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DonHartshorn.com

All about the author and his current work

Tag: Structure

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.

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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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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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My Process – How I Work

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Since I have no assignment from my publisher yet, I thought I’d share my process. I’m currently planning the sequel to my novel that will be published next year, neck-deep in details and ideas and beats. I know everyone’s process is different, but perhaps learning mine will help someone else.

My Step 1 : Decide what the story is.
This sounds deceptively simple, but it really is straightforward. I’ve talked to writers who launch into a ten-minute dialogue about their book, and at the end, as they catch their breath, I know a lot of detail around the story, but I don’t really know what the story is. For my money, these people have wasted a lot of their time on window dressing without making sure the foundation of their house is solid.

You may see other advice about building the story out of elements that come up as you’re writing, but I think that approach is bankrupt. If you don’t know the story you want to tell, starting to write is just an exercise in futility and frustration as eventually, when you discover what your story actually is, you’ll have to discard much of the work you’ve already put in. Work smarter, not harder, as my grandfather often said.

Here are some examples of stories. Each of these examples presents a simple enough story, but the outcomes of those simple stories make masterpieces of literature.

  • The Iliad – this is the story of a few weeks during the Trojan war when the commander Agamemnon and his best soldier Achilles have a falling out over a girl taken as a war prize.
  • Hamlet – this is the story of how a Danish prince exposes his father’s murderer but also brings ruin onto his entire family as a result.
  • The Great Gatsby – this is the story of how a self-made millionaire uses his fortune to win back his old lover who has married into old money and respectability.

My novel is the story of two brothers, attorneys, estranged for 10 years over a death penalty case, who try to settle the score over a different death penalty case.

My Step 2 : Start taking notes.
This part of my process is essentially brainstorming. Kind of. Maybe brainstorming with a little critical thinking thrown in.

During real brainstorming you just throw out idea after idea after idea, with no censorship or editing. There are no bad ideas. It’s only after brainstorming is over that you can go back and critically evaluate what you’ve come up with.

When I take notes, it’s not really brainstorming, because I already know what my story’s about. I’m past the ‘no bad ideas’ phase. I do censor myself, and I can have stupid ideas (often), but I try to keep the ideas flowing. What I’m trying to do with my notes is discover the individual stories inside the larger stories. In writer jargon, I’m trying to find the themes (overall subjects or motifs) and the beats (plot points).

These notes take several forms, I usually start with a notepad where I write down what I’m thinking about the story. I keep this pad with me most of the time, but in a pinch I’ll use the notepad on my phone and then transfer to paper. I prefer to keep these notes handwritten, because writing forces me to slow down, which lets my idea settle into my brain. I find when I type things out they stay in my brain as long as it took me to type them, only a few seconds.

After a while – half a notepad or so – I’ll have enough to start making note cards. These are regular 3 x 5 cards, and, yes, I do use the analog ones, the kind you hold in your hand. Again, typing is not my friend here. I need my own handwriting. I need the cards, so I can arrange them and rearrange them, and discard them, and recover them. I’ll tack them to my cork board, I’ll spread them on the table or on the floor. The cards are as much a tool to me as a chisel is to a carpenter.

Step 3 : Turn the notes into an outline.
When I have what I think is a decent story – or a decent start, anyway – I’ll create an outline. This outline is not your standard I.A.1.a sort of outline. I’m not making assembly instructions. Rather, this outline is more of a mind map, Plot point is connected to character is connected to theme is connected to story arc, and so on.

Before I start an outline I always know where the story starts and where it ends. I usually know major parts of the middle. Most of the rest of the story – the meat and potatoes – comes up when I create the outline. With an outline I can see where the story is thin, or where I’m jammed up with too much junk, or where there’s a gaping hole when I thought I’d built a wall.

The most important concept here is that my outline is a living document. It’s not a rigid blueprint, it’s a web of relationships that the story emerges from. My outline changes over time.

I’ll leave off here, I’ll revisit this topic the next time I don’t have anything to do for my publisher.

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