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Posts tagged ‘Bird by Bird’

First Monday June 2020 – is your plot a prison or a road map?

As the world cautiously opens up after the Covid-19 lockdown, I’m exploring some ways to get those writing muscles back up to speed. Not long ago I was asked to explain the difference between plot and story structure but held off while we dealt with our “new normal.” We’re still dealing, but I’ll tackle the question here. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

Plot is what happens in your story. Structure is how you show the plot unfolding. It makes your readers eager to learn what happens next.

Some writers resist plotting, afraid of losing interest if they know everything that happens. I used to be the opposite, obsessively plotting, afraid of running out of content. Over time I learned to plot the major events and turning points and let the characters supply the rest.

A rough plot is a road map, not a prison. It provides the reassurance of a desired ending while allowing the flexibility to make changes to the story as we write.

As I always say, there’s no one way to write, only what works for you. Try some of these approaches until you find your best fit.

Desert Justice is featured in this anthology

An excellent guide to structure comes from Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, and uses the code, ABCD.

A = Action

Action isn’t all shoot-outs and car chases. It’s when something happens before the reader’s eyes instead of in flashback or summary. My romantic suspense, Desert Justice, opens when the heroine gets caught up in a plot to assassinate the ruling sheikh. An action scene can happen in an office, if the new boss is accusing a character of passing sensitive information to a competitor.

B = Background

Only sketch in enough background to let the reader know what’s going on.

Recently on TV’s Master Chef, each contestant was given a photo of themselves with a person who’d influenced their career or made sacrifices for them. They had to cook a dish to symbolise the connection. Thanks to this superb snippet of background, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

There’s a family connection in Desert Justice, too. She’s looking for her mother’s brother and needs the sheikh’s help. The brother is conspiring against the sheikh, but we don’t learn this until much later.

C = Conflict

Romance readers know the characters are attracted to each other. Conflict is what keeps them apart. It must be strong enough to last throughout the story and must be be solvable, not based on something they can’t change, such as their ethnicity.

They also need goals they desperately want to reach. My heroine wants to find her long-lost uncle. Since he threatens the sheikh’s life, their goals are in conflict. According to Hollywood writing guru, Michael Hauge, the goals must be visible so we know whether or not they are attained. Internal goals such as the need for love, happiness or personal growth come secondary to achieving the external goals.

D = Development

Development means creating the events your characters experience while moving away from or closer to their goals. Think of development as a journey. What stops must be made on the way from first meeting to happy-ever-after? This forms your story structure, whether detailed road map, rough outline or any combination to suit your writing preferences.

Development can mirror a real journey like The Odyssey or Thelma and Louise. A learning curve: think Beauty and the Beast. Or a suspenseful tale such as my Desert Justice.

Regardless of the story you wish to tell, using ABCD will get you there. Start where the problem starts – Beauty being stuck with the Beast, or my heroine caught up in a plot against the sheikh. Think big life changes – a bride left at the altar; a property dispute that could leave your character homeless. Drop readers right in the middle of the situation and go from there.

Give your characters interesting, page-turning challenges. What’s the very last thing the character wants to do? Leave them no option but to do that. Show us what they go through physically and emotionally. Push them to the brink. All events should be like links in a chain: cause – effect; bigger cause – bigger effect, biggest cause – OMG I can’t do this – they do it anyway, ultimate climax – satisfactory ending.

The ending should resolve the conflict between them, leading to the happy-ending they never thought they could have. Take your time with the ending. Show how they’ve grown and changed. Think A Christmas Carol where Scrooge sends the urchin to buy the biggest turkey in the butcher’s shop. He’s laughing when he pays for the bird, letting us see how far he’s come emotionally. Increasing emotions in your characters puts readers in touch with their own emotions, IMO the reason most of us read fiction.

A strong, clear structure gives you room to let readers share the emotional journey. My writing muse, Gene Roddenberry, called it “straight lining the story.” Yes, I give them goals to strive for and actions to take, each leading to the next as the stakes get higher and higher. But these days, I don’t keep them endlessly busy. I give them space to figure out what they need to do and, most importantly, how they feel along the way.

Do you plot as you go, or let characters lead the way? Neither is right or wrong, only what works for you. Share your thoughts in the comment panel below. The blog is moderated to avoid spam but comments can appear immediately if you click on “sign me up” at right. I don’t share your details with anyone.

Happy writing,

Valerie

Valerie is a Member of the Order of Australia

Author of  90 books in 29 languages

Australia Day Ambassador

Life Member, Romance Writers of Australia

Australian Society of Authors’ medal recipient

On Twitter @ValerieParv, Facebook and www.valerieparv.com

Represented by The Tate Gallery Pty Ltd, Sydney

 

First Monday Mentoring for May – 5 ways to know you’re a writer

Happy first Monday in May, the day when I open this blog to your questions about writing. They can be on creative, craft or business matters. No question is stupid except, as the saying goes, the one you didn’t ask. So ask away using the comment box below. You can also share your experiences as a writer with others.

I’m sorry that comments need to be moderated before they appear.
I’m often tempted to turn that off, but friends who’ve done so report an avalanche of spam and rudeness we can all do without.

To kick things off, here’s a question I was asked while attending Conflux National Science Fiction Convention in Canberra. The event was wonderful, attended by writers, editors, publishers and fans of fantasy and SF. During a coffee session, I was asked, “How do you know if you’re a writer?” A good question.Time is precious.No-one wants to slave away on stories that are going nowhere. Here are some clues that might help.

1. You look at stories differently
You read a book, watch a movie or TV show and mentally write a better ending. You get impatient because you know who the villain is before anyone around you. A pen on a desk is never just a pen. It’s a potential weapon and you’ve already thought of a dozen ways it could be used. You’re either a psychopath or a writer, possibly both.

2. You feel things more acutely
You lose someone and while grieving, store away the feelings in case a character can use them later. You attribute motives to actions, even if the person doing them was merely acting on impulse. As a writer, you know that actions must be motivated, even if not in real life.

To a writer, everyone & everything is a story

To a writer, everyone & everything is a story

3. You observe everything
Yes, even your own suffering. As writer, Anne Lamott says in her wonderful Bird by Bird, if you’re held up, you don’t actually think, “So this is what it’s like staring down the barrel of a gun” but you come close.

4. You turn everything into a story
You wonder if you’re heartless because you channel your tragedies and suffering into story ideas. Judy Nunn calls this meta-observing “the third eye.” All writers have it, and we can’t turn it off.

5. You set the bar high
I’m convinced we write to prove to ourselves that we can do it…again and again. After quitting my day job, I wrote the same number of words full-time as part-time, because I expected more of myself. Make the New York Times bestseller list? Next time aim for #1 spot. Sell half a million copies? Next time it better be a million.

Far from being a cruisy, wrist-to-forehead profession, writing is one of the toughest gigs I know. How did you find out you were a writer? What’s good and bad about it for you? Love to share your comments.

Valerie
http://www.valerieparv.com

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on Twitter @ValerieParv and Facebook

Read some reviews already up at http://www.valerieparv.com/birthright.html

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