Tag Archives: structure

Manuscript Rejected After Only 20 Pages? What gives?

Ever wonder how an agent can reject a manuscript, having read only the first 20 pages? How can they know a book isn’t something they want to represent with so little to go on?

Before a writer curses all agent-hood while typing the url, Smashwords.com, self-proclaimed Novel Diagnostician (and doesn’t she deserve such a lofty title?) Kristen Lamb says, “There are too many authors who dismiss why agents are rejecting them and run off to self-publish instead of fixing why their manuscript was rejected.” (Not that you shouldn’t self-publish; please do, so we can read your book. But! BUT! Before you do, get that MS polished to perfection by a professional–someone with demonstrated
industry knowledge of storycraft.)

Lamb points out, “Agents know that a writer only has a few pages to hook a reader. That’s the first thing. But agents also know that the first 20 pages are a fairly accurate reflection of the entire book. So let’s explore some common problems with beginnings and look to the problems that they can foreshadow in the rest of the work.” Here are excerpts from her post:

Info-Dump

The beginning of the novel starts the reader off with lengthy history or world-building. The author pores on and on about details of a city or civilization or some alien history all to “set up” the story.

In my experience, this is often the hallmark of a writer who is weak when it comes to characters and even plotting. How can I tell? He begins with his strength…lots of intricate details about a painstakingly crafted world. Although not set in stone, generally, if the author dumps a huge chunk of information at the start of the book, then he is likely to use this tactic throughout.

This type of beginning tells me that author is not yet strong enough to blend information into the narrative in a way that it doesn’t disrupt the story.

Readers read fiction for stories. They read Wikipedia for information. Information does not a plot make. Facts and details are to support the story that will be driven by characters with human wants and
needs. Keep the priorities straight. In twenty years people won’t remember the setting, they will remember people.

Book Starts Right in the Middle of the Action

A lot of new writers are being told to start right in the action, and this tip needs to be clarified. We need some kind of conflict in the beginning to make us (the reader) choose to side with/like the protagonist. This conflict doesn’t necessarily have to do with the main story problem (directly).

For instance, in the Hunger Games we are introduced to Katniss and we get a glimpse of the hell that is her life and the burden she has of feeding her family. We feel for her because she lives in a post-apocalyptic nightmare where life is lived on the brink of starvation.
Nothing terribly earth-shattering happens, but we care about this girl. So,
when Katniss is chosen to participate in The Hunger Games–a brutal gladiator game held by the privileged Capitol–we want her to win, because that means a life of food, shelter and relative safety.

Suzanne Collins didn’t start out with Katniss in the arena fighting the Hunger Games. That is too far in and is too jarring. We need
time with Katniss in her Normal World for The Hunger Games to mean anything or this action would devolve quickly into melodrama. Even though in the beginning, she isn’t per se pitted directly with the Capitol, she is pitted against starvation and depravity…which leads us nicely into the main cause of that starvation and depravity (the Capitol) and the solution to this life (win the Hunger Games).

Yet, many new writers take this notion of “start right in the action” and they dump the reader straight into the arena. There are world-shattering stakes and we are only on page 2.

This shows me that the writer could be weak in a number of areas. First, she may not be clear what the overall story problem is, so she is beginning with a “gimmick” to hook the reader. Secondly, this alerts me that the writer is weak in her understanding of scene and sequel novel structure.

Scenes are structured: Goal-> conflict -> disaster

So when a writer begins her book with Biff hanging over a shark tank surrounded by ninjas, two major steps in a scene have been
skipped. When a writer totally skips some fairly vital parts and thrusts us
straight into disaster, I already know the author will likely rely on melodrama from this point on. Why? Because that was how she began her book.

Book Begins with Internalization

Fiction is driven by conflict. Period. Writing might be therapeutic, but it isn’t therapy. When a writer begins with a character thinking and internalizing that is another huge warning flag of a number of problems.

Do you need internalization in a novel? Yes! But it has its place. Most internalization will be part of what is known as the sequel. Sequels transpire as a direct reaction to a scene. When a writer begins the novel with the sequel, that is a huge warning that, again, the writer is weak when it comes to structure. There is a definite purpose for reflection, but kicking off the action is not one of them.

Also, beginning with the protagonist “thinking” is very self-indulgent. Why do we as readers care about this person’s feelings or thoughts about anything? We don’t know this character. The only people who listen attentively to the thoughts, feelings, and disappointments of total
strangers are shrinks, and they are being paid well to do so.

Give us (your readers) time to know your character and become interested in her, and then we will care.

Like people who tell you about their abusive alcoholic father the first 30 seconds after you’ve met them, they likely will keep this trend of rudely dumping too much personal information. When the protagonist begins with all this thinking and more thinking…and more thinking,
it is probably a bad sign for the future. Just sayin’.

Book Begins with a Flashback

We do not need to know why a certain character did this or that or why a bad guy went bad. Again, that’s for therapy.

Did we really need to know why Hannibal Lecter started eating people for Silence of the Lambs to be an awesome book AND movie?
Now I know that there was a later explication of this….but it was an entirely different story (and one that really didn’t do well, I might mention).

Flashbacks often alert me that the writer needs time to grow. She hasn’t yet developed the skill to blend background details with the current conflict in a way that supports the story.

I’ll give you a great example: Watch the J.J. Abrams Star Trek. We find out exactly how Dr. Leonard McCoy gets his nickname, Bones…one line. “Wife got the whole planet in the divorce. All I got left is my bones.” The audience didn’t have to have a flashback to get that McCoy’s divorce was really bad. That is a great example of a writer seamlessly blending
character back story.

Also, sometimes, not knowing why adds to the tension. The Force was more interesting before it was explained.There are three really great books I highly recommend if you want to work on your beginnings (and even learn to fix the problems that bad beginnings foreshadow). Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, Hooked by Les Edgerton, and Scene and Sequel by
Jack Bickham.

Many authors are being rejected by the first 20 pages, and because most agents are overworked, they don’t have time to explain
to each and every rejected author what they saw. Thus, too many writers are
reworking and reworking their beginning and not really seeing that their weak beginning is a symptom of larger issues.

Hopefully, though, today Kristen Lamb gave you some helpful insight into what an editor (or an agent) really sees so you can roll up your sleeves and get to what’s truly going on.

What are some novels you guys can think of that had amazing beginnings?

What hooks you? How long will you give a novel before you buy it? How long will you give a novel you have bought before you put it down?

Kristen Lamb’s best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer. Lamb’s methods teach you how to make building your author platform fun. She helps writers change approach, not personality.

Can’t get enough Kristen Lamb? (Me neither!) Check this out: Editing Fiction for Intelligent Readers (No Spoon-feeding Allowed.)

 

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Using Dirty Fighting To Escalate Tension In Your Story

Great books are filled with conflict, and great characters who learn important lessons.

Writer and all-around-funny Jenny Hansen’s clever tips for Dirty Fighting Techniques can be applied to your main character’s friend, family member or a significant other…whoever he or she is in conflict.
Hansen asserts, “Every entry on the Dirty Fighting List is guaranteed to make the other person see red.” If you’re writing fiction, anger and tension is a fantastic vehicle to move your story quickly and appropriately introduce backstory. The following are excerpts from her post.

One difficulty with reading about dialog is that every character is unique and, even though the examples may be excellent, your characters would not necessarily say those things. How do you think of creative things to say that would apply ONLY to your character?

One answer is to make him or her fight.

Since gratuitous fighting in a story is like gratuitous sex (kinda boring if there’s no real connection or reason for it), the author needs to find a great reason for the fight. The easiest way to pave the road is to discover what your characters really want. Then dig down for what they really, really want.

DON’T give it to them.
Or at least, don’t give it too soon.

Then flake away more layers to uncover what your character really fears. Then what they really, really fear. DO give it to them!

This is where things get interesting. You not only have characters who are upset, you’ve also found myriad ways to slide everybody deeper into your story. To do this, ask your character questions:

  1. What matters most to this character? (What is he or she most afraid to lose?)
  2. Who matters most? (This is usually the person they are most afraid to lose.)
  3. How did the character’s parents fight?
  4. How did the character’s parents interact with him or her?
  5. What does this character wish he or she had gotten in childhood?

All of these questions can provide you with cues about where your character is “broken” and give you ideas about fixing the broken part (i.e. Fix = Lesson).

Now it’s time to unleash that fight! BRING IT ON.

Below are Jenny Hansen’s top five Dirty Fighting Techniques for adding tension and plotting options to your story. (Get ready to flex your sarcasm muscle – which is always used in a dirty fight.)

#1 – Triangulating: Don’t leave the issue between you and your
conflict partner (could be a family member, friend or love interest), pull
everybody in. Quote well-known authorities who agree with you and list every family member whom you know has taken your side (and lie about the ones you haven’t spoken to, yet).

Uses: Triangulating is incredibly useful in fiction because you can expand the discussion to more characters and stir up some real drama. Let’s not keep this issue between just us, one character says to the other. Oh no, lets involve everybody.

If you have extreme Dirty Fighting Talent, you can stir the pot and then step back and play a new game called, “Let’s watch the other two people fight.” Good times.

#2 – Escalating: Quickly move from the main issue of the argument
to questioning your partner’s basic personality, and then move on to wondering whether the relationship is even worth it. Blame your partner for having a flawed personality so that a happy relationship will be impossible.

Uses: Excellent tool for keeping two love interests apart. But, the fight better be about something that really, really matters.

Escalating also allows for plausible use of Back Story. When you’re moving from the main issue to what the REAL issue is (often happens at the end of Act 2), escalating the argument will make someone lose control enough that they blurt out something juicy. Way to go, Author!

#3 – Leaving: No problem is so big or important that it can’t
be ignored or abandoned all together. Walk out of the room, leave the house, or just refuse to talk. Sometimes just threatening to leave can accomplish the same thing without all the inconvenience of following through.

Uses: My favorite use of this is employing it when the two characters really need each other. It completely ups the betrayal factor: I can’t depend on you, I don’t trust you, you’ve let me down.

You noticed how dirty those last three statements were, right? Not a clean fight to be found anywhere with “leaving,” which is fantastic for your story! The farther your character falls, the harder the journey is on the way back up, right?

#4 – Timing: Look for a time when your partner is least able
to respond or least expects an argument.

Uses: Think about this from a story point of view. A really great time to pick a fight is just before the main character embarks on a journey, has a new murder to solve, is called on to save the world. Anything
with high stakes. Be sure the character ambushing them is a likeable one so the reader REALLY gets drawn into the conflict.

#5 – Rejecting Compromise: Never back down.

Uses: This is a kickass Dirty Fighting trick to use on the main character. If there is only one winner, there is automatic conflict involved for the person who “loses.” The solutions are endless, but here’s some scenarios that come to my mind.

The main character could:

  • Realize the universal truth in fighting: the person who says “no” always has the power. Perhaps your MC will change their motivation so that the other character’s “no” doesn’t bother them so much.
  • Learn never to accept “no” from someone who doesn’t have the power to say “yes.” In other words, your MC could learn to stand up for they really want and find a way around their primary obstacle.
  • Find a way for there to be two winners. This a continuation of the point above

What do you think? What are some other ways you could use a good fight to help your character grow or advance your story? Do you use any of the five techniques in your own life…come on, you can tell! Let’s hear your fabulous Dirty (Fighting) Thoughts!

Jenny Hansen’s creative life is filled with humor: writing memoir, women’s fiction, chick lit, and short stories. Find Jenny on Twitter @jhansenwrites, read her blog or look for her over on the Writers In The Storm blog.

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Critiquing Other People’s Writing: 7 Tips for Making Manuscripts Better

“Just shoot me now.”

A good critique may begin with this response, but soon the scolding red marks reveal overlooked obstacles to your work’s potential.

When you make friends with the red pen pointing out weak story points, redundancy or grammar errors, you give yourself the opportunity to grow as a writer and refine your final product. But is the job of the red pen wielder easier than that of the writer?

Mark Nichol of the Daily Writing Tips blog advises you make clear whether you’ve offered to evaluate a brief sample as a guide to help the person extrapolate what they should look for when they revise their draft. (If you’re asked to critique an entire book in-depth, Nichol says, you should do so only for pay or as part of a bartering arrangement, because you’re being asked to devote dozens of hours of your time.)

Let’s make one thing absolutely clear before we go any further: Critiquing is not the same as editing.  If your critique partner is “editing drastically,” the result is no longer a critique but a rewrite.

According to Nichol, the chief purpose of a fiction critique is to enable the writer to improve a manuscript by getting rid of:

  • unnecessary exposition
  • character inconsistencies
  • pointless dialogue

Thoughtful critiques from other writers can help the writer focus on essentials.

  • What exactly is the writer’s purpose?
  • Who is the protagonist?
  • What does the protagonist want?
  • Does each chapter advance the plot?

Here are seven tips for a positive, productive critiquing experience:

1. Tolerate the Task
When you write, you don’t have to be an aficionado or expert to produce an article or a story on a given topic. Editors don’t need these qualifications, either, and they don’t have to be enamored of the writer’s voice or technique. The same goes for someone conducting a critique: Don’t turn down a request for feedback just because you’re not interested in the subject or you don’t like the writing style. Help the writer succeed in reaching the audience they are writing for. (But don’t hesitate to express your opinion if you think the approach is flawed.)

2. General House-keeping
The manuscript sample you receive should appear exactly as it would look when it’s ready for submission to a publishing professional. Hard copy should be double spaced and must be free of handwritten annotations or emendations. An electronic document should be professionally formatted and at least mostly devoid of the writer’s notes to self.

  • If you’re reviewing an electronic copy, activate change tracking and edit it. Insert notes using the comment feature or by entering them in brackets, highlighted in boldface or with colored type or background, so they are easily located and distinguished from the content.
  •  If you’re working on hard copy, use a pen or a colored pencil for brief notes, and write or type your detailed queries and comments on a separate sheet of paper or in a computer document.

3. Evaluate the Writing, Not the Writer
Compliments and complaints alike should focus on the product, not the producer. Refer to the sentence or the section, the character or their actions, the narrative flow or the exchange of dialogue rather than to the person who requested your help.

4. Start — and Stop — with the Positive
Begin by lauding the strengths of the sample, and reiterate your positive feedback when you summarize your critique. Refer to strengths, not weaknesses, and use positive language: “stronger,” “more interesting,” “a better approach.” Be frank but diplomatic: Even people who can take criticism need to hear that they’re doing something right, and that’s what you should start (and end) with.

5. Craft Your Critiques
Be specific, not vague. Be active, not passive. Point out problems, but suggest solutions. Your goal is to clearly communicate to the writer about how they can more clearly communicate to their readers.

6. Invite Questions
Set up a time to go over your critique after the writer has had a chance to review it. Welcome the writer’s requests for clarification and discussion. If the writer becomes defensive, mention that you have offered your perspective, and that they are free to act on your critique as they see fit.

7. Know Your Limits
It’s reasonable for a writer to ask you for a second light look at the piece after they have made changes in response to your comments, or to request that you provide a general impression about a revision based on your in-depth critique. But establish boundaries about how much time and effort you intend to offer on the writer’s work.

Check in with the writer. No matter how careful you are about being diplomatic, the writer may feel a bit battered, and part of your unwritten contract should include a clause requiring you to keep in touch about the project.

Want to read more? Check out this article  at DailyWritingTips.com: “Critiquing” is not “Editing”. Mark Nichol is a freelance editor and writer and a former editing instructor for UC Berkeley’s Extension program, edits trade and academic books for various publishers and publishes occasional articles about the Golden Age of Hollywood at Yahoo!’s Associated Content.

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Feel the Heat: Sex and Fiction. 8 Tips for Building Tension

Will your fictional characters, at some point, hit the sheets?

As most of us creative types enjoy a delicious romp in the sack in real life, it shouldn’t be too difficult to apply our trusty, book-enhancing observational skills to break down, scene by scene, moment by smokin’-hot moment, the escalating tension between our first horny thought and the ultimate coupling of bodies. Right?

Wait, should we depend on our own experiences, and are we willing
to “expose” our own life experiences on the page for everyone (hi mom) to see?

Dallas romance writer (and bewitching twitterati) Roni Loren  posted some effective advice for amping the sexual tension on her blog, fictiongroupie.blogspot.com. “From YA all the way to the steamiest of romances, this is a vital ingredient if you have any kind of romance thread whatsoever,” says Loren. “Even if a kiss never happens, you can have your reader sweating through a scintillating ‘will they/won’t they’ tension so that even if the characters grab one other’s hands, your reader will hold her breath.”

So how do we create this tension so that when you finally give your reader the big payoff–the kiss, the “I love you,” the boom-chicka-wah-wah?

Author Roni Loren’s advice for building sexual tension:

1. Make the attraction that each feels for the other obvious to the reader.

The characters are hyper-aware of all the little details of the person when he/she is around. Use all the senses not just sight. (Note: this is an
opportunity to illustrate aspects of your characters, whether those  are physical traits, or emotional: her Daddy issues, his preference for redheads thanks to an unexpected overture by a cherry-haired vixen in his youth, her need to learn to trust again, his tendency to rescue, etc. -RL)

2. No conflict = no tension

Make sure there are good reasons why these two can’t be together–internal and external.

3. Use internal dialogue

The hero may be clenching his hands at his sides, but tell us why: the urge to reach out and touch the heroine’s hair is overwhelming him.

4. Always on each other’s mind

If your hero and heroine aren’t together in a scene, then have their thoughts go to the other so that we know he/she can’t get the other off his/her mind.

5. Patience, grasshopper

Don’t relieve the tension too quickly. Frustration must build and build. There’s a reason why the first love scene doesn’t usually happen until 2/3 the way through a book. (Note: be true to your characters. Maybe it
has been a pattern of your character to hop into bed right out of the gate, but the reader must walk the long road with them as they uncover feelings of real love. -RL)

6. Here we go, wait, not so fast

Give you characters a taste of what they could have, then make them stop. This is the famous device on sitcoms where they start to kiss, but then someone bursts in to interrupt. It doesn’t have to be that obvious. One of the characters could be the one to stop (usually for some internal reason related to the conflict between them.)

7. It’s addictive

Once you do let the two get together the first time (be that a kiss or full-out lovin’), leave them wanting more. Instead of satisfying their need/curiosity/etc., they want each other even more. Now they know what they could have if not for all that pesky conflict. Damn those mean authors who put so much in their way.

8. When all looks like it’s going to work out, pull them apart again.

Romantic comedy movies do this all the time: The characters seem to resolve some conflict and get together. Oh but wait, there’s more! Some conflict wedges between them again.

Don’t resolve the relationship until very near the end. Otherwise, the reader will lose interest.

So how about you? Does your novel have a romance or undercurrent of one?

What author do you read that is a master at creating sexual tension?

Roni Loren’s debut novel, CRASH INTO YOU, will be published by Berkley Heat in January 2012! Represented by Sara Megibow of the Nelson Literary Agency. Follow her on Twitter @RoniLoren or visit her website at RoniLoren.com.

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Thoughts on Plots (and whatnot) with James Thayer

When people ask what your book is about, they are really asking about the plot. A response: “It’s about two German Shepherds sniffing for buried treasure,” only scrapes the surface. Why dogs? Why that breed? What kind of treasure? Where? When? What must they overcome in order to sniff it out? What will they do with it once they find it? Why should I care?

At the risk of digressing, the author and tweeter @NathanBransford pointed out that a pitch formula should read: When OPENING CONFLICT happens to CHARACTER, they have OVERCOME CONFLICT to COMPLETE QUEST.

Master Storyteller Jim Thayer, author of 13 books and new manual for novelists, The Essential Guide to Writing a Novel: A Complete and Concise Manual for Fiction Writers offers his take on novel plots. The following are excerpts from his post on authormagazine.org:

What is a plot? According to E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel, a plot is an organization of events according to a “sense of causality.”  Encyclopedia Britannica says a plot is “the structure of interrelated actions, consciously selected and arranged by the author.”

What isn’t a plot? Forster says this isn’t a plot:  The king died and then the queen died. But this is a plot: The king died, and then the queen died of grief, because of the causality.

Christopher Booker says there are only seven plots: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and rebirth.  Others think there are only five plots: man against man, man against himself, man against nature, man against society, and man against God.

Don’t worry about finding a truly fresh plot: Donald Maass says, “There are certainly no new plots.  Not a one.”  The legendary Simon & Schuster editor Michael Korda says, “In books, as in other things, there is nothing new under the sun.”  The fear of imitation is immature, according to Edith Wharton.

Make sure the plot is big and bold. Most of us are happy if our lives have a nice equilibrium.  We don’t want a life that’s a county fair ride. Not so for our plot, though.  Novelist and writing teacher Sol Stein says a reader “is primarily seeking an experience different from and greater than his or her everyday experience in life.”  Stein compares readers to sports fans: “The spectator seeks the excitement that does not usually occur in daily life.”  Erica Jong says a novel “must make my so-called real world seem flimsy.”  Kurt Vonnegut agrees: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.’’

How do we know if we have a workable plot? If we can reduce our story to one or two sentences—called the pitch in the movie industry and often called the handle in publishing—we may have a successful plot.  And if we can’t, something may be missing.

The pitch will force us to trim our idea to its essentials, to a plot.  David Morrell points out, “There’s a huge difference between having an ‘idea’ and elaborating it into a plot.”  Publishers don’t want an idea.  They want a plot.  As Gerald Petievich says, “If you can’t tell yourself what your story is in one or two sentences, you’re already running into trouble.”  A story has certain elements, and if your pitch doesn’t have those elements, you don’t yet have a story.  Petievich adds, “As complex as your novel might turn out to be, it’s essential you be able to state clearly what your basic story is and where it’s going.

What are the elements of a pitch?  Donald Maass sets them out: “1. Where is your story set?  2. Who is your hero or heroine?  3. What is the main problem they must overcome?  4. Where do you think this novel fits in the marketplace?”  If our novel can’t be pitched in one or two sentences, we haven’t thought about it sufficiently.  We may be missing some ingredients in our plot, or your story may be too rambling.

James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008.  He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service: www.thayerediting.com.

Check out my recommendations for books writers should read on the topic of–what else?–writing.

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Act One: 10 Essential Elements

I’m a little addicted to the The Script Lab. As I worry over and scrutinize my fiction novel, tweets about screen-writing from @TheScriptLab interject with lucid, helpful, applicable ideas. My blog is for creatives of all stripes, and ideas for good writing can come from any genre. I really like this list of elements; it reminds me of both my responsibility to me reader and also makes a handy checklist to ensure all the key pieces are visible and organized before pitching a potential agent with my first chapter.

Let’s see what we can learn about the ten essential elements of Act One today from the informative folks over at The Script Lab:

The first act is very simply: the beginning of your story.
Usually the story begins at the moment when the first character faces the difficulty that he or she has to solve, and it better be a clear difficulty, and he better realize that he must do something. Dramatic form means action, and action brings tension. So the awareness of the tension, and the clarification of what the nature of your tension is, helps to build the whole manuscript.
ACT ONE: ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS
Tone.  Very quickly you want to establish the tone: is it serious, a comedy, a fantasy, a spoof? Let people know right away that it is okay to laugh, to cry, to dream, etc.
Theme. You will also want to establish the theme – what message are you trying to convey: “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover”, “The underdog triumphs”, “Good versus evil”, etc.
World of the story. As the story begins, you will introduce the world of the story – where does it take place? What is different and interesting to this world? What are the rules of this place?
Character introductions. At the same time, you will introduce the principle characters to the audience. Be specific and original. Let us know their age, how they dress, walk, talk. Give them a scene in which they stand out from the others. Let the audience know these people are special.
Protagonist weakness. The main character’s weakness(s) must be clear so that the later obstacles can attack that weakness in the second act.
Point of attack. The point of attack (or inciting incident) is the moment when the dramatic conflict announces itself. It’s the first perception of the predicament to come, and usually, a moment that is very visual.
Main tension. This predicament sets up the main tension around which the story will be built: Will they fall in love? Will they rob the bank? Will they escape alive? Will they do all three?
The stakes. The stakes have to be clear in order to show the audience how and why this tension is important to them, or – more importantly – what will happen if the character does not solve his/her problem. It should be huge – a matter of life and death.
Objective. A character’s objective or goal is what drives him. This should be very specific, very clear. How badly does he/she want something and what are the lengths he/she is willing to go to get it.
Lock-in. The first act concludes once the main character is locked into the predicament, propelling him/her forward on a new quest trying to accomplish a specific goal. Now the reader/audience knows the character, the predicament, and the objective, so everything else is about the future.

Usually the story really begins at the moment when the first character faces the difficulty that he or she has to solve, and it better be a clear difficulty, and he better realize that he must do something. Dramatic form means action, and action brings tension. So the awareness of the tension, and the clarification of what the nature of your tension is, helps to build the whole script.

Follow me on Twitter @RebeccaLacko

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Television as Teacher: 5 things we can learn from TV writers and their characters

A few weeks ago I attended the Writers Faire at UCLA. There were over 45 seminars on the craft of writing, presented by a humbling variety of the nation’s finest authors, poets and screenwriters—who just happen to teach at UCLA. (I’m salivating as I write this. I live just a few hours south–too far to attend classes in person, yet close enough to be heart-broken by this geographic tragedy. However, I will take advantage of the faculty’s 1-day and 4-day programs… and possibly its online offerings. More on that later.)

What I discovered at the event was an unexpected illumination of creativity spawned by the screen-writing instructors. I’d attended to learn more about the art of novel-writing, but ended up rapt by the pace and passion offered by the screenwriters, and have since been more open to finding inspiration in unexpected places.  Janice Gable Bashman, co-author of the new book Wanted Undead or Alive: Vampire Hunters and Other Kick-Ass Enemies of Evil (Citadel Press, 2010) and contributing editor of the Big Thrill (the newsletter of the International
Thriller Writers) suggests we writers look to television of all places to learn more about shaping more captivating scenes, characters and storylines. Here is her advice:

1. Jump Right In—Television shows start smack in the middle of the action to grab and hold our attention from the get-go. This method discourages the viewer from flipping the channel to find something more interesting. Once we’re hooked, backstory is revealed. Tune in to any drama or even the news and you’ll see this method in action. Today’s readers expect the same from their books. They want to be hooked after reading that first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter. They want a book so exciting that they can’t put it down, a story that captivates their hearts and souls and fires up their imaginations. They want a story that pulls them into a new world and threatens to hold them there until the very last word. It’s up to writers to hook the readers, to keep them interested enough to keep reading. And it all begins with the first scene. Make it exciting.

2. Use Hooks and Cliffhangers—What keeps us hooked to television shows when the distractions of home,

family, friends, work, the Internet, etc. threaten to pull them away? It’s simple really. Good storytelling. But it goes beyond that. Just because it’s good doesn’t mean viewers will stay tuned, especially once a commercial comes on. Television shows tease us when going into a commercial or ending the show. They leave us hooked with an unfinished question or scene that makes the viewer want to know more and makes us wonder what will happen to the characters in the future. This process is a deliberate effort to keep us watching the shows. And it works. For writers, it’s important to begin and end a scene with a hook. It can be an unfinished question, a line of dialogue, or a bit of action—anything that grabs the reader’s attention and make the reader wonder what comes next. The hook compels the reader to turn the page and read more. As readers, we’ve all experienced that book that keeps us up well into the night when we have to get up early the next day. What keeps us reading each page, each chapter, when we know we should really go sleep? It’s simply a good story combined with great hooks.

3. A Break From Writing Is Not a Waste Of Time—We’ve all seen the television character who can’t solve a problem but who is then hit with a great idea while fiddling with the remote, hanging out with friends, playing basketball, or cooking. Some of the best ideas come to us when they’re least expected. Some writers believe that writing is the only way to find new ideas or resolve problems, but sometimes taking a step back from the process yields wonderful results.

4. It’s Not Always Best To Brainstorm Alone—Ideas don’t occur in a vacuum. Television cops don’t work alone, the women on “Army Wives” solve problems together, and the creative group on “Mad Men” is just that—a group of individuals who work together to brainstorm ideas. Many of the ideas are terrible and are rejected, but then a unexpected gem emerges from the give and take among the group members. When stuck for ideas or for solutions to plot problems, writers often stew in their chairs, surf the internet, knock out chores, or play games on the computer with the hopes that the solutions will magically appear. Sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn’t. Shooting an idea past a colleague or brainstorming with a friend can be just the thing to bring freshness and excitement to your work.

5. Diversification Is Key To Success
—How many good television shows have gone stale? They show the same twist on an old story line over and over again. As a result, we become bored, abandon the shows, and find new ones to watch. Also, have you noticed how advertisers don’t focus on only one market? They diversify among television, print, radio, and the internet and adjust their advertising to each market to achieve the highest success rate and to reach the widest audience. As writers we must diversify in order to succeed in this ever-changing industry and to ensure our work is constantly in demand. If we focus on only one market and that market becomes stale or fails, we’re out of work. But if we diversify and continually look for new opportunities in untapped markets, the opportunities are endless.

What forms of media have inspired your writing, and how?

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Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, For the love of writing, Guest posts, Who is Writing What?