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Sunday, June 1, 2014

Granny Kat's Home Remedies for Your Ailing Story

Conflict versus Struggle

Dx: You have conflict, really good conflict, but are you spending enough time on the struggle against that conflict?

Rx: Don't spend a lot of story time summarizing or discussing the conflict itself. If you have scenes in which characters need to explain the conflict with internal monologues or discussions with other characters, try changing these into arguments and confrontations. The conflict will be delivered to the reader in a clear and engaging way. Do spend lots of story time on the struggle itself. Once the conflict is introduced, readers need to know more details about the conflict, but they should be able to get those details by watching the characters struggle, not simply by learning facts as events unfold. Every fact, every new detail should come out of a struggle.

Highlight the aspects of the struggle by spending lots of scene time on it. For example, your character's conflict is to take back what was stolen from his family. Spend scene time showing him struggling to figure out what happened to the goods and where they are now, scene time showing his struggle to get to the stolen goods, scene time showing him struggle to finally locate the goods, scene time showing him struggle to take possession of the goods, scene time showing him struggle when trying to leave with the goods, scene time showing him being forced to choose between the goods and something else he cares about, scene time questioning whether the goods are, in fact, truly his, scene time showing the value of those goods to him, scene time showing the value of those goods to the people who stole them, etc. Nothing should be easy. The story is made up of scenes that show him struggling with the conflict in many different ways.

Introspection versus Immediacy

Dx: You've got a great story idea, but the story lacks tension

Rx: Immediacy, even the smallest kind, keeps tension on the page. By immediacy I don't mean characters are running for their lives every second. Immediacy means the character needs to do or to get or to face something right now or very soon. He needs this thing or must do this thing or must face this thing in order to resolve the conflict. He may or may not want to do this thing, but he's responsible for doing it. And in the process of doing it, he may not succeed. To practice this, take the tiniest most mundane detail in your life and imagine what it would be like if you didn't succeed with it. Grocery shopping. You never make it to the store. The store is closed. They don't have the products you need. No milk. No bread. No eggs. What will you feed your hungry family? It's your job. You need to do it. What will you do? Do have the character think about it and share some of that with the reader, but don't have the character spend loads of time just thinking about it. They must do something. Right now! Try another store? Borrow from the neighbors? Back to your character: what small thing must he do right now to solve the conflict, either directly or indirectly? What could prevent him from doing it? Think small. Small is easy to imagine. Small is profound when properly thought out and worked into the fabric of the story.

That was Now, This is Future

Dx: You're showing what's happening now without mentioning or emphasizing what will happen next.

Rx: Scenes should be in the present, showing what's happening now so readers can enjoy living through the experiences with the characters. But they should also emphasize what will happen next. What will be the effects of a decision a character makes, the outcome of a confrontation, or an expected event? The now should be full of tension, but most of that tension will come from the effects of what's happening now. The reader will worry in the moment what the decision will be because of what might happen due to that decision. Example: if Susie doesn't get to the store, her little twins will have no supper, they will cry and cry until they fall asleep, exhausted and hungry.

Focus on the tension and a sense of something impending. The usual advice is to think of the worst that can happen. That's terrible advice, because it steps over lots of lovely things you can use to build tension. Often the worst that can happen is not realistic, making readers doubt the story's reality. The worst that can happen might be that Susie gets no food at all. But what if she gets some food, it's just not enough? What if she has to choose between feeding herself and feeding her children? That's not the worst, but it's still pretty bad. What if she gets barely enough food for today, but is now certain that there will be absolutely none for tomorrow. Focusing on what's happening now is good. Projecting trouble into the future is better.

Highlight a character's unfulfilled intention. What your character is doing now is interesting and engaging and may keep readers going for a time, but what is your character planning to do later, tomorrow, next week? Writers are advised to hold back, don't reveal too much too soon. Keep the reader guessing. Perhaps. Keep the reader guessing about what might happen, but why keep the reader in the dark about what the character intends to do? Susie knows there'll be no food tomorrow. She's putting her babies to bed. Is she going to spend half the night wondering what will happen to her family? No. She's already plotting. She noticed a neighbor loading his truck with food. She could sneak into his house and steal some, seduce the neighbor in return for some food, offer to cook or clean or simply beg. She could forage in the woods, apply for food stamps, call distant relatives for help. She must get food, and somehow she will.

For more in-depth remedies, check out Granny Kat's WritersGuide Series 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Sentence Rhythm and Flow
Granny Kat has noticed that beginning writers often miss out on a crucial aspect of good writing: the rhythm and flow of words and sentences. When it's done well it's like good music. The best way to improve the flow of your words is to read you work aloud. Granny Kat spends a lot of time reading her work aloud and it is well worth the time, plus you may be able to entertain some family and friends while you're at it! 

Read this paragraph aloud:

The morning sunlight glowed through the fog. It was hazy and Patrick could not see past the barn. He listened to the birds singing in the trees. Their loud calls meant spring had arrived. A few of the cows shuffled along the edge of the fence. They plodded through the dewy grass.

Can you sense the sameness? The monotony of simple declarative sentences can sap the life out of your writing. Use some sentence variety to liven things up.

Morning sunlight glowed through the fog. Past the barn Patrick couldn't see through the haze. Listening to the loud calls of birds in the trees, he sensed spring had arrived. A few of the cows shuffled along the edge of the fence, plodding through the dewy grass.

Once you start using sentence variety you can begin to feel around for the rhythm that feels right for you. Pay attention to the rhythm that seems to suit you. It is part of your style. Beware of falling into a pattern of using only one type of sentence, even if it is different from a plain declarative.

Take a look at these three paragraphs:
1. As soon as Jake got home he started arguing with her. Before she could explain what had happened, he smacked twenty dollars onto the table. After he stormed out the door, she was furious with herself for not standing up to him.
2. Jake started arguing with her as soon as he got home. He smacked twenty dollars onto the table before she could explain what had happened. She was furious with herself for not standing up to him after he stormed out the door.
3. Jake got home and started arguing with her. She started to explain what had happened, but he smacked twenty dollars onto the table. He stormed out the door, and she was furious with herself for not standing up to him.

Each paragraph uses a different set of sentence patterns, but every sentence in the paragraph repeats the same pattern without varying. Watch out for this when you revise your writing. Granny Kat does not like to be bored, oh no. You want a variety of sentences in each paragraph to keep your reader interested. Even mild levels of monotony will put readers to sleep.

Combining sentences
Another hint from Granny Kat is to place important words at the beginnings or endings of sentences for emphasis. Let's take another look at this sentence:

The little handbag with chain link handles and a silver buckle on the flap sat atop her desk. 

As you read this, what sticks in your mind is probably "handbag" and "desk". The details in the middle get a bit lost. Sadly, those seem to be the more substantial parts of the sentence. Let's take this sentence apart and put it back together to see what we can do with its rhythm.

The little handbag sat atop her desk.
It had chain link handles.
It had a silver buckle on the flap.

Those are the basic details. Let's try a variety of ways to combine these three basic sentences.

Atop her desk sat a little handbag with chain link handles and a silver buckle on the flap.

The little handbag with its chain link handles and silver flap buckle sat atop her desk.

With its silver flap buckle and chain link handles the little handbag sat atop her desk.

There are other ways to combine these simple sentences, but let's take it up a notch further and see how some of these sentences can be used to create expectation, emphasize intensity, or conclude with a flourish.

Examples that create micro-tension:
The silver flap buckle and chain link handles of the little handbag...   (What? What about them?)

Emphasize intensity:
Chain link handles and a silver buckle on the flap of the little handbag...  (Drawing out the conclusion further, makes the reader anticipate the end part of the sentence.)

Conclude with a flourish:
With its silver flap buckle and chain link handles the little handbag shouted fashionista. (Put a unique word or joke at the end of the sentence.)

Sentences that state a point, and then elaborate:
The little handbag shouted fashionista with its silver flap buckle and chain link handles.

Sentences used to emphasize similarities or differences:
The handbag might have been little, but it shouted fashionista with its silver flap buckle and chain link handles.

Now go forth and make variety, people! -Granny Kat

To celebrate the release of Book 2 in Granny Kat's writing series, Book 1 will be FREE from April 5th through April 7th! You can find both of these on Amazon:
How to Handle Details
How to Handle Grammar

Friday, February 21, 2014

Reality vs. Fiction

Granny Kat says fiction is lies. Okay, well not lies, exactly, but it's not true. Granny Kat's older daughter used to ask "Why would I want to read about things that are not true?" Good point. So, why do we read fiction? Why don't we just read fact-based books like a how-to on golf, a fascinating mathematical book on Fibonacci sequences, or great time-saving tips on sewing? If we're really desperate to read about people we could always read biographies, right? So, why do we humans like to hear stories, and why do we seem to particularly enjoy reading stories about heroes, conflict, battles, fantastic worlds, amazing feats, and bizarre occurrences? Because they seem real to us? Or maybe because we have imaginations? What use is imagination? Dogs don't have imaginations. They live in the moment. Sure, they are pretty clever, they can learn lots of things: they learn commands and tricks, respond to our emotions, they can even anticipate events based on previous experiences. But they don't sit around contemplating the past and imagining the future. We do. We can project the present reality forward or backward. In fact, while we're at it, what is reality?

 In philosophy there are two views on reality. On the one hand reality can only be perceived through our senses. Whatever we cannot see, hear, or touch is not real. The other view is that our minds create what we hear, see, and touch and therefore everything we perceive is an illusion created by our minds. In essence, nothing is real. Both views are interesting and if you combine either of them with the concept that we can think ourselves into the past or into the future all while living in the present, reality becomes a vast playing field. And I haven't even mentioned emotions!

How can we use this information as storytellers and authors? We must realize that we are playing with reality. Playing. Keep that in mind. Your story's reality is created entirely by you. Or is it? You are presenting story details, but your reader is reacting to them. Some readers will like your stories and want to read more. Other readers may not like your stories and may put them aside. This does not mean your stories are bad or unworthy, it only means that not all readers will connect with your story. Have you ever gone back to re-read a story that you read when you were a child? Try this exercise. Go to the library children's section, or young adult section, find a book that you know you read as a child, or one that was read to you. Sit in a quiet place and read it again. Does it seem familiar? In what ways? Does it seem different? How? My best guess is that it will feel somewhat familiar, but that you will interpret things in the story differently now that you are older. You may not remember some parts at all. Other parts you may re-read and say to yourself "I didn't realize the author meant that." It's not because you've forgotten parts of the story (even though you might have), or that you remember the story differently. It's that you are a different person now that you've read that story and many others and have had many experiences since then. And it's also because our memories change over time, but that's a topic for another day.

As a writer who plays with reality you are going to connect with some readers, but not all readers. I believe it was Abraham Lincoln who wrote, "“You can please some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you can never please all of the people all of the time." Granny Kat's question to you is: How can you maximize the number of readers you please? Granny Kat's Answer: By making your story world's reality vivid, engaging, and compelling. How do you know it's compelling, especially after you've read it so many times you can practically recite it? You can send it to some critique partners and see what they say. You can also put it aside yourself for a time and come back to it. Or at least move on to writing new chapters so that some time passes between when you drafted chapter one and when you come back to revise it. And, of course, you can submit it to agents and editors and see what they say about it. If your writing is coming along nicely, and your ideas are interesting many editors and agents will give you specific feedback rather than the disappointing form-letter response. Keep trying!

Here are some ideas about fictional reality to keep in mind as you present readers with your story world.

Reality doesn't have to make sense, but fiction does. In our real world the way people behave, the events that happen, the results of actions we take, etc. often do not make sense, or may take many, many years to figure out. This is not acceptable. However, in our own lives there's not much we can do about it except carry on. In fiction, however, this is plainly not acceptable and if it is allowed to go on unchecked, readers will generally be dissatisfied with the story. Your fictional story may have mysteries, questions, and possibilities, but by the time your story ends, all of these should be resolved (except in the case of a continuing series where some questions may remain open).

Avoid the boring aspects of life. Do not fall into the trap of providing a blow-by-blow setting description of everything the character does during his day. Skip the shower, breakfast and commute to work unless something important happens along the way. Don't mention how people living in the woods manage to go to the bathroom, or how they take care of their other bodily needs unless it is central to the story. Readers will not give it a second thought if you don't mention it. Along with this is the caution that characters are not people, so don't treat them as people. You will want them to be well-rounded of course, but you do not have to explain every aspect of their lives or recount, or even summarize, their whole previous experiences. Mention any part of their background that is necessary to move the story along and to provide a sense of where they fit in the story world and no more. You do not need to explain the circumstances of their birth, their heritage, their childhood, career training, etc. Present those setting details only as needed to set the stage or to fill in a detail needed for the reader to understand the characters thoughts or actions.

Above all, entertain and give an emotional experience for the reader to enjoy. The reality you create for the reader should feel real as the reader lets himself slip into the story world. Feed him small bits of setting detail that helps him feel the real experience of the characters. But don't load him down with so much detail that he's distracted from being entertained by the story itself.

For you to work on: Try to look at your words from a reader's point of view. Will they understand the reality you are presenting? Will they connect emotionally to what is happening? Will they be entertained?

Granny Kat

Saturday, February 15, 2014

How to tell the difference between a plotted and character-driven story

Recently I got a question (which doesn't mean I don't have other questions, lol--just that I'm still trying to play catch-up and it's one hell of a flu season)

I struggle with plot driven vs character driven and what the difference is. Even when creating an outline I cannot tell which one it is. Any examples from popular books would help.

I don't read as many popular books as I should, so I'm going to use popular movies that have a plotted and character-driven version, because it's easier to see. And for that, let's talk about Rambo, one of my favorite series.

The first movie in the series (there are four) is First Blood, loosely based on a David Morrell book of the same name. Loosely based on the David Morrell book of the same name, it’s the psychological study of a Vietnam vet. In the movie, Rambo is a drifter. Everything that happens in First Blood builds on his backstory and who he became because of that backstory. When he heads up into the mountains and does his whole poncho-survivalist thing, it’s understandable because he was Special Forces. It’s something he was trained to do. When he refuses to leave town, it’s because he was a former prisoner of war and he was controlled for a long time, which means he refuses to let anyone control or confine him.
All Rambo's actions are based on who he is (a former Green Beret, ex-prisoner of war), what happened to him (he survived torture and confinement), what he became (a veteran with extreme post-traumatic stress disorder), and what’s happening to him in the story because of his past (because he was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese he refused to leave town when told to get out which made him turn around and walk back in, which made the sheriff arrest him, which made the jailor try to give him a haircut and shave him with a straight razor which triggers Rambo’s PSTD which gets the story going).
While the first Rambo movie is character-driven, the later Rambo movies are plot-driven. Although Rambo is still at the center of each movie, he could easily be replaced by pretty much any action hero from Jean-Claude Van Damme to Jason Statham because the scriptwriters forgot the simple incident Morell based Rambo’s reactions on—Rambo was a POW. And because he was a POW, he had PSTD and control issues.
Rambo’s time in the POW camp was the start of his transformational arc. Everything that Rambo does—all his actions and reactions, circle back to Vietnam.

  • When the sheriff tells Rambo to leave town, Rambo refuses to go because he won’t be told what to do ever again.
  •  When the sheriff puts Rambo in jail (behind bars) it triggers Rambo’s post-traumatic stress syndrome.
  •  When Rambo’s jailors get ready to cut his hair, it makes him flashback to prison (his pertinent back story) and being tortured.
  •  Because he was Special Forces in Vietnam, he reacts to that trigger with violence and escapes into the wilderness.
  • When Trautman shows up, there's still a piece of Rambo able to listen because he never cracked in the POW camp, so there's still a piece of him able to respond and pull back.

*A character-driven story is pushed by back story.

*The external plot is silly-simple (they tried to force him to do things that went against his back story and he reacted--violently).


The Descendents--the hero had a indifferent relationship with his wife. Now that she's dying, he's trying to find out who she was, and reconnect with his daughters.

  • If he hadn't drifted away from his wife, she never would have had an affair
  • He never would have felt obligated to find his wife's lover (to allow him to say goodbye)
  • His wife's affair alienates their teenaged daughter because she thinks it's wrong that her mom is betraying her dad, which opens a line of communication between Matt and his daughter, which allows him to heal the rift between them.
Simple line of action: Matt needs to find his wife's lover so he can say goodbye before they pull the plug.

Just like in First Blood, there's a lot going on, but the two movies aren't pointed at anything. Rambo just wants to be left alone. He's not trying to do anything. In the same way the Descendents wasn't really about finding Elizabeth's lover. It's more about the bad choices you make in life, and making good choices.

There is no major goal. They're just stories about people. Sometimes the people are exciting and blow things up, and sometimes they just walk around with their kids.

Let's look at Rambo III. According to the 1990 Guinness book of records, Rambo 3 had the dubious distinction of being the most violent movie ever made with 221 acts of violence, 70 explosions, and over 108 characters killed on-screen. In it Colonel Trautman asks Rambo to help him supply the rebels in Afghanistan (at the time the Soviets were the bad guys). Rambo says no, Trautman goes by himself and is kidnapped, and Rambo takes down the entire Soviet army with minor help from the Afghan rebels in order to get him back. Who can forget that iconic screen shot of Rambo shooting down a Soviet helicopter with an explosive arrow, all that heart-thumping music and Rambo in his tank (and black wife-beater "with" headband!) surviving a direct collision with a helicopter?

Was there any sign of Rambo's PSTD or anti-authoritarian stance? No, because it doesn't matter. "Rambo" doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is getting Trautman back and blowing up as many things as possible. There's a solid goal (get Trautman back, destroy as many Soviets as possible), but the character needs to be flexible (adaptable?) to get the story from pt A (Rambo turning Trautman down because he wants to be left alone) to pt B (blowing up the Soviets and bagging 108 kills. Although to be fair, it's not just about hitting the Guiness Book of World Records, lol).

The story doesn't flow out of character and back story,  it flows "toward" the goal. The story is plotted without taking the character's back story into consideration..

Sometimes stories are a combination of character-driven and plotted because character-driven stories can push a strong plot if the story events and goal also flow out of the character's back story.

In Die Hard, John McClane is estranged from his wife, Holly and goes to the Nakatomi Christmas party (where he hopes they'll get together again). Unfortunately terrorists take over the building, and McClane has to take them down in order to get his wife back. Fortunately, he's got some great back story.

The plot is still simple (get his wife back alive), but it's amped up with lots of explosions, great villains and amazing stunts. You can dress it up or down, but the difference between Die Hard and Rambo III is simply motivation.

By Rambo III are Trautman and Rambo friends? In First Blood, Trautman says he trained Rambo, in Rambo 2 he tells Rambo to go back to Vietnam. By number 3, is Rambo at the point where he'd blow up the Soviet army to get Trautman back? Yeah, right.

In Die Hard, it's hard to ignore the fact that McClane wants Holly back because it's right up front and center. He flew (despite hating planes) cross country, and he's willing to suffer through a posh, snarky Christmas party to be with her. He loves Holly and has motivation with a capital "M".

There's a goal that flows out of his back story (get Holly out of there because he loves her), it supports his motivation, and the story events work for who he is (a really good cop) and showcase his strengths and weaknesses.

so how can you tell what's what?

If your character's motivation to get through the story or do whatever you want him to do flows out of who he is (in back story), then most likely it's character-driven. If you think you're going to need a little less input from the peanut galley to get your character from beginning to end, it's most likely plotted. And I'd suggest either thinning your character out a little so he can fit into the story, or finding a story that fits the character.

Granny Jo

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Tension School

Hello and welcome to Tension School. Most of you writers reading this post have an undiagnosed condition that I like to call Tension Deficit Disorder or TDD. This condition frequently occurs with new writers, writers who are struggling to move beyond the basic levels of writership and for some of you it also occurs when you are writing for your own enjoyment rather than the enjoyment of readers. Now, before you get your hackles up, let me explain. New writers do, can and should write in whatever way they best can. I am not here to judge, only to assist those who are willing to reflect on their efforts and work toward improvement. If you already think your writing is perfect, then you don't need me to help you with it. If you are looking at trying to work beyond the basic levels of writing, then you might benefit from reading some of my blogs. I tell it like it is, but most of the time I do it in a kind, thoughtful way, free of judgment. If you are writing for your own enjoyment, or for some kind of personalized therapy there is nothing wrong with that. Granny Kat has done the same thing. I'm just pointing out that along the way you may have developed TDD without realizing it.

Fortunately, Granny Kat has no problem with tension. In fact, she would consider it a dull day indeed if she faced no tension whatsoever. Tension brings out the best and the worst in all of us, and if that is true of real human beings, it should also be true of characters. Now, if you have developed TDD you may experience such symptoms as difficulty plotting your novel-length stories, struggles to write scenes where anything of actual story-worthiness happens, worries about the pacing of your drafts and a general reticence to put your characters into hot water. You created your characters, your darlings, your babies and of course you want them to be happy, fulfilled, loved and successful in their story world lives. That is what all parents want for their children. All well and good, but that recipe makes for rather dull reading. If you truly love your characters you will want them to suffer. But this suffering is not without its merits, because through their suffering they will become better people and when they succeed in their post-suffering world (also known as the end of the story) readers will be delighted.

So, now to the cure for TDD. In a phrase the cure is "ramp up the tension". How do you do that? Try to get some tension on every page. I know, it's tough to do and it's a lot of work. Start with making sure you have tension in every chapter, then when you go back and re-read scenes, see where you can add tension, or revise to bring out the tension that's already there. Here are some ideas for ways to bring out tension. Start with some very broad ideas for your characters and their situation:

Conflict of backgrounds
Conflict in values/ideals
Conflict in long term goals
Conflict in short term goals/quests
Conflict in loyalties

Now work at a narrower level:

- make the goal harder to reach (put up roadblocks, red-tape, new rules, more opposition)
- set a clock ticking (time is running out, something must be done by Monday or else...)
- put a character in jeopardy (threaten the character's job, home, family; threaten his life, threaten to expose the character's personal secrets)
- pose a new question (introduce a plot twist, old girlfriend, twin brother, skeleton in the closet, secret, past he thought he got over, show that this character isn't everything he/she seems)
- keep secrets from the reader (tease the reader by withholding knowledge the character has; tell the reader the character has it, but don't tell the reader what it is)
- foreshadow (hint that something bad is going to happen)

At the very narrowest level you can use tone and mood in your grammar:

Use an authoritative tone to build tension. There's something tense about being under the thumb of an authority figure. It's an automatic reaction to check your speed when a police car is behind you, or close your internet browser when your boss walks by. Any sentence or paragraph that uses an authoritative tone or any character that speaks authoritatively will automatically raise tension. Passive voice sentences work very well with authoritative tone.

Active voice sentences also work.

* Active: Employees must wash their hands before returning to work.
* Passive: This paperwork must be completed by 5pm.

An authoritative tone builds anticipation of action because we wonder what will happen if/when the rules are broken. It's the most basic of moral levels.

Don't miss out on opportunities to build tension in the novel. One place that is overlooked is character meets. You can build tension by preparing the reader ahead of time for the meet. Drop hints that the characters have opposing viewpoints on an issue, and then the reader will want to see what happens when they meet. Have characters be worried about the meeting, or excited about the meeting, and then have the meeting go all wrong for one of the characters. Mention the upcoming meeting a few times in different scenes, if possible. Be sure to follow through and make the meeting scene memorable for the reader. If you've built anticipation and tension for the reader, make sure you don't disappoint the reader by giving them something slap-dash and ordinary. Either give them what they were expecting, or surprise them with an unexpected twist.

There's hope for TDD! You don't have to suffer any longer. Your job is to make your characters suffer, not you! Don't fall into the lull of low tension scenes where all goes well. Put your suffering into your novel and save the joy and happiness for your own life.

See you in print!
Granny Kat

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Woot! The structure of a transformational character arc with pictures and everything

I came across this powerpoint yesterday while I was cleaning out a workshop and fell in love with it all over again. I guess this is where I admit I fall in love with most of my powerpoints, lol. They’re just so…shiny, and yeah. I'm very much a geek.
This is a schematic I did back when I was solidifying my thoughts on the arc and how it worked. Until I sat  down and took a good, hard look, I’d always bought into the whole stages and steps things, but the more study I did into how the arc worked in real-life wips, the simpler I realized it really was. You can’t impose structure on everything if everything is…well, “everything.” Some people write huge convoluted things, and some don’t. Which means that any structure big enough to encompass everything needs to be fairly spare.
You can scale up and scale down, adding more stages and steps if it works for your comfort level, or strip it down, if you’re comfortable using three points. Sort of like boats, you know? Some people love all that GPS and computerized stuff, and some are just as comfortable with a sextant and the stars. Maybe it's just the way people think and the whole plotter/pantser debate. It seems like a pantser would be good with a sextant and the whole "well, the accuracy is pretty good" while a plotter would be saying, "but it's not 100 percent accuracy. How would you know if you're going to run aground on a reef or something?"

Every character with a transformational arc starts out at pt A, with some kind of backstory pertinent to the story. And lol!!! Trying to say this cold, not in the context of a workshop just stopped me, so let’s talk about “backstory pertinent to a story”.

What is pertinent backstory and how is it different from “backstory” in general?

Every character has backstory, because everyone has a past. However, everything in a character’s backstory doesn’t always work for a story. The fact that I really like Hostess Raspberry Zingers has no bearing on anything 99.9 percent of the time. I’m not sure what it was that caused me to side with raspberry-coconut instead of chocolate or twinkies, but it only impacts a story where I’m picking out a snack.
So let’s go back to that statement>

Every character has backstory, because everyone has a past.

Yeah, everyone has a past, but if you don’t narrow it down to what’s going to drive your character through the story, how will you know what they’ll do? If I just say Mercedes is this poor kid who works at MacDonald’s and her sisters were just kidnapped, how will I know Mercedes will fight tooth and nail to get her sisters back, regardless of how many issues she has? I can’t give her motivation simply because I say she has motivation. Motivation, along with conflict, comes from the inside, and that’s where core events come in.
While it might be sort of a cheat to say to that every character contains a core event in relation to their story, characters need a handle—some way to work with a character that doesn’t squash them flat and allows them to grow and change.

One thing I’ve gotten a lot firmer on over the years is the difference between contemporaries and stories with a heavy dose of external events, like paranormals, romantic suspense, mysteries and thrillers. I usually use Kim’s story to talk about emotional structure and Mercedes to talk about the transformational arc, because they’re vastly different stories. Kim’s story, being a contemporary, has no big external story arc. Kim needs to open her bed and breakfast on time, but if push comes to shove, she can do it without a bathroom in the bridal suite. Mercedes’s story, being a romantic suspense, has a huge, fast-running external arc. She “needs” to find her sisters before the villain kills them which means the space between pt A (the way she starts out) and pt B (her transformational point) is full of scenes that address three things. The externals (rescuing her sisters), her arc (she needs to stop holding herself down or she’ll never change in time to rescue the twins) and her relationship with the hero (since this is a romance). These three things flip-flop around, depending on what you’re writing. If you’re writing a mystery, the scenes need to address solving the mystery and the protagonist’s arc, but not necessarily a relationship of some sort. “However” if it’s a contemporary, the scenes should address Kim’s transformational arc and her relationship with Jason, although not necessarily Kim’s battle to fix up the bed and breakfast.

The arc is the blue line on top, the line of action (or how you're showing the arc) is the red line and the black line is theme. All stories have theme, even if the writer is using it subconsciously. It works to keep everything on the straight and narrow, and helps when it comes to figuring out what scenes need to be in the story. And a post for another day.

Granny Jo

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The push and pull of conflict in a transformational character arc

Hi! My name is Jodi. You can call me Granny Jo. I always thought I was the strange, kind of backwoods granny without a filter, sort of like Duck Dynasty does Granny Clampett, but I suspect I’m more of the geeky, weird granny who runs around in Crocs and writes on her arm with sharpies.

Recently, I got out of a workshop on advanced alternative GMC where I had the pleasure of talking to Janet again. Janet has a mind like a steel trap and calls me out anytime I weasel word something. Lucky for me, she had a question about Hague. I’m not sure if it means this particular section of the workshop needed to be reworked or if it was just a question and I’m over-thinking it. I’d asked if she could see the events between pt. A (the way a character starts out at the beginning of the transformational point) and pt. B (how they change)?

I can see some of them (the really big ones) but I'm not sure how much change the character needs to show in the first half of the story between the inciting incident and midpoint

Michael Haigh in his Identity to Essence lectures says the character shows a significant change at the midpoint stepping into his/her "essence" before one last reversion to identity, but it's the part up to the midpoint that I'm not sure how to plan.  He mentions the character glimpsing his/her essence early on before the midpoint but he didn't say any more than this.

True, he doesn’t say much more, but I’ve always had the feeling he kind of assumed there was going to be a push and pull of conflict as the character races toward the transformational point.

Kim’s arc is to let go of pain and open up to love again, a statement which really doesn’t spell out what needs to be in the story or how much of it there needs to be. However, you might say Kim’s essence (who she really is on the inside) is an open, loving woman with no pain, and she first glimpses that when she goes over for the first dinner. 

“Oh...” she thinks to herself, “this is what it would be like if life was different, if I could let go of my pain and accept love back into my life. It’s so warm and…I really want it.”

But she can’t, because she’s got a lot of trauma and guilt (her subconscious conflict) Her conscious conflict (she just doesn’t have time for a man in her life, especially not with the B&B getting ready to launch and staying true to her husband’s dream) tells her to push Jason away (in the process she’s also pushing away Tyra, a total win-win). Consciously, she’s just trying to stay on track, while subconsciously she’s afraid of pain, and suffering from “I can’t love this child, that’s a betrayal of Cleo’s memory. I killed Cleo. I let her down. I can’t let her down again.”

However, her essence (the open, loving woman without pain) is pulling at her, forcing her along the path that leads to Jason and Tyra. It’s her subconscious goal.

However, there’s a condition to the way Kim’s conflict works to show change in her arc. Her change needs to happen in feasible increments. She can take one step back and one step forward, or three steps forward and a gigantic step back, but the progression of her change has to work for the story and projected word count. Kim simply can’t go from “I’m hurting and messed up,” to “Aww…I luv you.” She has too much baggage.

The events you pick as the starting and change points of your character predetermine how much change needs to happen between the start of the arc and the final wrenching struggle where the character fights change (the black moment). Kim can’t be healed in a short story because people don’t easily toss years of painful baggage aside. She needs space to show the progression of her arc, which means the amount of change to show before the black moment depends on two things; the events you pick as the starting point and point of change, and word count.

Because I picked such a difficult arc, more change needs to happen in a way that’s believable for a reader. However, if I were to pick a shorter arc (maybe from the death of her husband due to natural causes until her realization love can happen twice) there’s less to show.

In this part of the story how aware will the character be that s/he is changing?  Will s/he realise at all (and maybe rationalise it away with an external reason for acting in a different way) or will it just be the reader who can see it and maybe the catalyst character?

The reader is usually aware of what’s going on because they can see into the character, feel her thoughts and hear her self-talk. In many stories, the point of change happens when the character becomes self-aware and starting acting on their subconscious goal. Kim has been trying to change ever since that first dinner with Jason and his kid, but until she realizes pain and self-hatred are standing in her way, she can’t release them and step into her essence.

If she realizes she’s changing, it probably happens in flashes of “I really want this” only to be rationalized away by “I must be tired and maudlin” or “I just don’t have time for this.”

I think the hero sees it on a certain level, although subconsciously. It’s the intangible that gives him the faith to keep going, even when Kim is fighting herself. So yes—in flashes for him too, complicated by his own internal conflict.