Thursday, February 17, 2011

Newbie Mistakes

It's always hard to talk about our mistakes because we often try to appear authoritative and knowledgeable. Hey, I'm a published author! I know everything!

Well, I don't. And I wasn't born a published author either (and I admit, it's just another job; being published doesn't make me a better person or writer than the guy next door). What I do have is experience, and that includes mistakes I've made, and may continue to make.

That puts me in a position to mentor a newbie writer when I see them making similar mistakes. I've walked that road before, and if I can help someone avoid some of the potholes and mud puddles, why not? On the other hand, maybe I should just let them bump around, as I did -- what's a better way to learn than to fall and scrape a knee or two?

That said, here are some of the newbie mistakes that hopefully will be helpful.

Tell, not show:
This is a big one. We writers have a tendency of telling too much, because we're in a weird position of being the storyteller, and the default mode of storytelling is "tell":  Once upon a time, a beautiful princess lives in a remote castle, waiting for a handsome prince to come save her.  OK, fine. It gets the story out, but it's all tell. We're telling the readers the princess is beautiful, and the prince is handsome, and the castle is remote. And what does the readers get out of it?  Information. That's all. There is no sensory details, no involvement. The readers are constantly reminded that they're reading, or being told a story. They don't get to EXPERIENCE it. There are no visceral input and reaction. Instead, why not show them?

Too Internal:
This one is a bit harder to define and understand, but you know it when you read it. This is particularly true for first-person narration and with characters who are more passive and introspective. They think a lot. They feel a lot. There's nothing wrong with thoughts and feelings, but drama is about action.  There's nothing more boring than thoughts and feelings that don't result in action. Plus the same thoughts and feelings would become tiresome very quickly. Worse, if the author insists on commentating on the character's thoughts and feelings, it becomes really tedious. Instead, externalize the thoughts and feelings by action, and let the readers decide -- they are smart enough to figure out the emotional and mental states of the character by its behaviors.

This is a term I coined a few years ago. It means the urge and need for a writer to tell everything. Every single detail, ranging from "he pushed the door open, walked to the cabinet, opened the door, pulled out a cup, poured some water in it..." (stage directions) to over-explaining everything as if the readers are dumb. That includes backstories, thoughts and feelings, and stating the obvious: "He clenched his fists and pounded on the desk. He must be very angry."  Duh!  Don't do that. Cut unnecessary details, redundancy, and repetition that doesn't add anything. Don't treat your readers as stupid asses. Trust their intelligence. And it makes the reading experience so much better for them anyway.

Oooh, Shiny!
I've seen this happening to many new writers. A new and exciting idea comes along and they feel like they need to start on it immediately. It's even more prevalent when the WIP they've been working on has hit a rough spot, such as the mid-book blues. They start to lose interest, and the new shiny idea becomes more and more alluring. So they drop the WIP and start on a new project. Or they try to write two or three or four projects at the same time. The result is most often "a whole lot of beginnings but nothing is ever finished." My suggestion:  FINISH. THE. BOOK.   No matter what you do, once you start something, make it your goal to finish it. I don't care what you need to do -- wear your underwear on your head or dance in the rain -- you've got to finish what you started. If you're the type who gets distracted by new projects all the time, resist the urge to even start. Jot down the ideas instead; notepads are cheap. But finish the book!

Wrong Start
Ouch, I did that a lot. I still do it now. Finding the right beginning has always been a bit difficult for me, because I write character-driven stories, so "character development" becomes natural in my process, and more often than not, I tend to write pages and pages of character backgrounds, or they're going through their ordinary worlds before the inciting incident happens. With The Pacific Between, I actually cut 7 chapters from the manuscript and wove the rest with the other chapters. A common advice is "cut the first 3 chapters and start your story with Chapter 4." While that may be an exaggeration, it's not without merits. Many writers start their stories too soon, believing they either must reveal a lot of character backgrounds (how else are we going to know who they are?), or they don't quite know where the inciting incident is. They often start too soon instead of too late.

My advice is to start the story as close to the major event that propels the main plot forward, or in the middle of it (in media res), and then you can move backward if you need. Or just write, then by all means cut the first three chapters and see how that works.

In my current WIP, I actually added an extra chapter (I resisted from calling it a prologue) that starts the plot with a scene that is in the middle of the story. It's a "jump-forward" and it can be very effective. By using this technique, you set up a hook immediately and then you can have a bit of breathing room in the first few chapters. That doesn't give you the right to write crappy first chapters, though, but it works better when you need a bit more ramp-up time instead of plunging the characters in the inciting incident.

The point is, whatever you do, you want to start the story as close to the central conflict as possible. It may not be the real thing, but you don't want to wait 50 pages before you get there either.

(end Part 1)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

3-Act (or 4) Structure

What's the 3- or 4-Act structure, and how does it relate to fiction writing?

This structure is used in plays and screenplays, but it also applies to novels.

Do you see movies? If you're a movie buff like I am, you'd have internalized the 3- or 4-act structure, which is prevalent in screenplays. I mean, I'm writing this structure without even thinking about it.

Watch your favorite movies and see how the structure works (Jurassic Park is a great one to start).

Another way to look at this is through conflict and resolution. Basically, this structure is all about rolling conflicts and resolutions, turning points, and mini-climaxes and setbacks. At the end of each act, you have resolutions and a turning point, climax, and an immediate setback. Also, there is at least one set piece at or toward the end of each act. The act itself builds up to the set piece/climax/setback, and the turning point moves the story to the following act (unless, of course, it's the final act, then it would just moves to the denouement).

Some people suggest the 25/50/25 (for 3-Act) or 25/25/25/25 (for 4-Act) division of the acts.

To me, the 1/4 structure is too rigid. Writers tend to like things in boxes. But I don't. My structure is more fluid -- for example, my second and third acts are considerably much longer than the 1st and last. But that doesn't matter -- what matters is that you have some kind of structure, instead of the plot going everywhere.

Inciting Incident vs. First Plot Point:

Your inciting incident and first plot point should happen within the first act. No exceptions.

Inciting incident and first plot point are not the same thing, though. Your inciting incident (an event that moves the story into its track) should happen rather early. In Titanic, it's when Jack and Rose meet each other -- it sets the star-crossed lovers on their tragic course (and symbolically, Titanic on its own tragic course). In the Da Vinci Code, it's when Langdon is summoned to investigate the murder. In 500 Days of Summer, it's when Tom hooks up with Summer.

The inciting incident should happen rather early in the story, if not the first page or chapter.

To me, what Hollywood calls First Plot Point (FPP) is not the same as inciting incident (II). FPP is what Campbell called "The Point of No Return." That's when things shift and the hero can't go back. In Titanic, the boat hits the iceberg, right after Jack and Rose consummated their love (which happens like 1 hour into the movie! Definitely not the inciting incident). In the DVC, it's when Langdon realizes he's being suspected for the murder and he's on the run. In 500 Days of Summer, it's when Tom realizes he's in love with Summer but she doesn't feel the same about him. In each case, the hero(es) has passed the point of no return. They can't possibly go back now.

What I expect in the set-up (Act 1) is something happening that clearly sets the stakes. In Titanic: star-crossed lovers, poor boy-rich girl, all that jazz. But the inciting incident happens early in the set up and not at the end. At the end, it's the point of no return: love vs. imminent separation by death (Rose can be saved since she's rich, and Jack will die with the rest of the steerage). But the inciting incident happens when Rose tries to jump off the boat and Jack saves her -- that sets them on the journey together, and also put Jack under Cal's radar. The iceberg is the point of no return -- love or die, literally.

Rose trying to jump off the boat, and Jack saving her: It's dramatized, and it sets them on a trajectory. It also pits Jack against Cal for the first time; he's a threat now. Also, it foreshadows the boat sinking and life/death situation later. Near the end of Act 2, Rose reminded Jack (right before the boat sinks) it was where they met the first time (at the bow). And it foreshadows how Jack is going to save Rose in more ways than she could imagine.

That's why I contend the notion that the inciting incident is the iceberg. It's absolutely not, because the story is actually a love story, instead of a boat sinking. If it's about Titanic sinking, then yeah, it's when it hits the iceberg -- that's way too late in Act 1 (which is rather long, about 1/3 of the movie). But it's about the love story of Jack and Rose, so the II is the scene at the bow when she is about to jump off.

Say what you want about Cameron as a writer (his dialogue is his weakest, I'd say), but he knows his structure. He's a master of the 3/4 Act structure. If you really want to study the structure, watch a Cameron's film.

Set Pieces:

I talked about set pieces (that there should be at least one set piece at or near the end of each act). So what are they?

Think about the scene in Jurassic Park when the T-rex first shows up and attacks. That's the mini-climactic scene... we've been waiting and waiting and waiting to see the T-rex, and it's been eluding us. Everything that came before (the car ride, the electric fence, the sabotage, outage, etc.) culminates to that. And then Mr. T shows up. That's a set piece.

Let's talk about Titanic, again. The iceberg is a set piece. It's been foreshadowed, talked about (and we know from history it will happen)... so everything before (the ship charging at full speed despite warnings, etc.) culminates to that. The boat finally sinking spectacularly is also a set piece. In a way, Rose trying to jump off the boat is also a set piece.

Basically, set pieces are pivotal scenes that change everything. The bigger the change, the bigger the set piece.

Prologue vs. Hook in Act 1:

A prologue is one way to hook the audience, especially if what follows (Act 1, the set up) is a bit tame: boy meets girl, for example. It's often done for fantasy, thrillers, etc.

But a hook can be anything, as long as it's dramatic and gets the audience's interest.

In Titanic, it's the frame story, with the treasure-hunt team and old Rose telling them the story. In Jurassic Park, it's a prologue-ish opening in which the staff is transporting the raptors and something bad happens.

In a quieter drama, for example, the hook can be more subtle but equally riveting: For example, in The King's Speech, it opens with the Duke of York having to speak in front of a grand audience, and his stammer is an utter embarrassment to everyone including himself. That's the hook, and it's not a prologue.