December 29, 2014

The Character Growth Arc in 6 Steps

At a recent seminar I attended, bestselling author Michael A. Stackpole discussed the six steps to a character's growth arc.  If you include these six steps in your story, your character's growth arc will seem logical, believable, and complete. I found this to be a very useful approach, and wanted to share.

The five steps are:
  • Show the problem.  At this point, the character isn't aware of the problem he needs to fix, but the reader is now aware of it.

  • Show the character learning that he has a problem. The character isn't necessarily ready to fix the problem yet, but he knows, and the reader knows, that he has one.

  • Show the character finding a reason to change things.  At this point, he knows that he has to solve this problem to improve himself, his life, etc.  He hasn't taken action yet, but he now realizes he needs to.

  • Show one or more scenes of the character developing the resources to solve the problem.  Maybe he's gathering information on a target, or selling things he owns to raise money, etc.  He is gathering the tools, information, and resources he'll need to meet the problem head-on.

  • Show one or more scenes of the character trying to solve the problem, using the resources gathered earlier.  If there are multiple scenes, some may succeed (or partially succeed), and some will fail.

  • Show the character solving the problem, and in essence saying to himself "I see why I had this problem before, but now I know how to solve it.  I won't let that happen again."
These six steps can be adapted to other elements of a story arc or plot.  For example, if the story is a hunt to destroy a dangerous monster, the steps would change to:

  • Show us the monster. Give us an idea that it's pretty dangerous.

  • Show the characters encountering the monster, but not taking action against it.  Perhaps they see it terrorizing a small animal and are afraid to intervene.

  • Show the characters having a reason to stop the monster.  Perhaps it's coming after them, licking its chops and salivating.

  • Show the characters gathering weapons, making plans to ensnare the monster, or researching ways they might be able to kill it.

  • Show one or more scenes of the characters battling the monster, mostly failing to kill it.  In some cases, perhaps the monster actually eats some of the characters.

  • Show the characters defeating the monster, and reflecting on how they managed to do it, and the cost (e.g., the lives of their friends).
I realize that this is probably starting to sound a little formulaic. We all know that formulaic stories can be really terrible, and I'm in no way suggesting that you should follow these steps like some kind of literary robot.  You might decide that for your story, it would work best to combine the second and third steps.  Or maybe your story requires that you cycle through the fourth and fifth steps several times.  You're the author, and you need to do what works best for the story you're trying to tell.  But if you're not including all these steps, it's worth at least asking yourself honestly, "Do I have a good reason to skip this step, and does the story work fine without it?"

December 22, 2014

Creating Conflict in a Story

Although I've written four novels and countless short stories now, I still have trouble with conflict in my stories.  Sometimes, the struggle is to find the conflict in the story.  Others, it's to make that conflict believable enough to propel the story, or big enough to challenge the character.  Conflict is a key element in any story.  Getting it wrong imperils the story.  Getting it right makes the story.  How do you do get it right?  Here are some of the things I've learned.

Conflict doesn't have to be an epic battle between two people.  It can be one character trying desperately to hold on to a secret while another whittles away at them, trying to learn that secret.

Conflict can be internal or external, or both.  Internal conflict happens when a character has to grapple with a mental or emotional issue that is affecting their ability to function in a situation.  The conflict happens within the character.  External conflict happens outside the character, such as having to win a cake baking contest or rescuing a dog from an abusive home.  Internal and external conflict can be combined in a story.  A character struggling with a fear of heights finds that he must cross a wire suspended between two buildings in order to save the life of a loved one.  This character is facing the internal conflict of the fear of heights, while also struggling to safely cross a wire between two buildings (not easy to do).

Conflict should always be meaningful.  It isn't enough just to have your character battling someone or something throughout the book.  That conflict has to be meaningful in the context of the story.  Does the struggle give the character a resource needed later?  Does it highlight a weakness that will prove fatal later on?  Does it move the story arc forward, advancing the plot? If not, consider eliminating or revising it so that it does accomplish one or more of these things.

Conflict drives everything in your book, and should start early on in the story.  It happens whenever two characters (or a character and some force) are in opposition.  It should build over the course of the story, starting small and ramping up as the story goes along.  The two most important parts of the conflict can be summed up in two questions:
  • What are the stakes here?
  • Why should the reader care?
One of the functions of conflict is to show us a character's true nature.  She may seem meek and mild, but when her children are threatened, she becomes a ruthless predator.  The conflict draws out her inner nature.

In a conflict, it's fine for your characters to make bad choices because of elements of their personality, because of bad experiences they've had in the past, or simply a lack of knowledge or skill.  These choices will help make the character come alive for the reader, increasing the drama and tension in the story.  In general, though, you shouldn't show characters making bad decisions or big mistakes in areas where they would be expected to have expertise.  For instance, a firearms expert isn't likely to have trouble loading a clip of ammunition into a gun, even in a tense situation.  A schoolteacher who has only shot a gun once, however, might find reloading the gun to be difficult at first.

Ultimately, conflict is about characters taking the minimum amount of action necessary to solve a problem that stands between them and something they want.  How much effort they'll make and how much risk they will endure is directly proportional to how badly they want that "something".
When it comes to conflict, realize that characters will act logically and realistically.  If there's an obvious, easy solution to their problem, they'll try it.  If it fails, they'll look for the next-easiest solution and try that.  Just like anyone else, characters will do the things that makes sense for them, given their skills, experience, mental makeup, situation, etc.

To inject conflict into a situation, first ask "What does the character want in this scene?" Then, repeatedly ask the questions "What's the worst thing that could happen to prevent the character from getting what they want?" and "How might that believably happen in this situation?"  Eventually, you should find a believable obstacle that gets in the character's way and challenges that character sufficiently.

How do you build and inject conflict into your stories?  Please share in the comments.

December 20, 2014

Review: Mariner Software - Contour for Windows 1.3

Mariner Software produces a number of products for Macintosh and Windows users.  Contour is their Script Development or Story Development tool.  It's based on the Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler work around mythic story structure.

Story Structure in Contour

If you're not familiar with that structure, there are many good references (including Contour itself).  The gist of it is that a character goes through four stages.  We see them in their "ordinary" life at the start of the first act.  This act ends with them thrust into a new world (metaphorically or physically) and faced with a dilemma.  They become a metaphorical "orphan" at this point, unable to return to life before the dilemma.  In the second act, the character begins as a "wanderer" and tries to find ways to overcome the problem they face.  This usually goes badly and backs the character into a hypothetical corner.  The character then goes on the offensive and becomes the "warrior" archetype.  The story ends with the character becoming a metaphorical "martyr" (which can mean laying down their life or surrendering to a new way of thinking).

What is Contour?

Contour, at its heart, is a tool for walking the writer through the Campbell/Vogler story structure.  It includes a number of examples of well known movies, with Contour's prompts filled in for them.  Examples built into the software include American Beauty, Kung Fu Panda, Silence of the Lambs, Star Wars, The Incredibles, The Sixth Sense, Up, and Wall-E.  For the screenshots in this review, I'm using the Star Wars example.

How Do You Use Contour?

Contour begins by challenging you to answer the "big questions" for your story:

  • Who is the main character?
  • What is the main character trying to accomplish?
  • Who is trying to stop the main character?
  • What happens if the main character fails?
(Note: For the screenshots in this article, clicking or tapping on them will provide the full-sized image which will contain a lot more detail than I can show you in these thumbnail images.)

Contour then proceeds with getting high-level answers to the archetype questions:
  • How is the main character an orphan in Act I?
  • How is the main character a wanderer in Act II?
  • How is the main character a warrior in Act II?
  • How is the main character a martyr in Act III?

You're then challenged with coming up with a "Formula" statement for your story.  This is described in the product as:
“When a TYPE OF PERSON has/does/wants/gets A, he gets/does/tries/learns B, only to discover that C now happens; and he must respond by doing D."

Each of these letters should refer to the four archetypes.  For example, for Star Wars, the "Formula" statement Contour provides is:
When an orphaned farm boy discovers a message from a captured princess and the boy's family is killed by an evil Empire, he joins forces with a pair of droids, an old mystic, and a mercenary to deliver the plans contained in the message to the leaders of the rebel movement, on the way getting captured by a giant space station called the Death Star, only to discover that the Princess is also there and is slated for execution, so he must now mount a rescue of the Princess and fight his way out of the Death Star, and ultimately take part in a suicide mission against the space station that will rely on a miracle shot to save the life of the Princess and keep the Rebellion alive.
You're then walked through the development of plot points and a central question for each Act in the story.  Contour provides help for each plot point along the way, explaining what kinds of landmarks should happen, the kinds of things the characters are doing, etc.  

If, at any point in the story development process, you're not sure what they mean in prompts and help text, you can switch over to one of the examples provided from popular movies and see how the professionals filled in that section.

When you're finished, Contour will print out a file containing a Beat Sheet or Structure Report that provides the acts and plot points in the story.  You can take this and use your favorite word processor or script-writing software to actually write your story or script.  You cannot write the story inside Contour, only develop its structure.

The file format used here is "Quick Report Format" or "QRF".  I'm not familiar with it, but it seems to resemble a PDF format.  Although there's no option for exporting the reports into other formats, you can print them.  If you set your default printer to the "XPS Document Printer" you'll be able to store this virtual printout in a form you can read without the Contour software.

System Requirements

Contour for Windows requires 128MB or more of RAM, 100MB or more of free hard disk space, and Windows XP or later.  It's available as a digital download, so an optical drive isn't necessary depending on how you purchase it.  In other words, this ought to work on pretty much anything but a low-power, low-screen-resolution netbook PC.  I bought my copy through as a digital download, which cost approximately $38.   (Mac and iOS versions are also available.)

Conclusion and Comparisons to Other Writing Software

If you're the sort of writer who eschews any mention of formula or structure, you'll probably hate Contour.  Its job is to walk you through the classic three-act structure and it clearly uses the word "Formula" at one step in the process.  As for me, I'm still enough of a novice writer that I find it helpful to have a tested, trusted structure to use a baseline.  I'm willing to veer off that if I think it will improve the story, but simply having that structure to fall back on is helpful.  If your situation is similar, you'll appreciate Contour.

Contour differs from Ingermanson's Snowflake Pro software in that Snowflake is designed to get you to begin with a simple view of your story, then gradually flesh that out into a full-blown plot.  Snowflake doesn't impose a particular story structure on you, doesn't suggest any plot points or scenes you might need, or adhere to any particular story structure or formula.  If you're a writer who hates any mention of formula, Snowflake might be a better choice for you.

Contour also differs from Dramatica, another writing tool. Dramatica is similar to Contour in that it contains a certain level of pre-defined story structure in it.  As you work through Dramatica, the software has you fleshing out character, plot, relationships, themes, etc.  Like Snowflake Pro, Dramatica kind of leaves you to figure out the structure of your story, though it does provide some advice.  Dramatic differs from the other products here in that it may take you many hours to go through all the questions and decisions it presents.  Contour, in contrast, assumes a certain structure and teases information out of you to fit your story into that structure.  I would imagine that, on average, you'd get through the Contour process more quickly.  You might or might not get a better story (or more ideas) through Dramatica.  (Dramatica is also 2-3x the price, though you can sometimes pick it up cheaper on auction sites.)

Schafer's Power Structure software is something of a cross between all of these.  Like Snowflake Pro, it's designed to help you get from a basic idea to a more well-fleshed-out story.  Then, like Contour and Dramatica, you can develop plot points and scenes.  Power Structure also provides an Index Card view, a "Gestalt" view of the story, and even includes a full-screen word processor to write in.  Unlike Contour, Power Structure supports a number of different story structure models, including the Campbell and Vogler model, Novel format, 2 and 5-act Stage Plays, Screenplays, and TV script structures. It's a pretty detailed and advanced story structure tool.  Contour is a bit less complex.

Until I've got more writing experience, I expect that I'll be using a combination of these packages and some old-fashioned brainstorming.  I can imagine using Snowflake Pro to take the rough story idea and flesh it out into something more.  Then perhaps using Dramatica to layer on more complexity and make the story more complete.  Then PowerStructure and Contour to really get detailed on the plot.  

If there are specific questions you'd like to see answered about Contour that aren't covered here, please post a comment and I'll see what I can do.


December 15, 2014

Creating a Fictional Monster

When I was very young, I often stayed up late on Saturday nights to watch monster movies.  I loved most of them.  Anything with Vincent Price, Lon Chaney, or Bela Lugosi was likely to draw me in.  I watched Dr. Frankenstein tinker with corpses until his monster came to life.  I saw the Mummy rise from its tomb and see revenge on those who had disturbed his rest.  Lugosi's Dracula was superb.  These were movies that relied more on good writing and acting than special effects.  I have always marveled at writers who can bring a monster to live in their work.  It's not easy to create a monster that arouses fear without crossing over the line into cliché or comedy.

How do you do that?  The key is to thoroughly get to know your monster by asking questions like these:
  • What does the monster look like?  Is it covered in scales, fur, or skin?  What color are its eyes?  Does it have fangs?
  • How does it smell?
  • What does it sound like when it moves?  When it sees its prey?  When it's been injured?
  • Does it have extraordinary or occult powers? 
  • Does it operate alone or in a pack?
  • Will the monster display any type of emotion? 
  • Is it capable of reason or complex thought?
  • Will it attack large groups of people, or does it prefer to pick off loners?
  • How far will it go to get what it wants?  Will it risk its own life?
  • How much physical strength does it have?
  • What are its strengths?
  • What are its weaknesses?  Is there some common substance that is poison to the monster?
  • What does it feed on?  How does it behave when it's well-fed versus starving?
  • Can it fly, swim, jump, or climb?  What limits, if any, are placed on these activities (and why)?
  • How fast does it move?
  • Are there things it is afraid of, like sunlight, rain, fire, or religious symbols?
  • How large (or small) is the monster?  What advantages does its size give it over its victims?  What disadvantages arise from the monster's size?
  • What would the monster do if injured?  Would it intensify its attacks?  Would it go away to lick it wounds and come back when it's stronger?  Would it change its tactics?
  • Can the monster command or enlist other beings (e.g., spiders) to do its bidding?  How does it do so, and what limits are there on the ability (e.g., it's limited to the number of spiders nearby)?
  • If you're using a classical monster type, such as a vampire, werewolf, or mummy, have you researched that monster type thoroughly?  You may find that going back to the earliest references of the monster in fiction that its characteristics are more (or perhaps less) scary than in more modern incarnations.
  • How was the monster created?
  • Can the monster reproduce?  If so, how is this done?  Does reproduction require some special resource (e.g., in the case of the gremlins in the movie of the same name, water was needed).
  • Does the monster have the ability to change shape?  What shapes can (and can't) it assume?  What is the cost on the creature (if any) of changing its shape?  Before it assumes a given shape, does it have to do something special (e.g., see the thing it wants to change into, or touch it, or even eat it)?
  • Is the monster's health or ability affected by environmental characteristics?  For example, does it get stronger under a full moon, or can it harness lightning to heal itself or attack its prey?
  • If you're using a classic (and thus somewhat cliched) monster type, how will your characters vanquish it?  Can you make this happen in a new and unexpected way (e.g., take out a vampire with a sun lamp instead of actual sunlight)?
  • If this monster began as a human (e.g., a vampire or werewolf), is there something the characters can do to return it to human form?  Is this something the monster itself desires, or is actively trying to pursue?
  • Does the monster feel any remorse for what it's doing?
  • Is the monster protecting something?  If so, what?
  • Are the monster's tactics predictable (e.g., it relies on its superior numbers to overwhelm an enemy like a swarm of insects, and it's not very smart)?  Can it improvise or change things up?  When would it do that?
  • How intelligent is the monster?  Is it fairly mindless, like a zombie?  Is it about as smart as an ape?  Is it human-level smart?  Is it smarter than we are?
  • Can it use tools or set traps?  How does it do this, and what kinds of traps does it use?
  • How long would it normally live?  How old is it now?
  • What happens when it dies?  Does it simply fall over dead?  Does it burn away into a pile of ash?  Does it explode and cover everyone nearby in its infected slime?
  • Can it reincarnate after it's dead (e.g., if you pull the stake out of a vampire's heart, can it regenerate)?
  • Can it repair or heal itself in an unusual way, such as fashioning replacement body parts out of nearby materials, or absorbing the DNA and tissues of living creatures to replace or enhance parts of itself?
  • How does the monster kill its prey?  Does it slaughter them instantly and feed on the remains?  Does it immobilize them and torture them for a while?  Does it swallow them alive and digest them slowly?
  • Will characters be able to tell when the monster is nearby (e.g., they hear a certain sound or smell something specific)? 
  • What's the monster's motivation?  Is it collecting the souls of the living for its evil master?  Is it simply hungry and stalking the characters for food?  Did the characters threaten its young, or disturb its hibernation?  What circumstances would cause the monster to stop stalking the characters on its own?  (For instance, if they'd just stop eating the mushrooms it feeds its young, it would leave them alone.)
When you know the monster well enough, you'll know how to make its appearances especially frightening, and ensure that it inspires terror in both the reader and the characters.  You'll also be able to construct believable situations in which the characters encounter the monster and confront it (successfully, or not).

Some other things to think about when writing a monster story:
  • Injecting a monster into a normal, everyday situation can be very frightening.  A monster that's attracted to cell phones when they ring will probably scare people more than one that's attracted to first-born daughters. As they read your story, and perhaps for a while afterward, that everyday thing will frighten them just a little.
  • The monster's victims shouldn't be just cardboard figures it destroys.  Develop the characters a bit and give the reader a chance to feel something for them before the monster gets them.  Their deaths will have a bigger impact.
  • Monsters that exploit childhood fears in some way, like being separated from loved ones, being afraid of the dark, etc., can effectively frighten adults, too.
  • Cemeteries, boarded-up buildings, and places like this have become somewhat cliched places to find monsters.  Consider how you can avoid the cliché by having your monster appear somewhere unusual (like the locker room at a health club) and by turning the cliché on its head (such as having the characters go through a spooky old house and come out of it without seeing anything scary).
  • The monster should have a good reason for doing what it does.  "It's a monster" isn't a good reason.  "Its young hatch inside trees, and the humans are cutting down its forest" is a much better one.
  • Where can you inject humor into the story, as a way for readers to catch their breath?  Maybe the monster collects a trinket from each victim and wears it.
  • A good model for plotting the horror story is:  Problem = Solution + Bigger Problem.  In other words, each time the characters get away from the monster or have a victory, they learn there is a bigger problem awaiting them.  In other words, you continually raise the stakes.
A typical monster story structure will look something like this (adjust as needed for your story):
  • The reader gets a glimpse of the monster.  The characters may not be aware of the monster just yet, but the reader sees it lurking in the shadows, licking its lips, preparing to strike.
  • The character gets a look at the monster.  This may be a literal look, as in the character seeing the monster coming after her.  It might also be an indirect look, such as the mangled body of one of the monster's victims.
  • The character realizes the monster must be stopped.  Perhaps the character is trapped in a building with the monster, or the monster is threatening her way of life, or it's killed someone she loves.  At this point, the character sees no other alternative than to defeat the monster.
  • The character gathers information about the monster, and possible weapons to stop it.  If the character actually encounters the monster at this point, she won't defeat it, but she may learn something interesting about it.  ("Hey, it ran off when the sun came up…")
  • After some number of unsuccessful attempts to defeat the monster, the character realizes what she needs to do, and how to defeat the monster.  She makes a final attempt that succeeds.
  • The character, having defeated the monster, reflects on what's happened and what she's learned.  She may or may not make some kind of statement about how she can be sure that monster never comes back.
I hope you found this post of value.  If so, please leave a comment or share the link with others.

December 11, 2014

Heinlein's Rules of Writing

Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein is known for many great books.  Another thing he's known for is his "Rules of Writing" that appeared in an obscure book on writing.  Those rules, paraphrased and modified with an update by the great Harlan Ellison are:

  1. You must write.
  2. Finish what you start.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
    (Harlan's corollary: IF you agree with the changes.)
  4. You must put your story on the market.
  5. You must keep it on the market until it has sold.
  6. Repeat the above.
I became acquainted with the rules through a video done by Dean Wesley Smith, another successful science fiction author.  Since then, I've heard a number of other authors recommend the rules as well.

Heinlein and others like Smith claim that if you follow those rules, getting back on the wagon if you fall off, you'll eventually have success.

December 9, 2014

Ingermanson Communications Snowflake Pro Software v1.1.1

As a reward for completing National Novel Writing Month 2014 successfully, I purchased one of the many novel-writing and fiction-writing software packages that had been on my radar.  Ingermanson Communications' Snowflake Pro is one of those.  If you're thinking about purchasing it, too, it is my hope that this post will help you make the call one way or the other.

Randy Ingermanson is the creator of the "Snowflake Method" for writing a novel.  We talked about that the other day.  In a nutshell, you start by defining your novel in a single sentence.  Then you expand that to a paragraph, and finally to a page.  From there, you flesh out your characters and begin brainstorming the scenes you'll need to tell your story.  At that point, you should be ready to write.

Snowflake Pro guides you through Ingermanson's method from start to finish.  It doesn't force a particular structure or story design on you, but tries to help you flesh out the story using whatever structure works for that story.  You won't write your novel in Snowflake Pro.  It's not a word processor.  Ingermanson describes it as a "design tool" which is an apt description.  It helps you design the story, but the structure and writing are all up to you.

Getting the Software

You can buy Snowflake Pro directly from the developer's web site.  List price for the software is $100, but if you have purchased the Randy Ingermanson's Writing Fiction for Dummies book from Amazon or another retailer, you can get 50% off (making the software $50).  Compared to some of the other writing tools on the Internet, that's cheaper than some and more expensive than others.

Once you purchase the software, you'll download it from the author's web site.  Versions are available for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux.  This post will focus on the Windows version, which is what I use.  You'll install the software on your computer, launch it, and start using it.

Welcome to Snowflake Pro

The software begins at a Welcome screen.  This screen explains the Snowflake Method and what it meant by that.  The image on the right hand side is controlled by the slider underneath it, and shows an image as simple as a triangle or as complex as the snowflake image shown in the screenshot:

Snowflake Pro Welcome Screen

When you're ready to begin, you click the Start tab near the upper-left corner of the window.

Here, you'll provide information about your novel - its title, subtitle, category, expected word count, and target reader.  

Help Options

If you need help with these things, clicking the "Play Lecture Audio" button will play a recording of Ingermanson himself telling you what belongs in the various fields.  This audio is available for each step in the process.  You can also click the "View Lecture Notes" if you prefer to read rather than listen.  The Lecture Notes are a written version of the audio in most cases.

You can also view the Help Notes, which often provide similar (sometimes very redundant) information:

Ingermanson includes sample Snowflake files for the first Harry Potter book, Gone with the Wind, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Pride and Prejudice.

If all this isn't enough help for you, there's also a Help menu in the product with links to the product support page, frequently asked questions, feature requests, bug reports, and more.

Author Info

Next, you'll input your Author Information for the story.

With this out of the way, you're ready to start the actual Snowflake process.

Step 1 - One Sentence Summary

The Snowflake Method starts with describing your story in a single sentence, preferably one of fifteen lines or less.  Ingermanson recommends looking at the descriptions of the novels on the New York Times Bestseller List for examples.

The point of crafting this one-liner is to focus in on the most important elements of your story.  This is your "elevator pitch" for the novel you're about to write.  With this summary "skeleton" created, you're ready to start fleshing out the next level of detail.

Step 2 - One Paragraph Summary

In this step, you take that one-sentence summary and turn it into a one-paragraph summary.  This adds a bit of detail to what you've already done.  Ingermanson recommends taking an hour or so to do this step.  Show set up the story, describe the major disasters, and the ending.  He refers to it as "three disasters plus an ending" in the audio.

With your storyline summarized, you're ready to move on.

Step 3 - Defining Your Characters

Now that you have a basic idea of your story, it's time to create the characters you'll need to properly tell the story.  For each character, you want to identify their ambition, story goal, conflict, epiphany, sentence summary, and paragraph summary.  The ambition is their overall life goal, like "to make the world a better place".  The story goal is the thing the character is trying to accomplish in the novel.  The conflict is the reason the character can't immediately have the story goal they want.  The epiphany is what the character will learn, or how they will change, in the story.  The Sentence Summary is a one-sentence summary of the character's story line, from their point of view.  Paragraph Summary is an expanded version of that character's Sentence Summary.

Once you've gone through this exercise for all your characters, it's time for the next step.

Step 4 - The Short Synopsis

By the time you've gotten to this point, you've probably got a good handle on the characters who'll be participating in the story, their motivations and goals, and have probably rewritten the one-paragraph summary you created earlier.  Now, you'll expand that one-paragraph summary into a short synopsis, roughly one paragraph for each sentence in your one-paragraph summary.

Now that you've expanded on the big-picture view of your story, it's time for the next level of detail.

Step 5 - Write Character Synopses

For each character, you'll now write a synopsis of the story from their point of view.  This should contain anything about a character's back story, likes and dislikes, etc.  This is all about thinking more about your characters.

At this point, you've gotten down a lot of detail about the story and the characters.  In the next step, you'll flesh things out even more.

Step 6 - Long Synopsis

The Long Synopsis is a several-page document that should take you about a week to work out.  It should expand each paragraph from the original short synopsis and expand it to a full page.  This helps you start to work out details in the story, make better strategic story decisions, etc.  You'll possibly be going back and modifying earlier steps as a result of what you uncover here.

Now that you've detailed a lot of the story, it's time to further enhance your character detail.

Step 7 - Character Charts

In this step, you're going to further develop your characters.  You'll figure out their birthday, hair color, age, weight, and other information that you might later use in the story.  Documenting all this here will give you a reference source as you write.  Rather than getting half-way through writing the book and wondering whether your character Fred had two sisters or a brother and sister, you should find those answers here.  It might take you weeks to go through all this.

Next, it's time to brainstorm the scenes you need to tell your story.

Step 8 - Make a List of Scenes

In this step, you'll lay out each scene you want in the story.  Refer to your long synopsis from Step 6 and try to break the synopsis down into scenes.  This step allows you to identify your POV character, a summary of the scene, the expected number of words or pages, and the number of actual words you wrote for that scene.  Scenes can be moved up and down in the list, and new ones added.   The Import button allows you to import one-per-line descriptions of scenes into Snowflake Pro.

Step 9 - Notes and Ideas for Scenes

In this last step, you'll record notes and ideas for the scenes you'll want to write someday.  These might be notes on setting, characters, dialogue, or anything else you want to be sure to remember about that scene.

Now that you've brainstormed this novel thoroughly, it's time to look at your Proposal.

The Proposal

This time, you'll sit down to write your proposal for the story, something you might use to get the attention of an agent or an editor at a publishing house.  When you're finished polishing it up, you can export it in a Rich Text Format (RTF) file that Microsoft Word and many other word processors can support.

Much of the information that goes into the earlier steps gets automatically carried over into this one to make it easier for you.

And that's pretty much it.  You've brainstormed your story, characters, and scenes.  You should have a good long synopsis of what's going to happen, which serves as the roadmap for your writing efforts.


If you're thinking about buying Snowflake Pro, you're probably asking yourself if it's worth the $50-100 Ingermanson is charging for it.  You're wondering if it will help make your stories better.  The answer to all those questions is a definite... maybe.

If you wanted to take the Snowflake Method for a test drive, you might do a web search for Snowflake documents.  You'll likely find a number of spreadsheets and word processing document files that ask all the same questions that Snowflake Pro does.  Those tools won't include Ingermanson's audio discussions, lecture notes, etc.  They probably won't come with support.  And you might have to adjust them to work with your word processor or screen size.  But they won't cost you $50.  If you try those and like them, you might want to get Snowflake Pro to have the advantage of a tool supported by the creator of the method.  If you try some of those freebies and don't see the value in them, or you read Ingermanson's book and decide it's rubbish, save your money.

As for me, I'm giving it a shot.  I've written six novels now, but I've never brainstormed one from a single-sentence description up to a full synopsis.  It seems like a complementary approach to things that have worked for me in the past.  I find that if I try to do a "seat of the pants" write that I go wildly off topic, forget critical events that I wanted to have happen in the story, etc.  Perhaps brainstorming with this top-down approach will deliver better results.  Perhaps not.

I haven't had the software long, so time will tell how much I use it, how often, etc.  Right now, it's one of the tools in my writing toolbox.  Others include Dramatica Pro 4.0, StoryCraft, Scrivener, Power Structure, and Mariner Contour.  There are probably some others in there, too.  We'll discuss them eventually.

I will say that Snowflake Pro seems to be reliable software that does what it claims to do.  I've not had it crash on me or lose anything I've written.  I can't say the same for some other tools I've used over the years.

December 8, 2014

The Snowflake Method of Novel Writing

Novelist Randy Ingermanson was a software developer who wanted to break into fiction writing.  He developed what he refers to as the “Snowflake Method” based on a mathematical principle called fractals.  To greatly simplify the concept, if you graph the data associated with a fractal, at its most basic level you might get a triangle.  As you calculate more and more data, that graph will begin changing shape to the point that it resembles a snowflake.  Ingermanson’s idea is to develop a novel similarly.  It goes something like this:

  • Start with a simple sentence that explains the story concept, like:  “A detective investigates a string of unsolved serial murders, unaware that his partner is involved in them.”
  • Expand that simple sentence out to a paragraph of about four sentences.
  • Expand that paragraph out into approximately a one-page description.
  • Brainstorm the characters who will appear in this story, their ambitions, their story goals, the epiphanies they’ll experience during the story, etc.
  • Brainstorm the scenes you’ll need in the book to tell the story.
  • Write the story.

Notice how the above list starts with a simple one-sentence view of the novel, then begins turning that one-sentence view into something more detailed.  By the time you get to the last step you should have a good idea of the overall story, the characters, and the scenes that need to exist in order to tell it.

The idea here is to flesh out as much of your story as possible before you really start writing.  This is intended to help you in a number of ways:

  • The one-sentence description is a great answer to the question “What’s the story about?”
  • The one-paragraph description might make a good blurb to use to pitch the book to an editor or publisher.
  • The one-page description might be enough to sell the story to an agent or publisher.
  • By brainstorming the characters and scenes in advance of writing, you have less chance of wasting your writing effort once you start.  You’ll know what each scene you write is trying to accomplish before you write it.

If there’s one thing that National Novel Writing Month has taught me, it’s that I get my best results when I have “the right amount of a plan” before I start writing.  For me, that means brainstorming things down to the individual scene level.  For each scene, I need a rough description of a couple of sentences that tell me what’s supposed to happen in the scene that moves the story forward.  Without that, I can go off the rails pretty quickly.  Things I intended to have happen in the story get overlooked, or happen too soon.  I go off on an unintended tangent that doesn’t move the story forward, or something like that.  But if I get too detailed in my planning, describing what happens in the scene in too much detail, by the time I’ve fleshed out the scenes I feel like I’ve written the book and lost my motivation to really write it.
That’s where I think this Snowflake approach might help me.  It’s all about gradually increasing the level of detail in your brainstorming until you’re ready to write.  It’s giving me a structured approach to brainstorming the story so that when I finally do feel ready to write it, I’ll have enough detail, but not so much that I feel like I’ve already written it.

You may want to check this approach out, too.  But as with any writing advice, discard it if it’s not working for you.

December 1, 2014

Lester Dent's Short Story Formula - The 2013 Edition

I’ve had the good fortune to correspond with and watch video lectures from successful author Dean Wesley Smith.  Smith makes the suggestion that aspiring novelists and short story writers should look at the “Lester Dent Master Plot Formula” as a good starting point.  To be clear, he wasn’t suggesting that you should write formulaic or fill-in-the-blanks stories.  If he was, I’d have ignored the advice.

I’ve looked over some of my oldest stories, and while I know we writers are our own worst critics, I am usually good about stepping outside myself to evaluate my work – especially the older stuff.  While I am happy with bits and pieces of stories I’ve written, I’m objective enough (I think) to recognize that some of them aren’t truly “stories” in the sense that the main character doesn’t face much of a challenge in reaching his goal and doesn’t necessarily grow or change as a result of the events in the story.  I see this as a weakness that I need to address if I’m ever to write a publishable short story or novel.

Smith suggests that, to help you internalize a good basic story structure, you begin by rewriting Dent’s 1950’s era advice in more modern language.  Dent’s piece is primarily aimed at western and crime novel short story writers of his era.  I’m adapting it to something more modern, and to hopefully be less genre-dependent.  With that in mind, I present Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula – The 2013 Version…

Master Plot Formula – 2013 Edition

What follows is a basic formula or “master plot” for short stories of approximately 6,000 words.  It can be adapted to science-fiction, adventure, detective, western, and most other genres.  It gives some rough guidelines on the story points that should be covered in the story, at approximately each thousand words.  Every story, and every author, is different.  If your story works for you as it is, and it doesn’t necessarily hit every point here, or hit it at exactly the right word count, that’s fine.  This is intended to provide a general guide to follow, not to force or hinder the story you’re trying to tell.  “Do what works for you and your story” is the only real rule.

Your Story Concept

Developing your story is easier if you are familiar with other stories in its genre.  You will want to read as much as you can in that genre, as this will help you identify common story elements and over-used plot points.  When you develop your own story, you want to ask yourself questions like:
  • Are there certain settings that other authors haven’t used?  Can I make those work in my story?
  • What are the common antagonists like in other stories?  How can I set mine apart from the others?
  • For stories involving crimes, puzzles, or murders, how can I come up with an unfamiliar movie, method, or unexpected murderer?
  • What internal challenge is my character coping with throughout the story?  How can I use that to make solving the external challenges more difficult (e.g., the character having a fear of heights while investigating the murder of a tightrope walker)?
Ideally, your story will include something unique for two or more of the above story elements.  If typical stories in your genre are set in Paris in the 1850’s, if you make yours work in Germany in the 1940’s, you may have something more marketable.  If typical stories in the genre are set in upper-class country clubs, can you set yours in a Texas honky-tonk bar and make it work?

The Master Plot Formula, in 1500-word Chunks

The following is a breakdown of a 6,000-word short story into 1500-word chunks.  As you write or review your story, you should compare the story’s progress to these guidelines.  If there are story points that don’t apply to your tale, or you’re hitting most but not all of them, etc., that doesn’t mean you need to change your story.  Remember:  These are guidelines and suggestions, not set-in-stone rules.  If your story works, don’t change it.  If your story isn’t working, look here for advice on what may be wrong with it.

The First 1500 Words

The first quarter of your story should introduce the main characters and hint at (if not start) the primary conflict or challenge of the story.  If possible and appropriate to the tale you’re telling, this part of the story should hit the following points:
  • As soon as possible, introduce the main character and introduce (or hint at) the challenges that the character will face for the rest of the story.
  • Show the main character becoming aware of the challenge and making an effort to deal with it.
  • Introduce all the other important characters as soon as possible, linking them to the challenge in some way.
  • Show the main character dealing with some kind of significant challenge by the end of this quarter of the story.
Questions to ask yourself about this part of the story:
  • Is there an element of suspense, mystery, tension, danger, or excitement here?
  • Is there a physical, emotional, or other threat to the main character in play?
  • Is the sequence of events here logical and reasonable?  (For example, if the character could walk away, why doesn’t he/she?)

The Second 1500 Words

The second quarter of the story should resemble the following:
  • The character attempts to struggle with the main story challenge.
  • Each struggle should get more difficult or dangerous.
  • End with a surprising revelation or story point (e.g., the bad guy escapes from a room with no apparent exit)
Questions to ask yourself about this part of the story:
  • Is there suspense, mystery, tension, danger, and/or excitement here?
  • Is the suspense growing as the story develops?
  • Is the hero being backed into a corner, facing a seemingly insurmountable problem, etc?
  • Is the sequence of events here logical and reasonable?  (For example, if the character could walk away, why doesn’t he/she?)
There should be at least one minor surprise during this section of the story.  This invites the reader to continue reading to see how the thing turns out.  If the surprise is misleading or intriguing, so much the better.

The Third 1500 Words

In the third quarter of the story, things look grim for the main character.  The difficulties continue to mount.  Just when the main character appears to have solved the story problem, something happens.  Perhaps the story problem isn’t the real challenge, or perhaps a well-conceived strategy fails for an unexpected but logical reason.  In this section, we expect:
  • Much more trouble falls on the main character than at any previous point in the story
  • The main character appears to have found a final solution to the problem
  • The main character attempts to execute the plan, but fails miserably
Questions to ask yourself about this part of the story:
  • Is there still suspense, mystery, tension, danger, and/or excitement in play?
  • Does the main story challenge now appear much more insurmountable?
  • Is there hero being backed into a corner in some way, such that overcoming the story challenge is the only way out?
  • Does all this happen in a logical and reasonable way?  (There is no way the character could back out or act differently.)
  • Is the action swift, vivid, and “tight” (using the minimum number of words necessary)?
  • Can the reader see, hear, smell, taste, and feel what’s going on?
  • Does every word in this section count?

The Last 1500 Words

In this last section, the main character should see the challenge as something that cannot be overcome.  It should seem as difficult, imposing, frightening, or impossible as it can be.  This section should:
  • Add more challenges to the main character’s predicament
  • Put the main character in a seemingly inescapable predicament
  • Show the hero using skill, learning, or strength (physical or emotional) developed during the story to extricate himself or herself from the inescapable predicament
  • End with a big surprise, if possible, such as the villain turning out to be an unexpected person, a much sought after reward being something other than was expected, etc.
  • A satisfying conclusion, where the main character acknowledges growth, overcomes a personal demon, or otherwise leaves the reader with a warm feeling
Questions to ask yourself about this part of the story:
  • Has the excitement continued up to the end?
  • Did the challenge continue up to the end?
  • Have all the mysteries been solved (unless you’re leading up to a sequel)?
  • Has everything in the story happened logically, and as a natural progression of the events that happened before?
  • Is the reader left with a warm feeling?
  • Was it the main character who overcame the challenge, or someone/something else?  (The main character should nearly always be the one to overcome the challenge, even at the cost of his/her life.)


The Lester Dent Master Plot Formula is very much in line with every other story structure I’ve ever seen.  Introduce the hero and the big challenge, show the hero recognizing and facing the challenge, show the hero learning that the challenge is much bigger than originally anticipated, and back the hero into a corner with no choice but to overcome the challenge.  When things look their most grim, the hero overcomes an inner demon, learns something new, or develops some solution that shows growth – then overcomes the challenge.

As long as the writer isn’t slavishly following this story design, Lester Dent’s advice is sound.  It offers a basic structure that should support a variety of stories that, while sharing very high-level similarities, are as unique as their authors.

Next, I need to begin writing some short stories that embody this formula, to help make good story structure second nature for me.