The Fictorians

Posts Tagged ‘plotting techniques’

Having the Self Awareness to Horrify Others

20 February 2014 | 1 Comment » | Nathan Barra

I write short stories to experiment with new genres and techniques. Last August, I caught wind of an anthology that was opening for submissions. However, the genre, horror, was largely beyond my experience. I had read a few books, watched a number of movies, and even written a piece or two, but I was still stepping outside my comfort zone. Perfect! I brainstormed, scanning my consciousness for an idea that was shiny enough to start with that I could polish it into a true gem.

My inner eye first turned to the bestiary, drudging up images inspired by the abominations of Lovecraft, the near satirical creatures of B-rated movies and creeping things that I had imagined living in the shadows as a child. I paired monsters with characters, with milieus and with plots, searching for tension and conflict. I worked my way through what felt like dozens of combinations, fleshing out a few, but discarding most. Everything still felt flat, unexciting and unoriginal.

Frustrated, I stood up from my computer and wandered, trying to figure out where I was going wrong. The monsters I was creating were as good as any I had ever read, seen or made up myself. There was nothing inherently wrong with any of the elements I had assembled, and yet, I was not having a strong emotional reaction. How could I expect anyone else to feel when I did not?

As I prefer my horror in the form of movies, I turned to my collection, flipping through the pages of disks, looking for the echo of emotion that the remembrance of a truly good horror inspires. Das Experiment. Mr. Brooks. Untracable. Pathology. Of all my movies, these four psychological thrillers inspired the strongest reactions of anticipation and fear, the same emotions I sought to evoke in my readers.

For me, it was the difference of conscious intent. The creatures I had imagined were beasts, acting on instinct or hunger. The villains I had admired and feared were rational and extremely intelligent, acting for a variety of motives but all with horrifying cruelty and viciousness. It was the actions of humans and the human mind that I feared more than the brutality of beasts.

I spent hours over the following weeks considering what horrified me, coming up with a number of story ideas that I feel are gems in need of polishing. The difference for me was self-awareness. I found that I could not write something truly horrifying to others until I could first horrify myself.

The Power of Repetition

26 September 2013 | 1 Comment » | fictorians

KnightOfFlameA guest post by Scott Eder.

I’m always looking for ways to take my writing to the next level. Classes, books, podcasts, conversations… the list goes on. As a perpetual student, I’m learning and practicing every single day. But some lessons are tougher than others and require multiple strikes of the hammer to drive a single point home. In my case, the single point I struggled with was grabbing the reader right out of the gate. It’s a simple concept, really. A story needs to grab the reader’s interest as soon as possible, and refuse to let him go. Compelling characters, barbed hooks, unique conflicts, scintillating writing, and a crisp, unique voice combine to clamp onto the reader’s imagination, tightening his interest with each turn of the page.

Easy, right? You’d think so, but it took listening to a panel of agents and editors at DragonCon for the meaning to really sink in.

When I first started writing, I thought I had time, story time that is. I opened at a soft, descriptive pace that gently introduced the reader to my setting and characters. After that, I stirred in the conflict, ratcheting up the stress and intensity, until eventually achieving resolution. I thought this approach meshed with the fantasy genre. I needed time for world building, and to introduce the uniqueness of my characters, right? So why didn’t I get any interest from the agents and editors I queried? The form rejection letters didn’t help, didn’t tell me what I needed to fix.

I realized that I was missing some critical piece to the story-telling puzzle, and made the decision to seek professional help. (Hehe. I felt a little crazy at this point.) After taking several classes where the instructors helped me understand that I needed to get to the conflict sooner, that I needed to hook the reader up front, I thought I had it. Instead of getting to the action within the first few chapters, I streamlined my writing, introduced setting, characters and conflict in a more compelling way by the end of chapter one.

Woohoo! With my newfound skills, I’d break into the biz in no time. My stories rocked. Or so I thought. But the growing collection of form rejections told a different story. If one of those editors or agents would take a minute and give me something, a hint, a bit of advice, anything to clue me in as to what was missing, I’d have a chance to fix it. Nope. Just a thanks for playing, and have a nice day.

Crap. Now what?

One of the things David Farland mentioned in his class was that you could meet editors and agents at certain conventions. I checked the Interwebs and found DragonCon. I’d heard about this fabled event, but never attended. Once I found several editors and agents on the guest list, I booked my travel plans.

DragonCon has an excellent writer’s track. Panels conducted by authors, publishers, agents, and editors, with topics ranging from writing basics to more advanced publishing concerns, run all day, every day. One of the most heavily attended is the combined editors and agents panel. I got there early, but by the time it started, it was standing room only. It turned out to be more of a question and answer session, than a formalized presentation, which was fine, because I had a lot of the same questions other aspiring writers in the throng dared to ask. And then it happened. The crowd disappeared, the lights dimmed, and the panelists turned to face me, metaphorically anyway. Their comments hit me hard.

One agent said, “Look, you need to draw me in right away. Like on the first page. With all the submissions I get, I don’t have time to read pages and pages, waiting for something interesting to happen.”

An editor chimed in. “Yeah. I’m rooting for you, but unless you hook me within the first page or two with something, and it doesn’t have to be your primary conflict, but something to make me keep reading, you’re done.”

“Hell, you need to grab me in the first paragraph or two,” said the agent at the far end of the table. “I’ll give you a little more time if you have a nifty voice, but not much.”

I blinked a few times as the import of their words sunk in. The first page or two? Hmm…The chatter continued, but I zoned out, churning over how make my first few pages addictive. I wanted the reader turning the pages of my book as if he’d just popped the top on a fresh can of Pringles.

After several iterations, and an enthusiastic thumbs-up from my critique group, I sent it back out. This time, it sold!

And all it took were several books, a few teachers, and one panel at a convention to make it stick. Never stop learning. Make it a part of your writing process to seek out new techniques and information. You never know which one will make the difference between rejection and acceptance.

Guest Writer Bio:
Scott EderSince he was a kid, Scott wanted to be an author.

Through the years, fantastic tales of nobility and strife, honor and chaos dominated his thoughts. After twenty years mired in the corporate machine, he broke free to bring those stories to life.

Scott lives with his wife and two children on the west coast of Florida.

Check out Knight of Flame on Scott’s Website: www.scotteder.net

Serendipity is a Weird Mistress

23 September 2013 | Comments Off | Ace Jordyn

Serendipity really is a weird mistress. I mean, I’d been wondering for months what I could do to take my writing to the next level. I’ve edited an anthology, I’ve published and yet I found myself feeling absolutely stuck. A mentor was what I wanted – someone to show me how I could improve. But where are they? All the really good writers I know are writing and publishing with little time to spare. My critique groups (I love every writer in them) felt predictable. Plus, I couldn’t afford to go on an expensive training session. So where could I get the injection of awareness and learning to improve my craft?

When Serendipity cast her hand, I was elated for my help came in three ways:

Psychotherapy for writers and their characters
Maass-Writing-21st-Century-Fiction-cover
Based on his latest book Writing the 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, Donald Maass’s one day workshop focused on making writing deeper, more meaningful, more palpable and more energized. It was psychotherapy for the writer and story characters. Here are two examples of the exercises he had us do. If you answer them honestly, then it creates an opportunity to take your writing to the next level because the core of who you are becomes the core of your characters and that’s what readers find interesting.

Example #1 What can’t I say in my story (what is it I fear writing about)? When does my protagonist fear the very thing I’m not saying? When does my protagonist become me?

Example #2 What makes me blissfully happy? How is it different for me than for anybody else? When in my story will the protagonist experience the same bliss?

Example #3 What feeling was new to me in the last year? When in the story will my protagonist experience this same new feeling? What happens that stirs this new feeling?

An awesome revision checklist
My imagination is boundless – I have five first draft novels on my desk waiting for revision. Yet the very idea mortified me – if I’m writing at a certain level, how do I know what to look for? How do I make my story better? When I attended FictionWriterCoverWeb-190x300Nina Munteanu’s one hour presentation on revision at the When Words Collide Conference the pieces to the puzzle fell together and now revising is totally fun!

I was elated to discover that I had many of the skills and resources I needed to revise. What I lacked was structure for the task. Revising, I learned, is a ten step process. The second step, Dig Deep, is the most exciting for it gives permission to restructure and change things to make the story better. For example, I had been toying with changing the gender of a main character but was unsure. Then, Nina said it was okay. Bingo! When I did it, I discovered that I hadn’t made the original character as strong and unique as I thought – there were trite mannerisms and stereotypical reactions I had subconsciously written. Why should a female wail and a male not? Or did I want either of them wailing? Was that the reaction I wanted? Of course not! Out with the stereotypes, in with more concrete characters and writing. It’s given me a whole new perspective as I examine all my characters.

The other helpful thing about the book is that Nina has a good succinct information on things important to telling a good story such as an overview of the hero’s journey, using the metaphor, getting sensual, the Zen of passionate writing and more. Simply and succinctly written, The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now is an excellent resource which has helped me get my writing to the next level. Simply written (I don’t have the patience for long dissertations), it makes its points quickly on essential things such as the hero’s journey, using the metaphor, getting sensual, the Zen of passionate writing and more. Nina will be our guest next week, so be sure to join us then.

Learning from each other
computer 2
Many writer friends, including some in my critique groups, also attended sessions, took workshops or did cool things like attend Odyssey for six weeks. Now, we have some truly interesting discussions, brainstorming sessions and meaningful critiques. I learned that the mentors I sought weren’t some magical gurus from best seller lists (although I wouldn’t turn one of those down!). They’re local writers who continue to learn and grow. Because we each pick up on different things, we can see issues in each other’s writing that the writer cannot. The importance of having a learning, supportive group becomes evident when you read a novel’s acknowledgement page. Great mid-list and best seller authors credit numerous people for everything from technical information to proof reading and editorial advice. We all need a community to help us get to the next level.

So yeah, taking my writing to the next level was as simple as 1,2,3: psychotherapy, a revision checklist, and having a community of good supportive writers who have the same aspirations. Serendipity provided me the tools I needed to grow as a writer – I just needed to take advantage of them when they presented themselves. I’m really glad I did.

Happy writing!

 

Calling back to the familiar when starting new: Star Trek: Into Darkness

8 July 2013 | 7 Comments » | Nancy

 

resonance Whether we know it or not, we all respond to resonance in story telling. “What’s resonance?” you ask. To borrow from David Farland’s wonderful novel, Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing,

All successful writers use resonance to enhance their stories by drawing power from stories that came before, by resonating with their readers’ experiences, and by resonating within their own works.

Farland, David (2012-12-09). Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing (Kindle Locations 79-82). . Kindle Edition.

We feel powerful emotions when we read a book that somehow resembles other works that we love.

Farland, David (2012-12-09). Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing (Kindle Locations 100-101). . Kindle Edition.

 

trek into darkness

So, what are you going to do when you want to start fresh for one of the most popular franchises ever? Tell your own story, but make sure it resonates with what came before. Star Trek: Into Darkness excels at this.

SPOILER ALERT: THIS POST TALKS IN DETAIL ABOUT STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS THERE WILL BE SPOILERS SO IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW, STOP READING NOW. I’LL FORGIVE YOU. GO WATCH THE MOVIE AND COME BACK.

You have been warned.

Love or hate the rebooted Star Trek, you have to admire the talent that went behind creating it. The first movie set the franchise on its head. Star Trek: Into Darkness continues this seeming disregard for the prior Star Trek universe, but if you dissect the movie, you can tell that isn’t the case.

Let me start with an apology. Because Into Darkness is still in theatres, I’m sure I didn’t catch all the references. For some reasons, the people in the seats near mine objected to my flashlight and incessant note taking. But I think my barely legible notes will do well to illustrate the masterful use of resonance in this movie.

Star Trek: Into Darkness starts with a scene that could have been left on the cutting room floor from Raiders of the Lost Arc. Kirk and Bones have stolen a cultural icon, one they aren’t even sure what it is, and are being chased by angry spear wielding natives. See, the similarity to Raiders? No? Substitute Trek’s white-skinned natives for the dark-skinned ones in Raiders and the scroll from Trek with the little gold statue Indy steals before the rock comes rolling down. While Kirk and Bones don’t jump into a plane and fly away. they do swim down to the Enterprise and fly away.

What does director J.J. Abrams get from starting like this? A couple of things. He’s setting himself apart from the Trek movies that have come before. He’s also promising us that this Trek will be an action adventure movie in space. Abrams resoundingly delivers on this promise.

Even with his apparent disregard for the prior Trek universe (you know, the one he blew up), Abrams constantly refers back to it. One of the challenges Abrams has with his reboot is giving us characters that resemble, at least at first, the ones we know and love from the original Star Trek, and then developing them in a new direction based on the universe changes. But some truths remain constant. Kirk remains a womanizer. Bones isn’t keen on transporters.

When Kirk, Spock and Uhura need to go to Cronos, the Klingon home world, they take two security officers. Those officers happen to be the bullies who beat up Kirk in the first reboot before Christopher Pike convinces Kirk to join Star Fleet. The ship they take is from the “Mudd incident.” Harry Mudd, of course, featured heavily in the original series. In Season 1, Episode 6, Mudd’s Women, and Season 2, Episode 8, I, Mudd, the irrascable conman, Harry Mudd plagues Kirk and his crew. The quick one line encompasses two of the original Trek episodes.

When they arrive at Cronos. we see that the moon. Praxis, has already exploded. Even though Abrams has foreclosed a remake of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered County by already having the moon explode, he references the prior movie. The audience already knows why the moon exploded, and Into Darkness doesn’t have to delve into that bit of history.

The Klingons themselves call back to the Star Trek Next Generation ones. There is a similarity in design, but makeup designer Neville Page takes them up a level. These Kilngons are even more kick butt, not that I had thought that possible until I saw these. The gold accents to the skull ridges makes them an edgier version.

Bones experiments on a dead tribble. Who can forget the tribbles and the trouble they caused in The Trouble with Tribbles, Season 2, Episode 15? Because this is a reboot, rather than the plague the tribbles were in the original series, a tribble saves the day, sort of.

Of course, the biggest reveal and resonance in the story is…

BONUS SPOILER ALERT: Really if you haven’t seen the movie yet, don’t read past this point.

…that the villain, thought to be a rouge Star Fleet member, is actually Khan Noonien Singh. Khan is probably the most love nemesis from the original series and movies. Khan first appeared in Season 1, Episode 22′s Space Seed, and who could forget the movie: Star Trek, Wrath of Khan?

 Once Khan’s identity is revealed there is a logical and inevitable progression to a scene that could have been twisted right out of Wrath of Khan. Twisted, but still almost beat for beat the same.

Kirk faces the Kobayashi Maru situation when the Dreadnaught class ship pounds Enterprise. His ship is crippled and his crew about to be exterminated. It’s a scenario he’s cheated in both the original Trek and the reboot. This time he doesn’t get to cheat. He loses.

Abrams doesn’t let you forget that this is an action adventure movie in space. The dying Enterprise’s engines finally rebooting, the ship falls through the clouds. You can hear the squawk of chatter as Spock tries to get Enterprise airworthy again. The camera stays above the cloud bank. Then a triumphant Enterprise roars through the clouds and gains altitude. While Abrams didn’t have the ship silhouetted by the moon, like they did with the Batplane in Batman, the resonance rings true. We know what’s coming. A kick butt fight between the hero and villain. Again, Abrams delivers.

Even the final moments of the movie refers to other ones. There’s a paraphrasing of a The Princess Bride quote, though I was really hoping for the actual quote; “You’ve been mostly dead…” Still, Bones came close enough. And of course, the movie ends with the Enterprise starting its 5 year journey to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Abrams’ careful interweaving of elements of the prior Trek Universe into his reboot has me looking forward to the next installment of the new franchise.

The Take Home:  Resonance matters. It is probably the most compelling tool we have in our writer’s tool box. So, how do you successfully retell a classic? By paying intentional homage to what came before. If the story is too “new” your audience will reject it. By carefully weaving elements of what came before into the new story, you give the readers a frame of reference, make them certain promises, and give them a comfort zone from which to relax and launch themselves into your retelling of a classic.

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