Monday, October 29, 2012

Brad Pitt's Not Available, So...

I stumbled across this story sparker idea quite by accident over the weekend, and it was so good I knew I had to pass it on. You're going to think you know what it is before I'm done... but I'm not so sure you'll guess right.

Most of you are familiar with the Harry Potter books, I suppose. There are 7 books in the series:
  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
  2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
  7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
There's nothing new there, of course. But over the weekend I discovered a Tumblr site that does Harry Potter humor. (Just a warning to those of you who decide to check it out: You may find some of it objectionable. But a lot of it is just hilarious!) And on that site I found a list titled The Books from Ron’s Point of View. Here's the list:
  1. Ron Weasley and the Three-Headed Dog
  2. Ron Weasley and the Possessed Sister
  3. Ron Weasley and the Rat That Isn’t A Rat
  4. Ron Weasley and the Green Monster of Jealousy
  5. Ron Weasley and the Year of Quidditch
  6. Ron Weasley and the Girl Drama
  7. Ron Weasley and the Wooing of Hermione Granger
I'd say that list is slightly different from the first, wouldn't you?

Let's say you've got a great idea for a story... but for some reason your story is "stuck." It just won't work, no matter what you do.

Perhaps you're writing about the wrong character!

Well, maybe not, but perhaps you need to look at your story from a different angle. Telling the story from another character's viewpoint may be just what you need to get things going again.

Now, let me make something clear. This sparker is not about changing your story's narrator, which is what most people would immediately try to do. Look back at the Harry vs. Ron examples. Both lists are the same books... but while the first one tells how Harry understands the story as it happens to him, the second tells how Ron understands the exact same story happening to him!

Take the second book, Chamber of Secrets. Ginnie Weasley, one of the book's main characters, is Harry's friend but she's Ron's sister. Harry approaches the problem from a sense of revenge; anything involving Voldemort (the wizard who killed his parents) makes him want to take action. Ron, however, approaches all of this from a sense of fear; for him, Voldemort is a boogeyman whose name isn't even supposed to be spoken out loud! Both boys experience the same events, but a different story, as this photo from the blog demonstrates!

Ron and Harry

So next time you get stuck, try doing your story using a different character. Or, if you have no story idea, take a story you like and put your character in it. I bet you get some very different ideas doing that!

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Five Steps in the Creative Process

I wonder... if a picture is worth a thousand words and I have writer's block, am I short a few pictures?

I have a book by Anastasia Suen called Picture Writing. It's all about using visualization to create more interesting children's books. One of the things she included in the book is a list she calls the Five Steps in the Creative Process. I don't know if she got it from someone else -- she quotes quite a few creativity researchers in that section -- or whether she complied it from several sources, but it's interesting. Here are the five steps (from page 7 of the book):
  1. Preparation: You get a new idea and gather information about it.
  2. Frustration: Your project gets stuck.
  3. Incubation: Your subconscious works on the project.
  4. Illumination: The A-Ha! moment of insight.
  5. Translation into Action: You take your insight and put it to work.
I don't know about you, but I find that second step very interesting... because I tend to spend so much time there! She quotes from a book called The Creative Spirit: "Frustration arises at the point when the rational, analytical mind, searching laboriously for a solution, reaches the limit of its abilities." She adds, "When logic doesn't work anymore, you have to rely on your intuition."

Suen says that frustration actually comes very early in the creative process. That surprised me, since I always felt that I got most frustrated near the end because that's when I got stuck most often. If frustration happens early, does that mean I didn't really have things worked out to begin with? Did I try to start the project too early, before I really knew what it was going to be?

Sometimes part of that frustration phase involves just sitting down and writing to see what we get. But we have to be careful not to mistake this "thinking on paper" for the actual creation we intend to make. To use a sculpting analogy, sometimes we think we're shaping the statue when we're just digging clay.

It's easy to get depressed when you read about established writers who sit down and turn out a certain number of pages a day. You need to keep in mind that there can be some different things going on here.
  • One, that writer may just be digging clay. Every successful writer can tell you about pages of material they wrote that never saw print.
  • Two, the writer already had some clay. This is particularly true if the writer works in an already established "universe" -- either theirs or someone else's. If you've ever tried it, writing fanfic (stories about existing TV or literary characters you like) is much easier than creating a universe of your own. Much of the dirty work has already been done for you -- not only do you already have characters and a world, but those characters have a history. What happens going forward is based in part on what has already happened.
  • Three, the writer may already be at step 5 in the list. At that point, it may (I stress the word "may") simply be a matter of typing as fast as they can to get the story on paper.
On those bad days when the words just won't come, it's good to remind yourself that creation is a process. It takes time... and some of that time is spent in the frustration phase. I think the trick is to simply relax and accept the frustration... then try to do something else. If that third step -- incubation -- is going to happen, you've got to give your mind time to play with the idea.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Superstition May Be the Way

With apologies to Stevie Wonder, of course!

As mentioned in previous posts, "where do you get your ideas?" is a frequent question. So I've decided to occasionally post what I'm calling plot sparkers (they'll be in their own little category over in the right column) to help you create new ideas for stories.

And today's sparker concerns superstition. Don't make the mistake of thinking this kind of sparker will always create a horror story... because it won't. In fact, some of your funniest stories may get started from a superstition.

Superstitions are more than just spooky beliefs from the Dark Ages. Plenty of people are superstitious, as I have been reminded by a couple of Bud Light commercial that have aired during football games lately. One is just a series of superstitions performed by different fans (with Superstition as the soundtrack), but this one is the one that really caught my eye:

Completely silly, isn't it? But you can easily see how such a superstition could form the basis of a plot -- yes, even the plot of a children's book! Let me give you a couple of examples -- feel free to use them if you like:
  • A kid sees his dad do this with friends at a football game and decides to do a science fair project to test the theory. Does it work with sodas or milk as well as beer? Does it work for other things besides football? You can see where this might go.
  • In a related line of thought, the kid might ask his dad to explain it. Suppose his dad, unwilling to admit it's just silly desperation (that could be a story in itself), fabricates an explanation, not unlike the bizarre explanation given by the fan in the commercial. ("Our proximity to the field creates a parallel connection between the bottle and the ball..." REALLY?) Now suppose the kid decides to "fix" a ball game with his friends...
You get the idea. These could end up being serious or funny, depending on how you choose to handle them. Ideas are only building blocks.

So superstition could be the way to create a good story... regardless of what Stevie thinks. After all, it gave him the idea for a hit song, didn't it?

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Basics of Cause and Effect, Part 2

The last post dealt with the simpler, purely external versions of stimulus and response... but what about internally-motivated actions?

The fourth and fifth characteristics of properly-presented stimulus and response actions looked like this:
4. The response should follow the stimulus quickly.
5. If the response doesn’t clearly makes sense, you may need to explain it.
While these two “rules” can be broken through improper handling, they can also present a problem when the character’s motivations truly were internal. In such cases, Jack Bickham adds an intermediate step, like so:


This internalization constitutes a pause in the action and allows us to see what’s going on in the characters mind. For example, we might see a character tense up and begin to act erratically as a stranger walks up, then suddenly run off screaming when the stranger gets within arm’s-reach. Such a stimulus/response action makes no sense to us; however, adding a short internalization (just a paragraph is enough in this case) where our character associates the stranger with someone who traumatized them in the past allows us to understand their apparently irrational reaction.

As with the simpler stimulus/response sequence in our last post, this more complex reaction can be applied to anything from the simplest action to the larger movements within a story’s plot.

A classic example of this can be seen in Die Hard. (I know it's not a children's example, but it's one I know most everybody is familiar with.) At one point in the movie, Hans Gruber (the bad guy) goes upstairs, hoping to find his missing detonators... and runs into John McClane. He introduces himself as Bill Clay, a hostage who managed to get away from his captors. McClane is not fooled but, after an action sequence where McClane is injured and Gruber retrieves his detonators, we enter an internalization scene. McClane wonders why Gruber came upstairs in the first place, and begins searching the upper floors. (Remember the scene with McClane wandering around upstairs, muttering “What were you doing, Hans? What were you doing up here?”) As a result, he finds that the roof has been rigged with explosives.

Here we see a stimulus (Gruber’s trip upstairs), internalization (McClane ponders why), and response (McClane begins his search). His response, in turn, provides a new stimulus for the next action in the plot -- the discovery of the explosives.

That's important, so make sure you understand it. The reason I'm bugging you with this stuff about cause and effect is because once you get the hang of thinking this way, plotting can almost become automatic. Knowing McClane's character as the writers (and we viewers!) do, the only logical next move for McClane was finding a way to stop Hans from blowing up the roof and killing hostages.

In Scene & Structure Jack Bickham calls such an internalization scene a sequel, and suggests that most of the more involved action scenes in your story should be followed by one of these internalization scenes. It allows both the character and the reader a chance to process all the information received during the sequence, as well as enabling the writer to better control the pace of the story. The sequel can be as long or as short as necessary; there is no real rule here beyond making an appropriate choice for your story.

A working knowledge of how stimulus and response works can be a great aid in plotting your story, as it helps you to avoid the structural errors that can cause writers to lose their way when planning a longer piece of fiction... and also helps you avoid confusing your readers.

That's the end of the cause and effect posts. If you want to learn more, get Bickham's book; it's one of the two books I believe should be on every writer's bookshelf. But you've got enough now to help you build better plots for any story you write, whether it's for adults or children.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Basics of Cause and Effect, Part 1

In my last post I promised to introduce the basics of Jack Bickham’s ideas from his book Scene & Structure because I believe most writers ignore this simple concept. In an age where average people don’t seem to understand that their actions have consequences (or, at least, they seem to think that they should be able to do anything they want without suffering any consequences), I’m not sure we can assume that any of us really understands how to apply this to our writing.

Cause and effect -- or, as Bickham calls them, stimulus and response -- might be thought of in this way:


That is, something happens first (stimulus) and then something happens as a result (response). For example: I throw a ball, you catch it; you push on the door, it opens; we elect congressmen, they spend our money irresponsibly. All are examples of stimulus and response.

Simple enough, right?

But there are several aspects of this little "transaction" that Bickham says may have slipped past our notice:
  1. Stimulus and response are all EXTERNAL actions that we can see.
  2. They happen in a specific order, and that sequence shouldn’t be reversed without a reason.
  3. If you have one, you must have the other.
  4. The response should follow the stimulus quickly.
  5. If the response doesn’t clearly makes sense, you may need to explain it.
Let’s take a brief look at all of these to see how they affect our writing.

How often have you been told that your writing should “show, not tell”? Numbers 1 & 2 speak to this truism. Both the stimulus and the response are actions that you can see, that you can show in your writing. In the examples I gave earlier (throwing the ball, opening the door, etc.), you could’ve taken a movie camera and captured both stimulus and response on film. The order in which they happen makes sense; you would never, for example, see someone catch the ball before it was thrown.

So a proper understanding of stimulus and response can automatically help us write more visually!

But suppose we reverse the order? Instead of “John tossed the ball and Ben caught it,” supposed we wrote “Ben caught the ball when John tossed it”? We have now changed the emphasis of what happened. In the first case, the emphasis is on the flow of action; the story is moving along quickly and we don’t want to break the pace. But in the second case, the emphasis is on Ben’s response; the pace of action is slowed and we throw a spotlight on Ben. Obviously, you would only do this for a specific reason. (Bickham goes into great detail about using this simple technique for a wide variety of purposes, which I don’t have room to write about in this short post. However, just understanding this method of creating emphasis should help you make better choices about how you write your story.)

It’s very common for writers to mismatch stimulus and response, and number 3 speaks to this. An example Bickham uses is this: I toss you the ball, and you respond by saying, “Nice day!” WHAT HAPPENED TO THE BALL?!? Your vocal response may classify as an external action, but it doesn’t really correspond to the stimulus. If, when I toss you the ball, YOU CATCH IT and then say, “Nice day for a game of catch!”, not only have you properly responded to the stimulus, but your statement constitutes a new stimulus to which I’ll have to respond. (And yes, you actually need to write that you caught the ball-- especially for children, who may not automatically make the connection. After all, you could have dropped it or I might have thrown it right past you. How will your young reader know if you aren't clear?)

Numbers 4 and 5 may be a little less obvious, but no less important. We’re used to seeing a response happen quickly after its stimulus. If too much time passes between stimulus and response, we may not even recognize that the two are connected. Sometimes things happen where the response doesn’t happen immediately -- as when a worker, who has patiently endured an abusive boss for years, suddenly walks into work and shoots him. This sort of behavior confuses everybody... regardless of whether it’s fiction or real life.

Obviously something internal is going on here as well. How do we deal with that when stimulus and response focuses focuses on external action?

I'll talk about that in the next post.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Cause and Effect

One of my favorite writing books is called Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham. It's not a particularly thick book, but it's all about "how to construct fiction with scene-by-scene flow, logic and readability."

In other words, it's about the nuts and bolts of writing a good story. And Bickham spends a lot of the book explaining how most books that don't "work" have a problem with cause and effect.

Cause and effect are simple, basic things. We all know about them. This happens and then that happens as a result. Nothing overly complex about that, right?

Bickham doesn't think so. In fact, he takes nearly 170 pages (in the edition I have) to explain how it works. (In fairness, about 1/3 of it is appendices with examples.) This book explains cause and effect thoroughly -- and by thoroughly, I mean thoroughly... starting with the simplest action and proceeding through individual scenes, chapters, and finally the complete plot. He not only explains the structure of well-written scenes, but he explains:
  • how to link scenes
  • how to control pace
  • how to vary the structure of scenes for variety or effect
and even how to use scenes themselves as a structure to help you create plots.

Next week I'm going to do a couple of posts about cause and effect because, although it sounds so basic, it makes plotting so much easier. I've come to believe that a huge number of plotting problems are simply a matter of not paying attention to "what happens next?" closely enough. If we lose control of the causes and effects in our writing, we end up confused and our stories make no sense.

And when you're writing for kids, you need to make sure that your story makes sense or they'll stop reading.

Class starts Monday. ;-)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Adapting Stories

Perhaps one of the most challenging tasks a writer faces is adapting a traditional story for a children's book. To make things even more complicated, the problems aren't necessarily the same for each writer.

For example, when I wrote Prince Jonathan's War I faced a number of problems. One of the biggest ones was how to handle the violence. Often traditional stories involve very adult topics that make modern adults squeamish. Finding a comfortable way to deal with what some adults deem "inappropriate content" may force you to change the story somewhat... and those changes may not allow you to tell the story as it was meant to be heard.

I should point out that children often don't have a problem with the things that bother adults. Sometimes they understand more about what's going on than we adults give them credit for. And don't ignore the fact that the fairy tales they've grown up hearing typically involve adult situations that we don't notice because we're so familiar with the stories. (If nothing else, the kids have learned more from TV than we realize.) In Prince Jonathan's War I sidestepped some of the bloodshed by simply not dwelling on it. Even children who don't understand death know that people get hurt badly in a war -- especially a war involving swords -- so I felt it was enough to let them know there was a war going on and show sword fights in the pictures.

Likewise, your religious beliefs can affect how you retell stories from your religious tradition; the same is often true for writers retelling stories from their personal or "tribal" history, or for writers who want to retell an event well-known from history. The problem is how to "fictionalize" the scenes. For me as a Christian, that makes retelling Bible stories a little tricky. Rarely is a religious story written with drama in mind -- it's written as history or as a teaching tool, or both. You have to imagine what may have happened when you turn it into a children's book, and you have to decide how much freedom you can exercise and still be true to the story. (Writers retelling stories that they don't have such a connection with often make major changes to the story without any qualms at all.)

It can be especially difficult when you're doing an easy reader because of the simplified language you need to use. Some concepts are just hard to put in simple words. I substituted the words "holy man" for "priest" in Prince Jonathan's War, as well as in the as-yet-unpublished Japanese legend I've done, simply because the pronunciation of the "ie" in priest might confuse young readers in the age group the book is meant for. (Most of those kids learn to sound out the "ie" as a long i sound, not a long e.) But I felt that was a reasonable substitution; such a convenient change isn't always available to a writer.

As a writer you have to consider these things when you choose to retell an existing story. And you should consider them before you actually commit to writing the story; your uncertainty concerning how to handle them can sidetrack your work very quickly. So how should you approach this problem?

My own guideline is to balance passion and comfort. First I anticipate possible problems. How do I plan to deal with the difficulties? If I don't feel good about the solutions I come up with, I shelve the project for the time being. If I feel passionate enough about it, my mind will continue to "try things" to make the story work even though I'm focusing on new projects. If something plausible comes to mind, I'll take a little time to make a test run and see if it works. But I need the balance -- I don't want to write things unless I really like them, and I don't want to force things when I'm passionate about them but am displeased with the actual results.

Oh, and save all the attempts you make to get the story on paper. If the story simply won't let you go, occasionally go back and re-read all of them. You never know when the key to figuring things out will come from an early draft that you didn't really like. Sometimes the solution lies in using ideas from two or three different drafts!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Using a Web

Not THE Web, as in the Internet. I'm talking about an idea web. When you've got a basic concept or thought to build a story around but you're trying to generate some ideas to "flesh it out," an idea web is often the best way to do it. It's just another way of brainstorming but, because it's more of a graphic technique, it often helps you get past "sticking places" because it uses your brain a little differently.

I think the first place I ever saw an idea web was in the book Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Rico. She called it "clustering" and I found it very useful. The concept now goes by many names, but the principle is the same.
  1. Take a blank sheet of paper.
  2. Write down the key word or thought you want to brainstorm in the center of the paper and draw a circle around it. Let's say you want to write a story about Hercules. You write "Hercules" in the center of the paper and circle it.
  3. Now just free-associate. Write down any and every idea that comes to you, circle them, and connect the circles with lines. Some lines will connect to the original circle, but others will connect to the new circles. For example, here are some possible ideas and how they connect:
    • Hydra: Hercules fought the Hydra, a multi-headed snake. I write and circle "Hydra," then draw a line connecting the two circles.
    • 12 Labors: Killing the Hydra was one of the 12 Labors of Hercules. I write and circle "12 Labors" but I connect this circle to the "Hydra" circle since I got this idea from the Hydra.
    • Stymphalian Birds: I may start thinking about some of the other Labors; I'd circle them and connect them to the "12 Labors" circle. This is one of them..
    • Megara: Meg was the first wife of Hercules. I circle her name and connect it to the "Hercules" circle. The names of their three children would be little circles connected to Meg's circle.
    • Chiron: He's the centaur who tutored Hercules. Another circle connected to "Hercules."
    • Arrows: Hercules was known as a great archer. I'd connect this circle to "Hercules"... but also to "Stymphalian Birds" because Hercules killed them with arrows. Those arrows were dipped in poison he got from the Hydra, so I'd also create a Poison circle and draw lines connecting the "Poison" circle to both "Arrows" and "Hydra."
That's enough to let you see how an idea web works. You can see how some ideas form an "arm" from the original circle -- that is, they stretch out and don't connect to any other arms. You can also see that some ideas loop back on themselves, connecting to other ideas on other arms. Most of the examples of idea webs I've seen only include "arms" -- that's the quickest way to do a web, and working quickly helps you get ideas that you might otherwise decide not to use. This is a form of brainstorming, so you don't want to be judgmental about what you write down. You can always pick and choose what to use from your web later on! The idea is to create as many connected ideas as possible.

The connections are what make this a valuable form of brainstorming. Because your ideas are all related, they can suggest plotlines, character relationships, and even complex aspects of your story's world.

Here are a few examples (with explanations) of idea webs:
This is one of the most useful brainstorming techniques I know. It's a skill definitely worth adding to your toolbox.

Monday, October 1, 2012

"Borrowing" Stories

Have you ever heard of the Seven Basic Plots? (No, it's not some kind of evangelistic tract.)

There is a commonly-held idea -- I don't know how old it is, but it's definitely ancient -- that there are only a limited number of plots for stories. The exact number that supposedly exist varies depending on who you ask, but the two most commonly-given numbers are 7 and 36. Just to get you acquainted with the idea, here are links for The Seven Basic Plots and The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations.

The idea I'm talking about is a related one -- namely, if there are only a certain number of plots available, the stories around me must be using them. I read and like a lot of those stories. Now -- and here's the radical idea, if you can have radical ideas using the same old plots -- if the stories I like most use the same basic plot, then it follows that I can safely "borrow" that plot for my own use. After all, if there are only 7 or 36 or even 2000 plots, the vast number of books that have been written over the years must be using borrowed plots too.

It's a simple -- and logical -- idea that immediately raises a red flag. What about plagiarism? There are laws against copying other people's work, you know!

If you look over those plots, you'll see that they're pretty generic. If you pick a story you like and simplify its plot to its most basic form, you get a generic plot... and the story itself gives you some ideas about how the twists and turns of the plots might be handled. The more stories with this basic plot you read, the more ideas you get.

You can try taking the story and replacing the main character and the world in which the story happens. This will drastically change the plot if you're creative with your choices. (You might get some ideas for that process from my Asking the Right Questions post.)

There are plenty of ways to take a story and turn it inside out. Here are some examples:
  • Take the Rags to Riches plot (from the 7 plot list) and reverse it to a Riches to Rags plot.
  • Or start at either extreme and travel From There to Boredom. (That's unusual. Feel free to borrow it, no charge.)
  • How about Good Rags to Bad Rags and Back Again?
  • Or maybe Rich Rags to Ragged Riches -- a concept that might be interpreted any number of different ways.
  • Could you try Dispassionate Riches to Passionate Rags? Sounds like the character might have joined the Peace Corps or some such organization.
  • Legendary sword & sorcery author Robert E. Howard built his entire series of Kull the Conqueror stories around Rags to Riches That Aren't All They're Cracked Up To Be, as Kull conquered a kingdom but found kingship to be more frustrating than his old days as a penniless adventurer... and, in some ways, far more dangerous. After a fashion, that's also the same plot used in Harry the Dirty Dog.
See what I mean? Even something as seemingly useless as a generic plot that's been used over and over for centuries can become the basis of a good story.

When you're struggling for a place to start, consider borrowing a story. You can always pass it on to someone else once you're done with it. ;-)