Feed Your Imagination Regularly:

When my daughter, Amanda, was a tween, she asked for my advice on writing. I was on the road with my job, so I sent her the advice via email.  She’s grown now and pursuing her career and off on that wonderful adventure called life. This past weekend, I was going over my old computer files (and pictures from those days, because I miss her) and I came across my advice from the road. 

As I read over what I’d sent her, I realized it holds true today for her little brothers and sister as well as it had for her. For what it’s worth, here is a mother’s writing advice: 

 ***

Imagine. Exercise your imagination regularly by playing. Pretend to be someone from a TV show or movie with your friends. If you feel too old for that, shut yourself up in your bedroom and daydream. Wonder what it would be like to be someone else, then pretend you are that person. Wonder what it would be like to do something, then pretend you are doing it. Make up stories in your head and imagine how they would work out.

In your imagination, nothing is impossible. If you wonder what it would be like to have magical powers, then imagine you have them. Go through the day looking for situations in which to use them. How would they work? How would they make problems for you? How would you solve problems with them?

If you wonder what it would be like to live 100 years in the future, then imagine that you do. What would the world be like? How would your life be different? What kinds of problems would you have that you don’t face now? Where would you live? What would the you of the future think of the you of today?

Listen to how others tell stories or describe situations in every day conversations. Some of the best writing is just taking what we hear in conversation and transcribing it into something grammatically palatable.

Read. By reading, you will see firsthand how professionals describe ordinary scenes and actions. By emulating them, you can get a feel for the way words flow together. The more you read, the more familiar you will become with language. Read all kinds of books from different decades. See how writing has changed during the 20th century.

Write. The only way to learn to write is to sit down and do it. It doesn’t have to be good the first time. Even professionals must write and revise for hours… days… months… years even, before they are satisfied that they have expressed themselves adequately.

Rewrite movies, TV shows, and books. Write a story using characters and settings from a movie, or any story that captured your imagination. Add yourself as a character and take a course of action that changes the outcome of the story. Take characters from one movie or show and put them in the setting of another.

Experiment with the language. Don’t be afraid to string words together in new and unusual ways. Always be on the lookout for different ways to say the same thing. Instead of saying that someone works at a gas station, he can be a petroleum distribution specialist. A writer is a word merchant. A dog is a canine companion. A cat is a furry sidekick. Your best friend can be your partner in crime. Your mother is your maternal unit. Your father is your paternal unit.

***

This advice from the road still holds some truth. Your imagination is a muscle and you must exercise it regularly to keep it strong. 

How do YOU exercise your imagination? What advice would you have for Amanda’s now-tween brother?

Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want

“It’s good to want things.” – Winona Ryder in Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael

“Find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning, just follow him or her all day.” — Ray Bradbury

A while back, I talked about Two Sentences That Changed My Life and From Frying Pan to Fire: Scene and Sequel. What both of those posts have in common is that they touched on the three vital elements of a story:  Goal, Motivation, and Conflict (GMC). Without these, you don’t have a story.

Goal – What your character wants
Motivation – Why/How badly your character wants it
Conflict – What stands between your character and his/her goal

If any of these three elements are weak, your story will be weak as well. It doesn’t matter how beautifully you command the language, or how skillfully you wield action verbs, without a well-defined goal, sufficient motivation, or suitable level of conflict, your story will fall flat and you will lose your reader.

gwtw1Without a clearly-defined goal, your character will wander aimlessly along, smelling the flowers and wondering what he/she is supposed to be doing. You should be able to answer quickly and concisely what your Main Character (MC) wants. In Gone With The Wind, Scarlett wants Ashley Wilkes. Everything she does springs from this want, from befriending Melanie Hamilton to making her home in Atlanta, it’s all done with the intent to stay close to Ashley Wilkes so she can make him love her.

In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby wants Daisy. In The Sting, Hooker wants revenge for the murder of his friend. In The Princess Bride, Westley wants to claim Buttercup.

Let’s take a closer look at The Princess Bride. That’s a good one to start with because the characters’ goals are so clearly defined. Westley wants to claim Buttercup. Inigo wants to find the six-fingered man. Humperdink wants to start a war between Guilder and Florin. At some point, their goals come into conflict with one another through the action in the story. Westley and Inigo are pitted against each other because Inigo was hired to kidnap Buttercup and Westley is following them so he can rescue her.

This is where the motivation behind the goals leads to the level of conflict created. In the famous sword fight scene, Inigo’s heart isn’t really in it. Why not? Because Westley isn’t the six-fingered man therefore, he isn’t sufficiently motivated to kill Westley. Westley, however is strongly motivated to defeat Inigo because he stands in the way of rescuing his dearest love, Buttercup. The motivation behind meeting the primary goal is stronger than the motivation behind the secondary goal, so there is conflict. With each clash of one goal blocking another, tension builds.

The-Princess-Bride-1987_gallery_primaryThe story comes to a head when the characters’ primary goals come into conflict, when Westley, in his pursuit of Buttercup, stands in the way of Humperdink realizing his goal of using Buttercup to start a war. This occurs at the climax. Will Westley’s motivation (love) defeat Humperdink’s motivation (greed)? If Westley didn’t have deep feelings for Buttercup, would he fight so hard to rescue her? If Humperdink weren’t so greedy for power, would he be so single-minded in his purpose to use Buttercup to start a war?

This is why motivation is so important. How high are the stakes for your character? What does your character stand to lose? How will it impact his life if he fails? How far is your character willing to go to attain his goals? What will it take to make your character give up on his goals? When you can answer those questions, look at your answers and figure out how to throw each and every answer into your character’s path. That is how you build conflict.

Conflict is having your character face the very real possibility of being thwarted in achieving his goals. Conflict is blocking your character from his goal. All your character has to do to reach safety is cross a bridge. What do you do? You blow up the bridge. Now what does your character do? Well, your character has to find another way across. He learns of a ferry just upriver, but he has to fight his way through hostile natives to get there. If he doesn’t have adequate or believable motivation for continuing forward, the reader will wonder why he bothers. Why doesn’t he simply go home?

You have to communicate to your reader just how important the goal is, how motivated they are to attain that goal, and how difficult the conflict is to overcome. If any of these fall short, your story will lose tension and consequently your reader won’t care.

So, say to your character “Tell me what you want, what you really, really want…”

Four Common Mistakes By Unpublished Writers

As a general rule, I do not read manuscripts from unpublished writers. It’s always a bad idea for writers to do that. No one wants to deal with a plagiarism lawsuit at a future point in time.

The other problem I have with it is that I’m a nice person. I don’t like giving a writer his or her first critique. They hurt. I know, I’ve been there. You’ve spent years writing in secret, stealing time to spin your tales and put them to paper. When you’ve shown them to people, your friends and family have raved over how good you are. English teachers raved over them. You think you’re ready to be published. You’re not.

It’s incredibly rare to find an untrained author who has never had a critique nor studied the craft to come out of the gate with a brilliant masterwork. Sorry. If you’ve never had a critique by an industry professional, your manuscript contains the following problems:

  • POV shifts within the scene
  • Passive voice
  • Telling rather than showing the action
  • Excessive and unnecessary dialog tags

There are more, but these are the top four and that’s enough to start with. I know this, because I was once a writer taking the first steps from hobby fiction spinner to novelist. When your manuscript hits the slush pile with these no-nos on the first page, you’ll never make it past the reader because he or she will never read past the first few pages. Publishing houses hire readers whose sole job is to sort through the slush pile for these red flags.

POV Shifts
Also called “Hopping Heads” it’s the most defended newbie marker. Good prose starts with a POV (Point of View) character who provides the perspective through which the scene is filtered. Nothing can happen out of sight or hearing of this character. Once this character is identified, you cannot jump into another character’s head within the same scene.

“But…but…” I can hear you now. Stop it. You sound like a motorboat.

POV is so important in some genres and sub-genres that it’s become trope. Traditional Gothic Romance is told through the eyes of one character, the heroine, in first person. Hard-boiled detective fiction is also traditionally first person, told from the perspective of the detective. When writing in third person, pick a character and let that character tell the story. If you must add other POV characters, keep them to a minimum. No more than two or three max for longer, more epic stories with complex plot lines. If the action in a scene leaves the presence of your POV character, the scene ends. Break it and start a new scene with a new POV character or rewrite it from the POV of the character who actually follows the action.

A good example of this was THE GREAT GATSBY. Nothing happened outside of Nick’s presence. He was the narrator who observed and participated in Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy. Anything that happened outside his presence had to be related to him in one manner or another by another character. He observed actions that didn’t make sense to him at the time, but made sense as the story unfolded.

Why is it such a hard and fast rule? Simple. Good fiction evokes emotion in the reader. My nine-year-old son read THE OAK INSIDE THE ACORN by Max Lucado. When he finished, his eyes filled with tears and he threw his arms around me and sobbed. Emotional response. Good prose. One POV.

By hopping heads, you rob your reader of the opportunity to identify with your character within the scene. When you read, you slip into that character’s skin and you experience that character’s world. The reader gets an insight into a personality often unlike their own through the internal monologue and the character’s voice. It’s also jarring to settle into one character’s perspective only to find yourself across the room in another’s.

Passive Voice
Simply put, passive voice uses passive verb forms or “to be” verb forms. “She was singing” as opposed to “She sang.” The “to be” form of the verb separates the reader from the action. The active verb form makes the reader a participant in the action. If you use passive verbs, do it deliberately to serve the telling of the story, for pacing, or to emotionally detach the reader from the action.

That isn’t to say that you can never use am, is, are, was, were. You can. Just make sure when you use them, you’re doing so for a reason and not because you don’t know better. Editors can tell the difference.

This goes hand in hand with

Telling Rather Than Showing The Action
This is trickier to explain. Don’t tell me the character “looked angry” or “was angry” or did anything “angrily.” Show me the emotion. Don’t name it. If you do it right, I’ll recognize the emotion by the character’s action, tone, word use, facial expressions, and body language. Telling me that Donald Duck got angry and yelled isn’t as funny as showing me how Donald sputtered, turned red and jumped up and down, screaming incoherently, with his fists clenched, while gesticulating wildly.

Telling, rather than showing, insulates the reader from the action, events, and emotions in the scene. It has its uses, but should be employed purposefully and sparingly.

Excessive And Unnecessary Dialog Tags
This is such a pet peeve of so many editors of my acquaintance that one has gone so far as to write numerous blog posts on the topic. Just bringing it up will send her off on a diatribe.

Dialog tags are used to identify the speaker. The most common and least distracting is “said.” It’s quite acceptable to name the character and follow it with “said.” When you get creative and follow a question mark with “asked,” or an exclamation point with “exclaimed” or “explained” or “surmised” or any of the myriad others that newbie writers use, you start distracting your reader. It’s self-explanatory that a question was asked or an interjection has been…well…interjected!

If you must get creative, use action to identify your speaker rather than increasingly pompous dialog tags.

Caroline lifted the calling card from the tray. Her eyes narrowed as she studied the curlicues swirling across the white paper. Her lips tightened. How dare he?

“Mother, Charles has come to beg forgiveness for his behavior last night.”

Her mother didn’t look up from her needlework. “Shall I refuse him?”

See? Who needs dialog tags?

I Didn’t See That Coming – Foreshadowing

I was very excited to find a blog post on foreshadowing this morning. Unfortunately, it didn’t really tell me anything about foreshadowing. It told me more about the author’s latest book. That’s all well and good, but I was put off. It felt like someone was pulling the old bait and switch on me. That makes me cranky. When I get cranky, I do something about it. So this morning, I wrote my own damn post on foreshadowing. So there.

On About.com Richard Nordquist defines foreshadowing thusly: The presentation of details, characters, or incidents in a narrative in such a way that later events are prepared for (or “shadowed forth”).

In short, it’s setting the stage for future events. Foreshadowing creates a mood. It sets up the audience for the main conflict and the climax, or the catalysts that bring about the climax. It’s a device mystery writers use to plant red herrings and lead the reader to the clues that solve the case. In horror, it’s used to create mood and warn audiences not to get too attached to that character because he or she will be the next victim. In romance, it provides the niggling little doubts as to whether or not the hero and heroine will end up together.

Most readers never consciously notice it. Executed properly, it is very subtle and paves the way for the emotional impact the writer seeks to evoke. Writing fiction is all about evoking emotion. I’ll go back and say it again. The first and greatest lesson I learned was that as a writer, if you’re not evoking emotion in your reader, you may as well be writing a cookbook. But then, even the best cookbooks evoke some kind of emotion these days.

I mention foreshadowing because I’m consciously using it in HERO’S END. 29543_322708094509389_1163963974_nThere’s a bit of a mystery going on and foreshadowing is a natural tool in mysteries. Foreshadowing isn’t all dark portents either. As a writer, if I’m going to use an object to save the day, or to slay the bad guy on page 180, I need to introduce the object around page 20 or so. If a fact is going to be the catalyst for an emotional scene, I need to allude to the fact early and repeat it a few times before it actually causes the issue. If the reader hasn’t built up the same emotional response as the character, when the character explodes in a ball of angst, it seems to have come out of left field. Or if one of your characters must die in keeping with the story line, you need to prepare the reader for it. Think red shirts.

Some writers call it back-writing. Once you’ve written the main story, you go back through and sprinkle the images, references, clues and allusions throughout the story, building up to the climax or event.

In SOVRAN’S PAWN, I used Blade’s sunshades, which interfaced with his IC data reader for a head’s up display. I introduced the shades with Blade when he met Bo. I introduced the interface in the following chapter. At the climax, the shades and their interface were vital for getting him where he needed to be. Without the mention of them earlier, it would have seemed like a Deus Ex Machina intervention and a cheap device.

I read a debut novel by an author of my acquaintance in which her main character does a complete about-face of personality at the climax. Unfortunately, there was no foreshadowing of this possibility, so when it happened, her readers rebelled. Because her book was published by an imprint of a large publishing house, there’s really no excuse. This is the kind of thing good editors and beta readers normally catch.

Never underestimate the value of foreshadowing or the subtlety of a skilled hand on the pen.

It’s The Little Things

Writing is a lonely business. I say that quite a bit. Mostly because it’s true. Writers are solitary creatures, often insulated against interacting with other people by the very nature of what we do. Writing takes time. It also takes quiet and, for most writers, a measure of solitude. So when writers get together, either online or in person, it’s a pretty big deal for all of us. We have human interaction (after a fashion) with others who understand this strange life we lead. We discuss things that don’t make much sense. We agonize over things that seem trivial. We also get feedback on our work, and exchange tips on how to do it more effectively.

In a recent post, I talked about the concepts of Scene and Sequel. I got a lot of great feedback on that post. But perhaps the feedback that meant the most came from my friend — and my daughter’s favorite author — Hana Haatainen Caye who regularly writes for iStorybooks (among other things.)

Hana has many irons in the fire at any given moment. She has a very successful blog The Green Grandma, in which she talks about living a more natural, organic life without chemicals. Her book Vinegar Fridays came from a regular feature on her blog about the many uses of vinegar in and around the home. Even now, Hana’s working on getting it ready for release as an e-book! She’s one of the busiest and most prolific writers I know.

Imagine my surprise when she messaged me about how much my post on scene and sequel had helped her improve her writing. After implementing it in her own work in progress with great success, Hana took the concept to her writer’s group. They dissected their own stories that night according to the key points of scene and sequel, and their assignment is to incorporate both into their stories over the next month.

It’s always meaningful to me to hear how the little things I write — whether it’s a blog post, a book review or a novel — have a positive impact on someone’s life. For a moment, that solitary life I lead seems a little less lonely. I’m touched that Hana took the time to tell me how she used what I’d written.

For a writer sitting in the dim light, huddled around the cold glow of a backlit computer screen, with only the whirring of the fan to break the silence, the comments, emails, and reviews are the only applause we get.  Sometimes, it’s the only way we know that we are not alone, and that what we do matters to someone other than ourselves. For those who take the time to tell us, we are eternally grateful.

You Too Can Write A Novel

The buzz for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is in full swing on the writer’s blogs and chat groups.  I’m torn about participating this year. I probably will not because Book Two of The Black Wing Chronicles is in its second draft now and I really won’t have the time to crank out 50k words for fresh novel.

It’s a little-known fact that SOVRAN’S PAWN was a pinch-hit NaNo Novel. Two family crises in succession took the wind out of my sails for the Southern Humor story I was working on, so I replaced it with a the back story for my REAL novel, a space opera adventure on which I’d written nearly as many words. By the end of the month, I had the first draft for what would become SOVRAN’S PAWN, a novel I never intended to write. I mentioned the project in my personal blog that has pretty much sat disused since SOVRAN’S PAWN was released this past spring.

http://caliscomfycouch.blogspot.com/2011/10/around-writing-world-in-30-days.html

http://caliscomfycouch.blogspot.com/2011/11/no-go-on-nano.html

I considered the substitution cheating, but my NaNo buddies encouraged me to count it as a win since word counts had been comparable and I’d finished the first draft of the novel in the process.

NaNoWriMo is a wonderful exercise for writers and wannabes. I strongly encourage anyone who has entertained the idea of writing a novel to give it a try. The discipline needed to simply sit down and write to a goal, with no self-editing is an invaluable experience. So many writers get into the habit of not finishing things because they don’t finish a first draft, but continually revise and edit.

I learned several important things from my NaNo experience last year:

  • The first draft is a free-for-all death match between writer and self-editor. Anything, no matter how patently ridiculous, should be allowed in the first draft.
  • Daily word goals are important if you hope to make forward progress on a project.
  • It’s vital to be accountable to someone for your progress on your writing.
  • Don’t spend a lot of time rereading what you’ve written until the end of the first draft. It’s not supposed to be perfect. It’s supposed to tell a story.
  • It’s important to do as much advance planning and story mapping as possible before writing the first words on your first draft.
  • The outline is a suggestion, a guide to keep you from wandering too far into the wilderness, and it’s okay to stray a little if you discover something interesting.
  • Writers MAKE time to write, they don’t fiddle around wishing it would appear.

So if you’re planning on participating in NaNoWriMo this year, here are some links I’ve found helpful:

http://www.languageisavirus.com/nanowrimo/word-meter.html

http://nicolehumphrey.net/backwards-nanowrimo-the-reward-system/

And, of course, here it is again:
http://www.nanowrimo.org/

From Frying Pan to Fire: Scene and Sequel

Most writers have heard the terms “scene” and “sequel.” The first time I was exposed to the concept was when I read Dwight Swain’s book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. They are such an important element in storytelling that I wanted to write a blog post about them, but every time I started, I realized that consolidating all of the important elements of scene and sequel into a short post would be nearly impossible if I were to deal with the mechanics of them in any depth. After all, Swain took an entire chapter to delve into the nuances of scene and sequel – they are that important.

At the most rudimentary level, scene can be explained as “action” and sequel can be explained as “reaction.” Both exist together to drive the action forward and control the pace at which the story unfolds. Scene is about linear events and sequel is about the emotional impact of these events and opens the door to the next scene.

Every scene should be like a microcosm of a story in itself, with your character having a goal, reaching an obstacle, and encountering change as a result. In the sequel, the character has an emotional reaction to the conflict created by having their goal blocked and either overcoming or failing, deals with it and transitions into a new mindset in order to face the next scene.

A scene has three elements:

  1. Goal
  2. Conflict
  3. Disaster

The term disaster is used to describe the new negative state of affairs that must be overcome. Swain calls it a hook that pulls the story forward. The goal in a scene is a short-term, focused goal, small in scope and immediate. The conflict is the obstacle keeping your character from attaining his goal.

One example of these elements is found in the opening scenes of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Indiana Jones has reached the golden idol in the temple of the Chachapoyan Warriors. His goal? To take the idol. The obstacle? The pedestal is booby trapped. The disaster? The temple collapses around him.

Enter the sequel. Swain’s three elements of a sequel are:

  1. Reaction
  2. Dilemma
  3. Decision

Reaction: Indy’s smug confidence turns to anxiety as he realizes he’s about to become a permanent part of the site. Dilemma: He doesn’t have the time to carefully negotiate his way back through the booby-trapped floor tiles. The ceiling is falling, setting off the poisoned darts. Decision: He makes a mad dash through and prays he makes it without getting hit by a dart or falling rocks.

Of course, Indy makes it through unscathed, stops and turns, adjusts his hat with a little relieved smile and the wall behind the idol shatters as the giant boulder crashes through. New goal, new conflict, new disaster.

That is an oversimplified explanation of scene and sequel, but you get the idea. Sometimes, it is possible to have several scenes in succession before bringing in the sequel, but the sequel must come into play. The sequel not only lets the character internalize the emotional impact of the action, but it also lets the reader figure out their own emotions as well.

Evoking an emotional response is what good fiction is all about. And that in a nutshell is how scene and sequel work together towards that end.

***

Are you conscious of scene and sequel in your reading and writing? How do you keep track of scene and sequel?

Much thanks to Stephen Ormsby for such a great interview! The same week as Ben Bova! I’m in good company!

Stephen C. Ormsby

I met JC through Facebook and quickly we found we had similar senses of humour.  It became quickly apparent to both of us that we both rather dry.  That really means that only she laughwed at my stuff and I laughed at her stuff!

So, on to JC herself.  She writes science fiction with a hint of romance in it.  So far, they have been very succesful.  Currently, she is working on three other books (at once).  I have borrowed this from her blog.

he traces her lifelong infatuation with SF/Adventure to growing up in West Central Florida during NASA’s most exciting years, often watching space launches from her back yard.

JC got her start as a stringer for the Tampa Tribune in 1991.  Since that time, she has been a member of the RWA, TARA, TWA and PINAWOR, and is currently a member of Pennwriters and the Science Fiction…

View original post 2,181 more words

Two Sentences That Changed My Life

When I was a very young and inexperienced writer, the best advice I got from published authors of my acquaintance was to pick up a copy of Dwight Swain’s book, TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. Yes, this book has been around that long. Actually, this book has been around longer than I have. Before I had a chance to snag a copy from my local bookseller, I received a copy from my Great-Aunt Gladys, who was also a bit of an angel, encouraging my literary aspirations from the time I was two-years-old.

I consumed the book. I devoured it. I internalized it. I made its advice part of my subconscious. I refer to it frequently. My ancient copy is bright yellow, which makes it easy to spot on a crowded bookshelf from far across the room.

The power of two sentences changed my life as a writer.

One of the most difficult tasks for novelists is to condense their story down to less two hundred words. When someone asks you what your story is about, the temptation is to give all the backstory, the world-building and the details you painstakingly created. Nobody wants that. They want to know what the story is about.

Swain said that the heart of your story contains five elements, which can be reduced to two sentences: one a statement, the other a question.

  • Character
  • Situation
  • Objective
  • Opponent
  • Disaster

I’ve found that keeping this in mind when creating my own story summary helps immensely. When someone asks me what SOVRAN’S PAWN is about, I tell them –

When convicted traitor Bo Barron’s father is kidnapped, she has to go under cover on an interstellar cruise liner at a gambling tournament to steal plans for an illegal weapon that are being auctioned off to meet the ransom demand. An attempt on her life by a mysterious methane breather, and the timely intervention of a handsome Inner Circle agent leave Bo wondering whether there is a weapon at all and will she survive the cruise long enough to rescue her father?

That’s a seventy thousand word book condensed into eighty-two words.

  • Character – Convicted traitor Bo Barron
  • Situation – father is kidnapped
  • Objective – (There is a dual objective here) Stealing the plans, but also recovering her father
  • Opponent – Mysterious methane breather (stated) Kidnappers (implied)
  • Disaster – getting herself killed, or losing her father

You know, if I were brutal about it, I could trim it even more.

Let’s take a story you’re probably more familiar with, like STAR WARS (ANH)

When Luke Skywalker learns he’s in possession of stolen plans, he joins forces with Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi to turn them over to the Rebellion. But can he rescue the princess and keep the plans out of the hands of Darth Vader, who is determined to destroy the Jedi and recover the plans no matter the cost?

Or this movie?

During WWII, American ex-pat Rick Blaine finds himself in possession of stolen letters of transit and no easy way to rid himself of them. When the Nazi occupying force, an underground leader, and Rick’s ex-girlfriend all conspire to recover the letters, who will get the letters and who will end up dead or in a concentration camp?

See? Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy.

Pick a favorite book or movie…any story really, and try it! Let me know how it works for you!

Meaty Middle With a Side of Rocks

I love interacting with other writers on the internet.

One Facebook group I belong to has been particularly helpful. Comprised primarily of mystery authors and members of Pennwriters, I find the insight of my partners-in-crime at How Many Pages Did You Write Today invaluable; particularly when it comes to the nuts and bolts of story structure. When I was slogging through SOVRAN’S PAWN, I posted a whiny complaint about my story and how much I hated this part.

“You must be at the meaty middle,” one author chimed in.

I was indeed. The second act of the three-act structure is often referred to as the meaty middle. The three-act structure is described as “the first act you send your character up the tree, the second act you throw rocks at him to make him climb higher and further out on that precarious limb and the third act is the payoff.”

Sounds easy, right? You try it sometime. It sounds easier than it is.

The rocks you throw at your protagonist need to drive the action forward and force the character into growth and change. All of this has to be done in such a way as to entertain your reader and not come across as contrived. Make your protagonist as miserable as possible. Make your protagonist suffer in such a manner that the climax and resolution are inescapable.

Again, sounds easier than it is.

It wasn’t until mystery author Kaye George reminded me of a little nugget I had forgotten. Your first and third act, you plot from your protagonist’s point of view. The second act, you plot from your antagonist’s point of view, then write it from your protagonist’s point of view.

Sounds complicated? Not really. If you think about it, who is throwing the figurative rocks at your protagonist? The antagonist. Who is calling all the shots, pushing your protagonist towards the inevitable showdown in the climax? Why, the antagonist, of course!

Wait a minute? Acts? I thought you were talking books, not plays! Well, yes. But the story structure does apply to both novels and plays. The first act establishes your character’s sense of normal and ends with the inciting incident that pushes your protagonist up the proverbial tree. The second act exists purely for the torture of the protagonist as he/she tries to decide a course of action. There is a major, mid-point plot reversal. You think things are finally going to work out for your protagonist, but something happens that lands him/her in deeper water than when they started. The rocks you throw continue to get bigger and bigger until your protagonist is clinging to the last bit of hope. Act three begins with the decision. The protagonist chooses and makes a sacrifice of some sort. There is a dark moment when it looks like they’ve chosen wrong. That’s when the author rewards or punishes the character for being so entertaining. In the end of the final act, a new normal is established for your protagonist.

But there is that pesky second act to deal with. The first and third are easy. Set ‘em up and watch ‘em fall. The second act is all that fun stuff in between during which your protagonist deals with the situation, makes sense of it, rails against it and finally snaps and gets proactive, rather than continuing to be reactive.

Fox Mulder, The X-Files

For me, I get so caught up in my protagonist, that I forget my antagonist. It’s a major flaw in my story crafting. After all, what would Sherlock Holmes be without Professor Moriarty? Superman without Lex Luthor? Fox Mulder without the Cigarette Smoking Man?

Yeah, I’m reaching. It’s late and I’m tired. Cut me some slack.

No. That’s the one thing you must never do to your protagonist! Push harder! Your antagonist wouldn’t sit back and let your protagonist call a time out! Pushing at this point makes your protagonist brilliant. He/she has to be. That, in turn will make a story shine.

The next time you sit down to read a book or watch an episode of Doctor Who, try breaking up the story into its basic three-act structure. Where is the inciting incident? Where is the mid-point plot reversal? Where is the decision? The dark moment of doubt? Where is the payoff? Has the second act been plotted from the antagonist’s point of view?

Tell me, what have you discovered?