I've taken a nearly 30-day hiatus from this blog while I got heavily involved in this writing project. I don't always multitask well, so I felt it was better to streamline the number of pots I was putting my fingers into in any given day.
Thanks for bearing with me while I've been on a non-voluntary hiatus. Now, back to work!
It's pretty easy to get the "plot" confused with what your characters are trying to do, and where they should be going by the time they meet what's-his-nose in chapter 5. It helps sometimes to think about plot at a higher level.
Take the plot for example, where a guy moves into an area and finds that the people there are being bullied by a tyrannical leader. He's shaking them down for money, abusing them physically, insulting them constantly. The new guy takes exception to this, after a couple of run-ins with this guy, and he gets fed up. Having a relationship starting to build with a local beauty just furthers his drive for justice. So the stranger calls the bully into a trap and kills him and his henchmen in a triumphant, climactic battle.
You might have been thinking, 'ah, this is a Western'. It might have been. It could also be high fantasy, SciFi, modern contemporary fiction, or a period historical piece. I was thinking of the movie "Unforgiven". The plot is not defined by setting or characters. The setting and characters serve the plot.
The plot works in any genre be cause it is generic to humanity. Any unjust leader who rises to this kind of abusive leadership is just begging for a fight, right?
So if you don't like this plot, steal a different one. Really, they've all been done before… more or less.
Take a story that really moves you for whatever reason. Strip away all of the character and setting information. Summarize the main points of what the conflict is and how it is resolved. Then, see how you can make that your own by bringing it into your own world, with your voice and your characters. Then add some twists – like maybe some slaves that need to be released. (Does that bring the Mask of Zorro or the Temple of Doom to mind?) Or a big political problem if the hero wins. Or maybe that lovely gal won't love him if he succeeds – does he choose love over justice? (That's a question about the character, not the plot!)
If you write it well, and remake it well enough in your own words, nobody is going to quibble about where you got the plot from.
I've been exploring the video presentations on ted.com, and ran across this presentation from Amy Tan on creativity, where it comes from for her, and where it hides and can be found.
I found it helpful, and I hope you do as well.
there is also this presentation from Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creative genius – whatever that is.
There is a tremendous difference between having a character walk through a set of plot elements, and letting that same character crash cleanly through them because he/she is properly motivated.
I was reading a younger writer's efforts last year, and this extreme example has stayed with me: The main hero was standing in the middle of the room, discussing something urgent with three other people. He turned to rip a closet door open, dragging somebody out of the closet with a casual one-handed grab. He then presented his trophy in a grand (TaDaaaah!) sort of a moment.
Well, okay. Why did he rip the door open though? There was no foreshadowing. Did he hear something? Was there some clue I missed three chapters back? Is it explained in a sequel? Does he just hate closet doors? Is it one of those nauseating Star Trek time warp thingies? Whut?
Pulling people out of a closet for no apparent reason is on the micro side of the story. The macro parallel is more often just as incoherent, obtuse, or just plain ill advised plot line. If a character is not clearly motivated to do something, then the reader may slowly lose interest. It may make perfect sense to you as the writer, but you must convey what is going on in the inner spaces of the character's mind or show us how he made those choices.
If a character is written so that we understand his/her motivation, the plot is much easier to navigate. When the character meets those decision points the choices are clearer. My view is that the plot is passive – the result of whatever motivated the character to make a choice. The plot is not instructions like in a Broadway play that requires the character to be in Vienna by Thursday. The motivation for getting to Vienna by Thursday may be that if he doesn't go, then his girlfriend is killed. Or he loses the business deal. Or he has to face Darth Vader's evil twin Zippy with just a plastic light saber and harsh language.
So how do we motivate a character? Turn the question around – what motivates YOU?
Greed, lust, love and vengeance seem to have pretty high marks for repeatability. I'll be circling back to this topic when I'm in 'motivation mode' and you will see my views on how to get your characters really moving – organically. If it makes no sense for your character to do what he/she is doing from an objective standpoint, then you are forcing plot, not letting the character decide what needs to be done.
No, these are not the final words on the subject, but hopefully enough words to get some dialog going!
Strong stories are built on strong thematic elements, or combinations of many strong elements. Otherwise, it's not a strong story – just a nice character study that moves around a bit with some pretty scenery. Right? So it stands to reason that if we can dissect a strong story we can find those elements and perhaps borrow some of those ideas to incorporate into our own writing?
Have you ever taken a story (movie, novel, or any other work) and de-constructed it to see what makes it tick? It's important for writers to read, but reading for the sake of turning pages is not necessarily informative. If a movie or novel really moves you, ask the question, "why"? If you can answer the question, then you have a hook to build into your own writing.
So let's take this one step further. I will compare the themes of two of the most popular (and fanatically followed) story lines. We may find some clues on what makes a strong story tick, perhaps?
I'm going to compare Star Wars (SW) with Lord of The Rings (LoTR). I'm not talking about giving Frodo a light saber, or suggesting that Darth Vader might want to get his hands on Galadriel. This is not about characters, so letting Yoda talk to Sauruman is right out the window. This is not about plot exactly, so we're not talking about simply putting the Shire in jeopardy from storm troopers. I'm talking about those deeper issues that characters face that motivate them, and thus affect the plot.
I've read LoTR many times and enjoyed the movie adaptations. I've seen all the Star Wars movies. I've been considering what makes these two blockbuster story lines so immensely popular. The result of my pondering is that there are some similarities between these two story lines. In some ways I consider them the same kind of coming-of-age adventure romp, just in vastly different settings and completely different genres.
This is neither a complete nor scholarly discussion. Just some of my observations. Your results may vary.
The Opening Situation – let's look around:
Both stories happen in environments that are fully populated. Yes, it's easy to take the tapestry of the environment for granted. But let's consider things for a minute. Tolkien's world is so complex that to understand it completely there is a companion book, 'The Silmarilion' full of additional stories and background notes that gives you the keys to some of the more complex relationships. Lucas wrote of odd things like jar-jars, light sabers, Jabba, and his entire menagerie of oddball species. The relationships between elf and dwarf, or between Jawas and Sandpeople, usually come naturally through the dialog – as if they had always been that way, not being 'invented' or described to a complete stranger on the spot. Of course there are explanations, but from the voice of either Gandalf or Obi Wan, not the voice of the narrator.
A sense of wonder: Magic equals Technology. Gandalf's power is hinted at but in battle he usually prefers a sword and staff. He's not throwing fireballs around and being the star of the show here. His magic is used sparingly (except for fireworks, perhaps) and its impact is always felt powerfully by the enemy. Those touches of magic take us someplace else very effectively. The technology in Star Wars creates a world many otherwise rational humans would love to live in. Flying vehicles, hovering cars, light sabers, palantirs, elvish rope, light in a bottle, and magic rings all add to the sense that we'd like to see that for ourselves at some point if we could. Magic (or technology) is used to take the reader far away to a place that can't exist – to delight us and prompt us to try to recreate that magic for ourselves.
Both stories open with a vague sense of impending Evil. This dreadful force, while being rather profound, is rather far off. Frodo's skin crawls at the mention of Mordor in a way not very different from the way Luke reacts to the Empire. There may be something bad going on, or did go on in history, but it doesn't affect them until something else happens. The mention of evil at first is not a good thing, but its depth is surprising, its power is absolute, and it is coming soon.
Evil comes home for a visit.
Frodo has a hard time grasping the seriousness of his situation until the black riders come into the Shire and he barely escapes. Sure, he understands what Gandalf says intellectually, but I don't think it sinks in viscerally until then. Likewise Luke doesn't think he can do anything important against the Empire until his aunt and uncle are roasted out of their home by stormtroopers looking for those two droids. Both Luke and Frodo are highly motivated from this point of realization onward. So, evil coming next door doesn't have as much impact, does it? Or, if evil stays over there somewhere.
You can't go home again. This is the next logical step. Frodo must leave the Shire because the ring-wraiths are searching for him. He is not safe in Bree, and must flee to Rivendel with Aragorn and his friends. Luke has no reason to stay on his uncle's arrid farm – his foster family is dead, so there's nothing really holding him there. What is not really discussed however, is what the impact would be of Luke's staying. His prospects can't be that great, can they?
Ah, the safety of home. We can't have it here. Leaving home is a similar event to Cortez burning his ships when he arrived in the New World. You're more motivated to go forward if you cannot go back. No nets, just give your hero a high wire and a poke in the backside. The bittersweet side of this is that there is a 'home' to go back to, or reminisce about. Frodo and Sam on the rocks near Mount Doom try to remember the taste of strawberries – which is not pivotal to the plot. But you can taste the berries, can't you? It re-emphasizes the contrasts between good and evil (more on that later).
Speaking of home, don't forget to remind your audience of what's worth fighting for. In Star Wars, it is mostly salvation from the technology / tyranny of the Empire. In the Ring Trilogy we're elegantly reminded of the Shire from time to time. When Frodo and Sam are at the foot of Mt Doom, they try to remember the happy days long past, Rosie, and the Shire. Get specific here. Remember to show elements that have already been shown or talked about. Home is a powerful, patriotic theme for any hero to fight for when you conjure the right memories. The greener the better. It wouldn't make much sense to die defending the arid wastelands from marauding Druids who only want to plant seeds and water them, would it?
The Good Guys
Obviously, both story lines have heroes and villains. I want to look at similarities among the heroes first.
The main hero has no father. Yes, Luke has a father. But Luke lives with an uncle, and does not know his father – in that role – until the last five minutes of Episode VI. Frodo lives with his uncle, and not much is said about his father at all. Yes, they have no mother as well – but I suspect the absence of a father is a stronger position psychologically. I tend to agree with the author of Iron John by Robert Bly with his thoughts on how boys become men, and how fathers can be immensely important. But I'm not an expert so we'll move on.
The hero is reluctant. Luke is a mere tinkerer on his uncle's farm, and is completely unfit for any duty in any army, force, or adventure. When Obi Wan throws out the suggestion that he could travel and see a bit of the Empire, Luke shrugs it off, because he is needed on the farm. Likewise, Frodo offers the ring to Gandalf rather than take responsibility for it. Bilbo's stories had always fascinated him but he was not ready to make a journey until he had to throw his gear in a ruc
ksack, grab Sam, and hit the road with Gandalf pushing urgently from behind. It's an endearment that these guys start out as antiheroes, not at all likely to ever do anything dangerous.
That's pretty much the lowest common denominator isn't it? You can't go much further down on the totem pole – both Luke and Frodo are pretty hopeless at the opening of their stories, even though their foster families speak highly of them and their abilities.
The good guys don't like each other right away. Episode IV of Star Wars shows Leia and Han not really getting along. Han is hard to trust right away, and we don't know what the Wookies are all about either, do we? Later in the story Han and Luke compete for Leia's attention with a bit of humor and bravado – but ultimately that's a sidenote not part of the plot. In LoTR the friction starts in Bree with the stranger Aragorn leading the hobbits away, is amplified in Rivendel as the Fellowship is formed, and doesn't end until Boromir meets his noble end defending Merry and Pippin, and Legolas and Gimli have buried their differences. This all adds a nice bit of political or social tension that keeps you turning pages, or watching the show. If the good guys are too vanilla, there's less impulse to keep reading. Add some spice then, and see what happens.
The hero has a mentor. While the hero has a father figure of sorts instead of an actual father, there also is a spiritual guide who takes over his training. For Luke this is Ben Kenobi, and later Yoda. Gandalf fills this role for Frodo until Gandalf makes a detour in the Mines of Moria, and Galadriel fills in that role in his absence. It's not exactly fair to throw your hero out into the wild without any guidance, is it? I mean after all, he's taking on the ultimate in evil, and needs all the help he can get, right?
The Bad Boys
In both stories, evil is not just a nuisance or a minor trouble. It is a vital force that is gathering strength and is all-consuming in its purpose and scope.
Evil is represented in the biggest, baddest thing around. It is supernatural, impending, all-consuming, corrupting, and relentless. In the Ring Trilogy, Sauron is a major spiritual force, who keeps himself together by the magic he created and his own determined willpower. In Star Wars, the Force is corrupted (or completed if you prefer) by the Sith, who use it to complete their own ends. In both stories the sense of evil and dread is something you can almost taste. Whether it is flaming eyes piercing through to your invisible self, or strangulation by remote squeeze, make sure the bad guys are really, really bad. Marauders or pirates create tension and a plot with somebody for your hero to make a story out of, but sometimes they are just not big enough for an epic-sized tale.
Evil likes to make converts of key people. Aniken Skywalker gets slowly seduced by the Dark Side, just as surely as Sauruman (and Theoden) became poisoned by Mordor through the palantirs. These are powerful figures that initially are allied with the side of light, but they ultimately turn on their friends – bitterly disappointing those who trusted them to say the least.
Evil is masked. Have you noticed that both Sauron and Darth Vader are masked? Vader doesn't don his mask until he is horribly disfigured in the lava, but this is also very early in his evil career working for the Emperor. Both masks are inflexible. Neither mask allows emotion to show. Neither mask comes off. When Darth Vader's mask does come off, it is when he is morally rescued by his son Luke, and has a change of heart at the end, revoking the dark side. We see his emotions again in his eyes as he dies at that point. We see Sauron's eye, but it is aflame with his burning passions and dark thoughts – not a comforting visage. The masks are not particularly frightening of themselves – it's the context of WHO is wearing them that makes them that much more fearsome.
Evil is mechanized. While this sounds like a Godzilla movie element or something, it holds true for both of these story lines. Sauruman is busy destroying the forest to create his Uruk Hai. Treebeard laments that Sauruman has a mind for metal and wheels. Mordor is already in ruin. Meanwhile in a galaxy far away, the Emperor is busy putting together technology to destroy entire planets.
The flip side is that both sets of 'good guys' are nature-based. Frodo and Sam are from the Shire, the greenest and most peaceful home you could want. Luke Skywalker begins to learn the natural Force that holds the galaxy together while near his uncle's farm. This makes the contrast between what good and evil are (and represent) utterly unmistakable. So from the plot point of view, you can say that evil is 'not natural' now, can't you?
Moving the Story
The stories both involve friends coming from unexpected places, or sometimes being misunderstood (Lando for instance in the Cloud City, or the Wood Elves being suspicious of the fellowship, or the Rhohirrim being aggressive toward Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas). This keeps the drama going. If everybody always likes everybody else right away it is much easier to yawn. On the other hand, the elves show up at Helm's Deep with no questions asked, and their help is vital in keeping the orcs out until Gandalf can arrive with reinforcements. Star Wars is less dependent on showing these relationships – they are assumed – but there still must be some underlying reason why the rebel alliance has so many different freaky kinds of peoples in it. Where does General Ackbar come from anyway? Never mind….
The hero is wounded. Frodo gets a grievous wound in his shoulder from a Mordor blade that never heals. Luke loses his hand and gets a prosthetic. (I think Lucas has some kind of stump fetish or something – somebody loses an arm in most SW episodes) You can't kill your hero, but you can throw him around some. Leave some marks to give him something to talk about later. Emotional marks work as well as actual ones. For instance, Frodo knows the anniversary of his shoulder's wound because of it aches every year as a reminder on that anniversary.
The mission is clearly suicidal but we hope they succeed. So this little hobbit has to take a very important ring that the bad guy wants, and melt it under his nose in the Mountain of Doom. Riiiight. And Luke and his friends have to take down the death star by shooting a perfect shot down some tiny vent. Riiight. But we're glad they succeed. If the mission is impossible, with no odds of success, the more curious the reader is going to be about how exactly they're going to do it. Of course, this only works if there's a reason for us to like the main characters, or a reason to empathize with their situation in the first place. The lesson here is that a difficult mission done with difficulty and danger is not enough – we have to care about the outcome.
The mentor dies yet lives again. This is a bit more tenuous, but I still see some parallels between Obi Wan letting Darth Vader finish him off, and Gandalf doing a selfless descent into the pit with the balrog. Obi Wan is gone – but can still talk with Luke somehow from the other side. Gandalf doesn't really die. Well, yes he does, but he comes back differently – all in white. I think the bottom line is that you can kill off your main 'spirit guide', as long as he/she can hang around for advice somehow when the main hero needs it later. I'm going to throw in a similar thought from a third story line here – remember Jurassic Park? Ian Malcolm the mathematician is wounded badly and cannot communicate easily with the rest of the scientists as they try to survive after the dinosaurs get lose. Here is the voice of logic, the philosopher, and the most independent observer symbolical
ly laid low.
The friends are split up and reunited. The Fellowship is sundered at the river when Boromir dies, Frodo and Sam head into Mordor, and the remainder of the company go after Merry and Pippin. In Star Wars, the group is split up when Luke goes on a detour to find Yoda, and Han is separated from Leia in a carbon freeze thingy – and shipped to Jabba. Two plotlines with the same central characters gives you opportunity to talk about twice as many adventures. So your characters are fearful and don't want to split up? Do it anyway.
Moral salvation with a physical rescue. In Star Wars episode VI, there is a poignant moment between Luke and his father at the end. Luke wants to 'save' him meaning a physical rescue from his wounds. The dying Anakin reports that he already has been, meaning a moral recovery from the dark side. In the ring trilogy, don't forget that Eowyn did a similar favor for Theoden at the death of the witch king on the field of battle in front of the White City. Eowyn wanted to save Theoden's life, yet Theoden's thoughts were that he could now rest in honor in the halls of his fathers. Both of these mortally wounded characters were deeply flawed, but had found some sort of reckoning through their final actions (and the actions of their kin). Yes, feel free to jerk a few tears. But then be sure to get over it and get back to the story.
My point here was to direct you toward some similarities between some immensely popular story lines. I wanted to give you some story line devices that a writer might want to consider for inclusion as he/she begins work on any epic project.
Why are these story lines so popular? I suspect the answer may be deeply rooted in the psyche of the male. Why male? Both of these stories are male-centric, and I suppose (though I've not seen any data) that the majority of the fans are also male. But I'm not a psyche-ologist, so to speak. Some ideas here may be more effective with a male readership, I don't really know for sure.
Let's put the shoe on the other foot. If the story had involved all female characters, it would have been an entirely different story even if the overall plot were the same, would it not?
Now get out there and plot yourself an epic!
Here are the initial guidelines for how my coaching service (Literary Nudger?) is going to work.
I am not monetizing this effort. I am not selling a service, nor am I pitching a "How to" book (nor do I plan to write one). Im just trying to pay it forward a little.
I am not trying to steal any body's ideas. I have enough of my own, thanks. I know how hard writers work on their craft, and if you're here looking for help you're already cranky and frustrated, so I won't add to that.
I am not an agent. I am not a publisher. I can't buy your work. What I'm offering is a virtual look over your shoulder to give you a nudge if you need one.
I'll be blogging about creativity, writing, plot ideas, character motives, setting… all that good stuff. I can't give you a plot – you'll need to come up with that on your own.
I'm still pondering what I need for posted submission guidelines, if any. For now, if you need help, send an email to tjpontz at gmail with your question. I did not say to send your query. I did not say to attach or paste your manuscript. I may not really need your manuscript, and I leave help with queries up to the query experts.
I can't guarantee I will fix what ails your manuscript, only that I'll try.
What are my chops as a writer? My first writing gig was in the broadcast market writing ads and program content. Lately I've been in the business communications field. My current project is biographical, with some fiction ideas in orbit waiting for a landing pad.
Keep your pencils sharp!
"Leave the why for psychologists. It's enough to know you want to write. Write.
"I write because I am crazy, schizophrenic, and I know it and accept it and I have to do something with it other than go to the loony bin.
"I write because there are stories that people have forgotten to tell, because I am trying to stand up in my life. I write because to form a word with your lips and tongue or think a thing and then dare to write it down so you can never take it back is the most powerful thing I know. I am trying to come alive, to find the distances in my own recesses and bring them forward and give them color and form."
- Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
"A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them. That is, he does not draw on a reservoir; instead, he engages in an activity that brings to him a whole succession of unforeseen stories, poems, essays, plays, laws, philosophies, religions…"
- William Stafford
I write because I can't not write. I am as compelled to put words to paper as salmon are to spawning upstream. I write not because I try to put the djinn back in the bottle, but because I must let him out. The ID must be unleashed and allowed to roam free, else the EGO will bind him forever in some forgotten corner, ignored and undone.
Now then. Why do YOU write? Hmmm?
Every writer who has ever lived has, at some point, stared blankly at the paper / parchment / monitor and wondered, "Now what?"
Writer's Block isn't a curse, it's an opportunity.
Today's writing exercise is simply a series of timed exercises. (These are all ten minute segments)
How to begin? Start with the words, "I remember" and let it roll from there. It doesn't matter if it was five minutes ago, five years ago, or five lifetimes ago. Dump some stuff out in whatever non-grammatical, nonsensical form it arrives. This is NOT an exercise about editing. This is NOT an exercise in writing 'good stuff'. This is an exercise in getting the blockage out of your head so you can reconnect with your inner self.
So, "I remember" and what comes after for 10 minutes. Use a timer, wait for a commercial break on the TV or radio, or whatever means you need of timing yourself. Just KEEP WRITING. It might be your father's neckties, your sibling's constant (whatever it was), or breaking your arm last week in a car accident. Go with whatever flow is there. You DO remember something, don't you?
Now then, take a break and walk around the table. Change the flavor of your chewing gum. Maybe toss out that bit of newspaper lying on the edge of the table.
Ready to continue? Start with "I don't remember", and continue writing for 10 minutes. The same rules apply. What did you eat on that trip to Vegas? Where were you when you got mooned by those kids? Well, you have forgotten a few things by now, haven't you? Who was your third grade math teacher? Hrm?? Did you turn out the lights before you left the house? What does your dog look like in the night?
This stresses the brain in both positive and negative ways, and gets things rolling.
Take another break. No, seriously. Take a break because we're about to change channels again.
Start again with, "I'm thinking of…" and go for 10 minutes. Well, you were thinking of something, even if it was pretty absurd. Pixies in your computer? How your spouse would look with blue hair?
Take a break and start over again with, "I'm not thinking of…"
You get the idea. To continue the rest of the exercise, do the following pairs of thoughts with breaks in between:
I know / I don't know
I am / I am not
I want / I don't want
I feel / I don't feel
The first time I / The last time I
Now looking over what you've scribbled, since you've made it this far, might there be some nugget that you can write about now?
While this is an exercise for creative writers, these kinds of exercises can help writers of any level or background. Or at least that's my 2 bits for today.
I needed to change my karma a little bit today, so I went out for a haircut, lunch and a couple of errands.
The haircut was uneventful, and I won't bore you with the grocery shopping. Lunch was more interesting.
I went to Panera, and got the tortilla chicken soup (yummay!) and the bacon turkey sandwich (feh). I was about half way through my soup when I started thinking I ought to do a character study on somebody around me. It's a hobby of sorts when I'm surrounded by strangers. Nobody in the restaurant really presented a good opportunity though, and I was not really able to focus on anybody.
Then a Jaguar swung into the parking space just the other side of the window from me. It seemed as if the driver were taking up two parking spaces, and so I muttered to myself into my soup something about Jaguar drivers blah blah blah. But that's when I noticed a dragon hanging behind the rear view mirror.
A dragon? I noticed it before I noticed the driver. Yeah, it looked like a dragon that was draped around the back of the rear view mirror. What?! This is a non sequitur, you know? The driver is a 50-something female who spent more on her hair than I just did on mine, more on her nails than I ever have, and was wearing both a turtleneck and a cable sweater in the identical shade of pink.
The back of my mind spun for a bit and I could not correlate the dragon with this driver. Not for anything. I noticed her as she gave her order, and as she waited for it. She was skinny, tanned, and her face was lined at the corners. Well, at least she hadn't fattened any plastic surgeons… But why a dragon hanging from her rear view mirror?
Was the dragon there as a memento of some occasion? Maybe. Was she declaring that she is the 'dragon lady' and we were all to steer clear? Maybe. Or was it an ex's car that she had scored in a divorce battle and it was still draped there as a trophy? You never really know.
So was she a trophy wife? No, this didn't seem to fit. Maybe a real estate professional or a sales manager or some sort.
And why did I pay attention? Well look, I can use the dragon wrapped around the rear view mirror angle as a hook for any character I want to describe. There's a juxtaposition between her careful appearance and lack of cosmetic surgery. She might not be successful herself, but she wanted to give that appearance and is probably close (or was) to somebody who was.
And that's why I call it a character study. She could fit in a spy/mystery/thriller as easily as something like On Golden Pond. The fact that she noticed me staring at her and she moved to the far side of the restaurant might have something to do with it too. (ooops!)
And was that really a dragon or was it something else? Well, that could be a plot turning point right there if it is something like a CSI episode or something from Agatha Christie-ville.