Tag Archives: plot

Writer’s Log: 1782 Cyclical story structure

Last night I watched Brandon Mull’s #9 video on youtube (he subbed for Sanderson). Mull is eccentric and idiosyncratic (to say the least). But his thoughts (once they come out) were spot on. From them I designed my own writing organization philosophy. (To be honest, Sanderson also poses similar story topologies.)

It goes like this:

StoryCircle1

Characters and subjects
experience events and perform actions, which result in consequences which then pose implications
back on the characters and subjects.

This cycle exists at the story level, the chapter level, the scene level and even the paragraph or sentence level.

An old man battles nature and himself, but in the end loses. He catches the biggest marlin of his life. In doing so he sails far from his home port. But the sharks attack and devour the marlin leaving him with nothing to show for his magnificent struggle.

StoryCircle2

A story is a set of these cycles both concentrically, and independently organized. Like this:

I’ve never considered such a structure, however, as Mr. Mull continued, what he alluded to was that these self contained scenes (the little cycles within the bigger chapter cycles within the story cycle itself) can be isolated and written as standalone pieces. Much like the way Anthony Doerr explains how he wrote All the Light We Cannot See.

These scenes can then be stitched together with narrative which would include both time and space references: [detailed scene #1] — “Two weeks later the train pulled into San Francisco.” — [detailed scene #2].

I recommend watching at least Mull’s singular video. He’s hard to watch. He makes reference to his Mormon ideologies – cough. But in the end I found his advice useful.


Writer’s Log: 1751 Writing Wrong

No, not righting wrongs. I’ll leave that to the characters of our stories.

What I’m referring to here is practicing the craft but doing so incorrectly.

We all know, a “writer writes” (both Billy and Danny say this in the movie), but what if what you write is wrong? Poor form? Grammatically, technically, logically, or structurally wrong?

If you practice and practice, but you’re doing so in a way that you’ll need to correct yourself, perhaps severely, in the near future, what you’re doing is learning bad habits.

Bad habits are hard to break.

I was a fool when I began. I just dove straight in; the water was deep and dark and could take my plunge. Unbeknownst to me, there were snags and rocks and muck just beneath the surface — and boy did they hurt when struck. I’d been an avid reader, effectively watching from the sidelines as authors plied their craft. “I can do this,” I thought. “Swish”, “Goal”, “Crack” — the sports analogies are many. Fans feverishly following every movement of the hands and balls of expert players: “Sure looks easy from here.”

I’d been better served by writing small pieces and having them tortuously shredded by a fiction editor; take baby steps, careful, incremental progress. I’d have learned the right way to write. Instead I created an unstable foundation which I’ve had to deconstruct and rebuild over years now. I’m explaining this in the hopes that some burgeoning, aspirational writer takes these cues and adjusts the arc of their career such that they build a solid foundation — first.

Here are some corner stones I’d wish I’d learned early on.

  1. Grammar, dialog grammar specifically. Proper use of the m-dash, semis and contractions.
  2. Active vs Passive. When you write “was” or “were” outside of dialog think, “Can I say this with more action?”
  3. Controlled use of dialog tags. “He said, she said…” Scale back such tags. Instead use a character’s actions to link spoken words to a character.
  4. Describe don’t explain (or show don’t tell for most). Adverbs tend to tell, that’s why they’re frowned upon. When you explain you insert a layer of distance between the story and a reader.
  5. Maintain proper POV. Oy! what a bother. Learn your POVs early. Subtle intrusions into the minds of characters — whose thoughts we should not be privy to — are a no-no.

    These last few are more style and nuance and are never fully learned, only slowly perfected.

  6. Consistency of voice, both of the story and of the characters. If you write over time, months or years, on a story, you’ll need to keep the voice of your characters in your mind as you sit after a break and begin afresh. That’s why may writers say “write the whole thing in a flurry.” Well, I can’t do that. So re-entering a character’s mind is critical.
  7. Story mechanics: time accounting, flashbacks, dreams, travel, world building consistency. These will help your story become complex and engaging. Time serial stories are boring. Screwy physics or mismatched abilities will break your reader’s suspension of disbelief.
  8. Cycles of conflict, action, resolution, reflection. This is my personal preference; frame your stories as a sine wave of varying activity.
  9. Character arc: hidden angst, emotion, motive, doubt, conflict, result. A more advanced subject here. Good stories have odd and conflicted characters.
  10. Plot design and tuning: allusion, foreshadowing, subplots, intra-themes. Complex stories force the reader to work — and a working reader is an engaged reader.

These are points of advice I’ve learned from many editors and writers, here and elsewhere. You know who you are.


The Writer’s Stew

Imagine a tasty stew.

Savory meats, root vegetables, maybe some thick noodles or dumplings, a fine rich stock all simmering for hours on low. The aroma and unctuous anticipation of slipping some of that luscious meal down your throat just makes your mouth drip like Sobaki, Pavlov’s favorite dog.

That is how I think writing becomes art.

When you can savor your characters, mull their foibles, their idiosyncrasies, taste the strange way they walk, sit, talk, sleep — then you can simply write them into your story. There is no work. You sit there within your story stew, nestle up to a potato and describe its grainy texture, its bitter skin, the way it appears to take over the bowl but with the press of a fork, crumbles.

Imagining all of your characters, in the story scenarios you want to eventually place them within, is, I believe, a necessary stage in writing a truthful story. True in that your characters are true to your notions of them. That how they react and respond to the story’s plot events is not forced or unnatural. But smooth like a saucy soup.

I’m trying to live with the eleven characters who will make up the story “Iced”. That’s a bunch of people, and I have to slip them in gradually. Only I can’t. They all wake up together. And, of course, every one of them is a murderer… So, I have this stew being unpleasantly hot at times, and laced with shards of splintered bone in others. But, hopefully, no one will choke and die. Well, no reader will expire while slurping this sumptuous stew.

 


Writer’s Log: 1400 what we remember

Update: I’m back on my first manuscript, Blue Across the Sea, rewriting it for self-publishing on Draft2Digital here soon. This story portrays a designed environment, a bucolic dis-utopian future set in the Great Basin (which is now the Bonneville Inland Sea). I had a great time writing it, but my skills were pitiful — and it shows now that I’m going back through it.

Incidentally, Shadow Shoals takes place in the same future time frame – but on the East Coast of the US. These stories are 200+ years post CME.

~~~

I sat and thought last weekend about stories and what we remember from them. What makes a story memorable? I’m struggling with trying to get the parts of a story balanced: plot, setting, conflict, events, characterization, and dialog. And I wondered if the things we remember about a story might help focus my emphasis. And here is one theory I came up with: What we remember are the people, settings and events.

In M.R. Carey’s The Girl with all the Gifts I remember the classroom, the chemical scrub, the gnashing of teeth at the sergeant’s arm, the girl strapped to the table about to get her brain removed, the escape from the facility, the bouncing trip in the HumVee, the use of a tiny girl as a lure, the grey wall of fungus.

Do I remember any dialog? No. I remember what happened, the events and the reactions, the suffocating thought of spores entering my lungs. The realization that this was the best representation of zombies ever.

I don’t remember anything anybody said. I recall the girl was super bright, and the teacher naive (no doubt communicated through dialog). But nothing specific.

There’s this YouTube ad, a grizzled writer (for a Masters Class I think) sits and talks, “I’ll a piece of paper, and a pen would be nice, and I’ll sit down and write some dialog.”

I imagine two friends stepping out from the theater after they saw that paper and pen dialog movie, they meet a third friend:

“So, what’d you think?”
“It was good.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Well, it was two people talking.”
“And what happened?”
“Nothing really. The man smoked a pipe. The woman drank coffee. They were both in their sixties.”
“Nothing happened?”
“They talked.”
“Okay. About what then?”
“Oh, life, love, this and that, I don’t really remember.”
“But it was good.”
“Yeah, but, no, nothing happened. Oh, wait, the guy made a mess with the ashes as he cleaned his pipe.”

We remember events and setting and situations and rarely what anybody said.

Dialog seems to represent the feel and packaging of a character. Dialog is the critical glue that holds story parts together. The parts might be good and memorable on their own, but how we get from scene to scene is people talking us through it.

Yet, we remember the parts and not the glue.

I’m sure there are exceptions, but, again, I’m seeking broad spectrum heuristics here that I can remember as general application rules.