This Business of Writing

Posts Tagged ‘stories’

How to Structure Your Story

In Editing Your Manuscript, The Craft of Writing on February 23, 2010 at 10:03 am

Listen to a podcast of this article HERE.

When some novelists sit down to write a book, they begin within a general feel for their story and characters then sit down to write. The book sort of takes shape, fills in and reaches its culmination of its own accord. This technique is the one I’ve used to date. The problem is it calls for much editing after the first draft. In my current manuscript, “Born to be Brothers,” I’m on my sixth major edit and only yesterday determined a seventh is needed.

Other writers organize their thoughts into a formal outline with all plot points scripted, every CHARACTER fleshed out to the level of ear hair, all IMAGERY constructed and each subplot developed in full.

This has nothing to do with the article

This method requires less editing after the first draft but more thought beforehand.

I think it’s obvious the method one chooses is determined by the writer’s personality.

There is a third option for those who are more organized than I and less ordered than God. It’s called by a number of names but is often known as the Three-Act Structure. In general terms, it  dictates a story has three distinct sections. Without surprise, you’ll find these “acts” are the beginning, middle and end.

Many say this is an arbitrary division of a story and has no real value within writing. They indicate the story revolves around the main CONFLICT and how that conflict is resolved. To be honest, I see their point. However, I think organizing does help us to stay focused, especially those writers new to the industry. With that in mind, I’ll offer this and hope you’ll feel free to do with it as you wish.

I did a bit of research and found the early Greek stories consisted of only one act while the Romans settled on five. I couldn’t determine why they the numbers differed, but regardless, today we utilize three acts. As mentioned before, the acts comprise the beginning middle and end of your story or as I prefer, the Set-up, the Confrontation and the Resolution.

When I wrote the first draft of my current manuscript, I’d not given any thought to the three-act structure. However, as it turned out, the novel naturally fell into the Set-up, Confrontation and Resolution  pattern. The Three-Act Structure seems to fit the human mind’s need for logic and may well be a natural storytelling methodology.

Although this is quite arbitrary, I’d guess you’d break up a hundred-thousand word novel into something like a twenty-five thousand word Introduction, a fifty thousand word Confrontation and a twenty-five thousand word Ending.

The Three Act Structure allows writers who don’t do a great deal of outlining to create a first draft with more efficient pacing. It gives them a feel for when to move from one part of the story to the next. This structure should also help eliminate the sagging middle, which is often caused by incorporating too much information too early in the manuscript.

The Set-up is designed to introduce your major characters, setting and premier conflict point. You might also toss in a subplot or two in this section. (For more on subplot, read my post from yesterday.) By the end of this section you’d have identified your detective, his lovely assistant, the murderer and the victim. There would be some action, a secret or two and maybe even an erotic innuendo here or there. However, the secret to the Set-up is it ends when your first major plot point, the hero’s great conflict, expels him from his normal life.

The Confrontation is all about thickening the plot. Think escalating tension and conflict, allies and enemies and character growth. It develops by way of the myriad of obstacles your protagonist faces and the many lessons he must learn in order to defeat the villain, whomever or whatever he may be. This is that part of your story where your second major plot point, the confrontation with the Big-Bad-Wolf, threatens. The formal confrontation takes place during Act Three.

The End is where the great villain is confronted and defeated. This section finalizes when you tie up all the loose ends and answer all the nagging questions you forgot to earlier. It is in this act you send your triumphant hero home to the welcoming arms of his lovely assistant – the very one your reader thought had died during the Confrontation.

For more on structuring your story, read my earlier post HERE .

In the mean time, know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”

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The Power of Subplot

In General Information, The Craft of Writing on February 22, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Click HERE for a podcast to the article.


To understand subplot, let’s first delve into the concept of plot. The main plot is the framework or storyline of a novel. It is the series of events that happen to your protagonist. In most novels, it can be summed up in one sentence. Think about Margaret Mitchell’s book, “Gone with the Wind.” Can you compile those many pages into a single sentence? I have no idea what Margaret Mitchell’s one-liner might be, but I’ll give it a go. How about something like this? A genteel woman of the old South must learn to cope with the ravages of civil war.

In like manner, subplots are lesser series of events that interweave within the main story. They, too, can be subjected to the compression of a one-liner. Looking to “Gone with the Wind” again, we find a number of subplots that Ms. Mitchell melded into her novel. For example, before and after the war, Scarlett’s love for Ashley as well as Rhett creates great conflict in her life. She also deals with a relationship with Melanie, Ashley’s wife and even a father who has slipped into insanity.

When you interject subplots into your novels, keep in mind they must maintain a direct connection to the main plot. They add substance and enrich the main story as they interlace within it by way of their relation to it. They do not stand on their own nor do they, as a rule, have a direct impact upon the plotline. Look at it in this light. If your plot is a haunted house, the subplots would be the ghosts that waft from room to room. They are part of the house, but the house stands with or without them.

I see two key reasons to interject subplots into your novels. They offer character contrast as well as enhanced conflict. My current manuscript, “Born to be Brothers,” is about the love triangle between two men and a woman. One of the subplots comes into play when war breaks out and the three must decide where their loyalties lie. War brings out the differences in people every time and increases conflict by its very nature. For another example of conflict offered by subplots, consider the Harry Potter series. The story is about Harry, of course, but interwoven is a subplot based on Hermione’s crush on Ron. Though Harry’s adventures continue unabated, the girl’s sentiments toward Ron take over entire scenes at times.

This brings us to the structure of subplots, which have the same configuration as your story and its major plotline. That is, they have starting points, middle points and outcomes. Within this, they have turning points, moments of great peril and questions answered. Yet, despite everything, they consume less of your word count than the main plot.

Should you decide to introduce a number of subplots, keep in mind one is premier to the others. You should have one foremost subplot and a couple others of lesser impact. A general rule is to have at least one scene relating to the subplot(s) in each act. (Most stories have three acts, but that’s another post altogether.)

One aspect of subplots I appreciate is they allow a lesser character to take on a larger role when the major plotline fails to offer that opportunity. Think of Prissy, the house slave who lied about her experience with “birthing babies” in “Gone with the Wind.” That minor subplot holds much more of our memory than it deserves when you consider its relation to the major plot line of that book.

Subplots, should you wish, can have a major impact on the main plot and are most effective at this when placed at the end of the story. For example, If you’ve read the original “Frankenstein,” you know a servant girl hovers about the story almost without purpose. In the end, however, the mad doctor uses her body to create a creature-wife for the monster. A very minor character turned into a major subplot at the conclusion of the novel.

Now, would you like to know the true secret to a subplot’s power? They are all about relationships. I’ll bet the light just went on for some of you, didn’t it?
As an author and writer, you can embellish your story with depth and life by the effective use of subplots. Take some time to intertwine them in your books and your readers will appreciate your extra work.

Until we speak again, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”

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How to Write a Scene in a Novel

In The Craft of Writing on February 18, 2010 at 9:00 am

Great! You’ve developed these wonderful characters who stand primed to flit about your magnificent setting and boy-oh-boy do you ever have an idea for a storyline. Well, it’s all for naught if you can’t compile these things into scenes and string those scenes together to make your story awe your readers.

Imagine a lustrous string of pearls. The first gemstone compliments the next which balances with the rest and strung together they lay upon a woman’s neckline to bring forth her natural beauty and give her a radiating sense of elegance. Now imagine that necklace where the jewels are a hodgepodge of odd sizes, hues, luster and even quality. All of a sudden we’ve taken the best of nature and the best of man and made them into something unpleasing. The same thing happens with your story if you don’t create your scenes as well as you’ve created your characters and your setting.

One secret many find useful is to write the last scene first, and the first scene second, at least in outline form. If you know where you need to go, the steps to get there will become much more obvious. Now some people recommend you consider what the characters want to happen, what they need. Personally, I disagree. Determine where you want to go and what steps you must take to get there and the characters will follow your lead.

Let’s get started.

First outline what you need on hand to create an effective scene. It requires emotion, action, dialogue, characters, conflict and setting. (Did I leave anything out?)

Next, determine what has to happen in a scene to move this part of the story toward the next. Ask yourself, “What must happen now?”
Don’t worry about what could happen or what should happen.
Be concerned only about what must happen. At this time, use only two or three sentences to write your scene. That’s all you need at first.

Now that you know what must happen, figure out who must be in the scene to make it work. Put only those characters necessary into it and leave everybody else out.

Next you determine where this scene takes place. It may be obvious after you asked yourself what must happen, but if it wasn’t, fix the setting into your mind. Consider having things happen in places that one might think out of place. Consider a teacher and high-school student discussing the child’s grades. You’d assume this would happen in the classroom, most likely after class, right? Why not have this discussion taking place at a racetrack or better yet at a bar. Now that would perk the scene up, wouldn’t it?

Okay, we’ve got what must happen, who’s in the scene and your setting. Now consider how it all ties together. A classic secret is to begin a scene as late in the scene as possible. Regardless, this next beginning almost calls out for recognition as it naturally piggybacks off the ending of the previous scene. However, give this a bit of thought, too, and see if you can’t punch up your creativity just a bit. For example, your student and his teacher are talking at the races when one scene ends. The next scene might typically start the following day in class. What if this second scene started on a Saturday as they watch the school burn down? The oddity of your settings may just give your novel a unique and imaginative spark. After all, why should all the surprises come at the end of a scene?

The next thing I’d like you to do is visualize your scene as if it were in a movie. If you can see it working visually, it’s probably got some strength to it. Try this first with only the characters’ physical actions and nothing more. When you close your eyes and “watch” your scene take place, look for those areas that stutter or slow the pace. Those are the parts that need work. After you’ve “seen” it play out, go through this process again, this time with the dialogue. Does it “hear” as well, too? If not, you know what needs work. Do this a third time within your setting in mind and you’re good to go. Visualization is the real secret to a good scene.

Okay, you wrote your three sentence scene and you’ve “watched” and “listened” to it and it feels good. Now’s the time to pen what some people call a scribble draft. It doesn’t have dialogue, setting or anything beyond simple physical actions. Make is a bare-bones outline. It’ll look something like this:

Jack runs down the hill.
Jill runs after him.
Jack falls down hill, dropping his bucket.
Jill does too and screams as she tumbles.
Both land in a heap at the bottom of hill.

After all that, now guess what you get to do? Yep, first draft. Now’s it time to put fingers to keyboards and clack away.

We’re now to our last step in writing an effective scene. Now that you’ve gotten a few scenes strung together. Reread them and ask what’s the worst that could happen if this scene or that were omitted in whole. If the basic storyline is unaffected by the missing scene, it’s unnecessary and should probably be cut from your manuscript.

Yep, it’s a lot of work, but you’ll get that beast wrestled to the ground and your story will emerge. Good luck.

By the way, read back to step one and you’ll see I recommended you first write out your scenes in just two and three sentences. If you do, put all these mini-scenes on the same piece of paper, a file of its own. Make a copy of that document before you expand them into full scenes. This is the start of your synopsis and the beginning of your outline. (You’ll thank me one day for this tip!)

Until we speak again, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the soon to emerge novel, “Born to be Brothers”

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The Secret to Secrets in Novels

In General Information, The Craft of Writing on February 17, 2010 at 7:03 am

Almost every type of novel can utilize the power of secrets to advance the plot and improve the suspense. Think of how many stories you’ve read where something unknown pops up in the middle of the book and shifts the entire story to another track. I’ve come up with five ways to use secrets within your novels to enhance your storyline, increase suspense and even help your characters grown and change during the story.

One of the best ways to use the suspense created by a secret is to make it corporeal, something your characters can see and touch. When utilizing this technique, your reader is allowed to share in the secret and all the interest and excitement the unknown brings. It could be a sealed envelope, a person lurking in the shadows, a photo or a diary. It can be anything as long as your reader doesn’t know what it represents until you want them to know what it represents.

You can use a secret as a source of conflict for your characters. How about the husband who comes home late from work and refuses to tell his wife why?  What if a soldier cannot bring himself to talk about a war experiences, though his wife tells him she’s heard an ugly rumor about that situation. In fact, this secret could even be your entire novel. Regardless, in these situations you’ve got something you readers know exists but is hidden from them for a reason they are not yet allowed to understand. They may just read on just to find out what’s going on.

A third way to take advantage of secrets is to enhance your climactic scene. How often have you read a novel where just as the hero is about to die, he learns a dramatic secret that changes everything and saves his life and sanity? Personally, I don’t care for this use. I think it was Orson Wells who said, and I paraphrase, terror isn’t terror unless the viewer knows something is about to happen. As I recall, he used the example of two people sitting at a table with a bomb underneath. There is much more suspense if everyone knows the bomb is there and are waiting for it to explode, than if it just detonates all of a sudden. I feel the same way about secrets. They have more power if everyone is waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop. Regardless my sentiments in this, a climactic secret might be useful to your story and you may wish to give it consideration.

Another common use of secrets in novels is as a vehicle for a plot twist. The secret to this secret is to insure it is truly hidden within your story as you set up your readers for its revelation. In Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, (not the movie versions but the book), the creature threatens the not so worthy doctor with perpetual evil unless Dr. Frankenstein creates another creature, a female companion for the monster. When that comes to light, the entire story took on a new direction. If you can work this tool into your novels, it’ll create terrific conflict.

I think the most powerful secrets to use are within you. You’ve got some, just like everyone else. Why not choose those secrets that inspire your life to inspire your readers?

If you wish to use secrets but don’t have one in mind, find real life ones at Post Secret Blog for ideas. (This place is interesting.)

I hope you’ve found something in this article that’ll spark a secret for your novels.

Until we speak again, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Author of “Born to be Brothers” (Coming Soon.)

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How Setting Influences Your Characters

In The Craft of Writing on February 11, 2010 at 12:39 pm

As I performed my research for this article, an idea came to me I should have visualized long ago. That is, setting serves as much more than a mere vehicle to cement my readers in the time and place within my story. It is a psychological force upon my characters. In contemporary writing, setting stands as an influence that acts upon the characters.

Readers now know that in life, environment is part of what molds one’s personality and their background is among the many factors that help to shape who he is. Further, they understand one’s choices in life indicate the “real” person within. It’s psychology 101. Therefore, the successful author will use setting as an indicator of personality.

To put this in perspective, consider these examples. We’ve all known someone who drove a red convertible and someone else who drove a used Pinto. Without doubt, these people possessed differing personalities. With this in mind, consider how a murdered parent might push the child toward a life or good or evil. Will a coonskin cap show a wanderer’s proclivity to the hunter’s life? Will the slums of Elizabethan England act upon the street rat to make him a thief. How might an American woman be influenced if a book was set in a Muslim nation? All these aspects of setting play upon the personality and mind of the characters.

How might a writer go about presenting setting as a psychological force? I see it in subplots. In my current manuscript, my hero’s parents are murdered when he is a child. This event then determines his choice of careers. Further, this subplot takes him to places in the world he would never otherwise visit and force him to commit actions he would never consider had he not become an orphan. Further, I wanted to use a pocket watch as a subplot. My hero purchases this when he is a young man with the idea he would bequeath it to his firstborn son at the appropriate time. He never has children. What happens to the pocket watch? It becomes a symbol of those unrealized aspects to his life.

All this behooves the author to look at his setting as even more authentic, more realistic than ever before. Readers will pillory an author for these kinds of errors, so a thin setting is no longer acceptable. Caution and adequate research is necessary, now more than ever.

Setting is more than place and time. It’s a power that creates your characters and influences their lives. Get to know your setting as you would your main characters and your novel will be the better for it.

Until we meet again, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

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