Category: How to Study Fiction (Page 1 of 2)

How to Study Fiction, Part 12: Scenes, Part 4. Middles.

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

Middles.

The middle of a scene is where you get into all that nice, juicy conflict.

I know, I know.  A lot of writers have heard the advice to start in the middle.  However, that just means “don’t take forever to get to the story, don’t start with the Big Bang or the birth of the character as a baby or even with the first event that is relevant to the story, because that’s what backstory is for.”

But to rush into the middle of a scene without first having a beginning is disorienting.  Long-term professional writers don’t do it.  Write a beginning to set up the character, setting, and conflict of every scene before you get into the middle; otherwise the reader is going to get lost.  It doesn’t have to take a lot of words.  Just do it.

Okay, you’ve had your lecture.  Go read the section on beginnings if you missed it.

Middles are made up of conflicts.  The conflict can be obvious.  It can be subtle.  But every middle has a conflict.  If the conflict isn’t obvious, watch for something horrible to happen to that character in the next scene or two. Some writers like to put in a happy moment, successful moment, or reconciliation between characters before they kill that character off [cough Joss Whedon cough].

And sometimes, in more literary stories, the characters don’t have any conflict.  It’s the reader who is supposed to be conflicted at all the surprising non-conflict that the characters have.  A good example of this is Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” in which the main character decides to take his revenge…and has zero issues carrying it out.

(I really like that story, sorry.  I’m just going to keep using it over and over in this series.)

So.  You’re not a beginning writer anymore, and you’ve stopped taking terms like “conflict” for granted.  What is this conflict, in practical, fictional terms?

A conflict is when the main character attempts to do something and is prevented by some element of the story from doing so.

The conflict can come from a variety of different sources:

  • The character themselves (internal conflict).
  • Other characters.
  • The environment.
  • An interruption.
  • Fate/bad luck.

As long as it stops the character from accomplishing what they set out to do–even if it’s something good–it’s conflict.

In the case of stories where there is no outright conflict (as in “The Cask of Amontillado”), the conflict comes from upsetting the reader’s expectations in some way.  These stories are generally pretty short, around three thousand words at most–at least, the ones I’ve been able to spot in the wild are that short.  It’s hard to sustain tension without in-story conflict.

The way that the character can be prevented from accomplishing their goals can vary as well, and this can be critical:

  • The character can try to accomplish something, and fail. (Try/Fail.)
  • The character can try to accomplish something, succeed, and still have things turn out worse. (Succeed But Worse.)
  • The character can try to accomplish something, and be interrupted. (Interrupt.)
  • The character can try to accomplish something, and how it all came out can be held in suspense. (Suspense.)

These are just the main conflict outcomes that I’ve been able to identify from my studying, by the way.  There may be more.

Here are examples of these four outcomes, from the movie The Princess Bride:

  • Inigo tries to stop the man in black from following Vizzini and Buttercup.  He fails.  (Try/Fail.)
  • Buttercup tries to find out the truth of whether Humperdink told Westley that she wanted Westley back. She succeeds and finds out that Humperdink didn’t send his four fastest ships and has in fact been lying to her. This gets her locked up and Westley tortured.  (Succeed But Worse.)
  • Fezzik tries to walk down the hallway of the castle with Westley.  When Inigo screams for him to knock down a door, he does so–however, when he comes back, Westley is gone. (Interrupt.)
  • Westley, Fezzik, and Inigo look over the castle gates, which are guarded by sixty men, and discuss their plans, which, by the way, they don’t spell out in detail.  The scene ends with Fezzik saying, “I hope we win.” (Suspense.)

There is also a great suspense scene that ends with an interrupt, which shows that you can get clever and combine conflicts:  When the shrieking eels are circling Buttercup in the water (suspense), suddenly, we are interrupted by the Grandfather telling the Grandson that “She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time.”

If the scene hadn’t been interrupted, it wouldn’t have been as exciting–Princess Buttercup tries to escape but propels herself deeper into danger (Succeed But Worse), only to then be rescued.  As it is, the interrupt from the Grandfather is such a reversal of expectations that it’s funny.  (If it was a trick that was pulled more than once, however, it wouldn’t have been as entertaining!)

The middle of a scene can get quite complex.  It can have one long conflict.  It can have multiple short conflicts.  It have have a few short, then one conflict.  It can have conflicts within conflicts.  The pattern of conflicts is up to you.  Different writers tend to have difference preferences for types of conflict, lengths of conflict, and how many conflicts they string together in a scene.

Which conflicts should you choose?  It depends on the story.

Mostly, go with your gut instinct.

But if something isn’t working, ask yourself, “Does this conflict reflect what the story is about at this point?”  For example, if the story is about something that just goes on and on and the scene has only one short conflict and it ends in a complete and utter failure, does that reflect something that goes on and on?  If the story is about an internal conflict and the scene focuses solely on an external conflict, does that reflect the story?

But if it’s working, don’t change it, even if the reason you wrote the scene that way isn’t immediately obvious.  Your subconscious may have plans…

Next, I’m going to talk about endings.  First the kind of ending that makes you move from one scene to the next, and then the kind of ending that makes you put the book down happy yet wanting more.

Just before Black Monday in 1929, a secretary discovers magic…and the swindlers who use it. Read it here.

 

 

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 11: Scenes, Part 3. Beginnings.

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

Beginnings.

This is my weakness, really.  I’m terrible at beginnings, or rather I have been.  My attitude has always been, “My readers are smart; I shouldn’t have to tell them everything…and then tell them everything again…and again…”

I started out as a poet, see, and readers of poetry hang on your every word.  They let words sink in.  They ponder.

Readers of fiction don’t ponder until after they put the book down, really, which ideally they have read in a single, rushed sitting.  Kind of the opposite of poetry, in which you know it’s a good poem if you can’t finish the stanza, because the poem has triggered so many emotions and memories that you have to process them first.

So:

I have a problem with not adding enough to my beginnings.  Some people try to shove in too much (the “wait wait let me explain my entire world to you before the characters get to do anything” people).  And both groups, I think, can end up getting burned by early criticism and try to do the exact opposite.  Overkill abounds.

For a good beginning, I think the point of balance is:

  • When you tell the reader what they need to know to get through the scene with everything making sense, but not more than that.
  • Lines that “promise” that there will be more information on areas where the reader doesn’t need to know something yet, but will clearly be curious. (Ironically, these go in the endings of things–which we’ll talk about later.)
  • Anchoring everything through your POV character’s POV, rather than getting ranty or explainey as an author.

What the readers need to know:

  • Who are the characters involved, especially the main character and (if different) the POV character (as in a Holmes/Watson duo).
  • What the setting is, including time frame, location, and any attitudes/rules about the way the setting will be treated (for example, the UK of a James Bond movie has different attitudes and rules than the UK of a Dr. Who episode).
  • What is going on, including enough of what went on before the start of the scene/story to get us up to speed.

I’d also like to note that readers need to know this stuff…a lot.  Often.  As in the words that cover this information are probably about a quarter to a third of the book.  Not the first third of the book–this stuff has to be scattered throughout every chapter, every scene, and every try/fail of the book (more on try/fails next time).

At the beginning of the book, you have a lot of “beginning” information to cover.  Then, every time you change POV characters, introduce a new character, change scene locations, or add a plot twist or new information, you also have to have more “beginning” information.

Let’s look at an example, the movie version of The Princess Bride.

  • There is a scene introducing the boy, his mom (who never shows up again; she’s just there for the boy to whine at and to deliver the information that the grandfather is going to be there), the illness, and the boy’s love of sports and video games.
  • There’s another scene introducing the grandfather, the book, the boy’s opinion about same.
  • There’s another scene introducing the farm, the girl, the farm boy, and their relationship.
  • There’s another scene deepening their relationship, and the two begin to kiss.
  • Whoah!  The rules of the story have changed, and the boy interrupts to demand that the grandfather explain the rules of the story.  “Is this a kissing book?”
  • The story resumes and the girl and the farmboy split apart so the farmboy can seek his fortune.
  • But news comes to the girl of his death, and she announces that she will never love again.
  • Five years pass, and the girl has become a princess, about to marry Prince Humperdink, and we’re shown (and told) that she doesn’t love him.

All of this stuff is the beginning.  We only start getting to the action of the plot when Vizzini tries to kidnap her.

However, the action of the plot (the middle) also has a beginning.  The beginning of the main plot, which is “try to rescue Buttercup,” goes like this:

  • The princess is abducted.
  • Vizzini explains that he is kidnapping the princess in order to start a war between Florin and Guilder.
  • The three kidnappers’ characters are introduced, so that we like Inigo and Fezzik, but not Vizzini.
  • The princess tries to escape from the ship and is threatened with death.
  • The story is interrupted by the grandfather as the rules of the world appear to change.  The princess doesn’t get eaten at this time–but someone might get killed.
  • The grandfather gets back to the story, the princess is “rescued” by her abductors.
  • Inigo spots someone behind them, but isn’t sure who it is.
  • The kidnappers flee to the cliffs of insanity (new location), climb them, and cut the rope.
  • Vizzini tells Inigo to kill the person following them, then catch up.

Now we’re at the main action of the main action.  Yes, this whole “beginnings, middles, and endings” thing gets a bit complicated and may seem repetitive (but if done right, the reader won’t notice).

The main action of the story is Westley’s efforts to rescue Princess Buttercup from marrying Humperdink.  The story isn’t over until he has definitively rescued Princess Buttercup from Humperdink.  Everything up to this point has been setting up the rescue of Princess Buttercup from Humperdink.

But wait!  There’s more beginning.

  • Inigo paces around, watches the man in black climb with painful slowness up the cliff.
  • He throws the man in black a rope.  He climbs up, after some bits of dialogue that establish more of Inigo’s character.
  • The man in black climbs to the top and is about to start the main action of the main action of the main action of this scene, when he is interrupted by Inigo, who wants him to rest up.
  • They have more conversation to establish Inigo’s character.
  • The man in black says, “You’ve been more than fair,” etc.

Now the action begins, and they begin to fight.

However, each beat in the action has its own beginning as well.

  • They both pose with the sun setting behind the man in black, at the edge of the cliff.  (Beginning.)
  • Inigo takes a few slashes with his sword, which the man in black easily dodges. (Middle.)
  • Inigo pauses, circling his opponent. (Ending.)
  • They both pose, now with the sun setting behind Inigo, at the edge of the cliff. (Beginning.)
  • The man in black attacks Inigo, using the same moves, which Inigo easily, but less easily, dodges. (Middle.)
  • Inigo smiles.  (Ending.)
  • Inigo begins another exchange, this time more complex.  (Beinning.)
  • The two play back and forth, demonstrating their basics to each other, but it’s clear that this won’t be over very quickly. (Middle.)
  • The camera transitions to a wide shot, showing the setting around them.  (A bit of setting interrupting a slow spot in the middle, to help give it a little structure.)
  • The swordplay continues, as if it could go on all day like this. (Middle.)

This is the beginning of the swordfight (made up of several tiny beginnings, middles, and endings of its own).  This part of the fight is more about establishing who is more skilled (not clearly either at this point), how they both fight (the man in black remains a mystery), and isn’t about combat and winning so much as it is about feeling each other out.

The beginnings continue on a regular basis throughout the fight:

  • Inigo begins analyzing the man in black’s technique.
  • The man in black begins driving Inigo back, even though Inigo has demonstrated all this learning.
  • Inigo begins driving the man in black backward after he switches hands.
  • The man in black compliments Inigo at the top of the ruined tower, before switching swords.
  • Inigo goes after his sword.
  • The man in black throws away his sword.
  • Inigo asks, “Who are you?”
  • They begin fighting again.
  • The man in black holds the sword at Inigo’s face after disarming him the last time.

What’s happening is that in order to keep the fight from becoming one big blob of action, the beginning/middle/ending structure is being applied to break up the fight into smaller sections.  Unless there’s a reason not to, this is generally how stories work: people’s brains can only take in a few bits of any one thing at a time.  In order to reset the brain so we don’t get confused (as you would if this were a real swordfight!), the story is broken up into smaller and smaller parts.  The beginnings help keep the viewer from getting confused or–even worse!–getting bored with the action.

We need to know:

  • Where each part of the fight happens in relation to the rest of the fight.  Why didn’t Westley fall off the cliff when Inigo had him pinned to the wall?  Where did that wall come from? We know this, because we were shown the fight up the stairs, then a shot of the ruined tower, and then Inigo pins Westley against the crumbling wall.
  • The “rules” of the fight.  Inigo doesn’t just fight Westley.  First Inigo studies Westley using a simple bit of technique, and only then does he get more intense.   Also, we know that Inigo is supposed to kill Westley, regardless:  this sets the expectation that this is a life-or-death fight.
  • What the characters are like.  We learn about Inigo’s character (he doesn’t want to kill a weaker opponent but will if he has to, and wants a good fight more than anything else at this point).  We learn about Westley’s character (he holds back until he must use his full technique in order to move past Inigo).  We learn that they are both masters.  (And, later, in the beginning of another scene, Humperdink confirms this, which tells us about Humperdink’s character.)

Because we know these things, the fact that Westley cracks Inigo over the head to save him at the end of the scene is both a surprise, and yet makes perfect sense.  The expectation of this being a life-or-death fight was set in the beginning, more than once–but it wasn’t set by Westley.  His goal was always just rescuing Princess Buttercup.  We just assumed that it would require death in order to do so, because Inigo’s goal was to kill Westley…after a good fight.

When you’re studying a scene:

  • Look for new locations, characters, and information being introduced, especially if it’s right before a fight or argument, a conflict of some kind.
  • At the beginning of a chapter or scene, look for the first action that has something at stake for the main character.  That’s the start of the middle–everything before that must necessarily be a beginning.  But it has to be an action; saying that something will be at stake isn’t action.
  • Watch for paragraphs of nothing but description.  They often are used as a structural element to reset the reader’s brain and mark the beginning of a new attempt at solving a problem.
  • Look for small talk that goes nowhere; it can be used as a beginning, too (Agatha Christie does this a lot, and it’s all over the mystery novel Fletch, too).

As we look at beginnings, middles, and endings, please notice something: beginnings aren’t just the start of a story, or a chapter, or even a scene.  They’re all over the freaking place!    But that doesn’t mean they have to be long, drawn-out, or repetitive.  Even though such a huge amount of The Princess Bride is dedicated to beginnings at each level, as a viewer you barely notice it, because the beginnings cover slightly new information, or someone else presenting the same information but in a different way, every time.  A good beginning doesn’t feel laborious.  It just feels comfortable, like you’re in the hands of a master storyteller.

And that’s your goal, as a writer.

Next time, we cover the middles…

Once upon a time, the fae came to earth to engineer the perfect changeling…then the Others began to shatter their world.  Are the fae here to save us from their fate…or to replace us and avoid their own? Click here to find out.

 

 

How to Come Up With Story Ideas

Something that you have to do as an author is come up with story ideas: on time, on certain subjects, about 80% as expected and 20% new and fresh, and to fit with the rest of your work.

Difficult.

But what’s even more difficult are the requirements left unsaid:

  • The idea has to generate a story that is neither longer nor shorter than the intended length of the work.
  • You have to have a personal connection to the idea.
  • The idea has to be translatable into a story with a strong setting, characters, and action that extend beyond the idea itself.
  • The idea can’t be something that the logical readers for that story will hate.

If you generate enough bad story ideas, you will eventually just generate a story idea that meets the expectations.  If you write enough stories, you’ll eventually write a story of the correct length and quality, too.  There are techniques to help make all this more efficient, of course, so you don’t have to write a million words just to get a 3,000-word short story down on paper.  But random ideas and a lot of writing will, eventually, do.

The trick actually seems to be in finding a personal connection with any given story idea.

I’ve written stories that fit all the requirements but seem like someone else wrote them when they were done.  Or I’ll get a quarter of the way through a story and come to a dead stop.  This isn’t my story, someone else tell the damned thing.

I thought for a long time that you had to search desperately for story ideas that “connected” with your soul, or something.  Is this “my” idea?

However, finding a connection to a story is a process like any other:  what about this story idea is like my life? what about this story idea do I feel passionately about? have I had strong dreams that are like this idea?

You just have to feel a connection to your story.  Doesn’t matter what it is. You don’t even have to know what it is.  If you don’t feel it, nose around until you feel something.  Or ditch the idea and find one that you feel more strongly about.

It doesn’t matter where you get your ideas, what they are, or that you feel good about a story as you write it.  Just that you feel something about it.

That’s what makes you finish a story.  And, when tempered by craft, that’s what makes it worth reading.

Anthology story that you’re stuck on?  Feel something.  Trying to decide whether to write to market or not write to market? Feel something.  Stuck in the middle of a passion project that’s gone dry? Feel something.

Have an opinion and emotions about the content of your story.

Have your own personal point of view.

I wrote this as a reminder to myself as I’m sitting down to write a story for an anthology and am stuck on it.  Mutter mutter… Anyway, please sign up for my newsletter if you haven’t yet.  You get a free story, and in every issue there’s a terrible pun, some random book recommendations, updates on what I’m working on (ghostwritten and personal), and an article or short piece of writing that you get ahead of everyone else.  I think next month’s is going to be a poem about a hilarious bird call I heard out on Chatfield Reservoir. Click here to sign up.

 

 

 

 

 

What Am I Selling, When I Sell a Story

I’ve been working a lot on studying marketing lately.  Not just indie book marketing, but the principles behind selling stuff.

When I started out as a writer, I thought writing was mostly about putting one’s thoughts and feelings down on the page, and then some magic would happen, and people would like what I wrote and want to pay for it.

Like many things in life, if you want the magic to happen, you have to make it yourself.  And when you do, the magic turns out to be completely mundane.  I eventually figured out that the magic, in this case, was selling things.  The connection between making something and have people want to buy it is…selling things.

Duh.

A lot of people seem to grasp this instinctively; I didn’t.  Here’s what I’ve been reading to study up:

  • The Copywriter’s Handbook, by Robert Bly.  If you read one book on the subject, do this one.
  • Kickass Copywriting in 10 Easy Steps, by Susan Gunelius.  Pretty good, another approach on much of the same material.  For people who need more structure.
  • The Well-Fed Writer, by Peter Bowerman.  This is more of a “why” than a “what” book for freelancers.  Very good.
  • Six Figure Author, by Chris Fox (and related titles).  Translates Bly into action steps specific to indie writers.

And some other books that I abandoned after they made my eyes roll.
Two things stuck out to me:

  1. I had no idea what I was selling.
  2. I had no idea why anybody would buy it.

Erk.

I had come a long way from the standard indie writer approach to marketing and promotion, which is basically, “I have a new book out, if you are so inclined, please buy it,” which I tend to refer to as the buy my crap approach.

Telling people to buy your book without telling them why they want it is poor salesmanship, and can’t possibly do your book justice.

But I (and it seems most writers) didn’t actually know why anyone would want my books, or books in general.  What do books do for people?  And how do you demonstrate that your book does that in general, and specifically that one thing that the reader wants from your book and no other?

(This is called a “unique selling proposition,” by the way; you have to identify it before you can do anything else.)

I had to back up.

Why do people read books?

  • To be entertained in the way that they specifically find entertaining.
  • To escape from their lives.
  • To process the problems in their lives in a safe way.
  • To empathize with other people, to become them for a little while.
  • To totally geek out over something.

Why do people read my books?

  • To escape from the normal world, but not necessarily too far.
  • To feel like they’re part of an intelligent, insightful conversation.
  • To see something they’ve already seen, but with a fresh perspective (often ironic).
  • To see something they haven’t already seen or cannot see, as if it were real.
  • Alice in Wonderland geeks (yay!).

There’s something that gets discussed in the process of selling stuff, features versus benefits.  The features are the things about your book that make it what it is.

The Queen of Stilled Hearts is a book about Alice in Wonderland; it has zombies.

The benefits of the book are what the reader gets out of it.

The Queen of Stilled Hearts is a dryly ironic book that sets you right in the middle of a Victorian Oxford class war and provides insight into Lewis Carroll, Alice Liddell, her family, and even Queen Victoria.  The story is a darkly true coming of age story, where Alice doesn’t so much come into her own as get bullied into taking her place as an upper-class daughter.  Sometimes there is no happy ending, because people are jerks, and it’s nice to have that dragged out into the open rather than, once again, prettied up for the family photo album.

The difference between features and benefits is emotion.  Features are about stuff that exists; benefits are about how the audience feels about it.  The magic is in the feels.

I’m still struggling with how this works, and until I’m a millionaire I probably won’t feel like an expert on the subject, but I have reached the point where I can see other writers screwing this up.

Nobody wants to know the plot of your story, per se, before they read it.

People want to know how you’re going to make them feel.

When someone writes a story, they are writing an experience for the reader.  Everything else builds toward making the reader feel something in particular.  When I write, I am selling experiences.  What people want to buy, when they buy a book, is a particular experience.

Selling uses the features of the book to focus the reader’s attention on the experience they’ll have.  “You’ll have a great time reading this book!” is not a convincing argument.  Why?  What if I’m not the right reader for the book?  How will I know?  So you do have to use the features somewhat. They just aren’t the focus.

“If you like Alice in Wonderland and zombies, you’ll like The Queen of Stilled Hearts!”

Pretty much true.

“If you like dark historical fiction with a horror bent, you’ll like The Queen of Stilled Hearts!”

Also true.  Genre is a way of identifying clusters of experiences in books.

I’m still not to the point where I can pull an effective book description out of my butt, but I’m getting closer.  I’m also finding that it affects my writing; I’m thinking more about what readers will experience as they read.  This is a real pain in the ass at the moment.  I’m thinking waaaay too hard about it as I write (and it’s me saying that).  But I feel like I’m getting closer to what readers actually want.

What do readers want?  They want a good time, the time you get from visiting old cemeteries and wondering whether that statue covered in moss and stains is an angel or some kind of fallen demonic entity.

Or something like that 🙂

I don’t just send out Wonderland Press updates via my newsletter, but articles like this one.  More of the same here.

How to Study Fiction, Part 10: Scenes, Part 2

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

This time, we’re going to talk about basic scene structure.

Very nearly every professional-level scene that you read has a basic structure in Western fiction.  There will be some exceptions (especially when it comes to highly literary or experimental books), but…this is mostly just it.

  • The beginning sets up the scene.
  • The middle shows the main character of the scene trying to do something, and the results thereof.
  • The ending sets up another scene.

Like many great big truths in writing, it’s pretty prosaic (which literally means to be “like prose”).  The wonders and delights and inventiveness of the most creative books are mainly based on those three elements.  Over and over and over again.

The main exception is at the end of the book, in which the ending of the scene does not set up anything else, but gives the reader a kiss-off, or feeling of satisfaction at the conclusion of the book.  Some people call this a validation.

I’ve been working with some authors who struggle to grasp how straightforward and dull the crafting of scenes is (it’s the content of the scenes that is exciting, not how they’re put together).  It’s like they can’t believe that this is literally all there is to it; these are often writers who don’t type things in and are still captured by the illusions that writing creates.

In our memories, books are endlessly inventive.  In practice, they really, really aren’t.  Human brains are, for most people, fundamentally the same, and are affected by the same techniques.  We are so used to overlooking these techniques that we forget they’re being used on us.  It’s like watching commercials on TV. You don’t actually notice that there’s an audience in mind or that the commercial is identifying benefits of using that product or service for that audience.  You might notice something clever about the ad, but you’re completely missing the point that there’s a specific group of people being sold to, or that the information in the commercial is presented in such a way as to make sense to that audience.

The structure of a scene is there to make readers’ brains do something specific.

  • Explain why the reader should care about what’s happening in the scene.
  • Increase the tension in the scene/story.
  • Move the reader to the next scene.

That’s it.  At the end of the book, you stop moving the reader forward and instead give them a sense of satisfaction.  That sense of satisfaction is the biggest advertisement for your next book (not a cliffhanger for the next book in the series!).

The beginning of the scene should contain all the information the reader needs to know in order to care about what’s happening.  No more, no less, no surprises.  Don’t withhold clues from the reader; they are part of what sets up the sense of satisfaction at the end of the book!  Hide the clues instead–bury them in other information.

The middle of the scene should contain the main character (who may or may not be the point of view character, as in Sherlock Holmes stories, where Watson is the POV narrator) trying to take the next step to resolve whatever is going on in the story.  As a general trend, whatever the main character does has to make things worse somehow, either by failing or by succeeding in a way that triggers something bad to happen. This is how you increase tension.

The end of the scene should set up the reader for the next scene.  Generally, this means wrapping up the current “try” that the main character is attempting and letting us know the fallout, or promising to tell us later.  Foreshadowing for the next scene is hinted at, new information is revealed, and dramatic escalations of danger (cliffhangers!) are introduced.

It’s like one of those flip books where there are sixteen heads, sixteen chests, and sixteen tails:  pick the ones you like and make an “original” scene!

I’ll go into beginnings, middles, and endings in more detail next. But here are some signs that you’re missing on scene structure:

  • “This is an interesting scene but I’m not sure what it’s about.”
  • “This scene is full of infodumps.”
  • “I think I’m missing some pages.”
  • “Cool story, but I had a hard time getting into it.”
  • “You have to read the first five chapters before you can decide whether you really like the story.”
  • “I liked the beginning but the middle got boring.”
  • “OH MAN THE END PISSED ME OFF.”

Some of these issues refer more to the overall structure of the story, but you have to grasp scene structure in order to understand the reasoning behind overall structure issues.

When I first started studying structure, I felt offended that writing was nothing  more than a “craft” in which predictable pieces were glued together in certain predictable patterns–it felt like there was very little art involved.  But every art has a phase like this, I think, where one studies one’s materials and how they’re put together, so that it’s easier to take flights of fancy and to follow one’s intuition.

You won’t always be so self-conscious about scene structure, I promise.

Next time, I’ll talk more about beginnings.  What information needs to be in your beginnings?  What do you do if you tend to sprinkle that information throughout your scene instead of putting it in the front?  How do you keep the beginning of a scene from turning into an infodump?

Until next time…

Free book and other curiosities here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 10: Scenes, Part 1

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

Scenes are the building blocks of your fiction.  If you can turn out a nicely crafted scene, readers will forgive almost any mistakes you make (except when it comes to characters–like killing them off or making them act out of character).

Scene issues at this level:

  • Second-guessing whether a scene is “finished” or “good enough.”
  • A feeling that something is missing but not knowing what.
  • Information delivered at the wrong place, at the wrong time.
  • Author intrusion and rants.
  • Disorganization.
  • Dragging chapters.
  • Characters spending a lot of time talking to each other about stuff they already know.

One of the major issues with a lot of writers’ scenes is that they are poorly organized.  The writer knows that a certain amount of information has to be delivered to the reader, but sticks it in willy-nilly.  Or the writer might not put in all the information the reader needs at all, thinking that hiding information will increase the drama and tension of the scene.

(We won’t get to tension in writing until later, by the way.)

Here’s something that most beginning writer books won’t tell you:

Structuring a scene properly will take care of a lot of problems that sound like minor problems…but that you can never seem to fix.

If you’re getting feedback on your scenes being:

  • Boring
  • Talky
  • Full of too much description
  • Ranty
  • Confusing

Then it may be that you’re just not telling the reader what they need to know, when they need to know it.

And the way to fix that is through the structure of your scenes.

Basic scene structure, coming right up…

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How to Study Fiction, Part 9: Reading, Part 3

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

Techniques to help handle reading issues (post-reading!):

You’ve read the book.  Now what?

I’ll go into more depth about specific techniques as we go through the other elements of what you’re studying.  For example, when we talk about pacing, I’ll explain how to drill down into how to study pacing in what you read.

But for now, the long and the short of it is:

Type it in.

If you want to know why something works or doesn’t work, the first step to analyzing it is to pop yourself out of the dreamland that is reading, and move behind the scenes.  This is incredibly hard to do.  Good writers are brainwashers, creating an almost inescapable spell over your attention span.  If you try to read something in order to study it, you may pick up some things subconsciously, but you’ll probably fight against it.  “No!  I’m breaking the rules!”

Typing something in lets you stay conscious and awake, but doesn’t break the connection to your subconscious.  Your subconscious learns whatever it’s going to learn (and learns it better, too, because of the extra time you spend with the text), and your conscious brain gets to make observations.  It’s the difference between taking a bullet train over the landscape and walking on foot.

You cover a lot less ground, but it’s ground that you know in the soles of your feet.

Do you have to type in the entire book?

No!

I recommend that you type in:

  • Whatever element you’re currently studying, from several books that you enjoy.
  • Openings.

As you’re moving into intermediate writing, the biggest priority most writers have is that their openings are terrible, start in the wrong place, are boring, or have a lot of action and no reason to give a crap.

Type in the first section, or maybe the first 1000 words, of anything you enjoyed reading after you finish it.

Even if you do nothing else from this series, this is the thing that’ll put you ahead of most of your compatriots after a few books.  If you’re looking for “the big secret of writing success,” this is it.  Type in openings for a while.

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How to Study Fiction, Part 8: Reading, Part 2

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

Techniques to help handle reading issues:

First, what to read.  You have a number of options.

  • Read deeply, that is, inside the genre/subgenre you’re most likely to write in.  This will give you the deepest views of the tropes involved in your genre, but will not help you write work that appeals to readers outside your genre or across genres (per se).  You will be at far less risk of reinventing the wheel in your genre, but you will miss out on mining other genres for stories that your genre hasn’t used to death.
  • Read broadly, that is, across genres.  This will give you a better idea of the concept of “story” in general over time.  It puts you at higher risk of reinventing the wheel in your genre, and at first will confuse a lot of issues when it comes time to write in your own genre, but will pay off more later, as you’re able to identify different reader types and what they want.
  • Read for mastery, that is, studying the masters of fiction in order to steal their techniques.  The general idea is to read books from a writer who is a current bestseller, publishing for at least 15 years a book a year, but only the books that have been published in the last ten years.  You, too, would like a long-term, bestselling career with a book a year coming out.  You, too, would like to use the latest techniques for getting this done–not techniques that went out of style in the 1950s.
  • Read with focus, that is, with some other emphasis than merely genre concerns.  This is something you can use to stay within a genre as a reader but not get stuck in a rut of reading what you always read.  For example, you might read only books written by authors of color, or from the 1930s, or from Japan, or simply a “best of X genre” list.  This often can uncover a prejudice or shortcoming in your own writing.  However, this is also a great way to make yourself hate reading.  People usually read for comfort, and this kind of project is almost deliberately uncomfortable.
  • Read for research, that is, digging into books that will help provide background inspiration for what you’re writing.  The benefits are obvious, but the drawbacks are many.  Not only can reading too much research material hamper your efforts to make the material you’ve researched flow naturally into a book and prevent you from writing at all (the research rabbit hole!), but reading solely for research can prevent you from achieving any other goals.  No depth of genre, no sense of story, and no questioning your assumptions.  Be careful with this.

Personally, I tend to mix up all of these, because I read quickly and can afford to spread my reading time around.  I also read for pure pleasure, but again, this is because I can afford to.

It may be highly beneficial to take some time and learn how to read faster.  This can help you read more books, but can come at the expense of fully enjoying the books you do read.  On the other hand, learning how to fly through books that you hate but need to understand can be a real benefit.

Personally, I do most of the techniques listed in this article, at Lifehacker.  It isn’t just about reading faster, but about preventing reading fatigue.  I often switch between a difficult and a pure-pleasure book to keep myself refreshed, or take a break on the really hard ones and cruise through a bunch of mindless websites.

And yes, I find that holding my thumb along the side of the paragraph I’m reading totally helps.

As a side note, in order to find the books you need for any of these projects (anything other than “pure pleasure”!), just google “Top 100 Books of X.”  For example, you might google “Top 100 books of science fiction” or “Top 100 books of alien invasion science fiction” or “Top 100 books of all time” or “Top 100 books of authors of color,” or “Top 100 books of the French Revolution,” or whatever.

Google will give you a number of top-whatever lists, whatever the number happens to be.

Next time:  You’ve read a book and you have all the feels.  Now what?

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How to Study Fiction, Part 7: Reading, Part 1

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

What to read, how to read, and how to start studying it.  Every professional writer seems to have the same kind of advice:  Read more.

But you could read the back of the cereal box all day and not get better as a writer.

So…what?

Reading issues at this level:

  • Being unsure of what one’s reading goals should be versus what you’re trying to achieve as a writer overall.
  • Being unsure of how to understand why you felt about a book the way you did (either to love it or hate it).
  • Feeling like reading someone else’s book choices is a waste of time.
  • Feeling like you’re missing something and you don’t know what.

When you’re reading as a reader, you basically only have one goal:  to please yourself.  One’s pleasure as a reader isn’t something you should ditch as a writer, either.  Sometimes I wonder if learning what you love and don’t love about a book isn’t 80% of the work of improving as a writer anyway.

However, when you’re a writer, you have some additional tasks as a reader that need to be met:

  • Understanding the genre(s) you’re writing in.
  • Understanding how stories work on a primal level.
  • Identifying what elements of storytelling you enjoy in a practical (“So that’s what is missing from my stories!”) kind of way.
  • Getting at the roots of what makes stories valuable for readers.

Being a professional reader (which is kind of an aspect of being a professional writer!) means both understanding what best fits your own tastes and why other readers read what they do.

When you hit that point, you no longer roll your eyes at bestsellers you don’t like.  Instead, you start going, “So people like book X because it gives them Y.  I like Y, just not how it’s done here…why not write Y in my own way?”

Getting better as a reader is about half the raw data that you need in order to decrypt what makes a book good or not.

Where does the other half come from?  More on that in a bit.

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How to Study Fiction, Part 6: Words of Wisdom

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

I’d like to take a moment to interject something that came up in the middle of writing these posts.

I talked to multiple other intermediate- and higher-level writers on this topic, and what they mainly wanted writers going through a transition from beginning to intermediate writing to know was:

  • There is no finish line when it comes to learning about writing.  You will never run out of things to learn or relearn.
  • You will need other writers for sanity and support and getting better as writers more than you can imagine.  Invest in networking.
  • No words are wasted; nevertheless, there is an immense power in throwing out words.
  • Being able to write on command is an essential part of growing as a writer; “mood” can go to hell.  If you can’t write on command, you’ll never get in the zone where writing is easy.
  • On the other hand, you can’t rate everything about writing in terms of words per minute, or dollars per word.  Part of the journey here is becoming as much “yourself” as a writer as possible.  In other words, writing isn’t just craft; it’s an art.
  • You can’t see the patterns in what you write and what you love to write without a body of actual, finished work.

They also made a lot of smartass comments, but I’ll skip those 🙂

I felt like the journey from being a beginning writer to an intermediate one was very emotional and transformative.  There were days when something in my subconscious was running in overdrive so hard I could barely process the world outside me.  I went through terrible mood swings on a regular basis–great writer, terrible writer.  Great writer, terrible writer.

I believe that any field that is sufficiently complex and creative has a kind of process like this–cooking, music, woodworking, programming, martial arts–where you move away from the limitations and structure of following rules and head out into the wilder territories of, “We’re not sure, but try this…”

I firmly believe it’s a kind of magical process, and should be respected as such.  That is, a lot of work that occasionally produces sparks of something that are more than what they came from.  It’s wonderful.

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