Archive | March, 2011

Just Write the Story

Sometimes you can get yourself tied in a knot about whether you should or shouldn’t write the story you want to write. When in doubt, my rule is simple. Just write the story.

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

I’m new to your blog (it’s great btw!) so forgive me if you have already answered a similar question.

I would like to write YA fiction and I have an idea I really like, but I’m unsure about whether its concepts/themes will appeal to teenagers. The obvious solution would be to write it for adults, and I would be happy to do so, if it weren’t for the fact that my protagonist is a 16-year-old girl.

It will be speculative fiction set in a somewhat dystopian future, with themes strongly addressing beauty and the media. But as much as it will be a story about this world, it will also be a story about a teenager who’s just trying to find out who she really is and where she fits in the greater scheme of things.

As a 21-year-old, both appeal to me, but as I sit in the middle as a reader of both YA and adult fiction, I’m afraid this idea won’t fit in either market.

Should I abandon it, change it, or just write it anyway?

Randy sez: Write it.

Teens are a lot smarter than many people want to think. They don’t mind big issues. If you’ve read THE HUNGER GAMES or the Harry Potter series, then you can’t possibly doubt that. When I was in my teens (feels like about two years ago), I didn’t like it when adults assumed that I wasn’t smart enough or serious enough to get what they were talking about. Teens who read a lot are plenty smart and plenty serious.

Teens do like to be entertained, same as every other age group. So the same rule applies to writing YA as applies to writing every other category — write a good story. Make it entertaining. Make it move the emotions of your reader.

Other than that, there aren’t any rules that can’t be bent, bashed, beaten, or broken.

Just write the story. If it’s any good, then you should be able to sell it or self-publish it and gain a following of loyal fans. If it isn’t any good, then figure out why.

Then go write another story. Over and over again for the rest of your life.

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.

Blog of the Day: Larry Brooks just posted Part I of a two-part interview that I did with him last weekend. Larry knocked himself out coming up with what I consider the best set of interview questions I’ve ever been asked. I knocked myself coming up with answers that were (I hope) worthy of the questions. I even used the tongue-in-cheek phrase “mentally impoverished scoundrels” but I won’t tell you the context. You have to read the interview, which you can find here: “Interview With a Superstar Writing Mentor — Randy Ingermanson.” I’m still laughing at the title, which Larry came up with, not me. Have fun!

The Art and Science of Writing Scenes

Novelists talk about scenes all the time. But not all of fiction is composed of scenes. What is it that makes a scene a scene?

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

I have a question regarding story structure. While I was reading through one of your blog posts about a strategy for writing a synopsis you described how the typical novel has 80 to 100 scenes and that some scenes are more exciting than others so that you get “sequences of scenes” (clumps of 3 to 5 scenes where the tension rises to a peak). Well, what I was wondering is how do you define a “scene”?

According to your article “Writing the Perfect Scene” a scene has either a Goal, Conflict, Disaster or a Reaction, Dilemma, Decision. But what exactly IS a “scene”?

Consider the beginning of the first Harry Potter Book. It opens talking about the Dursleys. Clearly JKR had a goal when she wrote it: to get the reader to buy into the premise that there is a secret world of magic. But where’s the CHARACTER’S Goal, Conflict, Disaster or the CHARACTER’S Reaction, Dilemma, Decision? Who exactly IS the POV character? If it has none of these things, then what makes it a “scene”?

But my question extends beyond that. Where does setting fit in? When I think of the word “scene” I think of a scene in a movie or a play: a specific location at a specific time where a relatively significant part of a story occurs. Using this definition there could conceivably be more than one “scene” per Goal, Conflict, Disaster unit.

When you say a typical novel has 80 to 100 scenes do you mean it has 80 to 100 Goal, Conflict, Disaster/Reaction, Dilemma, Decision Units? Or do you mean it has 80 to 100 of the “movie” scenes?

Randy sez: There is more than one question lurking here. Let’s take them in order.

First, what is a scene? That’s relatively easy, and David got it pretty close to the standard meaning. A scene is a sequence of events that happens at a particular place and time and that moves the story forward. The scene consists mostly of “showing” though it may contain some “telling.” The scene has a particular structure that gives the story motion.

When we say “showing,” we mean that the author is using the following tools:

  • Action.
  • Dialogue.
  • Interior Monologue.
  • Interior Emotion.
  • Sensory Description.

When we say “telling,” we mean that the author is using the following tools:

  • Narrative Summary
  • Exposition
  • Description

I have blogged often about all of these tools, so I won’t try to define each of them here. Being a selfish money-grubbing author, I’ll also note that these are explained at infinite length in my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES.

[And by the way, the paper edition of my book is currently selling at half-price on Amazon, and my publisher is giving a $5 rebate, which is a pretty good bargain for those few remaining souls who don’t yet have a copy.]

Second, how shall we categorize the opening of Harry Potter? That’s easy, now that we’ve laid out our tools. The opening page or so of Harry Potter is a brilliant use of exposition to bring the reader up to speed on the incredibly Mugglish Dursley family. We learn that they are all very sorry excuses for human DNA carriers and that they have a secret. We desperately want to know that secret, because we don’t like the Durleys.

That’s the first page of Book One of Harry Potter. The rest of the paragraph uses quite a bit of narrative summary to take us through a day in the life of the Dursleys, the day that Harry Potter’s parents are killed and Lord Voldemort loses his grip on this mortal coil. The day that baby Harry is foisted off on his none-too-willing Dursley relatives.

As the chapter progresses, we see increasing amounts of “showing” and decreasing amounts of “telling.” We really don’t see much of a scene until Professor Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall arrive at the Dursley home and then Hagrid shows up with Harry.

So the second half of the first chapter qualifies as a scene. It’s in fact a proactive scene, in which the goal is to place Harry with the Dursleys. The conflict is that they just aren’t all that suitable, but they’re all the relatives Harry has. The setback is that Harry is left with them and when Mrs. Dursley comes out in the morning, she actually screams when she sees him.

It’s a bit easier to launch a fantasy with this kind of narrative summary, because fantasies are grown-up fairy tales, and fairy tales have a long history of beginning with narrative summary. You’ll notice that very few police procedurals, romances, thrillers, or any other kind of fiction begins with “telling.”

Third, David asks whether a typical novel has 80 to 100 scenes of the type that I define in my book and in my Writing The Perfect Scene article, or whether the novel has 80 to 100 movie-like scenes. The answer is the former, although it seems to me that most movie scenes have a similar arc to novel scenes. I could say more about that, but I think this post has gone on long enough.

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 Makes a Flashback Sizzle?

I often hear that flashbacks in fiction are always bad. Is that true? If not, then how do you know if the flashback in your novel is working? And what do you do if it isn’t?

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

I am writing in first person and having difficulty with inserting back story. Currently my dilemma is with flashbacks. To use or not to use them, and if so how much is too much, or when is the best use of them? Frequently when I resort to a narrative in a flashbacks place I think what I have written is boring and stiff. What is your take on the flashback?

Randy sez: A flashback has one thing going for it and one thing going against it.

What’s good about a flashback is that it’s written in “immediate scene”–meaning that it’s shown happening right here, right now, minute by minute, without summary. That’s the most compelling kind of fiction (although if your novel is 100% immediate scene, something is probably wrong).

What’s bad about a flashback is that it’s yesterday’s news. Or last year’s news. In extreme cases, it can be last millennium’s news. It’s backstory. Flashback is a compelling way to show backstory, but it’s still backstory.

If you’re going to use a flashback, a generally good rule of thumb is to wait until the reader absolutely, positively MUST know the information contained in the flashback. Then show as little of the flashback as possible. Then return to the main story.

No reader on the planet ever said, “Wow, I’m going to buy this book because I’m dying to hear what happened before it takes place!”

Nope. Readers buy a book because they’re dying to hear what happens DURING THE MAIN STORY.

Backstory is a necessary part of any story. Strong backstory makes a strong story. But in writing fiction, practice the fine art of withholding information. That creates mystery. It creates suspense. It keeps your reader reading.

Can you hold off on showing any flashbacks until at least 25% of the way into your story? If not, then maybe the real story isn’t your story. Maybe your real story is the backstory and you should have started sooner.

Can you hold off on showing any flashbacks until you’re 75% of the way into your story? If so, you might have a real killer of a story. Remember, as long as you’ve got a secret, your reader wants to know it. Once you’ve told the secret, your reader no longer wants to know it.

Delay, delay, delay on that pesky backstory, whether it’s a flashback or any other kind.

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.

Blog of the Day: Barry Eisler recently turned down a two-book deal for half a million dollars with a major publisher in order to self-publish in e-book format. Is Barry crazy? Not hardly. Read a mammoth 13,000 word dialogue between Barry and his buddy Joe Konrath on e-books, legacy publishing, agents, self-publishing, and money on Joe’s blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing.

Using Supporting Characters In Your Fiction

In every scene of your novel, you have a lead character, and you can get inside this character’s head. But how do you handle the supporting characters? How do you work them into your scene?

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

I am a little confused with how non-POV characters are supposed to be properly included in the magical “motivation-reaction unit”. If the reaction part must include reaction from the POV character, where does a different character fit in? An antagonist character will fit in the motivation part, but what about a supporting character that is helping the POV character? I don’t want to swith point of view too rapidly for fear of confusing the reader, but I’d also like to include secondary characters in my scenes more often.

Randy sez: For those of you who are just joining us and aren’t sure what a “motivation-reaction unit” is, you can get up to speed instantly by reading my article, “Writing the Perfect Scene.”

Just to clarify Kyle’s question, the “reaction” part of the MRU is everything that the point-of-view (POV) character does, says, thinks, and feels. The “motivation” part of the MRU is everything else that any other character does or says and everything happening in the environment.

So both the antagonist and any other supporting characters are classified as part of the “motivation.”

This of course seems very weird, because aren’t motivations supposed to be thoughts of the POV character? The answer is yes, they are in a different context, which is why I’ve never liked the term “motivation-reaction unit.” The word “motivation” has multiple meanings, and in this context, it means “anything other than what the POV character does, says, thinks, or feels.”

My rule in writing is to show each character in a separate paragraph. If the paragraph is focusing on the POV character, then the paragraph is a “reaction”. If the paragraph focuses on anyone else or anything else, then it’s a “motivation.”

It really doesn’t matter whether a character is the antagonist or merely a supporting character. Either way, anything they say or do is a “motivation.”

Just as an example, let’s make up a few snippets of an imaginary scene involving three characters whom I’ll give the random names, Scarlett, Ashley, and Rhett:

Scarlett grabbed for Ashley’s hand, wondering how she could convince him. “Oh, Ashley, darling. If you marry me, I’ll be the happiest of women!”

Ashley stepped back. “No. I’ve told you a thousand times, I’m the wrong guy for you. You’re a miserable, greedy, grasping, selfish bitch, Scarlett! You deserve somebody like . . .”

“Like me,” Rhett said. “I’m a miserable, greedy, grasping, selfish jerk. Scarlett and I would be perfect together.”

Scarlett blushed scarlet. “Oh, no, Captain Butler! How could you say such a thing?”

Randy sez: Scarlett is the POV character. This is obvious from paragraph 1, where we hear her thoughts. The first and fourth paragraph are “reactions” because they focus on Scarlett.

It’s hard to say whether Ashley or Rhett is the antagonist in this scene, and it hardly matters. All that matters is that neither one is Scarlett. Paragraphs 2 and 3 are “motivations.” One focuses on Ashley, the other on Rhett. It’s quite fine to have two or more paragraphs of “motivation” in a sequence, each focusing on a different character.

Fiction is like a game of ping pong as seen from one side of the table. The action switches from the camera side (the POV character) to the opposite side (any of the other characters). When the ball is on the camera side of the net, we call that a “reaction.” When the ball is on the other side of the net, we call that a “motivation.” It really doesn’t matter how many players are on the other side of the net. All that matters is that the camera side only has one player — the POV character.

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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