Sunday, June 16, 2013

The First Shot - The Opening Paragraph

In the preceding eLog post I introduced Jeffrey Schechter’s My Story Can Beat Up Your Story, a writing help book for screen plays adaptable to short stories, novellas, and novels. Using the structure he puts forth, I wrote the first chapter. This time let’s look at another writer’s guide, Hooked by Les Edgerton (1). (No, this is not about my legendary ancestor Capt. Christopher Newport, prototype for the infamous Capt. James Hook.) This is about the first words you set down to draw the reader into your story.

You will repeatedly see the admonition and warning, maybe even threats of bodily violence, Do Not Use, “It was a dark a stormy night.” Well, chuck that. I successfully open several novels with storm scenes; For All Time and Eternity, Death by Top Secret, and Man With No Name. When I set to writing the opening to Order of the Brethren, the one that eventually spilled onto the computer screen begins on a story night. Why? Attempting to apply Edgerton's guidelines, this seems a natural way to open the tale.

Admittedly, I have waffled during subsequent edits of the scene, not about the contents, but the tense. An omnipresent storyteller spins the story in past tense. The opening paragraphs are in present tense. This is an experiment not yet set in stone. The reader begins in the mind of our hero’s wife to see and experience what she is dreaming which portend events to happen, a kind of preview for the reader.

Mariah isn’t sure where she is. It’s pitch black. Perhaps in the beach house, or on the beach, or in their bedroom. That doesn’t matter. It is her husband’s smell, his strong arms encircling her body, his lips gently caressing her neck. She hopes it’s on the beach. That’s where all their children have been conceived, and it is time to have another baby. Then there is movement behind his broad shoulders, something coming toward them, cloaked in black, indistinguishable. It grabs his arm and begins pulling him away. Her hand locks onto the other arm with a tenacious grip. She will not let him go. Not again. He looks at her and smiles. She fights to hold on, but knows it’s useless. Releasing his arm, anger fills her breast.

The apparition hands him a sword. It’s broken. The symbol of death. Her husband gently takes her chin in one hand and kisses her upon the lips as tears stain her cheeks. As her husband and the spectre begin to disappear into the blackness Jean-Paul runs to his father and takes his hand. She tries to scream, NO, but the sound is drown by the explosion of cannon fire. They are lost in a sea of blinding light until seeing a body laid out on a table. It is covered by a white clothe, only the feet exposed, bare and motionless. She knows those feet and screams.

Edgerton states in the introduction to Hooked that a tremendous number of stories are not read by agents and editors (and more importantly potential readers) because they do not begin in the right place. The opening scene should have something happen to the protagonist creating the surface problem and indicate the story-worthy problem.

Things to avoid like the Black Plague are 1) ruminating about some problem, 2) backstory, 3) telling the reader that something has affected the hero, 4) reveries about the hero’s good or bad luck, stupidity, or brilliance, 5) the narrator’s description of what he sees, and 6) opening with dialogue. There should be a hint of trouble to come.

In this opening we find one of our protagonists in a confused state which might be frightening except for the presence of her husband. They have a positive, close relationship. Forty-three words. In the next twenty-two words we learn of her future hopes, and then in steps an antagonist, a spectre who attempts to take her husband away. Backstory in eight words: "She will not let him go. Not again." She loses the struggle because her husband desires to leave which makes her angry. 

The dream continues with a reference to a broken sword, in dream lore a reference to death. Again, their love is dramatized before a second tragedy enters when her son joins hubby and the spectre as they depart. Her protest is drown by the noise of a cannon-like explosion (this is a pirate story, after all), and then she sees a body lying beneath a shroud. Recognizing the feet, she screams and awakes.

Many people hold the notion that dreams can portend the future and that is exactly to what these references allude. Despite the great love between husband and wife, hubby is going to leave on a dangerous journey, their son will accompany him, and someone is going to die.

As chapter one evolves it is not necessary to give copious amounts of backstory. That was all covered in a previous edition, The Urchin Pirate, therefore it is only necessary to give passing mention to certain, important points by providing hints pertinent to the continuing tale. As the chapter closes, a “ghost” from the past approaches our hero to solicit help on an adventure. Their son joins him. Much of the dream comes to fruition except for the premonition of impending death.
For those who read the preceding books, The Urchin Pirate and Lions of el Bayadh, know that I am not partial to characters. The time period—early 1600’s—and their lifestyle—sailing the open seas in leaky boats, and piracy, were not conducive to longevity. These stories reflect the history of the period.

The opening paragraph or first page (which is usually only one-third as long as a regular page) must capture the reader and draw them into the story. This particular opening is an experiment and may not do it. That’s why beta readers and editors are so important; therefore the beginning of this story could drastically change by the final draft. It is not uncommon for me to write opening paragraphs as many as twenty or thirty times! You read that correctly. This is about the twelfth opening drafted so far. Whether a short story, novella, or novel this one element of the story really must be the right write.

Next time, Act 2, the journey begins.

(1) Edgerton, Les, Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go, Writer’s Digest Books, 2007. (Paperback, ISBN-978-1582974576; Available as Kindle edition)

Editorial comment: Used bookstores offer Hooked at about $2 for a like new copy up to $15. The Kindle edition is overpriced at about $10 as is most traditional publisher offerings.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Hero Within Structure

Over the last few weeks this eLog (the word blog is a disgusting sound so I’m flushing it) has discussed one of the most important elements to most stories – the character. If you have one book at your fingertips to guide your writing I strongly suggest My Story Can Beat Up Your Story by Jeffery Alan Schechter (Amazon Books, new and used for a moderate price or Kindle for a whole lot less).

I have seen a lot of help books over the years and there are some very good ones such as Hooked by Les Edgerton (Amazon Books for inexpensive or Kindle for overpriced), however Schechter pulls all those suggestions together so to make sense, and backs it up with copious examples.

I am not going to do more than graze the surface because this is a book that must be read cover to cover, and then again very carefully while highlighting and taking notes.

For those not familiar with screenplay writing (I am not) a standard movie is about 90 minutes long guided by a 108-120 page script. What Schechter discusses is structure, the skeleton on which a writer hangs his creativity. That same skeleton is easily adapted to the novel, the length of which allows for tremendous creativity.

Here are some highlights.

** Before you write be sure there is a clean thematic question from the hero and a clear thematic argument from the villain.

Act 1  Who is your hero?
   1.  Know what the central question is
   2.  Exploration, realization, and amplification of orphan status
Act 2a  What is your hero trying to accomplish?
   1.  Begins journey to find clues to answering central question
   2.  Acquires all helpers and material to answer central question

Act 2b  Warrior
   1.  Fights, bloodied, wins, loses, draws
   2.  His death and rebirth and/or death of stakes character(s), or near death.

Act 3  What happens if hero fails?
   1.  Must be willing to die and not reborn to answer central question
   2   By giving up what thought he wanted to be awarded what he needs.
   3.  It's not being successful, but doing what is right and necessary.
   4.  The martyr can be another character, and hero learns from or motivated by this other person.

The Opponent:
   1.  Powerful
   2.  Ruthless
   3.  Committed
   4.  The hero of his own story, doing what he believes is right. So what if have to break a few eggs.

Think on it. You’ve read a few great novels and seen some great motion pictures. Are those elements present? In all likelihood, yes. That’s what made them great.

As example here is Act 1 or in my case, Chapter 1 of Order of the Brethren:

Act 1 Who is your hero?
   1.  An orphan
   2.  A pirate
   3.  A successful plantation owner, husband, and father
   4.  A person with moral convictions
   5.  A person with a past he can not forget
   6.  A person who has done something which he regrets and is not sure how to make amends.
   7.  A person who lives a lie
   8.  Undeserved misfortune:
           a. loss of natural parents to plague
           b. sinking of Flourette and loss of his pirate family
           c. loss of Henry, his adopted little brother
           d. sinking of a French warship when loses control of temper and ensuing curse
   9.  Nice to kids and animals
 10.  Quirky and/or fun mannerism
           a.  stands with feet spread and hands clasped behind his back
           b.  unusually calm during high stress situations such as battle
 11.  Compelling goal
           a.  Stop Lord Chudleigh’s war on pirates and innocent people
There it is, Chapter 1 in 2,830 words; the hook, the hero, and winding up of tension. In future eLogs I would like to explore how Schechter’s structure works in other chapters of, A Pirate’s Legacy: Order of the Brethren, a work in progress.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Character Development: The Little Things

When my youngest son introduced me as older than dirt, I corrected him by saying, “Not so, I only go back to when I was Moses’ scoutmaster, and he skipped the meeting about orienteering.” The point being, I was using what is now the Internet before 98% of you reading this post learned WWW was not an acronym for Wide World of War. That was thanks to my involvement in journalism, academia, and government. I have watched it grow from a toddler to this humongous entity
containing nearly all of mankind’s knowledge, both a blessing and a curse. The curse is the proliferation of erroneous material, but the prudent researcher can sort through that.

As this relates to the individual attempting to improve their writing, all this stuff is a blessing and curse. What else? The curse being information put forth by individuals who haven’t a clue what they are talking about. I won’t delve into that, but instead focus on things that are important when creating characters for your story.

I recently scanned over 100 blogs (I really hate that word. It has the sound of someone tramping through a muddy cattle pen.) Anyway, many of these - web posts - say the same things about characterization. Here is a condensed list as they relate to all characters, but especially your protagonists and antagonists:

1)   Allow them to make mistakes.
2)   Stand up and be counted. There’s nothing worse than a passive character than plays an important role in the story.
3)   Allow them to struggle with choices. If you can show your character mentally torn apart, especially if his choice adversely affects himself or someone he cares about, you've created a compelling inner conflict that will make readers sympathize.
4)   Characters act consistently within the world you've created.
5)   Your characters encounter struggles.
6)   Weave physical details into the story where they legitimately belong. This is achieved through direct description or indirect references. Whatever you do, avoid an information dump like a plague.
7)   Make them real. They should be able to smell, hear, feel, taste, and see the environment around them.
8)   Give them universal, human qualities. Do they laugh or cry? Experience frustration?
Disappointment? Joy, anger, shame, guilt, or ambivalence? Importantly, will readers be able to relate to these reactions?
9)   Give them quirks, idiosyncrasies, little habits. Nothing distracting, but humanizing.
10) Give them convictions, ethics, and beliefs.
11) Have them behave logically, use common sense, and have worthy goals. This applies to the good, bad, and ugly characters.
12) Create the character as an individual, not a stereotype.
13) Give them an arc – show growth or movement one direction of the other within the story.
14) Take any scene, imagine yourself as the point of view character, and start telling the story as they would tell it.
          Ask yourself these questions as you write:
               a)  What does character notice?
               b)  How does character see other people?
               c)  What thoughts run through the character’s head as events unfold?
               d)  What past events influence my character in the present? What future events does my character anticipate?
               e)  What does my character want? What motivates my character to act?
               f)   What is my character’s deepest fear?
15) A single point of view is limiting. Is it possible to use more than one point of view?
              a)  Departing from a single point of view can divulge information that the reader could not learn from the primary point of view character.
              b)  It is possible to drop clues in the environment of your viewpoint character - clues that the reader would understand, but from which the character wouldn't necessarily draw conclusions.
        This technique might be a good idea if:
                    i)    This shows how your protagonist appears to others.
                    ii)   Your main viewpoint character is unreliable.
                    iii)  The contrast between your protagonist's viewpoint and another person's viewpoint is central to the story conflict.
                    iv)  You want to show precisely how dangerous your antagonist is.

No doubt there are other things, but considering and incorporating these into your story will develop richer characters. Some you will want to incorporate during pre-planning because they will have a decided effect on how your plot progresses. Painted other things in during subsequent edits Рlike adding cr̬me de menthe to a mug of hot chocolate.

These are just thinking points for refining, like when a sculpture uses a small chisel or blade to create detail to his Michelangelo. How you use your characters and how they carry the story is the most important piece to good writing. I strongly suggest you read My Story Can Beat Up Your Story by Jefferey Alan Schechter (print and eBook). While the author’s focus is on screenplays, you better believe what he has laid out will make you a better writer and your story salable. On the other hand, don’t read it so those who do will stand out like a big, green frog in a KKK convention. More on this next – the book, not the frog.