Category Archives: Toolbox for Writers Craft

Writing is a craft – these are our tools. To retain their effectiveness, all tools need to be kept sharp and new and shiny.

And Then Along Came …

The Character and his journey. That’s what story is about, isn’t it? A character in conflict who struggles to find resolution. The journey implies an arc, something that aligns with the concept and theme and context of the setting and background and turmoils. Because a character has an arc, the story has an arc, and the lesson learned is something aligned with one or two or three bits of ‘the six things’ (which we’ll discuss later).

The story shows us how the character begins his life in this story. We see the first dimension things like how he looks, dresses, what language he uses when he speaks and thinks, the things he likes to surround himself with – all 1D elements of this character.

Then we see the second dimension things: the reasons or excuses for some of the 1D characterisations. Sounds simple, but understanding why a person does something, applying backstory to try to understand a 1D practice, is harder than it first appears. A person can be in a given situation and react in a particular manner – a practiced manner or an instinctive manner (instinct =3D, later). 2D can be the reason they do something a particular way, but the character chooses – it is choice that matters. One person may respond with a response that is reasonable based on the backstory, and the next person may react in a completely different manner. They have chosen to respond to the life-incidents that form 2D characterisation in different ways (but it better conform to the known psychological patterns [unless an alien learning how we operate, of course] and human needs).

And third dimension? This is the core of a person. Their inner beliefs and innate responses to situations. A scream when the snake runs over the path barely one step in front of them versus the other who freezes in the same circumstance. 3D is not the same for all. But it is the core of that person. This is the part of character that needs to be demonstrated as part of the character arc. In Part 1, the 3D is the weaker response, the unlearned innate or instinctive reaction. Part 2 shows the learning process and how hard it is; Part 3 shows the beginning of the fight back (and the losses and scars incurred in the process); Part 4 shows the changes at the core of the character. 3D is different in Part 4, and it should be obvious, through the whole of the story, that this is the true journey. The change.

However, that change may be limited. If a person does the whole gamut, gets to the end, does the heroic thing, and then falls back into ‘life as it was’ – is this the wrong journey? No. People are varied in how they learn and grow. Sometimes the lesson sticks, sometimes not.

Life is like a character arc. Change is hard. We may work up to making the change for the moment it’s required, and then, and then, and then we go back to what’s expected of us, or what we’re comfortable with, or ….

Character arc is the person in the story learning, being burned, relearning, struggling, and coming through for something or someone. Or not. The underlying theme is discovered through the journey he takes through the context of his story.

Remember the auto-responses: fight, flight, freeze. Show the change in character by the use of these auto (core) responses. Does learning or training change one or more? Does the fight to retain or regain something cause a change in how these auto-responses are managed?

Story is: a character in conflict who struggles to find resolution. Characterisation is where the story shows the struggle (internal and external – and the crossover).

Good luck with that!

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From Concept to Storyboard

Structure – sounds easy, sounds good, and we have an understanding of all the little words strung together to make it sound very ‘writerly’ and vague.

It’s not. Vague, that is. And it can be very simple – but only once you work out which method, which form, works best for the way you work.

So, let’s have a look, shall we?

Structure – from Concept to Storyboard

The first thing to do is find an idea, and from the idea we build a concept of a story and then we turn it into a premise (read Larry Brooks for examples).

Idea: travel to Darwin; concept: travel to Darwin by camel and stop at Rainbow Desert [etc.]; premise: harassed daughter travels with mother [to find a good spot to bury her where no one will find the body!] to Darwin by camel, stopping at Rainbow Desert, etc.

Some people do log-lines for this purpose (see Save the Cat by Snyder), some people like to write out the ‘initial idea’ scenario, some people do other things – what do you do with your idea?

In order to do the ‘Good Story Well Told’ the critical things to know are:

Does the title and cover tell you what it is? If not, why would a reader go further? And if they get the wrong idea about what it is and go in, will they be disappointed? Very important.

What is it? It’s the hero’s story – who he is, who/what he’s up against, and what’s at stake. The premise with the most conflict, the baddest bad guy, the clearest goal – that’s a winner concept. So, it’s about a guy … who is someone we can learn from, want to follow because we are connected to him by empathy, deserves to get what he needs/wants, has the best reason for the stakes at risk. Choose the most suitable character and premise for the genre of the story.

A scene is one event in one place/time from one POV where something happens.

A beat is an action-reaction – a movement.


And we come to a Beat Sheet. There are lots of examples out there; some are very complex, some are very simple. Some have only five beats, some have nine, some have fifteen. Choose the one that works for you (I like Snyder, but have amended to suit the way I work – you can too).

Fill in the main beats: the Inciting Incident, the First Plot Point (1PP), the MidPoint (MP), the Second Plot Point (2PP) – then go back to fill in the bits in each Part.

Part 1 (Act 1 for some) 25% of the story – contains the Setup, Catalyst (or Inciting Incident), and ends (after the Debate) when the DECISION is made to step forward (this is the 1PP);

Part 2 (Act 2, part 1) 25% of the story – contains the response: running, learning, hiding, challenging; mistakes happen; initial attempts at attack don’t produce the results expected; losses happen (Snyder calls it the Fun ‘n Games section); this is the place for a pinch point (which is ‘see the baddy’), ends with the MidPoint;

Part 3 (Act 2, part 2) 25% of the story – contains the Attack, by them and hero (MC) using new info, new knowledge of tools, courage, etc. in an attempt to overcome the (committed and powerful and complex and cunning) enemy/bad guy/antagonist. Several bits here: another pinch point in the middle somewhere, an All is Lost moment, the Dark Night moment, and ends with the 2PP;

Part 4 (Act 3) 25% of the story (no new info in this part) – contains the resolution and finale, the lessons learned can be used in more effective way, the lessons learned put to good use, better equipped to move on, change and growth into the hero – evolved from coward to courageous, from isolated to engaged, inner demons conquered. Now prepared to act, to apply learning to implement heroic decisions – even to the point of martyrdom.  This is where the six things (see Snyder) are shown as proved or disproved or irrelevant.

That’s what the four parts are, the four q’s. Find a beat sheet to put the right things in each of the four q’s and you’re well on the way. Oh, and don’t forget – for every sub-story within the main story, do another beat sheet and board (the board if the story is complex), and it’s a good idea to do one for the antagonist as well.

The structure of the four q’s can be used with Aristotle’s Incline – just put the pieces along the line instead of in the picture of four parts.


And what do we have:

An Idea is developed into Beat Sheet, which evolves into Story Board (the 4q’s), which becomes your Story.

With the beats written out, filled in on the 4q board by the scenes that set up the main beats, scenes that respond to the beats – oh, my – there are so many scenes – I could write a whole novel from that! Yes, because structure is 80% of the work of story. Now it’s up to you to put the best effort into laying out the words that pull your reader in so far they don’t want to come out until … The End.


 

 

 

 

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Toolbox – Point of View and Characters

This week we discussed point of view and characters. We did a little fact finding, then discussed how we could use this to improve the characters in our current works-in-progress.

Characters:

You need to know what makes your character tick if you are going to write from their perspective.  There are things like eye colour, height, foibles and background. But these alone do not a character make. What are their likes, their GOALS, their MOTIVES? How do they react to other characters? How do they handle conflict? How does the character change by the end of the story (character arc)? Goals push a story forward, through the conflicts and must become needs or the character may quit before the end.

There are many worksheets, found on the internet, to help nut out the details for your characters. Just remember the more characters, the more work you are making for yourself. You can write pages on the character or start with what is needed for the story, and fill in the blanks as you go along.

What is POV?

Point of View is the perspective through which a story is told – how a writer lets a reader see, hear and experience a story. The POV chosen can influence the reader, making them more distant or involved in the story and the characters.
So choose wisely.

How to choose a POV.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How many POVs do I need to tell the story?
  • Do I want the reader to remain distant or becoming more emotionally involved with the characters?
  • Do I want the story in a character’s POV or the author’s POV?

Here’s some information that may help you decide.

Types of POV.

First Person: This is currently popular in YA fiction. The story is told from the main character’s POV, using I/me/my, bringing the reader closer to the main character – in his or her headspace.

Second Person: This is less commonly used. The story speaks directly to the you, the reader, using you/your. It is more personal and places the reader into the story. However if the ‘you’ does something the reader is uncomfortable with, they may stop reading.

Third Person: The story is told from the POV of multiple characters and is the most popular form of POV. There are several types of third person POV:

  • Omniscient – The story is told from an all-knowing point of view. We know what all the characters know, feel or think. This POV was popular in 19th century literature. It creates distance but can be confusing if not done well due to the feeling of  head hopping, and is cautioned against in modern writing. An example of omniscient writing is Pride and Prejudice or War and Peace.
  • Third Person Limited – The story is told from the perspective of one character only. We do not get any insight into what other characters are actually thinking or feeling. This is popular in modern writing and creates distance.
  • Deep POV: This is becoming more popular. The story is told in one character’s POV (usually the hero). We see deep into the character’s thought, feel what they feel and experience the story through their voice. There is no ‘she thought’  but instead we read direct thoughts. This provides more intimacy for the reader.
  • Third Person Multiple –  This provides more options for the writer and the reader. The story is told through more than one charater’s POV. Generally a scene will be from one POV, ie. one POV per scene. However in modern writing a change of POV can be signalled by skipping a few lines (blank) before continuing with a new POV. This is the preferred POV in modern literature.
    Multiple POV can be done via third limited POV, deep POV or first person POV.

But wait, there’s more!

There are also out of character points of view.

  • Camera angle – This is one of my favourites. Imagine being a movie camera, recording the story. You can describe it – what is seen, heard or smelt – but you can’t provide any judgements. No emotions or thoughts. No internalisation. It is best used like an establishing shot, setting the scene or can be used – in short bursts – to create distance. You can see the oranges  of a sunset melting into the sea but you can’t call it beautiful.
  • External narrator – The story is told by a narrator, as if they were retelling the story. The narrator is often a quirky character unto itself. This POV was popular in 17th, 18th and 19th century literature though modern writers, like Terry Pratchett and Douglas Addams, excel at this POV.
  • Shadow or Hand-cuff – Think Agatha Christie. You follow the characters through the story but never really get into their heads. There is no internalisation. Or the game would be given away!

So now ask those questions again:

  • How many POVs do I need to tell the story?
  • Do I want the reader to remain distant or becoming more emotionally involved with the characters?
  • Do I want the story in a character’s POV or the author’s POV?

Did you get the same answers?

Some recommended reading by members:

  1. Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View, by Jill Elizabeth Nelson.
  2. Writing 101: Choosing the best POV for your Story.

-Karen J Carlisle

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Toolbox – Setting and Description

I’m a Dungeon & Dragons player from way back. The best part about Dungeon Mastering was world building. I love world building! I love doing the research, drawing up maps, populating the world and figuring out what makes it tick.  So onto July’s toolbox – setting and description.

What is a setting?

The story’s setting is the surroundings in which a scene or story is set. Setting consists of:

  • environment
  • time
  • place

Setting can be used to show atmosphere or even be a source of conflict for the protagonist.

The trick is avoid info-dumping. You can’t just roll out the gaming map, plop it on the table and slam the reader with everything at once. It needs to be hinted at, an atmosphere created using descriptions, the character’s actions and point of view (which leads into next month’s toolbox). You need to show, not tell. Show the smell of the gum trees, the sound of the leaves rustling in the wind, the feel of the tip of the blade.

Descriptions are shown through a point of view, whether a character, camera or omniscient. If a character is a painter, setting descriptions may revolve around colours, hues, balance, line – things a painter is familiar with. If a scientist, descriptions may be more technical. Make the description active, part of the story. Use all of the senses – smell, touch, hearing, taste and not just sight.

The level of description will vary in different genres. Rule of thumb: the more exotic or foreign the setting, the more description will be required – such in in fantasy or historical genres. Action stories use less description due the the fast pace – the character doesn’t have time to stop and smell the roses! Description can be used to increase tension or build unease in paranormal or horror stories.

I was reminded to be careful of name dropping. Check on trademark, copyright and avoid disparaging known names. (Most writers can’t afford law suits.)

Finally (and this is a hard one for me), try not to let description hold you up on your first draft. Now I’m off to work out the rules of magic for a new story… And draw another map.

-Karen J Carlisle

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Toolbox – Plot and Conflict

July’s Toolbox topic was Plot and Conflict. First we discussed plot vs. character.

Plot:

We revisited the Aristotle Incline, the universal three act plot structure. The three act structure has stood the test of time and is used in plays, television and film.

  • Act 1: exposition/introduction/set up/beginning – The main characters are introduced. Act 1 culminates with the protagonist facing an incident or problem (first turning point), which will change their life and raises a question (hopefully answered at the end of the story).
  • Act 2: Rising Action/middle – The protagonist attempts to resolve the situation and the questions that arise from the turning point. They need to learn new skills or development emotionally to find a way to overcome the situation or antagonist.
  • Act 3: Resolution/end – the story (and subplots) are resolved (smallest first), ending in a climax in which the protagonist uses their new skills and personal development to overcome, completing the character arc.

Methods of creating the plot were discussed, including the snowflake method and pantsing vs. plotting.

  • Pantsing – you put pen to paper and just let your imagination run riot. You never know where you’ll end up.
  • Plotting – forming a framework, based on beginning, turning point, rising action – with subplots, clues and obstacles – a climax and wrapping up of subplots and character arc. This can be sketchy or detailed.
  • Snowflake method – Start with a sentence to summarise the story. Next describe the story set up, the characters, major conflicts and how the story ends. Expand on each character, their storyline, motivations, goals. With each step, you expand on the story until you have a detailed outline.
Character:

We discussed the ‘Hero’s journey’: uncertainty to commitment, tested with consequences, decending into ‘the underworld’ (can be literal or symbolic), confronting their own weakness. Small tests culminate in a big test (climax) and their reward or treasure is achieved. They then return to their ‘real world’, confront the original situation where they need to reassess and deal with the problem, using what they have learned on their travels.

I was reminded of two quotes:

  • The villian’s job is to produced a hero. If he doesn’t create one, then he fails.
  • Everyone is the hero in their own story (even the villian).
Books recommended by members were:
  1. Chapter after Chapter by Hether Sellers
  2. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder (on beats in a storyline).
  3. Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt
  4. Level up your Life by Steve Kamb. (Heroes Journey)
  5. The Snowflake Method – talk at ACFW, 2011, by Randy Ingermansen

So much to discuss in so little time. After the meeting had ended, we decided we’d need to revisit Plot and Conflict.

-Karen J Carlisle.

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Toolbox – Research tips and Techniques

I don’t know about you but, for me, research (particularly that of the internet variety) can be like falling down a rabbit hole. Don’t get me wrong; sometimes the fall is exhilarating. Sometimes it is just another form of procrastination.

Have you ever spent two hours searching for era-appropriate phrasing or whether a shirt sleeve had a button or cuff link as a closure? My Google-fu fails me regularly. (by the way, it was a button.)

This month, my writing group’s toolbox topic was research tips and techniques.

Something unexpected was unearthed by our discussion. It seems even the meaning of the term research can differ. The online Oxford dictionary defines research as ‘the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions‘.

To some in our group, ‘reaserch’ meant finding specific proof to back up facts in a pre-written story outline, with research done in response to specific requirements based on the plot points of their story.

To others it was a multi-phase method, sometimes initiated by an idea, a mood, a title or a picture. Most (possibly up to 80%?) research was done before writing – a form of background immersion in a world or timeline (like the writing iceberg.) Once drenched in the ambiance of the chosen topic, we write, letting the story evolve – sometimes plotting, sometimes pantsing – and making notes for further research along the way. Maybe that’s another difference between plotters and pantsers?

I’m a mostly pantser myself. Most stories start with a spark – a photo, a word, an idea. This is usually followed by weeks of research. A first draft follows. I then concentrated on the picky, specific research (see button vs cufflink comment above) as part of my first rewrite (usually when transcribing my handwritten draft to the computer).

Here are some tips for writing research:

  1. What is your writing style/ How much time do you have?
    Are you a pantser – letting your story evolve? Do more pre-research so you know your story’s background well – even if the reader only gets to see the tip of the iceberg. This can work for plotters too but can take more time. If you are more comfortable plotting a story, or have less time to finish your story, then researching specific facts as you go, or after your first draft, may work for you.
  2. Write a list of topics or questions you need answered.
    And stick to these. Don’t go chasing a titbit just because it sounds interesting.
  3. Use ‘TK’ notations in your draft or manuscript.
    As I write, questions arise or facts needed checking. I note them using ‘TK’. This was a method I gleaned from other writers. The letters TK are rarely found together in the English language. A TK computer word-search of the manuscript will pull up all the items needing further research.
  4. Google search: be specific with your questions. 
    eg. ‘Who made jammy dodgers’? / ‘What is the smell produced by the New Model No. 3 Smith and Wesson revolver, using ‘black-powder, centre-fire, metallic revolver cartridge (1882)?’ (is that specific enough?) – this was an actual question I googled for a short story. Maybe it was too specific? It led me to a YouTube video (useful to describe the sound) and book, Chemical Analysis of Firearms, Ammunition, and Gunshot Residue by James Smythe Wallis.
  5. Read and Use Wikipedia footnotes and bibliography
    The problem with Wikipedia is anyone can add to the pages. This means you can’t always believe what you read. Read the footnotes, check out the references. Check facts for yourself.
  6. Don’t forget books!
    Your library is your friend. I can order inter-library loans for research books, if my local doesn’t have it. If I use the book alot, I search online second hand book stores. (I bought a copy of Chemical Anaysis of Firearms, Ammunition, and Gunshot Residue and have used it many times.)
  7. Keep folders (paper or computer) of your research
    I have both. I have boxes for specific story ideas, and computer folders and notebooks on specific research topics.

Some useful websites we use:

  1. Boothe’s Poverty Maps – This is a colour-coded map of 1889 London, showing socio-economic categories of each street.
  2. British History Online – http://www.british-history.ac.uk/catalogue
  3. Centre for History of Medicine (Harvard) – online ‘Curated content from the Center for the History of Medicine’s extraordinary collections’
  4. Google Maps – I often use this in conjunction with Boothe’s Poverty maps.
  5. Gutenberg Project – digitised online books, from many countries, with searchable catalogue.
  6. Trove – historical newspaper clippings held by the National Library of Australia.
  7. UK Census (1881) – others also available online.
  8. Victorian Literary Studies Archive – list of various ‘Victorian era’ webpages

-Karen J Carlisle

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Toolbox – Building a Story Structure

In the beginning, the story is sentence. The sentence is structured to have meaning – for this story. The paragraph is structured to show movement, a concept. A scene develops the structure of flow, and change, and connection.

A story: what is it? A character who struggles to resolve a conflict. That story is confined by the structure placed around it – the housing, or box, or container. Whether that container is square and follows the norms for the genre, or maybe moves into a round container for something different, it is the container; the beginning and end.

A lot of books talk about structure and what it is. Most of it can be taken with a pinch of salt, much like the chatter about POV.

After much discussion, many words and analogies and waving of arms, of looking inside books of people who tell us they know what it is, we have decided:

Structure is something that is the form that holds the story together. Whether you start with structure (the 3-act structure or the incline or any of the other terms or concepts) or start with an outline or start with a billowy cloud idea that floats around in your head, by the time the story is ready to be placed within the words that confine it – the structure – the beginning, middle and end are there; the conflict that led to the plot that led to the plan for how to put this here and that there and to hold off on this little piece of information and to drip-feed that little bit through that character or this moment or . . . you get the idea. The ‘feel’ of the story and how to best represent it to the reader to best effect – that is the structure.

 

Every house is a structure that represents a house to someone who knows what the concept of house should be/is to them. A 3-bed from the 1880’s compared to a 3-bed from the 1950’s compared to a 3-bed apartment on Glenelg foreshore. All different in how they look (inside and out), how they were built (and updated/modified over time), how they are viewed by others (owner, buyer, visitor, developer); all have the same ‘format’ of 3-bed. Yet, they are all structures used for the purpose of housing. A caravan is a house; it just moves from one place to another, as the owner requires. A transportable building can also be moved, but sits still for longer, or for a purpose, or relates to the social standing of the owner/resident. A log cabin is a structure, a house. A bird’s nest is a structure, a house (just not for a human – usually), a kennel is a structure.

Each structure has a way in, a way out (sometimes the same place as the way in, sometimes not), a place where the resident can look out and see the (world) view (also limited by the structure), a place where the outside(r) can look into the structure, get a close and personal view/sense of what’s going on inside. Each structure has a ‘path’ that leads from here to there to somewhere else (halls, through-ways). Each structure contains elements that are ‘owned’ by one character (envisage a bedroom space, clothing), and elements that are communal – where more than one character can convene, work, move around, assist, hinder, etc.

Just because one house has a specified structure, doesn’t mean all houses have the same structure. A house is defined by its purpose – and a story structure is no different.

Story structure is the way the story is put together to hold it up, to present to the world, to hold within the characters and places and events that make up the story.

In the simplest of terms, find the character and give them a conflict – how can this conflict be demonstrated to best effect? Where in the story arc is the best place for . . . etc. etc. etc.

Writing is utterance – chant and rant and litany. A reader expects a story to be within a structural element: beginning, middle, and end. A reader strives to reach the end to ‘find out what happened’ to the character in the story. And the writer wants the reader to strive to the end, to retain the words and feeling of the ‘house’ of the story – to keep it on their shelves so they can re-read the words and re-feel the emotional impact of that house. Structure is an invisible element that combines a strong foundation with solid walls, interesting surroundings and real people who live there.

Now put that to good use.

The 3-Act Structure

1 – establish world, characters, and question/problem. (25%)

2 – journey/quest, wrestle with problems, difficulties along the way. (50%)

3 – concludes the plot with a climax, wrapping up issues and answering questions. (25%)

Aristotle’s Incline

Doing a diagram of the story structure (the arrangement of parts of the novel) plants the design of the story/novel/book in your mind, and gives an overview of direction (path).

The 7 Stories/Plot (some would say)

1 – overcoming the monster

2 – rags to riches

3 – the Quest

4 – Voyage and return

5 – Comedy

6 – Tragedy

7 – Rebirth

 

Conflicts:

Human v human

Human v nature

Human v god

Human v society

Human in the middle

Woman and man

Human v him/herself

 

Meta-plot begins with anticipation stage

(call to adventure), followed by the dream stage

(adventure begins). Hero has some success

(illusion of invincibility), followed by the frustration stage

(confront the enemy – illusion of invincibility lost); worsens in nightmare stage

(climax) where hope is lost, then resolution when hero overcomes their burden against the odds.

Sound familiar? It’s a story structure – how you put the story inside the parameters so that it tells the story in the best way possible, so that the reader understands the progression and is absorbed by the story elements (and is not confused by where or when that part of the story is).

 

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