Thursday, October 27, 2016

9. Exposition Is Ammunition.

9. Exposition Is Ammunition.
This edict comes from Robert McKee, the great story doctor who works with major screenwriters. In his great text Story, McKee makes clear that adept use of exposition can take your story to a new level. “Skill in exposition means making it invisible.  As the story progresses, the audience absorbs all it needs to know effortlessly, even unconsciously.”

Exposition is just "information that the reader needs." Most exposition is handled right in the narration of scenes: We learn something about the setting, and we learn about something about the characters, and we learn something about the situation. But... the story is about action, not just exposition. You don't want to bog the reader down with historical detail, or the character's life story, or minutiae about the room.

The trick is to determine what the readers need to know right now to understand just as much as you want them to understand. In the beginning of the story, especially, we might be tempted to explain too much, but we really need to give enough information that the readers are drawn into the story to find out the rest.

And about "ammunition"? Well, when and how we reveal information can lead to greater drama and reader involvement. 

A famous example is the opening of Hamlet, the exchange between two minor characters that is sometimes called the world's first knock-knock joke.

BERNARDO  Who's there?
FRANCISCO Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.
BERNARDO Long live the king!
FRANCISCO Bernardo?
BERNARDO He.
FRANCISCO You come most carefully upon your hour.
BERNARDO 'Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.
FRANCISCO For this relief much thanks: 'tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart.

Okay, it's not a very funny knock-knock joke! But in the very first lines, we get that they are standing watch, that it is winter, that it is night, and that this is a place where there is a king. That's all the readers need to know at this point. The most important bit of information is that last-- "I am sick at heart." 

This poses the question in the readers' minds: Why is this sentry sick at heart? 

Exposing some information but withholding other information leads to questions, and it's the desire to answer those questions that impel readers to read on. And later in this first act, there is another question set up-- why do they call for Horatio, a high-ranking courtier, and what is it they told him to get him to come? 
That's explained (partly) by Shakespeare's laconic scene direction: Enter Ghost.

Shakespeare is a master at doling out just enough information to keep us asking question-- and answering questions only after they're asked. Who is the Ghost? (Oh, it's the late king.) What does he want? (To talk to his son Hamlet.) What does he want of Hamlet? (Revenge.) Revenge for what? (He was murdered.)

And the most important information-- is this all true-- is left ungiven until much later in the play, so that reader can be in doubt just as Hamlet himself is.

"What you conceal is what you reveal." Keep that in mind. Withholding information (and letting the reader realize there's information being withheld) is a way of signifying something important is being hidden, and for presumably a good reason. We are much more tantalized by secrets than we are by facts.

EXAMPLE: In Robert Harris's Conclave, the world's cardinals meet to choose the next pope. Most of them are known to each other and immediately begin politicking and negotiating. But one is unknown, arriving at the last minute and without luggage. While this unlikely entrance is explained (Benitez might have been arrested at the airport if the government realized he was leaving), the author carefully sets up more questions.
Everyone at the conclave knows of Benitez-- he is famous for his resistance to fascism and his service to the poor in Africa-- but no one has ever met him. Additionally, one odd factoid is passed on by the maid that cleans his room-- he has not even opened the package of toiletries they provided for him. This seeming irrelevancy becomes a clue to the essential mystery of "Who is Cardinal Benitez?"

There has to be a payoff, of course. The "seeming irrelevancy" shouldn't actually be irrelevant, or the reader will feel cheated. And the withholding has to be done adroitly enough that the reader notices-- "Wait a minute. She was all set to put an offer in on that house. Then she saw the chandelier in the dining room, and changed her mind. What's the big deal about the chandelier?" But it can't be too obvious too early that this is a clue, or the reader will be too aware of the clumsiness of the intrusion. It's a balancing act, to be sure! It's probably best to set this up as you draft the earlier scenes, then refine the exposition/ammunition dynamic in revision.

Your turn!  Look at your own story, and think about what revelations are important, and what the reader needs to know early in the story.
1. What is a major character trait you want to emphasize (like Hamlet's need for certainty before he can act)?
2. Are there any secrets the characters are keeping from each other? (For example, Hamlet doesn't realize that his father had been murdered.)
3. Look to the early scenes. What information can you hint at, but withhold, in order to focus the reader on some plot or character mystery?
4. It might help to look at stories you've enjoyed, and see how the exposition is handled, especially in the early scenes. What did the author withhold, and to what effect?


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

8. Coincidence? Aim for "causation" instead.




8.      Coincidence kills plausibility.  Don’t let a one-in-a-million event rescue your protagonist from trouble, or readers will stop believing that this person is truly affecting the course of events.
But what if you NEED that to happen? Well, make it happen. don't just let coincidence take over. Use "cause-effect" to get from "I need" to "it happens."

EXAMPLE: in my book Poetic Justice, I needed John to meet Jessica early in the story so that they can start their alliance to save the Shakespeare manuscript from destruction. When I started writing that section, I had that they "just happened" to meet at a party and start talking about their mutual love of Shakespeare. But right away, I knew that was lame. So I backed up, and made this meeting be the effect of some cause-- in this case, John learns that Jessica might have access to the lost Shakespeare manuscript, and sets out to meet her. She might think she just happened to meet the one other person in England who knows about this manuscript... but in fact, he planned the whole encounter.
One real benefit of making a coincidence into "causation" is that your scenes will be a lot more interesting. I went from one scene of John just stumbling into her at a party, to three scenes, the first where he finds out about her connection to the manuscript, the second where he gets his sister-in-law to invite Jessica to the party, and the third where he plays the mysterious stranger at the party and persuades her to ally with him.


This also gave me plenty of opportunity to deepen characterization. I got to show John as so obsessive about his quest, that he'll track down this woman and then blackmail his own beloved sister-in-law to arrange the meeting. I also got to show that Jessica might have been tricked at first, but is smart enough to figure that out, and exact a few concessions from him.



Your turn!
Think of a coincidence in your plot as the opportunity to go deeper into your plot and character. Consider:
1. If you could not "just happen" to get this to happen, what would be needed to make it happen? If you need him to get somewhere to meet someone, why might he choose to go there?
2. How can you use this "causation" to show something deeper about this character?
3. Look to see if you need to go back several scenes to set this up, or to find a way to subtly explain to the reader how this happened.












Wednesday, September 28, 2016

7. Use Familiar "Clichés" in New Ways

7.     Twist a cliché.  Do something new with the tried and the true. Use the clichéd plot not as something to reproduce faithfully, but as a classic human drama to explore in a new way.  Show the human depth under the stereotype: the blonde bombshell who walks into the private eye’s office is worried because her elderly neighbor won’t answer the door.
Using the familiar conventions of your genre or story type will let you lull the readers into comfort... while the "twist" will jolt them into new excitement. You can juxtapose the old with the new to reveal facets of each. Just consider how vital an old story like Romeo and Juliet becomes when the basic plot is set in the tenements of New York (West Side Story), or is rendered in a new way (like my friend Judith Whitmore's graphic novel).

Example: JK Rowling's entire Harry Potter series twists many clichés of the late, lamented "boarding school dramas" which were popular in Britain in the mid-20th Century. (There were similar books in the US-- A Separate Peace being perhaps the most notable-- and I still see echoes of that old genre in newer books like The Goldfinch and Fates and Furies.) These books presented a static world with all sorts of expectations and rules, but above all were about children finding ways to belong-- in a world of children, with adults and especially parents as mere visitors or minor characters.
Rowling's twist was, of course, to make Hogwarts a boarding school for wizard and witch children. As exotic as that twist is, it gains more resonance by being juxtaposed against the familiar tropes of the boarding school stories-- the different "houses" with their common rooms, the sense of the school as a fortress against the outside world, the examinations and school supplies. Rowling makes great use of the school year as a time-setting-- each book in the series takes place in a year of Harry's schooling, so the first book is set during his first year at Hogwarts, and the last book in his final year before graduation.

Your turn! Think about your story and what basic category of fiction or story structure it might echo. This might not have anything to do with the actual genre of your story-- more about the structure. (For example, the Umberto Eco literary novel Name of the Rose used a format very similar to the Sherlock Holmes detective stories.) What movie or book or story or myth do you want sort of nagging at the reader's mind while reading your book? ("This story takes place in deep space, but you know, weirdly, I'm reminded of those surfer films of the early 60s!")
Now jot down a few "tropes" or "conventions" from the other category. You know-- "Those surfer movies always had bonfire parties at the end, and the main character was usually kind of shy and new at surfing, not one of the champions. And there was always a moment when he doubted himself, but found himself being encouraged by someone unlikely. Also, there were those strange long sequences where all the guys lovingly and lavishly polished their boards."

 What use can you make of the familiar events or themes from the old story type? Think about set-pieces (like the "singalong scene" in so many films... including in Casablanca, where the singalong is actually a verbal duel between the Resistance and the Nazis.) Also think about time-frames like the surfing season or an election, or clichés like "the makeover where the nerdy girl is transformed to a glamor-gal" and how you can twist that (the nerdy girl is transformed into a vampire, maybe). Just remember to use enough of the old so that the readers will appreciate your subversion of the cliché.
(Cover of Judith Whitmore's graphic "twisting" of Romeo and Juliet.)




6. Use the plot as the tunnel between the internal character and the external world.


6.      Make the internal come external.  Explore your protagonist’s internal needs and values, and consider, how will this affect her actions?  The external events will cause internal change… and the internal change will cause new external events.

Example: In Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, Claire (the FBI recruit) is shown in the opening as both charismatic and alienated from her classmates. She is popular enough, but sticks to herself. Even with her mentor/teacher, she is withdrawn and withholding. The question is posed, why is she so closed? This question becomes more focused when she is assigned to interview a serial murderer who used to be a psychiatrist. His canny reverse-interrogation reveals that her past (as an abandoned child traumatized by a gory event and "thrown away" due to her sensitivity) made her close herself off from others. But it's that very mix of alienation and empathy-- distance and intimacy-- that makes her a good profiler. While at first she's drawn into Lecter's seductive distractions, she can use her ability to distance herself to figure out what he's hiding and what she needs to know.
What's important here is that her "internal"-- the inner conflicts and needs-- draw her to this work and make her especially skilled at it, and that the "external"-- the plot events-- force the internal conflict to the surface where it can be revealed and perhaps resolved.... and then help resolve the external conflict (the mystery or quest or whatever). 

Your turn! 
So what is the protagonist's role in the external story/plot?

He might be the investigator, the one who must find the truth.

He might be the contestant, the one who wants to win.

She might be the leader of the team.

She might be the one on the run from danger.

She might be the helper.

She might be the healer.

He might be the one who subverts the organization from the inside.

He might be the one who invents the machine.

She might be the mother of the king.

I always try to ask, What does he/she do in the plot that no one else can do? If she's the mother of the king, she's the only one who can persuade him to lift the tyranny established by his father.

If he's the one subverting the organization, it's because only he has the cyber-skills to hack into the encrypted files, AND the motivation to bring down the company.

Then go inside-- how did she get to be the sort of person would would be in this role? What about him made him want to  acquire these skills, or made him good at this? (For example, he was a frightened, secretive child, who had to learn hidden ways to deal with abusers and bullies.) That's the "internal".

Now think about what 'internal' motivates the protagonist to get involved and stay involved now, despite the obstacles and dangers? Like - she was married off young to the king, and gave up her freedom in exchange for wealth and luxury... and only now understands that she is in a gilded prison and has learned to sympathize with others trapped in their lives.

If you can identify the protagonist's role in the external plot, and also define the "why" of the internal motivation, you'll be deepening your story. The events will become the tunnel from the internal character to the external world. 


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

5. Pose a Question in the Opening

5.          Lead readers to the story, but don’t drag them.  Set up your opening scenes so readers are led to ask story questions like “Who killed the film director?” or “What will happen to John and Sue’s  love when Sue learns that John has been lying to her?”  The posing of the questions, and the desire to find the answers, keeps readers turning pages.  That’s called narrative drive.  The story question is also an excellent tool to help the writer keep on track.

Example:  Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone opens with the baby Harry, branded with a lightning bolt scar on his forehead, being delivered to relatives who are frightened of him and who refuse to tell him why. This causes the reader to ask why would an aunt and uncle fear a tiny child, and yet still take him in. One answer (that Harry is a wizard with magical skills) is presented fairly soon, but what happened to him, why he is scarred, and what he can do take years of book time, and six other books, to be fully explained. 

Your turn! Consider your opening chapters. How can you set up questions for the reader to ask? Then, scouting ahead, you can consider where and when and how to answer them.


4. Plot = Change

4.  The point of plot is change.  The events should cause a change in the protagonist’s inner life, to trade her original goal for a more worthy one, to face a personal issue she’s ignored before, or to resolve a longstanding internal conflict.

Example: In Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, Roland has long been determined not to care or love again. Through the events of the plot, he is forced to choose some unlikely allies to help him on his quest. After several battles, he learns to trust them. And in the end, it's his ability to love again that lets him complete his quest to reach the Dark Tower.

Your turn! Consider the progress of your plot events and how they change the protagonist. How is this character different in the end because of going through the plot events? What can he/she do in the end that was impossible in the beginning?


3. Goals and Getting Them, and Not Getting Them



3.    Give the protagonist a goal, then take it away. The goal-driven protagonist is an active protagonist, but if you just let the protagonist achieve his goal, you’ll have a linear or two-dimensional plot.  Have him lose the goal, or sacrifice it, or achieve it and realize he doesn’t really want it, and you’ll add the complication that makes this a real story.

Example: In Wizard of Oz, Dorothy has the goal of escaping from her boring Kansas farm and finding adventure. This goal impels her to take risks, meeting with the patent-medicine salesman (who later comes back as the Wizard) and daring the tornado to hurt her. She achieves her goal when the tornado whisks her off to the exotic land of Oz.  But just coming up with a goal and attaining it makes for a linear plot! Instead, once she achieves her goal, she realizes it's not truly what she wants, and she forms the new goal of getting back home to Kansas-- a considerably more difficult quest!

Your turn!  In the beginning of the story, what does your protagonist want to do or get? Think about why the character wants this goal, and what that indicates. Now should your character get the goal or not? Either way, what will the reader learn about this person from the getting or losing or sacrificing the goal?

2. Protagonist Power

2.      Your protagonist should save the day (or destroy it).  Protagonist is the “first actor”, the character most active in the story.  Most importantly, he or she should be the one who resolves the conflict in the climactic scene. No one else should solve the mystery, or discover the secret, or arrive just in time to save the day.  The plot should force the protagonist to make choices and take actions, and the course of plot events should change in response to those choices and actions.

Example: In Casablanca, Rick overcomes his alienation and with cunning and duress, gets Ilsa and her husband Laszlo safely on the plane out of Nazi territory. His sacrifice (he loves Ilsa) shows that he has reached the destination of his journey to affiliation and commitment. This is reinforced when, after he kills the Nazi major, he and his friend Renault join the Resistance, fully committing to the cause.

Your turn!  Look at the climax towards the end of your story, that big exciting scene where the main external conflict (like the Nazis' attempt to send Laszlo to a concentration camp) is resolved. What can  your protagonist do to resolve the conflict? How does this action show that the main character has reached the end of the character journey (like Rick's journey from alienation to commitment).

1. Cause and Effect in Plotting.

      Plausible plotting starts with cause and effect. Make sure each step in your plot has a causative event, and one of more effects. Character actions should be caused by some motivation, and should have some effect on the plot.  In fact, a good way to outline your plot is to list the 6-10 major plot events (the "turning points"), and then identify the cause of each event, and the effect of each event. That way you'll create a  frame of cause and effect, like this:
Cause-
Event-
Effect-

Then you can see how each of the events flows into the next to create the overall plot.


Cause: Jane is so afraid that she blew the SATs that the next morning she runs away from home.
Event-- She joins the circus and learns to do trick-horse-riding.

Then look at that big event and after it jot down the EFFECT of the event-- internal and/or external. 

EFFECT: At the circus she is befriended by the bearded lady and realizes looks aren't everything.
And/or:
The ringmaster notices her talent and suggests that she become a full-time employee and travel with them.

Then go on to the next turning point event.
Then when you're done, you'll have The Cause, The Event, and The Effect-

- a whole string of them.
Example:  In the start of Wizard of Oz, Dorothy sensibly takes shelter from the tornado. But of course, the tornado is going to take her to Oz, so she has to get out of the tornado shelter, right? Notice though that the writer didn’t just have her run out of the shelter; rather her beloved dog escapes, and she runs out to save him— the best motivation! This “cause/effect” doesn’t just force the plot forward, but deepens the characterization: We now know more about what matters most to Dorothy.
Your turn! Be tough on yourself. J Consider your own plot. Find an event that “just happens” , like “he just happens to stumble and break his leg.” Now how can you change that to something that is “caused” by another plot event sequence, and “motivated” for the character? For example, “He is running for a touchdown in his company’s pickup game, because he wants to impress the boss.”
You might find just identifying the problem event will inspire you to find a good cause/effect sequence!





13 Prime Principles of Plot

  1. Plausible plotting starts with cause and effect. Make sure each step in your plot has a causative event, and one of more effects. Character actions should be caused by some motivation, and should have some effect on the plot.
  2. Your protagonist should save the day (or destroy it).  Protagonist is the “first actor”, the character most active in the story.  Most importantly, he should be the one who resolves the conflict in the climactic scene. No one else should solve the mystery, or discover the secret, or arrive just in time to save the day.  The plot should force the protagonist to make choices and take actions, and the course of plot events should change in response to those choices and actions.
  3. Give the protagonist a goal, then take it away. The goal-driven protagonist is an active protagonist, but if you just let the protagonist achieve his goal, you’ll have a linear or two-dimensional plot.  Have him lose the goal, or sacrifice it, or achieve it and realize he doesn’t really want it, and you’ll add the complication that makes this a real story.
  4. The point of plot is change.  The events should cause a change in the protagonist’s inner life, to trade her original goal for a more worthy one, to face a personal issue she’s ignored before, or to resolve a longstanding internal conflict.
  5. Lead readers to the story, but don’t drag them.  Set up your opening scenes so readers are led to ask story questions like “Who killed the film director?” or “What will happen to John and Sue’s  love when Sue learns that John has been lying to her?”  The posing of the questions, and the desire to find the answers, keeps readers turning pages.  That’s called narrative drive.  The story question is also an excellent tool to help the writer keep on track.
  6. Make the internal come external.  Explore your protagonist’s internal needs and values, and consider, how will this affect her actions?  The external events will cause internal change… and the internal change will cause new external events.
  7. Twist a cliché.  Do something new with the tried and the true. Use the clichéd plot not as something to reproduce faithfully, but as a classic human drama to explore in a new way.  Show the human depth under the stereotype: the blonde bombshell who walks into the private eye’s office is worried because her elderly neighbor won’t answer the door.
  8. Coincidence kills plausibility.  Don’t let a one-in-a-million event rescue your protagonist from trouble, or readers will stop believing that this person is truly affecting the course of events.
  9. “Exposition is ammunition.”  Tell the readers what they need to know, but only when they need to know it, and in the most powerful way.  Make them beg for it.  An essential question for all plots, but especially mystery/suspense plots, is “What should the readers know, and when should they know it?” Ask that every time you’re set to impart some extra information about the characters or events.  Don’t tell so much so early that the reader has no reason to keep on reading.
  10. Less is more.  Don’t dilute the power of your story by layering on too many conflicts and motivations, or featuring too many secondary characters and viewpoints.  Instead, focus on strengthening what you have.
  11. Center each scene.  Build it around some irrevocable event that changes the plot, and your pacing problems will vanish; readers won’t be able to skip because they’ll miss something important.
  12. Find the excitement in every scene.  Aim for the strongest, most dramatic events that are plausible within the world of your plot and your characters.  For example, your heroine breaking in to an office and reading a file is more dramatic than her just overhearing the same information– but use this only if your heroine is the sort who would, under these extreme circumstances, break in to an office.
  13. Always go back to character.  The plot should show how these particular people with these particular strengths and values and conflicts react under stress or when pursuing a goal.  You’ll lose readers as soon as they sense you’re forcing your characters to behave in a way that fits the plot instead of their personalities and needs.

Monday, September 19, 2016

If your story hasn't been rejected multiple times, start worrying! :)

Andy Warhol: REJECTED!


Leigh Court (@LeighCourt3) posted this to encourage the discouraged!


Dan Poynter’s website, www.parapublishing.com…, lists these 'famous rejections' -- a reminder to us all to keep doing what we need to do to get our stories to readers. 

REJECTED BY PUBLISHERS:

Richard Bach – Jonathan Livingston Seagull – 20 times
Joseph Heller -  Catch-22 – 22  times (!)
Mary Higgins Clark – first short story – 40 times
Alex Haley – before Roots – 200 rejections
Robert Persig – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – 121 times
John Grisham – A Time to Kill – 15 publishers and 30 agents (he ended up publishing it himself)
Chicken Soup for the Soul – 33 times
Dr. Seuss – 24 times
Louis L’Amour – 200 rejections
Jack London – 600 before his first story
John Creasy – 774 rejections before selling his first story.  He went on to write 564 books, using fourteen names.
Stephen King’s first four novels were rejected.

And of course: The first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers.

For those giving up on the whole rejection-factory of traditional publishing:

FAMOUS SELF-PUBLISHED BOOKS:
Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust
Ulysses, by James Joyce
The Adventures of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter
A Time to Kill, by John Grisham
The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. (and his student E. B. White)
Robert’s Rules of Order

FAMOUS AUTHORS WHO SELF-PUBLISHED
Gertrude Stein
Zane Grey
Upton Sinclair
Carl Sandburg
Ezra Pound
Mark Twain
Edgar Rice Burroughs
Stephen Crane
Bernard Shaw
Anais Nin
Thomas Paine
Virginia Wolff
e.e. Cummings
Edgar Allen Poe
Rudyard Kipling
Henry David Thoreau
Benjamin Franklin
Walt Whitman
Alexandre Dumas
William E.B. DuBois
Beatrix Potter
   

Monday, September 12, 2016

Three-Act Structure: Unify with "Three Things"

Try this exercise if you're afraid your conflict is lagging!


This uses the 3-act Structure to organize your plot events into setup, rising conflict, resolution, and that structure provides propulsion and the progression of events within the story arc. Willy-nilly eventing won't build up the dramatic power that intensifies the emotion.  In fact, effective plotting is all about cause and effect. Events matter because they cause something else to happen and something to change and the characters to feel. The accumulation of events is what propels the reader to read on, and organizing this cause/effect sequence into acts will help you build tension and cause change.




Three Acts:

Act 1 -- Set up conflict.
Act 2 -- Make conflict rise.
Act 3 -- Make conflict explode, and then resolve it.


Try breaking these acts into 3 big events of ascending emotional risk: Examples-
3 times she needed help
3 times he got stuck
3 attempts to deal with the conflict
3 attempts to reach the goal
3 heartbreaks
3 secrets
3 lies
3 failures
3 betrayals
3 times she didn't ask for help

Just try it-- ascending risk, remember!
Then consider: What are the risks he/she is afraid of?
Why is this a risk?
What might this risk cause, and what might be caused by their trying to AVOID the risk?

THREE ACTS. THREE SECRETS.
For example, let's take one that is just full of emotion-- secrets. Three secrets.
Kept or revealed? Or both? Maybe the attempt to keep a secret leads to revelation.
Let's think of ascending risk --
Act 1: This sets up the first secret. She's an FBI agent, and she's sent undercover into a small town. So the first secret is that she's secretly an FBI agent.
There's not a lot of emotional risk in this secret because it's her job. But it sets in motion all the rest of the risks.
What does this cause? It causes her to be placed in this small town to investigate the local bank, and it causes her to have to take on a disguise—she's pretending to be a bank teller.

Act 2: The next secret comes when she meets and is drawn to the son of the bank president. This is just the sort of guy she despised when she was growing up, rich and polished and educated. But she's supposed to investigate his father, and she's supposed to be a bank teller who would be flattered by his intentions, so she has to keep the secret from him about who she is... and the secret from her boss that she's falling in love with one of the "targets".
What does this cause? She's getting deeper entrenched into deception. It's going to be far, far worse now when her secret is revealed. She's also becoming alienated from her job, from her old self, from the FBI, as she's not reporting her contact with Junior. Maybe she's even started lying to her boss, withholding information that could get Junior in trouble.

Act 3: What's the final secret? It's probably her real identity, not just FBI, but her former identity. Maybe she's never told anyone that she grew up as "trailer trash," the daughter of a small-town prostitute or drug dealer. Her final secret is her shame, which has caused her all along to hide her past and her true self, to cut herself off from her old friends and her family, maybe even to make up a more generic and acceptable past.
(The big task would be—and I'm too brain-dead now to come up with an idea!—make the revelation of that secret in the start of Act 3 happen and affect the plot.)
REMEMBER TO TRY AND ASSEMBLE THIS IN "ASCENDING ORDER OF EMOTIONAL RISK." THE RISK OF THE LAST SHOULD BE THE GREATEST RISK TO THE CHARACTER'S EMOTIONAL SECURITY. SO IN THIS CASE, WE'RE SEEING THAT THE BIGGEST SECRET IS HER PAST, AND THE GREATEST DANGER IS SHAME.

Let's try another "Three Acts, Three Somethings."
Remember the film Casablanca? Rick is a symbol of the United States before Pearl Harbor, isolated, uninvolved, as the world crashes around him.
This is a tightly plotted story, and there are several "3 things", but the one I like to focus on is "Three Times Rick Refuses To Help." (Tip: To determine “ascending risk,” you want to ask after each of the 3 things: What is the risk? What does this cause?)

Act 1: Ugarte asks Rick for 2 things—to hold the letters of transit for the evening (he agrees), and later to help him escape from the police (Rick refuses this time).

What is the risk? There's some emotional risk from refusing to help—a few hours later, he drunkenly refers to it—but he can shrug it off as kind of a cost of doing business—sometimes, to run a successful saloon, you have to sacrifice a friend.

What does this cause? It's very important externally because with Ugarte dead, Rick is now stuck with these letters of transit, and as he says drily, "As long as I have them, I'll never be lonely." (I tell you, this film is SO well-written, because in fact, he is alone, and his loneliness is ended only because he has those damned letters of transit!)


Act 2: The news of his having the letters spreads, and he's approached by Victor Laszlo, a Resistance leader who will be arrested by the Gestapo if he can't get out of Casablanca. When L offers to buy the letters (which will get him and his wife to safety—do NOT ask why! Because, that's why. These are magic letters :), Rick refuses, and when asked why, says bitterly, "Ask your wife."

Much more emotional risk here! In refusing to help, he is acknowledging that the wife (Ilsa) hurt him earlier, and he's using this as a means of revenge. His hard-won isolationist wall is beginning to crumble. Also, weirdly, he's sort of letting himself hope that Laszlo will find out about the earlier affair and cast Ilsa out so that she will come to Rick again.

What does this cause? Well, one effect is, paradoxically, to reconcile Laszlo and Ilsa. She's been keeping the secret of the former affair (she'd thought L was dead), and this actually lets Laszlo understand what happened and gently indicate that he doesn't blame her. (This becomes a huge part of her conflict, actually, as she realizes she still loves both of them.)
For Rick, this causes him to get more and more involved in Ilsa's dire situation and make it that much clearer that he's still in love with her.


Act 3: Ilsa herself comes to him and asks for—no, demands—the letters of transit to save Laszlo so he can continue to fight the Nazis. She is so determined that she pulls a gun on him, and he is so determined to refuse to help her, that he invites her to shoot him. Rather than help her, he will commit suicide! Talk about emotional risk. Helping her would be worse than dying?

(She as always ends up acting with love, putting the gun down and confessing that she still loves him, and he ends up embracing her—this is one of the greatest scenes in the history of film.)

What is the risk? That he will fall in love with her again (as he does), that he will lose all his defenses, that he will be hurt again, that he will lose her. This ALL happens. (That is, sometimes the greatest emotional risk should explode.)

What does this cause? Rick’s refusal causes her to confess her love, and that leads to their tacit decision to use the letters of transit. But here's the amazing thing. Ilsa says to him, "You'll decide what's right? For all of us?" That is, she is telling him that whatever he decides to do, he has to help Laszlo to safety. (She assumes that he will give Laszlo one letter of transit, and she and Rick will escape together some other way. And you know what happens, or if you don't, go watch the film!!!!!)

The real result is Rick's return to the family of man, actually. He accepts responsibility for other people, and joins the war effort. He gives up his isolation and accepts the power of love.

Notice that a powerful place to put 'the thing' is close to the end of the act, so that its repercussions propel into the next act.
--------------

So look at your own story, and see if you can identify "Three Things", or invent them, and center each act upon this thing.
1. What is the "thing" in "Three Things" in your story? If you'd like to speculate about what this means, how it relates to a deep internal issue or theme (like Rick's refusal to help is an aspect of his fear of getting too involved again and getting hurt), have at it.

2. Where can you put some manifestation of "this thing" in each act?

For each occurrence, ask:
    a. What is the emotional risk here (and remember to assemble these three in ascending risk)?
    b. What does this thing cause to happen?

3. How can this thing near the end of the story (maybe the dark moment?) cause a great emotional change?

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Quick Journey to Plot Exercise: Your Turn!

Quick Journey to Plot Exercise: Your Turn!


My books are character-driven, so I might say, "Oh, I never plot." But in fact, I've learned to do basic plotting by using a character journey as the big structural apparatus really helps. That is, very basically, what is my character's journey through the story? Like:
Indendence to affiliation
or
Distrust to trust
or
Innocence to corruption
or
Shame to self-acceptance
or where the character starts emotionally/psychologically and where she/he ends up. Chart the main steps involved:
Beginning: She is devoted to her independence in the first act, and I show that (how will the reader know this). She should probably be given the choice to accept help but refuse it.
End of act 1 (maybe around ch. 2): Something (what) happens that makes her independence more of a problem than a solution. (What happens and how does she react)
Act 2: Things heat up on the external plane and make her independence or self-reliance a REAL problem, and she gradually has to change in response to 3-4 events in the external plot. Some group or person should probably be giving her help, or trying to, or trying to get her to affiliate.
End of Act 2: In the crisis/dark moment, her need to be independent really complicates the external conflict, and she's in huge trouble (or she's about to lose her goal or lose something essential). In the dark moment, she has to choose to change and ask for help or something that compromises her independence but allows her to receive help from being affiliated with someone or some group.
Act 3: In the climactic scene, where the external plot resolves, her newfound willingness to accept help allows her to conquer whatever the main conflict in the outer plot is.
End of Act 3: Because she has now chosen to affiliate, she is more happy and safe, but also might keep her independence a bit by becoming not just a follower but a leader.
That is, you're going to have certain things happen in the external plot.  If you have a sense of what the main character needs to learn and accomplish-- the journey's start and destination-- you can make each of those plot events push the character down that journey road.
I don't actually plot this out, even in as vestigial an outline as above, but I try to have a really good sense of where my character starts out, and how she'll react to each plot event given that starting point, and usually, of course, the basic endpoint is fairly obvious once I know how she's limited or damaged at the start.
I like to analyze other people's plots, but my own... I'll get bored if I outline too deeply. What I'd love to be wild and yet disciplined enough to do is to write wildly and freely in the first draft, and then use journey, outlining, and structure to revise it in a second draft.
 Alicia
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