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A Sense of Home

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Cabin Painting - Novel Conclusions literary blog - Christina Gerstle - writing tips - writing rules - writing blog - book blog

Cabin with Children Playing by Thomas Birch via Wikimedia Commons

Lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to create a sense of home for my main character in my current work-in-progress.  Before the inciting incident in most stories, the author establishes a “normal” that the character will soon be deviating from.  This sense of normality, often a feeling of home, establishes a foundation or a jumping off point for your story.

In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett preens in the spotlight as the belle of the ball before the Civil War turns her world upside down.  Understanding her place in the pecking order helps us as readers much more fully appreciate what she is trying to win back as her journey wears on.  We can relate to her more fully (even though we’re not selfish debutantes, not usually, anyway) because we know where she started.

In Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, Bray establishes Gemma’s comfortable life in India in order to really underline the differences between her life before the inciting incident and afterwards.  Mild first chapter spoiler ahead – when Gemma’s mother dies (our inciting incident), and she is sent to boarding school in England, the dreary, cold setting contrasts starkly against the vivid view of India that opened the story.  This illustrates for us as readers how much Gemma wants to escape, a theme that plays out throughout the novel.

How do we establish the scene, a sense of home (or at least the foundational “normal”), in our own writing?

  • Make it matter.  A few strong details that we can call back to mind later in the story will do more than long chapters of exposition (I still can’t believe Dickens had an entire chapter about fog in Bleak House.  I never could finish that one).
  • Maximize contrast between the before and the after.  The luxury of Scarlett’s life made the struggle afterwards even more evident.  The festive, colorful atmosphere in India made Gemma’s first few days in England even more dreary.
  • Establish empathy early on (e.g. have a “Save the Cat” moment).  Before the main character hits the inciting incident head-on, when the scene is being set, we as readers need to learn something about our main character that gives us a reason to care.  If we are not given a reason to care, we may not even continue reading.  For example, I turned off the movie Taken after less than 20 minutes because I didn’t care one whit what happened to Liam Neeson’s character; the audience was given no tangible reason to care about him before he got in trouble.

How else can you establish a foundation before your inciting incident?  How do you create a sense of home in your stories?

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5 Ways to Tighten Up Your Plot

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Plot - Back to the Future - Indiana Jones - Novel Conclusions literary writing blog

The Ramifications of Time Travel via tapiture.com

There are many different successful writing styles that get books to fly off the shelves, but most successful fiction books need one thing to really work: a solid plot.  In my opinion, calling an author a tight plotter is one of the highest compliments.  A few authors that are great at this are Stephen King, Suzanne Collins, and George RR Martin, among others.

With a tight plotter, we’re hooked into the story, we encounter some crazy obstacles along the way (that totally make sense at the end of the story – I’m waiting on this one with Game of Thrones, Mr. Martin), and we solve whatever we’ve come to solve, while tying up most loose ends in ways that push the plot forward.  I like to think of it as a complex puzzle that doesn’t fully make sense until you put in the last few pieces – that’s some classy plotting.

How can I tighten up my plot?  Of course, I can’t give any in-depth advice about this without actually reading what you’ve written.  However, a few things generally always apply.

  1. First of all, make sure you actually have a plot.  This is a post in itself, so I’ll point you to a couple of experts in the meantime.  See Nathan Bransford’s Do You Have a Plot? and Mary Kole’s Writing a Hot Plot.
  2. Kill Your Darlings!  What does this mean?  (And why do I hear it so often???)  This means that there may be a few extra secondary characters just hanging out in your story that don’t really do anything for your main character or your story line.  If the character is present in your story, their presence should matter.  Does this character affect my main character in any important way?  Does this character move the plot forward?  If your main character has a best friend and a sister that fill the same role, perhaps that character can be combined.  If you have an evil neighbor named after that teacher you hated just to spite her, perhaps that character should be cut.
  3. Are the stakes high enough?  Obviously the stakes will be different depending on the genre.  However, are your stakes high enough for the reader to care?  If, in Jurassic Park, the story was just about whether or not the dinosaur theme park itself was viable, that’s not particularly exciting.  When suddenly our main characters’ lives hang in the balance, that changes the stakes.
  4. On the other side of the coin, are the stakes laughably high?  Remember to work within the confines of the world you have built.  It’s okay for your characters’ goals to seem a bit unreasonable (like Katniss surviving the Hunger Games or Scarlett O’Hara getting her family through the Civil War alive), but not laughably unreasonable (like Katniss learning to fly or Scarlett becoming president during the Civil War) – unless you’re writing parody or satire, of course.
  5. Cut out extraneous scenes.  How?  Go through your story scene by scene.  Does each scene push the plot forward and/or show readers something they must know in order for the story to work?  If this scene doesn’t fit those criteria, why is it in my story?  If you can’t answer the “why,” the scene might be ripe for the chopping block.

These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg.  What else can we do to tighten up plot?  What can we add/take out/change to make our plots tighter?

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What’s So Great About Unreliable Narrators?

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The Sixth Sense - Unreliable Narrator - Novel Conclusions - literary blog - writing tips

The Sixth Sense via Wikipedia

Every narrator has a perspective.  Even with novels written in third person omniscient point of view (where you as the reader know everything that’s going on, even things the main characters don’t know), there is a perspective there; the author has chosen which story to tell.  In first person and limited third person, we get to know the main character through his or her perspective – the way they views things, people, and events, the way they act.  Having a unique perspective gives the main character life.  Sometimes, this unique perspective extends so far that the main character is an unreliable narrator – they aren’t seeing what’s really happening (or, in some cases, they are omitting key information).

Why would you write a story with an unreliable narrator?  Well, let’s examine this a bit.  M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense gives us a clear example of an unreliable narrator.  (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) In this movie, we follow troubled child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis’s character) as he helps a young patient, Cole, who claims he can see dead people.  Crowe is especially determined to help Cole because he failed to help a patient with similar delusions in the past.

As we get wrapped up in the story, we as an audience are completely taken by surprise – at least, I was – to find out that Crowe has been dead for the large majority of the movie and that Cole is the only one who can see him.  Crowe was an unreliable narrator because he was showing us not just a one-sided version of events but an intensely one-sided version of events.  The ending takes us by surprise because the main narrator was only showing us a very, very limited view of events.

What’s so great about unreliable narrators?

  • They allow for twists in the story that make sense (rather than twists that just feel like contrived plot devices).  When well-written, it creates that wow factor that can be so hard to come by.
  • We as writers get to fill the story with “Easter eggs.”  Think of all the incredibly cool things you can find re-watching The Sixth Sense.
  • It’s fun to get into the mind of a truly idiosyncratic character.
  • We as writers are solidly in control of the framing of the story, even more so than with a regular Joe type narrator.

A key point here is that the writing needs to be solid in order for this to work.  If the writing is tacky or shoddy, an unreliable narrator might just make the reader want to put the book down.  Of course, the writing needs to be solid for any story to work properly, but you already knew that, didn’t you?

Have you read or seen anything you enjoyed with an unreliable narrator?  What did you like about it?

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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?

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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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.

The Power of Revealing Details

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The Giver

Courtesy of bn.com

Correctly placed details can reveal more about a character, setting, or situation than paragraphs of exposition — showing versus telling.  In revision, it’s important for us to scour every scene, every paragraph for ways to show instead of tell.  Sometimes I find that, in the frenetic rush to get the story out, my first drafts tend to be lots of telling and need to be cleaned up pretty dramatically to show more instead.

In Lois Lowry‘s The Giver, Lowry builds a fantatstic new world in barely a chapter, and she’s able to accomplish this feat with her solid use of revealing detail, as in this passage in the first chapter:

Lily considered, and shook her head.  “I don’t know.  They acted like… like…”

“Animals?” Jonas suggested.  He laughed.

“That’s right,” Lily said, laughing too.  “Like animals.”

Neither child knew what the word meant, exactly, but it was often used to describe someone uneducated or clumsy, someone who didn’t fit in.

Without telling us directly how different this society is, Lowry accomplishes this in just a few lines by showing an example of daily life without giving it to us in straight exposition.   The conversation and comment come across casually, almost as an aside, which also shows us something about the world of The Giver and the attitudes of those within it.

Whenever I revise, I try, though not always successfully, to cut as much exposition as I can without losing the thread of the story.  Which revision tricks do you use to clean up your fiction?

P.S.  Check out what the NY Times has to say about Lois Lowry’s new book Son here and how “in many ways, Lowry invented the contemporary young adult dystopian novel.”

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