On this blog every Tuesday and Friday I write about story techniques, structure, and/or publishing. Comments and questions are welcome. I also have a personal blog, Amy Deardon, on which I write about a variety of topics purely as they catch my fancy.

I've written one novel, A Lever Long Enough, that I'm honored to say has won two awards. In my life BC (before children) I was a scientist who did bench research.

My book, The Story Template: Conquer Writer's Block Using the Universal Structure of Story, is now available in both hard-copy and e-book formats. I also coach would-be novelists and screenwriters to develop their story. YOU CAN CONTACT ME at amydeardon at yahoo dot com.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Writing the Sequel and My Magical Cheat Sheet for the Scene / Sequel Dyad.

Guys, I apologize. Blogger is not recognizing my returns and has run this into a big block of text. %^#&#$^#$ Technically speaking, the building block of a story is the scene-sequel unit. This is an oversimplification of course, but the scene/sequel dyad can be thought of as developing outer action (scene) and then inner response (sequel). From Tuesday's column, I hope I made it clear that every scene has to have a point or a development or a movement of some sort -- otherwise you should cut it. The scenes move the story forward. The sequel, on the other hand, develops the emotional range of the characters and allows the reader to bond with them. They describe the character's reaction to the disaster (YES BUT or NO AND FURTHERMORE) that you described in the previous scene. Both scenes and sequels are necessary. Writers often are tempted to leave out sequels because "they don't do much," but this isn't true. If you exclude sequels in your writing, your story will zip along but won't have the depth that readers crave. Scenes quicken the story pace, whereas sequels slow it down. This principle can help you pace your story. Depending on your story genre, you may wish to write long or short sequels. Occasionally you can leave them out, but most of the time it should be: SCENE-SEQUEL-SCENE-SEQUEL-SCENE-SEQUEL. Usually I don't bother with an entire chapter of sequel, although I make sure I have at least a paragraph or so after each event. The beauty of the sequel is that it naturally leads into your next scene. If you're a pantster, organizing your sequels gives you the direction you need for the next block of action. OK, let's go over my Magical Cheat Sheet for the Scene and the Sequel. I put one of these two outlines at the top of my page, as appropriate, before I begin to write my chapter. The first outline I wrote about on Tuesday, but let me repeat it here: Scene Outline: POV: GOAL: CONFLICT: DISASTER: POV -- whose head are you in for this chapter? This assumes you're writing in third person limited. GOAL -- what does your POV character want to accomplish? State it in one clear sentence: Tom knew he had to find the macguffin before Peter did, and he only had a five minute head start. Put this sentence word for word near the top of your chapter (or at the end of the previous sequel if you put the dyad back to back without interspersing another character's scene). It allows your reader to focus on the point of the scene and stay engaged. CONFLICT -- this comprises the major portion of your scene. Conflict occurs when your POV character must struggle against obstacles to complete his goal, and remember, NEVER MAKE IT EASY ON YOUR HERO (or any character). Obstacles can be internal or external. Quickly list a few ideas for obstacles. Try to think of at least four, not that you have to use them all, but it's nice to have them if you need them. DISASTER -- for the good guys, this scene should usually end badly -- a YES BUT or a NO AND FURTHERMORE ending (see Tuesday). For the bad guys, you usually want this scene to end happily for them since this will further complicate your hero's life. You can mix things up a bit, but don't diverge too much. The Sequel tends to be shorter. It describes the character's reaction to the previous scene's disaster. These can be a few lines, or strung out for an entire chapter. I occasionally will have a whole-chapter sequel but rarely, because emoting held on for too long is boring. Sequel Outline: EMOTION: THOUGHT: DECISION: ACTION: This order is easy to remember, if you think about how you respond to something surprising. Say your tree hits a pole and you're fine but your car's a wreck. First, (Emotion) you're scared thinking about what could have happened and angry at the guy who cut you off and has since disappeared. Next, (Thought) you start analyzing the situation: you didn't catch the guy's license, and you're worried because the car's going to be in the shop for a few days and how are you going to get around? But (Decision) you can't stay here forever. You decide that right now you need to get out of the car and call the triple A on your cell phone for a tow to your favorite body shop. And so (Action) you reach to open the car door. Your character will go through a similar process when dealing with his scene disaster. EMOTION -- he's angry/sad/frustrated/worried. He may be shocked if it was a stunning, unexpected disaster. THOUGHT -- he starts thinking logically about what happened, and evaluates his options. It's best to present him with a dilemma or trilemma: all bad options, and he has to consider each alternative. Explain why each is bad, and the advantages and disadvantages for each. DECISION -- your character decides what he's going to do. Explain WHY as well as WHAT he will do. This can be your lead-in hook sentence for the next scene. ACTION -- occasionally you can carry out the sequel to the point that the character starts to move to do the next action, although you can also end the sequel at the DECISION stage. * OK, hope this is helpful. Even if you're a pantster, the five minutes it takes to plan your scene or sequel is well worth the effort in avoiding writer's block.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Eliminate Writer's Block when Writing the Scene

Stories are made up of scenes. Whether you are a planner or a pantster, a little preplanning before diving into the scene helps to eliminate writer's block. Here are a few basics I like to settle: 1. Why do you want to write this scene? This scene must advance the story by having your character do one or more of the following: (from most to least external): * pursue an action * make a decision * reach an insight Write down, very specifically, why you need to include this scene in your story. 2. Who will be in this scene? Generate tension by giving characters separate goals that are mutually exclusive. These goals can be overt and external (swim from the shark) and/or subtle and hidden (plant a seed of doubt in a rival's mind). You may even have mutually exclusive goals within the same character: the boy knows he must kill his rabid dog, Old Yeller, whom he loves. Write down your scene's guest list, and then figure out what each character wants at this particular moment in the story. 3. Where and when will this scene take place? Now, ponder some alternatives: for example, a breakup scene may occur quietly in a restaurant, but how about a noisy hockey game, or a conference room in which the characters can only pass notes to each other? Now, close your eyes and imagine the setting. Write down some unusual details you might be able to use. And this is important: describe the details the way your POV character would describe them. 4. Map out the scene. Scenes are best structured in a GOAL/CONFLICT/DISASTER type format. The POV character walks into the scene, and will actually think his goal either at the beginning of this scene or, better, at the end of his last one: Jim knew he needed more money, he deserved it, and he wasn't going to be a wimp any more. He was going to walk into his boss' office and ask for a raise. This statement focuses the reader so he knows for what to look out. The conflict portion takes the majority of the scene. Obstacles can be both external (physical blocks, other people) and internal (lack of knowledge, overcoming emotion). The ending, except for a few specialized circumstances, should be a yes but or no and furthermore: YES Jim, you can have a raise BUT you must work an extra 10 hours per week. NO Jim, you cannot have a raise AND FURTHERMORE you are fired. Rarely scenes can be ended with a YES for a specific effect. Any scene ending with a NO can be deleted without consequences, since by definition it isn't pushing the story action forward. Write down your scene goal. List as many internal and external obstacles as you can -- you don't have to use all of these, but they're mighty helpful if you hit writer's block. Finally determine how your scene will end. 5. A great trick if you're stuck is to WRITE ONLY THE DIALOGUE. Add in the other stuff later. * Hope this is helpful. I'll be writing about sequels on Friday.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Seven Effective Habits

Goal Setting:

Stephen Covey's book
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People came out in 1989, and has sold over 15 million copies. He describes 7 ways of thinking that will allow success in life. Here they are:

1. Be Proactive: Principles of Personal Choice

To be proactive means that you take responsibility for the things that happen to you, instead of blaming others. You figure out what YOU can do rather than waiting for others to move.

2. Begin with the End in Mind: Principles of Personal Vision

Decide what you want to accomplish in life, rather than floating through day to day. Do some soul-searching and formulate a personal *mission statement*. Write down goals: where do you see yourself next year? In five years? Then break down your goals into monthly and weekly targets.

3. Put First Things First: Principles of Integrity and Execution

The urgent things that assail you are not always the most important things. Find other ways to get the urgent things done, such as delegating tasks, and focus on what you want to accomplish.

4. Think Win/Win: Principles of Mutual Benefit

You don't have to have winners and losers: work for solutions that benefit others as well as yourself. When in conflict, get both parties working to solve the problem, rather than blaming each other.

5. Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood: Principles of Mutual Understanding

The old saw goes *People don't care how much you know before they know how much you care* (about them). If you want to give advice, first make sure you understand where the person is coming from. Don't tell the person about your own experiences; just LISTEN!

6. Synergize: Principles of Creative Cooperation

Teamwork can exceed what each member could achieve on his own. Value the members of the team, be aware of individual strengths and weakness, and include everyone in the decisions to work toward a common goal.

7. Sharpen the Saw: Principles of Balanced Self-Renewal

Any machine will overheat if it isn't given a rest, and the same is true for people. Take the time you need to rejuvenate with activities and family. Also, take time to exercise and sharpen your mind.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Some of My Favorite Writing Books: A List for Fiction and Screenplays

I've been meaning to make a list of my all-time favorite writing books. It's going to take some time to really review and remember all of the books that have been excellent, but I thought I'd at least start on a few. Whether you do screenwriting or novel writing, I've found ALL of these books have been insightful. Also, if you have any favorites that you thought were helpful but I've missed them, please let me know.

Save the Cat! and its two sequels, by Blake Snyder

Snyder was a successful Hollywood screenwriter who sadly died in August 2009. He had developed a system for writing a story that is amazing; I just love what's he's done here. Snyder starts with a 15 point story progression, then breaks it out into 40 scenes that are ready to write for the screenplay.


The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

This is an intellectual book that needs to be worked through slowly with your story development notebook in the other hand. Truby sticks with the important through line of the story, and especially the all-important changes that MUST occur in your character in order to make the story gripping and resonant.


Writing the Fiction Synopsis by Pam McCutcheon

This book is hard to find, which I never understood because it's so on-target. McCutcheon breaks down writing the synopsis and gives many examples that will help guide you to write a decent synopsis. This book is also helpful if you're simply trying to work out what your story is about. If you want to purchase, I suggest you go to the publisher Gryphon Books for Writers at http://www.gryphonbooksforwriters.com, since this book is outrageously expensive on amazon.


Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon

Another offering from Gryphon books for Writers at http://www.gryphonbooksforwriters.com that gives clear instruction for the smaller units of fiction development. Randy Ingermanson and others also talk about the GMC -- a critical concept if you want to write well enough to become published. Again, buy this from the publisher rather than on amazon.


Break Into Fiction by Mary Buckham and Dianna Love

The book that goes along with the workshop taught by these two ladies, different chapters focus on different aspects of the story with templates and worksheets that give thought-provoking exercises to help develop your ideas.


Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass

Maass is a successful literary agent who has deeply studied books that have "broken out" and grab readers. He includes challenging and thoughtful exercises to do once you have finished your first draft -- and believe me, you will NOT finish your next draft for a very long time, but it will become so strong you won't recognize it.


The Dramatic Writer's Companion by Will Dunne

This is an insightful book that puts forth many questions about your work, in different categories, that will help you shape and then refine it. At the end Dunne has a troubleshooting guide called "Fixing Common Script Problems" that gives clues and suggestions to help with bugaboos such as not enough conflict in a scene, or a passive main character.


The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield

Scofield looks at a unit of story construction, the scene, and discusses how to focus it so that it resonates. Step by step instructions, examples, and exercises really guide to write something effective.


Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy

Randy is my hero, and I love everything he writes. Peter Economy is a professional writer, and together he and Randy have created something really helpful here. This book uses a number of Randy's techniques to develop a writing routine, design and finish a novel, and then create a book proposal and marketing plan. Here is inspiring and can-do advice especially for the newbie.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Don't Be a Welfare Hydra

I've done an in-depth study of story (novels and films) with the aim of articulating how stories can be put together. I've been fortunate enough to coach fiction writers to apply and refine my paradigm, and I think I'm onto something! My book: The Story Template: Conquer Writer's Block Using the Universal Structure of Story is available in print and kindle formats.

A main, and I mean really main, really big, problem that I keep running across while editing I've called the "One Darn Thing After Another" syndrome. But I've just found the icon for this that I think is perfect -- the Welfare Hydra!

First, take a look at this 3 minute clip. This scene is from 1963's Jason and the Argonauts, where Jason needs to kill the 7-headed Hydra in order to steal the golden fleece. The chick is Medea, a high priestess who's basically betrayed her people to help Jason, but we won't go into the whole ethics of Jason's quest here -- after all, this is high Greek mythology, so let's just watch it for fun:

This is an impressive movie with astounding special effects for 1963, and I enjoyed watching it on many levels. I first saw this movie a few years ago with my boy, when as a first grader he became interested in ancient warfare topics in general (as an aside, he impressed the heck out of his teacher by taking half an hour to explain the Pelopynesian War to the class. My daughter, though, is the Greek myth expert. But as a proud mom, I digress).

I feel a bit guilty being so critical here since the special effects technology WAS so primitive, but hey, this makes my point. In this clip, did you notice what the Welfare Hydra does?




Yes, the Hydra waves its heads a bit, hisses, and slithers on its floppy little belly. It even catches Jason in its tail at one point, but promptly lets him go and doesn't press the attack. You can almost hear the Hydra saying (in a squeaky voice) "I'm scary! I'm scary! See how scary I am?" At the end it bares its chest so Jason with his sword can conveniently stab its heart, at which it obligingly dies.

So what does this have to do with writing?

Simply this: in many of the stories that I critique, I find this same sort of "Welfare Hydra" mentality appearing, on both the macro and the micro levels. The writer describes exciting (or not so exciting) events that the protagonist wrestles through, but in the end, these events don't make any difference to the story. They don't push the story along.

The micro events just add word count. A character will find a chilled bottle of water, unscrew its tight cap, take a few sips of the cold liquid, then screw the lid back on and wipe her hands on her black summer-cloth-weight capris, feeling refreshed now. Excuse me? Does any of this detail really add to the story? Now, maybe if the character had arthritis, then her method of opening a bottle might give a little grace note to her character, but otherwise this is throwaway stuff.

So how might one push a story along? There are many techniques to do this, but the core principle is to consistently raise the stakes for the protagonist: put more in jeopardy, make it uncertain that the protagonist can accomplish a goal that is vital to him and for the long-term success for the story. Everything counts, including little actions. Who cares how the character opens a bottle of water? But if the character isn't sure that she will be able to sneak a sip of water to calm a cough before she has to make an announcement, it might become more interesting.

A good way to raise these questions is to write in a deep third person point of view. Many manuscripts I read are written in a superficial POV, where actions are captured as if on camera, and there is no insight into the character's thoughts. The penetrating POV is one of the great strengths of novel writing. (Films of course have music, camera angles, and other tricks that make them a different, yet also strong, medium).

Use your POV!

Here are two passages:


Sam ran down the hallway. It was long, and there were no windows. He picked up speed. The entrance was twenty feet away. (objective POV)



Sam couldn't see the intruder, but knew he must be close by. This was the hardest part to get out of the building: a long white tunnel, no windows.

Twenty feet. He might just have time. If only he could turn off these lights to race in the dark, but no time, no time.

And then he heard a footstep behind him...

(penetrating POV)


OK, it's a hokey example written off the top of my head, but you get the idea, I trust.

When you write, whether a paragraph or a scene or more, keep asking yourself, "Are my words a Welfare Hydra?" If they are, stab them through the heart.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Carpe Diem

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.
---C. S. Lewis

We all imagine how life could be different, but until we start acting on our dreams, they just remain irrelevant. My dear friends, I hope this will inspire you to reach for something hard. Take a small step every day towards your goal. You can do it!