Category Archives: Storyline

Real Characters

Like many of you, I read a lot. I love the new stuff and the classics. LOTR, Les Miserables, Moby Dick, all fantastic books. But there is no denying that they hold a different voice than novels of today. It’s not just words either. 

First Person POV like, “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought…” has changed. Before it was like the telling of something that happened. But now, even though most First Person POVs are written in past tense, there is a closeness to them that makes it feel as if it is happening now. Present tense often has the effect of feeling like it is taking place in the near future.

First Person today or Close Third allow the reader to get inside the POV character’s head. This sets the medium apart from movies or television and I would propose that this is why the book is most often better than the movie.

For an author to do this effectively, the character needs to be alive with real thoughts and preferences and opinions. How else will they react to what comes their way? And isn’t this fantastic story telling? When the characters take hold and even argue with us the author.

I saw a documentary about the filming of Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark. There is a scene where a samurai guy whips around his sword and taunts Jones. The documentary said that the original script called for an intricate fight scene where Jones eventually beats the Samurai. But Harrison Ford argued that his character had a gun and would simply shoot the Samurai dead. The story was rewritten.

Recently I have been writing a thriller involving a hitman, an FBI agent, a financial guru in witness protection, and I needed another character to round out the mix—a face of the evil corporate conglomerate. Fei. She is a middle-aged Chinese national and she runs a section of the corporation, laundering money made from sex trafficking and drugs.

I’m a discovery writer so often times I start with an idea and see where it goes with a distant idea in mind. I did not expect what Fei decided to do.

I needed her to ask the hitman to kill this guy, but Fei let me know that this was not an easy thing for her to do and that she’d developed feelings for this dude. I pushed it. She had her lover killed. Part of her was sad, and another felt power and control. She handled the death in a very interesting way. Two chapters later and Fei is now a serial killer. I did not expect that at all, but Fei, with her personality, her childhood issues, her lust and disgust for men, her struggling marriage with a husband who is reluctant to come out of the closet, all of these dynamics have formed and created Fei, a person, a character, someone that I would recognize if I bumped into her on the street (and then I’d run like hell in the opposite direction).

Real characters aren’t cliché. They aren’t faceless drones. They are a compilation of many people. They have wants and goals and dreams and they struggle and have weaknesses. And when they are real, we as readers recognize that and the story resonates with us.

I watch people. (Not in a creepy way). I observe their mannerisms. I listen to their word choices. I notice their posture and eye movements. These things make someone unique. And I ask them questions. I listen to how they respond. I strive to understand their ambitions and fears.

All of these mesh and mingle and come out in my writing.

I came up with Jared Sanderson about 7 years ago. He is very real to me. I could describe his physical features that are a mesh of three of my friends. But this little segment, which is his intro into the story, shows a bit of who he is as a character.

“Jared Sanderson gnawed on the side of his thumb as he waited for the attorney. He had forgotten to moisturize so his skin flaked and cracked at the sides of his fingers. By impulse, he chewed away the dead skin, especially when nervous.”

THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER
Jace Killan

I live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I hold an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can check out my books here or at my website www.jacekillan.com.

The Series Arc – A Story Within a Story

Writing a series is the process of telling multiple complete stories within the context of a greater story arc. Each book must be a complete tale in and of itself—with a standalone beginning, middle, and end all sparkling with vivid settings, rich characters, and intricate conflict. Each book sheds only enough light to reveal its portion of the grand design while steadily building tension, book to book, until all is revealed in the final installment.I speak to beginning writers all the time about crafting series. And, after leading off with the whole complete story deal above, I break out the Inception-esque logic of a book-within a book-within a book. Because, really, that’s what we’re writing. The story arc is our overall plot and each book can be seen as an act within the epic structure.   As a hardcore story plotter, or outliner, I need to flesh out the high-level arc enough to figure out where each book begins and ends along with the major concepts or plot points that need to be introduced or even resolved. But nothing is set in stone. The outline is more of a guideline as opposed to an absolute. During the writing process, the story and characters evolve. As they do, they affect the overall series arc, kinda like what Doc Brown harangued Marty McFly about—Be careful, Marty, changes in book one could alter the planned events in book four. Yes, they surely will. And that’s all cool and groovy with me because it means the story is deepening, the events stretching between books tightening, interweaving, becoming more connected to the main line. Let’s see…talked about writing a complete story, shedding light, book within a book, each book like an act…what else? Ah, the hooks. Gotta keep the readers reading. Just like when ending a chapter on a key revelation or decision point to keep the reader turning the pages, in the case of a series, we do the same. Only, it’s done on a grander scale. In the first book of a series, the writer introduces the conflicts that must be resolved in that book and sets the stage for the main series conflict. Of course, that can’t be resolved within the pages of a single book. If it could, we’d call that a stand-alone novel. The writer builds up the action and leaves the right open conflict threads to ensure the reader comes back for the next book. After the denouement, some riveting scene should occur that grabs the reader by the eyes and says, “OMG!”, whetting the reader’s appetite and leaving them wanting more. Hooks in books in arcs. Later, Scott

Plotting a Series

A guest post by Gama Martinez How do you approach a series? How do you make sure that you’re not setting yourself up for difficulties because the rules you established for your world in book 1 make the ending of book 6 not work? One way, naturally, is to outline the whole series, but that can be an equally daunting task. Like outlining a book, outlining a series is not for everyone. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it’s not for most people, and you won’t really know if it’s for you unless you try it. Here’s the method I use. A number of years ago, I was talking to Brandon Sanderson, and I told him that the second book in the Stormlight Archive, Words of Radiance, felt like the end of act 1, and I asked him if that was deliberate. He said that it really was. Books 1 and 2 are act 1. Books 3 and 4 are act 2, and book 5 is act 3. That completely opened my eyes to plotting a series. The traditional three act structure has a number of parts. What I realized in my conversation with Brandon was that many of these could be applied to a series. It’s not as detailed as can be applied to a novel, but the major parts still apply. The first act is a setup. The second, which can be longer than the others, is the protagonist taking a more active role in their journey. Generally, halfway through, there is a shift. We learn that the world is not what it appeared to be. This act ends when things are pretty much as bad as they can possibly get. The third act is recovering and clawing your way toward victory. Fair warning. I am about to be giving a lot of Harry Potter spoilers, because that series illustrates this beautifully, but given that that series ended ten years ago, I’m going to assume that if you want to read it, you have. If that’s not the case, just skip over the next paragraph. For Harry Potter, books 1-2 are act 1. Books 3-6 are act 2, and book 7 is act 3. Books 1 and 2 are basically “Harry goes to Hogwarts and something happens.” We’re introduced to the characters, and they start to come into their own. Sure, a couple of important plot details happen, namely, the destruction of the first horocrux, but it’s mainly getting to know the setting and people. In book 3, there is an immediate change. Harry starts off with a specific goal. He wants to kill Sirius Black. From then on, Harry is a more active protagonist. The shift in tone happens at the end of book 4, with the death of Cedric. Someone has died. They weren’t a monster. They were a friend. This is no longer a story for children. The low point, obviously, is the death of Dumbledore. Hogwarts has always been a safe place. Sure, dangerous things happened, but it was home. Harry was always happy to get there and sad to leave. Now, “father” is dead. Home belongs to the bad guys, and Harry cannot return. I applied many of the same concepts to my Pharim War series. I changed how long each “act” was, but having these points in mind allowed me to outline the entire series fairly early on. I knew what had to happen in book 3. I knew that in book 4, there had to be a shift. I knew where to put the catastrophe. I never follow my outlines exactly, so book 2 didn’t end where I planned. As a result, I had to make minor adjustments to the outline of book 3 before I started, but I knew where the story was going, and that let me jump fairly easily from one book to the next. The ultimate result was a seven book series released entirely in the space of just under a year and a half. Try it out. See if it works for you.   Gama Ray Martinez lives near Salt Lake City, Utah. He moved there solely because he likes mountains. He collects weapons in case he ever needs to supply a medieval battalion, and he greatly resents when work or other real life things get in the way of writing. One of his greatest accomplishments is getting Brandon Sanderson to give him a cover quote for his book, Shadowguard. He secretly hopes to one day slay a dragon in single combat and doesn’t believe in letting pesky little things like reality stand in the way of dreams.

Table For Two

A guest post by Lehua Parker

As an author of books in a three series and workshop instructor, I’m often asked by other writers about character development—specifically, how should characters change from one book to the next. I always say it all depends on whether your series is more like a fast-food burger or a chef’s table dining experience. You know us Hawaiians; it’s all about the food. When you walk into a burger joint, you pretty much know what you’re going to get—some variation of a basic grilled patty in a bun. In its purest form, a burger series is a book version of a television show like The Simpsons. Within an episode there’s usually some character growth—for example, Homer learns that honesty is the best policy when his lies cause a nuclear meltdown in Springfield. But magically, from one episode to the next, Homer’s character is reset to his original factory-flawed default settings. From season one to thirty, Homer chases one doughnut after another, hangs out at Moe’s, and never learns or suffers from the consequences of his actions for more than half an hour. For some audiences, consistency is part of the charm. Don’t knock it. It’s why McDonald’s sells over a billion Big Macs a year—and counting. To keep pages turning, burger books focus on plot, not character development. Detective, children’s, and adventure genres boast some of the best-loved burger series. One of my favorites is Robert Parker’s Spencer novels. First book to last, Spencer changes his underwear and not much else. A crime is committed. It gets solved. Some shooting, drinking, sparkling repartee, and bed-hopping happens in between. The order in which readers devour the novels doesn’t matter much to their enjoyment, no more than having a bacon cheeseburger one day and a jalapeño ranch burger the next. Other burger series include Nancy Drew, Clifford, Curious George, and most chapter book series. Burger book authors understand that with infinite combinations of new toppings and special sauces to season the plot, there’s no reason to mess with the character of the ground chuck. Burger books follow the same beats throughout the series, making outlining a breeze. Without long-term consequences, well-known characters are easily dropped into plot lines limited only by imagination. Best of all, with no over-arching storyline, the series never ends. Like a stop at Five Guys, I know what I’m getting when I pick up a Spencer novel—and I know I’ll like it. For authors trying to make bank with a series, a reader’s taste for charbroiled is gold. The Simpsons is in production on season thirty, folks. That’s how deeply some fans fall in love with characters—the same, unchanging characters. And when you think about it, almost 700 episodes is a lot of lettuce. But no matter how juicy, few people crave burgers all day every day. Variety being the spice of life, it should be no surprise that some series are the literary equivalent of a multi-course chef’s table meal. When you sit at the chef’s table in a restaurant, you relinquish control over your dining experience to the chef who determines the pacing, ingredients, and presentation of each course. For readers, it’s about surrendering the meal to the author and savoring each dish on the way to dessert. Think of the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling. In each book, the wizardlings go on grand adventures as they defeat obstacles like finding the Philosopher’s Stone or winning the Tri-Wizard Tournament. But underneath every scene is a more important tension, an overarching conflict between Voldermort and Harry that advances until the series climax. Now imagine if you’d read the last book, Deathly Hollows, first. The entire meal is ruined. You can’t go back and experience the delicious tension that builds in the previous six books knowing Dumbledore’s end game and Snape’s true character. The pay-off of the climax is reduced to a whimper if you haven’t seen Harry, Ron, and Hermione grow from knock-kneed first years to full-blown wizards. Reading a chef’s table series out of order is the equivalent of eating dessert first and spoiling your appetite. Just as a chef considers the textures, flavors, and juxtapositions of each dish in his set menu, the author of a cohesive serial story forces characters to change and grow from book to book, ultimately piquing the reader’s hunger for the next course. Chef’s table series can—and should—have fantastically engaging external plots, but the real nuance and satisfaction comes from the unfolding of the characters’ internal journeys. Chef’s table series tend to be epic in scale and page count. Big thick books offer immersion into not only a world and plot, but into the characters’ innermost desires, thoughts, and beliefs about themselves and the world around them. The conceit that chef’s table books change lives has a grain of truth. Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Dark Tower, A Song of Ice and Fire—all multi-course chef’s table meals. For a satisfying binge-worthy read, these are the droids—and books—you’re looking for. So as an author, which kind of series is right for you? Do you focus on interchangeable, plot driven books or on crafting one long extended meal served in courses? Burger books are fun and fast to create—over the lips, on the tongue, and gone the next minute—designed to delight readers and probably stick to the ribs no longer than lunch. The payoff’s fast and delicious, and the time commitment for the reader is seldom more serious than a few hours, making burger books easy for casual diners to take a chance on. Burger book characters don’t change much from book to book, and that’s a good thing. Chef’s table series allow authors to explore deeper themes as they build flavors and textures through multiple books on the way to a death by chocolate climax and pay off. Chef’s table series are designed for pondering deep truths, and authors and readers can lose themselves in the stories for days, weeks, months—even years. These hearty stories stick to ribs, and unlike many burger books, carry the heart and soul of the author. Through a chef’s table series, characters go through the wringer and come out 180° from where they started, and that’s a good thing. Me? I cook like a write: a little of this, a pinch of that. Along with works that combine to tell one continuous arcing storyline, I write shorter burger books that tie in with my chef’s table offerings. Often a burger book will bring casual readers to one of my chef’s table series, hungry for more. At the very least, burger books give fans something to snack on as they wait for the next chef’s table seating. Most importantly, I find an occasional burger book is a much-needed break from all the angst of a chef’s table series. Sometimes an author needs to write about a shark munching a disrespectful tourist without contemplating the meaning of being a monster. But I digress. Happy writing! And bon appétit!   LEHUA PARKER is the author of the award-winning MG/YA Pacific literature magic realism fiction series, The Niuhi Shark Saga: One Boy, No Water; One Shark, No Swim; and One Truth, No Lie, and other speculative works. Originally from Hawaii and a graduate of The Kamehameha Schools, Lehua is an author, book doctor, public speaker, and business consultant. Trained in literary criticism and an advocate of indigenous cultural narratives, Lehua is a frequent speaker at conferences and symposiums. She cannot wait for June to see how the Honolulu Theater for Youth has adapted her work into a play. To find out more about her works or to follow her adventures via social media, visit her website at www.LehuaParker.com.