Saturday, September 27, 2008

Four Plot Types (from Orson Scott Card)

There four types of stories or plots.

The Travel/Quest Story: This story is most concerned with places visited. The story begins when the trip begins and end when the traveler returns home. Think of The Odyssey. The story is about the Sirens and the Cyclops - strange inhabitants of strange places.

The Mystery/Puzzle Story: This story is most concerned with answering a question. The story begins when the question is asked and ends when the question is answered. Think of murder mysteries. The story is about answering the question: Who is the murdered and why?

The Character Story: This story is most concerned with the characters. The story begins when the character feel compelled to changed and ends when the character either settles into a new role or accepts their former role. Frank Capra's It's a Wonder Life is a perfect example, starting with George Bailey considering suicide and ending when he accepts the movie's title.

The Crisis/Disaster Story: This story is most concerned with some crisis or disaster. The story begins with the crisis and ends when the crisis has been resolved. Much of history is presented with this plot, especially wars. Wars start with an invasion and end with a treaty.

A fifth plot structure used by beginning writers is the Meta Mystery/Puzzle Story. This story is most concerned with reader guessing what the writer is writing about. The writer intends to increase the suspense and interest by keeping the reader guessing.
But that is not so. Suspense comes from having almost all the information - enough information that the audience is emotionally involved and cares very much about that tiny bit of information left unrevealed.
CREDIT: These ideas are abstracted from How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. In spite of the book's title, it contains excellent advice for all writers - one of the best How to Write ... books ever.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Asperger Syndrome - Who cares about your story?

"The lack of demonstrated empathy is possibly the most dysfunctional aspect of Asperger syndrome." This is not only a problem for people, but it is also a problem for protagonists. While the viewpoint character might simply be a narrator, generally, someone (this protagonist) in the story must care deeply about the outcome. (For a general discussion of protagonists and viewpoint characters see How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card). A Book for Today: Keeper of the Keys by Perri OShaughnessy is an example of a novel that suffers from this problem.

As I critique stories on Critters, the wonderful site for aspiring and published SF&F authors, I notice that many beginning writers expect the plot or setting to keep the reader involved and overcome the characters own ennui and lack of involvement with the story. As much as the next reader of SF&F I am interesting the a unique world or a mystical or scientific conundrum, but without the human/alien empathetic connection, the story devolves from a narrative into a exposition and the line is crossed from fiction into non-fiction genre and boredom sets in.

A similar problem occurs when the character cares, but is merely an impotent victim. Readers can rarely empathize with characters who float hopelessly in the current of fate.

Nothing is less worthy of publication that writing which in the characters are not engaging and the information is pure fabrication.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Dangers of Plot Outlines

Certain genres, such as mysteries, thrillers, and science fiction, place particular emphasis on plot. New writers are often encouraged to write detailed plot outlines (just about as often as they are advised to ignore plot outlines and just write, letting the story evolve organically). In the end, each writer must find their own approach.

However, if you feel yourself drawn to plot outlines, this warning is for you. The only writings that rest entirely on plot are the riddles you learned in preschool and those story problems in you middle school math books. Beyond these all story telling hinge on characters, characters and characters. Even novels with complex plots (Dickens, Delinsky, Christie, Grisham, Patterson immediately come to mind), the characters drive the story.

The risk of a plot outline is that the author forces the characters to behave as the plot demands instead of visa versa. As a story unfolds, the primary questions in the author's mind should be what will the character do next? Even when the reader imagines they are reading to find what happens next, they are really want to know what the characters will do and what will happen to them.

Never let the plotting drive the characters actions.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Writing: Show or Tell?

Show, don't tell!

This is the most common advice given to new writers. The is terrible advice. For example, two excellent thrillers I recently read, (7th Heaven and The Secret Servant) happily disregard this sage advice. The proper advice is Show or Tell. As the plot unfolds, the author must decide to either show or tell. If the two are combined, the readers will be bored by the redundant exposition. When an action in abridged with a telling summary, the emotional commitment is lost. When a telling summary is extended with a showing digression, the pace is lost. The author must commit to either Show or Tell.

Here is an example from classic Elmer Gantry by a Nobel Prize winning author. After dedicating two chapters to show us Reverand Gantry's first church. The next short chapter begins by telling:
A year he spent in Rudd Center, three years in Vulcan, and two years in Sparta.
Six years of plot gone in one sentence! This is the power of telling!

For each step of your plot, make a decision: Show or Tell, both not both.

Characterization: Five Rules

These five rules are from How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction, a book that has excellent advice for all fiction writers in spite of a title that emphasizes genre fiction. These rules (much abridged) were written by Dean R Koontz. I always prefer advice from successful writers, not amateurs or academics, and Dean Koontz certainly qualifies here.
  • Your character must not act irrationally and must not get into trouble merely because he makes stupid decisions.
  • Your character must not be passive.
  • Your lead characters must not be supermen or superwomen whose actions always succeed.
  • Your characters ... must have lives outside the central story.
  • Your lead characters must not be concerned solely about his own fate.