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Random Plot Generators or Another Way to Stave Off Writer’s Block

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Clint Eastwood - Random Plot Generator - Novel Conclusions - writing blog - writing tips - Christi Gerstle - plot scenario generator

Every Which Way But Loose via Google Images

Today, let’s take a moment to appreciate the awesomeness and hilarity of random plot generators.  Picture this:  You stare at the blank page, and the blank page stares right back atcha.  After some time of this, you finally give in to work with some writing prompts.  However, you won’t work with just any writing prompts, you will use the fantastic random plot generators that pop up frequently in out of the way spots on the interwebs.

Random plot generators often get a bad rap for throwing out crazy, unrealistic plot ideas, but they can definitely help stave off writer’s block.  Although I can’t find the original source (sorry, y’all, Google let me down on this one) for matching this movie to this plot generator, Wikipedia tells us about an example from a retired version of The Official Movie Plot Generator, which has three vertical boxes, the first of which identifies a specific type of protagonist:

“A trucker who doesn’t play by the rules.” The middle box specifies a specific action on the part of the protagonist– “bareknuckle fights for money.” The bottom box specifies a specific type of antagonist, “accompanied by a mischievous orangutan.” By piecing these three elements together, the user obtains the odd sentence, “A trucker who doesn’t play by the rules bareknuckle fights for money, accompanied by a mischievous orangutan.” This plot sounds absurd, and it is — but it is also the plot of a movie starring Clint Eastwood — Every Which Way but Loose.

There are not only some really fun random plot generators out there in every genre you can imagine (such as this plot scenario generator, this genre plot generator, and this more creatively designed science fiction plot generator); character quirk generators exist, too.  Check out a fun example of character quirks from the character generator at Archetype Writing:

Your character is female.
One of your character’s cardinal traits is charisma.
The character’s greatest weakness is a fear of snakes.
The character’s most prized possession is a coin from the Roman Empire.

What do you all think of random plot generators?  Are they an amusing waste of time?  Or can they prompt actual, helpful ideas?

Punching Up That Theme

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Holes - Louis Sachar - YA Books - theme - writing tips - Novel Conclusions - Christi Gerstle

Louis Sachar’s Holes via Google Images

So you’ve gotten past the first draft, perhaps past the fifth draft, and you’re starting to hone in on bigger picture ideas like theme.  But what are the themes in your story?  And how do you make sure they don’t come across as forced morals?

Since I have trouble with this in my writing, I thought we could examine how the experts have done it.  In this case, those experts are JK Rowling and Louis Sachar.  Both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Holes explore the theme of the importance of true friendship, and both of these books do it in a way that is real, warm, and absorbing, despite some crazy circumstances.

In Louis Sachar’s Holes, our “cursed” protagonist Stanley Yelnats has gotten himself into quite a pickle.  Accused of a crime he didn’t commit, he’s sent to a juvenile detention camp in the middle of the desert with a bunch of much less innocent delinquents.  Stanley makes friends with another outcast, a kid named Zero.  Inevitably, they get into some much more serious trouble (I won’t spoil it too much here), and they end up saving each other’s lives.  For the first time in as long as he can remember, Stanley has a real friend.  When he and Zero are still mired in craziness, Stanley is the happiest he’s ever been because he has someone he can depend on:

As Stanley stared at the glittering night sky, he thought there was no place he would rather be.  He was glad Zero put the shoes on the parked car.  He was glad they fell from the overpass and hit him on the head.

With some fantastic showing instead of telling, Sachar explores this theme of the importance of true friendship without getting preachy.  We know, through Sachar’s spare, straightforward storytelling, that Stanley and Zero needed each other.  The theme is an integral part of the plot, and it gives the story depth.

Rowling explores this same theme in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone), the first book in the series.  She knew (though we as readers did not) that the friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione had to hold strong for an entire series and had to ring true.

Harry winning their friendship.  JK Rowling was so adamant about the importance of this scene that she had to convince her editor it was worth keeping.  On her old website, she explained, “Hermione is so very annoying in the early part of Philosopher’s Stone that I really felt it needed something (literally) huge to bring her together with Harry and Ron.”

What can we learn from these expert authors?  What questions can we ask ourselves while revising?

  • Which themes exist already in my story?
  • Which of these themes is most integral to my plot?
  • What can I do to make this idea clearer?

What do you all think?  How do you approach theme when writing?

Pixar’s 22 Rules for Phenomenal Storytelling

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It can be very hard to determine what makes a story “good.”  What makes one story good and one story bad and one story just mediocre?  Pixar thinks they may have it figured out.

What is it that makes UpFinding Nemo, and WALL-E (among others) pretty amazing?  Pixar has a few rules for phenomenal storytelling.  I stumbled across this infographic over at pbjpublishing.com, and I just had to share.

My favorite might be #14.  Which rule is your favorite?  Do you have any rules that you might add?

Storytelling infographic - pixar - novel conclusions - Christi Gerstle - good writing - writing tips

Pixar’s 22 Rules for Phenomenal Storytelling via pbjpublishing.com

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The Art of Naming Your Characters

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Katniss via Google Images

What are the most important things to remember when naming your characters?

Recently, io9 talked about character names that should be banned, and and it got me thinking about naming characters in general.  I don’t necessarily agree that you should never use the name Katherine (as the author suggests, among other things), but I do think that there are important things that need to be taken into consideration so as not to distract the reader from the story.  Whenever the reader gets pulled out of the story by something jarring (like an ill-fitting character name), they are more likely to put that book down.  And the reader putting your book down is bad, right?  I thought so, too.

Every writer has their own opinion about naming characters in their stories, but I personally subscribe to the screenwriter method.  This method is pretty clearly outlined in William M. Akers’ Your Screenplay Sucks: 100 ways to make it great (crazy title, awesome book – I highly recommend it for anyone writing any type of fiction).  One of the main tenets of this method is trying your best to not give characters names that start with the same letter or rhyme.  This can be easily accomplished by listing the letters A to Z and not using more than one name for each letter (and if you have more than 26 main characters, that’s a whole different issue).

You can also go a little further and give characters names that mean something, that say something about their character.  Dickens and Shakespeare were big on this.  In more recent years, JK Rowling gave quite a few of her Harry Potter characters Latinate names that hinted something (for example, Dumbledore comes from the Latin word for “bumblebee”), and many of her characters were named after stars/characters from mythology (Sirius, Bellatrix, Regulus, Merope, etc.).  Frequently her nods at mythology related directly to the character, as in the case of Remus Lupin being a werewolf (Remus, in mythology, was one of the twins who founded Rome and was raised by a wolf).  You’ve got to be careful with this, though, or you might fall into accidental parody territory, which would generally be bad times.

One thing that really bugs me is popular names that are spelled in crazy irritating ways, like Kaiyleigh, Ashli, Jaydenn, Jessikah (aaahhh, I can’t even write any more of these horrible names), unless of course your characters actually live in a trailer park.  If you must name your character a popular current name, for goodness sake, please spell it in a way that doesn’t burn your readers’ retinas (Kailey, Ashley, Jaden, Jessica, etc.).

Some science fiction and fantasy books can get away with unusual names, like Game of Thrones or Hunger Games, but even then, it’s helpful to keep the names as pronounceable as possible.  In Game of Thrones, we can all pronounce Cersei, Sansa, and Tyrion even though we’ve never seen those names before.  In Hunger Games, Katniss, Peeta, and Prim are all names that we can pronounce.  Capiche?

What tips and tricks do you use when naming characters?  Or do you just use names that “feel right”?

What Makes Cross-Genre Fiction Work?

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The Alchemist - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, via Google Images

We’ve all read a little cross-genre fiction, whether we called it that or not.  Cross-genre fiction, if you haven’t heard that term before, is fiction that mixes two different genres, or types, of writing, such as historical fiction and fantasy, or romance and supernatural fiction, or aliens and cowboys — well, you get the idea.

Lots of cross-genre fiction is pretty horrifically bad (if you’ve ever read online fanfiction or perhaps visited webook.com or Authonomy, you’ve certainly come across some of this; if not, count yourself lucky).  It’s also a lot harder to market, so it can be much harder to publish.  Consequently, less of it gets published by the big publishers, and less of it enters the public imagination than other genres.

However, cross-genre fiction has the potential to accomplish some phenomenal things by approaching the same archetypal stories in a new way.  And I would posit that, when cross-genre fiction succeeds, it does so for 2 reasons:

  1. We care about the characters.
  2. The story is tightly plotted.

Although these two things are important in all types of fiction, they are ever so much more important in cross-genre fiction because readers judge it much more closely than plain old contemporary fiction.

A beautiful example of cross-genre fiction is Paulo Coelho’s allegorical The Alchemist (<– affiliate link that helps keep this blog awesome).  Whether you like his writing or not, you have to admit that Coelho writes in a way that is gorgeous and simple at the same time — not an easy task.  This book reads like historical fiction with brief supernatural elements, and it manages to still be clean and smooth.

Not only do we as readers care about what happens to main character Santiago, every moment in this book has a purpose.  Coelho either did an amazing job editing this book many times over, or he had outlined everything scene-by-scene before putting pen to paper.

What cross-genre books do you love?  What do you think makes them succeed?

P.S. Check out a cross-genre novel written by a fellow blogger here, called The Seneca Scourge.  It’s on my to-be-read list for 2013. 🙂

Libba Bray’s Gorgeous Characterization

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Libba Bray - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty

How is it that Libba Bray makes her characters so achingly real?  I’ve talked a bit about character motives and character quirks in the past, and there are always more avenues to explore in characterization.

I’ve recently been reading Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy, which begins with A Great and Terrible Beauty.  The cover, a young girl in a corset, threw me off when I first saw it, as it looks like some silly romance; however, I had heard some great things about Libba Bray and was intrigued by the book blurb.  Generally, I can read the first couple paragraphs of a book and decide if I want to buy it; A Great and Terrible Beauty passed this test and pulled me right into the mystery.

The character Felicity gives us a wonderful example of Bray’s ability to create realistic, dynamic characters.  Felicity, first introduced as a bit of an antagonist, grows into one of the most complex characters in the trilogy.  This is hinted at when she jumps dramatically onto the page:

Her white-blond hair is arranged neatly in a bun, as young ladies must wear their hair, but even so, it seems a bit wild, as if the pins won’t really hold it.  Arched eyebrows frame small, gray eyes in a face so pale it’s almost the color of an opal.  She’s amused at something, and she tosses her head back and laughs heartily, without trying to stifle it.  Even though the dark-haired girl is perfect and lovely, it’s the blond who gets the attention of everyone in the room.  She’s clearly the leader.

What did Bray do here that characterizes Felicity?

  • Shows the character in action
  • Points out telling details of her appearance
  • Shows the way others react to her

In just a paragraph, and without stopping the scene to describe the character, Bray creates a dynamic, fluid picture in our minds.  One of the most important things here is showing the way others react to a character, something often overlooked.

What other strong characters stand out to you?  What makes those characters stand out?

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Falling in Love with Writing

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Glade Jul - Happy Christmas - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Glade Jul. Viggo Johansen. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

First of all, a very Merry Christmas to everyone!  I love the holiday season and getting to be with family from all over the country, even if just for a little while.  This is also part of the reason I haven’t been actively blogging as much this month — the holiday prep monster has been greedily eating my time in huge chunks.  I need to work on getting as organized as my amazing friend Casey, who has three adorable young kids and an awesome craft business and still blogs constantly.

Anyhow, in all the Christmas madness this morning, my mother gave me a fun writing book.  I picked it up after all my little cousins had gone down for naps or to attack each other with Nerf guns, and it opens with the author reminiscing on his love affair with books.  This made me think of my own fall into writing as a kid — because it truly was a fall, with no hope of coming back.

As a little kid, I LOVED books, and around age 5 or 6, started writing all the time, though not quite as much as I was reading.  However, this writing was more like little drawings of characters and a paragraph about them.  In second grade, I graduated to writing a “book” on that big paper that kids learn to write on.  It talked mostly about my class and how we wanted to go on a field trip.  Plot was a bit thin on the ground, I’m afraid.  I was able to include every kid in my class in the story, though, which was quite a popularity bump.  In fifth grade, we had to write a story with our vocabulary words every week, and each week, I wrote a brief story about sisters Julie and Natalie, who managed to get into some pretty crazy adventures.

What has always drawn me into writing (and into reading, for that matter) is finding out the stories of interesting characters.  Interesting characters fascinate me even now.  What drew you into writing?  What keeps you going now?

The Evocative Sense of Smell

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The Lightning Thief - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Courtesy of bn.com

Writers frequently overlook the sense of smell to focus primarily on sight.  Smell, however, packs a much tighter emotional punch; our sense of smell is associated very closely with the part of the brain that processes emotion.  Aroma, fragrance, odor — whatever you’d like to call it — can frequently unlock memories and associations for both your characters and your readers, if used with finesse.

Where some authors skip over the most emotional of our five senses, some use it to great effect.  Vastly different writing styles can use the sense of smell to set the stage, reveal character, or move the plot forward.  Within the first few paragraphs of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood incorporates scent to set the scene in an old, empty gymnasium:

A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls.

Atwood creates a feeling and uses this feeling to build curiosity.  Where exactly is the narrator, and why is she here?  We as readers want to know why we are here and where we are going, and in creating that curiosity, Atwood achieves an enviable goal.

Another example of scent working for a story comes up in a completely different book — but also a book that I love — The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.  Riordan uses scent to build the character of Percy’s step-father, Gabe:

I slammed the door to my room, which really wasn’t my room.  During school months, it was Gabe’s “study.”  He didn’t study anything in there except old car magazines, but he loved shoving my stuff in the closet, leaving his muddy boots on my windowsill, and doing his best to make the place smell like his nasty cologne and cigars and stale beer.

I dropped my suitcase on the bed.  Home sweet home.

Gabe’s smell was almost worse than the nightmares about Mrs. Dodds, or the sound of that old fruit lady’s shears snipping the yarn.

Riordan gives us a feel for Gabe’s character and tells us something that will be very important to the plot later (though I won’t spoil it for you by revealing that bit).  Gabe acts as a foil to Percy and his mother, Sally, showing us more about Percy and Sally purely through their reactions to him and interactions with him.

However, in order to use scent efficiently, we can’t just toss on a few extra olfactory descriptors.  The use of scent needs to pull its weight within the story.  Does your use of scent in your writing pull its weight?  Does it reveal character, plot, or important background information?  Does it create curiosity or build an important feeling?  If it doesn’t do these things, maybe it doesn’t belong there.

Have you read anything where the sense of smell stands out or plays an important role?  Which scents bring back memories for you?

P.S.  Check out a fun interview of Rick Riordan from Saturday’s Guardian here.

Setting as Character

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Novel Conclusions - Setting as Character - Harry Potter example

courtesy of bn.com

In some novels, the setting works only as a backdrop, a starting-off point, but in others, the setting brings the story to life.

I can still remember the pervasive, dark heaviness of the jungle throughout the entirety of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  The impassiveness and mystery of the jungle makes the characters jumpy and also reflects Kurtz’s descent into madness.

James Dashner’s Maze Runner uses his setting, the Glade, both as an antagonist and as a puzzle to find out why the boys are there.  The mystery of the Glade itself helps build the tone of the book.

In JK Rowling‘s Harry Potter series, the grounds and buildings at Hogwarts School play a pivotal role in almost every book in the series.  The secrets of the castle — and who is in possession of those secrets — build, one upon the other, from Book 1 all the way through Book 7, though I won’t spoil the how.  We know from our first steps inside the castle that it will be important to the story:

The entrance hall was so big you could have fit the whole of the Dursleys’ house in it.  The stone walls were lit with flaming torches like the ones at Gringotts, the ceiling was too high to make out, and a magnificent marble staircase facing them led to the upper floors.

What can we as writers take from these examples?  In each of these books, the author deftly weaves the setting into the plot so that the story could not happen without the place it’s set in.  Each of these stories would be dramatically different if they were set in different locations.  Imagine Heart of Darkness in Paris or Harry Potter in Kansas — completely different.

Is your setting integral to the plot?  Does your story change dramatically if you change the location?  Why have you chosen a certain place (or places) to be your main setting?  How does your setting give depth to your story?  Each of these questions can give you another way to look at your setting and how to adjust it or change it entirely.

What’s your take on settings?

P.S. Check out an alternate take on the same topic here.

What Makes Characters Real?

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Anne of Green Gables Cover Art

Courtesy of bn.com

Having characters we can relate to — or at least understand — is part of what makes us want to keep reading.  If we don’t care about the main characters and what happens to them, we probably won’t turn that next page.

In my humble opinion, two very distinct things make characters real to the reader:

1.  Quirks

What does your character do that makes her unique?  What makes him stand out above the sea of words and last in your readers’ memories?  Quirks.

I clearly remember how Anne in Anne of Green Gables dyed her hair green because she hated her red hair, and it’s been maybe 15 or 20 years since I read that book.  Anne Shirley, as a character, sticks in my memory because of her quirks.  I still frequently call to mind how she compared herself to her adoptive mother, Marilla, saying that she didn’t want to just walk along in her life (like Marilla); she didn’t mind thudding into the ground every so often if it meant she was able to soar with the eagles for a while in between.  That thought has stuck with me for years because author L.M. Montgomery gave Anne memorable, believable character quirks.

2. Emotional Integrity

Characters’ reactions to situations, however far-fetched those situations may be, must retain emotional integrity in order for readers to stick with the story.  If the character’s parent dies, and the character just keeps on blithely going about his daily life, we must understand why.  Otherwise, you will alienate readers.  It’s one thing to have unsympathetic characters, but quite another to have unsympathetic characters without reasons why.

For example, Scarlett O’Hara works as an unsympathetic character because we want to understand why she’s doing what she’s doing.  However, unsympathetic characters with no reasons behind their actions (at least, no reasons apparent to the reader) will lose the reader.  I was recently reading the third book in a triology where the main character had been fairly well established, and all of a sudden, he does something crazy that is never fully explained for the entire book.  I finished the book since I was comparing notes on the book with someone else who was reading it, but I made the decision never to read any other book by that author again.  I felt cheated.

On the other hand, you can find a book with an incredible premise that wouldn’t generally happen in daily life, like Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale, and it comes across as believable because the characters act in ways that make sense for their situation.  When the main character (whose real name we never learn) in The Handmaid’s Tale savors every detail in her room because she can’t visit many places in the outside world, it feels very real for her situation.  When she’s afraid of being discovered for her dissension, it feels very true to her character.

What makes a character feel real to you?

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