Sunday, January 29, 2012

Week 5 - Plot and Characters

29 Jan - 4 Feb

I like to think of plot and character interaction as a sport's event, any sports event.  The story may be a tactical game of darts (an intense, character-focused story) or a rigourous game of soccer (an action-packed, plot-driven story).

In my mind, then, plot and character interaction is like a slide scale where the proportion of influence of each element changes depending on the story type and author's intention.  These proportions may even change within the story (there is an errant dart that pierces the opponents leg or the football field is hushed by serious injury).

Let's look more closely at the soccer game:  the playing field is the plot outline; the rules of the game are like the basic rules of writing; and the football players trying their best to score points using the skills taught to them by a coach, are like the characters in a story, using the tools of the writer.  Like the football game, a story has players that have stiff opposition, players that stand out as exceptional, players that make mistakes, and the player that scores the winning goal and makes the crowd go crazy.  Or just one player that represents all of the above. 

Readers, of course, are the spectators that must watch to the end of the game; that are on the edge of their seats during a nail-biter finale; and that might actually pee their pants because they dare not visit the restroom during the final minutes of the game.  Thank goodness the good book can be taken with us to the bathroom!

Every spectator knows, then, that a game is nothing without its players (ie. the characters), and the players are nothing without the game (ie. plot).

The coach, of course, is nothing without both.

Exercise 9.  Choose and outline a sport or game that will represent your story and its characters.  In the outline, start with any special setting requirements (eg outdoors, indoors, ocean, air), describe the type of playing field (eg. equestrian arena, bowling alley, chessboard), chose a main competitor and opponent and mention supporting players if relevant.  Briefly describe or dotpoint the competition highlights and the final outcome.  Now, parallel a story on this scenario.  

Exercise 10.  Build an imaginary relationship tree. Start with two or three characters (for shorter stories) and add more characters as your story gets more complex.  Join the characters with lines and arrows and describe each relationship. Be as simple, serious, morbid or as ridiculous as you like. Jot down brief descriptions (looks, personality traits etc) and go on to outline a plot with chronological detail, based on your relationships.

Week 6 will look more closely at character development.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Week 4 - Plot

22 Jan - 28 Jan

In The Writing School Guide to Writing the Short Story, Roy Lomax lists Georges Polti's Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations.  I include them here as a continuation of Story Ideas from last week, noting that  they, in themselves, are not plots, but can be developed into plots by the imaginative writer.  Even if I seldom use this list for stories, I enjoy letting my imagination run wild with the possibilities...

1. Supplication                                                                
2. Deliverance                                                               
3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance                                  
4. Vengeance Taken for Kindred Upon Kindred             
5.  Pursuit                                                                     
6.  Disaster                                                                    
7.  Falling Prey to Cruelty or Misfortune                        
8.  Revolt                                                                         
9.  Daring Enterprise                                                     
10. Abduction                                                               
11. The Enigma                                                               
12. Obtaining                                                                
13. Enmity of Kinsmen                                                  
14. Rivalry of Kinsmen                                                 
15. Murderous Adultery                                               
16. Madness                                                                 
17. Fatal Imprudence                                                      
18. Involuntary Crimes of Love                                      
19.Slaying of a Kinsmen Unrecognised
20. Self-Sacrifice for an Ideal
21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
22. All Sacrificed for Passion
23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
24. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
25. Adultery
26. Crimes of Love
27. Discovery of Dishonour of Loved One
28. Obstacles of Love
29. An Enemy Loved
30. Ambition
31. Conflict With a God
32. Mistaken Jealousy
33. Erroneous Judgment
34. Remorse
35. Recovery of a Lost One
36. Loss of Loved Ones

The same book includes an extensive list of proverbs as possible plot ideas.  Here are some of my favourites:

1. A beggar can never be bankrupt.
2. A bully is always a coward.
3. A dwarf on giant's shoulders sees further of the two.
4. A great fortune is a great slavery.
5. A guilty conscience needs no accuser.
6. A runaway monk never praises his convent.
7. All are good lasses, but whence come the bad wives?  (What!?)

A good plot list can be found (strangely enough) in 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias.  Here are the first ten with a few of my own notes:

1. The Quest - the protagonist is changed by the experience.                                                               
2. Adventure - the protagonist needn't change (eg Indiana Jones).
3. Pursuit                                                             
4. Rescue                    
5. Escape
6. Revenge
7. Riddle - what is real and what appears to be real are presented through ambiguous clues.
8. Rivalry - two characters share a common goal (eg parental approval).
9. Underdog
10. Temptation

With a plot idea in mind, it is generally agreed that a story should have a beginning, middle and ending.  The beginning typically introduces the players and their motives within a setting, the middle builds suspense around conflict and leads to a climax, and the ending represents some sort of resolution.  (That's my simplified definition for myself anyway).

A handy formula to remember is:  ABDCE (Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending) as a basic guide for plotting (borrowed from Lamott's Bird by Bird).

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner proclaims that any successful story should be like a dream, where the action flows in the reader's mind.  He suggests methods for developing an effectively paced plot:
  • The traditional causal plot that flows from the beginning to a resolution, or that starts from a climax and works backward to a starting point;
  • Allegorical plotting that uses emblems (eg a rose or crown) and symbols to dramatize elements that lead to the climax; and
  • Picaresque plotting that sequentially reveals values to a character, usually on a quest, eg. Don Quixote.  (Okay, so I think this last one is a bit beyond me at this point in time, but I'm learning).

So with all these plot ideas, there is no excuse for not getting something down on paper, right (even if it's a crappy first draft)?

Exercise Seven.  Choose a plot idea from the lists above and write a short story using traditional causal plotting (this leads to that).  Try allegorical plotting that uses repetition of ideas through symbols.

Exercise Eight. Develop a simple plot outline based on one central character for a longer story or novel. Include: a) the main challenge or objective of the protagonist, b) the conflict, c) at least three crisis points, d) a climax, and e) a resolution. Parallel internal and external conflicts if you can.  Simple line diagrams, dot points or charts can be used to do this exercise.

Week 5 will look at the interaction between characters and plot.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Week 3 - Story Ideas

15 Jan - 21 Jan

I know that it is highly unlikely that I will be the first person ever to write a story about a particular thought or series of events.  I intend to write anyway, and no matter how unoriginal the plot or characters or sentence structure or language are, I intend to write with my unique voice.  As such, I think it is okay to search for ideas through existing media and mould stories around them.

I have found childhood memories and personal experiences - especially from travel - are great for authentic pieces of writing, probably due to the detailed images that I am able to retrieve from my memory bank and describe.  Old photos, too, can trigger great detail for stories, eg. smells.  Of course, sometimes my memories require a bit of tweaking and twisting to ensure that they become 'a story' rather than a jumble of gumph.

Writing Children's Books for Dummies offers the following ideas for stories (that needn't be confined to children's stories judging by recent television programs): fairy tales, fables, mythology, nursery rhymes and bible stories.  These generally don't have copyright, but beware of those versions that do, eg. Disney stories.

The Writing School Guide to Writing the Short Story by Roy Lomax offers a list of proverbs as story ideas.  (Week 4 will suggest some of these for developing a plot).

People-watching can also provide great material.  Try (surreptitiously) eavesdropping on strangers and writing a story that fills in the blanks of their conversation in narrative or dialogue or both.

Magazine articles (with a 'what if...?' applied) and news items are full of stories.

Word association and brain storming activities, alone or in a group, can also help with story ideas and will be used in the following exercises.  I have borrowed these from a creative writing course that I completed in 2011.

The exercises aim to continue ignoring the inner critic by opening the channels of unlikely story ideas.

Exercise Five.  Pick one (or more) word from each column and write a short story about or including these words.

In the future
Mr Micklemaker
Middle Ages
Distant galaxy
Last week

Exercise Six.   Working from left to right, use word association to fill in the blanks, and then select five words from the whole table to incorporate into a description, short story or outline of a longer story.





Week 4 will expand on story ideas by looking at plot.

Week 2 - The Inner Critic

8 Jan - 14 Jan: Taming the Monsters

All sorts of monsters face the beginner writer (and possibly the experienced one as well).  They may be obvious fears with beady eyes and big teeth, or they may be more subtle and lurk just below the surface, waiting to strike when the budding writer is at his most vulnerable, sitting before the computer screen doubting every word he attempts to write.

One of the most sinister monsters that can stop us even before we start, is that pesky voice inside our head that is the 'inner critic'; that voice that demands perfection; that voice that applies morals; that voice that wants to conform rather than tell the truth. 

I need to remind myself often that I'm not likely to produce a masterpiece first go - who is?  And although morals are important, they must be the morals of the characters, not the writer.  And as far as conforming goes, where's the fun in that?

Here are come suggestions I've read about how to deal with the restrictions we impose on ourselves:

  • write quickly against a clock or to fill a set number of pages (e.g., for five minutes or for two pages);
  • tell yourself that no one else in the world will read this piece, then write;
  • make the conscious decision to lower your standards when beginning on a first draft.  They can be lifted again for subsequent drafts;
  • Lamott refers to the Shitty First Draft, and many famous writers advocate writing a first draft with the door closed and subsequent drafts with the door open;
  • for the outside critics with faces (parent, spouse, siblings, ex-boyfriends/girlfriends, therapist), one suggestion was to take the voices from your head, put them in a jar (real or imaginary), listen to all the gripes, then put a lid on the jar, push it away and get on with writing;
  • First write, then worry.

The two exercises this week aim to: a) silence the inner and outer critics long enough to tell a story; and, b) tell a story.

Exercise Three. Write quickly for 5 minutes. Don't stop to think or edit. Start with one of the following openings: "The night...," "My father....," or "Who could have known....?"Go!

Exercise Four. Pick up the nearest newspaper, magazine or photograph. Choose a picture and apply a "what if...." scenario and write a short story. Concentrate on relating the tale rather than on grammar and spelling.

Week 3 will look at simple story ideas.

Week 1 - Why Do I Write?

Every week during 2012, I aim to discuss a technical element of writing, with reference to various 'How To Write' books, and from the perspective of a beginner (that's me).  Accompanying each piece will be two writing exercises.  I will endeavour to complete exercises, or at least, to think about their objectives in other pieces that I am working on.

I am not yet limiting myself to a particular genre, and although I enjoy non-fiction writing (like this blog), I will be concentrating specifically on both short and long forms of fiction writing.

Week 1 (1 Jan - 7 Jan)  - Why Do I Write?
(How fortuitous that this question was on the Writer's Digest site this week.)

Even as a new writer, I think it is easy to get sidetracked by the illusion that being a 'published writer' is the ultimate goal, but surely there is more to it than that. 

For me, I am drawn by the power of the written word, and the challenge of mixing and matching language and thoughts to arrive at images that evoke emotion.  Sometimes, entertainment and the feeling of escape is enough; and sometimes, writing serves as a tool for self-discovery and expression.

With the latter idea in mind, I will refer to Anne Lamott's excellent book, Bird by Bird.  Lamott relates a number of personal experiences that have inspired her to write and suggests that we all have this inspiration at our fingertips.

The two exercises for this week aim to: a) set some goals so that I might remained focused; and b) get in touch with my writer's soul by writing to express. 

Exercise One. List ten writing goals for 2012.  Break down as many as possible into details or steps and tentative timelines.  (I will be checking in on these at the end of each month.)

Exercise Two.  Write a piece about a distinct childhood memory.  Be Honest - no one need read this!

Week 2 will talk about dealing with the 'inner critic' and other voices that stop us from writing.