Archive for June, 2011


Normal World

Next in our evolutions of creating a novel, we’ll take a look at the main narrative plot points. We’ve got our main characters named and profiled now, so it’s time to outline how our story will progress.

Maybe your tongue is hanging out by now. I know mine is. I mean, we’ve had to set goals to determine just what we want to accomplish. Then we had to look at the difference between conflict and bad situations. Then we talked about all these different characters.

Whew.

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David, I just wanted to write a novel. Okay, this stuff is not necessary if you just want to write a novel. I’ve written a number of them without doing any of this.

Well, where are your novels, David? I haven’t seen them at Barnes & Noble or Amazon dot com.

That’s the point. You won’t see them, because they weren’t publishable. That’s why we’re doing all this the hard way, doing all this preliminary work. Let’s not just write a novel. Let’s write one someone will publish and people will buy and read.

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A novel we can actually be paid for.

Our first main narrative plot point is the normal world. We can’t just start right off with our antagonist kicking sand in our protagonist’s face. We don’t know anything about either one of them, so who cares?

We need to start out showing our protagonist in his or her normal world. What’s life like for this person? Why should we like him or her?

The inciting incident in Steel Magnolias was Shelby’s (Julia Roberts) pregnancy. M’Lynn (Sally Field) was immediately upset and getting in Shelby’s face about it. If the movie had started with the inciting incident, which, after all, is the beginning of the story-worthy problem—the conflict that drives the whole story—we wouldn’t have liked M’Lynn and wouldn’t have understood why she acted the way she did.

We had to see the normal world first. We had to see M’Lynn’s love for her daughter Shelby, her maternal protection. We had to see her putting on Shelby’s wedding, coming to her rescue when she had an insulin reaction, doing the little things that exhibit a mother’s love for her child.

Having gone through all of that before the inciting incident, we cared deeply about both of these women. We felt Shelby’s desire to have and raise a child and M’Lynn’s worry about what the pregnancy would do to her daughter’s health.

That’s the point of the normal world. We want to show enough of the life of our protag to make the reader care. To make the reader pull for our hero as he or she goes through the trials and tribulations (conflicts) that are about to beset him or her.

We may come to care also for the antag—as we did for Shelby in this instance—or we may have an immediate and intense dislike for him like we did for Roat, Alan Arkin’s character in Wait Until Dark. This varies according to the nature of the antag in a particular story, but we must always be led to care for, hopefully even love, the protag.

How long should the normal world be? Good question. Wish I had a simple answer. Well, the simple answer is, I suppose, as long as it needs to be. Maybe forty pages or maybe ten. In Steel Magnolias we spent a good bit of time in the normal world. In Wait Until Dark we moved right into the inciting incident pretty quickly. Only you can decide the answer to this question for your own story. Just be sure we readers see enough of the protag’s normal world to make us care.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the inciting incident.

Until then, good writing.

Ø How did your favorite book/movie deal with normal world?

Ø How would it have affected your feelings for the characters if they had skipped the normal world and just jumped into the inciting incident?

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Other Characters

We’ve discussed our antagonist and our protagonist the last few weeks. How about other characters? These could range from our protagonist’s fiancée to the guy who handed the antagonist a latte at Starbucks. What care do we need to take with these.

First question we need to determine about any individual is his or her importance to the story. Is this just an incidental character who make one or two cameo appearances to drive a bus or prepare a hot dog at an outdoor stand (mmmm—a hot dog sounds good right now), or does this person appear throughout a substantial portion of the book?

The incidental character doesn’t need to be named. In fact, we can do our readers a great service by not naming these people.

Have you ever attended a friend’s family reunion. Or maybe met the extended family of your significant other for the first time?

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Remember how you felt meeting all those people? OMG, I’ll never remember all these names. What if I call Aunt Sue Aunt Jenny by mistake? Or Cousin Joe Cousin Sam? I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s ever been in that position. I could remember Mom and Dad and brother and sister if they’d limit it to them, but all these others? How will I ever remember who’s who?

This is what we do to our readers when we throw too many names at them. There are a certain number of characters important enough to require the reader to remember them, but let’s try to have a little pity.

Okay, David, who is important enough to be named? We’ve already named an antag and a protag. Who else?

Generally, the antag needs some help causing turmoil for the protag. These helpers are called minions.

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They may be evil people hired by the antag, or they may just happen to have agendas that run at cross purposes to the protag’s agenda. We could come up with some stories where the antag is the sole disturbing element, but in general there will be one or more minions.

The protag will usually need a mentor. Remember, we discussed earlier that the protag must start out inferior to the antag. He grows throughout the story as he meets one conflict after another until he is finally able to defeat the antag.

If he’s going to grow, he probably needs someone on his side to help him grow and to direct him along his path. Again, this is not an absolute in all stories, but it’s a normal necessity.

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This mentor need not sit the protag down and lecture him like a professor with a student, although that could happen. He may just be someone our protag observes and learns from. In either case, he helps our hero to grow into his role.

The protag may or may not also have a love interest. If so, this would be a pretty major character.

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The love interest may be at our hero’s side throughout the story, or he or she may be visiting an aunt in Gotebo, Oklahoma, and never actually appear except in the protag’s thoughts. In either case, this love interest will be important to our story.

Our protag may also have one or more allies. These are generally good friends, but they could also just be people whose goals more or less line up with our hero’s goals.

Each of these characters would naturally be named in our story. They’re too important and appear too often to keep saying “The man with the funny glasses . . .” or “The woman with the whiskey baritone voice . . .” We need to call them by name.

But we need to do more than assign names. We mentioned earlier visiting someone else’s family reunion and trying to remember names. Wouldn’t it be easier if we knew Uncle John was the one who always had a mug of coffee in his hand and Cousin Fred was the one who never lit his ever-present cigar?

If a character is important enough to be named, we need to do a profile on him or her like we did on the antagonist and the protagonist. Depending on how important—and how frequently present—these characters are, we may or may not go into quite as much detail as for the two main ones, but we still have to give them identifiable traits and personalities. Our readers can remember who’s who much better if they can identify them as individuals.

Next, we’ll get into a discussion of our main narrative plot points. See ya’ then.

Ø What experiences have you had with being overwhelmed by meeting a bunch of new people all at once and being expected to remember all their names?

Ø Forget the reader for a moment—how does it help you as the author to have a written profile?

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Log Lines

We interrupt this series to bring you a news flash. Okay, not a news flash, but a subject I probably should have included several weeks earlier. My bad.

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The first time I heard the term “log line” used, I wondered what the person was talking about. Since we were in a writers’ group meeting, I was fairly certain it had nothing to do with organizing fresh-cut timber into orderly rows. At least I didn’t think it did. But what did it mean?

Wait, she asked me what the log line for a book I was working on was. That was a clue. It did have something to do with writing, not timber. I finally had to give up. I couldn’t imagine what the term meant, and I certainly didn’t know. I might have just remained silent and tried to find out later in order to keep from exposing my ignorance, but the question had been addressed directly to me. I was expected to answer.

The situation sorta reminded me of when my wife, who is a home-grown horticulturalist, would point to a tree or flower or plant and ask me what it was. I’d say, “I don’t know. We’ve never seen one of those before.”

Then she’d say, “Of course we have. It’s a ____.”

The whatever in the blank would be something she’d pointed out to me a hundred times. How could I not know? But I was only embarrassed before my own wife in that situation.

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Here, I was about to show my ignorance in front of the writers’ group I’d helped start. Looking around the table at a bunch of people thirty years or so my juniors, I thought this was doubly embarrassing. I mean, these people were barely out of diapers when I wrote my first novel (which the dummies in the publishing houses had somehow failed to recognize the brilliance of).

Sensing my fumbling and not wanting to make me squirm any more, my BFF Kristen Lamb (http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/) spoke up. “Your one-sentence synopsis of your book.”

“Oh.” Relief flooded me for a moment. “Well, it’s about this young girl. Her parents died in the War Between the States, and she had to . . .”

“No. A one-sentence synopsis that describes the gist of the book. It summarizes the point of it. What you wanted to accomplish by writing it. The story you wanted to tell.”

“Oh.” I made two or three more attempts to put it into one sentence before it became obvious to everyone that I couldn’t do so.

At that point Kristen and several other members of the group proved a truth about the first half of the title to Kristen’s book. We are not alone. It would have been easy for these people to laugh at my unease, to criticize my ignorance. Instead, they loved me.

Those who were somewhat familiar with my book made suggestions. I took their suggestions and mulled over them, taking part of one suggestion and combining it with part of another until I had a reasonably cogent log line.

According to my Warrior Writer friend Nigel Blackwell, who may be the most knowledgeable person I know on the subject, a log line should follow this pattern: “Protag MUST protag’s-active-goal BEFORE antag’s-active-goal-with-consquence.”

For example, “Woman must stop Nazi’s granddaughter from perfecting cloning techniques before she takes over the world.” or maybe “Man must find and expose murderer before his own father is wrongly convicted of the crime.”

Both of these sample log lines give a concise statement of what the story is about. If we can’t come up with a log line, we haven’t got our story firmly gelled in our minds. Working on it makes us focus our attention and get down to the nitty gritty of our plot.

Once we have something usable, it’s good to enter it in small print under our headers so it will appear on every page as we write, serving as a reminder to us about what I was trying to accomplish. This is not only helpful when we actually start writing our text, but while we work on antag, protag and other character profiles. We need our thoughts focused as we do this, also. Then when we start to chase a rabbit down some side trail, a glance at the log line will remind us of what we’re doing and steer us back to where we belong.

At an agent pitch opportunity at a writers’ conference a few years ago, I recall her rolling her eyes when she asked me for a one-line summary of the book. I now realize that my hemming and hawing made me look like I didn’t know my own work.

Coming up with our log line should probably be the first thing we do when we get ready to write a story—novel, short story, or whatever. My friend Kristen will disagree with this statement. She puts the log line after other preliminary work and just before starting the actual manuscript. That’s fine for her, and it may be for you, too, but I think there are good reasons to put it first.

If we don’t know what our story is about, how can we create the powerful characters who will carry the action? As we develop the characters, we may change our ideas for the story a bit. That’s okay. We can change the log line, too, but at least we’ll have some direction to guide us.

If we don’t keep our log line firmly in mind—like I do by adding it to my header—how will we realize when we digress and start chasing rabbits? And if we don’t know what our log line is, how can we appear to know what we’re talking about when a fellow writer asks us what our book is about?

A concise, powerful log line can go a long way to getting you going in writing your story.

Ø Do you have a log line embedded in your mind for the story you’re working on?

Ø Got an anecdote about log lines?

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