Archive | June, 2010

Writing That Pesky Three-Act Structure

Understanding the high-level structure of a novel is hard work. It’s also rewarding work, because if you can discipline yourself to do it, you’ll understand what’s most important in your story and you’ll be able to help the marketing people at your publisher when you get your book published.

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

I’m working on a proposal for a completed novel using the Snowflake Pro. Cool thing, by the way.

Stepping up from a one sentence summary to one paragraph using 5 specific sentences is crazy hard, at least for me. How do you make each of these into fully inclusive, coherent, non run-on sentences? Can you give a 5 sentence paragraph example from a hi-profile book or flick?

Randy sez: Thanks for the shout-out on Snowflake Pro, Camille.

Let’s review first what our goals are with these summaries. When you write a one-sentence summary, you are creating a marketing hook that anyone can use to tell their friends about your book. So the one-sentence summary is a selling tool.

Now when you go to expand this to a one-paragraph summary (in five sentences), you have an entirely different goal. You are doing a reality check to verify that you are meeting your reader’s expectations for what a story should be.

A story is not just a disconnected set of episodes. A story guides a reader through a series of connected events that provide a Powerful Emotional Experience. The big emotional payoff comes at the end, when the lead character either gets what she wants (a happy ending), doesn’t get what she wants (a sad ending), or gets some of what she wants but pays a price (a bittersweet ending). The payoff is bigger if most of the story makes it clear that the lead character has very little chance of getting what she wants.

Now it’s impossible to get what you want unless you actually know what it is you want. That needs to be defined early in the story. But before the reader will understand what the character wants, the reader needs to know a bit about the character.

That explains a whole lot about why I use a five-sentence structure, which looks like this:

  1. Write a sentence to tell who your lead character is and their initial situation in the story.
  2. Write a sentence that summarizes the first quarter of the story, ending in a disaster which forces the lead character to make a decision on how she wants the story to end. This defines the Story Question: “Will she get it or won’t she?”
  3. Write a sentence that summarizes the second quarter of the book, ending in a disaster which makes it look like the lead character won’t get what she wants.
  4. Write a sentence that summarizes the third quarter of the book, ending in an even worse disaster which makes it appear that all is lost.
  5. Write a final sentence that summarizes the ending and tells whether the lead character gets what she wants or not.

When you do this, you have to strip out all unnecessary details. Leave out all subplots and minor characters. (If you insist on putting those in, then you get those long run-on sentences in which the lead character’s issues with her remote and emotionally detached father get in the way of explaining why she and the hero can’t get together, because you’re constantly explaining stuff that you think is important which is sort of important but not as important as the really important stuff.)

Camille asked for some examples, so here are a few which I lifted straight out of the examples in Snowflake Pro:

For Gone With the Wind, which is a massively complicated book so it needs to be radically cut down:

Spoiled Scarlett O’Hara thinks her life is ruined when Ashley Wilkes marries Melanie instead of her. Scarlett marries Melanie’s brother and is quickly widowed, leaving Scarlett to protect Melanie during the burning of Atlanta. They barely escape to desolated Tara, where Scarlett’s family is sick, dead, starving or insane–and about to lose their home. To save them, Scarlett marries Frank Kennedy and takes over his business enterprises, which eventually leads to Frank’s death. Scarlett marries Rhett, but her obsession with Ashley eventually drives him away.

For Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

On his eleventh birthday, orphaned Harry Potter is invited to leave his miserable life with his aunt and uncle to attend a school for witches and wizards. Harry learns that an evil wizard, Lord Voldemort, tried to kill him as a baby and lost all his own powers instead. When Harry nearly dies in a jinxed game of Quidditch, he suspects that sinister Professor Snape is responsible. When Harry has to do a detention in the forbidden forest, he witnesses a shadowy figure drinking unicorn blood, a magical life preserver. Harry sets out to stop Snape from returning Voldemort to power, only to face Voldemort himself.

For the movie Pirates of the Caribbean:

Elizabeth, the governor’s spunky daughter, tries to save Port Royal from evil Captain Barbossa, but ends up becoming a prisoner of his ghostly crew. Her admirer Will Turner sets out to rescue her with the help of Captain Jack Sparrow, Barbossa’s greatest enemy. Pirate-hating Commodore Norrington rescues Elizabeth and Jack, but refuses to save Will–until Elizabeth rashly promises to marry him. They rescue Will and defeat Barbossa’s pirates, but Norrington sentences Jack Sparrow to be hanged . . .

For the book Pride & Prejudice:

When Lizzie Bennet and her sisters meet some wealthy young men at a ball, Lizzie takes a keen dislike to one of them, Mr. Darcy. Lizzie’s sister Jane falls in love with Darcy’s friend Mr. Bingley, and Lizzie takes an interest in Mr. Wickham — whom she then learns has been financially ruined by Darcy. When Lizzie visits her married friend in Hunsford some months later, Mr. Darcy seeks her out and proposes marriage to her, but she rejects him flat out. Lizzie soon finds out that Darcy is a better man than she had thought, and she is beginning to regret her rejection when her sister Lydia runs away to live in sin with Mr. Wickham. When Lizzie learns that Mr. Darcy rescued her sister’s reputation and when he learns that she no longer hates him, the two realize that they were made for each other.

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 Finding Those Pesky Critique Groups

How do you find the very best critique group for you?

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

A couple months ago I celebrated my first official year as a “pre-published” writer who spent all her time learning the craft by writing and studying in isolation. Live and learn, I say, and then don’t do it again. The good news is I have recently changed all that by attending my first writing conference and by observing three writing critique groups. The conference was definitely something I will repeat time and time again. The writing groups were all exceptional and now I must pick one (or all) of these writing groups. My questions are: What advice to you have on finding the best writing critique groups? And, depending on how often it meets, would it be wise to join a couple?

Randy sez: It all depends on where you are on the road to publication. If you haven’t already read my article on this site, “Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Author!” you should probably read it right now to get yourself oriented.

If you’re a Freshman, then you need a critique group to help you figure out where you’re strong and where you’re weak. The horrifically scary thing here is that you’re probably weak in most things. That’s the nature of the beast. You don’t start out in med school being a great brain surgeon. You don’t start out in flying school being a great fighter pilot. You don’t start playing chess as a grandmaster. Writers who can’t deal with that never make it past the Freshman stage.

If you’re a Freshman, I’d recommend finding one critique group that is reasonably nurturing. You really don’t need a group that’s going to destroy your ego every month. However you also need a group that’s going to hold you accountable to writing on a schedule. You will never escape your Freshmanhood unless you get to the point where you’re writing several times per week.

If you’re a Sophomore, then you have figured out a lot of things. By now, you know if you’re plot-oriented, character-oriented, theme-oriented, or setting-oriented. You also have some sort of clue of how you work best: You know if you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer or a Snowflaker or something else.

If you’re a Sophomore, your biggest need is probably a constant reminder that you still have a long way to go and you really aren’t J.K. Rowling just yet. A little knowledge, as they say, is a dangerous thing. Sophomores need to bear this in mind. You need a group that can help you strengthen your strengths and shore up your weaknesses. You also need at least one published author who can give you a bit of guidance in your career development and your marketing.

If you’re a Junior, you desperately need a mentor who is going to help you polish your goods to greatness. These are hard to find. The kind of mentor you need doesn’t necessarily hang out in critique groups much. It’s possible you won’t be able to find a critique group that can fill this need and you may need a critique buddy who is at your level and really gets your writing or you may need someone you can pay to do a freelance edit.

If you’re a Junior, you may very well be the best writer in your critique group, and that means your group is not helping you all that much. That doesn’t mean you should abandon your group. It just means that most of what you learn in the group will be in those “Aha!” moments when you’re critiquing someone else and you suddenly have an insight that’s good for you. Do remember at this stage that even the lowliest writer in your group may well be a great reader who has a key insight on what’s missing in your writing. They most likely won’t have a key insight on how to fix it, unfortunately.

If you’re a Senior, much the same goes for you. Seniors these days generally have an agent, and your agent is going to play the same role that your critique group played when you were a Freshman.

Now Rebecca’s question was partly on how to find a critique group. I can’t answer that easily. There are a lot of places to look for critique groups, but you find them wherever you find them. If you belong to an online organization, it may have a bunch of online groups.

The organization I belong to, ACFW, just recently had a whole class on how to do critiques, and now it’s forming online critique groups. (My daughter Carolyn took the class and is now doing critiques. She’s not a fiction writer; she wants to be an editor someday.)

If you have a community college that has writing classes, you’ll probably find a bulletin board somewhere near the creative writing department that lists critique groups.

I found my first critique group after going to a writing conference that was put on by a regional writing guild in San Diego. The guild had a number of critique groups and I joined one. This group lasted for several years and took me from green Freshman to frustrated Junior. It couldn’t take me beyond that, because nobody in the group was published.

When I finally realized that, I started going to large national writing conferences. At one of those, I met John Olson, who has been my writing buddy ever since. At another, I met Meredith Efken, who has been my freelance editor ever since. At other conferences, I’ve met other key people in my life: Tracy Higley, Jeff Gerke, Jim Rubart, Tosca Lee, Mary DeMuth, and many others. I also met editors and agents who’ve been my guides along the way: Steve Laube, Chip MacGregor, Lee Hough, Wendy Lawton, and many others.

So the moral here is that a critique group will get you rolling, but eventually you’ll need more than that. You will meet many friends at writing conferences, but you only keep them by maintaining contact (usually by e-mail).

One last comment: One good critique group is better than two weak ones. You really want people who know you and understand what you’re writing. You get that by continuity. You should pick a group that meets as often as you need, but no oftener. For a freshman, once a month is probably fine. If you’re really intense, you may be able to meet every two weeks or even weekly, but that’s a tough pace. You have to have time to write.

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 That Pesky Symbolism in Fiction Writing

I went out of town last Thursday, so I missed out on our regularly scheduled blog on Friday. I spent the weekend at a writer’s retreat with a bunch of my closest writer friends and we all had a wonderful time.

This is imperative, I’ve found: You need to spend time with other writers once in a while. It recharges your crazy-batteries so that you don’t slip-slide into the gray murk of normal life that will kill your fiction writing.

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

I’m a teen working on a complex novel idea. I haven’t written much as of yet (I have been working on plot development with the Snowflake Method, googling tips for writers, and getting critiques on a first chapter that I’ve been working on through other sources), but I am wondering what are your thoughts on symbolism. I am finding myself trying to cram symbolism everywhere, and am often acting very pick with word choice so that the symbolism isn’t wrecked. Am I simply overdoing it? I am afraid so, for it seems to me that symbolism is hardly noticed by readers today, mainly because I did not learn of its existence until this very school year.

Randy sez: Kevin, I think you’re the first teen who has e-mailed me this year who wasn’t obsessing on the question: “If I’m a teen writing fiction, will anyone take me seriously?” I don’t know quite why teen writers consider this the most important question. It isn’t. The first question editors or agents ask about any writer is this: “How well has this writer mastered the craft of fiction?” If the answer to that question is, “Extremely well,” then age doesn’t matter.

Really, I mean that. Age doesn’t matter. A teen writer with great craft, in fact, will probably have an advantage because that then becomes a selling point.

So congratulations, Kevin, on not asking what all the other teens are asking and for asking something that will advance your craft.

Now on to the actual question. I have three thoughts on the importance of symbolism in fiction writing:

Symbolism is like salt. Salt keeps the food from tasting bland. A little salt goes a long way. The “right” amount of salt is when you don’t notice that it’s there and you don’t notice that it’s missing. Too much salt will make you gag. Too little will make sure you never eat at that restaurant again.

Symbolism is like romance. If you obsess over making romance happen, you probably kill any chance that romance will develop. You cannot force romance. You cannot buy it (although you can buy something similar, which tragically turns out to be the exact opposite of romance). Romance happens when you weren’t looking for it. It grows when you just let it grow. Romance adds joy to life, but only when you aren’t trying to make it the only thing in life.

Symbolism is like humor. If you have to explain humor, it isn’t funny. If the humor is already there, you can tweak it to make it more powerful. If the humor isn’t there, no amount of trying will make it be there. With humor, 90% of the game is timing.

Kevin, it sounds like you may have “new toy syndrome.” This happens to all writers as they learn new elements of the craft and suddenly it seems like they’ve just got to use that new toy everywhere. Don’t sweat that. It happens. Keep working on your craft and pretty soon you’ll add yet another new toy to your collection, and then the symbolism will assume its rightful place in your arsenal. Then your only worry will be how to rein in the next new toy.

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.

Sam The Plumber Retires

As many of my Loyal Blog Readers know, I write a monthly humor column featuring a fictitious plumber named Sam, who has a unique perspective on the world of fiction writing.

In the most recent column, posted a few weeks ago, Sam finally discovers that he is fictitious. Or as he says it, he is “fictionary.” You can read the Fictionary column here.

With a heavy heart, I must announce that Sam is retiring. Or more correctly, I am retiring from my monthly column, at least for a while. I hope to bring Sam back someday. He’s been a strange friend, but always loyal. Right now, and for the next few months, I’m stressed for time, and something had to give. That “something” was Sam. He will be missed.