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Monday, March 8, 2021

The Technicalities of Writing Thoughts

On a few occasions, I've been asked how to actually write thoughts on the page in a story. If you are newer to writing, this can be confusing for several reasons (and you'll see why by the end of this article). 

Just to clarify, this post isn't about what makes one passage of introspection better than another, or how to keep a moment of introspection interesting. If you want to learn about that, check out my articles "How to Write Excellent Introspection" and "Breaking Writing Rules Right: 'Never Open with Introspection.'" No, this post is about actually writing character thoughts on the page. Even if you already know how to do that, this topic may be worth a review. And who knows, I might cover some points you didn't know, you didn't know. 

Monday, February 22, 2021

How Plotlines add Dimension

When writing a novel, you need to use more than one plotline. In fact, most successful books need at least three. If they only have one or two the story may feel flat, bloated, or repetitive, because the writer doesn't have enough variety to draw from. But it's sometimes not enough to just pick any three plotlines--there are different types, and there are reasons there are different types. By picking three different types, you give your story satisfying dimension.

Think about it. When we talk about dimension in life, we are usually talking about three dimensions: height, width, and depth. We aren't talking about height, height, and width. Or width, width, and depth. We are talking about at least three different measurements. Sometimes time is added in--a fourth measurement--and theoretically, we could add more. But until there are at least three measurements, the object is only two dimensional (aka, flat).

There are at least six different types of plotlines:

Monday, February 15, 2021

Character's Want vs. Need (Explained 4 Different Ways)

Want vs. Need

In many stories, what the protagonist wants and what the protagonist needs will be two different things.

In The Hunger Games, what Katniss wants is to win the Games by being a survivalist at all costs. What she needs is to realize that the only way to truly beat the Games, is to not be a piece in them--to be willing to possibly sacrifice yourself.

In Soul, Joe wants to return to his body and pursue his jazz career so his life won't be meaningless. What he needs is to appreciate that the act of living itself gives life meaning. 

In Zootopia, what Judy wants is to become a bunny cop to defy prejudice and make the world a better place. What she needs, is to confront the prejudice within herself to make the world a better place.

Whether or not you realize it, your protagonist likely has a want vs. need struggle as well. This is because it's a key element of story. 

One problem, however, is that, like many writing concepts, the want vs. need concept can be difficult to "see" and grasp, at first.

This is in part because it can be explained from four different angles. 

Today, I have gathered the four different angles into one article. 

If you haven't fully nailed down the want vs. need concept, then I recommend you read through these approaches and find which one makes the most sense to you, and use that. 

If you fully understand the want vs. need concept, then reading through the other angles may deepen your comprehension of it. 

In any case, what I don't want is for you to get confused because you don't get all the angles. In reality, you only need to understand one angle to utilize this. It's okay to ignore the rest. 

Monday, February 8, 2021

4 Key Elements of Scene Openings

Several weeks ago, I did a post breaking down the differences between scenes and summaries and when to use which. Scenes happen in real time, are dramatized ("show" more than "tell"), have characters acting in a specific location, and tend to be more concrete. Most scenes still utilize some summary.

Today I wanted to follow up by talking about four elements that are important for scene openings

Just like the opening of a story, a scene opening has a lot to accomplish and convey. Thankfully, however, scene openings don't need to accomplish and convey as much as a whole story's opening. 

Scenes are a structural unit, and as such, they follow the same basic structure that a whole story does:

Monday, January 25, 2021

How Theme is Your Story's Shadow

Something that has been coming into my conversations lately, is the idea that theme is like your story's shadow. Or perhaps, more accurately, its shadow puppet. 

Setting, characters, and plot are more concrete. They are (more or less) physical. But theme comes out of them when an outside intelligence (writer or reader) shines light on them. This casts a shadow to form a shape, or a puppet.

Learning about and writing theme can be difficult, in part, because you can't hold and mold a shadow itself. 

You have to shift what casts the shadow. 

To create the right shadow puppet, you have to rearrange the hands--the story elements--the right way. 

And if you cast an incoherent blob on the wall and claim it makes a cat, it's not going to be effective.

This is the equivalent of a writer trying to slap on a thematic argument through "telling," when the story itself doesn't "show" or back up the argument. This usually manifests in a character being philosophical or preachy somewhere in the story--trying to force a meaningful discussion on a topic that is irrelevant enough to be un-meaningful.

On the other hand, a professional-level writer may understand how to arrange the characters and plot in a beautiful, coherent way, so that it casts an elaborate shadow--even if the writer never looks beyond the story. 

This is why you can sometimes find powerful, thematic literature, written by someone who doesn't know how theme works. Just this last week, I was listening to a hugely successful writer talk for hours about his approach to writing, without even addressing theme. Yet I've seen his work used by others when discussing theme. 

He surely knows all about rearranging the hands appropriately, so when anyone intelligent comes to look, they shine the light on them to find the thematic shadow. It doesn't matter so much that he doesn't understand theme. He understands the underlying principles that make up the theme. 

For the rest of us, we need some help. And understanding theme before we get to a professional level, will help us reach that level faster. Furthermore, I have sometimes wondered how much better a successful writer would be, if they did properly understand theme. I mean, imagine if their stories were even more impactful! 

In order to cast a great thematic shadow, we need to understand its physical counterparts.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Giving Your Protagonist a Ghost

Many protagonists will have what some in the industry call, a “ghost.” 

The ghost is a past significant (often traumatic) event that shaped the protagonist’s worldview or lifestyle in a thematic way. 

For example, in Disney's Frozen, Elsa accidentally freezing Anna when they are children, is Elsa's ghost--it's what leads her to become closed off and isolated. In the movie, I, Robot, protagonist Del Spooner witnesses a robot save him over a 12-year-old girl. This is Del's ghost--it's what leads him to distrust and hate robots.

The term “ghost,” comes from the idea that the protagonist is being haunted by the event. Others in the industry may refer to this concept as being a wound. In her book Story Genius, literary agent and story consultant Lisa Cron refers to the ghost as “The Origin Scene.” These are all different words for the same concept. 

I prefer the term "ghost" because that's how I was first introduced to it, though I admit it went over my head back then. Despite the fact we often think of a ghost being a person, remember that this ghost is usually an event

The ghost is important because it relates to the protagonist's character arc, and therefore, the theme.

Most protagonists start with a flaw, weakness, or misbelief that they must overcome by the end of the story. 

The ghost is the event (or events) where that flaw, weakness, or misbelief took hold in the first place. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

Scene vs. Summary & When to Use Which

When I was a young writer, I didn't fully understand what a scene was and what a summary was. Later, when I understood the difference, I wasn't always sure when to use which. These days, I occasionally help writers with the same things. They may use summary for what should have been a scene, or they may write a whole scene for what really should have been summary. Understanding the difference and when to use which can be key when writing a successful novel. 

Sure, some of it is subjective.

But what might be surprising to some, is that most of the time, one is more . . . "correct" than the other.  

Monday, January 4, 2021

Getting Passive Protagonists to Act


Many beginning writers struggle with protagonists who are too passive. The plot seems to constantly be happening to him or her, but the protagonist doesn’t take an action to make the plot happen. 

Ideally, when an event happens to a protagonist, the protagonist responds by taking an action that influences the next event, which then influences the protagonist, which then influences an event—and on and on. But that can be easier said than done. Especially if you have a protagonist who prefers to live life passively.

This could all get confusing, though, because in story structure, almost all protagonists will more or less become more proactive. But for the sake of this post, I'm talking about protagonists who are characteristically passive. A protagonist who may want to kick up his feet in a hammock with a glass of lemonade and watch the world deal with its own problems. How do we write a story about that guy?

Many people will tell you that you can't--you must change the character. 

But that is not wholly true. 

It's true in a good story, we need the protagonist to act--especially at key moments--but that doesn't mean he innately yearns to act. 

Often the best solution in dealing with a passive character is to strengthen the stakes. Let me explain.