Sunday Writing Discussion #14: Plotting Part Two

I am working on the chronology and the plot outline for a fantasy novel at the moment. For the last few weeks I have been thinking about issues about plot and what types of elements and structure need to be present to create a good plot.

I want to start this week’s discussion with making the distinction that the chronology of action in a piece of fiction is not necessarily the same as a plot outline. Sometimes the chronology of events that sparks the story starts long before the story itself starts. Sometimes the events of the story are not told chronologically. Often before writing a plot outline it is useful to write out the sequence of events in the chronological order that they happen because this can help with making sure everything fits logically.

As an example in the movie D.O.A. the point of view character comes into the police station and reports a murder. The police asks who has been murdered and the point of view character says that he has. The story then comes out that he has been poisoned, he didn’t know at first and went to the hospital. At the hospital he was diagnosed and told he had three days to live. This gave him three days to find who poisoned him and why. The story is not told chronologically. The riddle of the plot is filled with more tension because it starts with the surprise at the beginning of the protagonist reporting his own murder.

Sometimes in fiction there are actions that happen far prior to the immediate story that are part of the background to the story. As an example, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet actually starts much sooner than Romeo out carousing with his clansmen, seeing Juliet, and falling in love. It starts with whichever of his and her ancestors originated the feud that is the backdrop to the story. This original fight doesn’t have to be included in the fictional work but knowledge of it informs the piece. It helps to set ecology and the “moral” system of the story. It gives the play an orienting starting point.

Every culture has its own moral system that often is very subtle and people who are living in the culture take it for granted. As writers we have to be very conscious not only of the cultural moral system that we live in, but also the one that we create in a work of fiction. Fiction is one of the ways that morality– what is seen as appropriate or inappropriate behavior– is conveyed. The Iliad is not just about the Trojan War. It is not a chronological presentation of the history of events of that time period. It is an exploration of what it means to be a hero. It explores this through the juxtaposition of Achilles and Hector. It uses the actions of Achilles to demonstrate his character and point up the fault of pride.

Creating a moral system in a piece of fiction does not mean standing on a soap box and getting preachy. If a writer wants to do that, I would say to them go write a persuasive essay. Fiction is meant to entertain. Encountering someone standing on a soap box and preaching for most folks is a real turn off.

Creating a moral system further does not mean that the writer has to reflect the main cultural point of view that they come from. The creation of a moral system is a way to frame what the author wants to talk about and explore. For example, a writer could create a story of success where the main character is a good Joe. The character works hard and illustrates through his actions that he is honest, hard-working, and perseveres. Maybe the tension in the story comes from another worker who is his competition/opposition who is also trying to get the promotion. The moral system of this story is that hard-work pays off and if a person perseveres and goes that extra mile, he will be rewarded.

Not all fiction has to come from this rather mainstream moral system. As an example look at The Godfather. The chronology of The Godfather goes farther back than the story. The moral system starts in Sicily with the strong sense of family. Family is all-important. Even if the family is involved in crime that doesn’t matter. What matters is the bonds between the family members.

The moral system of a piece of fiction could be anything the author wants to create. It could be the exact reverse of “if you work hard, you will be rewarded.” It could be “crime pays.” Perhaps it is about a group of criminals who shun regular society and are very successful at stealing and live well. The Italian Job and Ocean’s Eleven spring to mind.

So if the writer has a chronology and they have identified the moral system that will frame their story, the next part of plotting to figure out is how to highlight and play with that moral system. The movements of the story and the actions of the characters must illustrate this moral system. Again it cannot be a bit of grandstanding. No soap boxes. The ending will however be where the writer tips their hand and tells which side of the moral system they fall on and the moral system will ultimately be revealed.

But this has to come from the murky, grey area. Remember stories come from conflict and tension. So… next discussion: Stories From The Grey Area

Sunday Writing Discussion #13: Plotting Part One– Plot Development versus Incidental Action

The concept of plot is really a pretty simple one. It is the sequence of events in a story that starts at the beginning with the introduction of a conflict, revs up as the tension mounts, is addressed during the climax, and then resolves. For whatever reason, in my opinion, the element of fiction that is the source of many writers failing to achieve their intentions is plot. Plot can be made formulaic as in something like Lester Dent’s well known plot formula, but even with this plot formula as a guideline many writers still cannot write a piece of fiction that is a satisfying read.

Plot formulas aside, there are some basic aspects that need to be included in a plot to make a piece of fiction work. Some of these may be self-evident and some are not as simple as they sound. I think plots need the following:

1. tension/conflict that sparks plot
2. real opposition that cranks up tension– the difference between plot development and incidental action
3. change of some sort needs to be the point of any piece of fiction
4. include only material that is important and relevant to advancing the plot
5. make the “causal look casual”
6. leave out divine intervention or too easy resolutions that feel like a cheat to readers
7. make sure that the main character is actively at the center of the resolution of the conflict during the climax

I think what might happen quite often when novice writers sit down to write is that they haven’t really put enough thought into what they are going to write. The writer gets an idea for a story or character and sets off full tilt. It is fun to write some scenes! And then those scenes have to get wrangled into something resembling a whole. And then an ending needs to pop onto the page. Etc. The whole composition is not so much an intentional piece as a bunch of bits thrown together mish-mash and trying to take on the semblance of a story. Some folks can do this and make it all work by revising and revising and rewriting and rewriting. Others can’t. Further, beginning writers are notorious for not being able to view their work with a critical eye or to be able to take criticism.

Writing is fun! And it takes pushing oneself to further understand how good fiction comes together, requires thought to figure out how to use one’s understanding of how good fiction is assembled, and one must make make some very determined choices in order to write a piece that comes together as a whole and be able to do this consistently. A half way decent story should not be a happy accident.

Today I have spent all afternoon assembling a quilt (metaphor for pulling together a plot?) and thinking about the difference between plot development and incidental action. In a short story, only action that integrally moves a story forward towards its climax and resolution should be included. Incidental action needs to be left out. What’s the difference?

For example, if a story is about a boy whose village is raided by a violent warlord this might provide an initial spark of conflict, but it is only a conflict of the moment. There needs to be more. It isn’t enough to advance the story forward solely on this one plot point of action. However, if the boy’s village is destroyed, he is left behind because he is too scrawny to even be made a slave, this sparks him to take on the challenge of turning his scrawniness into some form of physical fighting ability, he finds a mentor and learns martial arts, discovers he has talent but cannot advance to the next level until he can become focused, overcomes his internal conflicts caused by the violent warlord so that he can be focused, and proves himself in some action against the warlord– well then the action of the warlord destroying the village moves from incidental action to action of the plot development sort. The character is challenged at every plot point by the sequential action. And there is character change! Woohoo!

For another example, a character just walking through a door with a gun because the story is flagging and needs to be livened up is incidental action. It sparks something in the moment, but unless it is integral to the plot no matter how sensational the action is it isn’t going to add to the tension in any real way or advance the plot. It actually detracts and erodes the tension by pulling attention in too many directions. The same goes for a seductive female character, well described and cool sounding alien, or that something that “suddenly” appears wandering through.

Conflict at the start of a story may be of the incidental type, but it needs to lead to a deeper conflict that is more integral to the main character of the story. To write a story that will hold together and be satisfying as a piece of dramatic fiction, the action and subsequent tension must not remain at surface level. The action needs to reflect a deeper conflict that the character needs to resolve and cause change or be changed by. The mounting tension needs to be as a result of investigating the character of the point of view character going through the plot crisis. Incidental action does not do this and if a story is a series of incidental bits of action, it will feel like it is lurching from scene to scene and any character change presented will feel contrived. It’s not enough to have action that sets a story in motion, the action must continually test the character and move towards the resolution.

This is just one part of thinking about plot. I have thoughts on some of the other aspects of plot, how plot, character, and theme have to work together, and how creating background information can possibly provide a map of the story terrain to develop plot. More next week!

Thursday Writing Prompts: A Few Questions to Consider in World Building

I was thinking about an exercise that I once had to do for a cultural anthropology class. Our assignment was to take an ordinary object (like a paperclip, hair tie, or empty thread spool) and pretend that it was 3000 years in the future and we had no idea what the object might be for. We were to create a scenario for the use of the objet and tell its cultural significance. So if a site had hundreds of paperclips, what might be made of this? Were the paperclips a type of currency? A symbol with some sort of religious significance?

I also recently read an article by Michael Moorcock where he described having a kind of pre-created bank of fantasy items that could populate his stories and give them everyday realism. Today’s writing prompt is an exercise to do just that. Here are some questions to consider to help build a realistic fantasy/science fiction world:

1. Look around your bedroom. What would have not been present in the room 200 years ago? What forms of technology are present in the room? What do they do? How might those pieces of technology move forward and become changed/advanced? Technology having to do with transportation, communications, and information storage have changed dramatically in the last two hundred years. How might these change over the next two hundred years? What about medical technology? Might it become more independent and less dependent on the oversight of doctors? More oriented towards people taking care of their own health? What might it look like?

2. What might ordinary things like pencils, clothing hangers, books, a printer, a bed, a table, a chair, or headphones look like in a future setting? How could they be transformed?

3. What materials might clothing be made of?

4. What might an ordinary citizen in your created world have in their pockets? What routine objects might they use through out the course of a day?

5. Mobile smart phones are almost indispensable at this point in history. Seven years ago almost no one had even heard of them. Think of some gadget/device that might be indispensable in the world and time period of the fictional setting you are creating. What does it do? Why is it indispensable?

6. What does the food look like? What kinds of things do your characters eat in a day?

In thinking about these questions, go beyond your first thoughts. First thoughts are usually obvious thoughts that have been seen/read/stated previously. Delve deeper and explore creating the rationale behind the setting and objects that you create. Make it seem as real as possible.

Writing is cool because we get to be wizards of words and make realities! Have fun creating!

Sunday Writing Discussion #10: Choosing the Right Point of View

Composing a work of fiction requires a dizzying number of choices. But it is also cool. The writer has total control and responsibility for the entire composition. A basic idea needs to be expanded into a plot sequence, characters must be created to tell the desired story in the best way possible, the setting needs to enhance the overall story, the conflict needs to make everything vibrate with tension, and the tone and theme must create subtle waves that move along the reader’s neural paths to stimulate further thought. So many things to consider. A basic aspect of writing a short story or novel is figuring out the right character to tell the story through and the right point of view to tell the story in.

We all derive our identity through the stories of ourselves. When we tell a personal anecdote to someone else we tell it in the first person point of view. For example:

“When we found our campsite, I pulled the car onto the paved pad. There was only a small clearing for me to set up the tent. The picnic table was near the fire ring. Everything was lush and green. I was so tired but I had to get the tent set up before I could make dinner and go to sleep.”

The first-person point of view expresses the personal point of view of the speaker or author. The pronouns used are I, me, mine, we, us, and our.

Often when people first undergo the metamorphosis into writers, they use the first person point of view. Their stories tend to be fantasies or “movies of the mind” that they transcribe. This is a great place to begin, but as a writer practices and advances their skills they begin to get a feel for all the artistic decisions that go into a composition. The more they write, the more aspects of writing they become aware of and how this influences who will be their point of view character and which point of view should be used.

Initially it is not unexpected that beginning writers create characters who are too powerful, too strong, and too much of a fantasy. These kinds of characters are called Mary Sues. A Mary Sue is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, who lacking any real flaws, and primarily functions as a wish-fulfilment fantasy for the author or readers. Mary Sues are usually thought of as characters whose positive aspects overwhelm their other traits. They don’t come off as authentic because they feel so one-dimensional. Often these characters kind of overwhelm the stories that they are placed in and subjugate the story to the character. The story must always come first. It is important to think through during the development of a story which characters might be likely to be in that setting, which of those characters might be best positioned to see the action of the story, what the psychological makeup and history of the point of view character might be that could best see and interpret the action of the story in a meaningful way, and what kind of character would be the one that readers could relate to most strongly. Sometimes it is necessary to keep adjusting the characters until the composition feels right. This is one of the really cool parts about writing because as authors we can do this.

Once the writer has a feel for which characters to use, they have to decide what point of view to tell the story in.

First person point of view is the second most prevalent point of view used in fiction. It traditionally is thought of as being more intimate and personal. J.D. Salinger used the first person point of view in his novel The Catcher in the Rye in this very traditional sense and fearless portrayed Holden Caufield in such a way that the book is beloved by many. Holden Caulfield is so authentic within the pages of the book that his story is a example of a coming of age, identity finding story.

This very personal type of story is not the only type of story that can be told through a first person point of view. If a writer thinks about the intimacy that can be established via the first person point of view, consciously uses the strengths of this point of view, and is creative, they can reinforce their themes in unexpected ways. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is also written in the first person point of view. In this case the story is about Humbert Humbert who becomes obsessed with Dolores Haze. She is twelve years old and when she becomes his stepdaughter, they have a sexual relationship. The first person point of view is disturbing and distancing rather than producing intimacy. Further, the narrator is an unreliable narrator and this compels the reader to analyze his words and be drawn further into the book. The first person point of view is used to brilliant effect to create ambiguities that make the book compelling.

There are limitations to think about before using the first person point of view. If a writer uses the first person point of view the natural expectation that most readers bring to this point of view is that the story is being told by a knowledgeable narrator who is past the events and relaying them after the fact. After years of conversation in which anecdotes are told in this manner, readers will bring this expectation to the text and the author either has to remain within the parameters of this context or clearly and strongly with intent and rationale deviate from this. First person perspective is also difficult in that the story is told from the point of view of only one character who cannot see everything that might influence the story and the narration must stay “in character” to maintain the illusion of the fiction. First person point of view is not as easy to create well crafted fiction in as one might first think.

Third person point of view is the most commonly used point of view. In the third-person point of view material is expressed from the point of view of a detached writer or characters within the story. Third-person pronouns include he, she, him, her, his, hers, they, them, their, and theirs. The third person point of view can be either a limited or omniscient point of view. A limited third person point of view follows the point of view of one character much like a camera on that character’s shoulder. The narrator reports the facts and interprets events from the perspective of the chosen single character. An omniscient third person point of view uses an all-knowing narrator who not only reports the facts but may also interpret events and relate the thoughts and feelings of any character.

The third person point of view is the most flexible point of view to write a piece of fiction in. Limited third person can be quite intimate and personal and allow the reader glimpses into the personality of the narrating character. If the third person limited point of view is chosen, it is very important to chose the most advantageous character to tell the story. The story will not be as intimate as if the story were told from first person point of view and this often implies a slightly less emphasis of characterizations to drive the story. The story may still be character driven but there will be more external action driving the plot rather than internal dialogue. As stated previously, the author needs to pick the right character. The narration still needs to stay within the characterization of that character also. For instance, if the story is about medieval times the limited third person narrator would not compare the speed of an arrow to a airplane because they would not know about airplanes.

Second person point of view is rarely used in fiction. It is used in letters, speeches, and directions. Second-person pronouns include you, your, and yours, and material expressed in the second-person point of view directly addresses the listener or reader.

If for some reason a story feels stuck, sometimes it is a useful exercise to either switch the point of view being used or tell the story from the point of view of a different character within the story. This can jog things and give insights that might help to move the story forward. Also just because a particular character was initially chosen to tell the story or the story started in first person point of view, does not mean that it has to stay the way it was begun. It might be a daunting prospect to completely rewrite a story, but this might be the action that makes the story better.

So many choices to craft a story, so many things to consider, so many bits to the overall composition! It is exhilarating! Have fun writing!

Writing Prompts: Stages of Life

All of these writing prompts have to do with various stages of life that people go through.

1. Your point of view character is an 80 year old woman who is writing what will be the last entry in her diary before committing suicide because she feels she has lived her life. Where is the story set? What things does this character write to loved ones? What are her remembrances? What moments or thoughts does she want to make sure are passed on for others to read?

2. Your point of view character is a worldly explorer who dies suddenly and his/her consciousness is transported into a new born baby. How does this character approach this experience? What do they notice?

3. Your point of view character is a middle aged man who becomes aware that while he is successful, dependable, etc. he has not lived his life how he had always dreamed of. What are his dreams? What does he do about these dreams?

4. A homely girl fantasizes being beautiful after being snubbed and bullied by the popular girls in her high school. She goes home to sulk and a strange magical woman steps through her closet. The woman invites the girl through the closet to a place where she is beautiful. What happens?

5. A young boy who was bullied grows into a man. He learned the techniques of bullying and how to be ready to defend on the school yard. Can he learn to be kind? Can he learn to be vulnerable? Does he? What motivates him?

Writing Prompts: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words


I was thinking about my camera this evening. I am hoping to go snowshoeing one afternoon this weekend and take some pictures so I came up with a set of writing prompts that have to do with either cameras or photographs. Have fun writing!

1. The point of view character buys a camera in an antique shop. They fix it up and try it out. The point of view character discovers that the camera doesn’t take a picture of the person or thing it sees in its lens. A different image appears on the film. What is that image of?

2. The point of view character moves into a new house and takes photographs to post on facebook. They discover that there are gruesome images in the backgrounds of all the photographs. What are these images?

3. A class composite in the hallway of a high school has fading photographs. The point of view character goes back to visit the high school and realizes that all the faded photos are of classmates that have died. Why are the photographs fading?

4. A photographer is a sought out portraitist because they have the ability to make their subjects look better than real life. Where do they derive their power from?

5. A wildlife photographer has the ability to take photos of animals and the animals are then resistant to death. How does this come about? How does the photographer use their ability?

Thursday Writing Prompts: Imagine If…

It is Thursday and that means… More Writing Prompts!

1. A special substance is created that can be added to high fat foods like chocolate that causes people to tell the truth if they ingest it. Truth chocolates for couples with no secrets are created. Write a scenario between two characters where the chocolates are eaten.

2. An amphetamine is created that can be used for a month straight. The user takes the amphetamine for a month and then sleeps for four whole days. Write about a scenario where the amphetamine is taken by a character. What happens? What complications might there be that are involved.

3. A special frequency that can be layered under white noise is created that can evoke subconscious issues and psychological traumas. It is described as subconscious psychoanalytical therapy to be done on oneself. Create a scenario where this frequency is used by a character. What happens? What might be the complications?

4. A mirror of health is created that shows the state of a person’s actual health. If they are very healthy, then their image shows as being so. If they have health issues, then they look aged beyond their years. Create a scenario where the mirror comes into play.

5. A scent is created that instantaneously relaxes human beings and lowers their guards. Create a scenario utilizing this scent.

Sunday Writing Discussion #5: Naming Characters

Currently I am writing a story that features a main character who is a mechanic. He works on derelict equipment and scavenges parts from defunct machinery. He is a very solid type of character who then begins to experience something remarkable and this causes him to take extraordinary and very out of character action. I can picture him. He’s a big guy with muscles earned from lifting engines and moving heavy stuff. He’s quiet and clever. The kind of person who is called steady and reliable.

Did I mention that the story is set in the future? A rather dystopic future?

This character’s name has been eluding me. In trying to come up with his name however aspects and details of the story are coming more into focus for me. I am getting a feel for the society that he is a part of. I am envisioning who his parents were and what was important to them– so important that it would influence the naming of their son. This background also influences the character.

On a whole other level, I also have to think about the connotations that a name brings up. This can be an important part of the characterization in a novel. Charles Dickens came up with some of the most memorable names in English literature. The names themselves evoke the essence of the characters. Names like Cornelia Blimber the prim school teacher, Ebenezar Scrooge, Seth Pecksniff the architect and hypocrite, etc. Finding the right name can set who the character is.

If a character is an everyman kind of character, then I try to use names that are not too extraordinary. The list of male names is pretty limited if I am sticking to what are typical names. Popular male names have actually varied very little in the last century. These are names like John, David, Richard, Joseph, Robert, etc. Female names are much more variable. If I am writing a piece set in another time period I google to find out the most popular names of that time period. Jennifer and Ashley actually pretty accurately tells me a woman’s age very frequently and if I know her age from there I can often tell what socio-economic class she was born into.

Readers come to characters with all of this type of information loaded into their prior knowledge, whether they consciously know it or not. This information informs how they interpret a character. The connotations of a name influence the concept of a character that readers build in their imagination.

So if I name a character an unusual name this will have connotations also. For instance if I name a character Thaddeus Thistledown an image springs to mind and it isn’t one of a used car salesman wearing white patent leather shoes. The name actually comes from a tongue twister and I always pictured him as a tall, gangly, elderly man wearing a tweedy three piece suit and wire rim glasses who has a dandelion pouf of marvelous white hair. Why do I picture him as an elderly man? Perhaps because Thaddeus is a name I associate with my great grandfather’s generation and generations before him. Why do I see him with such a headful of white hair? Perhaps because it reminds me of the thistle down that Theophilus Thaddeus Thistledown sifted in the tongue twister.

Even ordinary names have connotations. A book that I like to use to find out the connotations of different names is “The New Baby Name Survey” by Bruce Lansky. To create the book people were surveyed to find out the connotations that they associate with various names. For instance Michael is a common male name. The connotation from the book is: “Like the archangel in the Bible, this Michael is an angel– for the most part. People describe him as a sweet, caring, loyal, and trusting family man. He’s known to be humorous and a good friend. His one downside may be too much ego and not enough patience.” The book talks about celebrities that are associated with the names as well. In this way a writer can know and consciously use the connotations associated with a particular name.

In addition to the connotations of a name, the culture and ethnicity of the character needs to be considered. A woman in India in the Victorian era named Mary would be assumed to be British. If the character is Indian she needs an Indian name such as Madri, Ishani, or Gita. A book I use to find such names is “The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook” by Sherrilyn Kenyon. Names from other cultures also need to be considered for possible connotations that they might bring up outside of their own culture. A friend of mine has been writing a novel and the main character is Senegalese. Because of her ethnicity the character’s formal name is Fatima and she is called Fatou. He has been using the name as a placeholder. While no one in Senegal would envision a fat woman from that name, because the naming conventions are different than in the West, readers in the West may not be able to see beyond the first three letters of the name and envision a character who is not fat.

Naming a character is just one step in creating them. There are other things to consider and the character out of necessity for the story may shift and change over the course of writing the story. It is important also to consider who the character is within the context of the story. Too many characters with similar names can confuse readers.

While it is trite in some ways to say it, names do have power. Power to characterize. A writer can consciously use this power or potentially be at its mercy.

I am still thinking on my mechanic’s name.

The “Pushing the Limits” Writing Exercises

Sometimes pushing the limits can be useful and you can learn a great deal. All of these writing exercises are designed to push the limits in some ways to experiment and help clarify aspects of writing.

1. Write a complete story in six sentences. What could you say in 6 carefully crafted sentences? Examples can be found at Six Sentences

I am hoping to make this a regular feature on this blog in the New Year and will publish six sentence stories that are submitted to me. Guidelines for submission will be coming in the next week.

Here is an example of mine:

Smiling, she drank her tea and ate her biscuits. Noticing a spot on her blouse, she tried to wipe the stain away. Persistent as her forty-year marriage, the brownish splotch would not wash out even under the tap. The cat played with a string under the tablecloth. A cold, stiff hand flopped out onto the persian rug from beneath the lace. She really needed to do something about Herman.

2. Ernest Hemingway was once bet that he couldn’t write a short story in six words. He wrote the following: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. Write a story in six words. What could you say in only six words? Examples can be found at Six Word Stories

3. Describe the worst piece of writing that you can. What would be features of this piece? Would the characters be flat? The story plotless? etc.

4. Write a paragraph describing some scene that you have observed. After writing the scene, edit out at least one third of the words and see if you can convey the meaning of the first draft.

5. Pick a form of poetry and write a poem in that form. Sestinas like Elizabeth Bishop’s Sestina (which I featured a month or so ago can be found at: http://thestarsarenotmadeoffire.com/2011/11/06/poetry-elizabeth-bishops-sestina/) are difficult to write and force the author to think of ways to make the six words that the poem hangs on be used in different ways to convey different meanings.

Try these writing exercises! Have fun with them! If you need more inspiration, more writing prompts can be found at Jo-anne Odell’s blog at: www.jmodell.blogspot.com