Archive | May, 2010

Three Things I Don’t Know

Wayne posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I like your take on Dwight Swain’s scene and sequel breakdown. What is your take on his mentor at the U of Oklahoma, Foster Harris and his ideas of “reversal” and “moral equations”? Could you use your scientific mind and explain it more clearly with examples. Thanks for a great blog.

Randy sez: I wish I could comment on this, but I can’t. I know almost nothing about Foster Harris, except that I vaguely remember Dwight Swain mentioning him in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, one of my favorite books on writing fiction.

TJ asked this question:

Fantasy novels and series marketed towards children and teens seems to be all the rage today–it also seems to be how authors are becoming immensely famous and wealthy. What can’t be done in a youth fantasy novel, and what cliches and archetypes should be avoided?

Randy sez: That’s a good question. I don’t know if there are any limits on YA fiction. I’m pretty sure you can’t have a sex scene in a children’s novel, but it wouldn’t surprise me if somebody somewhere has done it. YA is fairly hot right now, with numerous authors doing very well. J.K. Rowling is the most obvious YA author, but James Patterson is doing YA and he’s one of the biggest of the big in current fiction.

I would avoid all cliches in any fiction, YA or not, except in dialogue. Showing a character using cliches in dialogue tells the reader something interesting about that character. Archetypes are by definition not cliches, and I can’t think of any to avoid. Archetypes are good starting places for characters. Obviously, they are not a complete character, and you want to build out unique characters starting from any archetype.

Rob asked:

Is every scene always reactive or proactive. While reading other writers, I’m looking for these things and sometimes finding them hard to spot. Many scenes don’t seem to fit either paradigm, but still make for compelling reading.

I know you’ve probably beat this subject to death, but I’m a slow learner. 🙂

Not every scene in fiction is either reactive or proactive. (“Reactive scenes” and “Proactive scenes” are explained in my book Writing Fiction For Dummies. I’m not entirely sure who coined these terms. I don’t believe I was the first to use them, but I can’t quite think who did.) I am reading through Sense and Sensibility right now with my family, and there are a few scenes that just sit there on the page, neither proactive nor reactive, and frankly quite boring.

The real question is whether every scene in fiction would be better if it were revised so as to be either reactive or proactive. I don’t know the answer to that question for certain, since mathematically, the space of all possible scenes is just about infinite, and since there is no objective way to measure how good a scene is. But my gut instinct is that the vast majority of scenes would be improved if they were edited to be either proactive or reactive.

A Proactive Scene begins with a Goal, continues through most of the scene with Conflict, and concludes with a Setback.

A Reactive Scene begins with a Reaction, continues through most of the scene with a Dilemma, and concludes with a Decision.

In my view, it never hurts to look at a scene and ask whether it fits one of these patterns. If it does, how well does it fit the pattern? If not, will it be improved by editing it to fit the pattern?

Note that I am very much against a “paint-by-numbers” scheme of writing fiction. However, I do believe in using design patterns to help edit fiction, and the Proactive Scene and Reactive Scene are two powerful design patterns.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

On Those Pesky Powerful Emotional Experiences

Bryce posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

What, in your mind, is the surest way to achieve a powerful emotional experience in fiction – is it having a solid structure with compounding disasters? Is it having solid and deep characters? Or do you need to know it all before you can get the average reader to “have a PEE”?

I’m not looking for a shortcut, just a topic to study/practice so that my writing has a sharper edge and can cut down to deeper emotions.

Randy sez: Sometimes I think I’ve created a monster by coining the term “Powerful Emotional Experience.” (To my knowledge, I was the first writing teacher to claim that the purpose of fiction is to create a Powerful Emotional Experience, which my students quickly discovered had a delightfully naughty three-letter acronym.)

In my opinion, the Powerful Emotional Experience really requires only two elements:

  1. You have to have characters that your reader actually cares about, because nobody will get emotionally invested in a character they don’t care about.
  2. You have to put a character at hazard, and then either rescue him or let him go down in flames. (Either way will create an emotive response in your reader.)

There is a certain structure to characters. They must have Values, Ambitions, and Goals. (Drat, I can’t type out the entire chapter 7 from my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, but trust me, it’s all there.)

There is also a certain structure to hazard. At the highest level of story, there are Storygoals and Disasters. The middle level of story (the scene) is a little more complicated, because there are two basic kinds of scenes that are specially good at creating hazard and then paying it off to the reader with a PEE. At the very lowest level of story, paragraph by paragraph, there is a simple structure of hazard that gives the reader a continuous stream of, um, Powerful Emotional Experience. Again, it would be a an awful lot of work to type out here chapters 8, 9, and 10 of WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, and my publisher would probably get very irritated at me for violating their copyright.

A fair bit of this is summarized in the “Writing the Perfect Scene” article here on my web site.

Bryce also asked a second question:

Also, when are you going to have more contests so that us plebes that are still learning can earn a one-page critique? Or have you considered offering a paid five-page critique service? Or am I going to have to spring for a writing conference if I’m ever to have some direct input about my fiction?

Randy sez: I’ve not been doing many critiques lately except at writing conferences. It’s a matter of being very busy and wanting to have an impact on the most people I can in the limited time that I have. There are a number of good free-lance editors listed on my blogroll who could do a paid five-page critique, if you asked them. When I’ve got stuff to be critiqued, I usually hire Meredith Efken at the Fiction Fixit Shop to look it over. She gets my writing and knows how to tell me what’s wrong without making me want to break things. When you find a good freelance editor who works well with you, stick with him or her!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

On Those Pesky One-Sentence Storylines

Davalynn posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

What happened to the tagline workshop we were all working on a few months ago? I’ve been super busy – like you and others – so I may have just missed it after the first two or three. If so, my apologies. However, I learn a great deal from your critiques and from comments of other reader/writers.

Randy sez: Critiquing one-sentence Storylines has been an immensely popular exercise that we do on my blog from time to time. I’ve found that it’s hard to keep track of the posted Storylines. When I put out a call for Storylines, I’ll typically see several dozen loyal blog readers post their Storylines as comments all in one day. Then we’ll start working through them one by one, and within a couple of weeks, the original set of Storylines becomes older and older on the list of blog entries and harder and harder to find. So I don’t think a blog is the right tool to use for running this kind of an ongoing clinic.

I really enjoy critiquing these Storylines. I think that a great one-sentence Storyline is critical to the success of a novel. However, I’m still looking for a solution to the administrative problem.

I think that the best solution may be to create an online forum just for doing critiques like that. There could be a different section in the forum for one-sentence Storylines, another for Three Act Structures, and others for dealing with other aspects of the craft.

I will be looking into this once I finish finalizing the next upgrade of Snowflake Pro. (I’m almost done with version 1.1. It’ll have some new features that are the most-requested features by my current set of users. Today, I’ll be finishing revisions to the Help files. The only other task on the list is to make sure the audio files are still up to date and then to do a final round of internal testing. I hope to send the new upgrade to my team of alpha testers for external testing next week.)

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

What If Your Novel Idea Is Boring?

Jon posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

My question concerns how to pick a story topic or story line. I never feel like any of my one sentence summaries are worth expanding to a story. I think this frustration is the biggest thing holding me back from trying to write. I don’t have any confidence in my story ideas. I feel like they are either too boring or too similar to novels/movies/TV show that have already been done. Any advice?

Randy sez: Yikes, that’s a tough one. I think it’s a mistake to write a novel about a story you don’t care about. But it’s also a mistake to have your standards set so high that you never work on anything because it’s not original enough.

Without knowing you, Jon, I’d be hard pressed to pinpoint the problem. One thing to bear in mind is that there are very, very few truly original story ideas. Most stories are similar in some way to stories that have already been told. So why tell them? That’s simple: because those stories have never been told by YOU. If you’re a real writer with something to say, then telling ANY story will automatically make it original.

A group of my novelist friends did an experiment a few years ago. They all agreed to write a short story based on the same idea. The story had to have a number of elements all the same. Everybody wrote a story from that same starting point. Every story was different. The result was a book titled WHAT THE WIND PICKED UP. The subtitle is “Proof that a single idea can launch a thousand stories.”

Jon, I’d suggest you just pick the idea you like best and see if maybe it’ll grow into something unique and original and interesting as you work on it. The mark of a good writer is that he or she can turn an ordinary thing into an extraordinary story.

What do you all think, O loyal blog readers? What’s your advice for Jon? Post a comment telling him what you’d do.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

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