressing comes back to people looking for Credence--which is supposed to be the undercurrent. Because no one the audience is close to really knows who Credence is, we just know that he might be someone important, and because no one in the audience really has a clear tangible understanding of what the ramifications or consequences would be if he is said person, we don't get that strong tension of rising action or that payoff of a climatic end. Because it's an undercurrent, we don't know enough about what is going on.

Sure, who he is and what that could mean is touched on several times. But the audience doesn't get to really consider or feel the consequences of said meaning. We don't really get to feel the stakes. In the end, in some ways, no one really wins and no one really loses, and we just get more information. I've heard this is one reason why people didn't like Order of the Phoenix, no one really wins, no one really loses, and we just get more information (though that book is actually my favorite in the series) BUT it's okay because we win the surface story--Harry and Hermione defeat Umbridge and at the end of the overall story, Hogwarts is restored to its glory with Dumbledore as the headmaster. All the members of the D.A. got to help fight off Voldemort's followers--and Harry gains more friends and supporters, which was on of his struggles through the volume.

In fact, the undercurrent in Order of the Phoenix is actually very similar to what's supposed to be the undercurrent in Crimes of Grindelwald--not because of the content itself, but because of the story pieces and structure. In Order of the Phoenix, we know Voldemort wants something, but we really have no other idea as to what that thing is for most of the story, other than it could be a weapon he didn't have last time (and what also helps is that at one point in the book Harry comes to the wrong conclusion that he is the weapon). Similarly, we don't really know what Credence is, other than he could be someone dangerous that Grindelwald could use. We don't get the information until the last scene.

All of the important characters are chasing the same overall goal, and we don't really know what it is until the last scene.


Which is where some people freak out.

Did Rowling change canon? Did she? Didn't she?

I can't speak for everyone, but in my theater, there were at least two different interpretations as to what the last scene actually meant, leaving us with additional questions that are kind of vague. (Don't get me wrong, I love it, but just explaining what happened.)

So naturally I came home and hopped online to see what I could find. From what I can tell, my interpretation is right, and to me, that means the canon wasn't really changed, only added to. I actually think the reveal is even plausible, when you consider the characters that were involved. However, even my interpretation pleads for more information--which I'm assuming I will get in the next installment.

I can easily see how this reveal could upset some fans and people. Personally, I'm okay with it (remember how I told you I was waiting for the ridiculous reveal where Grindelwald and Dumbledore somehow magicked a human child into existence? *facepalm* That's the kind of crazy I was trying to prepare myself for.), I just want to know the other information, because part of even the most sensible interpretation is missing a piece. 

It's easy to pull this story apart and talk about where it's weaker, but until you have actually tried to write a story at a professional level, let me tell you, you have no idea how difficult the process is. After all, we only see the finished result--not all the idea fragments and plot threads and concepts that were scrapped or changed or whatever. Some days I'm more than grateful I'm not J.K. Rowling and having to deal with the pressures of nailing the Wizarding World every time for a MASSIVE worldwide audience. I mean, she's amazing, but she's still human. I also think that sometimes fans forget that the creator doesn't actually owe us anything. Bless you, amazing, wonderful J.K. Rowling.

Originally Fantastic Beasts was meant to be a trilogy, but then it grew into five movies. Maybe like The Hobbit, it really should have stuck with what was intended for it--that might have helped with the feel of the movie. However my (unimportant) opinion is that more than that, the audience needed a stronger surface story--like every other Wizarding World installment has. Even if it was repurposing something already there, like that plot thread about Grindelwald's vial so that it was surface content instead of just more undercurrent tagged on. That could bring some real great tension into the story--knowing what it was, what it meant, and having Newt try to get it--but again, like Credence, we didn't understand what it was until the very end. That's probably what I would have suggested the writer do.


So did I like the film?

Looking at how long it took me to talk about the plot, you might think I didn't. But one thing as an editor that I've learned is that it almost always takes longer to talk about what doesn't work than what does, because you actually have to explain how those pieces function.

I loved it. Already looking forward to seeing it again. However, I think this film is probably more for the die hards (largely because it lacks a surface story), where you can soak in all the characters, magic, Easter eggs, and connections that Rowling is so great at--with mentions of Lestranges and Mclaggens and Dumbledores and Traverses--and bask in the world you call home.


P.S. Did you notice how well they interlocked Dumbledore's and Leta's characterizations?! I want to go on and talk about it in more depth but don't want to say too much--but notice how they are similar and how that was handled? Five points to the filmmakers on that micro-concept.