Friday, April 20, 2018

What Should Be In a Story? Chocolate? Pizza?

(It never hurts to have those. However, I'm thinking of something more general.)


You may be familiar with the Dwight V. Swain/Jack Bickham terms "scene" and "sequel." Others use other terms. Basically, a scene is the dramatized part ("showing") and sequel is the character's thoughts about what just happened, planning for the next action, introspection, and so forth ("telling"). Both components are important in any story.

A story is a string of units, each connected with the next through *cause/effect* relationships. (Motivation-Response, or M-R, to others.)

(I often get dinged because the cause/effect is sometimes separated by other events and activities. However, I eventually get around to showing the effect of the actions. Just ignore people who get after you about this, as long as every scene causes something else to happen later.)

Most units in commercial fiction are dramatic, played out in real time through action and dialogue. ("Scene" in Bickham/Swain-speak.) Other units are reflective, played out in the character’s mind. (called "sequel" in the Bickham/Swain terminology.) A third type of unit provides a transition between other units. This is generally thought of as narrative. Occasionally it can be exposition or backstory.

A scene should be all about: Goal – the focal character wants something Conflict – the character meets resistance trying to attain the goal Reversal (preferably disaster)

In each scene, define your POV character’s Goal (you can even have them state it straight out), then immediately show the Conflict, and let the Conflict build until the ending Reversal (disaster).

Reversal means that the focal character enters the scene with one attitude and exits with a different polarity. If Jane's attitude is positive going in – joy, hope, love, etc.— by scene's end her emotional state/attitude has changed to negative – sorrow, fear, anger, loathing. (Failure or steps backward) A negative attitude going in changes to a positive attitude as the scene ends. (Success or steps forward)

One school of thought suggests that in the most riveting stories every scene except the final ones end in disaster. In other words, with each scene the character gets into more and more trouble, going farther and farther from attaining the overall story goal. But! If everything leads to disaster, how do you do the positive/negative attitude flip?

First, consider disaster. Each disaster is relative to the scene context. Not every scene ends with a cheating lover getting caught or a plummet down an elevator shaft. It can be more of an everyday happening, perhaps nothing more than a broken fingernail. But in context, that broken fingernail means disaster to the POV (focal) character. No more surreptitious nosepicking until that one grows out! Or what if she's a hand model and she has JUST gotten a manicure and is about to leave for a photo session with Palmolive?

Disaster takes one of three forms. The focal character either

a) does not get the goal

b) gets the goal but also gets something unwanted

c) does not get the goal and gets something unwanted

Example a: John wants to marry Marsha. He practices his speech and finally gets up nerve to ask her. Marsha says no. (John does not get the goal.)

Example b: John wants to marry Marsha. He practices, asks her, and Marsha says, “Oh, John, I thought you’d never ask. Let’s marry right away. Mother can leave her retirement home and come live with us.” (John gets the goal but also gets something unwanted.)

Example c: John wants to marry Marsha. He asks her, but Marsha doesn’t want to talk about marriage right now. John persists. Marsha says, “John, maybe we should have a cooling off period. I’ve been seeing someone else. I need to decide where it’s going.” (John does not get the goal and gets something unwanted.)

A scene is never a flashback. It is always happening right now on the page. It is not summary; it is not the character thinking about what has happened or will happen. It always includes conflict (tension) and usually includes dialogue as well as physical action.

Now it's time for the reflective unit or sequel. This is the time for characters to think about what they're going to do next, or mourn for the lost opportunities, or make a list of suspects. Occasionally this can include a mini-flashback in which John remembers that when he met Marsha, she had mentioned that she was ready to get married so her mother could come to live with her in a big house. Or it can include a mini-flash-forward in which a character fantasizes about a meeting she's about to have and plays it out as a winning situation (especially if the reality is going to completely crater and the reader needs to know how much the character hopes for this to come off well.)

The sequel is typically shorter than the scene. It sets up the next scene.

BUT BEFORE YOU WRITE VERY MANY SCENES, think about the overall structure of the book.

Most stories have:

A Clear Basic Goal – What the character wants. This motivates him or her. It has to be WORTH whatever she's risking. Don't have it be "get a stick of gum." Epic fantasy and thrillers ask you to have it be "save the world." Maybe it's more of a "save the neighborhood from the evil developers and get the guy" thing. Whatever. Just make sure readers know she has one.

Two Key Points that Change Acts - These are big moments for your character and mark the transitions between the acts of your story. Stories typically (but not always) have three acts. These are the Turning Points (and the second one may be a Black Moment/Last Chance as well).

Opening Image that sets it all up – This is something that evokes the theme/mood of the piece or the character. I (Shalanna) generally have an overview scene in mind that has come to me with the idea for the novel and its main character. Frex, with Camille I "saw" her stepping off a bus in a strange city and holding the stolen gewgaw. I also knew she would escape this town in a boxcar, but that's because her origin was in the collaborative novel that we wrote in 1987 or so when she hopped the freight train with Rebecca's main character. I knew a lot about Camille because Silk (Brianne Campbell) and I had written stuff about her and sent it back and forth. This happened just before Silk fell ill and died of pneumonia. If Camille is ever pubbed by a mainstream publisher, the dedication page will mention Brianne.

Anyway, if you have a central image that sets it all up, that's great.

Catalyst/Inciting Incident – Starts the craziness. Your character’s world is suddenly changed by something that happens.

1. Put the inciting incident near the beginning. The first 25 pages is good.

2. Put the first big plot point at the end of Act 1. This first plot point is where your protagonist has a Holy Cats moment, where they think, “Can I really do this? How much am I really willing to do to get this vampire dude to love me, to defeat this evil dark wizard, to get away from my horrid aunts, etc….” This is where they are tested. I predict a total word count and then aim for the end of the first third. So if it is 1000 words, word 330.

3. Put the second big plot point at the end of Act 2. This is where the crisis happens. This is where your main character has had enough of dodging fangs and bullets and giant carrots. Their world is a dangerous place and they need to fix it. Again, I take a word count. I aim for the two-thirds mark.

4. At this second plot point, I try to make there be a new focus on the main goal, throw in an element of time (ticking clock) to make it more scary/urgent, and then I hang on and hope for the best.

Don't reverse cause and effect.

~~She jumped, surprised. "Eek! You scared me!" she said to the man who had just sneaked up behind her and put his hands over her eyes.~~

That is a classic example of not only putting the action that causes the reaction AFTER the reaction, but also of showing surprise in dialogue as well as showing it in her actions. Sometimes, though, you will want to move the most important thing in the sentence to the end; this works well in humor, as when you're doing a Benchley/Dave Barry pastiche. If you save the punchline for the end of the sentence, it's a lot funnier. But that is the special case and not the usual.

As with any "rule," you don't want to take it too seriously. Once you have a hammer (rule), don't see everything as a nail to blam blam blam down. Occasionally the entire point of the scene is that the nail is sticking out and ready to snag a reader.

Okay, here comes the analysis that makes people say, "You think you're smarter and more well-read than your readers." It comes from an old course I took years ago. Skip if you want to take the rules too seriously.


1) Choose your motivating stimulus carefully. It should be significant to the character--her personality and/or goal will influence what she notices around her. It should also be pertinent for the plotline--your reader will assume every stimulus is important for the story.


DUH!! Well, at least they have some idea what they're talking about HERE. I will see different things upon entering a room than will my mother, a Sensor Judgmental type if there ever was one. I will immediately spy the baby grand piano and make a beeline, or I'll see the library and try to read the titles. SHE will say, "What a lovely painting, and this is wonderful upholstery, and see how they don't have a lot of nasty old books cluttering up the table tops and the floor?"

2) The stimulus should require your character's immediate action.

I don't agree here. But now at least I know where the people are GETTING this. I was going sorta bugf**k over the idea or concept that all these official publishing types had such poor reading comprehension that they couldn't retain what had happened for a few paragraphs. But no, I don't see the effect always coming along right as the caboose of the cause.

Perhaps a "stimulus" comes along and my character does not recognize what she is supposed to do, like the Stupid Dog who tilts his head and thinks, "I know she wants me to do a trick when she snaps her fingers, BUT WHAT?" Or my character delays the action on purpose. We can all stand and watch as the stimulus jumps up and down and has a hissy fit because we are not doing what we're told.


1) It should be a reactive feeling, a chosen action, and/or specific words spoken. Not all reactions need to include all three (feeling, action, speech), but at the very least, your character's actions and/or speech should indicate her reactive feeling. Emotion is the key.

Um . . . what?? You mean . . . she should cry after Alan tells her she isn't good enough for him and he's leaving her for somebody better? Oh! Sure!

Specific words spoken, instead of indistinct mumbling that no one can quite make out except for the German word for "sh*t." Got it.

2) The reaction should be in character (or reveal the character's personality) and a reasonable response. Nothing will put a reader off more than a stupid reaction to a stimulus--the infamous "Too Stupid to Live" heroines from horror flicks.

I have to agree with THIS. At last someone says that what my character does can reveal her personality, rather than doing what the reader thinks he or she would do in the situation or getting accused of furthering the writer's own beliefs. But . . . I see so MANY books that are on the shelves and being lauded here and there in which the characters have TStL reactions that the authors apparently think are normal. I can't tell now what is real.

3) The reaction should serve to move the story forward.

No!! I want the story to go BBBBLATTT with its tongue and loll on the floor licking the hardwood planks. It doesn't WANT to go forward. It wants to stare at you until you blink!

The M-R Unit:

The simplest M-R Unit is two sentences:

a. Write a sentence without your character (motivation, or cause)

b. Follow it with a sentence about your character (reaction, or effect)

{The sky fell. Chicken Little jumped in the air, squawking!}

Uh . . . right. Never any kind of musing about why something might happen or might have implications. Well, have fun with that! (It doesn't make one lick o' sense, but whatever makes them happy!) I never give a moment's thought to why the sky might or might not be falling, myself. Squawking's more fun.

And there it is, laid out for you like a patient etherized upon a table. Hope that butter isn't too melty.

("Sometimes you perplex me," said the Platypus.)

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