I am a pantsing-type writer, so my characters always come first. Their choices change the course of the plot, which is why, for me as a writer, knowing a character’s field of focus is essential.
Which is why this particular post is going to feel like it bled over from yesterdays... plot & character are inseparable in my mind. I get writers block when I disconnect when a character, when I don’t know how they would react, what choice they would make, etc.
The last post on character already talked a bit about plot, about how the character must have a believable set of experiences/knowledge by the time they hit the climax, and similarly, this post is going to waver between plot & character.
You can break plot down into character reactions/decisions. When a character is hit with something they are unprepared for (uncertainty), they’re going to react.
When a character is hit with something they are prepared for (risk), they are going to make a decision.
Now, I’m not guaranteeing that every time your character comes up again uncertainty they will fail and every time they come up again risk they will succeed. There are always outside influences that affect the outcome, good or bad.
Many of those outside influences will be like a trail of breadcrumbs through the story, insignificant on their own, but when the MC gets to the climax, they realize they’ve got an entire loaf of bread. (Note-to-self: hydras probably like bread, yes? What about pit-vipers?)
As writers, we are (or should be) masters at manipulation.
In ‘Who-dun-it’ novels, facts are the breadcrumbs. Essentially, a series of sensory data that the MC observes, then puts all those pieces together in a cohesive pattern. When the MC is clear on what happened, s/he fingers the butler as the killer.
We provide clues to the reader, not just observational data (which you can consider, for the purpose of my point, hard data. As in: facts), but with emotional and psychological filters through which that data is absorbed (as in, your character’s field of focus). They may notice a room full of things (the list of hard data) but will only focus on some of it (the field of focus).
You can provide all the facts in the world, you can tell a smoker the statistics of how many people die from cancer, if the data exists in the realm of ‘uncertainty’, they’re not going to stop smoking. They are going to believe they’re that 1% who will survive, so they pull themselves out of the trenches and run forward into machine-gun-fire.
To hook a reader, we have to transition ‘uncertainty’ into ‘risk’ We have to bring it into their personal field of focus, and the best way to do that is to make them care.
Personally, I’m really sick of the phrase ‘save-the-cat’, but I’m going to use it anyways because it’s a general concept I think most people are familiar with. For those who aren’t, the general principle is to show an unlikable character doing something nice, like rescuing a vulnerable kitten who is alone in the rain -> to show they are only mean-and-prickly on the outside but are really a marshmallow on the inside.
Alternatively, there’s ‘kick-the-dog’, where a seemingly nice character is seen secretly being mean to someone else, therefore letting the reader/viewer know that that character is super evil.
It feels like bad/poorly done emotional manipulation... it's so obvious, I tend to roll my eyes.
I don’t like these terms because they simplify things into *good* and *evil*, but they are easy to work with/explain, and in terms of actual writing, you can get similar impact in a much subtler way.
Example: In TRoRS, Triss steals a bag of chips to share with N... not Triss' favourite flavour, N's favourite. Small acts of consideration, of putting another character first, are a lot more subtle, and a lot more realistic than literally saving a cat in the rain.
And characters don’t have to be likeable. Most of my characters... I seriously think I'm trying to make readers hate them (what's wrong with me?)
But think of the term anti-hero, or flawed main character. How many people like Spiderman and Batman more than Superman? Batman, especially, because even with all his fancy toys, he’s human, he’s mortal, he has no superpowers. He has to work harder than other superheros, and we kindof admire that.
I am a huge fan of both Courtney Summers and Laurie Halse Anderson. These amazing authors (and others) write interesting and realistic characters, and it's their characters that made me want to write YA in the first place. If you’ve never read CS’s thoughts on “unlikable female characters”, read this and this and this.
There are reasons you keep turning the pages in CS’s books, not as obvious as a ‘save-the-cat’ thing, but there are moments where you understand the prickly, mean, selfish character… and that’s enough to keep reading.
Emotional manipulation. That’s how we let a reader see through the emotional/psychological lens of our characters. So what’s that all about?
Prepare to groan…
It’s in showing, not telling.
Essentially, it’s about letting the reader live in the character’s skin, letting them view the data through that character’s field of focus instead of simply summarizing what happened. When you summarize, there’s no emotional connection. When you live in the character’s skin, that’s where you experience the sights, smells, and emotions of the character.
And that’s how/why you care. Because you are gaining experience. That character’s life transitions from ‘uncertainty’ to ‘risk’. You learn the ability to plan/manage/understand the character's choices.
It’s no longer a statistic printed on a cigarette carton, it’s discovering your 6 year old daughter has asthma because of your smoking. Suddenly an uncertainty, something so unlikely to happen you don’t even think about it, becomes a risk. It enters your field of focus and becomes important.
Yeah, I know it seems like I’m wandering all over the place. Like trying to walk a beagle right? They’re constantly weaving all over the place, stopping short, and getting underfoot.
(also eating gross things on the ground… shiny tangent? where? /gives self minor whiplash...)
My point is:
Each plot point/progression has to have an emotional stake, something that matters to the character. To use another very common/familiar example, in ‘The Hunger Games,’ Katniss had no reason to volunteer to be tribute… but why did she?
She had all the facts, she knew whoever went would die, there was a statistical chance her sister could be chosen, but the thought never even occurred to her as being in the realm of possibility until her sister’s name was called and the idea, and the risk/outcome, entered her field of focus. It suddenly became important.
Then she had to make a decision.
And this is why I say that, for me, a character’s choice changes the course of the story, and to know what they would choose, first you have to know their field of focus. What constitutes risk and what constitutes uncertainty? What are their past knowledge, experience, and interests?
...and what about the characters around your MC?
And with that food-for-thought, I'll leave you. Have a good weekend, all!
We build up our own understanding of risk through experience: how we react to uncertainty/risk and how others react to uncertainty/risk.
So when we look at characters, what experiences do they have with risk/uncertainty, and how can we use our own experiences as writers?
Sorry for another Margaret Atwood quote, but: “Our problem right now is that we're so specialized that if the lights go out, there are a huge number of people who are not going to know what to do. But within every dystopia there's a little utopia.”
I’m not really a fan of dystopian books. Part of this is because I prefer personal/intimate character journeys rather than ‘save-the-world’ ones. I’m also not really a fan because dystopian world are often simplified to the point where a blind monkey could poke logic holes all over the place.
Note I said often, not always. I have read a few fabulous dystopian books.
Logic is my thing. It’s how I write (I could probably link 2 dozen+ posts about writing), how I read/edit/critique (and another 2 dozen here), and how I think (seriously, you’re already neck-deep in another nerdy-over-analytical-series-of-posts and you should know I'm prone to this type of behaviour).
Like my favourite writing-group-ism, the “Pizza Popsicle”, I drive everyone crazy with the number of times I ask “why” and "I can't quite imagine that."
And I think a huge part of this is I want to believe. I want to get so caught up in a character or world that I lose the impulse to ask “why” and just live in the story.
So bringing my point back around again (darn you, shiny tangents…)
The Margaret Atwood quote is about uncertainty/risk. If the lights went out, for those to whom that was an ‘uncertainty’ would have no way of managing/planning, and that situation would be a dystopia. For those to whom the lights going out was a ‘risk’, for them, because they have the ability to manage/plan, that situation could be their own utopia.
Hey, what an awesome chance to whip out a shotgun and loot/pillage or kill that neighbour who always lets his dog poop on your lawn.
So, why am I talking about dystopian literature and Margaret Atwood when I promised a post about characters?
Well, because I think that can be the basis for how you position your main character within your world (and I’m not specifically meaning sci-fi/fantasy, I’m being inclusive of contemporary/our world/etc as well when I use this term).
Zombies attack. For your main character, is this situation ‘risk’ or ‘uncertainty’?
Your MC’s brother overdoses. Is this situation a ‘risk’ or an ‘uncertainty’?
Your magician got cursed and now his wand is a self-aware, snarky pit-viper (with its full latent magic).
Your orphan shark MC has just been adopted by a vegan parrot fish couple.
All of these characters in all of these situations could react in an innumerable number of ways depending on what their background is, but switching it from 'risk' to 'uncertainty' ups the stakes.
When you get to the climax and your magician is facing a demon-princess transmogrified into a giant hydra, and has to convince his wand-turned-pit-viper to help when it would rather slither into a cool, dank hole or sunbathe on a sunny rock, as a reader, I want to believe it when your magician pulls a badly whittled flute from his robes and hypnotizes that pit-viper into saving his ass…
…but if you haven’t lead me to believe it’s logical, that he can whittle a flute, that he has past experiences with hypnotizing snakes, or fighting giant hydras, I’m not going to believe it. Sure, he can flub up every one of those things along the way, but he has to gain experience in those areas.
The trick of convincing a reader into believing something as absurd as that (by the way, that pit-viper story idea is now copyrighted*… so no stealing) is possible.
No matter what you throw at your character, there has to be a balance between ‘uncertainty’ and ‘risk’.
Well, no, I’m going to amend that. I think the inciting incident can be an ‘uncertainty’, and other events/challenges in the story can also be 'uncertainties', but the climax has to be a ‘risk’. The character must have the experience to manage/plan to take down that giant hydra. He can’t suddenly just take off his shoe and throw it in the air in the hopes that the hydra will choke on it… if that hydra does choke, or the magician suddenly becomes enlightened (even though he has never meditated a day in his life) and can cast killer-destructo-spells without his pit-viper-wand, then I’m throwing your book across the room.
Okay, not really, because I’d probably be reading it on my Kindle.
There must be a logical progression/absorption of knowledge/experience.
And I’m not just talking about big stuff, I’m talking about little stuff too.
Y’know I will pick apart every word in every sentence (which is why I don’t do line edits). One thing I am particularly anal about is are *how* characters view the world. Metaphors/similes that are out of character, phrases ‘too old’ or ‘too young’, observations that are ‘too juvenile’ or ‘too self-aware’, I’m going to take those apart really fast.
A character in a sci-fi story is probably not going to compare a distant planet or technology to something common from Victorian England, just as a character who has grown up in the mountains isn’t going to describe things with visuals from, say, the ocean, or the plains. Your seventeen-year-old valley girl who grew up in the city and is into shopping and makeup won’t compare the sound of her heels to gunfire and the sound of her friends talking shouldn't be compared to barnyard animals. Those things are not in her field of focus.
And this is another way to think about/write an authentic voice, by knowing what your character’s field of focus is.
I’m not saying I an expert, I am in no way claiming I’m right or I never make mistakes, but this is one of the things I work towards (read: obsess over) in my own writing. Heck, my own taste in characters is pretty questionable...
(seriously... I'm not even going to bother linking because there are too many examples I could use here)
How your character understands the world and makes choices is based on their past experiences.
You’ve heard the line, “To a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
So what tool** is your character?
And what do the problems you (the writer) throw at them look like? Are they all nails (risk), or did you throw a few screws and a staple in there (uncertainty)?
If you're having a problem with tension, maybe your 'hammer' character has been given all 'nails' and every problem is too easily solved.
* Wouldn't that magician story make an awesome bedtime story?
** Hahaha, I totally called your character a tool! (can you tell I'm over-tired?)
Personally, for writers, risk/uncertainty enters our daily life, maybe in ways we don't think about.
For example, some agents post year-end query stats, which I always find really interesting to read. I’m going to make up some numbers, just to give you an idea of what I mean.
Agent A received 250 queries/week in 2014. Out of those 250 queries, s/he requested 5 manuscripts. That’s 1000 queries a month, 20 manuscripts to be read/considered. In a year, that’s 12,000 queries, 240 manuscripts to read/consider.
Out of those 240 manuscripts, Agent A takes on 3 new clients.
Do you want to do the math?
Just like wave after wave of Canadian soldiers getting gunned down, the success rate is dismally low, but every writer sends off a query letter convinced that they are going to be that 1% who survive.
Now, I’m not saying that to be discouraging.
Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
If we believe we’re going to fail, we will.
But I think it’s important to think about in terms of managing our expectations as writers. Writing is an extremely solitary state, and it can be really discouraging when others around us are succeeding -> but they are that 1%. By understanding the numbers, it puts into perspective how many other writers are in the exact same circumstance as our own. It transitions from ‘uncertainty’ to ‘risk’ when we have that awareness, when we allow it to enter our frame of focus.
As a culture, we don’t like to talk about failure. We don’t like to be seen as losers, or whiners. It hurts our pride to be proven wrong. It’s the prevalence of this attitude that propagates stigmas around mental illness, infertility, addictions, etc. It's why people put up with abusive relationships or jobs they hate.
I haven’t been blogging consistently for a while, partially due to the number of deaths/illnesses in my family, but partially because I separated with my soon-to-be-ex-husband a little over two years ago (yes, it is STILL not done...). It’s been a heavy/stressful couple of years, and often I don’t have the emotional/mental capacity to re-frame things in a good light or to see the humour in it.
I choose silence out of embarrassment, out of not wanting to look like a failure, or a whiner.
This is why we deal with uncertainty the way we do: we rationalize it or we blame others. It’s to protect our fragile ego, and all that does is propagate more uncertainty.
So, again, what does this have to do with writers? Well, as I said, we’ re pretty solitary, so we're already prone to the dangers of uncertainty. When we are hit with something bad, especially failure or rejection, what do we do?
Well, if we talked more as a community, shared more of our collective experiences, ‘uncertainty’ becomes ‘risk’. We would have the benefit of other people’s experiences, and knowing that we are not alone is a big deal in making something more manageable.
And I’m not just talking about our mental/emotional/psychological state, I’m talking about our writing.
I wrote a post last year about mining emotion from past experiences and recycling them in stories. Well, why not mine other people’s experiences as well? Wouldn’t having that range give us a wider perspective on what is and could be possible for characters, for plot?
Earnest Hemingway famously said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
The thing is, it doesn’t have to be our blood on the page. We can reimagine our own experiences/emotions, it doesn't have to be 'write what you know' in the literal sense. We can ask other people questions, especially about the hard stuff we don't usually talk about out of fear, so we can gain knowledge/experience from them.
Do you know how many people have thanked me, in comments or via email, for being so blunt in these posts about my struggles with dyslexia? I really have no idea... but a lot.
Something I felt ashamed of for years... talking about it has helped other people.
And it's changing my perspective on it. I still will never be proud of having a learning disability, but by not hiding it, by having that conversation, it puts into perspective how many other people are/have been dealing with similar things.
Maybe my experiences can be something I pass along, for others to use.
Margaret Atwood said, “Storytelling is a very old human skill that gives us an evolutionary advantage. If you can tell young people how you kill an emu, acted out in song or dance, or that Uncle George was eaten by a croc over there, don't go there to swim, then those young people don't have to find out by trial and error.”
Writing is about sharing experiences, especially in YA/MG stories. There’s a huge push for authentic characters, authentic *voice*, authentic reactions/actions. We want readers to connect to our characters, to our stories.
And for that to happen, there has to be an emotional connection. Now, that doesn’t mean everyone has to love your main character, but they have to be interested in them, they have to understand why a character chooses something and why they react to something else.
If the character is “too dumb to live”, the reader will put down the book in anger/frustration.
We want to believe the character is real, that if a reader was placed in a similar circumstance, with similar knowledge/skills/experience that they might make similar choices.
Notice what I did there?
Next post will be about uncertainty/risk in terms of character.
I read something quite a while ago, and I’m sorry but I can’t recall where, so I can’t link to the original… but it was an article about WW1.
It was about all the young Canadians who served in the trenches, and the question was, how did they convince wave upon wave of young men to pull themselves out of the trenches and run forward towards the enemy, and get gunned down?
How come the men in the trenches didn’t watch that first wave of men get gunned down and go, “heck no, I’m not doing that”?
And the answer was something along the lines of:
If you tell a group of one hundred young men that, out of all of them, one will survive the battle, every single man in that room will completely believe that they are that 1% who will survive.
The key being, these are/were all young men.
These guys were young teenagers, none had any experience with war, with extinction/death on a huge scale, with pain, disease, fear, or killing other people, many of them also young men. They did not have the experience to recognize/manage risk. Just like in the example I used yesterday about the teenager driving in the rain for the first time, they know rain makes the road slippery, they would have had to learn that in their drivers test, but just because you ‘know’ something, doesn’t automatically make it a ‘risk’.
I think the main difference between risk and uncertainty is the idea of focus.
Humans are bombarded with information/stimuli, and over time we learn what’s important and what we can safely ignore. We can either focus really well on one thing, or we can step our perspective back a little and focus at a wider range, but we lose the specifics that we would get through focusing on a single thing.
Like with a camera lens. You can focus on a person’s face, and everything around it will be blurry, or you can focus on the ocean/sunrise, where nothing specifically in the frame is intensely sharp nor blurry.
So, when it comes to risk/uncertainty, ‘risk’ would be something we have in our viewfinder because we have experience, so we know it’s important to pay attention to. We keep those in our peripheral vision, aware of them, but not focused on them… but we can quickly switch focus because we know they are there. Like, while driving, we are aware someone is beside us and behind us, but we mostly focus on the person in front of us unless, say, the person beside us starts swerving into our lane, then our focus shifts to the side.
If we’re using the camera lens again, ‘uncertainty’ are things not visible in our viewfinder. They exist, but maybe they’re behind the camera, or too high/low to be in the frame. Going back to the driving example again, we’re aware of drivers behind/beside/in front, but we pay no attention to what’s above us. That is out of our frame of focus. This is also why a lot of accidents happen at intersections. We are so focused on the light in front of us, we fail to give proper notice to what might be coming at us from the side.
We can’t focus on everything all the time, it's impossible, but as we gain experience, we are better able to position ourselves to react when hit with the unexpected, hit with ‘uncertainty’.*
Which is why I think understanding the terms is the first step in widening that focus. If we can’t tell the difference between risk and uncertainty, we aren’t able to adapt or make choices that will position us to adapt in the future. In other words, we are more likely to rationalize/blame others instead of accepting that uncertainly is a reality which happens to everyone.
If we believe it's someone else's fault, it'll remain an 'uncertainty' for us instead of a 'risk' we could manage better in the future. So we're less likely to learn from it and less likely to anticipate a similar situation happening in the future. History repeats itself, yes?
So what does this have to do with us, as writers?
* If I was mean, this is where I would have included some stuff about Gadamer's Hermeneutical Horizon theory, but I figured this was nerdy enough.
I always feel like I should put a giant blinking “warning!” sign up when I click into over-analytical-mode.
These posts never get many comments, but I do get more emails than normal. Please, as always, comment, question, criticize, or throw ripe fruit in my general direction. Go all out, and if you send me an email, I will answer.
And the disclaimer: these nerdy posts are 100% opinion, please read all instructions carefully, keep away from small children, and have Poison Control on speed-dial.
I was nearly positive I’d already written a nerdy post in the past about uncertainty/risk, but searching my posts for the words turned up nothing.
The difference between uncertainty and risk is super interesting to me, and I think quite relevant to writers.
So let’s start off with how they’re different?
Risk is something you can manage. For example, if you get in your car when it’s pouring rain, you will mentally tell yourself, “The roads are slippery, my control will be less than normal, so if I slow down by 10km (or 5 miles for you Americans), I will be better able to react if the car in front of me slams on their brakes.”
That’s risk. Weighing the boundaries of what could go wrong and where the safe zone is. Those boundaries are things we learn through experience, either our own (slamming on the brakes, but going too fast to stop properly and hitting someone/etc) or through other people’s experiences (watching that happen to someone else, or having a friend/family member tell you).
We learn what those boundaries of safety are through experience, which means the younger you are, the less experience you have, therefore the younger you are, the less able you are to judge the safety/success of something.
This is why we get more conservative as we get older. We understand risk, and we manage it by slowing down 10km in the rain.
Uncertainty is when something unexpected slaps you in the face. This is the teenager driving in the rain for the very first time and maintaining the usual driving speed/distance as if they were driving on a dry/clear road. The car in front of them slams on their brakes, the teenager slams on their brakes… and someone behind rear-ends them.
Uncertainly is something we don’t have experience to plan for/manage. It’s something hypothetical that could happen, but is so unlikely we don’t even consider it possible.
Like, we take out house insurance for flood/fire, but we don’t take insurance for an asteroid striking the earth and obliterating our new above-ground pool.
Depending where we live, depending what our everyday lives and experiences are like, risk vs uncertainty can be very different things.
For example, I live in Vancouver, BC (Canada). Something that I would think so unlikely that I don’t consider possible would be a massive terrorist attack, like missiles crashing down on the street 50 feet away. For me, this falls into the ‘Uncertainty’ category. I would have no idea what to do, no past experience to draw from, no plan of how to manage this.
Now, if I lived in a different part of the world, missiles falling in the street might not be an uncertainty, they could be a risk. It’s a very real possibility when most people would have experienced it or heard about it happening to someone else. They would have a plan, they would know how to better manage this kind of event.
This is why we have fire drills and things like that, to gain experience for an unlikely situation.
Another example would be the terrible tragedy that happened almost 10 years ago in New Orleans. Yes, there was the potential of the entire city flooding, but it seemed so unlikely that no one had a plan for it, no one knew how to manage it. It wasn’t a ‘risk’, it was an ‘uncertainty’.
Now, the funny thing about uncertainty is that people generally deal with it in two ways.
1) They rationalize it. If we think back to the New Orleans tragedy, how many people after-the-fact said, “I knew that would happen.” That is them rationalizing the situation. Yes, the information was there, yes, people knew there was a possibility of flooding, but because it was unlikely, they did nothing about it and then it slapped them in the face. The teenager in the car knows rain makes the road slippery, but still doesn’t slow down/manage the risk because they feel it’s unlikely to happen, and doesn't consider that someone behind them won't be able to stop very well either if they unexpectedly slam on their brakes.
2) They blame someone else. When surprised, one of the most natural things is to look for a scape-goat. New Orleans? I’m sure you can think of a dozen people, maybe more, who were blamed… but it's not like any of them were directly responsible. They, like hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, just didn't think a flood was likely to happen. The same with the teenager getting rear-ended by another car, their first reaction will probably be to blame the other driver, but if the teen had been driving safely and planning for poorer driving conditions due to the rain, it's very likely the accident could have been avoided. But due to their lack of experience, the thought wouldn't even occur to the brand new teen driver.
By definition, you can't plan/manage/expect uncertainty, so rationalizing and blaming others isn't helpful. They are both self-comforting mechanisms to convince yourself that you have more control than you really do. Being out of control is scary, and usually that makes people panic and get angry.
The thing is, if we understand the difference between 'risk' and 'uncertainty', when we are hit with something unexpected we would be better able to recognize the difference, and rather than panic/blame others, instead we could learn -> gain experience, and be better able to handle a similar incident in the future.
If you don't learn from it, well, it's pretty likely you'll be rear-ended again in the future...
So, are we all clear on the difference between the two words?
Okay, so in the next few posts, I'm going to talk about:
Uncertainty/risk as a matter of focus
Uncertainty/risk as a writer
Uncertainty/risk in terms of character
Uncertainty/risk in terms of plot
These posts are going to be a progressive series, one leading into the next, but I’m breaking them up because I know my nerdy posts are heavy-reading. Hopefully they will be more palatable in smaller bites.
Okay, this is the last SiWC post, and this one I didn't actually plan to put up... mainly because I'm having to type this all out by hand now instead of just copying/pasting my notes, and my arm is pretty sore from too much computer work during the past week.
Since I *won* the draw for a free SiWC pass in 2013, I didn't have to pay for the 2014 conference. Because of that, I sprung for a Master Class with the author Eileen Cook (she's also from Vancouver, which is awesome :p), and this was absolutely the high-point of this conference for me.
Since it was a Master Class, I don't feel that it's right to post my notes from this class, but I think it is okay if I post about the story structure component.
One of the greatest disadvantages of being a dyslexic writer is that anything to do with structure/grammar makes absolutely no sense to me.
And I'm not exaggerating here... Ask me to define, or recognize, anything more complicated than a 'noun' and you really will believe I have a learning disability.
My understanding of sentence structure/grammar/etc comes down to three things: repetition (tons and tons of reading), aesthetic instinct (which I believe is also from repetition), and several extremely basic grammar rules that I can understand/recognize... like, when listing three or more things, you put a comma in between them.
Story structure... thinking about it, hearing about it, having it explained to me nearly always puts me into panic-mode... like being parachuted into a non-English-speaking country without money or passport, it absolutely overwhelms me.
Which, I know, most of you probably don't think of that as a big deal... especially those of you who have had your stories critiqued by me. I'm so thoroughly analytical about big-picture stuff that maybe no one has noticed that I almost never talk about the actual structure. And I'm pretty sure it's a major weakness in my own work -> this failure to properly understand structure.
BUT, because I generally like to make things difficult on myself, and because I never want to accept my own limitations, I signed up for this Master Class on editing.
...and finally got the first story-structure explanation that makes sense to me. And you know I like to joke around and say I'm the lowest common denominator... if it makes sense to me, it'll make sense to anyone!
I decided to post this here because I just typed it out for someone else...
So here's the story structure layout that succeeded in hammering basic comprehension into my thick skull:
1) setup -> what the world looks like
a) inciting incident
2) new situation, have to make decision of how to deal with it
b) decision/change of plans (this happens @ the 25% mark)
3) progress -> work towards the goal
c) point of no return ->can no longer go back to the person they were before the decision (this happens at the 50% mark)
4) complications/higher stakes
d) major setback, often death (75% mark)
5) Big push, have to keep going
e) Big climax
6) Aftermath -> what the world looks like now
This is simple. This makes sense to my brain. This I can plug in basic components and *see* the structure of my story.
As an example, I'd use TRoRS, except for the fact it's such a weird story (structural weirdness is only the beginning) that I wouldn't know where to begin.
So how about a story I've talked a little bit about, an older manuscript that a very reputable agent ripped apart and told me to either re-write it as upper YA or MG because, as it currently exists, falls into neither category... (in other words, it's a mess).
Query for this story (so everyone has at least an inkling of what I'm talking about, and this is probably the first 'decent' query I ever wrote):
Where desert wasteland meets raging sea, people die hard, fast and young, but fifteen-year-old Simon doesn’t care about other people, or even about himself. All that matters is protecting his ten-year-old brother, Hector. Everything else can get sunk.
Orphaned, sold, and forced to dredge silt from the local river, Simon is fast to talk his way into a safer job in the red district. Hired by a brothel madam to rehabilitate her daughter, Simon thinks he’s made a good bargain until they meet twelve-year-old Faith. The girl doesn’t talk, she only screams, bites, and lashes out whenever someone gets close. Turning Faith into a normal person seems impossible and the madam has only given them four weeks. If they succeed, they will be fed and clothed until they reach adulthood, but if they fail, they’ll be sold back into indentured slavery where a single slip could mean their death.
Desperate to keep his brother safe, he uses whatever tricks he can to keep Faith’s interest, even when it puts her in danger or he is beaten by the madam’s hand. As the deadline draws closer and Simon’s careful plans begin to fall apart, he must choose where his loyalties lie and which promises he must break.
Told in alternating viewpoints between Simon and Hector, SIMON’S OATH is a 73,000 word YA Fantasy in which two brothers survive by their wits as they struggle, separate, and test the fragile, familial bonds that both tie them together and weigh them down.
And now, this is what that story looks like, following that structure layout:
1) setup -> what the world looks like I started the story with Simon bringing Faith her breakfast, and she basically freaks out. Hector is terrified they'll get sold, Simon reassures him. Simon gets beaten. World building stuff (since it's not based on any specific real world/culture/place/time).
a) inciting incident Simon figures out Faith is always watching the water... and steals a tile with shells in it to (hopefully) catch her interest, and it does. Faith speaks for the first time ever.
2) new situation, have to make decision of how to deal with it Seashells, in the mythology of the world, are cursed, so Simon returns the tile and plots to bring other pretty things... Faith wakes to discover it's missing, chaos ensues. Well, partly due to the shells, more because she's being given a bath. This is the first time Simon/Hector feel sympathy for Faith instead of fear, and they go out looking for new things to show her. The brother's fight and separate.
b) decision/change of plans (this happens @ the 25% mark) Simon convinces Hector they need to get Faith outside, H reluctantly agrees, but still explores on his own and decides they need to go to the mausoleums where (potentially) there are more shells/sea stuff that they can steal.
3) progress -> work towards the goal Simon talks to Faith, working on convincing/manipulating her to go outside, the brothers head to the mausoleums to steal more shells to lure her out... they steal some, but they also find a huge overgrown garden.
c) point of no return ->can no longer go back to the person they were before the decision (this happens at the 50% mark) Because they were stealing shells, Faith freaked out while they were gone and the madam beats Simon when they return home. They essentially 'steal' Faith outside the next day, Simon pushing Faith due to his anger with the madam.
4) complications/higher stakes When they return, the madam hits Hector, and Faith freaks out, but Simon is able to calm her (which is a big deal). The madam gives permission for them to take Faith out again, since she seems a little 'better', but at the same time, kind of writes them off and reiterates the ultimatum. They are running out of time. The brothers take Faith out more, explore the city, Simon manipulating both Faith and Hector. Hector gets resentful/jealous. Faith almost drowns. Hector starts to mistrust his brother. They take Faith to the mausoleums and Hector rebells -> heading into the wild garden that Simon is afraid of. If I understood more about structure when I wrote this story, I would have more crap/bad things happen here, especially in the garden, as it's essentially their own little paradise. I don't think I raised the stakes enough here.
d) major setback, often death (75% mark) The madam finds the seashells (the ones S&H stole from the mausoleums, which are considered cursed), and in her fury at them bringing shells into her house, she sells Hector to the dredge-line. The brothers are now separated for the first time ever, and Hector could easily slip and die.
5) Big push, have to keep going On their own, Hector starts to find confidence in himself, while Simon starts to fall apart -> he's obsessed with keeping his brother safe, and feels he has failed. Simon's not allowed to take Faith outside anymore since the madam doesn't trust him, and Faith breaks down, causing so much chaos that the madam finally relents. Simon starts taking Faith to the garden daily. Both brothers, on their own, plan for the future in their own way.
e) Big climax the caravan returns, which is the madam's deadline for 'fixing' Faith so she can convince Faith's father to take the girl with him. Simon makes an absolute mess of things by lying/manipulating others and Hector ends up saving the day. I also think this is a point where the stakes were not high enough...
6) Aftermath -> what the world looks like nowOkay, this is totally a point where I failed with this MS. Essentially the story ends in the very next scene after the climax so there is no satisfactory resolution.
Part of the reason my end was so crappy is that I wrote the last 30,000 words in 10 days. I was so exhausted by the time I got to the end, it just kindof petered out.
As it turns out, this was also an excellent exercise in making a rough synopsis of the story :)
Really, until I just did this exercise a few minutes ago, I had no idea whether this story conformed to proper structure in the least... so not only did I learn something at the class, I learned something 5 minutes ago putting it into practice.
Definite high-point :)
...and now I kinda want to rip this story apart and re-write it ;)
No, Alcar. Faith and Simon will NOT end up together in a love-love relationship... /shudder/ the thought still creeps me out.
Well, hopefully that was as helpful for you as it was for me (it kinda blew my mind, to be honest), and if it didn't, well, you got a glimpse at an old manuscript of mine that is not 'trunked', but has definitely been put on the back-burner for a while.
Joelle Anthony (writer), Abby Ranger (editor), Anita Daher (writer), Mandy Hubbard (agent/writer), Eileen Cook (writer)
What’s taboo in YA, and has it changed?
MH: The short answer is no. I think you have put anything in, but it has to be through the eyes of an authentic teen character. Drugs, loss, losing virginity, etc, as long as it’s through the authentic view. Sex scenes, for example, are more about the emotions than the mechanics. IT’s the way you handle things on the page.
AD: I agree, nothing off limit, how you handle it is important. Anything that right for the story/character is good as long as it isn’t for shock/gratuitous. It has to be there for a reason to forwards the character/story, and the question is how far you go. Have to be truthful to the character.
AR: I agree with both. the only thing I can see as ‘no’ is a grown up protagonist who is experimenting with a younger character without any consequences, growth, etc. If it’s not serving the story/character, take it out.
JA: I don’t read dark and it’s not where I go as a writer. When I work with kids (teaches writing), the only thing that mattes is to own your words and stand behind them. If you’re okay with that, if you can accept that, that’s fine.
AR: We always see this articles saying, ‘why are we letting children read this gross drivel…’ why are we allowing this to be public, audit’s always designed to create an uproar. Responses to that is, there isa lot of darkness because teens are trying to grapple with the darkness in the world, and at the endow these books, there’s a spark of hope. The really bleak endings are more in adult literature, not in YA. We have the responsibility to find that glimmer.
AD: With everything teens are exposed to in the news/internet/etc, but they are only getting snippets of that’s going on. A book is a very safe place for teens to explore these darker issues, to take the journey they might now be able to do through a news snippet or a tv show/movie.
EC: YA is such a new ting that I think most adults forget there was a time you skipped immediately from children to adult literature.
HM: I want to add that if you don’t have these things, that’s okay too. Thee is a market for that. One of my books ‘fool me twice’ is in the Scholastic listing - they never would have piked it up if it wasn’t clean. They want books that are okay to promote for younger teens.
AR: Have to ask, who is this for? Be thoughtful for your audience. Where does this sit in the library, who is going to endorse this? There are specific gatekeepers.
EC: So what about those gatekeepers, librarians, parents, teachers, etc? Do you think about those?
JA: You can’t really control who reads. t’s middle school librarians, etc, the readers who say,, eww, why is there a kiss scene?’
EC: What about banned books? Would you like to write a book that’s banned?
AD: once you book is out there, don’t be afraid of being banned. Write your story as it has to be and worry about hose things later.
EC: Is there something ‘hot’ or ‘not’?
AR: There have been waves that have peaked, like paranormal, then dystopian, lately we’ve had contempt and ‘sick-lit’, and I think it’s silly to publish more because of ‘TFiOS’. It’s very unwise to write to that. What editors/publishers/agents want is to open something up and be completely surprised. Taking some spirit of what people love, that’s out there, that people love, and then translating it to a different genre - but transformed into something new. The heart of what makes a book work, and doing it in your own distinct way.
MH: I have this editor spreadsheet that’s 50 pages long, and one editor I first talked to said to me, ‘I’m always looking up for a surprise’, and that stuck in my head. I signed a book last year I never would have said ‘I’m looking for this!” -> a magical chicken that levitates things with its brains. My only thing with trends are to be aware of the really saturated ones. If you have a lot of ideas, and one is dystopian, maybe work on one of the other ones, you’re kind of stacking the odds against you. Dystopian/paranormal are really tough. But there’s always the exception to the rules.
EC: What do you like best about writing for teens, or why do you work in this particular area?
JA: Because that’s what I like to read, so it was a natural progression, and i agree when Abby said ‘there’s a glimmer of hope’. I’m a really cheerful person, so I like that idea of hope.
AR: I had a great conversation with other editors/agents about what internal age you are, what age you still remember well/connect to. For me, maybe insecure 17yo girl, the goofy 11yo boy who likes adventure. Part of what I love is just that sense of intensity. So many things you’re experimenting for the first time. Everything has a life/death sense of feel to it that in another age might feel flatter/wrong. In the craft of storytelling, part of what I love doing in working for teens is that all those books are so important because you’re trying to hood the attention of someone who has a million options and really short attention span - being able to draw them in and make them feel for that character is much harder than writing for an adult, you don’t necessarily need that strict storytelling craft.
AD: I believe when we go into a creative place, we do have an age we naturally go to. When I immerse myself into a story I go very naturally into a place between 12 and 17. I’m cheerful too, but also moody. The story, the start/middle/end of stories is more important to teens than for adults. Maybe I just never figured out where I fit in. Teens have a very strong BS meter
AR: As a very broad comment, MG is about finding the place in the family house, YA is about burning down the house, the options and complications to that.
MH: ‘The Truth about You & ME’, a 16 year old gets involved with a teacher in university. They’re bantering about about what songs were popular when they were young, and I knew hers, but when I googled to find his, I was shocked that he was only a couple years younger than me! When I wrote my first novel, an agent told me that my voice worked better in YA, so I said, ‘i should read some!’
EC: I know people say to me, I want to write YA, and when I ask, ‘why’, they say, ‘because it’s selling well’, and I don’t like that. If you don’t like it, read it, etc, it’ll come across on each page.
EC Do you have one piece of writing advice?
MH: Let yourself write crap. I have that moment in every book where eI read something and think’, oh my goodness, I wrote this crap?’ but then I look at the books on my shelf and put it into perspective.
AD: Going back to the taboo a bit, with one story I didn’t know they were a cutter, I knew she was depressed, but as I wrote, that’s what made sense. I don’t go deep in my first draft, I go deeper later. I do suggest if you’re going to write about an issue or something, research it. I found out that if a cutter reads about cutting, it’s trigger and I didn’t want to put out a book full of triggers, so I worked with my editor to strategize around that.
AR: Respect your reader. Don’t underestimate them. Another similar/different point is not judging your character, what they want, what they do, etc. Empathize properly with your character. Don’t question the moral/ethical code when you’re in a character’s skin, especially the villains. What is deeply human/relatable about them.
JA: Eileen took mine. My best advice is to read, but more than that, give yourself permission to read. Don’t feel guilty that you’re reading instead of writing. It’s part of your work/art. Read 150 books in your genre every year.
EC: I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Ivan Coyote speak, but she to me to send stuff out, and I said, ‘no I’m not ready’, and she said, ‘you’re already not published, so if you send stuff out, the worst that can happen is that you still won’t be published.’ That gave me permission to send stuff out.
Audience question: Are there more taboos in content for MG?
MH: There are more gatekeepers, but also, there’s a lot of things that will go over younger kids’ heads.
AR: I always have to pause at the word ‘content’, every publishing house has different rules and it often depends on a book-to-book basis, the voice, the character, etc, how everything is serving the story. Sometimes it’ll be a question of dialling something back, adjusting the character to get it into the Scholastic listing (into school), and then it’s up to the writer.
AD: MG kids are more interested in school, friends, etc so it really depends on how you hand it.
Audience Question: Difference between YA/NA?
MH: I think it’s tempting to tack NA onto a lot of things, but where this took off originally was the transitional college age with more romance. That’s not a bad thing, but that’s just where things are, and since it started out s e-book, bookstores are actually having a hard time selling hardcopy NA book, but tone of e-books are being stolen. NA isn’t just sexed-up YA.
AR: YA is a broad section, it includes so many genres -> fantasy, contemp, etc. It holds so much, but right now, NA is very small -> sexier/older protagonist with more mature themes. Talked to someone else who said for her, it’s like a combination between chick-lit written 10-20 years ago (in a higher economy) combined with YA. NA is more like.
Audience question: My daughter likes fantasy/etc, but is trying to find YA where they main focus isn’t about ‘the guy’. How much if it is out there?
MH: It’s out there, it’s just harder to find, because that’s what most teens are interested in.
JA: I don’t like books where it’s all about the romance, but mine do have a small romantic element.
AR: One thing I love is that there’s a lot of strong FMC who are trying to figure out who they are and what they want and they do part of that through a relationship, but there are books where it’s not defining themselves completely through the guy/relationship.
AD: I wrote a book before NA was a thing, it was an older YA right out highschool, are publishers interested in NA that is fantasy/etc that is not about the romance?
AR:Yes, as long as it’s not a college setting.
Audience question: MG works very well for boys, but when you get into YA, buys kind of disappear. Not enough stuff is being written that appeals to them.
MH: I had to pass on something I loved once because I knew publishers would turn it down because there was no girl appeal.
EC: I can think of some that did well. ‘Noggin’, ‘Winger’, ‘Carter Finally Gets It’.
AR: This is a very real thing. Publishers find that the readership drops.
JA: I work with a lot of kids at that age and the boys are perfectly happy to move immediately into adult ‘Meet Player One’ (recommended to her by a 13yo boy)
Audience question: What about not ‘sex/drugs’, but creepy instead? Lemmony Snicket for for older YA?
AR: There is a lot of stuff out there, ‘Cavendish Home for Boys & Girls’, there is that there, but there was to be the dark/light balance. ‘A Tale Dark and Grimm’
Audience question: Can you recommend any good darker books our there to read?
EC: ‘Kiss Kill Vanish’, ‘Winger’
AR: Asylum (horror)
MH: ‘Rites of Passage’
EC: Is there a YA you’ve read recently that you are recommending to people that’s not yours?
JA: ‘I’ll give you the sun’, ‘The Sky is everywhere’. Some boy books, ‘Brooklyn Burning’, ‘Blinking Caution’ (sp?)
EC: ‘Noggin’ was given to me and was one I wasn’t all that interested in reading, but it was really interesting.
Audience comment: In MG, I find there has to be a sense of humour. It can go dark, but there aways has to be something weird/wacky.
Audience comment: I’m a librarian, ‘Anatomy of a girl gang’
EC: Orca Publishing out of Vancouver Island focus on books for reluctant readers, they have great distribution. The stories explode.
Audience comment: I’m a book seller/writer. ’Now is the time for Running’ - two boys having to escape a village massacre.
EC: The connection between reader/writers seem much stronger in YA, so how do you handle that, and how do you advise your clients on how to handle that, social media, etc.
MH: As an agent first, I think more of my followers are adults/writer/etc, but I do get some. So if you get cute emails/etc, always reply.
AD: I hear much more from MG readers than teen readers. With our publish image, I don’t put anything snarky on social media. I do censor myself. I check in on social media, but I try to keep in mind that I never know who will be reading it, so I don’t put anything mean spirited.
AR: There is such a range of how to use social media, so I suggest just do what feels comfortable. It’ll come across if you’re doing it because you think you have to. You’re at an open cocktail party where anyone can/could retweet your comments/etc. It’s really nice to join a conversation, have people supporting them, especially if before their first book comes out, before they have to do all the self-promotion stuff.
EC: That’s true, I think it really comes across if you’re only doing it to sell your book.
JA: I don’t get a lot of emails from readers, but the ones I do tend to be from librarians, adults, etc. and 11yo boys who don’t like my books, which are more geared towards girls. I do keep all business stuff quiet. I don’t talk about it at all in anything other than generic terms. One thing I keep in mind is, if you do receive something, wait at least 24 hours before responding so you don’t seem like a dork.
EC: I think something to be aware of, I have seen querying writers tweet stuff like, ‘I pitched “x” and they were a cow.” Be aware we can, and do search ourselves. Going back, when I wrote for adults, I never heard from readers, but writing YA, I think it’s so cool to get emails/etc from teens now. That’s why you should do social media, because you want to, and can connect with readers.
Audience question: Do you think NA is going to go the way of chick-lit, or is is going to expand like YA?
MH: Well, are people having a hard time finding those things without the NA? Like, fantasy appeals widely whereas NA started because readers wanted that college setting… which wouldn’t really be applicable to genres other than contemporary/romance. But I can’t predict the future, so who knows.
AR: The bookseller is kindof the one who starts it. Barns & Nobel is the biggest bookstore and they don’t have a NA section, but do they need it? I personally don’t see it.