July 27, 2015

Review: Story Plot Generator by ARC Apps

Story Plot Generator is designed to help creative writers come up with story ideas by providing genre-appropriate locations, plot complications, details, and a main character.

When initially launched, it displays the following story genres:

The complete list includes:

  • Action/Thriller
  • Misfortune/Drama
  • SciFi/Space
  • Murder Scene
  • Fantasy/Magic
  • Horror/Suspense
  • Romance
  • Superheroes
  • Apocalypse
When you tap on one of the genres, the app displays prompts for a story that match up to the genre you selected.  For example, 

The prompt suggests writing a story about a character who has assumed someone else's identity and is traveling on a colony ship toward a new home.  Humans on this colony ship spend a large percentage of their day inside a virtual reality program.  Our character's access to essential resources is dwindling.

If you don't like one or more elements of this random story plot, you can tap on the green bar above that element to have the program generate another, while leaving the rest alone.  You can also tap the "refresh" button at the top to get a completely new plot idea.

You'll notice the bottom button, which will email you the information displayed on this screen, to make it easier to write a story from the prompt.

According to the developers, Story Plot Generator can create up to a million randomly generated story plots for you to use.  I've not tested that theory out, but I have noticed that it seems to offer quite a few options.

The app is currently available free of charge from the Google Play store so there's no real risk in checking it out for yourself on your Android tablet or phone.

I've usually been able to come up with story ideas on my own without much trouble, so I'm not sure how much value this app will have for me.  Where I think it could be useful is in generating ideas for fiction writing practice, where I might be trying to practice story openings, plotting, or some other aspect of fiction writing.  I'd use the app to generate a random situation and then try to come up with a good opening or plot outline for the story.

July 20, 2015

How to Write a Good Story Opening, Part 3

In the first part of this series, we looked at what makes a good opening.  In the second part, we talked about how to learn to write opening sentences by studying good examples you encounter.  In this installment, we'll look at how to review and strengthen your story opening and suggest some books you can read to learn even more.

Revising Your Opening

You need a strong opening to ensure that agents, editors, and readers will you’re your story a fair chance.  Once you’ve written your opening, the following suggestions will help you tighten up the prose and improve it:
  • Using the word processor's find function, locate or highlight the following words to see if they signify the problems indicated here (I created a Microsoft Word macro that highlights these in my work):
    • words the end in “ly” (these are often adverbs and adjectives which signify the need for stronger nouns and verbs, or can be eliminated entirely)
    • words that end in “ing”, and “ion” (these often appear as the ending syllable in long words like “intoxication” which would be better to write as “drunk”)
    • of (Phrases like "he stormed out of the room" can be rewritten as "he stormed from the room" in order to make it clearer and more concise)
    • that (Change "She thought that he might have a problem" to "She thought he might have a problem" or "She feared he had a problem")
    • said (Eliminating this word as much as possible will strengthen your fiction.  Avoid using euphemisms like "articulated", "interjected", etc.,too.)
    • was/were ("Fred was making a martini." isn't as strong as "Fred mixed a martini.")
    • by (When used in a phrase like "She was struck by a bus" it slows down the action versus "A bus hit her.")
    • his/her (when used in phrases like "his car was fast" you can make it strong with a phrase like "he had a fast car")
    • very (often this implies that the following word or words should be replaced with something stronger, for instance "the book was very old" might be rewritten to "the book was ancient" or "she picked the book up carefully, afraid it would crumble to dust in her hands")
    • about (when used in a phrase like "there were about ten people here" it's vague, and you're better off using an exact count unless there's no way your character would know)
    • And/But (sentences that start with these words sound pompous, and unless they're part of a character's speech pattern, they should be eliminated)
    • like (this will draw your attention to similes that can be removed or replaced with clearer language)
    • felt, feel, hear, heard, smell, saw, taste, touch (These words can filter the reader's sensory experience through a character, distancing the reader from it.  Instead of "she felt the rough wooden surface" you can say "The wooden surface was rough" to eliminate the filter and bring the sensory experience closer to the reader.)
    • as (When used in phrases like "nutty as a fruitcake" ask yourself if there is a better word or phrase you can use that doesn't include "as" -- like "eccentric" or "insane")
  • If you're unsure about any facts in your opening, research them.
  • Look for cliches and eliminate them unless they're part of a character's unique speech pattern.
  • Make a list of all the adjectives and adverbs in your opening.  Consider whether these can be eliminated, or whether they signify the need for a stronger noun or verb.  If the adjective or adverb is needed, is there a more unusual or stronger one you can use?
  • Look for any unnecessary words or phrases.  Eliminate them or replace them with stronger and more-descriptive words.
  • Look for any long sentences and see if you can break them apart or simplify them.
  • Look for any redundant phrases or words and replace or eliminate them.
  • Look for long dialogue exchanges without any other text breaking them up (i.e., no breaks in the dialogue like "Margaret walked over and opened the window" or "He took another bite of spaghetti.).  This is sometimes referred to as a "white room problem".
  • Make sure your dialogue reflects the character speaking it.  We wouldn't expect a poorly educated man from a rural area to say "Yes, I suspect to find an appropriate solution presently."  He'd more likely say "Yep, I'll figure it out.")
  • Examine the length of your sentences and ensure that it varies, mixing shorter and longer sentences within the same paragraph where appropriate.
  • Make sure you're showing the characters' thoughts, actions, and reactions to story events.
  • Read the work aloud and be alert for anything that is hard to speak or that doesn't sound right when you say it.
  • Have someone else you trust read the text and get their feedback.

Your opening should now be much stronger.

Reading List

There is a lot more to learn about story openings than I've covered in this series.  Below are some of the resources I recommend if you are ready to dig in deeper:

The above links to go the Amazon.com web page where you can buy the books listed.

July 13, 2015

How to Write a Good Story Opening, Part 2

In last week's post, we looked at what makes a good opening.  This week, we'll look at how you can inspire yourself to write good openings and even how to practice so you get better at writing them (while also creating a weapon against writer's block).

Inspiration by Example

Advertising copywriters often keep what they refer to as a "swipe file."  This is a collection of the most effective headlines, phrases, and copy they've encountered.  These samples become models they can follow to write their own copy.  I believe fiction writers should accumulate swipe files of their own, especially for opening lines.

Here are some examples from my file:
  • It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression "As pretty as an airport." -- Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
  • I woke up in bed with a man and a cat.  The man was a stranger; the cat was not. -- Robert A. Heinlein, To Sail Beyond the Sunset
  • "I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and tell you he's the one. Or at least as close as we're going to get." "That's what you said about the brother." -- Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game
  • Millicent Mannings Hollander could not stop looking at evil.-- James Scott Bell, Deadlock
  • Though Robin Ellacott's twenty-five years of life had seen their moments of drama and incident, she had never before woken up in the certain knowledge that she would remember the coming day for as long as she lived. -- Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo's Calling
  • She'd drunk way too much. She was an idiot.  Why had she, Delsey Freestone, a reasonably intelligent twenty-five-year-old supposed adult, swan-dived into those last two margaritas? -- Catherine Coulter, Bomb Shell
  • On the hottest day of July, trolling in dead-calm waters near Key West, a tourist named James Mayberry reeled up a human arm.  His wife flew to the bow of the boat and tossed her breakfast burritos. -- Carl Hiassen, Bad Monkey
  • On the day the world received its first phone call from heaven, Tess Rafferty was unwrapping a box of tea bags.  -- Mitch Albom, The First Phone Call from Heaven
  • Black ice coated earth frozen hard by night temperatures that had dropped below freezing, a thin skein of slickness that challenged the grip of his toughened-rawhide boot soles. Yet the Gray Man stepped with grace and ease across the treacherous smoothness, not oblivious to the danger so much as accustomed to it. -- Terry Brooks, Bearers of the Black Staff
  • The building was on fire, and it wasn't my fault. -- Jim Butcher, Blood Rites
  • Shortly before being knocked unconscious and bound to a chair, before being injected with an unknown substance against his will, and before discovering that the world was deeply mysterious in ways he'd never before imagined, Dylan O'Connor left his motel room and walked across the highway to a brightly lighted franchise to buy cheeseburgers, French fries, pocket pies with apple filling, and a vanilla milkshake. -- Dean Koontz, By the Light of the Moon
  • The scene and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.  Then the soul-erosion produced by high-gambling - a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension - becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it. -- Ian Fleming, Casino Royale
  • The event that came to be known as The Pulse began at 3:03am, eastern standard time, on the afternoon of October 1. The term was a misnomer, of course, but within ten hours of the event, most of the scientists capable of pointing this out were either dead or insane. -- Stephen King, Cell
  • For some time now they had been suspicious of him. Spies had monitored his movements, reporting to the priests, and in the tribal councils his advice against going to war with those beyond the bend had been ignored. -- James A. Michener, Chesapeake
How do you use a collection like this?  Treat each one as an example of a technique to learn.  Read the example and ask "What makes this line memorable, and how did the author do it?"  When you understand that, try writing a similar sentence using your characters, settings, and plot points.  (You should not plagiarize the author's work, however.  The point is to learn the technique, not steal the words.)

For example, consider the opening line from Larry Niven's Ringworld:
In the nighttime heart of Beirut, in one of a row of general-address transfer booths, Louis Wu flicked into reality.
Niven took an event that is seemingly impossible to us (a person "flicking into reality") and made it seem like an ordinary event in the world of the story (by referencing "a row of general-address transfer booths" which presumably exist for the purpose).  We are left wondering who Louis Wu is, how he accomplished what he's just done, why he's in Beirut, and what exactly those booths are.  This will keep us reading for at least a little while longer.  (Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire is practically a textbook for repeatedly hooking a reader.)

To achieve the same effect, I need to take something from my story world that would seem impossible or unusual to a modern reader and make it appear to be part of my characters' ordinary world.

Here's how I used Niven's technique, without stealing his setting, characters, or story plot:
Alice Monroe, like everyone else on the streets around her, was running home as hard as she could.  In eight minutes, the Night Watch robots would begin vaporizing anyone breaking curfew.
I've taken the unusual idea (to someone in our world) of robots violently enforcing a curfew and made it completely ordinary to my character (by showing she's aware of it and knows when it will occur). I also show that it's common knowledge in the story world by showing others running home also.  A reader should wonder why there's such a curfew, why there are robots enforcing it, why vaporization is considered an acceptable punishment, how far Alice has to go to be home, and so on.  It should keep them reading.  I haven't stolen anything from Niven's work.  I'm not showing people popping into existence, not setting my story in Beirut at night, etc.  All I've taken from Niven is the technique he used.

Opening Practice

One of the best pieces of writing advice I've encountered came from a workshop taught by author Brady Allen.  I've discussed it before in more detail before.  Allen suggested that you set aside time every day, week, and month to practice openings.  The practice has two goals:  Improve your skill at writing openings.  Provide you with a source of material to help eliminate writer's block.  

The practice is simple and quick:

  • Each day, or as often as you can, write at least one opening line for a potential story.
  • Once a week, look over all the opening lines you’ve written.  Find one that resonates with you, and turn it into an opening paragraph.
  • Once a month, look at those opening paragraphs and expand one into an opening page or opening scene for a story.
That's it.  The next time you aren't sure what to write, pull out that list of opening lines, paragraphs, and pages.  It's likely that something there will motivate you to write a story.

If you find yourself getting stuck trying to do the practice, have a look at the swipe file mentioned earlier.  Try to write a line that mimics one of the examples without plagiarizing it.

Coming Up in Part 3

In Part 3 of this series, we'll look at how to revise your opening to improve it and provide some resources to learn more.

July 6, 2015

How to Write a Good Story Opening, Part 1

A good writer never assumes they’ve mastered every aspect of writing.  As with any other activity, someone is better at it than we are.  When it comes to story openings, I still have a lot to learn.  For that reason, I continue to research and practice story openings.  Here’s what I've learned.

When agents, editors, and readers pick up your short story or novel, your opening paragraphs will get the most attention.  If you don't hook them quickly, they'll put your story down and move on.  

What Makes a Good Story Opening?

A good story opening should:
  • Leave an impression on the reader in the first sentence
  • Introduce the main character(s) and build reader empathy toward them by showing the character's humanity (both their good qualities and their flaws)
  • Show the characters in their ordinary world, and foreshadow a change or disturbance.  This can be done many ways, including:
    • The character finds that something is more difficult than expected.
    • The character learns something new and upsetting.
    • The character arrives in an unfamiliar place.
    • The character meets someone who impacts her in some way.
    • Something happens in the character’s life, like losing a job, experiencing a car crash, a fight with a friend or lover, etc.
    • Hint that a disturbance is coming, as in “She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was seeing Fred for the last time.”
  • Raise questions in the mind of the reader to keep them reading
  • Give the character an "external goal" they are motivated to achieve, even if that goal isn't the ultimate goal they'll achieve during the story
  • Show how the goal is important to the character and why they're motivated to achieve it
  • Give enough details on the setting to help the reader visualize the story world, but no more
  • Deliver the minimum amount of backstory necessary for the reader to appreciate what is going on in the opening
  • Change something for the character by the end
Everything in the opening should be moving the story toward a moment of change in the character's life.  It can be helpful to ask questions like these as you brainstorm, write, and review your opening:
  • Why is this character in my opening, and is the character's presence necessary ?
  • Where is the opening taking place, and why is this setting important?
  • What minimum details do I need to include about the setting in the opening to ensure that the reader is grounded in it?
  • What details do I need to share about the characters in the scene, and is it necessary to share those details right now (or can I wait until a later scene where they're more relevant)?
  • Why should the reader care about this character and the character's future?
  • What questions am I creating in the reader's mind?   Will these keep the reader turning pages?
  • What emotional stakes are raised in the opening that reflect the rest of the story?  
  • What good and bad qualities of the characters are important to show at this time?
  • Is there some tense situation or exchange of dialogue that could happen here?  If so, is there anything I can do to increase the tension?
When you're ready to revise the opening:
  • Is all of the backstory relevant to the scene it appears in?
  • Are the setting descriptions as concise and relevant as possible?
  • Is any of the dialogue "pointless chatter" that can be removed (e.g, “Hi Tom!”)?
  • Are any of the characters' thoughts acting as "info dumps"? 
  • If a character is sharing critical thoughts, introspection, and past memories, are these interwoven with action?
  • Are any adjectives or adverbs in the opening overused? 
  • Are the nouns and verbs as strong as they could be?
It's been said that a writer should spend proportionally more time on the story’s opening than on most other parts of the story.  

Something that can be helpful is to write and rewrite the opening scene several times.  Play around with different points of view, narrative styles, settings, etc.  One of these may feel more "right" than the others.  If that version of the opening grabs your interest, it will probably do the same for your readers.

Next week, in Part Two, we'll look at how to study and practice opening sentences.