Acts and Outlining

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

When I was in elementary school, they taught us that the shape of a story was a triangle, with Exposition at the beginning, the first slope up being Rising Action, the apex being the Climax, the declining slope being Falling Action, and the end being the Resolution or Denouement. Exposition was meant to set up the story, Rising Action established the stakes and the actors first moves until the story exploded at the Climax, winded down with the Falling Action, and was finally all resolved with the Resolution.

This story form followed me up through high school. However, I believe it is too simplistic and even misleading. This story arc was always drawn as an equilateral triangle with the climax as the midpoint of the story.

It wasn’t until I starting taking creative writing courses in college that I was introduced to the idea of putting the climax much closer to the end of the story. This placement can be seen in both the three-act structure and the five-act structure. While acts are most commonly associated with plays, stories can also be broken down into acts, or segments defined by a main part of a story.

The three-act structure is, coincidentally, broken into three main parts: Set-Up, Confrontation, and Resolution.

Act one you introduce your characters and their desires and goals. You introduce us to the problem, and you end act one with a “turn” or a plot point that changes things. My writing instructor, Professor H., described a turn as “A stranger comes to town or a woman goes on a trip.” Of course, this is to be taken completely metaphorically. The stranger coming to town could be a letter arriving. The woman going on a trip could be the loss of a child. Writers interpret it as you will. Something happens that changes the game.

Act two your characters go on a journey and experience obstacles. The act ends with another turning point.

Act three, according to John Yorke’s Into the Woods, begins with the crisis, or “the moment when [the hero is] faced with the most important question of the story – just what kind of person are they?” It is the moment when all hope is lost. This is followed by the climax, the scene where the protagonist applies the skills their learned over their journey and engages in the final battle. And then the resolution. All the necessary threads get tied up.

According to Yorke, the five-act structure is “merely a detailed refinement of [the three-act structure].” Professor H. taught the five-act structure in great detail. He went so far as to tell us the exact point of when something should happen in a story (eg. if your story is 250 pages long, on page 7, a character should say the theme to another character.) Now, I don’t think I agree that everything needs to happen at a precise place (or even if the theme ever needs to be explicitly stated), but the structure made a lot of sense to me.

Act one is the introduction where you get the main character on stage, introduce some other characters, clue us in to the time and place. We need to know what drives the character and the complication to that drive. The rest of act one is resistance to the complication, but in the end, the character realizes resistance is futile.

Act two is the intensification. The complication worsens at first. Then things start to look up. A plot point happens that catapults us into act three.

Act three is the separation. The crisis happens. The characters respond to the crisis and a plot points catapults them into act four.

Act four is the re-evaluation. According to my notes from my class, this is where the darkest hour occurs. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how that is different from the crisis, so take that as you will. According to Yorke, the crisis happens at the end of act four. He later goes on to talk about the midpoint, which happens in act three and “marks a massive escalation in jeopardy” or “the moment something profoundly significant happens.” So, let’s just say that in act three the midpoint happens, and in act four the crisis happens. In this act, the hero gets a new insight into the problem of not getting what they want. Final plot point catapults us into act five.

Act five is the resolution. Here, the climax and resolution occur. We gather all the characters and settle the scores.

Now, here is where I find the act structures to be useful. They are already set up as an outline of how a story is structured, so why not use it as a guide for your own outlines?

Take the five-act structure (or three-act, I prefer five because it is more detailed). In five sentences you can outline an entire story. Act one, introduce. Act two, set up the complication. Act three, a significant event occurs. Act four, the darkest hour occurs. Act five, the final battle and resolution occurs. Write one sentence for each act describing what happens in your story. 

If that is too much for you right now, try this: Complete the sentence “It’s about a [man/woman/dog/alien/whatever] who…” Keep in mind what do they want, why can’t they get it, and what are they going to do?

Of course, there are many ways to outline. What’s your favorite way to outline?

Advertisements

Write what you know

Tags

, , ,

If I had to list the three writing tips I heard most often, they would be 1. Read all the time, 2. Write every day, and 3. Write what you know.

Now, while not all writing advice works for everyone, for me, this is pretty solid advice. (I hadn’t meant to talk about tips 1 & 2, but let me touch on those briefly anyway.) The best way to not just understand writing and story structure but to internalize it is to read. 2. I don’t actually think you have to write every single day, but the gist of the tip is that if you want to actually finish something you need to actually write. It could be every day, every other day, just on the weekends, once a month. Whatever works for you and your writing goals.

I think there is a lot more to be said about writing what you know. A lot of people take it at face value. They get hung up because they don’t want to write about growing up in the middle of nowhere with four siblings, 3 cats, and 6 dogs. They want to write about ghosts and monsters, magic…murder. Now, obviously, (hopefully?) we don’t know about monsters and murder. Some of us have never seen a ghost or don’t believe in magic. I’m pretty sure that Patricia C. Wrede has never talked to dragons.

Now, we can take “write what you know” two ways: literally and figuratively.

Literally: if you want to write about something you don’t know about, then research it. Google it, find some academic articles (honestly, depending on the story, wikipedia isn’t a bad source. Wanna write about fairies? Probably not too many academic articles on that. Taxidermy, on the other hand…), talk to an expert. Seriously, pick up the phone and call your local taxidermist or whatever. Research it and then it is something that you know. Write what you know.

Figuratively: what it comes down to is emotions. You’re human, you have presumably had some experiences and felt some emotions. Make your piece relatable by helping us to feel what you have felt. 

I would say that stories are best taking a combination of these. Make sure you do enough research to know what you’re talking about, but don’t forget to add the emotion. That’s where you really hook a reader. 

This is not to say you shouldn’t write about what you know. By all means, if you love to ride horses and you want to write about a girl taming an unruly horse and winning a race with it, go for it. Just remember to make us feel.

As a final note, if you do want to write about your life, maybe consider creative nonfiction?

Tags

, , , ,

So I have been thinking a lot about my own stories and what made some of them successful and others not, why I have had a hard time continuing with most of my stories since graduation. (Aside from the fact that I am no longer being graded.)

While I have not written much since graduation, I have come up with a lot of story ideas. Around the time I graduated was also the time I finally admitted to myself that I probably had depression and actually went in and got diagnosed. Now, aside from being tired all the time and never wanting to do anything, I do still have the desire to write. Where a bigger problem for me lies is that I have a hard time thinking of character motivation.

See, I have no motivation myself. If I’m not obligated to do something, I probably won’t do it. Which makes it hard for me to give my characters motivation. I try; I mean, I know that characters need to want something. But whenever I try to give them a motivation, it feels fake, because for me, I feel nothing.

For example, I was trying to write a horror story about a girl who is driving and her car breaks down in this tiny little town in the middle of nowhere and weird shit happens. (Original, I know. Inspired by a stint I did at a Feed Store.) Of course, the question came up: Why was she driving and where was she going? I thought, maybe she was essentially running away. I have always dreamed of just throwing my stuff into my car, throwing my phone away, picking a direction, and just driving. Why don’t I just give this to a character? Well, what is she running away from? I thought of the obvious reasons: a bad romantic relationship, a bad family relationship, not liking her job, etc. These reasons all just felt so mundane and not entirely….tangible, I guess? They did not feel strong enough or creative enough.

One story I wrote that I felt was successful was exactly the opposite. It was entirely 100% character motivation driven. It was called How to Become a Princess and it was literally just about the lengths a peasant girl went to to secure herself a prince and a throne. What it boiled down to was this girl wanted to be a princess (motivation), but she was poor (obstacle), so she did X to get what she wanted, but (obstacle) happened which she overcame by doing this other thing when another obstacle presented itself and so on.

And that is essentially what a good story is. You have a character who wants something but something is standing in their way so they try to overcome it and maybe they do or maybe they don’t; either way, there is a bigger obstacle just around the corner until they finally reach the biggest obstacle (crisis) that makes them question who they are as a person and if they really want to achieve this goal or if their goal has changed. Then they act on that decision in a climactic battle (figurative or literal) that leads to the resolution of the story.

Anyway, it’s back to the drawing board. This time, I’m going to start with character motivation.

Diversity in Writing

Tags

, , , , , ,

Diversity of characters, in my opinion, is one of the most important aspects of a story. I don’t just mean making your characters have distinct personalities. I’m talking race, gender, religion, sexuality, and much more.

Regardless of whether or not most stories are about straight white people (they are, at least the ones that get super popular), it is still important to have diversity.

The way I see it, good, well-researched diversity has two effects: it shows those people who identify with the character that they are not alone, and it educates those of us who have not experienced life the way the character and other people like the character have.

Now, there is something to say for not having diverse writing. I’ve seen people complain about how they always imagined their characters one way and then get upset when people suggest they make their stories more diverse. The response is always “well, of course you don’t have to do what other people want. It’s your story. Don’t try to force it. Yadda yadda yadda.” Yeah, sure, it’s your story and you should never force anything. Believe me, forced diversity usually just comes out at tired stereotypes. But maybe you should take some time to reflect on why you can’t add diversity to your story. What is making it so hard? Why don’t you want to include other types of people? 

One reason I predict is “but I don’t know anything about x people.” Of course not. No one can know everything about everyone else’s experience (and let’s be real here, if you’re so resistant to adding diversity then you are probably pretty privileged which will make it hard for you to see the need for diversity). 

Another reason could be fear. I know that I, as a white, cisgender, straight passing female, I have a lot of fear about writing other races and genders wrong. I fear writing something that will hurt others, stereotypes that perpetuate stereotypes.

To both and any other possible reasons for not writing diverse characters, the answer is research. That is a large part of the writing process anyway. Research. Research. Research.

Read accounts by people of other races, religions, genders, etc than you. Talk to then. Get their story about what life has been like for them. And actually listen. Go even further and discuss with them what kind of things they would like to see in stories about them, how they would like to be portrayed. Read books (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, everything) about minorites and by minorities. 

Be less egocentric and more compassionate and considerate in your writing.

What are some of your favorite (for lack of a better term) minority authors?

Honesty Time

Tags

, , , ,

‚ÄčI am really struggling with this blog. I said I would do a weekly post (ha), and that was really just to get me writing. I haven’t written really anything since graduating, and I feel like I’m wasting my degree.

I want to write. Honest. I have lots of story ideas.

But I’m not passionate about writing. 

Here are some things I am passionate about: Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Ghosts/ghost stories/spooky stories. Stories in general. Editing.

I am very passionate about editing. I love fixing stories and sentences and scenes and structure. I love talking about grammar and structure and all the rest. But I feel like this blogs has been me talking about writing as a writer, not an editor. But since I don’t have professional editing experience (just when I tutored and workshopped in college and a little volunteer work recently), I don’t feel qualified to talk about editing, since I don’t actually know the business. :/

I think, going forward, maybe I will talk about the things I read in craft books and ways I would have edited something differently in novels/poems I read.

What is a story?

Tags

, , , , ,

For Christmas, my friend got me john Yorke’s “Into the Woods, a five-act journey into story.” The book mainly focuses on film, but I think a lot of what is said (at least what I’ve read so far) can be applied to novels as well. (He also provides lots of sources and notes, which is nice.)

Chapter one delves into what a story is. For most of us, when asked what makes a story a story, we would probably say something like “something happens to someone.” That someone being the protagonist and the something being conflict. According to Yorke (and I think most of us can agree with this), “the ‘something’ is almost always a problem, sometimes a problem disguised as an opportunity.”

So we have our protagonist living out their day to day lives and something happens that changes that. 

One thing that I’m sort of confused about is that he talks about the characters needing to have a desire (of course) and then later he talks about the inciting incident being the catalyst for the desire. So does the protagonist have this desire in her day to day life, or does the desire only occur after something happens to start the action? And if the desire was not previously there, what did the character want beforehand, because our characters must have pasts before this inciting incident. 

Now that I think about it, when Yorke talks about protagonists, he mentions that the protag’s desire shouldn’t be abstract (instead of wanting love, the protag wants the quarterback to ask her to the prom, for example), but I think that before the story starts, an abstract desire is ok, and then the inciting incident happens that makes the protag’s desire manifest as something more concrete. Maybe. I don’t know.

One thing I kind of struggled with was the concept of character flaws. As a baby writer, I thought flaws were simply meant to make the character more likeable and less of a Mary Sue. Yorke states that flaws are basically the same thing as needs for characters and “what they want stands in direct opposition to what they need.” This of course is all the set up for the internal change or growth of the character when (if?) they don’t get what they want. 

Again, this book is great stuff. You should check it out. I’ll probably revisit it again when I get farther along in it.

Has anyone else read it? What did you think?

Writing Resolution

Tags

, , , ,

This year I resolve to write more. (Shouldn’t be too hard, sadly.)

Writing tip idea: start by setting out to write the shittiest version of the story you want to write. This should help relieve the pressure to write a Great story. Also, sometimes it can be fun to write really bad stories. My theory for why writing bad is fun is a. The reduced stress to be perfect brings you back to a time when you wrote just to write, allowing you to just live in the story and not worry about nitpicking the grammar and structure and other things like that (which also allows you to build stronger relationships with your characters so you as an author can get to know them better), and b. sometimes it is just fun to deal in cliches. 

Then, after you’ve allowed yourself to write a really shitty story, your next goal is to revise it into a better story.

I have not tested this idea and cannot speak for it, but I will try it and get back to you guys.

Has anyone else tried this before? Did it work? What starting strategies have you guys used before?

Tags

, ,

Happy New Year! I hope you all had a great holiday season.

I’d like to start off 2017 with the most important writing advice. I’m sure I’ve said it before, and I know you’ve all heard it before:

Write.

Write, write, write, write, write.

Sit your butt in the chair and just write.

You are not going to get anything written if you don’t actually write.

Of course, that advice isn’t always the easiest to follow. We come up with excuses-but I dont have time, I dont like anything I write, I have depression (these are all of my excuses). 

If writing is really important to you, make time. You dont have to write every day. Even if you just find some time on the weekends to write. 

Writing is a skill; by practicing, you will get better.

Depression is a whole different conversation, and I honestly don’t have much advice on this one. First take care of yourself, then worry about writing.

I guess what all this boils down to is making writing a priority in your life. (Yes, even the part about putting writing second to your own mental health. Taking care of yourself will make it easier to get into a writing mindset. At least, thats how it works for me.) 

If writing is important to you, then treat it like it is important to you.

Recommendations

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

Here are some books I like:

The Corn Maiden and other Nightmares by Joyce Carol Oates. A collection of deliciously spine tingling stories.

Anything by Patricia Briggs. Fantasy and urban fantasy with female protags.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. A thrilling story about a missing wife. Great characterization.

In Writing by Stephen King: an insightful memoir of the craft.

The Red Tree by Caitlin Kiernen. A modern gothic ghost story with a lesbian protag. It took a bit to get into it (it is sort of like…found footage, but as a book….which I am not fond of), but it was worth it.

A Whisper in the Wind by Joan Smitg. A leisure gothic novel. No ghosts, unfortunately, but there is murder and mistaken identity. A naive young girl marries a charming gentleman after like a week or two, and when he takes her home, everyone seems to already know her. Very easy read.

Am reading:

Wolfsbane by Patricia Briggs and the Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Want to Read:

Octavia Butler, more ghost stories, something similar to Gone Girl without saying it’s like GG and then disappointing me when it is absolutely nothing like GG, House of Leaves by Danielewski, more diverse authors

As you can see, I like fantasy and ghost stories. Ghost stories are my passion, but fantasy is home. It is familiar and comfortable.

What books do you recommend?

False Advertising

Tags

, , , , , ,

I listen to the Writing Excuses podcast (if you haven’t checked it out yet, you really should), and one of the things they (and many others) talk about a lot is keeping the promises you make to you readers. This can mean a lot of things in regards to your writing, but today I want to talk about literal false advertising.

I will use two books as examples. Both are debut novels. The first one was marketed as “The next (book that I like).” So, of course, I bought it. I went in excited to read a new story with the same writing quality as the other book I liked. 

The second was a re-release of a New York Times bestselling author and was marketed as such, just edited a little bit for issues she now knew how to fix after she got several novels under her belt. I went in excited to read the first novel of one of my favorite authors, expecting it to not really be that great, but to still be enjoyable.

I read the first one and absolutely hated it. Because it was marketed as being simular to this other book, I was able to predict the ending immediately. The writing quality was subpar. The character development was nonexistent. Ultimately, I was disappointed because the author did not keep her promise to me.

The second book, I have not finished yet, and there are obvious problems with it-certain cliches that are common among new writers-but I am impressed. The characters aren’t exactly new-female mercenary protag, her shapeshiftimg wolf-mage sidekick, a promising young king, a sadistic mage who wants to rule the world essentially. But I kind of expected that going in.

One of the episodes of Writing Excuses deals with the pet peeves of agents, and one of the things mentioned was that agents hate it when writers day in their query letters that their book is “the next Harry Potter” or whatever other book is big at the time. I think it does largely come down to originality and writing your own thing and not trying to ride on someone else’s coattails, but I think it also has to do with not setting yourself up for failure. And honestly, if you have to name drop Harry Potter to get people interested then maybe your story has bigger issues.

Writing prompt: I want you to take 5 common story ideas and use those as jumping off points for 5 new story ideas. Summarize each in one sentence that mentions character and conflict.