Tag Archives: Writing Tools

Of Kissing and Romance

13 Apr

by Susan Dennard

~~

Kissing.

There’s a reason everyone does it. And there’s a reason stories will build it up to it, increasing the tension until that first kiss finally opens the gates and lets the reader sigh with satisfaction.

The reason is that kissing is kind of, sort of, no-doubt-about-it amazing.

“There was such an incredible logic to kissing, such a metal-to-magnet pull between two people that it was a wonder that they found the strength to prevent themselves from succumbing every second. Rightfully, the world should be a whirlpool of kissing into which we sank and never found the strength to rise up again.”

-Ann Patchet, Bel Canto

And that’s why kissing in fiction needs to be As Amazing As Possible. The culmination of pages and pages of building anticipation. The final movement after episodes and hours of rising attraction.

Personally, I prefer for my heroine and hero to hold off on the lip-locking for as long as possible–or, they may share a kiss, but forces must keep them apart until the last possible moment!

If the hero and heroine are pretty much “official” by the end of chapter one, I won’t keep reading. I want to constantly question whether or not they’ll wind up together–I want to have to keep rooting. When the hero steps on the page or the stage, I want my heart to beat with doubt and desperation just as much as the heroine’s does.

Take the mini-series North & South (based on the fabulous novel of the same name by Elizabeth Gaskell). Hero and Heroine have moved from hating each other to attraction and back to hate–but never at the same time. When she loves him, he loathes her, and vice versa. We are on the edge of our seats wondering when the heck they’re gonna finally like each other AT THE SAME TIME.

Oh boy, and when they do… Can we say “collective sigh of relief”?

In the TV show Veronica Mars (a GREAT teen noir that I highly recommend to YA writers out there. It should be required viewing.), we spend most of the first season hating a certain Very Bad Boy. Never in a million years do we think Veronica would EVER go out with a guy as horrible as him… Except, in the little corners of our heart, we kinda like that Very Bad Boy. We’re kinda hoping Veronica and he might be able to see past their differences.

Man oh man… When for a brief moment they’re suddenly working together instead of against each other–my how everything suddenly changes!


But there’s something else you have to remember when you write your kiss-scenes: they must add to the story. Both characters must come out from the kiss a different person.

Maybe it’s an act that forces the couple to finally accept how they feel for each other. Or maybe it takes one character by surprise, cluing them into feelings they didn’t know the other person harbored.

Whatever the reason for the kiss, it must cause the story to shift gears and move in a different direction. There must be consequences (good, bad, whatever) from the kiss.

Like in the Korean TV show Coffee Prince, the hero finally realizes that he wants to be with the heroine no matter what. She’s been in love with him from pretty early on, but he’s been holding off and holding off (for very complicated reasons I won’t share here. WATCH THE SHOW! It’s amazing.) until…he finally can’t hold off anymore. He throws consequences to the wind–and trust me there are some really unsavory consequences–and kisses her with all the passion he’s been building up episode after episode.

(To watch the kiss scene, you’ll have to click through.  Sorry! I couldn’t embed it here.)

And we, the viewers, love it. We’ve been waiting for his acknowledgment of attraction, but we also know that when it finally comes, the trouble is just beginning.

A kiss (or love scene of any sort) in the middle of a story builds the tension. We are now more anxious about the lovers because consequences from the kiss change the plot’s direction.

Maybe they know the love each other now (a seemingly good consequence), and they can’t live apart. Now we know that if these two don’t wind up together, they’re hearts will before forever shattered.

You, the writer, build the tension by keeping them apart.

Like maybe they weren’t supposed to kiss because their families are feuding. If anyone learns they’ve shared a loving embrace, then their lives will be forfeit (a decidedy bad consequence). It’s pretty clear where the tension will stem from in the rest of the story!

A kiss (or love scene) at the end, releases the tension.

Like in North & South, the lovers spend a whole novel (or series!) before they finally acknowledge their feelings. We can set aside the book/show/movie, happy that they wound up together for a nice Happily Ever After.

In this situation, you build the tension by showing their mutual attraction, showing them resisting it (for whatever story-related reason), and then finally joining them in the final pages.


I’d love to hear your own thoughts on kissing and romance. How do you build the tension? And super wonderful kiss scenes you recommend?

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The Querying Flowchart of DOOM

17 Mar

by Kat Zhang

~~~

No, silly, it’s not actually “of DOOM,” but sometimes querying feels like it, no? (And besides, as writers, we’re obligated to be dramatic, right? What, that’s actors, you say? Pshaw!!)

Anyway, in order to ease the beginning querier into the query process, I’ve made a handy-dandy flow chart. Yes, it’s a very condensed version of the pre-query checklist…mostly because I only have so much patience with making little multi-colored text balloons. Also, there are no arrows. I know. Sadness. But look at it as a test of thy skill, young querier! If you can not master the maze that is the Query Flowchart of DOOM, then see it as a sign that you need more training before daring to enter the lair of the dragon–I mean confront Darth Vader–I mean query!

Are you ready to begin your test of skill??

Enter at thy own peril…

So? Did you make it? Are you ready to send out those queries? 😀

…and did you notice the two missing bubbles?

…because I totally did that on purpose as a further test of your skills.

yup

that’s my story, and I’m STICKIN’ WITH IT!

D:<

~~~

Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She is represented by Emmanuelle Morgen and her book HYBRID–about a girl with two souls–is currently on submission to publishers. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.

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.

The Parts of a Good Query Letter

28 Feb

by Susan Dennard

~~

I have a popular post on my personal blog that’s part of a series I did called How I Got My Agent.  I thought I’d take out the “good bits” from Part 1, and share them with you here.

Much like in the How to Write a 1-page Synopsis, I’ve drawn up a “worksheet” that you can use to format and write your novel’s query letter.

And if you’re interested in reading about WHY my query worked from my agent’s point of view, you can read about it on the NCLit blog.

~~~

The Query

I started querying on October 6, 2010.  But before that, I spent a loooooooong time honing my query letter.  Like, I took workshops, read books, and got feedback until my eyes bled.

But it all paid off!  Out of the 12 agents I queried, 9 requested a full or partial manuscript.  WEEEEE, right?  (Note: part of my success rate has to do with my research, but I’ll talk about that in Part 2: The Prep.  Nonetheless, a good chunk of my success was thanks to my kick-booty query.)

The thing about query letters is that there is a general standard for what should be in a query and how it should be presented. Above all else, you must include a summary of your book — you must show your book’s plot. Next, you need to keep the query professional.  This is a business letter — remember that!

A few other rules to keep in mind:

  1. Be brief, be brief, be brief! Your goal is to snag the agent’s attention immediately and only share enough information so they want to read more.  Keep the story summary under 250 words.
  2. Do not tell the ending! The purpose of a query is to show an editor/agent that you can tell a story from beginning to end, but you want to leave the end unknown. This is much like the back of book – you want to sell your story and entice them to read more.
  3. You must lay out,
    1. the MC’s goal,
    2. why the MC is choosing to act,
    3. what’s at stake if the MC fails.

The Parts of a Good Query

Below, I have written out the building blocks of a strong query letter.  I’ve filled the formula in with my own query, and I hope you find it useful!

Opening lines — Why are you contacting this agent/editor? What is the title, genre, and word count of your novel?

(I’ll get into this more tomorrow and explain why I suggest starting here.)

I read in an interview that you seek strong female leads as well as steampunk.  As such, I thought you might enjoy my 90,000 word young adult novel, THE SPIRIT-HUNTERS.

Hook — What is a one sentence zinger that introduces the MC, sets up the stakes, and is (most importantly) concise?

After her brother is kidnapped, Eleanor Fitt – a sixteen-year-old with a weakness for buttered toast and Shakespeare quotes – must leave the confines of corsets and courtesy to get him back.

Summary Paragraph 1 — Briefly describe the ordinary life of the MC. Follow this with the inciting incident and why the MC must pursue it (i.e. what is at stake?).

It’s 1876, and Philadelphia is hosting the first American World Fair, the Centennial Exhibition.  It’s also hosting rancid corpses that refuse to stay dead.  When one of those decomposing bodies brings Eleanor a hostage note for her brother, she resolves to do anything to rescue him. But to face the armies of Dead that have him, she’ll need a little help from the Spirit-Hunters.

Summary Paragraphs 2 & 3 — List/show in 2-3 sentences what the MC must do to solve the problem before him/her. What choices must he/she make? Be sure to end these  paragraph with a sentence explaining what will happen if he/she fails.  You want to leave the agent with a perfectly clear idea of why this story matters.

The Spirit-Hunters, a three-man team hired to protect the Exhibition, have a single goal: return the Dead to their graves. Yet, what began as a handful of shambling bodies has escalated beyond the team’s abilities, and time is running out. Whoever rules the Dead is losing control, and when the leash finally snaps, Philadelphia will be overrun with ravenous corpses.

Now Eleanor must battle the walking Dead and deal with her growing attraction to the team’s inventor, Daniel, an exasperating but gorgeous ex-con. From the steampunk lab of the Spirit-Hunters to the grand halls of the Exhibition, Eleanor must follow the clues – and the bodies – to find her brother and stop the Dead before it’s too late.

Conclusion — List your qualifications as a writer (societies, publications) in one sentence. If you can, try to find 2 works similar to your own (this shows the agent what audience you believe will read your novel).  Then thank the agent for his/her time.  Sign off.

Though the novel has been written as a trilogy, it can stand alone.  I believe it will appeal to fans of Libba Bray’s GEMMA DOYLE trilogy or Cassandra Clare’s CLOCKWORK ANGEL.  I’m an active member of RWA, SCBWI, the Online Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop, and YALitChat.  I live in Germany and am working full-time on my next YA novels.  You can learn more about me at http://susandennard.com.

So there you have it: a simple way to start building your query.  Again, I hope you can use it.  Be sure to read Part 2: The Prep — or all the preparations needed prior to actually mailing your queries.

BOTTOM LINE: A good query can do wonders and instantly pull you to the surface of the slush!

Do you have any 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 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?

Taking Tips from the Movies and TV

24 Jan

by Susan Dennard

~~

One thing you’ve probably heard in your writing-career is that it’s important to read.  Perhaps people have told you how to “read like a writer” by analyzing characterization, scene, syntax, and all the other stuff that goes into a novel.

Well, reading can take time, and dissecting can take even more time.  But the same things you see in a book you can see in a movie.  The key is to watch a movie like a writer.  Seems obvious, right?

It occurred to me while I was watching The Walking Dead. You may or may not like the show (there is some definite Cheese Factor and plot unbelievability), but there are a few things I think the creators do really well that keep viewers coming back for more episodes.  And these things got me thinking…

There are a some common elements in all popular stories, and if you keep your eyes peeled, you can easily spot them and use them yourself!

**Sorta spoilers below for The Walking Dead and Pride & Prejudice…  I try to be vague, but some things might be revealing.  Sorry.**

1) Within the first 15 minutes of the first episode of The Walking Dead, I was invested in the story and attached to the hero, Rick.  Why?  Because Rick showed immediately that he was 1) brave (he’s a cop), 2) devoted to his family, and 3) in a really crappy position (um, waking up from a coma to find the whole world has turned into zombies and your family is missing?  SO NOT A GOOD DAY).

Give your readers a reason to care about and respect your protagonist as soon as your story starts. Show your protagonist as the underdog, show your protagonist helping others, or show your protagonist putting on a big smile even those his heart aches, and your readers will have something to instantly latch onto and appreciate.  (Note: don’t go overboard — make it appropriate to the story.  No on likes a Mary Sue or a Mary Jane.)

2) As The Walking Dead episodes progressed, I kept my eyes peeled for other aspects that kept me interested.  The most obvious thing this show has is conflict — but not the kind you’d expect.  Yeah, there are zombies everywhere trying to eat Rick’s brains, but most of the show’s drama revolves around relationships. For example, Rick’s wife thought Rick was dead, so she started having an affair with Rick’s police partner — OOPS.

Conflict isn’t just about external plot; it’s also about tough decisions, strained friendships, blossoming love, disagreeing goals, self-defeating guilt, etc. Harrowing external events aren’t usually enough to keep a plot interesting.  The tension stays high when characters have to deal with conflict within themselves and amongst themselves.  Above all, it’s conflict that matters because it’s conflict we can relate to.

3) In one of the first episodes, one of the characters makes a Really Bad Decision — he leaves someone behind as zombie food when he could have saved the person.  In later episodes, it’s revealed Mr. Zombie Food managed to survive and is now at large in Atlanta.  As a viewer, I know Mr. Zombie Food is going to come back and be a Really Big Problem for the guy who made the Really Bad Decision.

Every decision has a consequence — usually bad or at least not what the character expects. Stories are more than just cause and effect, they’re decision and consequence.  Good decisions can have bad consequences, bad decisions can have good.  But if the consequences are immediately good, you’ve got a very short story.  The best-laid tales show an ever escalating series of decisions and consequences until the final showdown where things are all wrapped up (for better or for worse).

4) And that escalation leads me to my final point.  Life for the characters is bad — like really really bad — and it’s only getting worse as each episode progresses.  Every step forward leads to two steps back, and that leads to me tuning in every week!

The stakes keep rising and rising until the end. What began as one man’s quest is now several families (oh no!  there are more lives a stake!).  What seemed like it might be a solution (a cure for the virus) proves to be a giant death trap (oh no!  There is no cure!).  Every safe haven the characters think they’ve found proves to be a zombie wasteland (oh no!  there is no escape!).  If you can keep escalating the consequences of decisions (a là element #3) and also escalate what stands to be lost, you’ll have a real page turner on your hands.

Looking at Other Kinds of Film

Action TV isn’t the only place these rules can be found.  Throw Pride & Prejudice in your DVD player (faster than reading the book, remember?  But the book is AMAZING — I definitely recommend it), and you’ll see the same things happening!

Element #1: Elizabeth Bennett is the most clever daughter in a household of ninnies (she is a witty and endearing heroine); her family is bordering on poverty (she is a heroine in underdog circumstances); and she wants nothing more than for her sisters to find good marriages and be happy (she is a selfless and loving heroine).

Element #2: While there is some external conflict (illness, unwanted suitors, cruel Bingley sisters) much of the conflict stems from Elizabeth’s interactions with others and her own inner turmoil.  She doesn’t hit it off too well with Mr. Darcy (lots of lovely tension in those scenes!).  She has to deal with her horribly embarrassing mother in public settings (ugh, so much awkward conflict).  And eventually, she has to deal with her guilt/regret over how she treated Mr. Darcy (inner conflict).

Element #3: Every decision Elizabeth makes leads the story in different directions and has resounding consequences.  She learns the truth about Mr. Wickham, but chooses not to reveal his shady history.  As a result, her sister Lydia runs off with him.  She dislikes Mr. Darcy because of his snobbishness, and as a result rejects a marriage proposal that would have elevated her family to prosperity.

Element #4: Elizabeth’s sisters need to make good marriages in order to provide for the rest of the family, but one by one, their options disappear.  Jane loses Mr. Bingley; Elizabeth rejects Mr. Collins; Elizabeth’s mother embarrasses the family at every turn and lowers any chance that the Bennett girls will attract good husbands; Elizabeth rejects Mr. Darcy; Lydia shames the family by running off like harlot.  You have to turn the page to find out how it will all work out for the Bennett sisters, and most importantly, to find out how it will work out for Elizabeth.

Applying it to Your Stories

When I set out to write The Spirit-Hunters, I laid out all my favorite novels, movies, and shows and I figured out what elements I liked best, why I liked those best, and how I could use them in my story.

Now it’s your turn to do the same!  Grab your favorite films and TV shows, and pay close attention!  I bet you’ll notice elements 1-4 in play, and what you need to look out for is how the elements are executed.  Maybe the hero is introduced right after he got fired from work (element #1), or maybe every episode shows the heroine dealing with dark secrets (element #2).  Whatever the use, is there some way you can infuse it into your own story?  And are there other things you see and want to use in your writing (maybe a spine-chilling ghost or a passionate love scene)?

Good story-telling is good story-telling, no matter if the medium is film or prose or smoke circles, so why not learn from the people who’ve already done and done it well?

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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.

Building Plot from Character

17 Jan

by Susan Dennard

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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?

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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.

Goal, Motivation, and Conflict

16 Dec

This post has been updated and MOVED to our new website: Pub(lishing) Crawl.

How To Write A 1-Page Synopsis

24 Nov

by Susan Dennard

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Note:

This post has been UPDATED

and re-posted on

Pub(lishing) Crawl!

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Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. Her debut novel, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from HarperTeen on July 24th, 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.