It’s all about structure, right? Until it isn’t.

Structure Is Overrated

Heresy! Structure is everything. You have to create your story in exactly the same way as everyone else who read the same book you did. Because the essence of creativity is conformity.

I swear to Jesus, if I see one more non-writer trying to tell me that Joseph Campbell has all the answers, I’m gonna… overreact horribly. God bless him, but Campbell told us one way to tell one kind of story, which has – thanks to Hollywood bean counters – become the only way to tell every kind of story.

Ignore Hollywood and ignore all the non-writers trying to tell you how stories should be arranged. You wouldn’t take plumbing advice from a non-plumber, would you? Or financial advice from a broke guy? Or weight loss advice from a fat guy?

Here’s all the story structure you need to know: Beginning – Middle – End.

Structure Is Vital

Okay, Don, you’re doing it again. You say one thing, then say the opposite. What’s up with that?

I mean that you need structure to your story. But you don’t need a three-act structure, or 12-beats, or rising action-falling action, etc. etc., etc. All that seems like PhD-level monkey spank to me. A way to sell books about writing instead of a way to tell a story.

At a bare minimum you need a beginning, a middle, and an end. To get more complicated, you need set-ups and pay-offs. You need character development (please don’t call it an ‘arc,’ that sounds so pretentious to me). You need setbacks and victories. You need pathos. You need mystery and you need resolution. All of that is structure. Every bit. But you using a page count to determine when those things happen is sterile and uninteresting. And your readers can tell.

Make Structure Your Own

If you wanted to be a great basketball player, you wouldn’t read a book about it, you’d get out there and practice. You’d also try to emulate a great player, like Walt Bellamy (everybody knows who he is, right?). Same thing if you wanted to be an artist, you’d draw your ass off and reference great works. Writers need to do the same. You learn to write by writing, you learn structure by creating your own and seeing if it works. When it doesn’t work, tear it apart and redo it.

Throw away the books. Do your own thing. Write, revise, rewrite. That’s how you get a story, and that’s how structure is born.

I don’t see me getting any less stir crazy in the next two weeks, so today’s tip is about plotting: how your characters and your plot connect.

Character Drives Plot

This is the first principle. You have events set up, things are gonna happen. But they don’t happen in a vacuum, they happen to your characters. How your characters react to the setup drives the next event in the plot.

Think about it in real life. No two people are going to react to the same stimulus in the same way. Someone can be in a fender-bender and be mildly annoyed, while another person might become a gibbering mess. This can be true of passengers in the same car. What happens to each person next depends largely on how they react. Character drives plot.

Plot Drives Character

Excuse me? Didn’t you just say…?

I did, and that first part is true. This second part of plotting is also true. The events of the plot spur character development. In the fender-bender example above, the person who is mildly annoyed probably wouldn’t think much about the accident other than to register it as an inconvenience. The person who is devastated by the accident, on the other hand, might make changes – good or bad – to their life as a result. They’d be substantially different after the accident than they were before. Plot drives character.

Character Drives Plot Drives Character Drives Plot…

This knot, this dance, is what a good writer masters. There is a feedback loop between plot and character and it’s in this tension that you’ll find the best story.

As of today, we have at least two and a half more weeks of ‘Stay Home, Work Safe.’ I normally work from home anyway, but now almost everything is shut down and I can’t go anywhere (versus just not being inclined to go anywhere).

I’m already losing my mind.

I thought I’d impart what little wisdom I have and share what I know about writing. Quick hits, nothing too extensive or involved. In the shallows, no deep dives. Okay, maybe only a few deep dives, no telling how this is going to work out in two and a half weeks.

Quick Tip #1 – people don’t really speak the way you have to write your dialogue.

Get on the bus some day and listen to the conversations around you. Or do the same at the airport, or in a restaurant, or a mall, wherever you’re not supposed to gather during this COVID-19 business. People speak in fits and starts, in incomplete sentences, and in unfinished thoughts.

You cannot write dialogue like this, no one would be able to follow it, or even read it for more than a few lines.

The secret to decent dialogue is to make it feel like someone might be speaking it, even though almost no one outside of a TED talk uses words like that.

So how do you do that, smart guy? How do you make complete sentences FEEL like genuine words coming out of someone’s mouth?

Well, that’s the art of the craft, isn’t it? You have to write dialogue over and over again. Say it to yourself, OUT LOUD, and get a feel for how your characters would say the thing you’re trying to get across.

Being an actor helped me tremendously, though I know not everyone can lean on that crutch. But I can guarantee that whenever you read dialogue that sounds stilted and wrong, it’s because the author didn’t – at a minimum – read that dialogue out loud to himself.

I wasn’t going to write about COVID-19. Really. There are enough hot takes out there without my adding to the clutter. But I’ve seen a shift in the last few days that bothers me, and I need to say something.

Any Action Is Not Necessarily Better Than No Action

I’m seeing some good things out there, some actions – mostly by local government – that make sense and are clearly well-considered and taken with the greater good in mind. But I’m also starting to see ‘take sensible precautions’ turn into ‘shun your fellow man or you’ll surely die.’ COVID-19 is serious, no doubt, but it’s not a virus apocalypse. It’s far more fatal than the regular flu, but it’s not nearly as fatal as you’d think from the news.

You’re Probably Going To Get Infected

I’ve seen estimates from epidemiologists that over half the US population will likely get infected by COVID-19. The social distancing we’re doing now is to keep the infection curve low, so the problem cases – pneumonia, mostly – don’t pile up in emergency rooms and clog the medical system. If you think you’re going to dodge the virus by keeping away from everyone, you’re wrong. When things re-open, as they have to, infections will continue, and if you don’t have it now, you’re likely to get it later.

Operate From A Position Of Strength

The shift I noticed in the first point – to shun all human contact – is not only counter to everything we know that makes us human, it is also a shift from a position of strength – take sensible precautions – to a position of fear – that guy over there is likely to get me killed. When you operate from a position of fear, you’ve already lost. When you’re afraid, nothing you do is a positive effort, it’s all a negative reaction. I’m seeing that now with people who were scoffing at social distancing now taking to the opposite extreme, making it social isolation. Which is bad. Don’t do that.

Listen To Frank Herbert

Here’s where I show my nerd cred: you should learn and remember the Litany Against Fear, from the Bene Gesserit of Dune.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

It’s been a week now that my novel has been available. It’s been delivered electronically, and is slowly arriving by mail, courier, or owl in for those who pre-ordered a physical copy. I’m getting positive feedback, and that’s always gratifying.

So what does it feel like? Having my baby out in the world?

I wish I could tell you. In a grand irony, I’m at a loss for words right now. It’s all too new. I’m excited, of course, and a little frightened, and more than a little curious, and eager, and reluctant… There’s no word for all those things wrapped up together. Maybe in German. Germans have words for lots of questionable, ill-defined feelings.

I am confident I did as good a job as I could, and I’m confident that my publisher was just as interested in putting out a good product as I was. As far as execution goes, I have no problems, questions, or issues. I hope my readers don’t see any of the effort and just enjoy a good story, told well.

I guess that would be a feeling, right? Hope? The feeling that I want readers to enjoy what I’ve done? Anticipation?

What’s next? I’ll keep writing the sequel to this novel, and try to get good at marketing. My publisher is doing their part for marketing, obviously, but I have as big a part to play as they do. I guess I’m not nearly as confident about marketing as I am my ability to tell a story.

What about a marketing goal? Well… I do have one. For years I lived two blocks down from the best independent bookstore in the world, Vroman’s in Pasadena, CA. They have authors speak all the time, and as I was honing my craft, I thought I would know I’d made it when I had a speaking gig at Vroman’s. Fingers crossed it happens one day. If anybody knows someone in charge at Vroman’s pass the word.

I wish I had a better handle on this. I’ll be sure to let everyone know when my thoughts clarify more. Until then here’s Stubby Kaye stopping the show with ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat.’ Because it makes me happy.

People read fiction for the story, and that story should be dramatic. Nobody wants to read about my morning routine, or my drive to the grocery store, and I don’t want to write that. But if I write about a broken family trying to come back together… yeah, there’s an audience for that.

No matter how good your setup, though, or how well-considered your story, if there’s no dramatic tension there’s really no reason to read it. Or to write it, for that matter. There are many ways to create dramatic tension in a novel, and I’ve outline four good ones below.

1. Get Your Reader To Ask Questions

You want people to become immediately involved in your story, and the way to do that is to get them to ask a question. Just one, at first. It could be about the plot, it could be about a character, it could be about a relationship between characters, but you should get them to ask that question.

For instance, you could start the story with a main character on the road, destination unknown (to the reader) but it’s clearly somewhere the main character would rather not go. Throw in an encounter with someone who recognizes the character (from where?) and knows where they’re going. Now the reader is hooked, they have to know where the character is compelled to go, and why, and what’s going to happen when she gets there.

2. Create Character Conflict

There’s an awful lot to this one, as it incorporates characterization, plot, and pacing. Conflict between your characters will (almost) always drive your story.

But it can’t be pointless conflict. The conflict has to serve the plot, and move things along. Does the conflict resolve? Well… usually. But not every time (see #3).

Family conflict is great, there’s always tension and conflict between people who’ve lived in the same household. But there can be workplace conflict too, or neighbor conflict, or business conflict. Any time one character wants something, but another character wants the same thing – and there’s only one of that thing – there’s conflict. Or if a character wants something, but another character wants the exact opposite, there’s conflict. Or, maybe the best, is when two characters want the same thing, but disagree on how to go about getting that thing. Both want world peace, but one sees that possible only through war while the other sees it possible only through peace.

3. Use Cliffhangers

This term was coined for the very old movie serials, where the hero would be literally hanging from a cliff at the end of one episode, with the promise that there was no way he could survive, but to come back next week to see if he would anyway.

You should use these within your story, as structural elements and chapter breaks. I would STRONGLY caution against cliffhangers at the end of novels, especially for main plot elements. Nothing will turn your reader against you quicker than your refusal to answer a central question you raise in their minds.

I favor cliffhangers at chapter breaks. Think of them as the button right before the commercial on a TV show. You want your reader to get a payoff from what you’ve set up so far, but you want to give them a reason to turn the page and find out what happens next.

4. Employ Dramatic Irony

I touched on this in a prior post, but dramatic irony is delicious, it’s the sizzle on the steak that is your story. Dramatic irony is that perfect situation where your reader is clued into a truth that the characters are not. Or, better yet, that one character knows but another does not.

Here’s a concrete example: remember that Futurama episode where Fry finds the fossilized remains of his dog from a thousand years before? He spends the episode wondering if he should have Seymour cloned so he can have his dog back, but ultimately decides not to, reasoning that he only knew his dog for a short time and Seymour lived a good long life after Fry disappeared. Except we, the viewers, know that Seymour spent his long life waiting for Fry to come back. (makes me cry every time)

The dramatic irony is that Fry does the right thing, by every measure. Except it’s the WRONG thing, and only we, the viewers know it.

I bought a new car a few months back. My other car, my daily driver, I bought new twenty years ago, so it was past time for it to go. My new car has twenty years better performance, twenty years better safety, and twenty years fewer years than my old car. A much-needed upgrade.

But it also has twenty years newer technology. Which is not necessarily good.

For instance, I discovered the other day that my new car knows where I live. I pulled into the garage, turned off the car, and looked at the little display between the speedometer and the tach. It told me that I had gone 17 miles, that the trip had taken me 24 minutes, and that I got 20.4 miles to the gallon.

Clearly, my car knew that I was home, even though I had never, ever provided it that information.

In my day job I’m a high-speed, low-drag tech guy. So I got to thinking, how would I program my car to determine if I were home? GPS coordinates, clearly, but also time spent at those coordinates. I work from home, so my car stays put in the same spot for long periods of time. Maybe it counts overnight? Which would mean it has to read the clock and time between starts… At any rate, my car’s navigation system has determined where I take trips to and from, and how long I spend there. It calls that home. And it’s right.

I don’t like this at all.

Think it through. If my car knows where I live, then so does anyone with access to those records, whether I’ve given them my home address or not. And all that data is synched to a server somewhere. They know my home, where I buy groceries, where I buy gas, how fast or slow I drive, which junk food places I frequent, where I go to the gym (or if I even go), how often I go to the doctor or dentist, where I spend my Monday afternoons, how frequently I leave my home GPS coordinates after midnight… Everything I do in my car. Which, because I’m an American living in the suburbs, is pretty much everything my life consists of.

I deal with data in my day job, so I know how simple it is to tie my driving behavior to, say, my credit card purchase records, or my arrest records – assuming I have any – or to my CVS club card activity. It’s a wealth of minutia, that can spell out any person’s life if you put it all together. And it’s so, so, so easy to put it all together.

What can I do about this? Nothing. The genie is out of the bottle and he’s not going to let us stuff him back in. The only thing to do is manage the situation. Which means I’m going to have to start driving to places I’d never otherwise go. Like a scrapbooking store. Or Forever 21. Or a tuxedo rental place. If someone’s going to track my daily movements, I might as well make it entertaining for them.

You’re a writer, and you love your characters. Right? All of them. Equally. They’re like your children. So you have to love them. Don’t you?

Of course not. They’re not your real children, they’re your mind-babies, and you’re allowed to hate them.

That may seem like blasphemy, and maybe it is a little, but you yourself don’t like everyone you meet every day. At least I don’t. I’m fairly indifferent to most people, but some people, a few of them, I actively dislike, even if I don’t know them. Maybe especially if I don’t know them.

So how do you translate that real-world distaste to your fictional characters? I’ll tell you in this internet-friendly numbered list.

1. Make the Character a Traitor

For me, disloyalty is the worst. If I can write a scene with a character who even hints around at being a traitor, I’m down on them the rest of the story. No matter what else happens. It’s an easy drive for me then, as the writer, to put that character through the wringer. They deserve it, after all.

But what if the character is a bad guy, and she’s being disloyal to other bad guys? Then that makes her very, very interesting. But it doesn’t make me like her any better.

2. Make the Character Rude to Helpless People

I particularly hate this trait in real people, in my imaginary people it drives me crazy. People who are rude to wait staff, for instance, or to service workers. Rudeness is pointless and lazy.

It’s so easy to take a moment for kindness, and when your characters just can’t be bothered, even when they’re in a position of clear superiority, that’s grounds for hating them.

3. Make the Character a Hypocrite

Ooh… this really chaps my ass in real life. Like the TV preacher who expects his congregation to tithe to him, but who doesn’t give a single dime of his own to charity. The moral-values politician who’s cheating on his wife. The cocaine-addicted prosecutor who locks minor drug offenders away for years. Those assholes.

As despicable as this trait is in your character, if it’s hidden from other characters (at least at first), it’s also dramatic irony. And readers love, love, love dramatic irony.

4. Make the Character Cruel

This is related to, but different from making a character rude. Rudeness is usually just careless, but cruelty is calculating. You have to put effort and creativity into being cruel. The guy who pretends he’s going to give a homeless guy a sandwich only to hand over an empty paper bag is one cruel bastard.

In real life, cruelty is a serious character flaw that often comes from deep-seated emotional pain. Your character should have a reason for being cruel, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to like her any better because of it.

5. Make the Character a Weasel

Everybody knows a weasel. This is the guy who doesn’t have a position of his own, he just gives a ‘yes, and’ to what someone else says. The guy who can’t stand up straight because he has no backbone. The guy who’s in it for one person alone: himself.

I have to confess, weasels are fun to write. I usually just have to think about what I would do in any particular situation, then write the opposite and amp it up times five. Doesn’t make me like the character, but it does hold my interest.

This morning I agreed to take over a podcast for my publisher.

Yeah.  I’m going to be a podcaster.  About writing.  I know, it’s weird for me, too.

Way back in January I agreed to be part of an authors’ support group my publisher was putting together.  I’m not much of a joiner, but I realized that if I were uncomfortable with being part of a group like that, I really needed to ignore my anti-social tendencies and join up.  So I did.  And it’s become an invaluable part of my week.  God help me, I understand now that our authors’ group is a great idea.

Which is why, today, when several of us asked if we could use the group time to learn more about the craft of writing fiction, our publisher mentioned that would probably be a topic better left to a podcast they had going.  He also mentioned that they hadn’t done anything with it in a while, and maybe one of us would like to take it over?

That’s when I became Arnold Horshack.*  I volunteered like someone had offered me money to eat barbeque, the good kind, the Texas kind, not your Mephis or South Carolina stuff.  At the time, it seemed like a good idea.  A great idea, in fact.

Now?  I wonder what I have gotten myself into.  Here’s the portion of the podcast I’d be responsible for, according to my publisher: Finding new podcast guests, Inviting guests to be on the show, Scheduling interviews, Hosting the show and recording interviews and keeping a minimum 4-week backlog of pre-recorded shows, Contacting guests once the show goes live, Creating a show calendar/schedule – 1 per week, or more?

Yikes!  This is the real deal, I’m responsible for stuff now.  The actual work is something I can easily do, it’s just talking on the phone and writing stuff down.  I’m good at both those things.  And yet… there are five things I’m in a bit of a sweat over.

1. I’ll have to cut back on the milk.

I love milk.  And ice cream.  And cheese.  But all those things make you phlegmy, which cuts down on the resonance of your voice, and really does affect the quality of any recording you do.  Usually you have to cut back on dairy products two or three days before any performance, so this is something I’ll have to plan for.

2.  I have to earn my acting chops all over.

I used to be an actor, back when I lived in Pasadena, CA.  I made good money at it and everything, a for-real career.  But I haven’t acted professionally in eight years.  The techniques are still inside me, but it’s going to be a bit of a process to get comfortable again.  I’m pretty sure I’m gonna choke at least once.  Which, truth be told, is probably a good reason for people to tune in.

3.  I have to convey information accurately and in an entertaining manner.

This is where having been an actor comes in, I have techniques for being heard and understood.  I also did years of comedy improv, so I know how to listen (that’s the point of comedy improv, if you didn’t know, to improve your listening skills as an actor).  But being a good interviewer/ podcaster is not necessarily the same skill as being a good improviser or actor.  A podcast has to be informative AND entertaining, which means I need to step up my game.

4.  I’ll have to plan, and stick to the plan.

Normally this is not a big deal, I plan all day every day, both in my pay-the-rent work and my writing.  But when I’m performing, sometimes – I’ve been told – I go off-script from time to time.  I hope that’ll do me good when my guests give me some sort of left-field anecdote, but it could also do me poorly if I get bored and decide to entertain myself.  Stay tuned to see how this part goes.

5.  I’ll have to trust others want to do quality work too.

I like to work alone.  It’s one of the reasons I’m a writer, I get to control everything.  But with this podcast, since it’s my publisher’s, I have to give up total control.  I mentioned above the things I’d be responsible for, here are the things they’d be responsible for: Video / audio editing, Writing show notes, Creating images for blog posts, Creating and scheduling the blog posts. That’s a large part of the work, but it’s also where the character of the podcast gets created.  Working as an actor means working as part of an ensemble, so relinquishing total control is something I’ve done before.  Just not with stuff I do in my own office, at my own desk. We’ll see how it goes.

*  a VERY old reference to a VERY old and terrible TV comedy from the 70’s.  This was back when we had three commercial channels and PBS, we had to watch whatever was on at the time.