Tag Archives: writing ideas

Plotting for Multiple Characters (part 2)

I want to pick up right where I left off last week. If you missed part 1, you can get it here.

So, once I have this down with 4-6 entries for every character on my chart, I start weaving them together to build a timeline. Essentially, what I’m doing is deciding what has to happen before the other thing happens AND—maybe more importantly, in what order I want them to occur in the story. Back in the day when I wrote everything longhand, I’d draw lines and put numbers beside the entries. With excel, I just shift things around. I’ll use numbers for my example here. You’ll also note that I know I want the protag to have the relationship with the love interest; I’m not sure how they meet at this point. That’s okay, because as I begin to fill in the blanks, I can manipulate that to make it happen.

Protag 1 Protag 2 Antag Love interest
1 Parents killed. Lost in woods. Discovered by Mountain Man 2 Wins award for science essay. 3 Comes in 2nd with science essay. Wins nothing. Completes high school under care of single mom.
4 Lives with MM who teaches tracking, hunting and other survival skills. 5 Kicked out of college—accused of copying essay but did not. It was, however, based on research from Mom. 6 Father kicks out of house for losing. Immediately moves across country. 9 Graduates college with computer science degree. Hired by NSA to hack Chinese government computers.
8 Leaves MM to go to big city where he meets Protag 2 in an alley near death. 10 Begins job at high tech espionage firm. 7Joins gang in Eastern coastal city. Quickly establishes reputation for brutality. HOW DOES SHE MEET PROTAG 1?
While “espionaging” is captured and tortured and brainwashed. 11 Promoted in gang to a capo and given a territory. Moves (takes some of his underlings)
Dumped in an alley in the big city. Catches Protag 2—remembers her. Attempts to kill—THINKS he has.

This gives me a rough outline to start working from. Now, keep in mind that before I get to the task of writing, I figure out the goals and motivations for all the characters (at least the primary characters) and I have an idea of what I want their big character arc to be. In fact, I do that before I start charting this out—I’m kinda going by the seat of my pants for the characters in the example and I hope/trust you can look past that for the bigger picture. But what it also means is that the characters can change as I create, but that’s okay, it’s part of the creation process. It also means that my chart/grid is considerably longer than what I’m showing you, and it’s also wider with more characters. One of the things this can help you do is get all your characters “screen” time.

I’m hoping you can use your imagination and fill in the blanks with your own characters and ideas.

I’ve seen it done a different way, but it always felt more formulaic to me. It looked something like this:

A Character
A Character B Character
A Character C Character
A Character B Character
A Character

At which point in time, your A character rotates off (to the left or rather, to the far right) and the B character becomes the A character while the C character becomes the B character. This is mostly a formula for EPISODIC work.

Like I said at the beginning, though, this is just the strategy that I use…Hope it helps you some.

Now, GO WRITE!

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My outlining process

My last blog on outlining vs letting it flow seemed to be a fun topic for many, so I thought I’d actually go through an “outlining lite” here. Keep in mind, this is the way that I try to do it, which is to say it isn’t the only way, just a way.

Stories can have multiple forms of origin (one of the most common questions asked of published writers is “where do you get your ideas?” The answer, of course, is EVERYWHERE!), but once the basic idea is there, the root story elements should be the same. Sometimes I start with what I think is an interesting character, an interesting situation, an interesting event…whatever. There’s no right or wrong. I’ll often scribble out some generics about the idea just to get them down on paper.

THEN, I start the outline process, I mean, there’s got to be a story, right? So what is that story to go along with the interesting character, etc? Based on the notes I have scribbled, I answer four basic questions: 1)whose story is it? 2)what is that person’s goal? (must be a TANGIBLE/ACHIEVABLE goal!); 3)what or who gets in the way of that happening? (whos are almost always better than whats) and then 4)does the person from #1 achieve the goal? They do not have to achieve it in order for the story to work—in fact, we’re often drawn to protagonists who fail, but we should have some resolution.

The first question may not be as easy as it initially looks, but it’s usually the one that I get answered first because I’m drawn to interesting characters more than anything. Once I answer that, I start working out what it is they want more than anything else. This is the thing that drives the character’s actions—all of them! Obviously, you can get into the wants vs. needs debate, but this is my blog, so we’re talking about what does the character want? What they want can definitely change, but you won’t know that until you start answering #3 and #4. That goal must be at the forefront of all the character’s actions or somehow related to it.

With #1 and #2 answered, I move on to #3. It is at this point that I generally have to come up with the antagonist (remember, I said whos are better than whats). I go through a mini-version of what I just did for the protagonist. The antagonist should be working to stop the protagonist from accomplishing their goal…and when you figure out the why, you suddenly find yourself answering a #1 and #2 for the antagonist.

With that answered, NOW you have conflict! And conflict is what readers/viewers want to read/see. We’re drawn to it and will keep coming back to see how it ends.

And once you’ve got that done…you have yourself a mini-outline that you can start fleshing out to a full-blown work!

So, I really will get back to normal posts here someday…for my own writing sake, I’m hoping that day is sooner rather than later. I do have a lot of exciting things beginning to happen with projects I’ll be pitching in the coming weeks and I’m excited to share those so you can see the cool art I’ve been seeing.

See you next week!

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Outline? Or let it flow?

One of my recent responsibilities for a class assignment was to respond to student essays about certain aspects of writing: influences, how to start a project, etc. One common comment about starting a writing project always makes me think, “hmm. Yes, you haven’t written very many things, have you?” That response always goes something like this:

When I start a new project, I just write. I don’t worry about the characters or the plot or the story, I just write and see where it all goes. I just let the character (or story) take me where he wants to take me. (This is not an exact quote, for those of you thinking such things!)

This line of thinking gets us to the debate of whether it is advisable for a writer to write as the muse strikes and just let it flow out of the brain and fingertips, or to compose an outline and then work from that.

When I sat down to write a novel the very first time (not Buying Time, a different, unfinished one), I wanted to just start writing and “let the character tell his story” and/or “let it flow as it hits me.” I’d heard a few writers talk about composing like that and I wanted to try it. I wrote forty-thousand words. I was well on my way. But when I hit that 40k mark, while I thought I had some nice scenes, I had no STORY. And you know, story is king!

When I sat down to write my next novel (finished, but unsold), I outlined extensively. I revised the outline quite a few times in order to work on pacing and conflict…y’know, story stuff. The writing went fast…and the characters STILL told their story, I just knew where it was going.

When I sat down to write my next novel (now we get to Buying Time), I did a combination of the two. I had a “concept” but not a story. So I thought I’d write 10-15,000 words and see how it felt, but I didn’t want to write 40k words that went nowhere again. Once I got to that stage (10k words), I stopped and examined the piece for what was there and pulled the story out of it…and then did a rough outline. Once again, I knew the story and the words came more quickly.

When I reached that 40k mark in my first book, I had no idea where the story was going. And if I—the writer—didn’t know where the story was going or what it was, how could I expect to sell it. Notice, I didn’t. Oh, sure, I may revisit it one day and see if I can find the story there…but for now, it’s simply 40k words of everyday scenes.

It’s a little easier to let it flow when writing a novel, though. There are no real “markers” you have to meet—it’s whatever floats your boat. With other kinds of writing (film, television, comics, etc), outlining is vital because you have limited “time” frame in which the story must fit. You can’t (normally) just write until the story plays out, you have to fit it into the chosen format. This requires good outlining or you’ll find yourself with a bunch of words that may sound good but mean nothing.

There are pros and cons to each, I guess, but ultimately, for most writers, outlining has to enter the process at some point. I guess that’s why I always suggest writers do it earlier rather than later. It’s a lot easier to revise in an outline stage than when you have seventy-five thousand words.

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You Can’t Teach Motivation

It’s nearly impossible to be a writer today and not have attended a writer’s conference of some sort, even if it is simply as a speaker/presenter. I would definitely say it’s impossible to be a writer and at least not be aware of them. Writer’s conferences serve a lot of purposes and are particularly good, I think, for writers just starting out. For experienced writers it’s a great time to hang around like-minded creatives and yes, be reminded of all the writing-type strategies. And as a teacher of creative writing, I’m a fan of them and will encourage all writers (of all skill levels) to make an effort to attend at least one per year…even if you are going just to hang out.

But that got me thinking about all the things covered at conferences and in creative writing programs. We can teach (and learn) things like plot, pacing, characterization, dialogue, etc. etc. And if we know about them, we can be reminded of good strategies to use those tools effectively.

But there is one thing teachers/speakers can’t teach, and that’s motivation. I don’t mean fictional character motivation—we can teach that (even if hardheaded students aren’t willing to learn!), but what I mean is writer motivation. Yes, I believe teachers can inspire and encourage and think we should work to do that (but I also think if you love what you do, that’ll come through in the teaching)…but there’s nothing I can really do (not just me, all teachers) that will make a writer give us time on Facebook, or television and write…and then write some more…and then do more writing after that. And then when they’re done writing, finish up with a little more writing.

I don’t know who said it, or I’d give the credit, but I recently read it takes 10,000 hours for someone to reach the stage of successful whatever it is they do. SO, a musician must spend 10,000 practicing in order to reach the level of professional…and so on. So many writers think they’ll slap it down on the page and then they’re done. Oh, maybe an “editing” revision to look for typos and misspelled words—but some don’t even do that!

And with the Olympics just finished (it IS finished now, right?), we’re reminded of all the hard work and HOURS that these athletes (even the ones who lost) put in just to make it there. It takes motivation to force yourself to spend that kind of time practicing. It’s the “WANT TO” of achieving success.

That’s not something that can be taught…it has to come from within.

So whatever it is you do…how bad do you want it? Do you want it bad enough to spend 10,000 hours to get there?

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Mess’em Up!

One of the things I’ve noticed over time in teaching character at Full Sail University, at Writers Conferences and at other assorted writer functions where I read and give feedback or otherwise comments on a writer’s work, is that writers are often afraid to mess with or mess up their protagonists. And while I haven’t made any sort of exhaustive study, I think this stems from writers falling in love with the characters we create.

That’s not to suggest we shouldn’t like them. I think one of those aspects of good characters that is often overlooked is that we want audiences to like our heroes or protagonists. But when you, as the author, fall too deeply in love with your own creation, you don’t want to do anything to “mess” with them.

And yet, my rallying cry to writers has always been “mess’em up!”

Readers aren’t interested in perfect or near perfect characters. They don’t want to read about characters who have perfect lives. Oh sure, there’s often some fairy tale sort of aspect involved, but even those characters—the good/interesting ones, that is—are messed up in some way.

So…it’s our job as writers to mess’em up.

This can come in assorted ways. You can mess them up emotionally—that’s always interesting. We like to watch characters like Monk, or Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man. And even though he isn’t the “hero,” Hannibal Lecter is one messed’up dude and we can’t help but be interested in the story surrounding him.

You can mess them up physically; physical handicaps or deformities—while it may not exactly be politically correct to say so—are things that draw our curiosity and interest. We want to see how a character like this overcomes his challenges…and then be thankful for our own blessings.

Regardless of what you decide to do with your protagonist, you’ve got to give them some challenges to overcome. And not just as your story. The plot of your story should present a challenge, of course, but if your character has an additional personal something they must overcome WHILE overcoming the obstacle your story has presented, we’ll be far more interested to see what they do.

Now…go mess up your characters!

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Yet More Writer Misteaks

When I first started compiling and keeping a list of common writer mistakes, I really didn’t think it would/could go on for so long. But it seems like when I post something, one of you post a brilliant comment and I find even more stuff. So, I guess I’ll do these posts until I run out of goof-ups.

So, another thing that irks me is “yea” used in place of “yeah.” Rarely do I see it the other way around, but I’m sure it happens. “Yeah” is slang for yes. It’s the equivalent of Yep, yessir, yes ma’am, or, if you’re Japanese, hai! “Yea,” does NOT mean yes. It has a couple of meanings, but we probably would want to use it most to show excitement. As in “yea, I made the football team.” Translated to redneckian (of all geographic locations), it would read, “hot dang, I get ta bust some heads!” Some of the older ones among us probably think of it in Biblical terms: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Well, you know the rest (and if you don’t, shame on you!). It still doesn’t mean “yes.”

Anyone older than, oh, 30, knows that Facebook and smartphones will be the death of our language. It drives me bonkers when I see Brittany’s friends post “awe” on her pictures. The first time I ever saw it, I asked her what her friend was so in awe about. She explained to me that it was supposed to be a “that’s cute” reaction, meaning “aw.” I said, “oh.”

I set her straight pretty quick. But now when I see it, and I still see it a lot, I tease her and read it aloud as if it was pronounced “ah-we.” I understand the reaction, because Southern girls are always saying “awwwwwwwww” when they see “cute” things. I get it. It is still NOT spelled “awe.”

As I grade student papers and even do freelance editing, I’m continually amazed at how many writers ignore the little green and red squiggly lines so kindly provided by MS Word. Granted, we should not take the word of MS Word as the be-all, end-all of grammar or spelling. However, when you see them there, they’re probably there for a reason: something’s a little off. Don’t ignore them. Seriously, don’t “ignore” them. Yes, it is true. I know that some writers—when they don’t know—will simply press “ignore” in MS Word so that the lines will go away, but the problem does not. It’s like they’re trying to hide it. When you don’t know the spelling of a word, look it up. MS Word will generally offer you choices.

Don’t guess. We can tell.

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More misteaks by writers

Before you start leaving comments that I misspelled “mistakes” as the title of this blog…yes, I know I did. Thank you…read on.

So, many of you responded that you liked the mistakes part 1…so I present part 2 (who knows, there may be many parts to this idea!).

Continuing the possessive issues, we come next to there/their. These two words are probably mistaken more than either its/it’s or your/you’re. There is a pointer and their is possessive. It was their mistake to make (meaning the mistake belonged to them, of course). “Over there is their car,” means that the car that belongs to them is in that place. “There is a lot of hot air on this page,” means this page contains a lot of hot air. Many times this mistake is often just a mistake, a typo. However, be sure that you know the difference.

Use/used is a lot like suppose/supposed I mentioned in part 1. Most seem to use it correctly when calling something “not new,” as in, it is used. Likewise, most get it right when it is used instructionally as in “be sure to use the left blinker.” The problems seem to come up when a writer wants to put in the place of a historical action: “he used to live on the corner.” To say “he use to live on the corner,” is incorrect.

Since possessives often need the apostrophe, I figure I’ll bring a common incorrect usage of apostrophes. Many writers try to force apostrophes into dates. Thus the year in “the 1930s was a time of incredibly financial hardship,” does not need an apostrophe even though many, many writers try to include them there. The same is said for “ABCs,” it does not need an apostrophe.

Now, here’s a side note on the above. It used to be (as in “once was”) common practice to place an apostrophe in examples like above. Thus, 1920’s, ABC’s, 6’s, etc. However, time has changed the use so that so that we don’t do that unless the meaning would be unclear otherwise. Thus, my kids make “A’s and B’s,” not “As and Bs” is correct because the “As” would be confusing (it would look like the word “as”).

Okay, more next time.

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