Friday, May 26, 2017

Downsizing email, and writing an Origin Story (from Lisa Cron)

For the past few weeks, I've been down-sizing my email. I got tired of deleting (or, more typically, ignoring) dozens of messages each day from political groups, charities, retail establishments, community groups and yes, even writers whose newsletters I had signed up for more to support them than because I cared about the content.

The only one I kept was my subscription to Lisa Cron's newsletter. She's the author of Wired for Story. This fascinating book describes how humans have evolved to love stories because they helps us to survive. It explained to me why the negative character arcs that I've wanted to write are so unsatisfying to readers, it taught me why friends aren't the best critique partners and how useful story is in daily life.

Now, every Friday, its what I read before my morning writing, and somehow the topic is always exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. This morning's post was about writing an Origin SceneThe first line made me think she was referring to the opening scene or the inciting incident, but I quickly realized it was something else. Something new to me. It is what happened long ago to give the character the wound, or flaw, that the current story is going to resolve. 

I already knew that my main character believed she couldn't survive on her own, and had a vague background to establish this, including that her mom was disabled and ended up dependent on her husband. The post this morning, however, encouraged us to write the moment when the character first comes to this belief.

Here's my stream of consciousness, un-edited, first try. It's not first person (as recommended) but just brainstorming. As I wrote it, I realized that 'not being able to survive alone' was too strong, so I narrowed it to include a gender bias (because it comes in conflict with her husband).
As a teenager, Rosemary was out working on their farm, when a hard rain storm came in. A flash flood stranded her on a hill, and her mom came out looking for her. Early enough in her multiple sclerosis that she would still try to help (she just had a cane). Being scared that the water would continue to rise, her mother tried to wade in after her and got swept in, but immediately stuck in a branch on a side eddy. Rosemary's screams drew the attention of her step-father and he came to their rescue, fishing out the mother and finding a plank for Rm to walk across to safety. Mom got sick/injured and that was really the end of her functionality--was in a wheel-chair after that. She and step-father made it clear that she'd made a mistake and should have gone to him for help. Rm internalized that she should find a man to help, not try to save herself.

Comment if you have an opinion!

By the way,  the other subscriptions I kept are to C. R. Hodge's blog (because he provides frequently updated lists of publishing markets), the publisher Tor's newsletter (because I have contact with an agent there) and The Nelson Literary Agency (because it is a local agency which provides insider tips to authors).

Monday, January 9, 2017

Internal Scene Structure: the Scene-Sequel Cycle

Scenes As Shapeless Blobs
For the first three years of working on my novel, I was never sure what to include in a scene. Usually they had some sort of a goal: to get the characters from point A to point B, to illustrate the nature of a character or a relationship, to introduce a piece of information. However much I worked on making the writing beautiful, the result was often a shapeless blob: characters wandering around aimlessly, having conversations that did nothing to advance the plot, doing nothing to raise questions in the readers’ mind. It was not uncommon for my critique partners to mark multiple pages with the question “What’s the point?”

Finding Structure
Often, I knew the point, but it clearly wasn’t intriguing enough to captivate a reader. Then I heard about Dwight Swain’s scene-sequel cycle at a class about emotion by Angie Hodap in the 2017 RMFW Colorado Gold conference. I researched the technique after the conference and it has revolutionized my writing.

Now when I write a scene, I still have my old goals, but I have a skeleton to shape the scene around. When I analyzed my first draft with this technique, I found that I had used a lot of the elements, because they really are the foundation upon which a scene is formed. But without the explicit use of the cycle, often something was missing or out of order. 

The Scene-Sequel Cycle
The cycle consists of six elements (Swain’s terms are in parentheses when they are different from what I use):
1. Goal
The character wants something. Not the global desire for the story—something in this scene, but ideally it is inline with her character arc.
2. Obstacle (Conflict)
Something stands in the way of the character getting what she wants.
3. Consequence (Disaster)
When she attempts to achieve her goal and runs into the obstacle, something happens. Swain calls this Disaster because a story gets boring if the protagonist always wins. However, sometimes she does need to succeed- but there needs to be a consequence no matter what.
4. Reaction
The character reacts to the consequence or disaster. This is where emotion comes in.
5. Dilemma
Based off of the new reality, the character has a dilemma. It creates the most tension when neither of the options are good.
6.  Decision
She chooses one of the options. Ideally, her choice is in line with her character arc again, showing where she started at the beginning, how she might be trying to change (unsuccessfully) through the middle, and how she achieves a change at the end.
This is the Goal for the next cycle.

Used well, the technique advances the plot with each scene, so that it isn’t a repetition of a cycle but shaped more like a screw, drawing the reader forward through the story with each turn of a scene.

Swain separates the elements into Scene (Goal/ Conflict/ Disaster) and Sequel (Reaction/ Dilemma/ Decision), which gives the cycle its name. I find it more intuitive to include all six (sometimes more than once) in what is classically referred to as a single scene.

As I was watching Rogue One, a cycle jumped out on me. (I will spoil one scene here, but not the rest.) In the second half of the movie, Rogue One is approaching a planet with an energy shield.
1.  Goal: to get through the only gate in the shield
2.  Obstacle: although their ship has an access code, it might not be current or accepted.
3.  Consequence: Their ship makes it through without a problem. This is an example of how a consequence is not always a disaster. Although it creates a tense moment, it could be interpreted as null or missing, but the real consequence of this conflict is that the Rogue One fighters were so focused getting through the gate that none of them thought ahead to what they were going to do after they made it through the shield.
4.  Reaction: elation at getting through… followed by concern about what next
5.  Dilemma: How are they going to achieve their overall goal on the planet, and finally get off of it?
6.  Decision: take it one step at a time. Keep going until they can’t any longer. 

As part of the Whole
One of the key things that I’ve learned is that these elements need to tie the scene to the rest of the story in order to make the scene worthwhile. In practice, this means that either the Consequence or the Decision have to impact the overall plot.

In the scene I’m working on in my novel, my protagonist wants to go up the last mountain pass before her destination (Goal) but a rushing stream is in her path (Obstacle). When she gets knocked over in the water, the dried food in her backpack gets wet and starts to rot (Consequence). This changes the rest of the story, because she can no longer search for her destination when she must forage for food.

In the Rogue One example above, the strategy that results from the Decision has ramifications for the ending of the movie (which I won’t detail in case you, like me, don’t get out to see movies right away!) The Obstacle—the gate in the energy shield—is also important for the later plot.

Tying each scene into the whole has been the most difficult part for me. Luckily, my critique partner Heidi Rose Kay gave me the key question to ask myself: What would change in the overall story if you took this scene out?  If the answer is nothing, then either the scene needs to go, or the consequences and decisions must continue into the larger story.

It is a formula, but using this structure, it is possible to build an infinite number of different scenes.