Sometimes at night I sit in front of the TV and I don’t have the energy to watch anything more than a thirty-minute sitcom, or a singing reality show, which I can digest in small bites and turn off when I get bored. Because the mental effort of engaging with a longer story takes too much effort.
Watching a story takes effort.
Sometimes I get in bed at night and read one page before my book falls out of my hands and clatters to the floor. It’s not even that I don’t like the book—it’s just that I’m tired and want to go to sleep.
Reading a story takes effort.
Sometimes I don’t think I have it in me to write. It is so much easier to consume words rather than create them myself. So off I go to wander aimlessly around the internet, which mostly involves sort-of, kind-of word consuming.
Writing a story takes effort.
Here’s the moral: anything to do with story takes effort. Studies show that you use more of your brain when listening to a story, and I surmise that the same holds true for reading a story and writing one as well. The more tension in a story, the more you’ll pay attention, the more you pay attention, the more you’ll feel the emotion of the characters in the story, and the more you feel the emotion, the more likely you’ll be to mimic the behavior of the characters in the story afterwards. Which kind of goes to show why everything to do with story takes such effort. It’s almost as if we’re living it ourselves as we watch, read, or write a story.
Because story changes us. Never forget that you wield that power as you write. I don’t know about you but knowing that motivates me to write. It motivates me to open the computer on days I don’t feel like it, to spend the time it takes to get a story onto the page. To make the effort. Because I can’t think of anything more powerful than the ability to change a person’s life with the words you write. Can you?
And so, truly, story is worth the effort.
Here’s a related prompt for you:
The story begins when….
(Remember, just use the prompt as a starting point. And you don’t have to take it literally.)
And if you would like to study story through the lens of the five senses, consider coming to Astoria, Oregon, for a winter workshop! We’ll be offering a week-long writing workshop in fun, funky and eclectic Astoria, Oregon, the first week in February. Great seafood, fun shops, a week devoted to writing and writerly camaraderie. We’re so excited, and we’ve already had several sign-ups. Space is limited, so check it out soon! You can read all about it here.
Does your writing show clearly defined arcs? In story, scene, and character?
I spent last Saturday afternoon teaching about arc and it has gotten me thinking about it a lot. Whenever I teach, I do a lot of research to add onto what I already know. That research got me paying more attention to the arcs of my own scenes (more on that below), and re-examining arc in my own work.
It is a useful concept that can help you with the macro–the overall story–and the micro–individual scenes–as well as characters. So let’s take a look.
What is Arc?
The purpose of arc is to show change, whether that is in plot, the overall story, or character. Because, in most cases, a story or character that doesn’t change is flat and, well, boring.
Story arcs in contemporary drama often follow the pattern of bringing a character to a low point, removing the structures the character depends on, then forcing the character to find new strength without those structures. In a story arc, a character undergoes substantial growth or change, and it ends with the denouement in the last third or quarter of a story.
Note how story and character are intertwined in this explanation–as they will be in your story itself. Think about it this way: your story will end in a different place than it started. And I don’t mean location, though this might well be true. You start out with a bored frustrated attorney who hates his job? By the end he will have found his truly calling as an organic farmer. Or something. And yes, I’m veering from story to character here–because story is character, character story. Unless you are writing an obscure, plot-less novel of some sort. Good luck to you–but I’m not going to read it.
(Although, it must be said that tons of people have lapped up the Elena Ferrante books, which to me were essentially plot-less. Okay, I only made it through the first one and that because I was trapped on an airplane with nothing else to read. But they were pretty formless.)
Arc in Character
The basic idea is that your main character is faced with conflicts that take her away from her normal life and things she can depend on. This is change. But then your character has to deal with this change–and it is through doing this that she is transformed. Because of the need to confront the conflicts in her life, she is different at the end than she was at the beginning. I especially like Michael Hauge’s statement that this transformation is from identity to essence. All of the heroines of any novel I’ve ever written have followed this path, from trying to be somebody they are not to their true selves. In one way or another, it is a journey we all take.
Arc in Scene
As Robert McKee says, every scene should turn. This means it starts one place and ends up in another (sound familiar?). A scene can have rising action or falling action. Here’s McKee on the topic:
Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask: What value is at stake in my character’s life at this moment? Love? Truth? What? How is that value charged at the top of the scene? Positive? Negative? Some of both? Make a note. Next turn to the close of the scene and ask, Where is this value now? Positive? Negative? Both? Make a note and compare. If the answer you write down at the end of the scene is the same note you made at the opening, you now have another important question to ask: Why is this scene in my script?
This is a brief intro to the topic, but I hope it helps you see how important arc is, in every aspect of your story.
The other night, my husband and I watched an episode of Scorpion, which I’d only see bits and pieces of before and ended up thoroughly enjoying. The show is about a band of misfit computer experts led by Katherine McPhee, who is their interface and explainer of the real world. In this episode, a helicopter carrying a doctor had crashed into a parking garage in high winds. The helicopter was stable, as were its passengers, but the doctor had to be extracted immediately because she was the only doctor who could perform a certain kind of surgery and she had a dying patient awaiting her. (Hence why she was being flown in.) So the gang had to figure out how to perform a very risk rescue.
It was all very exciting, but what struck me was how the writers made great use of sub-plots. One involved the meteorological expert’s budding ardor for a chemist who works nearby and also the trials of a couple who were dealing with infertility. (I know, I know, sounds like a lot to pack into one episode, but it worked.) The sub-plots gave what otherwise could have been a routine action show a good dose of human pathos, especially because of the way the writers worked them in around the ongoing drama.
And that made me ponder sub-plots. When I first started writing fiction back when we all lived in caves, I was intimidated by sub-plots. They sounded complicated and complex to try to fit in. I mean, it is hard enough to figure out one plot from start to finish, right? And then you’re supposed to add in others? And make them relate to the main plot?
But then I realized that I was over-thinking the whole sub-plot thing. They can be as simple as a few brief mentions of a minor character’s arc or some silly joke that carries through the plot.
You can think of them as, simply, another thing. A thing that will take the pressure off your main character and your main story, thus giving it, your readers, and you, some time to breathe. Often a story feels a little bare until you add in this other thing.
Ways to add in more things
Add another aspect to your main character.
Think, for example, of your own life. You wear many hats, right? You’re a writer, but you’re also perhaps a parent or an aunt or an uncle, a friend, and likely you work at some kind of job. Then there are your hobbies and activities–maybe you run every day after work, or spend the evening in front of the TV knitting. Or perhaps you bake amazing sweets. Or raise turtles. Or like to flip houses.
But if you were writing yourself as a character and focused solely on one of those things, the story would soon get a little stale. What if we only saw your character watching TV? Or running? Or tending the turtles? That would not be a developed picture of you at all. And that’s one way to add a sub-plot: add another element to the character. I remember one from a novel that I read long ago in which the main character was constipated the entire novel. At one point, he finally was able to go. I know, I know. But it could be thought of as another thing.
Add a love interest.
Boo-yah. Done and done. If you’re writing a mystery or thriller or literary fiction, a love interest adds a human element readers love.
Create a habit for your character.
This can be either one she is trying to acquire or one she is trying to break. As a running line throughout the story, it can add depth and maybe even some humor.
Use a minor character for a sub-plot.
In my novel, Emma Jean’s Bad Behavior, I gave her assistant an arc that became a sub-plot. She started out completely against romance and ended up madly in love.
Give your character something to master.
Maybe your character takes up jewelry-making to find a way to relax from the stress of her job. Or decides to plant a garden. Showing a character mastering something new is satisfying for the reader.
Give your character a hobby.
I love to knit. While most of the time I do this at home, I also attend knit nights at local knitting stores and the monthly meeting of my knitting guild. Something like this gives your character more dimension and also gives you more fodder for the plot.
How to use sub-plots
Only add in one or two! Too many will overload your story.
Remember that sub-plots will be introduced and completed before the start and finish of your story. Save the beginning and end for the main plot
Sub-plots are very handy for pacing. You can have one sub-plot hanging out there, then introduce another one and meanwhile be moving along the main elements of the plot. Open plot lines are a great way to keep the reader interested.
Keep your sub-plots organic to the story. Does it feel forced? Don’t use it. For instance, it is probably not going to feel natural for a business executive living in Manhattan to start raising chickens.
Similar to above, be sure to find a way to connect or relate your sub-plot to the story.
How do you use sub-plots in your stories? Do any of these ideas resonate? Leave a comment–or come over to the Facebook page to share.
I spent this just-past Thanksgiving weekend at the beach with a rotating cast of family members in attendance. It was a blast. And, I got some writing done. I woke up early every day and sat at the dining room table and wrote on my laptop. (It helped immeasurably that the house has no wi-fi.)
I’d been struggling with rewriting two chapters, the segments of which needed rearranging. I had looked at them every which way from Sunday and back again. I would get to a point where I thought I had it all figured out and then I would realize it wouldn’t work. So I’d go back to making notes and lining each chapter out and again, it would all collapse and go to that place where plots that don’t work go.
Finally I started writing. I went with my latest organizational scheme (because I thought I had it all figured out) and just freaking started writing. Which is when I realized that what I thought would work wouldn’t. Again. However, this time I found the answer in the writing. The arrangement of scenes flowed effortlessly, organically. No angst or wringing of hands.
While we were at the beach, we spread out a jigsaw puzzle, which turned out to be a very difficult one, so difficult that there was much cheering every time a new piece got fit in. That’s how I felt with my chapters. I figured out the order. Much cheering.
But here’s the main takeaway: START WRITING. It amazes me over and over again how the answers always lie in the writing itself. Why I forgot that and need to remind myself so often is a mystery.
Okay, basta! Here’s my very important question: if I were to start a Facebook group (that might or might not be closed, I’m not sure), would you be interested in joining it? I’ve long been pondering a way for my loyal commenters and others to have an easier way to talk to each other. Thoughts? What are your positive/negative experiences with such groups? And while we’re at it, what is the secret to life? (Kidding about that last one–unless you have the answer.)
I was at a gathering of writers last night (Portlanders, we meet every last Monday of the month for Literary Libations, join us) and Angela Sanders, an accomplished mystery writer who is doing very well with her books (can you say number one on all Kindle sales?) was talking about her career.
Angela talked about how she does very little social media, sends one newsletter out a month (subscribe here, its definitely worth it), and beyond that, "I write every day."
Because–that's the most important thing.
As often as humanly possible.
And yes, while writing in a journal, or writing a blog post, or ad copy for your next class, or whatever, is all terribly important, when we talk about writing every day, we're talking about writing on that project of yours. You know the one–the novel that keeps you awake at night. The one where the characters keep doing things that delight you. The one you have in your head. Or hopefully in a collection of notes carefully stored somewhere.
So, how important is it to write every day?
Well, I think its every thing. Every damn thing. I do. I believe that writing every day is what we should all strive for.
But people scowl at me when I say this. They throw things, like rotten apples, at me. They yell and scream. Okay, maybe they don't really, but I can see by the look in their eyes that they are wishing they could. Because they really don't want to write every freaking day.
And that is what it really boils down to. Whether or not you actually want to write.
I'm sorry, but that's the plain, hard truth of the matter. (And for the record, I'm lecturing myself here as much as anybody.) Once, years ago, I read something that bears on this. I believe it was in a Julia Cameron book. She said something to the effect that if a man is in love with you, no matter if he's the busiest executive in the world, he'll find time to call you.
So, ahem. If you're in love with your writing (and you should be) you will freaking find time to do it, even a little, even if you're just thinking about it, every day.
And here's a little tip to help you do it every day:
At the above-mentioned Happy Hour wherein we discussed every aspect of writing, one of my most favorite writers (and human beings) in the whole world piped up and said she'd been writing every day.
Gasp. This required a huge gulp of wine to process. Because Jenni, (who is likely reading this and rolling her eyes) has not written for months. This has been the cause of much consternation and hand-wringing between my biz partner Debbie and I, because Jenni is a damn good writer, writing a really fun mystery.
So to hear her announce that she was now writing regularly again was amazing. And we found out her secret, which is…..
Write for ten minutes a day.
C'mon, everyone can find ten minutes. And the bigger trick to this is that once you start writing, you often look up and realize that an hour, not ten minutes has gone by and you've really not felt like stopping.
So, the moral of the story is that, yes, I do think every one should write every day if at all possible and that really, everything will fall into place for us all if we just write as often as possible.
Here, for your consideration, two aspects of storytelling.
1. Parsing the story. This is, of course, most often the purview of the rough draft, or shitty first draft, or discovery draft, or whatever you want to call it. Hilda would do. (I think I'll start giving my drafts names. Why not?) Although it must be said that story often reveals itself more fully on the second, third, or tenth drafts, too.
The point is that you have to figure out the story for yourself. Yeah, you get a brilliant idea for a novel and set out writing it, but honestly? There's a crap-ton of stuff that goes into a novel. A lot has to happen. Like, a lot lot. And you have to uncover all this stuff, because it doesn't come downloaded with the idea. (Or maybe it does for you. If so, please email me. I want to steal all your secrets.) Which is why you launch in and write a rough draft, whether you are a plotter or a pantser.
And then when you are done with that, there's:
2. Deciding the best way to tell the story. Your story might have come out in a strict chronology, but when you look at it, that's not the best way to build suspense. (And all stories, not just mysteries and thrillers, need suspense.) Or maybe it came to you in fragments and now you need to order them. It is at this stage that you need to take a big, deep breath and figure out how to present the story. Maybe the last chapter should come first, or vice-versa. Maybe the character you thought should tell the story needs to be replaced with someone else. Maybe you need to switch from first to third. Who knows? Only you, the author. Just don't make the mistake of assuming that the way the story came out of your brain is the only way it can be told.
And also, please don't make the mistake of confusing these two aspects. They each have their time, okay? When you're writing first draft, your main job is to get the story down on paper. After you have finished a full and complete draft, beginning to end, you can make decisions about how best to present it.
This is a paid book review for the BlogHer book club, but the opinions expressed are mine and mine alone!
Any book I read (and I try to read a lot, because that's what writers do) I read through the eyes of a writer. Once you being writing, reading is a whole different experience, because you're studying how the author uses craft as you read. In The Book of Jonas, I not only enjoyed pondering the way author Stephen Dau wielded craft, I also loved his overall theme, which is of huge interest to writers.
But before I go into that, let me tell you a bit about the book. The book's main protagonist, Jonas, is just a teenager when his family is killed during a U.S. military operation in an unnamed war. He escapes to the United States, where he struggles, not only with fitting in, but with the weight of a terrible secret. This secret concerns the story's secondary protagonist, Christopher Henderson, the U.S. soldier who saved Jonas's life. Written in dream-like prose, the book builds to quite the emotional ending, though you'll probably have guessed it before the end.
It is quite a tour-de-force of a book and I suspect it will land in the annals of classic war literature. Extremely well written and nearly hypnotic in its ability to keep you reading, The Book of Jonas is a stunning achievement. And all that is saying a lot from me because it is not the kind of book I usually read–I shy away from books about war.
As I mentioned, Dau uses the writer's craft in a mesmerizing way. Part of that is his use of a fractured chronology. The story leaps from Jonas's current day life in America to his former life in his unnamed homeland, and neither of those chronologies is linear, so the reader is jumping all over the place, yet the story remains clear. If you're writing a fractured chronology, you should study this book. And by study, I mean read it over and over again, underline it, and take notes. It is extremely well done.
Finally, the book offers up a theme that every writer can embrace: the power of story. It is only through telling the story, in Jonas's case, and writing it down, in Christopher's, that we achieve healing, and ultimately, freedom.
For comment: what book or books have you read lately that inspired you?
This is a guest post by Jessica Baverstock, an Aussie writer currently living in Beijing, China. Jessica read my newsletter discussing how we writers get our knickers all wound up in our stories last month and it inspired her to write about her own stories. The process of which was not only entertaining, but enlightening and worthy of sharing. So here you go. And thanks, Jessica!
1. Observe – Make a note of the stories you tell.
I am a failure as a writer.
Sure, I love to write and I have the eccentricities down pat – but I can't actually call myself a writer. You see, I've never had anything published. The closest I've ever come was at 19 when I had a poem read out on the radio. Since then I've endured a distinct silence of recognition.
And rightly so. I have nothing worth submitting. I have no polished manuscript sitting in a slush pile waiting to be discovered. I have no polished manuscript at all! I never finish projects. I have notebooks full of scribbled ideas, a bookshelf full of first drafts and several unfinished 2nd drafts languishing in a dark computer folder somewhere – but nothing actually finished.
So you see, I'm a failure as a writer.
2. Write About It– Pull your story apart.
As stories go, this is demoralizing right from the first sentence. While the statements of 'accomplishment' themselves are true, the conclusions inferred are depressingly skewed.
It does, however, give one a feeling of security. If you've already declared yourself a failure, then no one can be disappointed in you no matter what the outcome of your efforts. It's the same reason why people who are prone to falling find lying on the ground oddly comforting – at least you can't fall any further. In this case, by declaring yourself a failure, it pre-empts someone else implying it or saying it outright.
Declare yourself a writer, on the other hand, and people will immediately expect proof. 'What have you written?' 'Have you been published?' 'Can I read some of your work?' Using the above story, you've given them all the proof they need. After such a tirade, who in their right mind is going to ask to see your work?
3. Assign it to a Character – Use your story as one of your character's stories.
I am assigning this story to Shelly – a character in a novel I'm currently working on.
Shelly is bubbly, insightful and kind – always quick to point out the accomplishments and worth of others. However, as soon as she opens her mouth with this story, we realise she is not as kind to herself.
She's nursing a very personal disappointment. Her dream from childhood was to be a writer, to publish stories and see her name in print. But it never happened. She reads articles about younger people who have achieved their writing dream – how their insight into human nature, their turn of phrase, their attention to detail contributed to their success – and realises she hasn't reached the height of quality necessary to accomplish a similar feat.
She reminds herself that such dreams are childish – don't all young girls want to be ballerinas and all young boys want to be astronauts? The fact is, the world is filled with an infinite array of different occupations. This must prove that at some point in a person's development, childish dreams fall by the wayside to allow new understandings of life and the world emerge. Such is what happened in her case.
However, on the bookshelf next to her bed are several colorful journals, written in from her childhood onward and so precious to her that she cannot part with even one of them. And every morning, over breakfast, she writes in her journal about the wonderful characters and stories she dreamed of the night before.
Now isn't that the sign of a true writer?
4. Consider All the Elements– Look for the main elements, characters, themes, plot, action.
From a storytelling point of view, the only way this story can progress is for the storyteller to effect a complete change of attitude. Currently it's a 'dead end' tale. The words "never", "nothing" and "failure" do not move forward. They do not hold promise of more and better to come. They sit limp, heavy and stubborn on the page – refusing to allow any plot or action to follow.
In order for the plot to develop further, the character must step up and take action. Although the catalyst which starts a story is usually out of a character's control, the character should be the one to make the decision to launch into the next chapter – to spark off the journey which we long to read about.
Therefore this character must change her tune – she must transform her theme from 'failure' to 'opportunity.'
And this can all be done starting with one very simple word – yet.
"I have never had anything published." Yet.
"I have nothing worth submitting." Yet.
5. Write a New Story
I am a writer. I haven't had anything published yet because I'm working through what I like to call my 'apprenticeship.'
I've worked on many different stories, genres, characters and plots – learning along the way. I'm finding my distinctive voice, discovering the tricks to storytelling, creating collections of ideas, instituting schedules, building friendships and practicing the art of writing itself.
One day I will produce polished work worthy of submission. Until that time, I am thoroughly enjoying my journey – for without it I would never accomplish my dream.
Jessica Baverstock had her first run in with the writing life when, at age 3, she met her father's typewriter. Ever since, she's been passionate about putting words on paper, dreaming one day of making it to publication. She can be found at her blog, Creativity's Workshop, where her Creativity is featured as a real character – writing in distinctive purple text.
I volunteer with an organization called Step It Up, which connects high school students with experts in their chosen careers, and offers advice and support around jobs. Over the last couple of months, I've done a couple of writing workshops for them, with a co-leader who is a teacher.
The last two days we've been working with the kids on writing cover letters and thank yous. Specifically, my task was to help them find ways to get stories into their cover letters (and job interviews) to make them come alive.
As my co-leader Christine and I planned how we would do this last week, I told her it was very simple. That there was one thing that every single story from the beginning of time had in common.
"What is that?" she asked.
I'm sure all of you reading know the answer, so say it with me:
The bedrock, bottom-line, starting point of all story. Conflict. Stories don't exist without it.
And yet, my co-leader, an educated woman with a master's degree who had taken tons of English classes and participated on the debate team, had never heard this simple fact. Which doesn't actually surprise me because I've run into plenty of grown-ups who haven't either.
The cool thing is that Christine went off and put her new knowledge into place. Yesterday she stopped me after the workshop and said, "Thank you. This whole story thing has totally blown my mind and changed the way I look at everything."
Turns out she had spent the weekend with a group of girlfriends, and every time it was her turn to talk or tell a story, she found herself rearranging it a bit mentally so that she started with a bit of conflict. And now she's thinking about how she can put conflict into her cover letter stories and jazz them up.
Its the power of conflict, baby. Use it whenever you can, in the stories you tell, the letters you write, the books you are committing to paper. Your writing and your story telling will be richer and more compelling for it. Put the conflict on the page and keep it out of your life, is my motto.
For the record, when I asked the teenagers in the workshops what the basic element of story was, most of them answered, "conflict." So there's hope for future writers.
How do you develop conflict in your writing?
**If you want to know how to develop conflict in your book proposal, consider taking my book proposal teleclass. It begins June 7th, and the early-bird pricing is still on. Check it out here.