Character or Plot Driven? and Other Between Holiday Thoughts

My screenwriting friend Marc sent me a link to an article by Lawrence Konner, writer for a gazillion projects including Planet of the Apes (!) and multiple upcoming movies that sound blockbuster-ish.   There's a lot of good bits in this article, so much so that you could take any one of Konner's pronouncements and expand into a longer article.  Remember, nearly everything he says applies to all kinds of storytelling, be it fiction, or creative non-fiction, or you latest short story.  It is helpful to study screenwriting no matter what genre you are writing in, because screenwriters focus on story.

The part of the article that I enjoyed most was his thoughts on character versus plot.  "If you try to get characters to do what the plot determines, then they're moving falsely," Konner says.  He goes on to explain that the first thing you should do is write a biography of your character because the number one thing you want to do is get your audience (or reader) involved in some way with the character.  You must know your character's background, upbringing, current status, dreams, goals and desires.  The last aspects are among the most important because a character wanting something is what will power the plot.

Go read the article, its worth a look.

In the department of other bits and pieces, here's a small round-up of recent interesting things that have crossed my desk:

Nobel Prize winner Le Clezio says that writing was actually his third choice of career.   Firsthe wanted to be an architect, but his math skills were poor.  Then he wanted to be a sailor, but his eyesight was bad.  So he became a writer.  Writing soon became an "uncontrollable impulse."  Le Clezio considers himself a storyteller above all else, and not someone who writes to espouse political views. 

Has anybody read any of his novels?  I'm intrigued by them, myself.  Read the article about him here.

Anne Wayman did a good post called Of Creativity at the beginning of the month.  She links to a couple good posts on the subject. All of them are worth checking out.

PhilosophersNotes is a really cool idea–they call it Cliff Notes for Self-Development books.  During this holiday season, you can download the top 25 titles for free–its an awesome deal.  Be sure to read the Meet the Philosopher page on the site, about Brian Johnson, the guy behind it all.  It's inspiring.

For those of you looking for freelance writing jobs, Anne Wayman lists the places she hunts for them (or just subscribe to her job listing).  Two links to Anne Wayman–clearly she's doing awesome work for writers!

And, finally, Obama's chief speechwriter is 27.  Honest.  This is a fascinating article about him and his relationship with the president-elect.

I think that clears up all the things I've been saving to post about in my Google notebook.  Now its time to return to the magnum opus I'm working on, my 2009 goals.

When The World, Or Your Scene, Is Flat

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I've been having issues with flat scenes. 

Flat scenes are problematic because you may not even know that they are flat.  You have a vague notion that something is wrong with the scene or chapter.  It is boring, or it just doesn't work for some reason.  You struggle and struggle to improve them, to make them interesting, and still, they just lie there, dead on the page, like a limp noodle.  You poke and prod and give up in exasperation and let the poor flat scene lie there until next time, why have to face it again.

I recently dealt with this issue in a chapter of my novel.  There's always been something about this chapter that has bothered me, though I've rewritten it many a time.  It is a relatively static chapter, but it is important because it gives a lot of information about the characters, particularly our heroine, and so it can't be deleted.  I've brought in other characters, invented phone calls, tried everything I could think of to make the scene more lively.

And still, in its dullness, it resisted me.

This weekend I had a brilliant idea.  I chopped the chapter in half.  After all, I'd just done that with chapter one, and it worked, well, brilliantly, with the two chapters that were formerly one now snapped to attention and toiling much harder on their own.

So I tried the same thing with chapter five.  It didn't work.  Now I had two flat, lifeless chapters.

Yesterday, I went off to a movie (Twilight, which I liked a lot, if only for the gorgeous Northwest shots and the views of my beloved Columbia River, which you can see in the trailer) and as I watched the previews, an epiphany occurred.   300px-Vistahouse

The scenes were flat because they had no rising or falling action.  None, nada, zip, zilch.  They ended in the exact same emotional terrain in which they began.  Flat line from start to finish.  No ups, no downs.   Once I got home and took another look at the elements of the scenes, I could rearrange them so that there's a dramatic moment–a high point–at the end, one that makes you want to turn the page to the next chapter.

And then it occurred to me that not only would this make a good topic for a blog post, its such an important topic that it was probably worthy of several blog posts.  So stay tuned, because tomorrow I'm going to talk about the elements of a scene.  And the day after that I'll discuss rising and falling action, or, making a scene turn, in more detail.

Photo of the earth by Jaime Olmo used under Creative Commons license.

 

In The Body: Writing and Running, Part Two

A few days ago I wrote a post about writing and running.  Since then I've been staying in Laguna BeachTarget D1127
and running the canyon.  Okay, I run down and walk back up, but then so does nearly everyone else.  It is a looong way back up.  Yesterday as I hit the last and steepest hill I ran into a man named George who proceeded to tell me about Kangen water, which helped make the hill climb a lot easier.  (He dropped off some of the water for me to try later, and that was pretty cool, too.)

Water and interesting men aside, I have had Thoughts as I continue this new-found activity.  Thoughts which relate to writing.

My biggest Thought concerns the difference between writing and walking. Besides speed, the main difference to me is that when I run I'm totally in my body.  I'm focusing on keeping myself going, on breathing, maybe on that pain in my ankle, on making it to the next street or up the next hill.  When I walk, my mind roams free.  I ponder writing problems, and, alarmingly often, obsess about what I'm going to do first when I return from my walk. 

Over the years of my walking career, I've often noticed the difference between passing another walker and passing a runner.  Another walker always makes eye contact and greets me (at least in Portland, where we tend to be inordinately friendly).  But the runners always run on by.  I assumed this was an inbred snottiness about runners, but now I understand.  Runners don't say hi because they are in the body, not quite so focused on the surroundings.

How does this Thought relate to writing, you ask?  Just as a runner stays in the body when running, a writer needs to stay in the body when writing.  Its just that the body might be someone else's.  The body could be the heroine of your novel or the person for whom you ghostwrite a book.  In order to truly write from another point of view you need to deeply inhabit the body of your character.  This is also true in the case of writing a personal essay or even an article.  You must be in the body–your own body–in order to access the truths you wish to share in writing.

Some people get to this state by meditating.  You might have other ways to reach it.  Whatever path you choose, just remember that being in the body, deeply inhabiting the essence of yourself or your character, is the state you need to write from.

Writing Exercise: The Bluebird Canyon Special

The Santa Anas are blowing and fires are erupting all over southern California where I am currently ensconced at the top of a canyon overlooking the Pacific.  It is not quite as idyllic as it sounds, though I admit it is stunningly beautiful here, because I am here to care for a friend.

Perhaps it is the change of locale, but yesterday I awoke with a writing exercise resounding in my head.  Weird, huh?  Then again maybe it is due to the physical exercise I am getting.  This morning I ran down the canyon, so very proud of myself because I was not out of breath at all.  Then it was time to turn around.  And I realized I was at the bottom of a very steep hill.   Suffice it to say that I did not run back up said steep hill.   But I did make it.  And despite the sore legs, of which I am reminded numerous times a day in this house of stairs, I feel great.

And so here is the writing exercise that my subconscious created, The Bluebird Canyon Special.  This one is probably good for generating material for a new story, or if  you get stuck in your current story and need to jazz it up with a new character.  I've not had a lot of time to play with it, so give it a whirl and let me know how it works out.

Here we go:

1.  Pick 10 names of people ( such as Tara, Brunhilde, Eric, Sam..)
2.  Pick 10 locations  (LA, Boulder, Portland,Taos…)
3.  Pick 10 adjectives (blonde, lanky, beautiful, lush..)
4.  Pick 10 occupations (police officer, artist, CEO, waiter…)
5.  Pick 10 nouns (pen, journal, phone, table, car…)
6.  Pick 10 verbs (threw, jogged, spiraled, blasted…)

The key is to do this fast and don't over-think it.  You are simply generating material here, okay?

Now take the first four items and make a character with them:  Blond Tara from Boulder is a police officer.  Take the next two items and put your character into action:  Blond Tara from Boulder is a police officer who threw her journal out the window of her car.

Voila!  Now you have a character in action.  You can use this sentence as a prompt for generating a scene or a vignette or whatever you need.  Write the sentence at the top of a piece of paper, set a timer and write for 20 minutes without stopping. 

The other thing you can do with blond Tara is put her in the middle of a cluster.  This is hard to describe on a computer, but it is the same thing as Mind-mapping and it is also called webbing or spidering.   Write blond Tara's name in the middle of a piece of paper, and circle it.  Then write another bit of description and draw a line from the circle in the middle to this new bit of description.  Another detail of her appearance goes on the same line.  Then you get an idea about her family–that's a new line.  And perhaps up pops a thought about the conflict she faces–another line.  Pretty soon you will start to have quite a few ideas about ole Tara floating about in your mind.

But ole blond Tara needs a conflict, right?  Here's the fastest way to find her one: either in your clustering or your freewriting, answer the following question:  what does she desperately want or what is she desperately afraid of?  In the case of wanting something,  put obstacles to her getting it in front of her.  In the case of fearing something, make her face it.

Follow these steps and before you know it, you should have Tara waltzing about your novel or story.  Let me know how it works out for you.

How Far Away Are You? Part Two

Several days ago, I wrote Part One of this post on distance in viewpoint.  Rashly, at that moment, I promised a Part Two,  complete with how-tos.   The how-tos are the hard part, because as with all writing, they are difficult to explain and sometimes even more difficult to put into action.  But sometimes not. 

But never let it be said that I have backed away from a challenge. So here goes.

The goal at hand is to get deeply into the head of your viewpoint character.  There are places in your novel when you might want to stay in a more distant, cooler viewpoint, but that is not the point of our discussion today.  The point of our discussion is closeness, hot and intimate closeness.  None of that Ice Queen distance stuff for us, baby.  Its all about connection. 

How to accomplish that, given that we're talking about on the page and not on the body?  Here are some suggestions:

1.  I Am A Camera.  Or you are.  You job as the writer is to be the camera inside the viewpoint character's head.  Go deep inside your character (it is not as kinky as it sounds) and see the world through his or her eyes.  What does he see, smell, hear, taste, feel?

2.  Write Character Journal Entries.  One of the ways you get a character's voice on the page is to know that character well–so well that you can write her viewpoint as easily as you talk.  You don't always plan out what you are going to say, do you?  No, instead you talk.  Most of the time it is as natural as breathing.  Theoretically, the same should be true of writing in your character's viewpoint.

3.  Read Out Loud.  The best way to find out if your character talks the way you hear him talk is to read your manuscript out loud.  It makes a huge difference.   You'll pick up phrases that don't sound right and dull lines of dialogue.  If you character is the Duchess of York and you have her talking like Daisy from the Dukes of Hazzard, you'll hear it when you read out loud.

4. Interview with the Vampire, or at least your hero.  Another way to get inside your character's head is to ask her questions.  Make like Barbara Walters and find out what kind of tree she might be, among other things.

5.  Ordinary Day.  We all know there aren't any ordinary days, but just for the sake of your best-selling novel, let's pretend there are.  Take your character through a typical day in her life from the minute she gets up until she hies herself to bed.  Step by step.  This sounds tedious, but it is not, it is fun, and you'll discover way more about your character than what kind of toothpaste he uses.  You might get insight into what drives him (and also what kind of car he drives), what his day to day conflicts are, and perhaps even a taste of his motivation:  what gets him out of bed in the morning ( and the answer has nothing to do with an alarm clock).

6.  Put Her In Action.
  Have her do something.  Write a scene with your hero mowing the lawn or driving across New Mexico or teaching a child to swim.  These scenes will probably never make it into your book, but they will help you to understand who your character truly is as person.  Make a list of activities (use your life as a starting point) and every time you have a few minutes, choose an activity and write your character doing it. Action defines character.  Action is motivation in motion. 

So, are we recognizing a theme here? Are we perhaps noticing that the common denominator in all these exercises is a sincere desire to get to know our characters better?  Knowing your character inside and out is the key to being able to get inside his head to write in his viewpoint.  If you're having a hard time making your character's viewpoint come alive, go back to the starting point–character.  Ask more questions, delve more deeply, learn more about who you are writing about.