Category Archives: Plotting

Help from Hollywood

Long before I ever started writing fiction, I worked as a script reader for studios specializing in children and family entertainment. It was a low-level freelance job that paid just enough to cover my monthly cellphone bill, but it was perhaps the best education I could ever have asked for as a writer.

My job was to read and provide “coverage” of screenplays that had been submitted to the studios, i.e. giving a brief summary of each script’s story, critiquing it, and determining whether it was a good potential fit for the studio. One of the most important things coverage did for me was it moved me away from thinking of a story as either something I liked or didn’t like, and instead moved me to approach every story as a potential problem to solve. Whether a script was initially a strong one or a weak one, my number one job was to approach it with the goal of figuring out how to make it better. That’s right; one of the first lessons that Hollywood taught me is that nothing is perfect, and almost everything is fixable.

Like a lot of writers, I tend to be a perfectionist with a flair for the dramatic. When I’m writing it feels like every sentence is a high-stakes decision that will determine the ultimate fate of the book, my career, and possibly even my ability to survive another day on this planet. While it can be paralyzing, before I sold anything that wasn’t that necessarily a big a problem for me. If I wanted to take years to write a book I could. But when deadlines come into the picture, perfectionism is no longer a workable plan, especially when those deadlines usually aren’t that far apart. Now when I’m working on a first draft, my husband and I have a joke in our house: “We’ll fix it in post.” It’s a reference to the cherished Hollywood tradition of fixing errors in the post-production editing process, after the movie has finished shooting. In the film and TV business, nothing is ever considered a perfect finished product up until the very moment it’s released, and then the audience and critics can gleefully start ripping it apart.

Hollywood is known for its short attention span. Studio execs are inundated with hundreds of scripts a month, and they might hear several dozen pitches a day. As a result, they wanted their notes broken down in easily-distilled categories. The execs I worked with were most interested in four main elements: premise, plot structure, characterization, and dialogue. By focusing on specific elements rather than the piece as a whole, it allowed me to determine what made a particular story resonate or fall flat. I could quickly identify strengths, and if something didn’t land, it gave me an efficient way to figure out what wasn’t working and why.

This has been invaluable in my own work. I always start with the story’s concept or premise. Hollywood is big on “high concept” ideas. This simply means that your story’s premise can easily be pitched and communicated. It succinctly answers the question, “What is this about?” Because I write for kids, having a high concept idea is a pretty good place to start. If a bunch of kids want to know what my book series is about, I want to make sure I can pitch it to them in one sentence and grab their attention before they lose interest and scatter. Not every great idea has to be high-concept, but I have found in my own work that if I can’t easily communicate my premise, it might be a sign that my story has problems.

Highlighting the importance of plot might be the Captain Obvious move of the year, but in screenwriting when we talk about plot we’re really talking about structure and pacing. Everyone’s writing process is different, but working as a script reader turned me into a dedicated outliner. In screenwriting, structure is everything; lots of times if a story isn’t working, it is likely a problem with either the structure or the pacing. My mom always used to say, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will take you there.” Focusing on structure keeps me focused on where I’m going and how I’m getting there. It’s purposeful, and it makes for efficient and effective storytelling. I think of the plot structure as the skeleton of the story. If the skeleton isn’t solid, then it’s going to cause problems down the line when we start adding the rest of the body.

If the plot is the skeleton, the characters are the muscle. They do the moving and the heavy lifting. Because I was reading for a kids’ network, my job was to find kid-driven stories. If the kids weren’t driving the plot, it was a pass. As a writer I always have to make sure that my characters are driving the plot, and not the other way around. Beyond the inciting event, the story shouldn’t just happen to characters; we want it to be driven by the characters’ choices and actions. Characters also have to be rich and nuanced and feel authentic. Scripts where a character felt more like a prop, or seemed to be there solely to stand in for an idea or lesson of some kind, were less successful. For novels I lump voice in with characterization. When reading for character, I was always look for honesty and authenticity. In other words, it’s the character’s voice we want to hear, not the author’s.

Because screenplays are so reliant on dialogue, working as a reader gave me a lot of insight into how dialogue can make or break a story. Dialogue is our best way of getting to know characters and build conflicts that keep the story moving. One of the main stumbling blocks for dialogue is when it doesn’t feel natural. Readers can spot inauthentic dialogue from a mile away. My biggest pet peeve as a reader was when kids didn’t talk like real kids. It immediately pulled me out of the story, and each time your reader gets pulled out of your story, it makes it that much harder to bring them back. The other problem is when characters don’t have distinct voices. I struggled with this in Babysitting Nightmares: The Shadow Hand, because I had four preteen girls with common interests. It took a lot of extra character work and revision to make sure that each girl felt distinct, and I’m still not sure I got there.

If you’re worried about how your dialogue is landing, a table read is a really easy way to test it out. In Hollywood screenwriters often host table reads, where they invite actors or friends sit around a table and read a screenplay out loud. Invite a few folks over and have them do the dialogue of your scene. Listen to how they sound. Ask them how they felt reading it. This is a really effective and fast way to spot and fix dialogue problems. If you’re feeling shy or short on time, act out the scenes yourself. I do this all the time when I’m workshopping dialogue in my books. I’ll use physical gestures, move around the room, and speak in different voices so I can imagine how the characters might talk about what they’re feeling in the scene. Unlike film and TV where actors bring the writing to life, books have to rely on the reader’s imagination to bring the authors’ words to life. Don’t be shy about channelling your inner actor to make sure that your character’s voices will be heard.

The time I spent reading for film and TV was a huge gift I gave my writer self, because it forced me to look at my own work through a completely different lens. Many writers dedicate time and energy to reading within their lane, but consuming content outside your lane is a really effective way to inject some much-needed outside perspective on your own work. If you’re feeling stuck in a rut or uncertain of what your own story needs, go check out something completely different. And don’t just read; watch movies and watch TV. Watch what your audience watches, and take notes. Definitely watch the good stuff, but make sure you cover the bad stuff, too. I read a lot of great screenplays, but I also read a lot terrible screenplays, and every one of them taught me something different. The beauty of writing is that every experience brings an opportunity to learn something new.

 

Author PhotoKat Shepherd is a writer and former classroom teacher living in Minnesota with her husband, two dogs, and a rotating series of foster dogs. Her Babysitting Nightmares series (Macmillan/Imprint) debuts June 5, 2018. You can find Kat at katshepherd.com or connect with her on Twitter @bookatshepherd.

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Filed under Advice, Character Development, Characters, craft~writing, Deadlines, Editing and Revising, middle grade, Middle Grade, Plotting, process, Screenwriting, series, Uncategorized, Writing

Sipping from the Mead of Poetry—But Not Really, Because That Stuff’s Gross

While researching my next book (which is due to mu editor far sooner than I’d like to admit), I came across this terrific passage in The Norse Myths, retold by Kevin Crossley-Holland and published by Pantheon Books, New York, in 1980:

What was his secret? It was as much in his manner as in his mine of understanding. Questions of fact he answered with simple facts. But to ask Kvasir for his opinion—What shall I say? What do you think? What shall I do?—did not always mean getting a direct answer. Sitting back in his ill-fitting clothes, as often as not with his eyes closed, he would listen to recitals of problems and sorrows with a kind, grave, blank face, He took in and set everything in a wider frame. He never intruded or insisted; rather, he suggested. Often enough he answered a question with another question. He made gods and men, giants and dwarfs feel that they had been helped to answer their own questions.

To give the passage some conext—it describes Kvasir, the sage, whose blood was used to make the mead of poetry (well before OSHA standards were enforced in the workplace).

th-2

Odin, in eagle form, delivers the mead of poetry

The passage resonated with me on a number of levels. The educator in me responded to it because I think the words capture the habits that are exhibited by many of the best teachers I’ve known. But the writer in me responded to the passage, too. It caused me to reflect on one of the tasks I always find challenging when I’m pulling together a new work—figuring out how much information to give the reader, and when. I think this issue is particularly relevant when I’m writing a mystery (as I am right now). How many clues does the reader need? Am I being too obvious? Or am I being so vague that no one has any idea what I’m talking about? How do you strike a balance?

The more I think about these questions, the more I find myself going back to the fact that the quote struck a chord with both the educator and the writer in me. Maybe there’s not so much of a separation there, after all. I was always very sympathetic to constructivism, the educational theory that suggests people learn best when given the tools and experiences they need to construct their own understanding. In the end, isn’t that what we hope for as writers? That through our words we give readers the tools they need to construct an understanding of our story-worlds. What does the world look, sound, and smell like? What do the characters feel? I suppose one interpretation of the old “show don’t tell” adage is that it’s constructivism applied to writing.

Perhaps one way to think about how much information to give the reader, then, is to think about Kvasir’s hierarchy of information. Answer questions about facts with facts. After all, facts aren’t understanding. They’re the tools readers need to construct an understanding. So if there’s something the reader needs to know, don’t bury it too deep. But when it comes to the higher order level of thinking—understanding a character’s motivation, for example—be more cautious. Never intrude or insist; rather, suggest. And hope that in the end you give gods and people, giants and dwarfs the tools they need to make their own meaning of your story.

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Pantsing, Planning, and Doing Whatever Works

When I first started writing – really writing, trying to make whole stories hang together so that I could share them with other people – I was what’s now known in the writing community as a pantser, or a novelist who flies by the seat of her pants when writing a novel. I had a vague plan, but I just wanted to dive in and get going.  All that plotting and outlining wasn’t for me – I wanted to write, not think about writing.  So I’d write and write and write, and get it all out.  I completed some novels that way.  They weren’t very good.  They weren’t even salvageable first drafts that might work upon revision.  They were just sort of… puked up.  Some authors swear by pantsing, but it doesn’t work for me.

Neither does planning.  A planner is a novelist who knows in advance exactly what’s going to happen in the novel. As I became more intentional about writing, and especially when I decided to tackle writing a fantasy series, I turned to hardcore planning.  I wrote documents, sometimes fifty or seventy pages in length, describing what was going to happen in a given novel.  And then I’d go to write the actual living novel, and everything would change on me.  Characters who had been docile and compliant in the outlining phase turned mutinous and ran wild, knocking down the rest of my beautifully arranged plot dominoes.

Well, what then?  How should I do this?

The answer is still in development (and probably always will be), but I’ve written the bulk of four drafts of four different novels in the Tyme series in the past year, so I’m starting to get a pretty clear sense of my process.  As it turns out, I’m a little bit country, and I’m a little bit rock and roll.  I plan first, laying out the essential outline as I envision it.  Then I pants hard, diving in, writing what wants to be written, ignoring the outline as soon as it becomes a burden and I long to deviate from it (usually around chapter two), allowing characters to crop up and then vanish, letting plotlines meander and crash into each other.  While this is happening, I usually feel like I’m writing something awesome!

Soon enough, though, I realize I’m writing a draft.  Usually this realization comes right before the big climactic event, when it becomes depressingly clear that things are not in their proper places, structurally or emotionally.  That’s when I stop pantsing and go back to planning again.  At that point, however, I tend to plan backwards, starting from my ideal denouement.  What do I want from those final scenes?  Who’s there?  What are they doing?  How do they feel?  How do I want to feel?  What has to happen, during the climactic events of the story, to make that satisfying resolution possible?  What has to happen in the rising action to make that climax possible?  What has to happen in the establishing chapters to kick off that rising action with a bang?  Working backwards helps me to problem solve.

Even after engaging in so much careful backwards plotting and problem solving, I continue to find that drafts want to do what they want to do, and that part of my job is to let that happen.  So I pants some more.  But those rounds of planning get into the DNA of the story, and I find that, as I flip back and forth between the pantsing and the planning, stuff starts to tighten up and work out, without necessarily keeping to the established plan.

This way of going about it is certainly not the only way.  There is no only way.  I’m sure of very few things in this writing profession, but I’m certain of this: Whatever works for me as a writer is okay.  If I read a blog post, or attend a presentation, and the speaker says that their way is the right way, then I’m allowed to ignore that dictate.  I’ll learn what they have to teach, then go out and write however I need to write.

What works best for you?

 

HiRes_Morrison_6861_cropMegan Morrison is the author of GROUNDED: A TALE OF RAPUNZEL, due out summer 2015 from Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. GROUNDED is the first book in the Tyme Series, co-created with Ruth Virkus. You can follow Megan on her blog at makingtyme.blogspot.com or on Twitter at @megtyme. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.

 

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Filed under Advice, Anti-Advice, craft~writing, Plotting, Writing

Writing Is Hard

I wouldn’t call myself a “novelist.” It’s one of those words of which I have an irrational dislike. I picture novelists sitting around in damask lounges where I’m not allowed, smoking tiny cigarettes, wobbling their big brains at each other and speaking about Humanity without separating their teeth.

But I have written 4 novels so far, which is about 3 3/4 more than most people, and considerably fewer than Terry Pratchett.

Pratchett

Unless you’re Stephen Hawking, this man is smarter than both of us put together.

Anyway, the way you write a novel is you think of a character and then you have your character do something, usually while whining about it, for about three hundred pages. If you want to write a young adult novel, which is what I do, you do the same thing, except . . . well, you just kind of do the same thing. I don’t know.

The thing is, what many critically-acclaimed novels have in common is that they “make sense.” This is where I usually have trouble. Oh, things start well. They hum along. And then I reach the 3/4 mark, and something is wrong. Let me explain it using word puzzles.

I enjoy word puzzles. I get those variety packs with all the different kinds. Here’s one I did called “Simon Says.” The idea is you write the phrase they tell you to, and then there are step by step instructions on how to change it a little at a time, and at the end, surprise! There’s a different phrase there!

Here’s the beginning:

puzzle1

So far, so good. Looks like we’re on our way to turning “Spring Training” into “All Star Game,” which is what happened about halfway through. But “All Star Game” was just a little divertissement in the middle. The real finale was to be “World Series,” revealed at Step 18.

Only something went horribly, horribly wrong.

Here is my Step 18:

puzzle2

That’s right. “LDORDWSURIFJ.” This is not a case of “BORLD SERIES.” This is a major issue. Something effed up went down somewhere, and I have no idea what it was. It could be one rogue letter, or an entire step missing, or I could have read one of the directions wrong. Anything. And from that moment, little things began to fall subtly out of place until the snowball effect reached its terrible pinnacle at Step 18.

That’s what happens with novels sometimes. They say if your ending is wrong, it’s not really your ending that’s wrong, and that’s probably true. But the gentle musing over whether a different angle or lighting might make your denoument more effective is completely different from the sickening feeling that arises from getting to the top of your dramatic arc to realize your story is running naked through the woods like a lunatic. At that point, there’s nothing to do but go back and pick everything apart to find the rogue letter that will set it all right again.

And as I quietly weep over my 3/4 novels, my only solace is that, probably, other writers have faced this kind of thing before. And maybe they didn’t even have blogs. Maybe they just had to write whiny little notes on their parchment or whatever: Writing is hard.

shakespeare
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This is an updated version of a post that previously appeared on my blog. I hope you enjoy it anyway.

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Filed under Advice - Helpful or Otherwise, craft~writing, Editing and Revising, Helpful or Otherwise, Plotting, Uncategorized, Writing

The Trouble with Outlines

I tried outlining. I used to long to be a writer who outlines in very much the same achingly desperate way that I used to long to become a person with tidy and organized closets. Thing is, I’m just not the sort for either one. Adi’s hilarious and insightful Monday post started me thinking about why.

Google “novel outline images” and you’ll find gobs of ways to outline a book. It’s not always the roman numeral/capital letter stuff. Methods abound. But my problem is, they are almost always linear. Left to right, up to down. It’s right there in the word itself: Outline.

My stories aren’t left to right or up to down to me. I visualize them more like helixes. I’m at one end of the helix when starting a new project and during the process I’m inside it, with its characters and scenes all around me. If I’m lucky I will eventually come to the far end of the helix, with all the plotting behind me, and then the book is complete.

Helix

See me in there, wandering about in my story?

I am not known as a linear thinker–just ask my family. What I do instead, I think the experts call it “radial thinking.” Ideas sparking other ideas in all directions. In three dimensions, even. While this trait apparently makes me a laugh riot at the bar with my droll asides and non sequiturs, it makes just about any outlining task anathema to me. The closest I get to an outline that works for me is an Idea Web. (Incidentally, here’s a pretty cool one.)

Idea Web for the letter B

Rather simple idea web for the letter B

So how do I organize a plot? The same way I go about organizing a closet. First few drafts, I just cram everything in there, wherever it fits, even if it doesn’t.

Fibber McGee's Closet

Fibber McGee’s Closet

Then in the next draft I take everything out. Yup. Empty the entire closet and set all of its contents on the floor. In other words, by the time I start this particular draft, I’m starting over. I’ve figured out the scenes that are essential and that have a specific place they need to occur in the plot line. Those things are like the most important things that need to be in the closet. I place those on the shelves first, where I can make sure they go into their ideal slots. The inciting incident, at the beginning; the climax scene, near the end, etc. Sometimes I do this physically, by cutting up a printed draft and laying out everything on the floor around me. Then I figure out how the other scenes/items need to fit around them.

The closet shelves are getting filled up again, but neatly this time. The draft seems to be coming together.

Then, a reversal! At some point I realize that not everything I want in the closet is going to fit. I have to omit items, or change them or wedge them in differently. Often, once I see how things are not quite fitting into my closet, I have to take every last item out and start over again. Scenes get pulled out and reworked or rearranged.

Theoretically speaking.

Theoretically speaking.

I organize and place them by instinct almost, juxtaposing scenes for max effect, keeping all the plot balls in the air.

At some point, finally, everything has a place. It looks good; it feels right and complete. I don’t know how else to explain it, but my story is plotted then. It’s set. It’s done.

Now you. Tell me about your outlining technique. At least, tell me if my method makes sense to anyone but me.

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