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Saturday, April 28, 2012

LIN ANDERSON: THE STRUCTURE OF STORY, PART II


Today, I'm excited to re-introduce Lin Anderson for Part 2 of her 3-part series on The Structure of Story. Lin has a lot of writing experience, having published eight novels, which feature forensic expert Dr Rhona MacLeod. Her books have been translated into several langauages and are in development for TV. Her short stories have appeared in a number of collections, most recently Dead Close was chosen for the Best of British Crime 2011. Also a screenwriter, her film River Child won a BAFTA and the Celtic Film Festival best fiction award. Lin's website is: http://www.lin-anderson.com/



Part 2: The Muddle in the Middle

As I said in my opening piece, human beings intuitively understand when a story works. That’s probably most obvious when sitting in a packed cinema. The collective intelligence of the audience knows when things are going slack in the story. This happens usually in the middle section when the audience starts to fidget and eat their popcorn. They’ve dropped out of the story. They’re back in the real world. Something that should never happen. In the case of novels, it’s where you skip bits you don’t feel engaged with and hope to be recaptured later on. Or even worse you lose interest and stop reading the story altogether!

So what went wrong with the storytelling?

One of the most obvious reasons for giving up on a story is because we don’t care what happens to the people who inhabit the story, particularly the main character, our protagonist.

Because a story is a character in action.

A story should present us with a character we empathise with, who is presented with a situation that propels them into action. Through a variety of escalating challenges they're tested to their limits and emerge usually having learned something about themselves in the process. We have lived vicariously through them.

A story is deepened when we also follow secondary characters and become involved with their lives, but these characters’ actions should always impact on our protagonist’s story. Switching viewpoints and using dramatic irony makes the storytelling dynamic. However, if you tell a story from too many viewpoints you can lose your reader, because we have to buy into a character enough to really care.

As a writer you should ask yourself:

Who is my protagonist?
What do they want?
Why do they want it?
What’s stopping them?
What’s the result?

These questions will eventually present you with the theme of your story i.e what it’s really about. Crime stories usually have a main theme of justice or the restoration of order, but there can be many subthemes operating within the crime story e.g Love, revenge, coming of age etc

The conflict your character faces can be external or internal and is usually both, but it must be big enough to sustain the reader’s interest and for them to want the protagonist to succeed.

We have already considered the beginning and the inciting incident (sometimes called the first crisis.) This is what propels your protagonist into action. Most people would rather have an easy life, so your protagonist may prevaricate, but eventually they must move. Once they do, nothing will ever be the same again.

Once into the ‘muddle in the middle’ the antagonistic forces rise even more against our main character. This is the part of the story where things often go wrong. The story slackens. We lose the reader’s attention. One common error it to make the antagonistic force too strong, too soon, leaving nowhere to go. To prevent the story from going slack, you need to build momentum towards the middle of this section of the story. It’s that old saying that things will get worse before they get better. When our protagonist deals with what some call their deepest darkest cave, you can provide a little respite. Stories differ a lot in this middle section. Some peak around the midpoint, some go on slow burn and peak towards the end of this section. In a short story, because of its length, the 'peak' or 'deepest darkest cave' moment is usually placed towards the end of the middle section.

To keep your story tight and your reader engrossed, it's sometimes useful to timeline it. Mark where each obstacle is met and matched and where exactly the big crisis happens. Also check that the conflict is always on the increase. The pattern of three is often seen here. Try, try, try again is something we all recognise, from nursery stories onwards.

Any secondary stories will also have a three part structure and a character arc. It's good to know that the really big moments in a story occur when a key moment in a subplot clashes with a key moment for the protagonist. Those are the scenes we remember the most.

Next time… the resolution (and the twist in the tail). After which I'll use a short crime story to illustrate what we've learned about structure. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

EDITING - UGH!


Yesterday, I deleted nearly 600 words from a story that I have been working on for the last two weeks. Did it hurt? You bet it did. But by doing so, it improved the story dramatically.

Don't you wish you could write prose that flowed across the paper like soft butter on warm toast? Dream on. If you’re like me, you're spending more time editing your stories than almost anything else. Editing is an integral part of the writing process, and it is only through thoughtful editing that my stories have come alive. Writing a story is like building a house with a lump of clay. You begin by roughing out the shape you want. Editing is the modeling process that shapes the clay into the beautiful finished product you had in mind when you began.

The more experience I gain as a writer, the more I edit. The more I edit, the more experience I gain as a writer.

George Lucas, talking about film editing, gives us an excellent definition on the subject. His words apply to story editing, as well. He says, “The whole process of editing is a process of paring the film down and keeping all the relevant material and getting rid of all the material that doesn’t work for one reason or another.”

How do you edit a story? What do you leave in? Take out?

There are a slew of books written on the editing process – each is similar and different, depending upon the technique offered for the editing solutions. But with all the diversity between each book, there is one theory that has remained constant ever since man first learned how to hold a pencil: If you find a word, sentence or paragraph that does not move the story forward, take it out.

Every word must advance the story from opening line to concluding sentence. Every device you enter in your story should have significance in some form or another. Every character must play an important role and every word your character utters must have meaning.

There are many books that have failed to maintain interest simply because the author decided to mosey down a parallel path he found interesting, one that had little or nothing to do with the original storyline. How many films have done the same?

Keep your eye on your target. Edit out all that is unnecessary, even the parts that you’ve worked on for hours. Keep nothing that doesn’t point the reader in the direction you decided he should go. You may lose many words in the editing process, but you will keep your readers, and they will keep coming back for more.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Lin Anderson: Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me…


Today, I'm proud to introduce guest blogger, Lin Anderson who has published eight novels featuring forensic expert Dr Rhona MacLeod. Lin's books have been translated into several langauages and are in development for TV. Her short stories have appeared in a number of collections, most recently Dead Close was chosen for the Best of British Crime 2011. Also a screenwriter, her film River Child won a BAFTA and the Celtic Film Festival best fiction award. Lin's website is: http://www.lin-anderson.com/

This following essay is the first of a three part blog.

Part 1: The Structure of Story

How important is it to understand the structure of a story?

When I wrote my first short story and my first novel I had no idea how stories 'worked'. I knew instinctively when one didn't work, but had no idea what was wrong with it. When I wrote my first crime piece for television, I studied how it was done by watching Prime Suspect, a classic, and noting the structure, arrangement and purpose of each scene. The resultant screenplay generated a great deal of interest from a USA based television producer.  I didn't have it completely right, but I had told the story in a way that kept him reading.

That screenplay became the novel, Driftnet (available as an ebook on amazon.com at http://tinyurl.com/bodetdz) first in the Dr Rhona MacLeod forensic crime series, now running to eight books. The series is in development with ITV and I recently saw the screenplay for 'Final Cut' which they intend starting with. The writer had told  the story for screen really well. I was impressed.

After Driftnet was published, I became interested in why the story worked well and began to look at stories in the way I look at screenplays. Any story in any form is 'a character in action'. Crime novels are not about the crime per se. They're about the character(s) that solve the crime. Great characters create a series. The readers come back for more of them and their world. That's understood, but what about structure?

I would argue that writing a crime story is harder than writing general fiction. Why? Because you have to do everything that a dramatic piece does - create a protagnist your reader can empathise with and use their personal story to explore the human condition. Added to this you have to create a complex mystery that interweaves with their own story. Secrets must be revealed at the right moment (always keep a secret as long as possible). Placing each piece in a complex jigsaw so that the reader cannot/must not know the full picture until the last piece is in place. Not for the fainthearted.

So how does understanding structure help you?

We all intuitively know when a story 'works'. Watch a movie audience. When they start twitching and losing interest, they've dropped out of the story. The question is why? The general form of a story is  The Beginning/The Muddle in the Middle/The Resolution. Roughly speaking the first and last form a quarter of the story each. The Muddle in the Middle is a half. The middle section is the really tricky part. Here's where things can flatline and you lose your way and your readers. Beginnings aren't easy either, but creating something new is heaps of fun and carries you along, provided you understand what a beginning must achieve.

Stories are characters in action. Actions driven by conflict. The conflicts may not be big in world terms, but they are big to your main character. As one conflict is solved, another rears its bigger uglier head. The opening is the first time we see your main character in action and is instrumental in selling your book to your readers.

Effective beginnings need to do three things
·         The chief of these is to get the story going and show what kind of story it’s going to be and the tone you'll use to tell it.
·         The second is to introduce and categorise the protagonist
·         The third is to engage the reader’s interest in reading on. (They have to want to turn the page)

A beginning can do more than this i.e. establish a mood, a setting, a norm. But it should always do the first three. The most economical way of handling these three jobs is to find a way of doing all three at once using a scene. Why? Because a story is a character in action. You reveal the character by what they do in a situation. Stories are also circular. The end will in some way reflect the beginning, but we can worry about that at the end. Whatever inciting incident you create will set your character on a journey to satifsy a need they might not even know they have. By the end of the first Act they will have stepped over the threshold into the unknown. In a crime story, the inciting incident will normally involve a crime, which will require solving. In Driftnet, the murder of a teenage boy who looks like Rhona makes her think he might be the son she gave up for adoption 17 years before. That inciting incident impacts on both her personal and professional life. A double whammy. Is he or isn't he her son? Who killed him?

Next time, Part 2: The Muddle in the Middle.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

LIN ANDERSON TALKS WRITING


I’m so excited! In a few days, Lin Anderson, the Scottish crime novelist, who has published eight novels featuring forensic expert Dr. Rhona MacLeod, will be my guest blogger. Lin’s books have been translated into several languages and are now in development for TV.

Lin will be favoring us with a three-part blog series on writing. The first installment is titled, The Structure of Story. She prefaces this essay by saying, “Here are things I wish someone had told me.”

You won’t want to miss this! This series is jam-packed with writing tips that both the newbie and the seasoned writer will find useful.

So, stay tuned. Lin’s blog will be coming up in a few days. I can assure you; you won’t be disappointed.

MONDAYS ARE MURDER: AN INTERVIEW


Every Monday, Hawaiian mystery writer Laurie Hanan interviews an author of a murder mystery or thriller. I’m excited to be part of this week’s interview. So put on your grass skirt or your luau shirt and let’s go to Hawaii. It’s only a click away: http://westoftheequator.wordpress.com/2012/04/09/146/