Monday, July 14, 2014

Introducing Microtension

In the September 2014 issue of Writer's Digest, Donald Maass has a short but interesting article on Building Microtension Into Every Scene. The article was a fast read, and full of useful information, but I'm not going to share all of it. I want to pick out a bit at the end and discuss what he says. He offers three ways to deliver microtension to scenes.

1. "Pick a passage of dialogue and increase hostility between the speakers. It can be friendly ribbing, worried questioning, polite disagreement, snide derision, veiled threats, open hostility or any other degree of friction." 

Of the three ideas, I think this one is the easiest. When you have two characters who spend any amount of time together, tensions will automatically mount. Little things like misunderstandings, misaligned goals, or hurt feelings can easily produce juicy dialogue. Instead of internalizing the pain, have one character lash out with words. It doesn't have to be negative, either. Good-natured teasing (or an ill-timed tickle-fest) can escalate into tension, especially if there are unspoken resentments or unknown variables (that lovely sense of mystery must be made clear to the reader for this to work, though). 

2. "Pick a passage of exposition. List all of your POV character's emotions and find emotions that conflict. Grab what creates unease, uncertainty, fresh worry, new questions, a deeper puzzle or an agonizing dilemma. Rewrite the passage."

This one takes more work, as you've got to establish the conflicting emotions first. For example: in one scene, your female character thinks her husband is planning a surprise party for her. She's feeling a bit excited, but let's be truthful, it's too boring to devote an entire scene to it. Now add an emotion that conflicts. Simple: she hates surprises. Now she wants to find out if he's really planning it, who's involved, where it'll be, how they'll surprise her--and the whole time, she doesn't want her husband to know she's found out. (It's still pretty boring, but if you weave all this conflicting emotion into the main thread of the story, the potential for interest will raise.)

3. "Pick a moment when your protagonist is still, simply waiting or doing nothing. List three setting details that only this character would notice. Detail her emotions. Find those that conflict or surprise her. What's this moment's personal meaning?"

This is the hardest one, especially for me, as I'm not that great at detailing setting. However, it can be done. I'm thinking of J.D. Robb's In Death series. The protagonist, Eve Dallas, is a homicide detective. When she walks into a crime scene, she immediately notes the things that others wouldn't necessarily notice: hiding places, forensic evidence, misplaced items (like moved furniture or pictures askew). Her emotions are almost always under control. But once in awhile, the scene is personal to her--she knew the victim, or feels extra compassion for a survivor, or something about the crime reminds her of an emotionally trying time from her past. That's when the viewing of the scene takes on more meaning. The emotional connection to the setting produces tension.

If you've got a boring passage in your WIP and don't know how to fix it, try using one of these three ideas to increase the tension. 

Questions? Comments? Do you have better examples than what I came up with?

-Sonja

Thursday, July 10, 2014

True for me

When in doubt, post something humorous. True for you, too?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Plotting a Mystery

Sorry I haven't been around lately. I'm plotting a new mystery. I'm taking a quick break today to share something I found on Pinterest (yes, I wasted some of my plotting time with a visit to Pinterest--since I only spent five minutes there, I'm not feeling guilty at all). The pic said this:

"To uncover the plot of your story, don't ask what should happen, but what should go wrong. To uncover the meaning of your story, don't ask what the theme is, but rather, what is discovered. Characters making choices to resolve tension--that's your plot. If your protagonist has no goal, makes no choices, has no struggle to overcome, you have no plot." -Steven James, from Story Trumps Structure

What I love most about this quote is the part "What should go wrong." I don't know about the rest of you mystery writers, but I plot my story by figuring out the murder first. Who did it? Why did he do it? How did he do it? How does he think he'll get away with it? How much planning did he put into it? Most importantly, how will he be caught and brought to justice?

At some point in here, I'll also figure out everything about the victim: who he is, why he deserved to die (in the mind of the murderer), how to make him sympathetic (so the reader cares about solving his murder), and all the other little things that go into crafting a great victim.

Once I have all that nailed down, I create my protagonist (she's been in the back of my mind all the while, anyway) and figure out: How does she stumble across this murder? Why is it important for her to solve it? How will she solve it? What are the stakes if she doesn't solve it? What's her inner flaw that she must conquer before she can be in a position mentally, physically, or spiritually to solve the crime?

That's where the "what can go wrong" comes into play. If it's too easy for my protagonist to solve the murder, it's a boring story. If it's too hard, the reader will be frustrated. There's a fine line between Believable and Throwable (as in "throw the book across the room and never read another book by this author ever again so-help-me-God"). Granted, my murderer wants to get away with his crime, so he'll probably try to make things go wrong for the protagonist. But she also faces other problems. People lie. Evidence gets misinterpreted or languishes in a crime lab somewhere for horrific amounts of time. Budget cuts limit personnel availability. Family members want some quality time with the protagonist, so she can't devote her entire day to crime solving. Attitudes and expectations get in the way. Feelings get hurt. Drama distracts.

The "what can go wrong" part can be fun to plan, but if I go overboard, the story isn't believable or fun to read. Balance is the key.

Any comments? Questions? Observations? Share your wisdom with the rest of us, please, and use the comments section to do it.

-Sonja

Thursday, June 26, 2014

My Story is Boring

I think this is a problem most writer's face. You get to that spot in the story where everything slows down and you're certain it's boring. What to do? I'm facing that problem today. One solution is to raise the stakes. There are at least five different kinds of stakes that I know of, and any one of them can pull the story out of the blahs. Let's look at them.

1) Spiritual. My character's religious beliefs can be thrown into question somehow. Is it okay to steal food if my kids are hungry? Will God really be displeased with me if I tell a lie (we all lie in real life, so characters should lie, too--and not just when it's convenient. A good whopper out of nowhere can really shake things up). Does kissing this guy who's not my husband mean I'm an adulteress? Is it still murder if the thing I killed is a life form from a different galaxy and I'm not even sure it was sentient? Okay, I'm getting silly now, but you can see where I'm going with it.

2) Emotional. Just when my character thinks life might be going fine, introduce an element that causes an extreme emotional response. Her child almost got run over by a car (or DID get run over--that'll shake everything up for the rest of the novel). His co-worker stole his great idea that lead to the co-worker's promotion--and there's no way to prove it. Her sick Grandma just won the lottery, and that money would be ultra useful to get out of a jam--and then the guilt kicks in for getting greedy over Granny's money. Those emotions can be fun to play with, so slather them on thick.

3) Mental. Thoughts, attitudes, understandings, expectations, we all have these things in real life. So does your character. Explore one of them, then twist it up so it's no longer useful. She thought he loved her and would buy her a ring--until she saw the new pick-up truck he bought with his savings. He truly believed he'd get chosen to be on the team, but when the roster was posted, his name wasn't on it. Misunderstandings can be especially useful to shake things up.

4) Community. Family members are the best for mucking things up, but there are also friends, neighbors, and that guy at the park you see every time you go jogging and you don't know his name but you recognize his face and smile at him. And because they are all people, they can shake up a character's carefully ordered world. Maybe your character is planning on going into business with younger sister, but she elopes and moves to Cancun. Or your protagonist is planning to spend that tax refund on a new golf cart, then one of the kids spills a gallon of paint on the hardwood floor in the living room and lets it dry instead of cleaning it up. Of course, all this physical excitement will lead to mental and emotional stresses, which raise the stakes even higher.

5) Global. Your character is cruising along through life, everything's going good, then out of nowhere, Canada declares war and bombs Seattle. Or maybe it's the Koreans. Or the Rusikans from Theta Seti 5. Or a tornado touches down and rips up the neighborhood. Unless your character is the president of the country, there's nothing that can be done about a national or international crisis. 

Now I must go fix my boring story by raising some stakes. Are there any helpful things in here? Any other stakes you can think to raise?

-Sonja

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

An Interesting Character

I enjoy Pinterest for a bunch of reasons, and one of them is the humor. I find funny sayings, pictures, posters, quotes, you name it. Today I saw this photograph:


It was easier to post the picture than try to explain a sandwich-board sign coated in chalkboard paint... or maybe not. I don't know who took the picture or where it's from, so if anyone knows, fill me in and I'll give due credit to the source. For those who can't read the tiny font, it says, "Congratulations, you made it out of bed. Come in and celebrate."

My first reaction was to smile. That's pretty cute. Then I thought, does this person really exist? We all like to joke about how hard it is to get up in the morning, or how we don't function until we've had our first cup of coffee, but most of us aren't really this extreme. 

This would make an awesome character in a novel!

I see story elements in nearly everything I see, do, and read. Have you ever driven by a remote spot and thought, "What a great place to hide a body!" Have you ever seen a child laughing so hard they quit breathing and thought that scene had to go into a book? Have you seen a T-shirt with a sarcastic saying on it and knew which of your characters would proudly wear it?

Am I all by myself in this? What would you do with this character who must buy a coffee in response to successfully getting out of bed on time?

-Sonja

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Writing Prompts

Over on Pinterest, interesting writing prompts pop up once in a while on my feed. One especially interesting one caught my attention, so I followed the link. It's called Reddit Writing Prompts. Go check it out, I'll wait for you.

The one that jumped out at me on Pinterest is this:

> On your eighteenth birthday, you shoot a mystic bow that is said to kill whoever is destined to kill you, three seconds before they do. Eight years later, your arrow strikes your SO's heart, right as s/he says "I do."

A little melodramatic, but intriguing. And heart-breakingly sad. I don't like sad stuff, but this one got me. Wouldn't that make a great short story?

I haven't investigated the site well enough to know if these prompts are supposed to help you come up with a new novel idea, or spark a short story idea, or just get your creative juices flowing. There is a place for you to share the story you made up, contests, and a chat room. Maybe one of you has perused the site more than I have and can enlighten us all? I was thinking they'd be great prompts to get my son writing.

Let me share a few more interesting ones:

> You're a monster hiding under the bed. You're just about to burst out and frighten your victim when the father bursts into the room and starts mercilessly beating his own child.

> You are the first person ever to enter a black hole. When you come out the other side, you are back in the world exactly as you left it, but nobody seems to remember you.

> You'd always thought your house was haunted. One night, you're attacked by an intruder, but something defends you.

> You are the Chief Magical Officer at a retirement home for wizards witH Alzheimer's disease.

That's just a sampling, and I tried to grab different genres. There are TONS to choose from. Maybe someday when you're feeling writer's block or can't come up with a great idea for your next novel, give this site a try and see if that helps.

Comments?

-Sonja

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What Is a Log-Line, and Do You Need One?

Kristen Lamb wrote an awesome blog post yesterday called "How to Tell if Your Story is On Target--What is Your Book About in ONE Sentence?" It's awesome. Go read it (I put the link in there), then come back. Or just stick around, because I plan on hitting the high points and adding a few bits of my own.

The meat of Kristen's blog is that every author needs a log-line. Don't know what that is? It's a one-sentence pitch that summarizes your story. It's the one sentence you can tell people when they ask, "What's your book about?" Don't ramble on for 20 minutes giving a play-by-play of the plot. Give the log-line. Go to IMDB (that's a website) and look up your favorite movies. Odds are, there's a one-sentence summary to get you to watch the movie.

Here are some examples:

"The Green Mile is about the lives of guards on death row leading up to the execution of a black man accused of rape and child murder who has the power of faith healing."

"A vengeful fairy is driven to curse an infant princess, only to discover that the child may be the one person who can restore peace to their troubled land." (That's Maleficent, and I've heard nothing to great reviews about this movie so far.)


"A reluctant hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, sets out to the Lonely Mountain with a spirited group of dwarves to reclaim their mountain home--and the gold within it--from the dragon Smaug."

The log-line tells the core idea of your story in a way that is emotionally intriguing and piques a reader's interest. It can take time to get it right. Kristen suggests trying it out on lots of people, even strangers in the coffee shop. If their eyes glaze over, your log-line isn't ready yet. If they lean forward and ask when that baby will be published, you know you're on track.

Here are the components of a successful log-line (according to Kristen--I didn't come up with this on my own):

1) a protagonist
2) an active verb
3) an active goal
4) an antagonist
5) the stakes

Check it out in action: 

Luke Skywalker (protagonist) joins forces (active verb) with a Jedi knight, a cocky pilot, a Wookie, and two droids to save the universe (active goal) from the Empire's world-destroying battle-station (the stakes), while also attempting to rescue Princess Leia (another goal) from the evil Darth Vader (antagonist.)

Here's another one, from the movie X-Men: Days of Future Past (which I saw last weekend and thought was pretty good):

The X-Men send (active verb) Wolverine (protagonist) to the past in a desperate effort (active goal) to change history and prevent an event that results in doom for both humans and mutants (stakes). 

Notice the antagonist isn't mentioned in this log-line, but it's kind of implied in "the event."

Now let me try it on one of my own stories, Cassandra's Curse:

Cassandra Christofides uses her gift of precognition to stop a sniper who intends to kill Cassandra.

I'm fairly happy with this one. The hard part is knowing what stakes to put in there, as the sniper kills a bunch of people in the book, but I thought the most pressing stake in Cassie's mind is her own demise. This comes at the end of the book, though, so don't use your log-line as the blurb (that's the sentence on the front of the book or the paragraph on the back of the book that's supposed to entire readers to buy/read the book).

Now try writing a log-line for your book. If you feel brave, share your results in the comments section. You might get some helpful feedback.

Questions? Comments? Frustrations? Share them all!

-Sonja