Writing Lessons From Cinema: Every Frame a Painting

I love it when I get a chance to learn writing tricks from other media. Something like dance, music or painting can often provide different approaches to art that take me in new and fascinating directions as a writer.

My most recent discovery is Every Frame a Painting, a YouTube series by Tony Zhou. This series on the art of film is fantastic in its own right, helping me understand the importance of editing in a way I never did before, as well as countless other visual elements. It’s also reminded me of a couple of great lessons on story structure, and refined how I view them:

  • Points in a plot should be connected by implied ‘therefore’ or ‘but’, not just ‘and then’. This creates cause and effect, not just events that could happen in any order.
  • It’s often worth having two stories going in parallel, and switching out of each as it reaches its peak of interest, rather than leaving it for an emotional slump.

Rather than writing any more here, I’ll recommend that you go check out Every Frame A Painting, starting with this five minute piece on Orson Welles’s F for Fake, from which I drew the lessons above.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GXv2C7vwX0&w=560&h=315]

Writing Beginnings – Writing Excuses Exercise 10.14

bookdesign345Each week, I’m doing the exercise from Writing Excuses’s excellent podcast writing course and sharing the results here. This week’s exercise was working on beginnings:

Start writing your story! Write 500 words, focusing on just one of the promises you’ve identified for your story. Then stop, and start writing another 500 words with a different promise. Aaaand then do it a third time.

For these exercises, I’m working on Sieges and Silverware, the fourth part of a steampunk series I’m working on. You can read the first volume as an ebook now, and read the exercise preceding this one here. Suffice to say, I’ve identified some cool things I want to include in my story, and this exercise is about setting up the promise that those things will happen. So, here are three beginnings, any of which I might eventually refine and use:

Promise 1: Blaze-Simms invents a bizarre steampunk defensive device.

Dirk Dynamo wouldn’t have minded so much if the hot air balloon were plummeting toward the ground. Sure, they were losing altitude fast, and there was no way this would be a pleasant landing. But at least if they were heading toward the ground he could see what was coming, get ready to roll clear or dive into something soft just before they crashed.

What bothered him was the trees. A vast swathe of dark German forest, broken by the occasional rocky outcrop. Sure, the leaves might soften the initial impact. But then the balloon would get impaled on branches, accelerating its descent. They’d be falling through twilight shadows and layers of concealing greenery onto no-one new what upward protruding spikes of wood or rock. Risking life and limb was fine, Dirk lived with that all the time. But he liked to know what he was getting into.

And if possible, he wanted to live through it.

“Any progress?” He glanced away from the approaching treetops and toward Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms, who was frantically disassembling and reassembling a mass of gears and gadgets in the corner of the basket. The Englishman looked a little too excited for a man facing imminent death, but then he always looked happy with a spanner in his hand.

“Almost there.” Blaze-Simms twisted a bolt and something glowed in the contraption in his hand.

There was a tearing sound and the balloon jolted as its ripped seam gave another few inches. Hot air hissed out onto the icy wind, and the treetops raced towards them.

“Almost ain’t gonna cut it.” Dirk grabbed a rope and braced for impact.

Leaping to his feet, Blaze-Simms slapped his device onto the side of the burner. He flicked a switch on its side. There was a whir, a rush of air that almost snatched Dirk’s coat off his back, and suddenly they were rising again.

“Great work, Tim.” Dirk struggled to be heard over the rush of air, but he was sure the grin on his face would convey the message.

Something was spinning on the top of Blaze-Simms’s device, while gears and levers rattled away around the glowing core.

“That will give us six more hours,” Blaze-Simms shouted over the artificial wind rushing past them and up into the balloon.

“Should be enough to get there,” Dirk shouted back.

There was another ripping sound and they stopped rising, though at least they weren’t heading back down into the trees.

Blaze-Simms looked up at the balloon, back down at his device, and then back up at the balloon again.

“Call it three hours,” he said. “Can we manage that?”

“Guess we’re gonna have to.”

Promise 2: A civilised dinner party in a building being bombarded by heavy artillery.

Dirk Dynamo had expected that they might face trouble. He and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms were heading toward the castle of someone they didn’t know, and who was helping their opponents. That wasn’t the sort of circumstances where you got a warm welcome.

What he hadn’t expected was that the castle itself would be in trouble.

“I say, what a spectacular view!” Blaze-Simms looked up from his notebook to take in the ground beneath their balloon.

The forest below was a sea of green, broken by occasional jagged promontories. The tiled roofs of small German villages added variety to the scene, but their rustic charm was nothing compared with the view up ahead. Rising like a finger pointed toward heaven, the Red Castle rose in grandeur from the hilltop in front of them.

“I’d expected it to be more, well, red.” Dirk turned the propeller Blaze-Simms had attached to the balloon basket, steering their course more directly toward the hilltop fortress. It was a place that had clearly been laid down a layer at a time over the centuries. At its base were walls and towers of grim grey stone, flat and functional, a defensive measure that could once have withstood any kind of assault. Above and behind them, within the protective circle of walls and steep hillsides, were additions of brick and timber frame, mixed in with a more refined kind of stonework in which elaborate arches played a prominent part. And above them all rose a tower more magnificent and ambitious than anything that had come before, many times as tall as the old walls were wide, a fairy tale castle of pale stone reaching to a tiled peak.

“I’m sure there’s a history to the name.” Balze-Simms tapped a pencil against his notebook. “Something involving heraldry, or perhaps blood.”

“Speaking of blood.” Dirk pointed to the open ground in front of the castle. “What do you reckon that’s all about?”

As they grew closer, what had started as a meaningless muddle of human activity was turning into what could only be an army camp. Wagons emerging from the treeline showed that it was still growing, while men in blue uniforms set up tents and organised supplies. Artillery pieces were being arranged facing the castle walls, their aggressive intent clear. It took Dirk back to his own days fighting in a different blue. The memories weren’t all happy.

Blaze-Simms pulled what looked like a snuff box from his pocket, unfolded and extended it until he held a telescope. He peered through the lens toward the castle.

“I say, look at that.” He passed the telescope to Dirk. “She’s definitely here.”

Dirk closed one eye and looked through the telescope toward the point on the battlements where Blaze-Simms was pointing. Three women stood watching the movement below, champagne flutes in their hands.

Promise 3: Dirk and Isabelle reconciling their differences well enough to work together again.

Night was falling as the hot air balloon reached the walls of the Red Castle. An elderly servant in a tailcoat supervised two teenagers in livery as they helped with the landing. Taking the ropes Dirk Dynamo threw to them, they secured the balloon by tying it to the crenelations. Even before they had finished, Dirk leapt from the basket down onto the stonework and looked around in the light of burning torches. Behind him, Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms scrambled out of the basket, accompanied by the clatter of gears and gadgets rattling in his pockets.

The elderly servant stepped forward and held out a gloved hand. He said something in German.

“You catch that?” Dirk asked.

“Sorry what?” Blaze-Simms looked up from peering at a gargoyle.

“Ah, you are British?” The butler’s expression didn’t change as he shifted into English, but Dirk thought there was slightly less of a formal edge to his voice.

“He is.” He pointed at Blaze-Simms. “I’m American.”

“Oh.” Was it possible for a man’s face to fall without moving a muscle? If it was, then the butler managed it. “May I have your card please?”

“Do I look like I’m carrying a card?” Dirk gestured toward the battered balloon, his filthy clothing, the bruises still fading from his face.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what passes for normal in America.” The butler managed to make the last word sound like a curse, and it made Dirk’s blood boil. With the least possible movement, the servant turned to face Blaze-Simms. “Sir, do you-“

“There’s no need for that.” Isabelle McNair stepped out of the shadows of the nearest tower. “I know these gentlemen.”

Dirk felt like someone had grabbed hold of his insides and stirred them around until nothing was in its place and everything was knotted with tension. He fought to take deep, long breaths, calming his hammering heart.

“Mrs McNair.” He couldn’t keep the edge from his voice. Everything about her reminded him of Paris, both the good and the bad. It was the bad that threatened to overwhelm him, and he pressed his anger down. “We’ve come a long way to talk with you.”

“And I look forward to talking with you,” she said. “Though I must confess, I barely know where to start.”

“Sorry would be nice.” Blaze-Simms looked absurd in indignation, his scowl so serious atop his incorrectly buttoned tailcoat. But at least he could express what Dirk couldn’t put into words. “After everything we went through, I think it’s the least we deserve.”

“If I were sorry, I would not have done it.” Isabelle took a step forward, her attention on Dirk. “But I hope that, with time, you might forgive me.”

“That don’t seem likely,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Of course not.” Isabelle smiled, though there was sadness in her eyes. She offered him her arm. “Shall we go inside?”

Dirk thrust his hands into his pockets and nodded toward the door.

“After you,” he said.

Reflecting on the Exercise

This was really fascinating. I enjoyed all three beginnings, and without the exercise would only have ever written one. It’s made me think about which promises are most important, and which help set the tone of the book best, as well as drawing readers into the characters.

If you’ve got any thoughts on which of these three is best, and why, then please let me know – I need to give this some serious thought.

And if you’ve done this exercise or something like it, please share you’re thoughts on it below – I’d be intrigued to hear how you got on.

Moving Plots Around: Writing Excuses Exercise 10.13

It’s that time of the week again, time to delve into the latest Writing Excuses writing exercise. If you’re not already familiar with these, Writing Excuses is an excellent podcast in which four pro genre authors discuss how to write, and I’ve learned more about writing from this show than from any other source.

This week’s exercise:

Take the reverse engineered outline from a month ago, and move a side plot to the main plot.

This is an interesting way to see how focusing on different plots affects the structure of a story. I have to confess, I made a slightly half-arsed job of that previous exercise, looking at the first five pages of a Transmetropolitan comic. Still, I can do this exercise, and maybe take it a little further than last time.

Back to the City

The plot I looked at was issue six of Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson’s sci-fi comic Transmetropolitan, ‘God Riding Shotgun’. Transmetropolitan follows the angry and often hilarious adventures of journalist Spider Jerusalem, who at this point in the story shares an apartment with his assistant Channon. I identified two plotlines – the main being Spider getting in the face of organised religion, and the sub-plot being about his relationship with Channon.

Turning this around, we would start on page one with Spider and Channon having a conversation, instead of Spider writing an article on religion. We get to see Spider being a jerk and Channon accepting it – the status quo – but the focus is on their relationship, not Spider’s work. Spider can still look crazy, and it should probably still feature an anecdote illustrating how weird their future city is, because that’s about establishing character and setting.

Now instead of getting sidelined into showing their relationship on page two, the conversation instead evolves into something about religion, introducing that plotline. Pages three and four take them out of the apartment to go to the religious convention which, in the comic, they get to somewhat later. We’re moving that plot along early on while leaving the other to bubble along in the background.

Which means that on page five, with the characters wandering around the religious convention, we see Channon learning about something objectionable Spider’s done to her and getting angry about it. Probably not what time he’s woken her up – as this is now the main plotline it needs more force. In fact, the convention and its weird religions would now trigger the revelation, subplot helping main plot along. They get into a heated argument in the middle of the convention. The main confrontation is being set up.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Stepping away from page by page detail, it’s interesting to consider how this changes the tone of the plot. In the original, we get a melancholy conversation and reconciliation between the characters midway through, as the subplot between them is resolved, and the comic ends with Spider trashing the convention in spectacular, angry style. We travel through emotional depth to an entertaining showpiece finale.

With the plots reversed, the comic hits the height of excitement and spectacle midway, with Spider making his fuss and probably getting thrown out of the convention. It’s then in the aftermath that we get into the emotional beats of the two characters’ situation, and they reconcile over their shared views on life. That leaves the reader with a very different feeling at the end – a combination of fuzzy and melancholy rather than amused and indignant. It’s a very different experience.

What Did I Get Out of This?

Despite working from the wobbly foundations of my previous work, I found this exercise really useful. It’s made me think about how I want the overall emotional flow of stories to go, and how I can rearrange plotlines to support that. It’s also made me realise that I should spend more time properly studying and rethinking other people’s writing, to get better at my own.

Anyone else done this exercise? How did you get on? And if you haven’t, what stories have you re-written in your head, and what did you change? Come on, you can own up, we’ve all wished for the happier ending from time to time.

Should Our Stories Ever Really End?

As readers we crave closure. When that is threatened, as when an ongoing series is cancelled or its author dies, we feel disappointed or even cheated. And as writers we work toward closure, using structures that will provide readers with a satisfying ending.

But is there another sense in which, with science fiction and fantasy in particular, one aim is to avoid closure and open up a never-ending imaginary world?

Tolkien and Openendedness

In his essay ‘The Interlaced Structure of The Lord of the Rings‘*, Richard C West argued that Tolkien’s novel created an effect “that might be called openendedness, whereby the reader has the impression that the story has an existence outside the confines of the book and that the author could have begun earlier or ended later, if he chose”.

I think West’s argument ignores some essential features of the book he’s discussing, but it still raises an interesting point. Part of the appeal of Tolkien’s work is that it implies a far larger world and history, one which readers could explore both through his appendices and through their imaginations.

In a sense, Tolkien provides firm closure, seeing a great threat ended and Frodo leaving Middle Earth. But in another sense, The Lord of the Rings leaves many questions unanswered in the reader’s mind.

A Tradition of Imagination

We can see this in many other works of fantasy and science fiction. They lead us to imagine a world far beyond the borders of their narratives. In a sense, their stories usually have clear, decisive beginnings and ends. But in another sense, the best leave their worlds open through the wealth of barely explored detail they provide.

Perhaps this is part of the appeal of science fiction and fantasy – that it invites us to imagine beyond its boundaries in a way not all fiction can.

What do you think? Do science fiction and fantasy somehow avoid closure? And is this distinctive to these genres?

* Published in A Tolkien Compass, edited by Jared Lobdell.

Plotting the Exciting Bits: Writing Excuses Exercise 10.12

My heroes, ready for action, adventure and a nice cup of tea.
My heroes, ready for action, adventure and a nice cup of tea.

This week’s Writing Excuses podcast was a Q&A on story structure, talking about different approaches to structure and how to get the most out of them. This ‘pick the best bits’ approach fits well with the exercise they gave at the end:

Make a list of all the awesome things you want your story to accomplish. Then put them in the order in which you want them to happen.

As with the previous exercise about plotting with the beginning and end in mind, I’m going to use this exercise to help me develop a novella I’m planning, Sieges and Silverware. The fourth in a series, this sees Victorian adventurers Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms arrive at a German castle in their pursuit of clues to the location of the Great Library. It’s 1871, Germany has just been unified, and the occupants of the castle are holding out against that unification. Major plotlines include a dispute with their former colleague Isabelle McNair, a siege of the castle, a mad scientist on the loose and some covert feminism in an age run by men.

Making it Easy for Myself

If I was working with pen and paper, I’d have to brainstorm all my ideas, then write them out again in order. Thanks to the magic of the digital age I can put them in order as I come up with them, and edit that order if I’m not happy with it. So what you’ll see is the end result.

Hooray for computers!

Plot Away

My list of awesome things, in order:

  • Dirk getting lost in the crazy layout of the castle.
  • A civilised dinner party in a building being bombarded by heavy artillery.
  • A monster hunt through the darkness of the castle dungeons.
  • An argument that addresses the problems for women in gaining influence in Victorian society.
  • Blaze-Simms invents a bizarre steampunk defensive device.
  • A small band of heroes fending off a massive assault.
  • A discussion on the nature and value of nationalism.
  • The discovery of a mad scientist’s laboratory.
  • Ninjas vs Prussians.
  • Dirk and Isabelle reconciling their differences well enough to work together again.
  • A desperate airship or balloon flight from the castle as it is captured.

All the Cool Bits

Theoretically, I can see a lot of value in this exercise as a way of starting plotting without losing your enthusiasm for a project. It lets you focus on all the coolest things you want to write, and then turn those into something at least a bit coherent and useful.

But for me, in this instance, it’s proved less useful. I came up with a few interesting things, like the Carry on up the Khyber style dinner party. But whereas the first few volumes of this series were about throwing in lots of new cool ideas, by this point the story is about developing and paying off the stuff that’s already in there. I suspect that cool ideas will emerge from the structure, not the other way around.

It’s fitting with the discussion from the podcast. Not every approach to structure is for everyone, and you use the ones that suit you.

Did you try the exercise? How did you get on? And how do you go about structuring stories? Leave a comment, let me know what you think.

What I Learned From Write Your Novel From the Middle

In a post last week I wrote about James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel From the Middle. Afterwards, AC Macklin raised a rather sensible question whose answer I had skipped over – what were the things of value I learned from this book? In my enthusiasm to talk about the book in general, I missed the useful details. So here they are…

Explaining the Value of Structure

There’s a quote from the book that I included last week – ‘Structure is translation software for your imagination.’ I think that quote, and what it represents, are very useful in understanding the value of structure.

Structure isn’t there to tell you what story to write or what ideas to discuss. It’s there to help you turn those ideas into something coherent and accessible, to fit your story into the form you’re writing in, whether it’s a novel, a screenplay or a haiku.

Act One

Bell raised a set of interesting questions to make sure you’re covering the important things in the first act of your story:

  • have you given readers a character worth following?
  • is there a disturbance to their life early on?
  • do you know the death stakes of the story? – this doesn’t have to mean literal death, but what physical, emotional or professional destruction the character is threatened with
  • is there a scene forcing the character into the confrontation of act two, and is it strong enough that the character can’t resist getting involved?

These are ideas I was already familiar with, but Bell’s list provides a great sanity check, a way of making sure that the elements are in place to make the story compelling.

The Midpoint

Bell refined my thinking on the midpoint. In Wells’s seven point structure, this is the moment when the protagonist becomes pro-active. For Bell, it’s a point where the forces arrayed against the protagonist seem so vast that if they go on they will almost certainly face physical, psychological or professional death.

These are quite different things to build the centre of a story around, but what strikes me is that they’re both about the need to make a decision to act, whether by switching from passivity to pro-activity, or by deciding to act despite the danger.

I think that combining those two could make for some incredibly powerful central story moments.

Proving Change

A good character arc is almost always about change. Bell points out that this change needs to be proven by the character’s actions, not just something they think or talk about. By working outwards from inner revelation to actual acts, you prove far more effectively that the character has changed, both to the reader and to the other characters in the story.

Flaw

The need for characters to have flaws is common advice. Bell suggests a refinement of this, that if you can it’s good to give your central character a moral flaw that is hurting others.

OK, that’s a potentially very dark point, but it’s similar in value to that point about proving change. A moral flaw that hurts others is more substantial – it has real consequences, not just internalised angst, and it matters to other characters. It’s a much more substantial flaw.

Pitching

The single most useful thing I got out of this book wasn’t about structuring my stories, it was about pitching them. The pitch structure Bell provides consists of three sentences:

  1. Your lead character’s name, vocation and initial situation.
  2. ‘When’ + the main plot problem.
  3. ‘Now’ + the death stakes.

Despite years of being told I should have elevator pitches for my projects at work, I never got the hang of pitching. But reading this gave me such a clear, simple structure to follow that I immediately went and tried it out on the stories I’m writing. So, for the book I’m currently working on:

Dirk Dynamo is enjoying a life of learning with the gentlemen adventurers of the Epiphany Club. Joining an expedition to find the Great Library of Alexandria, Dirk finds himself on the island of Hakon, where colonial life is not what it seems. With monsters in the jungle, conspiracies in the mansion and ninjas dogging his trail, can Dirk and his friends find the first clue to the Library before they meet a deadly fate?

OK, I didn’t actually use the words ‘when’ and ‘now’, but the essence of the structure is there. And I don’t know about you, but I’m more excited about my book after seeing it summarised like that. That’s most of my blurb right there.

On Writing Life

Finally, there were two points that I wrote out on cards and stuck to my desk to remind myself of their importance

  • when writing becomes drudgery go do something else for a while
  • daydream about the rewards of your writing, however intangible, to keep you motivated

I struggle with motivation a lot. These were good reminders of things that I know in principle but often forget in practice.

Worth the Reading

The focus of my previous post on Write Your Novel From the Middle probably seemed down on the book, because I was disappointed after hearing it raved about. But as I also said in that post, there was stuff of real value in there, and I consider it time and money well spent. Just not the game changer it’s sometimes sold as being.

Writing Excuses 10.9 Exercise – Reverse Engineering a Story

Spider Jerusalem - a writer's writer, if that writer is a drug-addled psycho
Spider Jerusalem – a writer’s writer, if that writer is a drug-addled psycho

Last week, podcast Writing Excuses reached story structure in their year long writing course. The exercise for this episode was:

Take a favorite piece of media (but not something YOU created,) and reverse engineer an outline from it.

I’m not going to do this one in huge depth. It’s an exercise you could potentially keep working at indefinitely, and I’m a bit strapped for time. So I’m going to have a look at what’s happening, and what’s being promised, in the first few pages of one of my all time favourite comics – issue 6 of Waren Ellis and Darrick Robertson’s science fiction series Transmetropolitan, a story called ‘God Riding Shotgun’.

Page 1 – Bring on the Crazy

The first page is a splash page – a single large image of journalist Spider Jerusalem typing a rant about religion while dressed in a fake beard, a tin foil halo and a robe made from a stolen bedsheet.

The promise it’s setting up is obvious – in this issue we’re going to see Spider’s take on religion. And because Spider can’t write about anything without getting in people’s faces, that means he’s going to end up fighting, verbally or physically, with priests.

But there’s something else as well. The story Spider is writing involves a taser-wielding priest of the Official Siberian Church of Tesla. This indicates that religion has got pretty weird in Spider’s city, and sets up the expectation of more weirdness to come.

Page 2: Subplot Time

Page two sees Spider waking up his assistant Channon, who isn’t happy at the disturbance. The religious angle is temporarily set aside to set up another plot thread – developments in the relationship between Spider and Channon.

This issue sees a turning point, in which the usually abrasive Spider breaks down his assistant’s defensives and is then forced to admit that he’s been acting like a jerk. This page sets that up by showing the status quo we’ll be moving away from – Spider being a jerk and Channon accepting it.

Pages 3 and 4: Pick a Fight, Any Fight

On page three, Channon realises that Spider, high as a kite, has woken her up at 5:30 in the morning. It’s a way of throwing in a conflict early on to keep things exciting, giving the issue’s main plot time to develop more slowly, and promises future friction between these two characters.

It also moves along the sub-plot about their relationship – the status quo is disrupted by Channon arguing back.

The end result, for now, is Channon questioning how much longer Spider’s body can take the abuse he’s giving it with drugs and lack of sleep. In terms of the series, this is foreshadowing a problem further down the line by pointing out to the reader that their might be a downside to Spider’s wild lifestyle.

Page 5: And Now The Main Action…

Page 5’s central point is a conversation about the huge number of new religions springing up in the city, and ends with Spider demanding that Channon find him churches. The conflict with religious representatives promised on page one is now about to turn into action. The drug-addled journalist is going to go out into the world and find, or make, a religious story. It’s the turn that leads us into the plot proper.

Understanding What Other Writers Do

This exercise made a change from the previous ones, in which I got to be creative. Even just doing it briefly, it helped me to understand what Ellis was doing structurally in building this story, and so to think about how I could use similar tricks. The early conflict in the sub-plot to buy time for the main plot was a particularly neat touch.

If I have time later I might come back and analyse the rest of this issue, because this was interesting and I love reading Transmetropolitan, in all its foul mouthed and angry grandeur.

Anyone else had a go at this exercise, or feel like giving it a try now? Just have a think about the chapter you’re reading or the program you’re watching and see if you can work out what’s going on structurally. Let me know how you get on – share your results or a link to them below. It’ll be interesting for me to see what others got from this.

Thinking About Structure – Write Your Novel From the Middle by James Scott Bell

Whatever we do in life, we get better by learning from other people. Whether it’s plumbing, writing or how to make the perfect fried egg, even if we don’t agree with them, seeing someone else’s technique can help us reflect on our own. I’m always going to have a lot to learn about writing as a craft – anyone who writes does. So when I see a lot of people enthusing about a writing book, I’m going to give it a go. Several people I respect have recommended James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel From the Middle, so it seemed like time to give it a go.

You’ve Got to Start From Somewhere

‘Structure is the translation software for your imagination.’ – James Scott Bell

I like having structures to write with. They act as reminders of the fundamentals needed in a story. If they’ve worked well before then following the structures others use can help you to write something better, something more readers will enjoy.

I know some people don’t like the idea of following a structure. They think it constricts creativity. I disagree. I think that structures support creativity, and only becoming stifling when you follow them blindly. To paraphrase Pratchett, rules are there so that we think before we break them. That’s the benefit of using a structure like Bell’s – it means you don’t have to reinvent the plotting wheel, but can spin off from it when you feel that’s appropriate.

There’s no doubting that Bell provides a useful structure. I can see why this book is popular – it presents a clear approach that’s easy to use, ties together character and plot, and should provide the ups and downs a story needs. It’s even got a neat little gimmick to sell it by – that you’re starting from the middle.

It’s not entirely true, but it is a neat gimmick.

One More Option

But this book didn’t blow my mind or provide me with massive new ideas in the way I’d hoped for from the hype. I think that’s because I’m already following a structure much like Bell’s, but from a different source.

Bell’s structure has a lot in common with the seven point story structure favoured by Dan Wells, and which I use for almost all my stories. You don’t really start in the middle, you start by knowing where you’re going from and to, work out what the key turning point is at the centre of the book, and build in turns and pinches from there. The labels are different, and Bell adds some useful details I wasn’t using before, but in many ways it’s the same beast.

If you want to strengthen your plotting this is definitely a useful book. I’ve noted down half a dozen things from it in my notebook on technique, and if I hadn’t already seen Wells’s structure talk it would have hugely reinvigorated my writing. But because of where I’m at, it didn’t entirely live up to the hype.

It’s useful to have a range of structures you can work with, so that you can pick one that suits you. Bell’s writing from the middle is one more useful structure. It’s just not one I’ll be following.

Earning the ending

The ending is one of the most important parts of any story. Sure, the beginning is what hooks readers, but the ending is what shapes their thoughts and feelings after they finish your work, and so colours their memories of the rest. It determines whether a story is satisfying through the payoff it provides, and makes a huge difference to whether readers, viewers and listeners come back for more.

The ending was the closest to a bum note for me in reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk & Honey. Without spoiling it, I think it’s safe to say that all the pieces are put in place properly, and in that sense the ending is earned. But there’s a huge shift of tone for the climactic sequence that’s at odds with the rest of the book. It’s like the author changed genres slightly to get the results, rather than sticking with the Austen-style social drama that had dominated to that point, and that disappointed me. I like genre mash-ups, but I also like endings that fit the books, and this one didn’t quite. It wasn’t so awful I won’t read more, in fact I enjoyed the book so much I’m already reading the sequel, but still, it was a shame.

I’m also aware that the ending of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother really divided people. I thought it was great, fitted the story and said some things about love and life that I don’t expect from a mainstream sitcom. Others thought it took an easy option. If you don’t mind the spoilers, this video from the excellent PBS Idea Channel looks at it in more depth:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MVxWVQfbjxk&w=560&h=315]

 

My current freelance ghost writing is also raising some questions for me about endings. I’m working on a series of books, and the plot I’ve been given involves each book setting up questions for the next. But there’s a delicate balance to be struck between making readers want more and leaving them feeling like they got closure. How I pace the final story beats of each book is shaped a lot by that.

Which stories do you think got the endings right, and why? Which got them wrong? Share your thoughts below, help me refine my own thinking.

And as ever, if you’d like to read more from me, you can find out about my ebooks here, including some of the glowing things people have said about them in reviews.

Structuring a story – seven point structure in practice

3261773180_27ccde179c_zYou can take the teacher out of the classroom but you can never entirely take the classroom out of the teacher. Hence the fact that Laura sometimes tells me off for using my ‘teacher voice’ with her, and that when I see people learning I want to build on it. So given several positive responses to my previous post on planning a novel, I thought I might spend a bit more time looking at how I use seven point story structure.

To share an example of how this worked for me, I’m going to talk about ‘A Flash of Power‘, a steampunk flash fiction story I published here a few weeks ago. So you can see how I planned it, and how that worked out in the end.

Think short

Unlike planning a novel, for a short story I seldom have more than one plot strand. That’s particularly true for flash fiction – seven story beats in less than a thousand words is quite enough. It also means that those beats aren’t such big shifts as in a full novel, and tend to be more immediately connected.

Step 1: a beginning and an end

Before planning the story I brainstormed a whole bunch of ideas then thinned them out using 100:10:1. I didn’t actually come up with a hundred ideas, but I did the fundamental part of brainstorming lots of ideas, developing a few and then picking one. For ‘A Flash of Power’ that was taking Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms, the steampunk heroes of a couple of stories in Riding the Mainspring, and giving them the challenge of stopping  a runaway moving factory.

That gave me an obvious end point for my story’s resolution:

  • They stop the machine.
    TBS looks pretty fried, promises no more moving buildings.

The second part means there’s some some small slither of character development in what’s otherwise a slightly daft adventure story – mad inventor Blaze-Simms recognises the need for some small limit on what he does.

Seven point structure suggests starting at the opposite point from where you’re going to end, so that gave me my hook to introduce the story with:

  • On moving factory TBS built – lightning-powered, combined with lightning generator.
    DD questioning the logic of the factory, as it’s now out of control.

So the factory’s out of control, and Blaze-Simms is being challenged on the wisdom of his creation but hasn’t listened yet.

Now to work out how they get from hook to resolution.

Step 2: twists and turns

The mid-point is when the characters make a transition towards pro-actively tackling their situation, and that propels them from the hook to the resolution. In this story the characters are trying to stop the factory from the start – again, a flash length story didn’t leave me time for any pre-amble and I wanted to start in media res. So that transition needed to be them taking control, and that meant giving them a plan to stop the factory, making my mid-point:

  • TBS says they can earth the factory.
    DD accepts that as the plan.

Now I needed turn one, the event after the hook that would normally introduce the conflict and which sets them on the path of reactively trying to solve the problem. With the factory already out of control, the conflict came from showing why it was dangerous:

  • It’s heading straight towards a town and disaster.

Oh no, disaster! The great big factory is going to crush the little people! Quick, heroes to the rescue!

I also needed turn 2, the event between the midpoint and the resolution, where the heroes grasp victory from the jaws of defeat and find the final thing they need to succeed. Here it is:

  • TBS gets hold of the necessary conductor for earthing – it’s what DD’s been hanging off.

Great. They have a plan and the tools to carry it out, getting them to the end. But everything’s going a bit too smoothly. So…

Step 3: Making things awkward

If your protagonists have everything go their way then the story’s boring. Things need to go wrong. So between turn one and the midpoint came pinch one, piling on pressure for the characters. In this story I didn’t want to add an extra villain or major new complication, so the setback came from the failure of the characters’ own idea to solve the problem:

  • DD rips out obvious connections between power sources – doesn’t help.

They’ve pulled the plug but the factory keeps going, leading to the midpoint and coming up with a proper plan. But after that comes pinch two, in which even more pressure is applied and they look failure in the eye:

  • DD tries to get to parts room by climbing a drainpipe, but gets shocked off the pipe and almost blown off the factory.

Oh no! Our hero is hurtling, however briefly, towards his doom.

Step 4: Once more, this time in order

Put all of that together and you have the plan I used to write ‘A Flash of Power’:

H:
On moving factory – lightning-powered, combined w lightning generator.
DD questioning the logic, as factory’s now out of control.

T1:
It’s heading straight towards a town and disaster.

P1:
DD rips out obvious connections between power sources – doesn’t help.

M:
TBS says they can earth it.
DD accepts that as the plan.

P2:
DD tries to get to parts room by climbing a drainpipe, but gets shocked off the pipe and almost blown off the factory.

T2:
TBS gets hold of the necessary conductor for earthing – it’s what DD’s been hanging off.

R:
They stop the machine.
TBS looks pretty fried, promises no more moving buildings.

And you can compare that with the story I actually wrote here.

Let me know if you’re finding any of this useful. Sometime soon I’ll probably talk about what comes before all of this – some of how I approach developing the core idea of a story. And as I put some of it into practice over NaNoWriMo I’ll probably discuss other writing techniques I use, partly because of my inner teacher, but mostly because November looks crazy busy and I won’t have time for blog ideas that aren’t just spewing out what’s on my brain that day.

If you’re also doing NaNoWriMo then come buddy up with me on the site – I’m there as gibbondemon, just like my Twitter tag – and if you enjoy ‘A Flash of Power’ then you can read more adventures from Dirk Dynamo and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms in Riding the Mainspringavailable for the Kindle through Amazon and on other formats via Smashwords.

Happy plotting!

 

Picture by Ben Tesch via Flickr Creative Commons.