Category Archives: Conflict

Pre-Writing and Screenwriting

Until 2012, I was a pantser. Truth be told, I still write short fiction without a plan sometimes, but I’ve been fully converted over to outlining. It’s a long story, but it’s worth the effort. The very first novel I wrote, RUNS IN THE FAMILY, took me 18 months to write. Without a roadmap, I would write all the little ideas and delete troves of words before latching onto another idea and doing the same thing over and over again. It was a slog and I hardly remember finishing it. When I had the idea that became my debut novel SLEEPER PROTOCOL, I vowed that I wouldn’t do that whole awful process again. I determined that I was going to figure out how to write a novel. I’ll cut off some of the story here, but a book on screenwriting changed the way that I write. That book was “My Story Can Beat Up Your Story” by Jeffrey Alan Schecter. It’s a quick, easy read that gives you insights into character development, story pacing, and a structure that resonates with your reader.

Schecter’s book impressed the folks at Mariner Software enough that they built a screenwriting program called Contour that follows his method to the letter. When I found out about Contour, I quickly downloaded the free demo. From there, I ended up purchasing the program. It’s a part of my pre-writing process, which is the theme of the month, so let me break down how I get ready to write a novel.

Let’s say I have an idea already pretty formed in my head. Chances are that I’ve started gathering some notes on that idea in a notebook (yes, I have a notebook problem – there are never enough). I take that pretty formed idea in my head and start to make sure I can craft it into some of the key notions that Schecter teaches about character development. The takeaway here is that without good characters, your story doesn’t live to tell the tale. Forget to develop your protagonist and your book never reaches the end of Act One because there’s nothing to change them. Fail to develop a solid antagonist and your story dies in Act Two. By building the character development first, even before I start the plotting pieces and exercises, I have a solid idea of where the story is going to go based on the goals of my characters. From there, I go through Contour’s beats and guide sheets to develop a “straw” outline – that’s my first pass entirely through Contour. I come back and add more detail to the areas that need it – thanks to big text boxes and the like. Once I’ve done that, it’s time to open Scrivener, my writing software.

Once in Scrivener, I use what’s in Contour to help flesh out a basic structure. I create the building blocks in various ways – either folders and chapters for scenes, the cork board function for random thoughts or unplaced ideas, and any references I need to consult as I write. With the data from Contour about specific plot points, character goals, and what the characters need to discover/solve/act upon, by the time I’ve laid out my pre-writing, I have a serious amount of data already in the program ready for me to use. Yes, it seems like a lot of work, but for me it’s better than trying to handle those dozens of notebooks and pieces of scratch paper. If I take the time to enter the ideas in Contour, it asks the questions for me and my answers further flesh out the plot. From there, writing is relatively easy.

How easy? At this point, I’ve invested several hours in building out Contour and laying out Scrivener the way I want it to. For me, the end result is that I write faster. Remember RUNS IN THE FAMILY? Eighteen months from start to finish? With the method I laid out above, I wrote SLEEPER PROTOCOL in seven weeks. I wrote the recently published sequel VENDETTA PROTOCOL in about nine weeks. It’s a much faster process when I know the route that I’m going to take. By laying out the entire novel, if a character decides to do something differently that I want them to, I can let that play out a little and still have a clear ending in mind. I can adjust things as I go, which is much easier than stopping and starting all over. With a full outline, I know where I have to get back to, and it makes a difference.

No two methods are the same, though. You have to figure out what works for you. For me, that intense planning and note taking process leads to big changes with my speed and productivity, but it may not work for you. There are a million ways to write a novel, but they don’t all require any prewriting. They do require writing, so get to it.

 

Prewriting: Getting Your NaNoWriMo Game Face On

I tried to discovery write my way through my first two National Novel Writing Months, but failed both times. It wasn’t until my third attempt that I committed to the change that made the difference. For years, my friends and mentors tried to tempt me into outlining, promising mad productivity gains, stronger stories, and less time spent drudging through the editing phase. I resisted because I was convinced that outlining would ruin the joy of creation, dampen the rush I got through discovering my story and my characters. But between you and I? The real reason was because I had no idea how to outline effectively.

Every other time I tried outlining, I started by listing plot points. What I didn’t realize was that I was stacking up two-by-fours and hoping to end up with a house. My first major challenge was to realize that I needed to instead start with the big picture.

Story and plot are not the same thing. The plot is what the character does, the story is what the plot does to them. The plot of Star Wars: A New Hope starts with a boy who grows up on a moisture farm before running away with a space wizard, two droids, and a pair of smugglers. They are captured, and during his escape, the boy saves a princess before fleeing the Empire. They all join the Rebellion and our hero ends up blowing up a weapon of ultimate destruction and evil. The movie’s plot takes 67 words and 3 sentences to describe. The story can be stated much more simply. Star Wars: A New Hope is about a boy who comes from humble beginnings only to discover that he has the ability to change his world by standing up to a great evil. 33 words, 1 sentence.

If that’s not a familiar story, you haven’t been consuming much fiction. Frodo from Lord of the Rings, the titular character of the Harry Potter series, and even Simba from Disney’s The Lion King all experience the same story. Truth be told, humans have been telling each other the same stories for most of our history. Keep it simple and find a story that will resonate with your readership. This will be the foundation for your outline.

My next breakthrough came when I took Dave Farland’s Story Puzzle class. I learned that I needed to build my story like I would build a house, by starting with the studs and working my way out. A plot’s studs are its scenes, and scenes are nothing more than goals paired with failures that lead to an eventual success. Understanding your story’s try-fail cycles means that you need to dig down into your characters’ motivations. How is your protagonist going to respond to the initiating event, both emotionally and then through action? How is that reaction going to interfere with the antagonist’s designs and how is that character going to respond? Rinse, and repeat. Once you understand what your protagonist and antagonist want and how they’ll go about getting it, the rest falls into place.

So, after much work I had a functional outline, by far the best I had ever written. I started my third NaNoWriMo attempt. I was only days in before I found a plot problem. It wasn’t a big plothole, but enough of a stumbling block that I missed my daily goal. In the past, I would have agonized and insisted on filling the hole before being able to move on. However, the next day I started my writing session by typing, “<<Assume my character accomplishes her goal, she disarms the bomb and saves her friends.>>” I then opened a new scrivening and started writing my next scene. The beauty of the outline was that I didn’t need to discover the end of the scene. It was all planned out, I could move on and come back to fix it later.

Things were going well, I was reaping all the benefits that my friends and mentors had promised me. I was cruising along, exceeding my daily word counts. Then one day I had an idea. It was good enough that it was worth changing my whole outline. This was my third challenge. I was worried that my discovery writer past was catching up with me, that I was going to ditch my novel’s blueprint and would end up wasting all the time I had saved and all the progress I had made. Rather than starting to knock down the walls I had already built, I took a few days off of writing and reworked my outline mid-NaNoWriMo. It seemed crazy to do, but the idea was just that much better than what I had planned before.

The outline may have been my book’s blueprint, but I wasn’t committed to following every detail. It was there to help me visualize the whole structure of my novel and decide where my renovations fit in. I knew which walls were load bearing, where all the piping was run, and how the rooms would flow one to the other. Because I understood the totality of what I was trying to build, I could honestly and objectively decide if my new idea was better. I went back to writing with a newly revised outline and I ended up finishing strong, winning my third NaNoWriMo attempt.
Though I have been wooed into becoming an outliner, I still find ways to discover. It hasn’t taken away from the thrill, but rather increased the satisfaction of a story well crafted. This month on the Fictorians, you’re going to hear from many writers about their own experiences with prewriting and the techniques that allow them to keep up the grueling NaNoWriMo pace. If you are an experienced NaNo’er, welcome back. If you are a newbie who is considering taking on the mountain for the first time, welcome to the family. We have 30 days left to build our base camps, folks. Will you be ready to start the climb?

Liar, Liar! Pants on Fire!

A Guest Post by Tonya L. De Marco

It’s probably no secret if you’ve read any of my material or heard me speak on panels at conventions that I enjoy creating dark and twisted characters. I’m fascinated with what makes them tick and how they morally justify doing the things they do.

Lines between heroes, villains, and anti-heroes can become quite blurred to nearly invisible at times in the story. I recently participated on a panel at StarFest Convention in Denver on the subject. The intended discussion was meant to be about creating strong antagonists, however I kept steering the conversation back in the direction of this haunting question: What is the difference between the good guy and the bad guy when they each break the rules?

Fellow authors and panelists Kal Spriggs and David Boop, along with moderator Peter J. Wacks and I bantered back and forth without actually solving this dilemma. But the general consensus seemed to be, if the character is breaking the rules for the greater good or for revenge, he is seen as the good guy. An example is a police officer who brings in the criminal by whatever means necessary.

These characters are justifying their wrongdoing. They are lying to themselves and often those around them. Villains do it. Heroes do it. Masterminds do it. I do it. You do it. We all lie to ourselves. A psychopath that only kills criminals is rationalizing murder by telling himself that he is making the community safer without these criminals. But what really drives him is a need, a hunger to kill. The thrill of the hunt, the power of holding a life in his hands, the satisfaction of seeing the light slowly drain from his victim’s eyes – these are the true reasons, not the lies he tells himself.

In my short story, Offspring, the main character breaks the law for monetary compensation. Indeed, she does need the money to help her family and accomplish a specific goal but she hides behind the lie. She justifies her depraved acts as necessary, not admitting she enjoys the power and the adrenaline rush from the danger, often even enjoys the acts themselves. Will she stop when she reaches her goal? Or will she find another lie to tell herself so she can continue?

Creating characters that lie adds another level of relatability. Lying to themselves and others helps to show them as human. Whether you create human monsters or super cops, the justifications and rationalizing they do throughout the story is something they have in common with each other and with most of the population.

The lines between good and evil when writing dark characters still remain blurred to me. Perhaps it’s because most people are a blend of both. Whether writing protagonist or antagonist, hero or anti-hero, allow your characters to tell their own stories – even if they’re liars.


Visit Tonya L. De Marco at http://www.TonyaLDeMarco.com or stop by her modeling and cosplay page on Facebook: http://www.Facebook.com/VintageSteamtrunk.

Gillian Flynn and the Case of the Unreliable Narrator

There are few things I like more than unreliable narrators, reluctant heroes, dark protagonists, dogs, and Taco Bell. Some of my favorite characters on television shows, in books, and in comic books are the anti-heroes and villains that have deep, spanning character arcs. I just hate to love Gul Dukat from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the perpetual heel no matter how hard I root for him to turn into a good guy. Who can say no to The Hound in Game of Thrones? All beefy, reluctant, melty-cheese-face goodness right there. And who isn’t charmed/terrified by Negan in The Walking Dead comics and his filthy, filthy mouth? Kim Coates’ portrayal of Tig on Sons of Anarchy? C’MON, man. The best! And the king of anti-heroes, from which my love of anti-heroes began: Conan the Barbarian.

What most of these anti-heroes and villains have in common is this: their behavior is somewhat predictable from early on. Gul Dukat gonna be Gul Dukat, even if he does some good things on occasion. The Hound looks out for himself until paid to do otherwise, with only a few exceptions. Negan tells his enemies exactly what he’s going to do before he does it. He also loves Lucille, and he’s gonna bring her out to play and he’ll talk some poor character’s ear off while doing it. Tig’s always going to be weird on a supreme level, but he has his soft spots. Conan the mercenary, the pirate, the thief, the treasure hunter, the nomad, still lives his life according to a code.

As a good rule of thumb, the reader has to trust a character to do just one thing: act like him/her/themselves. 

Gillian Flynn either didn’t get the memo, or doesn’t care about your fragile expectations of her characters. And boy is that ballsy. But if you know anything about her success, it’s turning out pretty well for her.

In the first half of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller Gone Girl, I was amazed. Flynn’s ability to communicate small issues in a marriage, how they can appear and fester just under the surface, was revelatory to me. I sure didn’t pick up Gone Girl expecting such an accurate and subtle commentary on American marriage and the differences between blue-collar and white-collar partner philosophies.

But I also didn’t pick up Gone Girl expecting the twist, either. Soft spoiler ahead, so cover your eyes for this and the next paragraph if you plan on reading the book or seeing the movie. As it turns out, BOTH of our narrators, married couple Nick and Amy Dunne, are unreliable to an extreme. Just when we start feeling sorry for Nick, and think he’s getting played by a master, we find that he’s been living a secret life all on his own.

What Gillian Flynn accomplishes in Gone Girl is to take the concept of an unreliable narrator and anti-heroes to another level. When we understand that Nick and Amy can’t be trusted (the first unreliable narrator twist), Flynn twists the narrative knife even further, taking their story to depths most people couldn’t dream up in a million years.

Similarly, in Flynn’s novella The Grownup, the reader is presented with an anti-hero that, at first blush, seems honest and straight forward about who she is: a fake psychic. I’ll not mention her former job so you’re surprised when you read the short story yourself (I’ll just say this: the first two lines of the story are some of the best opening lines I’ve ever read. Talk about a hook! Winky wink). Now, as we, the readers, follow this opportunistic woman, we fall into a haunted house/evil stepson-type scenario. Nothing too surprising here – they are common horror movie tropes. And our protagonist, although a con artist of sorts, still has some admirable attributes, and it’s easy to slip into the story from her perspective. We’re even on her side. (Big spoiler here, so skip to the next paragraph if you want to read this story.) We’re on her side, that is, until we realize too late that she’s not an anti-hero – she’s the villain, and became so under our very noses. And this is Flynn’s trademark. Unreliable narrators to an extreme. Characters that seem like unreliable narrators and anti-heroes who become the villains before the reader can put two and two together.

As much as I drool over and admire Gillian Flynn’s storytelling, I must admit I don’t come away from her books feeling particularly… good. I feel uncomfortable, ill at ease. I certainly don’t need every book to be a happy ending, but I’m used to anti-hero stories ending in a different way (Conan always accomplishes the quest and gets the girl, after all).

What I take away from Gillian Flynn’s expert storytelling and success is this: do what you do, and do it well. If you’re good at pulling the wool over your readers’ eyes, do it. But always do it well. Flynn creates characters we can empathize with, she can humanize extreme situations, and then she slowly crumbles the foundation of what we thought we knew about those characters and their situation. Flynn uses our very fundamental trust of character (that the character will act like himself/herself/themselves) against us. And it is masterful.

Readers don’t always like to be deceived. In fact, a writer pulling a fast one often makes a reader feel betrayed. But looking at Gone Girl‘s success, it doesn’t appear the readers minded the deception because of how artfully Flynn pulled it off. Don’t be afraid to deceive your reader, but only if you can pull it off, too.