Category Archives: Setting and Milieu

Hook and Carry

I’ve heard Brandon Sanderson say it, I’ve gone to multiple David Farland workshops and heard him say it, and all the best authors know it: escalate!

The problem is, we often think of this only in terms of the action, the main problems, the basic plot. To write that book that nobody can put down we need to escalate everything. Every subplot, every character arc, every social dynamic, needs to be escalated in some way in order to grip our readers so tight that they just can’t let go. I’d like to focus on one point in this escalation process: The Hook and Carry.

Sometimes, a good hook can seem in conflict with the escalate philosophy. You want that first sentence of your book, the first hook, to be so good that the reader HAS to read your story. That means you have to jump in with a conflict that will knock their socks off. Right? Not exactly.

In order to escalate into the main conflict, you need to set the stage, give the reader a sense of the characters and why they’re important and then ease them into the opening conflict. Right? Not exactly.

One of the most challenging aspects of writing is balancing that opening hook with the much-needed escalation of conflict in a story. This is where the fact that we’re escalating every aspect of a book comes into play. That opening hook needs to pull us in with a question (or conflict) that we want to see resolved, though it doesn’t have to be THE conflict.

The hook can be an emotional dilemma: “Susan cried as she knelt over the casket. She would still strangle him if she had to do it again, but she would miss him.”

It can be a physical obstacle: “They circled one another, Chris and the mountain lion, each in the way of what the other wanted.”

The hook can even be completely unrelated, a stepping stone into the setting of the real conflict. “My tight red sweater announced my changed status to the student body with defiance; I was single, available, and I was happy about it, regardless of the pain I hid behind my cherry lipstick.”

Now, I’m not saying these are remotely good hooks. They’re rather thrown together, but I think they get across the idea. You’ve got to hook the fish if you’re going to have him for dinner, but you’ve got to keep some tension in the line if you’re going to bring him to shore. Don’t spend your readers’ precious time introducing them to the backstory. Jump in with a secret, a mystery, a conflict, that immediately grabs your readers’ interest. Then you can set the stage as your character deals with what’s immediately in front of them. After that, then follow all of the great advice from the other posts this month as you escalate, escalate, escalate.

Colette Black Bio:
Author PicColette Black lives in the far outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona with her family, 2 dogs, a mischievous cat and the occasional unwanted scorpion. Author of the Mankind’s Redemption Series, The Number Prophecy series, and the upcoming Legends of Power series, Colette writes New Adult and Young Adult sci-fi and fantasy novels with kick-butt characters, lots of action, and always a touch of romance. Find her at www.coletteblack.net

 

The power of motion

Hello all! I’m excited to be back for my second post of the month. As I’ve already presented my year in review <link> for this post I’m allowed to write about any subject I want. I’ve decided to cover what I feel is a very moving subject in writing fiction: motion!

Now, I don’t specifically mean the physical motion of characters (walking, running, etc) as much I as am referring to the motion of your characters through your setting and your story. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to call that concept ‘story motion’ and I feel it is a really great way to keep your reader engaged.

I recall one of the first writing workshops I attended was David Farland’s Writing Mastery n beautiful St. George, Utah. (Aside: I can’t recommend Dave’s workshops enough! Here’s a <Link>. Check them out!) One of the first things I remember Dave discussing was the setting you used for your scenes. Dave recommended never returning to the same setting twice, as this will lend a sense of motion to your story and keep your reader from getting bored seeing the same places over and over again.

As advice, this really stuck with me as an excellent idea. To illustrate this idea, let’s use that pop culture touchstone / yardstick: Star Wars.

If you follow Luke Skywalker’s scene-by-scene progress through the movie, you’ll see that he never goes back to the same place twice. Below is just an example of his actions on Tatooine:

  • Tatooine: Market outside Sandcrawler*
  • Tatooine: Owen / Beru’s Farm*
  • Tatooine: Jundland Wastes
  • Tatooine: Ben’s Cave
  • Tatooine: Sandcrawler after Empire attack*
  • Tatooine: Owen / Beru’s Farm*
  • Tatooine: Mos Eisley
  • Tatooine: Cantina
  • Tatooine: Docking Bay 94

Note: In a few cases (marked with a *) it is technically the same location, but the setting has fundamentally changed, these cases due to violence. A writer would need to describe the changes to the settings, thus making them ‘new’ for the reader.

This is just Luke, just in one part of one movie. Across all three movies, he really only leaves and returns to exactly the same place once, without the setting having fundamentally changed in the interim: Yoda’s hut.If you look at all of the original Star Wars movies, there is this constant feeling of progress and movement. Presenting the viewer with new and interesting settings has a lot to do with this.

This process is by no means uncommon, in fact I can see this pattern in many popular movies. Oddly enough though, I’ve read many books that followed a more television-style model where characters have a home base setting that they keep returning to. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but it raises the need for other elements to hold the reader’s interest. The Hall of Justice is only interesting the first time you’ve had it described to you, after that it’s just a place with some computers, tables and a big screen.

I’ve come to realize that I subconsciously plugged Mr. Farland’s advice into most of the writing I’ve done since. In that time I’ve written two novels, a novella and about eight short stories. Almost all of them have this motion pattern to them. Often the characters are traveling from one place to another in my stories, but even when they are not they are visiting new scene settings inside that same location.

I think the lesson is this: Never ask the reader to look at something they’ve seen before when you can show them something new. New places and settings keep the interest fresh and allow a sense of movement and progression that keeps the reader engaged.

See you next time!

Learning to Piece Together the Story Puzzle

I have found that there a few divides amongst writers more contentious than the arguments between discovery writers (pantsers) and outliners. I used to be firmly a member of the pantser camp. While I recognized that outlining had its benefits, I felt that planning with such excruciating detail would “ruin the fun” of creation. Plus, outlining was difficult and boring. The outline would only change as I got into the trenches and discovered something new and shiny, so what was the point? I had tried to outline a few times, I argued, and it hadn’t worked for me. It never would.

Fortunately, I had a few friends patient enough to take the time to convince me otherwise. Outlining isn’t a single, specific, regimented process, they argued, but rather a way of approaching a story deliberately. I would still create, discover the characters, the world, and the plot in the brainstorming section of the process. Then, the outline itself would be like writing an extremely condensed first draft. I would be able to edit it for major structural problems without the emotional baggage that came with hours and hours spent working on prose.

Once I had a coherent skeleton, I could write the first draft without worrying about writing my way into corners. My structural edits would already be done, and so I could focus my creative energies on producing powerful prose, vivid descriptions, and touching emotional moments. Not only would my first draft be better than what I had done before, it would also take less time to complete.

As for the “inefficiency” of prewriting, any time that I spent up front would be repaid twice over in the back end of the first draft. My manuscript would be leaner and free from most, if not all, structural problems. Additionally, outlines were guides, not shackles. Of course the outline would change as I wrote, but I would “discover deliberately” rather than wandering off into the weeds. I would be able to compare new ideas against a well thought out plot and be able to decide what was truly better for the story. Though it took a few years of conversations and cajoling, they eventually won me over.

Convinced, I decided that 2016 would be the year that I learned to outline. I struggled for a few months and grew disheartened. Outlining was proving to be as difficult, boring, and ineffective as I had feared it would be. I took my problems back to my writing group and we talked through numerous blocks. The issue, I eventually came to realize, was that I hadn’t learned the skills I would need to outline effectively. I knew how to work with character, with plot, with theme, and with milieu. I had all the pieces, but didn’t know how to put the puzzle together.

Again, I was lucky in that I wasn’t alone in my struggles. Of the three members in my group, two of us were discovery writers who were trying to make the transition. After some discussion, we decided to act as a group to resolve the problem. We enrolled in one of David Farland’s online classes, The Story Puzzle. Over the course of 16 weeks, the Story Doctor walked us through his process and theories, answered our questions via email and the biweekly conference calls, and provided valuable feedback on the writing assignments we submitted to him.

It was hard and frustrating at first, but eventually I found the joy that has always driven me to write. I was still discovering and creating, but by doing so deliberately I was finding more than I had expected. My story improved with each passing week and I began feeling the itch, the need to dive in and write prose. I resisted and kept working Dave’s process. By the end of the class, I had all the pieces that I needed and some good guidance on how to put them together into a functional outline. I was in no way ready to begin writing the first draft, but I knew how to get there.

Time passed as I continued to work on my outline. I built my world, wrote down scraps of description and dialog, and found ways to heighten my story and characters on every level. On the first day of each month, I surveyed my progress and decided if I was ready to start prose. Month after month, I judged that I was close, but not quite there. It wasn’t that I was stalling, like I had in the past when my project seemed intimidating. Rather, I had a task list that I needed to finish.

Then came the first day of another month. November first. NaNoWriMo had just begun. I looked over all of my prewriting and decided that, yes, I was ready. I dove into the prose and emerged thirty days later with my first ever NaNo victory. The story wasn’t done, in fact I had quite a ways yet to go. Rather, I had proved to myself that with a good outline to guide me, I could out-write my old pace by a fairly significant margin. Most importantly, I knew that I could do it again. And again. It was the sort of skill that I could develop into a career.

Animation: The Underrated Adaptation

mc_animated03If you are a fan of long, epic fantasy, there are plenty of series that either you or others will describe as “un-adaptable.” They even said it about A Song of Ice and Fire at one point. In fact, George R.R. Martin, disgusted by Hollywood at the time, specifically wrote the series to be impossible to adapt. But as big-budget as Game of Thrones has wound up being, it has one major advantage over a lot of other fantasy epics: very little magic, and none of it used day-to-day. That lets the creators splurge on big moments where needed. Other series like The Wheel of Time, where magic is used almost constantly from early on, would be much costlier to adapt.

But there is a way.

The Wheel of Time is reportedly heading toward a television adaptation. I would like to humbly suggest that any attempt to adapt such a vast and sprawling series do so via animation.

Animation doesn’t get used as an adaptation technique all that often. Despite The Simpsons being almost 30 years old (ugh), it still often carries a stigma of being “for kids.” Star Wars has bucked the trend, with the animated Clone Wars and Rebels scoring well with both kids and adults. And no wonder, for animation has several advantages over live-action, two of which factor heavily into adapting a sprawling, multi-volume epic.

  1. Budget Leveling:Let’s say you’re making Star Trek: The Animated Series, and you are lamenting the fact that the aliens in Star Trek almost always look like humans with various ridges on their faces and heads. There were very real budgetary constraints on the low-budget live show when it aired in the 1960s, and humanoid life was the easiest alien life to achieve, because actors in makeup were easier to manage than puppets or nascent visual effects. But in an animated series, Captain Kirk costs as much to draw as an alien that bears no resemblance to a human. Thus do you get Lieutenant Arex, the three-armed, three-legged, long-necked Edosian who would have been impossible to realize in live action at the time. Thus also do you get scenes with the characters wearing “life support belts” that enable them to explore areas of open space and hard vacuum, because one setting costs as much to animate as another, giving the writers far more options to play with.So imagine an adaptation of The Wheel of Time as an animated series. The budget for visual effects is the budget for the entire show. Animating Rand al’Thor battling Ba’alzamon in the sky above Falme costs the same as having them fight in a forest. Having characters channel (use magic), something that a live action series would have to depict sparingly, could be treated as the everyday occurrences they were in the books.
  2. Actor Aging:Above I discussed the first big problem in adapting sprawling epics, the “epic” part. Now I’ll tackle the second: sprawl. Specifically, I’m referring to temporal sprawl, or rather, the amount of time it takes to translate multi-volume epics to the screen. For reference, let’s look at Harry Potter. The series spans seven years in the lives of the characters over seven volumes. The movies (there are eight of them in the main sequence) were released over ten years. Now believably saying that child actors aged only seven years when in fact they aged ten isn’t difficult. Audiences have long been conditioned to accept older actors as younger characters.But consider this: the events of The Wheel of Time take place over the course of approximately three years. The series is fourteen books long. Even with the inevitable paring down of the number of seasons, it’s a much taller order to convincingly look as though only three years have passed when a decade has.

    Or, you could not even bother, because animated characters can stay the same age forever, and when the only element of the actor required is their voice, you needn’t limit your casting decisions by adding a “must look young for their age” requirement. To once again reference The Simpsons, perpetually ten-year-old Bart Simpson is voiced by 59-year-old Nancy Cartwright.

I would love to see more “un-adaptable” series I love find new lives in animation. It’s the best way of bringing a complex, effects-heavy story to life without cutting it to the bone or rendering it a pale shadow of its true self. Here’s hoping that more creators will follow the lead of Star Wars and Star Trek and explore this sadly underutilized adaptation option.