Tag Archives: writing techniques

Narrative Tension and the Ticking Clock

12 May

by Julie Eshbaugh

~~~

“The ticking clock,” is a plot device that is used to constrain your story and put a time limit on your protagonist as he or she works to resolve a conflict. The concept is simple – a certain task must be completed by a certain deadline or the character will fail and suffer the consequences of that failure. An entire story can be a ticking clock (the film RUN LOLA RUN is a good example) or a ticking clock can be part of a single conflict within a larger story (such as the clock tower scene in BACK TO THE FUTURE.)

The addition of a ticking clock instantly creates increased tension. A challenge may feel relatively easy to overcome if time is not an issue. But take away the luxury of unlimited time and you immediately turn up the heat on your characters.

Let’s look at some real life examples. If you’re a student, consider the last paper you had to write. When did you feel the most tension – when you had two weeks to get it written, or 24 hours to hand it in? Writers under contract to a publisher know the reality of the ticking clock all too well when they are up against a deadline to turn in revisions. How about a football team, down by 10 points, at the two minute warning? We all run into ticking clocks in life, and we know the stress they can cause. Sometimes that kind of stress is just what your story needs to increase the pressure on your characters and make the action as compelling as it can be.

Although the ticking clock may feel like a device that is best suited to thrillers, it can be used in almost any kind of story. Below are a few examples taken from films. (I came up with a few from books I’ve read recently, but I was too concerned about spoilers to include them!)

RUN LOLA RUN – Lola (Franka Potente) has 20 minutes to deliver 100,000 German marks to save her boyfriend’s life.

TITANIC – In one scene, Rose (Kate Winslet) has to rescue Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) from a room below deck before it floods and he drowns.

SAY ANYTHING – Lloyd (John Cusack) has until the end of the summer to win the heart of Diane (Ione Skye) before she leaves for a new life in England.

ROMAN HOLIDAY – Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) has just one day to experience all the joys of life as an anonymous citizen, including falling in love with an American reporter (Gregory Peck.)

BACK TO THE FUTURE – Doc (Christopher Lloyd) has until the moment lightning is destined to strike the clock tower to get the DeLorean time machine in position to send Marty (Michael J. Fox) back to 1985.

(While avoiding spoilers is too important to me to mention specific examples, I can at least say that I can think of examples of ticking clocks in all three of Suzanne Collins’s HUNGER GAMES books, as well as INCARCERON by Catherine Fisher, which I just finished and highly recommend.)

Tips on getting the most out of the Ticking Clock:

• It’s important to maintain the tension all the way up to the deadline. The device alone will increase the pressure on your hero, but the conflict still needs to escalate. As your hero runs out of time, the stakes need to stay high. Your protagonist can not accept missing the deadline as a viable solution.

• As the deadline approaches, the obstacles to succeeding should increase. In the eleventh hour, the plan that has been working smoothly should completely crumble. Don’t let your protagonist off the hook by allowing her to solve the problem too early.

• Don’t let your hero know how it turns out. It’s easy to imagine that a ticking clock could come across as a gimmick. This is most likely to occur when your hero doesn’t feel threatened by the deadline. Your hero must respect the danger of the ticking clock. Don’t let your hero become too confident.

In closing, I want to share the clock tower scene from BACK TO THE FUTURE. I’m sure you’ve seen it before, but I’d like to ask you to watch it for the example it gives of a perfectly executed ticking clock within the plot. (Also, watch for the two actual “ticking clocks” in the scene.) ENJOY!

What do you think of the ticking clock device? Have you ever used it? Do you think it’s something that you would like to try in your own writing? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

~~~

Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

Advertisements

BICHOK: Draino for your Writing Clog

14 Mar

by Susan Dennard

~~

Note: this post is (sort of) a continuation of If It Doesn’t Fit, Don’t Force It, and When the Glass Isn’t Half-Full.

A few people have asked how I managed to get my writing “swing” back, and I gave a brief rundown in the comments last week.  I thought I’d go into a tad more detail here.

First off: writing has something of an ebb and flow to it—for everyone, I believe.

For me, the “ebb” is like the really steep incline on a rollercoaster.  And then the “flow” is all the free-falling, loop-dee-loop, high-speed ACTION!

Fortunately, the high-energy, high-productivity bits last longer than the crap (usually), and I can ride a “flow” for a few months before the “ebb” hits.  (Not always, of course.  It’s definitely related to stress and other parts of my life.  A period of nail-biting, hair-pulling stress or a week of mind-numbing melancholy can pretty much stop any writing rollercoaster dead in its tracks.)

When the “ebb” hits, I am miserable and reluctant for at least a week, and I usually let myself wallow in laziness.

Which of course, only makes me feel guilty because I should be working, which then feeds the glum mood, which then feeds the guilt… On and on and on.  Sometimes, with enough sour gummy worms (or a looming deadline—those can be very effective), my productivity will return on its own.

But not always.  And that’s when I have to resort to BICHOK—a veritable plunger for your clogged brain.

Butt

In

Chair

Hands

On

Keyboard


I MAKE myself sit at the computer.  I disconnect the internet.  I set a timer for 30 minutes.

And I write.  My goal is 500 words, which I know I can write (under pressure) in 15 minutes.  So 30 minutes gives me a comfortable buffer.  I write until I hit 500 words or the alarm sounds.

If I feel good, I set the alarm for another 30 minutes and keep going, but usually, if it’s my first few days back, I jump from the chair and do something else before sitting again.

I start with 1000 words per day—two sessions.  Then, as my comfort grows and my feel for the story increases, I move to 2000 words in 2 1-hour sessions.  Then 3000 in 3 1-hour sessions.  Finally, 4000 in 4 1-hour sessions (remember, I write full-time, so I have a bit more time to devote to it each day).

After a good week or two, the rollercoaster is back in high gear and I’m getting in 20 pages or so a day.  Best of all, I’m back in the “flow”, back in the story, and back to feeling good.

BICHOK For Your Life

After my last rather rough patch of blues, I decided it was time for a Full Life Make-Over.  This was something I did when I suffered from real depression during my undergrad.  I had discovered that though the medication helped stabilize my moods, it also shattering my creativity.

Kind of like with BICHOK, I broke my life up into a very strict schedule.  And, no matter how I felt, I made myself stick to it.  For a week, then two weeks, and then until it became routine and my contentment returned.

I broke my day into strict chunks, making sure there was

  1. at least thirty minutes devoted to being outside
  2. at least thirty minutes devoted to exercise
  3. stretch breaks every 1.5 hours
  4. healthy eating
  5. sleep

Sounds silly and obvious, I know, but bear with me…

In undergrad, I stopped taking the bus to class, and I walked (okay, not on rainy days).  It got me outside and my heartbeat up.   Now, I take my dog for a thirty minute walk/jog in the woods after lunch.  No matter what (even in the rain and snow!), I’ve done this everyday now for 2 weeks.

Do I enjoy it?  To be honest, not really…I get bored easily, so I try to keep my mind focused on my plot and the characters while I walk.

But have I noticed a difference?  Yes.  In my energy.  In my mood.  And I’m really proud I haven’t missed a day.

You tell me: Is there some time in your day you can add a walk outside?  Or is there some way you can add 20-30 minutes of exercise?

During undergrad, I spent a lot of time studying, sitting in class, or working in labs.  To keep my mind and body refreshed, I started stretching in between classes.  Or during study/lab sessions, I’d take a five minute break to move (maybe just jog to the bathroom or roll my shoulders/touch my toes).

I’m not that into yoga (I get so darn boooored), but I’ve taken it before and love a good sun salutation.  When I write, I stop every 1.5 hours to do two sun salutations, refresh my coffee (so walk upstairs and move a little), and stop staring at the computer screen.

When the timer dings beside my computer it means 1) I should have reached my 1000 word goal, and 2) time to salute the sun!

You tell me: Is there any time during your work day or writing time that you can pause to refresh your body and your eyes?  Is there some way you can set a timer and get up for just a minute or two when that timer goes off?

Finally, diet and sleep.  DUH, right?  Everyone tells you this.  All. The. Time.  Eat healthy, you feel better. Get a good night’s sleep, you feel better.

But seriously, if you make a really HUGE effort to go to bed 30 minutes or an hour earlier, you’ll feel the difference the next day!

If you make an effort to plan your meals and have a good, solid breakfast (oh man, breakfast makes all the difference in the world for me!), you’ll really feel a difference.  I was eating crap food for lunches (pasta, pasta, soup, instant rice, pasta), but I’ve been devoted for a few weeks now to eating salads and sandwiches (or, I like to make extra food for dinner and have left-overs).

Two more things I added to my life: a full-spectrum light and plants in my office and vitamin D. If I’m in the office, the light comes on and I water all the plants. When I check my emails (I get 30 minutes in the morning to do this according to the new Super Strict Schedule), I drink my vitamin D.

Does It Really Make a Difference?

I don’t know.  Honestly, I can’t say if my strict schedule and BICHOK are what make the difference in my productivity and happiness, or if it’s something else.

It could be just the EFFORT—the attempt to turn my life around—is what changes my mood. Commitment can feel good.  Getting excited about a new life is a great way to boost your happiness.

What I do know is that this method works for me.  It might not work for you, or you might need more, you might need less.

BUT, it’s something you can try.

Do you do any of these things in your life?  Have you ever tried strict schedules to turn your writing or life around?  Do you have other tips to share?

~~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, The Spirit-Hunters, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

Self-Indulgent Fantasies: Funny, but Not Appropriate

2 Mar

by Susan Dennard

~~

Once upon a time, there was a really beautiful girl with LOTS of money. Her name was Susan, and she was super popular.  Everyone wanted to be her, but she was nice, so everyone liked her too.  She fell in love with a handsome Frenchman.

Oh, and she could fly and turn invisible.

Oh! And Sam Worthington wanted to go out with her, but since she was already married to the wonderful Frenchman, she had to turn him down.  He still sends her flowers and chocolates, regularly…and they like to hang out.

Okay, okay, enough.  If you don’t want to gag yet, you should.  Just writing that triggered severe gag-reflex in me.  Sure, that may be My Ultimate Fantasy, but it’s not a story.  It’s really not something I should share with people either, methinks.

The point is this: YOUR FANTASIES ARE PRIVATE AND SHOULD NOT BE THE CORE OF YOUR STORIES.

Fan fiction is one thing, as Savannah explains very well here, but original fiction is quite another.  You need to distance yourself from self-indulgent drivel.

And here’s why:

When we write our fantasies out, there’s never enough conflict.  Perhaps there’s no character conflict (notice that Susan above is an obnoxious Mary Sue), or maybe there is no plot conflict (um, there is no resistance to Susan’s love story with the Frenchie) or maybe it’s just all-around cheesy (yes, my fantasy definitely has a lot of CHEESE).  No matter what, the problem is private fantasies have no conflict, and without conflict, the story is of no interest to the reader.

Now, of course, you can use parts of your daydreams in your novel.  Or you can draw inspiration from your fantasies.  Gosh, the kiss scene in THE SPIRIT-HUNTERS is definitely something plucked from my Most-Perfect-Kisses-Imaginable-Bank.  And, of course, the rogue-ish Daniel is built from my dreams of swoon-worthy boys.

But those personal favorites are layered underneath not-so-happy conflict, rough decisions, crappy circumstances, and lots of failure — all stuff that doesn’t happen in my fantasies. 😉

Of course, fantasies can sometimes be hilarious for anecdotal tales…  Case in point:

If you ever have fantasies like Katie’s, I ask that you please share.  Or if you ever walk backwards into bushes while sighing deeply.  (Like, seriously, email me or something.)

But if you have fantasies like this, please don’t share! (Go to ~1:00 to hear the about the self-indulgent screen play.)

But if your fantasy is PG rated, just go ahead and share in the comments what your personal DREAM starring YOU would be!

~~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, The Spirit-Hunters, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.

Scenes–what are they in novels, and how do you write them?

16 Feb

by Susan Dennard

~~

Scenes: the building blocks of your novel.  Some people make one chapter equal one scene; others (such as myself) prefer to cram a few scenes into each chapter.

Scenes are the natural breaking points in your story.  A place for your reader to run to the bathroom, take a breather, or (what every author wants) flip anxiously to the next page!

Typically when you’re typing your manuscript, you separate scenes as follows:

end scene 1

#

begin scene 2

There are, of course, other ways to do it (such as *** or an empty line), but the #-method is the one I follow.

A scene can be as long as you need it, but keep in mind that shorter scenes keep your audience’s attention more easily.

Transitioning

Normally you begin a scene with a transition that describes the time, the place, the characters present and any necessary summary of what happened between scenes.  The transitions is there to ground the reader in the new scene. For example, here’s a transition from The Spirit-Hunters (a scene that was ultimately cut, by the way). In the scene before, which happened in the morning, the main character got into a rather stinky predicament with some walking corpses.

#

As usual, I had to bribe Mary to help.  But, a lost pair of gloves was easier to explain than a foul walking dress. Fortunately, Mary had been so pleased by her payment, she hadn’t bothered to inquire about how the dress had reached its current state.

That afternoon, when I met Mama in the drawing room for tea, I found that, rather than distress over the prior evening’s failed séance and horrible events, she beamed with delight.  In fact, she was so pleased she failed to notice my disheveled hair or missing parasol.

Now we know how much time has passed since the previous scene, what the main character did between scenes, where she is in the new scene, and what other characters are present in the new scene.

Developing the Plot

For a passage of text to qualify as a scene, something important must happen. And that something must contribute to the plot!

You could have a one sentence scene:

#

Far from the mess in Atlanta–in fact, directly on the opposite side of the globe–Padmini was diagnosed with the first cases of the zombie flu virus.

#

Or you could have scenes that extend twenty pages (though, I recommend against this!  Remember reader attention spans–people want natural breaks). Just make sure that every event in the scene is critical to the plot!

One way to test if you have an actual scene is to remove it from the novel.  Does the story work without it?  If so, then you don’t have a scene, and you should just go ahead and cut that text!  But if the story no longer exists without that passage, then you’ve successfully written a scene!

Ending on a Hook

If you finish a scene with something riveting, you compel your reader to instantly turn the page.  You know those books you finish in one sitting because you just CAN’T put them down?  Well, that’s what you want to create, and a key component to un-put-downable-ness is the hook.

Cliffhangers can be effective hooks to end a scene with, but if you write too many cliffhangers, you wind up annoying the reader.

Other hooks include:

  • a funny, witty, or clever sentence
  • funny, witty, or clever dialogue
  • revealing Very Important Information
  • an unexpected twist that takes the story in a new direction
  • a decision or plan

The best way to learn scene mechanics is to READ.  Notice what published writers include in their scenes.  Notice how they reveal the plot, how they use scenes to show character and setting, how they write transitions, and how they hook you to keep reading.

So tell me, is there anything else you consider critical to a scene?  And can you think of any other hooks?

Building Plot from Character

17 Jan

by Susan Dennard

~~

Last Friday’s QOTW was about avoiding a contrived plot.  At the time, I took this to mean a copy-cat plot, but the responses of Mandy and Julie made me see what the question could have meant: how do you avoid a forced plot — a turn of events in the story that doesn’t feel natural.  Julie said, “if a seemingly unsolvable problem is solved by a character conveniently having an ability that was unknown before the crisis moment, the solution feels contrived.” Mandy mentioned “it’s the decisions the characters make that effect how the plot plays out.”

I wanted to take both of these fantastic answers a step further.  To avoid that feeling of “what a coincidence!” or “this feels out-of-character“, you can focus on building your plot from a character.  Whether you a plotter or a pantster, it’s important to keep in mind that in most stories character dictates plot.  Even the most plot-driven stories are affected by the heroes — think of Indiana Jones or Lord of the Rings where quests are the main force behind the story but characters also affect how that quest plays out.

Ultimately, convincing stories boil down to the decisions and actions a character takes feeling natural to that character (just like Julie and Mandy said).  The best way to show what I mean is to use my favorite stories as examples.

Plot-driven Stories

How would Star Wars: A New Hope have differed if Luke were a different type of person?

Luke is a reluctant hero — though he wants excitement and change, he’s unwilling to leave behind his family on the whim of his old pal, Ben Kenobi.  In fact, Luke is kind of a whiny baby.  For him to have willingly accepted Ben’s request to face Darth Vader from the beginning would have felt wrong.  Why?  Because it’s not in his character to actually face excitement and change fearlessly.  It’s not until his family is killed that he decides to set out on his quest and face the major nasty, Darth Vader.

What if Luke had been a braver, more aggressive character?  He’d have been gung-ho over facing Darth Vadar from the get-go.  We’d have found it weird if he’d been reluctant.

What if Luke had been a downright coward?  Well, no way in hell he’d have joined Ben Kenobi — dead family or not.  The quest just wouldn’t have happened.

The plot has to fit the characters.

Character-driven Stories

How would Napoleon Dynamite be different if Napoleon were a different type of person?

Well…you wouldn’t even have the same story!  If Napoleon didn’t call home for chapstick or draw hideous portraits of his prom dates, you simply wouldn’t have the same movie.  In other words, everything in a character-driven story is decided by the main character.  To have even the slightest out-of-character action is much more obvious, and to force plot events on a character will instantly alienate readers/viewers.

Again, the plot has to fit the characters.

How to Build Plot from Character

I foolishly messed this up with my first draft of The Spirit-Hunters — I made up a series of events I thought were über cool, threw some random characters in to act it out, and BAM!  I had a completely wretched story that was utterly unconvincing and took a year of heavy revisions to salvage.

Mandy offers great advice in the QOTW: “This is why I always reccomend that if you have a book idea, the first thing you do is figure out what kind of character would create the most conflict– whether that means a bossy Type A character who loses control, a fashoinista who ends up stranded in the woods, a socially awkward girl who ends up in high society, etc. If you truly think about what kind of characters will naturally create the most conflict, chances are the plot won’t feel forced.

The instant you’ve got your Shiny New Idea, sit down and sort out the best character for it — be it the kind of person who will create the most conflict (a reluctant Luke Skywalker) or the kind of person most likely to be up to these sorts of challenges (an always ready Indiana Jones).  If you’re writing a romance, what traits in the hero will most conflict with the heroine?  Thinking about characteristics and the conflict that can arise from such personalities will let you tap into a whole new (and convincing!) slew of plot events!

Have you made this same mistake in your own writing?  Have you seen it done in any movies/TV/novels?  Or can you think of a story that would be totally changed if the protagonist were a different sort of person?

~~~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, The Spirit-Hunters, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.

Chekhov’s Gun – How to Make this Technique Work for You

22 Nov

by Julie Eshbaugh

~~~

The term Chekhov’s Gun refers to a literary technique built around playwright Anton Chekhov’s assertion that, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”  (This quote is found in endless variations.  This particular version is from Gurlyand’s Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov, in Teatr i iskusstvo 1904, No 28, July 11, p. 521)

Though this pearl of wisdom may be quite clear and helpful to you the next time you find yourself designing the set for your local community theater’s production of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, perhaps you are currently wondering how Chekhov’s advice could possibly benefit you as a novelist.

First, let’s analyze what Chekhov’s Gun is NOT.  Although the technique is often mistaken for advice concerning foreshadowing, seeing it as such is a bit backwards.  Chekhov’s advice is less concerned with what should be included to hint at the coming events (what we generally think of as foreshadowing) than it is with what should not be included.  Without going too far into a discussion of foreshadowing – a technique worthy of its own post for another day – I think we can agree that true foreshadowing concerns references to plot elements, characters, or even eventual outcomes in the conflict that are made early in a story with seeming insignificance.  If Chekhov’s Gun were truly a technique concerning foreshadowing, Anton Chekhov might have said something more like, “If a pistol will be fired in the second act, it ought to be hung on the wall in the first act.”

Instead, Chekhov’s Gun is more a warning against unnecessary clutter in your story.  Chekhov is advising us writers against frivolous detail.  Let’s look at his literal example of the gun again.  In Chekhov’s play, UNCLE VANYA, a handgun appears as a seemingly meaningless prop early on in the action.  However, its presence on the stage becomes much more significant late in the drama when the character of Uncle Vanya grabs the pistol and tries to murder another character in a rage.

If we look at this example of Chekhov’s own implementation of Chekhov’s Gun, we witness what is often thought of as “economy of detail.”  For us as novelists, “economy of detail” can be used to keep our writing tight.  Utilizing the technique of Chekhov’s Gun helps to maintain tight stories, tight scenes, and even tight paragraphs.

Often, our first draft will contain lots of extraneous “firearms” lying about.  For an example, I can point to a recent cut I made in the first chapter of my current WIP.  Originally, I planned that the arrival of an older relative would cause the teenaged main character to be forced by her parents to play the piano and sing.  I imagined this to be a family ritual (one that, I must admit, I took from my own life experience.  Ugh…)

I wrote this scene into the first draft.  I intended this performance to have meaning later in the story.  However, I changed my mind about later events, and now there was no real purpose for this “command performance” by my MC, accept for the fact that it revealed a bit of her character.  Otherwise, it did nothing to move the story forward, and, in fact, slowed the pace of the all-important opening of the story.

Still, I hated to cut it.  After all, I’d ruminated quite a bit on this particular experience as I’d developed my ideas about this character.  I imagined this ritual humiliation at the hands of her family as quite significant.  Yet, when I re-read the draft, I realized it was meaningless to the story as a whole.  The piano, her singing, her embarrassment – none of it had any significance at all once the later part of the draft had been rewritten.  I realized this scene was an extraneous pistol hanging on the wall.  So I cut it.  (It wasn’t easy, of course.  I often quote the truism that as writers, we are forced to “kill our darlings.”  As meaningless and distracting as it was, I loved this little scene.  So I cut and pasted it into a character study about my main character.  Now it can live on, if only for me.)

Any discussion of Chekhov’s Gun inevitably leads to thoughts of the opposite technique – the technique of the Red Herring.  Writers of mysteries, especially, may be wondering how the technique of Chekhov’s Gun can coexist with the technique of the Red Herring, which is a plot device that is intentionally designed to divert attention.  For example, in a mystery, attention may be drawn away from the truly guilty character by deceptively casting an innocent character in a suspicious light.

But when a Red Herring is employed, it isn’t extraneous clutter at all.  It is in the story for a genuine and necessary purpose, although that purpose might be to divert the reader’s attention from the true direction of the story.  The use of a Red Herring may, in the most literal sense, break the rule of Chekhov’s Gun, in that there may be “a pistol hung on the wall” in an early scene that will not, in fact, be fired in a later scene.  But when the rule of Chekhov’s Gun is considered to encompass the idea of “economy of detail,” then the “pistol” used as a Red Herring fits within the rule, as it is “hung on the wall” for a willful purpose.  Eventually, the reader will understand why the “pistol” was there all along.

Can you think of stories that neglected the rule of Chekhov’s Gun?  (Many times a television series is cancelled before “the pistol hung on the wall” gets the chance to go off!)  Have you ever had to cut a scene because it distracted your story’s progress and broke the rule of Chekhov’s Gun?  Do you think there are good exceptions to this rule?  I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments!

~~~

Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.  She is also a freelance editor. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.