Posted in books, characters, creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Story Structure: Crafting the High Moment and Using Conflict

A strong high moment and relevant conflict are important components of effective scene crafting.

Crafting the High Moment

Scenes within a story should mimic the overall story structure, meaning it should have a beginning, middle, climax/high moment, and an ending.

The high moment of a scene uses elevated emotion, action, or revelation to impact the character(s) in some way. This does not have to be a major event or action scene, but it should be noticeable to the reader and stand out in some way.

The high moment typically comes at or near the end of the scene, with the previous parts of the scene building or leading up to the high moment. It should be something that produces a reaction in the character(s) involved in the scene. The more important the scene is, the more important the reaction should be. Reactions might include, fear or happiness, making a decision or increasing uncertainty, hiding or running, pulling away or moving forward, etc.

The high moment reveals the purpose of the scene. The character should learn something, either about his or her self or the other characters, which then affects their perceptions or choices. It should also lead the reader into the next scene by setting up the next step the character(s) will take after the revelation in the current scene.

Emphasizing Conflict

Every scene needs some form of conflict: internal, external, or both.

The conflict in a scene needs to have meaning, not be pointless arguing or endless internal lamenting. Have a clear reason for the conflict and consider how it will eventually be resolved, even if the resolution won’t take place until later in the story. Focus the conflict no the purpose of the scene to keep it from meandering.

Conflict, in general, should get progressively worse throughout the story. This increases the stakes for the character(s). Keep this in mind while planning individual scenes and make sure there is an overall progression throughout the story. When considering the main conflict, break it down into smaller pieces or steps and plan its progression with particular scenes.

It’s also important to vary the type of conflict in subsequent scenes. Too many action scenes or scenes with external conflict in a row can be exhausting for the reader and not provide enough time to take in information or impacts of the action. Internal conflict slows down the action and gives the reader a chance to process the conflict and information along with the reader. Scenes with mostly internal conflict won’t be as explosive, but should increase the overall tension.

Posted in books, creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Story Structure: Scene Position, Purpose, and POV

Where a scene is located in the story structure, what role it plays, and whos tells that section of the story are important elements in deciding how to craft a particular scene.

Positioning

Opening scenes should introduce characters, set up the story premise, and give hints at backstory. Don’t go overboard on any of these elements. Orient the reader, and fill in the details later in order to avoid overwhelming the reader with too much information or names to remember.

Middle scenes should continue to introduce and work through complications, provide twists, and increase the stakes. These scenes contain the bulk of the story. They should build on each other and provide story progression. Scenes that lag or lack clear purpose should be eliminated or revised to prevent the reader getting bored.

Climactic scenes will build to a climax, and are typically toward the last third of the book. They are often shorter and use high levels or emotion and action. Be careful not to string too many climactic scenes together. This can overwhelm the reader. Give the reader a break every so often with scenes more focused on recovery, discovery, or introspection.

The tone, feel, and purpose of a scene should correspond to its place in the story.

Purpose

Every scene must have a purpose. That doesn’t mean that every scene needs action. Purposes might include advancing the plot, revealing something about the character or world, or providing information about the overall plot, highlighting change, etc.

For writers who outline, it is usually easier to make sure each scene will have a purpose before it is written. For pansters, this may be more challenging, because you don’t always know where a scene is going when you start writing it. Pansters need to revise critically to make sure there are not superfluous or meandering scenes.

The purpose should be able to be condensed into a one sentence summary. For example, This scene will show David blowing up and scaring Emily away by proving to her that he can’t control himself. If a scene doesn’t have a purpose, it likely doesn’t need to be there or need to be revised with a stronger focus on accomplishing something relevant to the story.

Point of View

It is important that a scene be told from the most impactful point of view.

This is usually the character who is most impacted by the events of the scene. If you find that emotion isn’t coming through in the scene like you wanted it to, reevaluate whose POV it’s being told from. Think about what the stakes are for each character involved and who has the most to gain or lose by the outcome of the scene.

POV is often tied to the purpose of the scene. Make sure you have a firm purpose and then evaluate who will learn the most, change the most, react more strongly, risk the most, etc.

There are exceptions, of course, often stylistic ones. If the emotional elements are so strong they may impact the reader in a negative way or be overwhelming, writing the scene from a peripheral viewpoint might be a better option. This may be the case with traumatic experiences or a particularly gruesome encounter.

Posted in books

Story Structure: Opening a Story

The opening of a story should catch the reader’s interest right away.

The TOP priority of the opening scene is making the reader want to know what will happen next. Many readers have short attention spans and will only give a book a few pages to grab them. Opening scenes must get the reader invested in the characters and the story very quickly.

Tips for Writing a Great Opening Scene

Start with conflict or tension. It’s important to present some sort of problem early on, even if that problem is simply that the character is unhappy or something is off in their world.

Start with the story, NOT the backstory. Wait to give the reader the character’s full story. Focus on where the character’s life is currently at so the reader can see why or how it needs to change or what is disrupting it.

Introduce the characters in a way that focuses on the individual, not the “type” of character they are. Stay away from stereotypes in general, but especially in the opening scene. This can turn readers off very quickly. Highlight unique traits to pique the reader’s interest.

Be specific but brief in setting the scene and with description. Give the reader a sense of when, where, and how the character exists in his or her world, but don’t overdo it. The reader should usually be more focused on the character than the world. Orient the reader, then save all the other exciting or fascinating aspects of the world for later.

Set the tone of the story through description, action, dialogue, etc. Pay attention to how your describe the world and character. Match the tone to your wording choices and what you choose to focus on. A character who thinks their life is amazing will notice pleasant things in his or her surroundings. An unhappy or frightened character will notice things that feed into the perceptions and emotions that are experiencing.

Make promises to the reader that you WILL keep by the end: finding love, solving a mystery, learning something, etc. Even if you are a pantser and don’t know exactly how the story will end when you begin writing, you should have a general idea. the opening should mirror the ending, in most cases, and show how the character changes from their initial state in the opening scene to the final chapter.

Tips to Avoid a Lackluster Opening Scene

Don’t open with heavy description or backstory. Readers will often get bored and lose interest in the character if she or he is not the main focus of the story. Be concise and stay focused on what will engage the reader.

Don’t open in the middle of confusing events. Starting in the middle of action is fine, but it needs to be understandable, unless your goal is to confuse the reader, which I don’t recommend. Be clear about who is involved, when and where it is taking place, and what the main conflict is.

Don’t open with too many characters. Generally, it’s best to stick to three or fewer characters in an opening scene. It’s overwhelming for readers to meet so many characters at once and try to determine their important, how they fit into the story, and whether they are good or bad (to put it very simply).

Don’t open with a dream or flashback. Some writers do manage to do this effectively, but most don’t. There’s always a risk of upsetting the reader, even if it is done well. If you feel that you absolutely must start with a dream or flashback, make it crystal clear that is what the reader is experiencing so they are confused and don’t feel like to when you make the switch.

Don’t open with a cliché. This is basically anything that will make a reader roll their eyes or think, Oh, it’s that kind of story. The girl standing in front of a mirror describing herself to the reader is a personal pet peeve of mine. I will put a book down for that reason alone.

Don’t open with flowery language. Get to the point of the scene without a meandering trip through the garden. Readers get bored quickly.

Don’t open with “telling.” Show the reader what they need to know using dialogue, action, internal thought, or interactions. Heavy exposition makes a scene drag and long internal soliloquies are exhausting. Think of it as a movie scene. If nothing is happening that the reader can “see,” go back through this checklist and start cutting.

Don’t open with a stolen prologue to fix a boring beginning. Pasting a later scene onto the beginning of a story to make it more interesting is lazy. If your opening scene isn’t interesting enough to stand on it’s own, it needs reworked. Rethink the structure and point of the opening. It should introduce the main character, their current situation, their problem, and a hint at what’s to come next.

Use your opening scene to hook the reader by presenting an interesting character, a problem the reader wants to see solved, and a world that ties the two together.

Posted in books, creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Story Structure: Chronological and Non-chronological

How you tell a story in time can make a big difference in its effectiveness. Chronological timelines are the the most common, but non-chronological structures can also work very well when done with careful planning and attention to detail.

Chronological Structure

The story is told largely in chronological order, meaning events are told in the order they occur. Brief flashbacks or flashforwards may be included, but they are not the main storytelling device.

This is the most common story structure used and the easiest for readers to understand. It is important to make sure the order of events and passage of time is clear to the reader. You can achieve this by establish the setting/time in the first few chapters to orient the reader, and then staying consistent throughout the book. This is especially important in anything not set in a current time period. If there is a flash forward or backward, give clear indication of the time change, either through exposition or noting the time change.

During editing, check for inconsistencies, such as injuries, broken items, or people coming or leaving and ensure there are proper healing time, things broken stay broken or get fixed, the people involved doesn’t change without being mentioned to the reader, etc. It’s easy to forget little details and have someone using a whole item that was broken in an earlier chapter, or forgetting an injury should hinder movement or ability, or forgetting about a character who existed in the background of a scene.

Non-Chronological Structures

Past prologue: This type of structure details an important event that happened in the past and has effected the current situation. This is commonly used when there is too much backstory detail to work into a present conversation without info dumping. The reader is given all the pertinent information in a past prologue to orient them in the current time when the story begins.

Future prologue: This type of structure details a tension-filled or dramatic future event meant to capture readers’ attention. It is most commonly used to show an unlikely or startling endpoint of a character or story, then reverts back to the present to show what led to the unexpected event. This should not be used simply for shock value to attract a reader’s attention. It should be important and relevant information the reader needs to know when beginning the story.

Alternating timelines: With this structure, past/present or present/future timelines alternate between different characters or the same character in different time periods. This is often used to show a comparison of experiences or times, or to brings two timelines to an eventual intersection.

Circular timelines: In this type of structure, the story ends where it began. It is used to create a sense of departure from and return to the original structure. Characters still undergo transformation and are affected by events.

Flashbacks: A flashback breaks from the current story to tell of an event that happened in the past, as a complete scene. It can be located anywhere in the story. It is used when more details are needed than what can be conveyed through a recap or explanation, or when the reader needs to “experience” the moment to full understand it. Flashbacks should be used minimally to avoid distraction and breaking the story flow.

Parallel timelines: This is used to tell two stories chronologically in different time periods. Both move forward together and inform the other. This is often used to compare two periods of time and how characters experience those time periods. There should be a link between them that sheds light on one or both storylines.

Time jumping: This is when a character moves through time, either forward or backward, or a combination of both. Scenes are connected in some way and inform the other scenes. Outside of an actual time-traveling storyline, this can be used to show changes in a character, situation, place, etc. in different time periods.

Posted in books, characters, creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Story Structure: 3-Act Structure

One of the most commonly taught and used story structures in the 3-Act Structure. In this post I’ll break down each act and what should be in it.

Act 1 – The Beginning

Act one compromises about the first 25% of the story and has three main parts.

  • Introduction: The introduction should establish who the main characters are and what their “normal” life looks like at that point in time.
  • Inciting Incident: The inciting incident presents a situation that will prove to be a catalyst for change and which will set the story in motion. In a romance novel, this is usually the meet-cute.
  • Plot Point 1: This first major plot point will introduce the central conflict and present a call to action for the character. The character(s) then react to the inciting incident and call to action, usually accepting the call and setting themselves on the path of the story and character arcs.

Act 2: The Middle

Act two compromises about the middle 50% of the story and contains the bulk of the plot.

  • Confrontation: During the confrontation, the main character faces the first obstacle to achieving his or her desire or goal. In a romance novel this is often something that will prevent a real relationship or keep the main character’s apart, either physically or emotionally.
  • The midpoint: At the midpoint, the main character faces the central conflict in some way. The realization causes a change in the character. This is often a revelation about the self, information about another character, shocking news, reflection on the main conflict, etc.
  • Rising action: During the rising action, the stakes must rise for the main character, building up to the central conflict he or she must face. This is usually achieved through subplots and new information about the central conflict.
  • The second plot point: This is the highest point of tension. It is a crisis that makes the desired ending seem impossible. This should use high emotion to engage the reader and make them concerned for the character. This MUST be believable enough to make the reader think a happy ending may not be possible. This should be big enough that it can’t be resolved easily.

Act 3: The End

Act three compromises the last 25% of the story and contains the worst moment for the characters as well as the resolution or climax and the final ending.

  • Pre-climax/darkest night: In this blackest moment, the character faces the possibly of not achieving their goal during a final clash with the antagonist and deals with the fallout of the crisis The character may realize a new goal that will help them move past the crisis (often alone).
  • Resolution/Climax: This is the final moments of the main conflict where it is resolved by providing an answer to the main problem/conflict. This is normally a single scene, but may extend to several scenes if the resolution/climax is complicated or involves interactions with multiple characters.The main conflict’s resolution MUST be believable and not a simple misunderstanding. The solution should be real and still have an element of risk. The benefits of taking the risk should outweigh staying safe.
  • Denouement:This final ending fulfills all promises to the reader. Make sure to tie up loose ends, answer questions, underscore the theme, in order to leave the reader satisfied.

There is, of course, room to make changes or try new tactics within a 3-Act story structure, but it is still important to make sure you hit all the main elements in some fashion.

Posted in books, characters, creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Story Structure: Overview

This series will talk about how to structure a story that keeps the reader’s attention and tells a story in the best possible way.

The Basics of Story Structure

Exposition/Introduction

This is where you will introduce the characters, establish the setting, and present the primary conflict. All of this generally happens in the first few chapters or the first act. The goal is to orient the reader in the characters’ lives before you begin adding any major conflicts.

This helps the reader connect with the characters so they will be invested in the outcome of their story. If a reader can’t connect with the main character(s), there’s a good chance they will stop reading. The setting should also be relevant and interesting, so they character appears to be existing in a real world (whether realistic or fantastical).

It’s also important to give readers a good idea of what the main problem is that the characters(s) is dealing with so they know what type of story they are reading and what the character(s) must overcome. This sets up the reader’s expectations for the rest of the story.

Rising Action

This section is where you should introduce the primary conflict and set the main storyline in motion. This should follow with the expectations you set up for the reader during the introduction. Succeeding events become more complicated as the story proceeds, creating stumbling blocks, tension, interest, and excitement.

Rising action isn’t a straight line, however, so problems and complications should be interspersed with moments of calm, reflection, or positive movement. The action will continue to rise overall, but with dips along the way. This gives the reader a break and allows time for reflection and thought.

Climax

This is the major turning point of the story. All the problems and complications established during the rising action will come to a head. There is high tension and conflict, and stakes are at their highest. The risk that things might not turn out should feel real to the reader, even if they know deep down that everything will turn out the way they are hoping.

This is often a moment of crisis that leaves the reader wondering what will happen next. If you are writing a romance, the reader expects there will be a happily ever after ending. You likely won’t get the reader to really think a happy ending is out of the question, but the goal is to make them doubt the how of how that happy ending will be reached. This heightens a reader’s investment in the outcome and deepens the connection with the characters.

Falling Action

After the climax, the story begins to calm down and starts working toward a satisfying ending. Characters decide what action to take to resolve conflict. These decisions and actions should be realistic and somewhat surprising. Easy and predictable resolutions tend to fall flat and disappoint readers. Make sure all the loose ends are tied up, explanations are revealed, and the reader learns more about how the conflict is resolved.

Resolution

At this point, the main conflict is resolved and the book ends. The story, however, should have the illusion of continuing on beyond the page. This is true even if the book is a standalone and will not have a continuation. Give the reader a chance to imagine how the characters’ lives play out. This adds to the satisfying quality of the ending.

Posted in books, creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Going beyond familiar story structures

Most of us are familiar with the 3-act structure, the hero’s journey, and the classic structure. They work well for many stories, but occasionally another structure is better suited.

When choosing the structure of your story, don’t immediately go to the ones you’re familiar with

Classic: Consists of 4 main sections.

1) Begin with conflict, or throw the character into a bad situation as soon as possible. This might include a life or death situation, the protagonist meeting two love interests back to back, discovering dangerous secret powers, etc.

2) Nearly all actions or choices make matters worse. Don’t give your character a break through this section. Pile on complications and conflict.

3) The hopeless, dark moment. Convince the reader the story might not end well with deep, emotional conflict that doesn’t have an easy solution.

4) Let the hero succeed. Once you’ve put your character through the ringer, give him the spark of inspiration or light at the end of the tunnel that leads them toward a satisfying ending.

In Media Res: Start in the middle of something.

It doesn’t have to be a gun fight, but it does have to have conflict and grab the reader’s attention. The HOOK is extremely important in this structure. It then follows a pattern of rising action, explanation/backstory, climax, falling action, and resolution.

The Hero’s Journey: Begins with a call to adventure/action.

The MC then meets a threshold where their transformation begins. The MC then faces challenges and tribulations, meeting a mentor and one or more helpers along the way. The MC then faces an abyss/dark moment that symbolizes death and rebirth. They should have some kind of revelation at this point that spurs real transformation and leads to atonement. The character then returns to regular life.

Seven-Point: The seven-point structure is similar to the 3-Act structure

It has added structural elements the writers is expected to follow more closely. It consists of: The hook, plot turn 1 (and introduction of conflict), pinch point 1 (apply pressure to protagonist via antagonist usually), midpoint (MC responds to conflict with action), pinch point 2 (more pressure that makes achieving the goal less likely or harder), plot turn 2 (story turns toward resolution), and the resolution (the climax).

Snowflake: Start with one central idea and add to it.

Once you have your central idea, keep adding more ideas until you have a full plot arc. This structure is based on expansion of a central theme or idea. It starts very generally and becomes more specific as the details are developed. This can be very structured (start with one sentence, expand to a paragraph, summarize each character, etc.) or be approached more fluidly.

Three-Act: Based on Greek storytelling/theater.

Specific plot elements happen in each act. Act 1: Introduce characters and setting, present the inciting incident. Act 2: Introduce a problem that grows more complex as the story progresses. Act 3: Raise the stakes, characters face challenges and growth, protagonist finds a solution.

Disturbance/Doorway: Something disturbs the character’s regular life early in the story.

Doorway 1 pushes the MC further into the story. There is no turning back once it happens. Doorway 2 brings the MC to the final battle. Again, there it no return, and it often leads to disaster before a resolution is reached.

Five Milestones: Focuses on five main plot points and leaves the detail to be more flexible.

1) The setup introduces characters and the world.

2) The inciting incident introduces the main plot concept.

3) The 1st Slap sets the stakes and introduces the larger plot. The conflict is usually external at this point.

4) The 2nd Slap makes everything worse by adding more layers of conflict and barrier to the MC reaching their goal.

5) The climax should be tied to the inciting incident and wrap up the plot arc in an exciting and memorable way. It should then naturally flow into a resolution.

Narrative: Focuses mainly on story and plot.

It is less restrictive on when and where story/plot elements occur. It also uses the Fitchean Curve of crises driving the rising action to the climax, then falling action leading to the resolution. Exposition is limited and the story focuses more on the action and crises.

For some film examples of unorthodox story structures, check out this list!

Posted in creative writing, reading, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Foreshadowing vs. Foretelling

Foreshadowing is a great way to create anticipation in the reader, but it can easily be confused for foretelling.

ball-625908_1280

Foretelling is to predict or tell the future before it occurs (a prophecy), while foreshadowing is to presage or suggest something in advance. It’s a subtle difference, but it makes a big difference in a story.

Foretelling is direct and explicitly tells the reader what will occur. While this is more common in young children’s literature, it’s usually not the best choice for other fiction forms. Foretelling takes the discovery away from the reader. It doesn’t make them work to understand the hint and can spoil the mystery or anticipation.

Foreshadowing involves the reader more full yin the story by asking them to put in the effort to not only pick up on the hints given, but remember them and fit them into the rest of the information and events. Readers feel more invested in the story when they feel like they are participating in it.

What do these two look like in fiction? Here are a few examples:

detective-152085_1280Foretelling: Had I known the darkness forming in my mind weren’t my own thoughts, I would have attempted to defend myself.

Foreshadowing: These thoughts feel so foreign, but I can’t deny they’re in my mind, constantly nudging and pushing me to see Alex’s words and actions more clearly.

In the first example, the reader is told the dark thoughts come from an external source and the character has lost control of their own mind. This asks the reader to do no work and requires them to simply wait for the character to realize the manipulation or see how it all shakes out. Reader investment and participation is very low.

In the second example, there is a hint that the dark thoughts aren’t usual for the character, but is contrasted by the hint that the change might be needed…if Alex’s words and actions truly are harmful. This creates anticipation because the reader doesn’t know for sure whether the character is being manipulated or is starting to see things more clearly. This creates a sense of wariness and anticipation to figure out the truth. Readers will pay more attention to find more clues and figure out the mystery. Reader engagement and investment is high.

reading-3606441_1280

Posted in books, creative writing, reading, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Using non-chronological story structure elements effectively

Focused on story structure, I was recently discussing tactics other than the usual chronological structure with some other writers. It was an interesting discussion of not only how to use these, but some general thoughts on these devices.

desk-2906792

Past prologue:

This is a device detailing an important event that happened in the past and has effected the current situation.

This is one of the most common non-chronological devices used in fiction, and the first one that comes to mind for me is the first chapter of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” It’s not listed as a prologue, but it happens ten years prior to the next chapter, so it’s really a prologue.

This gives the reader enough information about the situation to get them interested, but it doesn’t infodump everything the reader needs to know to dive into chapter two. It only gives enough background to let the reader know something strange and interesting, and quite dangerous, is about to happen.

Past prologues can be overused and can end up being very tell-y and not show-y enough. Use them with caution and with purpose!

Future prologue:

This device details a tension-filled or dramatic future event meant to capture readers’ attention.

One of the writers in the discussion mentioned that she doesn’t like future prologues because she finds them very jarring as a reader. She felt a prologue should naturally be something that happens before the main story. Another writer mentioned these have been very popular lately and are beginning to feel overused and a bit annoying.

Laini Taylor’s “Strange the Dreamer” was mentioned as a good example of a future prologue because it reads, at first, as if it’s a past prologue. As the reader continues on, they realize that isn’t the case and this realization causes more worry and tension for the reader.

Alternating timelines:

When using this device, past/present or present/future timelines alternate between different characters or the same character in different time periods.

“As Long As Love Lasts” by Jea Hawkins was mentioned as a good example of alternating timelines. The story shows a relationship on the edge of collapse then alternates to the story of an aunt and how a relationship ended for her. The house connects the two storylines, and the aunt’s story helps to inform the reader about the couple’s failing marriage.

Flashbacks:

Flashbacks break from the current story to tell of an event that happened in the past as a complete scene.

Slaughter’s “The Good Daughter” was mentioned as a good example of flashbacks. The timeline flashes back to an event from the two sisters’ childhoods, then later flashes back to the same scene and telling it from the other sister’s perspective. This allowed for more detail and seeing the event from multiple perspectives.

Parallel timelines:

This type of timeline device tells two stories chronologically in different time periods. Both move forward together and inform the other.

I recently read Amy Harmon’s “What the Wind Knows” and loved how she handled the timeline changes. It wasn’t a traditional parallel timeline, but at the same time it was. Without giving away too much, I really enjoyed how multiple timelines were in play simultaneously and they all came together at the end really beautifully without any confusion or lingering questions.

Time jumping:

This is when a character moves through different time periods. Scenes are connected in some way and inform the other scenes.

“The Kept Woman” by Karin Slaughter was mentioned as a good example of a time-jumping story line. The first half of the book investigates a crime, and just when the reader thinks they’re beginning to put all the pieces together, the timeline jumps to before the crime and progresses forward through the events from a different perspective.