May 25, 2015

Raising the Stakes for Your Characters

Despite having written several novels, I've continued to have problems plotting my stories.  The challenges I set for my characters often seem too easy for them, and there are often times where the stakes aren't that high.  This has caused characters to walk away from a potential problem (since there was no compelling reason for them to solve it) or to easily overcome the problem because I "let them see it coming" and they prepared successfully for it.

I've been making a conscious effort lately to learn more about plotting, conflict, tension, and raising the stakes on characters.

For that reason, I borrowed from Kindle Unlimited the book Story Stakes: Your #1 Writing Skills Strategy to Transform Readers into Raving Fans & Keep Them Turning the Pages of Your Screenplay or Novel by H.R. D'Costa, the author suggests that there are 11 ways you can raise the stakes on your character:
  1. General Protection:  Put your character in a position where their actions protect a group of people, a community, a city, etc.  The hero's failure will cause others to suffer, which will spur the character on past a point where they might have given up in the past.
  2. Demise (of Someone Close to the Character):  Someone important to the character, such as a spouse, parent, sibling, or child, is in danger and will die (or suffer a similarly devastating outcome) if the hero can't save them.
  3. Livelihood:  If the character doesn't succeed at what he or she has undertaken, they'll be unable to make a living.  This usually works best if the hero worked hard to get the job, had to suffer disapproval to get it, it's a rare and coveted job, it's important to "who they are", or losing the job will ruin their chances of getting other jobs.  Losing the job should also endanger the hero's ability so support someone important.
  4. Freedom:  The character's failure will put his freedom, or that of someone he cares about, in jeopardy.  This doesn't have to be jail.  It can mean being left in an undesirable place they can't leave, being in a relationship that makes them unhappy, etc.
  5. Reputation:  The character's failure will destroy his own reputation or that of someone important to him.  This works best when tied to other stakes, such as livelihood or freedom.
  6. Sanity:  The character's failure will cause the loss of sanity for himself or someone dear.
  7. Access to a Person, Place, or Thing:  The character's failure will result in a loss of access to something important, such as child, a sibling, or a loved one.
  8. Regret:  The character's failure will lose an important opportunity.  For example, a character whose actions or decisions cause a problem in the past might like to have a second chance.  In the story, they're given a second chance in a similar situation and have the opportunity to get things right this time.
  9. Suffering and Sacrifice:  Suffering that a character endures to get to her goal is only worth it if they win, otherwise the suffering was in vain.  Similarly, if a character sacrifices something important, gives up an easy way out of a bad predicament, or someone close to her makes a sacrifice, this is only worth it if she succeeds.  In essence, you're showing the price that the character (and those who helped her) paid for her success.
  10. Justice:  We see the antagonist do some really terrible things, whether against the protagonist or some other character.  If the hero fails, the bad guys get away with their crimes.  If the hero wins, justice is served and the bad guys pay for what they've done.  How effective the Justice stake is depends on how bad the villain's crime was, and how much time passes before the villain is brought to justice.  A really terrible crime committed at the start of the story will lose much of its impact if justice isn't served until the end.  It's also important that, relatively speaking, what the hero has to do to bring the villain to justice isn't as bad as the villain's crime.
  11. Hero Happiness:  The hero's happiness is tied to achieving the story goal.  If he wins, he'll be happy.  If he loses, he'll feel like his life is over.  The key here is that the thing the character wants must be very specific, such that only this particular goal will work.  If he wants love, for example, anyone might provide that.  But if he wants the love of a particular woman because she has the qualities that he or his life do not have, finding love elsewhere won't do.  If the hero's goal is money, it has to be clear that he wants the money because of what it means to him, what it will do for him, and how it will help him than for the money itself.  Wanting money to save the family farm, get a child through college, or save the lives of homeless people works.  Wanting money so he can quit his job and spend his days drinking on the beach, isn't going to thrill readers.
Later in the book, D'Costa shares ways to alter the emotional impact of the stakes created by the above methods.  One of these is to create an object that many characters want (called a "MacGuffin").

The author also discusses how to build a "Story Stakes Matrix" which helps you to keep raising the stakes, avoid an anticlimactic ending, and improve the appeal of the story to readers.  The book concludes with an "action plan" for laying out the plot and the stakes.

It's definitely worth a read if you experience the same issue I do.

May 22, 2015

Open Source and Free Writing Software

There are some excellent, free tools that writers can use to both create and improve their work.  This article will discuss some of these and provide links to sites where the software can be downloaded.

Note that the appearance of an open source product on the list below is neither an endorsement or recommendation.  The purpose of this list is to make it easier for writers to locate and try various free and open source writing tools to see if any of them are suitable for that writer's creative processes.

Open Source Word Processing Software

Many of the following, and some commercial products, are compared on Wikipedia.
  • AbiWord: A free word processing program similar to Microsoft Word.

  • Document.Editor: A multi-tab .NET/Ribbon based word processor for Windows XP, Vista, and 7.

  • EZ Word: A free word processor that is part of the "Andrew User Interface System".

  • Feng Office: An open source online office suite package similar to Microsoft Office Live.

  • Fiction: A free word processor for Windows.

  • LyX: A "document processor" which encourages an approach to writing based on the structure of your documents and not simply their appearance. Runs on UNIX, Linux, Mac, and Windows.

  • NeoOffice:  A free office suite for Mac OS X that includes a word processor.
  • This open source application is comparable to Microsoft Office.  It includes Writer (which is similar to Word), Calc (similar to Excel), Impress (like PowerPoint), Draw (similar to the drawing tools in Office), and Base (like Access).

  • Pathetic Writer: An open-source GUI word processor.

  • Scribus:  An open source page layout and desktop publishing tool.
  • Ted:  A free word processor running under X Windows on Linux.

  • WordGrinder:  A "unicode aware character cell word processor that runs in a terminal or Windows console window.
  • WordIt:  A word processor designed to be more reliable than Microsoft Word and smaller than Word or OpenOffice.
Open Source Fiction/Screenwriting Tools:

While there are plenty of "novel writing" software projects listed on SourceForge (an open source software repository), few have any actual code available to download.  Those listed below have actual software available that you can download.

  • Celtx:  Described as "the world's first all-in-one media pre-production system", Celtx includes a wide variety of features including autocomplete, scene management, embedded notes, spellchecker, and more.

  • Storybook: Open source novel writing software which helps the author manage characters, locations, chapters, parts, ideas, background information, task lists, and storyboards.  It can also display charts showing the appearance of characters by scene/date, occurrence of locations, etc.  (This tool has a number of similarities to my personal tool of choice, Scrivener.)

  • Kabikaboo:  A tree-based note pad designed to help you plan a book or complex project.

  • NaNoWriTool:  A text editor specifically geared toward NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month.  It features the ability to edit text files, a real-time word counter that uses the same algorithm as the NaNoWriMo site, and other features.

  • The Writer's Forge: A suite of free software tools for writers of fiction.

  • Dramatis Personae 2: A Macintosh app designed to track the personalities and information used by authors in writing fiction.
Free Word Processing Tools:

The following word processing tools are free of charge but are not (to my knowledge) open source:

  • Bean: A small, easy-to-use word prcessor for Mac OS X.

  • Dark Room: A full-screen, distraction-free writing environment for Windows. The Mac version, Write Room, is a licensed product that must be purchased.

  • Jarte: A word processor for Windows that is based on the WordPad engine.

  • LedIt!: A free, cross-platform, multi-lingual unicode word processor with features such as subscript, superscript, full undo, word wrapping, and the ability to be embedded into other apps.

  • PolyEdit Lite: A free word processor designed to be lightweight, reliable, easy to use, and fast.

  • Q10: A full-screen, minimal distraction writing tool.

  • QJot: A small USB portable alternative rich text (RTF) editor that is meant to serve as a WordPad replacement.

  • RoughDraft: A donationware word processor designed for writers (development stopped in 2009).

  • SoftMaker FreeOffice: Windows suite that describes itself as "so easy to use that you will wonder why you bothered with Microsoft Word or for so long".

  • TED Notepad: A freeware Notepad replacement for Windows.

Other Tools Useful for Writers:
  • Awesome Name Generator:  A simple generator for names for fictional characters.

  • FreeMind: An open source mind-mapping tool written in Java and usable on most platforms.

  • Graviax: A grammar checker for the English language.

  • PDF Creator: Open Source PDF creation tools.

  • Research Assistant: A multi-platform tool for researchers to organize their work.

  • Style and Diction: Two standard UNIX commands. Diction identifies wordy and commonly misused phrases while Style analyzes the surface characteristics of a document such as word length and readability measures.

  • WikidPad:  A wiki-style notepad to keep ideas and notes in a single place and allow cross-referencing.

  • Writer's Tools for OpenOffice/LibreOffice:  This set of utilities is designed to help OpenOffice perform a number of useful functions for writers, including looking up words, translating to other languages, and more.

Other Free Tools for Novelists and Writers

  • Bibus: A bibliographic database that is helpful for citing sources correctly.

  • EverNote: A cloud-based tool that allows you to capture ideas and information and store it for later use. Items stored in the cloud are accessible via computer, tablet, cell phone, etc.

  • LitLift: An online novel writing application.

  • SAMM: Submission tracking for Windows, Mac, and DOS.

  • Sonar: Tool to help writers track their manuscript submissions.

  • TiddlyWiki: A "reusable non-linear personal web notebook"

  • TreePad: An award-winning personal information manager for Windows and Linux/Wine. It can be used to store, edit, search, organize, and browse any type of textual information.

  • WordNet: A "large lexical database of English…nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are grouped into sets of cognitive synonyms, each expressing a distinct concept." Available online and as an application you can run on your computer.

  • WordWeb: A dictionary and thesaurus.

  • yWriter:  From SpaceJock software, this tool is designed specifically for novelists, by a novelist.  It helps break the novel down into chapters and scenes, and provides other useful features like word counts, automatic backups, a storyboard view, drag-and-drop scene/chapter reordering, etc.

May 18, 2015

Story Events and Charged Values

Over the last few days, I've been listening to the audiobook version of Robert McKee's Story:  Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting.  Although I have no current plans to write a screenplay, I've been told by many people that this is an excellent resource on story writing in general.

I find that when I write stories, conflict is one of my biggest problems.  When I sit down to brainstorm and plot out a story, I might envision four or five problems that the protagonist will need to deal with during the course of the story.  Invariably, when I sit down to write that story, I find that my protagonist has out-thought me.  For example, what was supposed to be a character with a broken-down car in a bad part of town suddenly becomes a nervous wait for the tow truck... or worse, the character sees a police station across the street.  Many of my stories, as a result, wind up being incredibly dull affairs.  I don't know exactly why this is happening to me, but it seems that McKee does.

In the book, McKee says that any scene you write that isn't a Story Event should be removed.  I'm paraphrasing a bit, but he says that for something to be a Story Event we need to see at least one value in the character's life change state (from negative to positive, or positive to negative) through conflict in a way that has a meaningful impact on the character.  Usually, a meaningful impact is one that affects the character's inner life (feelings, thoughts, worldview), personal relationships (causes a love relationship of friendship to change), or their fortune in the world.  McKee suggests asking yourself for every scene:  What value is at stake in my character's life at this moment?  How is that value charged (positively or negatively) at the start of the scene?  How is it charged at the end?  If there is no change in the value, ask "Why is this scene in my story?"  If a value hasn't changed, nothing meaningful has happened in the scene.  It is a non-event.  Over the course of the entire story, you should see a meaningful, absolute, and irreversible change in the character's life.

McKee suggests that every time your character takes some action toward the story goal, that there is a reaction in the character's situation (specifically, the character's inner life, relationships, or outer world) that is more powerful than the character expected.

I think it's this "charged value" part of the puzzle I have been missing.  For example, in a story I recently worked on, an astronaut learned that the computers controlling her spacecraft had been hacked by agents of a foreign government.  They tried to use this as leverage against her government but failed.  They turned off all the systems on her spacecraft and left her to die.  She was able to figure out a way to reboot the systems and keep the hackers out.  In McKee's terms, this is a non-event.  No value in the character's life changed.  She didn't go from alive to dead, rich to poor, etc.  She left the scene in precisely the shape she entered it.  The only thing that changed was the computer, from "compromised" to "safe" again.  To add a charge to this, I might have made it so that when the computer shutdown, there was a short burst of the rockets that took her off course.  When she finally gets the computers working, she learns that the spacecraft is now so far off course it can't reach its destination with the available fuel - and it can't return to Earth either. Her mission and her life are now both at risk.  Two emotionally charged values have flipped (mission success to failure, safety to certain death).

I expect that I'll be sharing more as I work my way through the rest of this book.  If you're struggling with your writing as I am, you might want to follow the link above and pick up a copy of the book for yourself.

May 11, 2015

Hooked by Les Edgerton

An author I met at the ConText writing convention suggested that I read Les Edgerton's book Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go.  Having done that, I want to share what I learned with you.

It should be no surprise that an improper opening dooms your story.  Agents won't be interested in it.  Editors and publishers will reject it.  If you get it into a reader’s hands, they're more likely to put it down than to read it.  This advice is echoed in the words of agents, publishers, and editors quoted at the end of the book.

The best kind opening is one that shows the protagonist in his or her world, then quickly disrupts it with the main story-worthy problem.  The opening should provoke the reader’s curiosity and help the reader live through the experience with the protagonist.

A good opening should include as many of these as possible:
1.    The inciting incident - which creates the character's initial surface problem and hits at the story worthy problem.
2.    The story-worthy problem - which is what the protagonist must solve by the story's end, usually a deeper psychological problem that your protagonist and reader may not understand until the end of the story
3.    The initial surface problem - a problem that drives the protagonist to take action but isn't usually the story-worthy problem
4.    The setup – give just enough information to know who everyone is, where they are, and show a hint of the trouble to come
5.    Backstory – share only the minimum amount necessary. Trust the reader to "get" what's going on.
6.    The opening line - which should have more effort expended on it than on any other sentence in the story
7.    Language - your most memorable language should appear in the opening
8.    Character Introduction - introduce characters by showing their reactions to the inciting incident, which defines their personalities and gives the reader a first impression.  Make sure it's clear which character is the protagonist.
9.    Setting – give just enough to provide a clear sense of time and place
10.Foreshadowing - a hint of the action and obstacles to come.  Not all stories do this, Edgerton says "but a disproportionate number of the best do."

Edgerton offers several techniques for writing a powerful opening line or scene:
  • Show a character who is very different (stronger, meaner, smarter, stranger) than the typical person and you'll make a reader want to read on to understand that character.
  • Show something unusual happening in a common situation, like a passenger on a bus doing a dance number down the aisle for the other passengers.
  • Give the reader an unusual image or drop an unexpected word into a sentence, like "I looked out to see Charlie washing his car for the third time today, even though it hadn't left the driveway."
  • Start with a pleasant or pleasurable scene, and show the character reacting negatively to it, like "It was Tommy's birthday, and they were going to have a party.  All his friends would be there, and his mom would serve hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, and all his favorite foods.  He couldn't wait for it to be over."
  • Use a metaphor that's original and fits the protagonist in your story, like "She teased me, just like a package of candy hanging in a vending machine by a tiny sliver of the package.  Just a little nudge, and I think she'd have fallen into my lap."
  • Show us a character whose earliest memories aren't pleasant, like "My oldest memory is the time I accidentally knocked my mom's favorite vase over, and she burned me with her cigarette."
  • Give the reader a secret that will be revealed or a mystery that will be solved, such as "My grandfather pried up the bottom step leading to the attic and showed me an envelope he'd hidden there.  'This is the combination to my safe,' he said. 'When I die, I want you to use this and take care of what's inside.  Do you understand?' I nodded."
  • Show us a character with a memorable and descriptive name like "Slugger James" or "Sleepy Alice".
  • Create a protagonist who embodies some universal fear or experience in a very specific way, like "Nancy stared at the tumor on her leg, knowing it was spreading cancer throughout her body."
  • Put the protagonist in the center of a bad situation. "Joe had run out of options.  He had to steal the money, and steal it quickly."
  • Raise questions about something we don't experience every day, like an unusual disease, an uncommon lifestyle or career, or an unfamiliar setting (provided this is central to the story).
Edgerton also warns of the following “red flag” openings that kill a story’s chances with agents, editors, and readers:
  • Opening with a dream:  Showing a situation and then revealing it was all a dream.
  • Opening with an alarm clock buzzing, someone shaking the character awake, etc.  (as these are often followed by a boring description of the character's morning ritual, a cliched radio news story, or the character claiming they're "late" for something)
  • Being unintentionally funny (sentences with phrases like "he thought to himself"... when do we ever "think" to anyone else?)
  • Too little dialogue (this signals a long passage of narrative that's likely to be boring)
  • Starting with dialogue (since the reader won't have clue who's speaking or in what context they're having the conversation)
While a good opening isn’t enough to carry a weak story, a poor opening is enough to destroy the chances of an otherwise excellent story.

If you’re having trouble hooking your reader or keeping them interested, I strongly recommend reading or re-reading the opening chapters of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire.  Rice does an excellent job raising one question in the reader’s mind after another, and occasionally rewarding the reader with an answer to one of those questions.  This encourages you to keep reading, because you know you’ll eventually get the answers you’re looking for.  I re-typed Rice’s opening chapters, which helped me to see and understand how she’d hooked me into the story.  You might find that this activity helps you as well.  (Note that I am NOT suggesting plagiarism, only a way to study her technique.)

There is more in Edgerton’s book than I’m sharing here.  I recommend checking it out if you have an interest in learning more about story openings.

May 4, 2015

Brainstorming Story Events

In a writing book I read recently, the author suggests doing a bunch of list-making before you start to plot out the story.  The first list should include every idea you can envision for the story you're about to write.  You'll include everything, no matter how ridiculous it seems or how unlikely it is that you'll use it.  Doing this will release the "censor" in your brain and allow your subconscious to run wild to generate ideas.

Next, you take that list and filter it down to the ideas you can imagine actually using in your story.  For those items, you brainstorm around them also.  Ask yourself questions like:  If this really did happen in my story, what might happen to cause it?  What might happen as a result of it?  What repercussions would it have on the other events I've planned?  The idea is to consider all the ways the event might impact your story and all the other possible events it might spark in your imagination.

When you exhaust your imagination on those events, you start a third list.  For this list, you try to imagine every expectation your reader might have for the story you're writing.  For a science fiction story I am working on, I tried to compare this story and the universe it's set within to every other science fiction universe I could remember.  I asked questions like: What would the reader expect to happen if this story was in the Star Trek universe?  What would they expect based on sci-fi television episodes that are similar to this idea?  Ignoring science fiction, what expectations might they have about the characters, the situation, etc.?  The point of this list is to identify as many of your readers' expectations as you can.  You'll use the list two ways.  The first use is to consider which of these expectations you intend to deliver on, and which expectations you definitely won't deliver on.  The first side of the exercise helps you think about things you need to do in the story to ensure that the reader is comfortable with it.  The second side helps you find ways that you can surprise the reader or show them that your story (or story universe) is not the same old thing they're used to.  Those surprises are likely to be the things readers will enjoy most in your story.

Now, when you sit down to plot your story, you'll have lots of possible events to use, you'll know what reader expectations you plan to deliver on, and what you plan to do to surprise the reader.