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DonHartshorn.com

All about the author and his current work

Tag: Story

Character – Motivation

I thought I’d discuss character motivation, because that’s such a frequently misunderstood concept.  Motivation is not the thing that gets your characters moving within your plot – that’s incentive – it’s the drive that gets your characters out of bed in the morning.  But it’s not usually passionate or all-consuming.  It’s boring and workaday, and your task as a writer is to instill a different motivation in your characters.

Previously, I’ve discussed Character – Position vs. Interest and Creating a Scene with the Ws.  A character’s motivation runs parallel to both these things.  You’ll see writing advice that tells you a character’s motivation is a conscious thing, like it’s something they think about every moment they’re awake.  Nobody thinks about motivation all the time, not even your noblest character.

Think about your own motivation, what makes you get up in the morning?  If you work for Corporate America, your motivation is probably very basic in Maslow’s hierarchy.  You need to make rent, buy food, and pay bills.  This isn’t a motivation you think about a lot, but it certainly comes up when the ‘downsizing’ emails start flying.  Unless you’re very lucky, in Corporate America your motivation almost never rises to self-actualization.  But what if you work for yourself?  Same thing, you’re working to pay the bills.  Maybe you’re working at something you love to do, maybe you’re just good at it, but your work probably doesn’t rise past ‘Safety’ in Maslow’s hierarchy.

The same is true of your characters.  They lead regular lives, for the most part.  Until your plot starts, when their motivation should change.  But even with a new, more urgent motivation, the old motivations are still there, and possibly even more powerful.

Let’s use Batman as an example.  He’s just a man, with a man’s courage, but he has an epic motivation: make Gotham the kind of city where no little kid ever has to see his parents gunned down.  He’s got a long row to hoe there, Gotham sucks.  But that’s why he does what he does, so no other eight-year-old has to endure what he did.

Is that his motivation all the time?  Yes.  And no.  If that were his sole motivation he’d probably end up a billionaire social worker, using his money to put orphans through college and rehabilitating crooks.  But he also has a secondary motivation, to stop crime that’s happening right now.  And revenge, there’s a strong streak of vengeance in his work.  And justice, of course, he wants justice too, after all the punching is finished.

That’s a conflicting mish-mash of motivations: societal change, crime fighting, vengeance, and justice.  And trying out cool toys, that’s a large part of what Batman does.

Do your characters have multiple, conflicting motivations?  Of course they do.  In my novel I have a character who is very motivated to fight the good fight for the little guy against the system.  It’s what drives his career, even if most of the time his work is pedestrian and low-paying.  But he’s also very strongly motivated to be right all the time, even to the point of cutting ties with his brother for ten years.  Those two motivations  wage war inside him although nothing changes until outside elements (the plot) force him to reevaluate those motivations for a third one: finding the truth, even if the truth shows him to be wrong.

Motivation is not all-or-nothing, not for real people and not for your characters.  Any all-consuming passion usually turns out to be cartoonish.  Your characters should have many things that motivate them, that also drive your plot forward.

 

 

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Storytelling – The Basics

I thought I’d share some of what I know about storytelling, since I seem to be good enough at it to land a book deal.  At least one book deal, anyway.

I’ve had many people tell me they want to be authors, that they think they have a story to tell, but they don’t really know where to start.  I usually smile and nod and give them some sort of platitude like ‘start anywhere, you need to learn by doing.’   But that’s really just me being polite, most people who tell me something like that aren’t ready to write.  They might be ready to think about writing, but that’s not the same thing as writing, not by a longshot.

Everyone knows where to start a story.  At the beginning.  If you have trouble with that concept, sit down with a five-year-old and tell her a story.  She understands how it goes, and she’ll correct you when you get it wrong.  You start at the beginning, work your way through the middle, and finish up with the end.  Easy peasy.  Yet, somehow, when you’re an adult, you forget all the very, very basic storytelling structure you knew by heart when you were five.

So here it is, the breakdown of the story parts:

The Beginning – this is the bit where you introduce your characters, the world they live in, and the problems they’re likely to face.  ‘Once upon a time, a princess lived in a poor but happy kingdom, across the lake from a family of ogres.’

The End – this is the bit where you wrap up the tale you just told, giving everything a conclusion, though not necessarily a happy one.  ‘And the princess realized that, despite her best efforts, she had been as cruel and hateful as she supposed the ogres were.  She resolved to be better, and to listen first, instead of reacting.’

Everyone has the beginning of a story.  Literally, everyone.  Ask a random stranger on the street if they have a story they’d like to tell and you will get an answer every time, and that answer will be the set-up.  The beginning.  Many times, though not always, people also have an ending to their story, even if that ending is ‘it was all just a dream’ (my father pitched me a story with this ending once.  I’m not joking).

The Middlethis is your story.  All of it.  The ups, the downs, the betrayals, the sacrifices, the twists, the red herrings, the daring deeds, and the vile crimes.  How did the princess come to the realization that, perhaps, she wasn’t as pure and noble as she imagined?  That’s the story.  What did the ogres think of her and her actions?  That’s the story.

No one has a middle to their story.  Literally, no one.  Unless you’re a writer, because writers realize the meat of the story, the most delicious bits, come in the middle.  Everything you remember about a story happened in the middle.  In the Watergate story, the break-in has already happened, before the action begins and off-screen.  What people remember is the revelation of the break-in, and the slow unwinding of the truth, all the way back to the White House.  The story is the investigation, and how all the bits come together.  If you took that story linearly, it would be a boring procedural, maybe a court record.  The drama comes in gathering the pieces.  The middle.

Think of the three parts of a story this way, with font size indicating the importance of the part and effort you should put into writing it:

  • The Beginning
  • The Middle

  • The End

Remember that everyone has the beginning of a story, many people have an end, but a writer – a real writer – spends her time on the middle.

More in a later post.

Dev Edits – trying not to be touchy

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I’m about 50 pages into the developmental edits, and I have a few thoughts.

  1. I’m far less prickly about this than I thought I’d be. Not that I’m entirely cool with it, that’s a little much to ask, but I’m not as precious with my writing as once was. There have been a few points so far where I was thinking ‘come on, now… really?’ but once I got over myself those edits made the narrative stronger.
  2. I’ve encountered a few dev edit comments, and they’ve been right on. That is, they’ve made the story tighter, made the words hang together better. I haven’t yet found a comment that I disagreed with. But I’m only 50 pages in.
  3. What copy editing has happened has been strictly according to established style manuals. I have to confess, some copy edits feel like flattening out my own style – I’m not a newspaper reporter – but I’m letting them go. They stick out to me like a neon sign, but more than likely no one else is going to notice them.
  4. From time to time, I’m being ‘handled.’ That is, my editor will leave me a compliment when he wants me to change a error he feels is sloppy and unprofessional. For instance: ‘Reword: kind of a cliché. Your writing is normally so good and so original – so I’d hate to have it marred by such a common turn of phrase.’ Translated from Touchy-Authorese this means ‘Seriously? Put some effort into it, don’t be a hack.’ All right, I get it.
  5. My years as an actor gave me a pretty thick skin for notes (thanks, June!), but that doesn’t mean I’m invulnerable. I’m learning to let it go, though, and trust that the guy who pays his mortgage by editing books knows what he’s doing. Kind of like they’re trusting me to know what I’m doing.

My main takeaway so far? This really is a team effort. I do need an editor, which means I’m going to have to accept that his goal is to make my book the best it can be. Even if that means losing most of my precious, precious ellipses…


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Dev Edits – my first feedback

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Publishing News: I got the developmental edits back this morning! Now I have something I can do! Yay me!

I you have a moment, you can review developmental edits.

My publisher returned to me three items:

  • Editing letter – where the editor explains his edits in general, and what he’s looking for me do with my turn at the manuscript.
  • A marked-up copy of the edited manuscript – where all the changes the editor made are highlighted for me, so I can see what he did and digest any notes he may have left in the margins.
  • A clean copy of the edited manuscript – a copy for me to perform my edits on. There are some markups still in it, but not as many as the other copy.

I read over the editing letter, fully anticipating being outraged and offended. I was not. I agree with everything my editor said, and I will fully comply with his wishes.

To be honest, I’m a little disappointed that there’s not more drama here. I kind of wanted to exercise a little righteous indignation, to rage against the machine. Oh well, maybe later.

My editor has four items he’d like me to work on. In dev edits these are big-picture items, not missing apostrophes or participles dangling.

  • Ellipses – I use these to indicate hesitation and uncertainty in dialogue. My editor wants me to cut a third of them, at least. This is the part where I might get a little touchy, but if I’m overusing ellipses and they distract from the narrative, I need to get rid of many of them.
  • Over-stating my themes – Yeah. I do that. Fair criticism.
  • A big fight scene feels staged – I agree. I’ll work on making it feel more dynamic and emergent rather than long-anticipated and planned.
  • A character’s big change – my editor would like to see this character remain unapologetic and unrepentant until several books later. I agree. This character is too valuable as a foil to change so soon. In my defense, I originally wrote this book as a one-off, I hadn’t planned other books. Now that I am planning more, this is a necessary change.

I have 14 days to do my edits and hand my edited copy of the manuscript back. I am going to use every hour of those 14 days. I feel good, I think this is going to go well.

Big Plus – it looks like my editor and I are in synch. A good writer needs a great editor, and I think I got one. I took a quick look at some of his notes in the marked-up version, and, so far, I agree with them all. To quote Rick Blaine, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Big minus – I have to work in MS Word. I do my writing in Pages, not just because it works so much better than MS Word, but because in my day job I use MS products almost exclusively and I am not a fan. Bloatware. Look it up. Or click the link. So maybe this is my ‘rage against the machine’ moment. Curse you, MS Word! From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!

I’ll have more next week, after I really dig into these edits. I’m sure I’ll find some nit-picky things to complain about.

 

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Character – Position vs. Interest

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Publishing News: my publisher is still working on Developmental Edits. Also, we’ve had two authors’ support group meeting thus far. It’s going well, for a bunch of introverts talking about stuff they’d rather not. I’ll have a blog post about it soon.

This time I thought I’d touch on how I develop characters. This goes hand-in-hand with creating a scene with the W’s, but this is focused specifically on the character, rather than the character’s relationships and actions in a scene. Just as there is tension inherent in every scene, there is tension within characters, between their Position and their Interest.

So what are Position and Interest? Picture yourself in an everyday situation, like, say taking your car in to be repaired. Your mechanic tells you that your car needs a lot of work, and fixing everything will cost $2000.

  • Your Position is that you want to get out of that shop as cheaply as possible.
  • Your Interest is that your car doesn’t break apart on the highway and kill you.
  • The tension between your Position and your Interest will likely lead you to ask the mechanic to set a priority on the repairs, and tell you which ones are a major safety issue versus which ones are nice to have and can wait. You can live with a slightly-dangerous vehicle if it saves you cash in the short term.

Let’s alter that scenario slightly. Instead of taking your own car for repairs, you’re accompanying your grandmother. The mechanic tells her the same thing, $2000 to fix everything.

  • In this scenario, your Position would probably be that you don’t want your grandmother to get ripped off, but it’s also not your money she’s spending.
  • On the other hand, your Interest is in making sure she has the absolute safest ride on the road.  You love your Nana and want her to stay around as long as possible.
  • The clash between your Position and Interest would likely lead you to tell your grandmother to spend the cash – all $2000 – to make sure she’s safe and protected. Your need not to get ripped off is trumped by your more pressing need to make sure your grandmother is driving a safe car.

All your characters have the same tensions between their Interest and their Position. In my novel, for instance, there’s a main character, Sam, who’s been arrested for a murder that he may or may not have committed. His older brother is a petty criminal, and has told Sam what happens to snitches in jail. Sam’s attorney visits him and presses him to come clean about what happened the night of the murder. Sam refuses to cooperate. Why?

  • Sam’s Position: he’s in jail, without bail money. He’s stuck there for the foreseeable future, and he knows what happens to squealers.
  • Sam’s Interest: to get through another day in jail without getting beaten up or killed. He’s not telling anyone anything, even if he’s innocent.

I usually only outline Position and Interest for main characters, maybe for certain secondary characters. That guy who appears in three or four scenes to drive the plot along? He’s not important enough to warrant that kind of time or effort. His position and interest are the same: to get the main characters from point A to point B.

Do you need to state or reveal the Position and Interest of every character? Absolutely not. The truth will come out eventually, but almost never as clearly as ‘I don’t want to get beaten up in jail so I can’t tell you anything.’ Sam’s sitting in the interview room, bruises on his face and cuts on his knuckles. He’s angry and scared and trying to pretend his first time in jail is no big deal. Your readers will know.

I encourage you to think of Position and Interest in your writing, it’ll make your characters’ interactions deeper and more nuanced.

Next time:  who knows?  I have a promotion coming up to get the word out, maybe I’ll talk about that.  We’ll find out together.

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What To Do When You’re Stuck

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Publishing News: they’ll start on the Developmental Edits before too long. Probably next week. There’ll be back-and-forth with me for over a month on this part. I’ll let you know what’s happening and how it’s going as soon as I have news.

I recently got involved with the #writerscommunity on Twitter. I recommend it, even if you never post anything or respond or even make yourself known other than following other writers. It’s tough out there on your own, and most writers are absolutely on their own. Friends and family might be supportive (or not), but that only goes so far. You need to interact with people going through the same things you are, and modern social media certainly helps. A lot. If you’re not already part of it, get on Twitter and find the threads. You are not alone.

I noticed a definite trend in the #writerscommunity postings, of writers who are ‘stuck.’ That is, they’ve come to a certain point in their work and they can’t see a way forward. A variation on that is writers who reach a certain point in their work and realize they’ve been going down the wrong path and have to regroup and start over. I’ve been there, and I know exactly why this happens. Some of you are going to agree immediately, and some aren’t going to like this next sentence at all.

You don’t know what your story is.

I’ll try to soften this by saying again, I’ve been there. I’ve done this. You have a really great hook, or a really great setting, or a really great main character, or a really great theme. With this really great thing in mind you dive into the deep end and start writing. The problem is, you haven’t done the very basic work you need to do in order to write a book: Understand thoroughly the story you’re trying to tell.

‘I’m not a plotter,’ you protest, ‘and I don’t work the way you do. I let my story sing through my fingers on the keyboard. Don’t shackle me with your notecards and plot points and character arc notes. I do things my way.’ Fair enough, but I’m not talking about how you do your work, I’m talking about the story you want to tell.

At its most basic, a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. When a writer gets stuck, it’s because they’re missing one (or all) of these parts. This is the ‘and then…’ excitement you get when you tell a story to child. This happens, then this happens, then another thing happens, and then… and then.. and then…

If you don’t have an ‘and then…’ all the way to the end, you don’t have a story.

Twenty years ago (yikes!) South Park had an episode that was an indictment of the booming pre-Y2K tech bubble in the stock market. The allegory was gnomes who were stealing underpants with the aim to make a profit. The only problem was the gnomes had no idea how to connect stealing underpants with making money. They had a beginning and an anticipated end, but no middle at all.
underpants-gnomes-business-plan.png

This exact thing is happening with writers who don’t know what story they’re trying to tell. They’re trying to connect the thing that excites them – their hook, character, setting, or theme – with a finished book. They don’t understand the middle part, the actual story, at all, and that’s why they’re getting stuck, or having to rework it, or abandoning it altogether.

So what’s the fix? What do you do when this happens? You’ll have to find what works for you, but when I’m working on a story, I talk it out. I tell the story, just like Homer did 2,800 years ago, out loud, over and over and over. It helps that I live alone. Talking out the story, telling the story, helps me get a handle on it, to understand what I want to say and how I want to say it. Pretty quickly I also get to know what I’m missing. Once I know the story then I can get to the technical parts and start constructing the narrative.

Maybe next week I’ll have details about the developmental editing process? We’ll find out together.

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Create A Scene With The W’s

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Last time I described some of the tools I use when I’m outlining. I also included a list of ‘The W’s’ I got from my acting teacher many moons ago. For reference this week, I included them again:

WHAT has just happened? The Moment Before. The Characters’ emotional states.
WHAT is happening? The Apparent Event. Actions/Behavior
WHAT do you want? The Objective or Actual Event. Emotional need.
WHERE are you? The Environment. Create a setting.
WHO are you? The Characters and Relationships.
WHAT is the obstacle? The Conflict.

I came to this list as an actor, and it’s invaluable for breaking down a scene into bits an actor can use to create a believable performance. It’s also really great for a writer to get a handle on each character in a scene. In order to illustrate this point, I’ll break down one of the first scenes in Special Circumstances. From the first chapter, it’s where one of the main characters, Travis Lynch, goes to witness the execution of a man he tried to save from death row ten years earlier. While in the viewing room, he meets Christine Morton, the reporter who almost ruined his life, also ten years before.

For Travis:
The Moment BeforeTravis spent four hours driving through Texas in a car with no air conditioning in August to get to Huntsville, where the executions take place. On the way he was recognized from his disgrace ten years ago.
The Apparent EventTravis agreed to be a witness to the execution of Reilly Wayne Sutton, and act as a proxy for Sutton’s family, who will not attend.
The Actual EventTravis comes face to face with the reason for his estrangement from his brother, and with the instrument of his public disgrace, Christine Morton.
The Environmentthe viewing room on death row, where people watch the condemned die.
The Character and RelationshipsTravis has become the black sheep of his family because of his conscience and morality. He hates Morton because of the way she used his crisis ten years ago to make her career.
The ConflictTravis doesn’t want to be there, and is unprepared for the shock of watching another human being die. He also loathes Morton but needs her experience with this situation to hold it together until the end.

For Morton:
The Moment Beforeshe saw Travis Lynch walk into the one place she never thought she’d see him, the viewing room on death row. She considered leaving him alone, but her reporter’s instinct would not let her do that.
The Apparent Eventshe’s doing what she’s done many times before, being the media witness to a Texas execution.
The Actual Eventshe realizes Travis is in way over his head, and she helps him through the experience even though she knows he hates her.
The Environmentthe viewing room on death row, where people watch the condemned die.
The Character and RelationshipsMorton has the strength of her convictions behind her, and her ethic as a member of the Fourth Estate. She knows she rubs many people the wrong way, but she views her job as a public trust. She also wants to completely understand events from ten years ago, and Travis is the only one who can provide her closure on the remaining gaps. She needs to talk to him, but he’s clearly unwilling.
The ConflictTravis needs her help, though he doesn’t understand that at first and resists even looking at her. She wants to use this opportunity to cultivate Travis as a source. She also thinks she’s immune to the emotions of watching an execution, but she really isn’t.

That seems like a lot, doesn’t it? But it’s the skeleton on which I can hang the meat of the scene. This provides me relationship, tone, backstory, and conflict. I know where the scene begins and where it (sadly) ends. I know the middle part. I know how the characters are changed as a result of the scene, which then is ‘Moment Before’ for their next scenes.

These two are major characters in this story. You don’t need to go into quite so much detail with other characters. For instance, the condemned, Reilly Wayne Sutton, appears in this scene. It wasn’t necessary to define him with The W’s, because his role here is to provide emotional energy and some exposition, and then, ultimately, to die. One and done, as it were.

I hope you find this method as useful as I do. It takes guesswork and uncertainty out of things for me, and lets me focus on making the characters and their interactions as real as possible.
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Tools of My Trade

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Still no assignment from my publisher – it’s probably going to be after the New Year, I’m guessing – so I’m going to show you how I work. I promise, as soon as I get deeper into the publishing process you’ll be the first to know.

For the next part, reference the photo below. This is my kitchen table, one of the places I work. I go here when I need a solid surface, like when I’m doing my note cards. Note: do not attempt to adjust the picture, I’ve blurred the words on the note cards and my pad because I ‘m working on a sequel to the novel being published next year (spoilers, sweetie).  I’m not very far along, there are going to be a lot more of each type of card.

work_blurred

I use note cards in my plotting. Over the years I’ve found it’s easier to move things about, add, remove, and enhance. There is a method to this:

  • Red cards are definite actions, emotions, or events that drive the plot. These need to be in the story explicitly. For instance, the crime that sparks the plot, including all the details the reader discovers over the course of the story.
  • Green cards are character elements that are softer than the red cards. A character’s initial outlook, for example, or the change that the story provokes in them. These are not explicit in the story, but emerge out of it. The ‘show’ in ‘show, don’t tell.’
  • Blue cards are scene cards. The basic building block of a novel is the scene, at least the way I do it. There’s not enough room on a card to go into all the detail I need in a scene, these are really just detailed place holders. I can also tack these onto the cork board in my office so I can follow the flow of the narration. (see below for more on scenes)

The spiral note pad in the bottom left is a small pad I carry with me most places, where I write down whatever I’m thinking about the story. I do tend to repeat myself over time, so I re-read my notes probably once a week. The things that look like red, green, and blue Sharpie markers are exactly that. The black box is a note card holder. The round thing is a container of beer-themed coasters. The green things are cheap cloth place mats.

The Scene
A long time ago, in a foreign land (Los Angeles), I used to be a working actor. I didn’t get rich doing it, but I did buy a fancy convertible with the money I earned acting, so I’m ahead of 90% of working actors. I started acting because, in order to make my writing better, I wanted to know what actors did. I discovered I was a pretty decent actor, so I stuck with it, got an agent, landed some gigs, made some money. Much more important, though, was the scene breakdown I learned as an actor. It works so well I started using those elements in my writing, which got much tighter, and more emotional. It’s not a secret, so here’s how I break a scene down. From my acting teacher June Chandler*, who I’m sure got it from her teachers at her school, it’s called ‘The W’s.’ She even gave us a little business card with the W’s on it, which I still have and still refer to all the time.

WHAT has just happened? The MOMENT BEFORE. The Character’s emotional state.
WHAT is happening? The Apparent EVENT. Actions/Behavior
WHAT do you want? The OBJECTIVE or Actual Event. Emotional need.
WHERE are you? The ENVIRONMENT. Create a setting.
WHO are you? The CHARACTER and Relationships.
WHAT is the obstacle? The CONFLICT.

I’m sure any number of writing books give a similar breakdown or approach, but this one is specific to an actor navigating a scene as an individual. It’s a rubric for how an actor should break a scene down to digest it and turn those details into a performance. But, as it turns out, it’s also a very handy method for a writer to flesh out a scene, you just have to define the W’s for all characters in the scene.

Next time I’ll go through how I use The W’s to build up a scene in a novel.

* June’s amazing, and I love her a lot.  I’d take a bullet for her, and that’s not a metaphor.

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