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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Act 1 - Light Your Story on Fire

There is so much housekeeping to do in Act 1, that once you're writing, it's easy to forget that you still have structural work to do. You have to establish your characters, you have to establish your setting, and you have to establish your tone. So before you even get to that point, let's take a look at the outline and see what needs to be done in the framing:

Act 1
-Inciting Incident

The Inciting Incident is the very first event that begins the series of events that will make up your plot. It is the spark that starts the fire. Without it none of the events that follow would ever have occurred.

In a murder mystery, which is the simplest example, the inciting incident is the discovery of the body. In Field of Dreams the inciting incident occurs when Ray hears a voice ("If you build it, he will come.") in his cornfield. In Star Wars: A New Hope the inciting incident is Luke's discovery of Leia's urgent message.

How is the inciting incident different than the plot point at the end of Act 1?

If the inciting incident is the spark, the end of act one is the first gust of wind that turns your spark into a fire. It builds on the inciting incident and propels your reader forward with a clear sense of the story's direction.

At the end of act one, your reader should know the overall plot of the story and the goal of the main character - whether it's find the killer, build the baseball field in the corn, or rescue Princess Leia, your reader should have some sense of which direction the story is moving. Of course there will be twists and turns - your story would be boring without them - but at the end of Act 1, your readers should at least see some of the path ahead.

In Field of Dreams the inciting incident is the first time Ray hears the voice, but Act 1 ends with his choice - his choice to plow under his corn and build a baseball field, his choice to follow the direction of the voice. In Star Wars: A New Hope the inciting incident is Luke's discovery of Leia's message, but Act 1 ends only after the death of his aunt and uncle and his decision to go with Obi-Wan to rescue Leia. If it were not for the death of his aunt and uncle, Luke would not be able to leave the farm. Their death is the plot point that propels him forward and allows him to pursue his hero's quest.

As you think about your inciting incident, don't think of it as a burden or something mechanical that has to be in place. Instead, think of it as your first opportunity to engage your reader. When you're sitting down to write your query letter to an agent, this is the moment you're going to describe. This is what happens that RIPS your main character from his normal life and THRUSTS him into something unusual, something that makes your reader want to join him for the journey.

When the first invite to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry arrives for Harry Potter, it's the first letter he's ever received - AND IT WON'T STOP COMING. That's the level of build and excitement that should be your goal as you think about your inciting incident. And your Act 1 plot point should be as loud and declarative as the pounding of Hagrid's fist on the door of a small shack in the middle of a storm. Let that be your inspiration as you sit down to your outline and think about your story.

So now you have your fire. Next we're gonna turn it into a blaze.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In Defense of Outlining: Raising a Barn Begins With a Frame

It's really simple - if you don't frame your barn first, you may later discover a weakness in the structure, and before you know it, the roof is caving in. FRAME YOUR BARN.

Stories are no different. At some point in school, your teacher taught you about the three act structure, and as you progressed as a writer, maybe you took more classes or learned a bit more, but somehow you picked up a few more terms:

Act 1
-Inciting Incident

Act 2
-Rising Action
-The Turn

Act 3

If you've written a first draft of your book without having at least a general sense that you are hitting those beats, you may have a problem. Let me tell you, it's easier to fix a structural problem with your story in outline form rather than tens of thousands of words.

You may be wanting to argue with me right now that storytelling shouldn't be a paint by numbers affair, that plenty of writers have manipulated the three act structure to serve their own purposes. That's very true. None of those writers are you. Until you have successfully mastered and understood the three act structure, you're not in a position to invert it.

Over the next few days, I'm going to break down the three act structure in detail. Outlining makes your story work for you, and understanding story structure can help get you out of a bind when you're stuck.

Let's take a look at that frame before we get to our barn raising.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Gift Card Dilemma: Too Many Books, Too Little Money

I have a $10 gift card for Barnes & Noble.

I'm all caught up on my guilty pleasure series.

I want to buy Anathem by Neal Stephenson, but I want to try to keep to the paperback books.

Anyone have a suggestion? Something out in paperback that I absolutely MUST read?

Friday, November 07, 2008

And Now Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

I have a confession: Writing has not been my number one life priority as of late. Which is essentially my way of saying that I have not been working on my writing.

How terrible of me! This is National Novel Writing Month, and not only have I not accepted the challenge, I have already wiled away the last two weekends, not to mention blowing off the entire month of October.

My engine is stalled and it looks like I'm gonna need a jump.

That makes this the perfect opportunity to share some ideas on how to get yourself back on the writing track and building momentum again:

1. Brainstorm - Get back into your project by investing time exploring your characters and the world they inhabit again. Work on descriptions, details, imagining new scenes and conflicts. As you open yourself up to the possibilities of your story, new ideas will form and you'll turn up something to get excited about again.

2. Jump Ahead - It seems logical that you would need to write a novel in a linear fashion, but if you're following along with an outline but struggling to build momentum, a jump ahead might be the perfect solution. Look for the scene that you're most excited to write, and then dive right in. By moving forward in the story, you may actually reveal an idea that you want to use earlier on in the book, and that will give you a motivation to go back to the beginning and start plowing ahead.

3. Set Aside a Time and Place to Write - We say this time and again, but nothing could be more true: sometimes you just need to sit down and do it. Putting yourself in a comfortable place with a good block of time that you're devoting to writing can be really helpful to get you back on track and back in the writer's vein. Writing, after all, is just as habit forming as exercise. Push yourself to do it over and over and someday it will just stick.

4. Writing Exercises - If none of the above is working, try setting out just ten minutes of time for a quick writing exercise using your characters. Imagine your protagonist trapped in an elevator. How does he get himself out? What does he think about while he's there? How does he relate to the other people trapped with him? Little exercises like that can be less intimidating than trying to work on the whole project, but sometimes all you need is to get the pen flowing again.

Anyone else with ideas?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Have Books, Need Love

In the most recent episode of Valentine over on the CW, an already canceled show about the Goddess of Love (don't ask me why I watch these things), Peter is reminded just how much he loves his wife Xan... because he loves books. And in a very bookish turn of events, love is rediscovered when the corporate shackles of big box sellers are tossed aside for the truly romantic life in an independent bookstore.

Ah... now that is love.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Do You NaNo?

On your marks... get set... GO! NaNoWriMo has begun!

It's November 1st, and that marks the beginning of National Novel Writing Month.

The ten year history of NaNoWriMo actually began in July of 1999 when 21 friends in the San Francisco Bay Area challenged each other to write a novel (50,000 words) in one month. The goal was not to write something of quality, but to focus on the quantity. Complete an entire novel in just one month!

Now settled in November, NaNoWriMo attracts many participants who spend every spare moment of the month working on their novel. Participants track their progress on the NaNoWriMo website and share frustrations and words of support with fellow writers.

Focusing on completing a novel in such a short period of time is a great exercise as a writer. It teaches you to push through blocks, and to minimize bad habits such as the tendency to edit as you go. Sometimes you just have to spit out that first draft, then see what you have to work with. Too many times, writers get tripped up on their way and lose all momentum. NaNoWriMo is all momentum. Just let your fingers and imaginations fly.

So what do you say? Anyone out there working on a November NaNoWriMo novel?