How to Write, Part III
How to use Formulas for Writing
With an infinite range of characters and plots, how do you consistently make the storytelling interesting for the reader? Think about a scientific book about the first trip to the moon. The most amazing event of mankind! A feat of engineering genius! The pinnacle of evolution! Yet, your eyes droop, your mind wanders, you reach for the remote. No plot is compelling in its own right. What matters is how it’s told.
Over the years, I've noted some of the techniques other authors use to spruce up their stories, plots, and character development. You’ll forgive me if I make as many film references as I do novels. Scriptwriters are writers too, and in many ways even more attuned to keeping an audience enthralled. Here they are, in no particular order:
1. Fail First: Big failures before success. Small successes before a big failure. It isn’t interesting when a plan goes as planned. Unforeseen setbacks, and the solutions our hero finds for them, make a plot much more realistic. There should be a minimum of two, preferably three, events that set the character up for disappointment. If the plan fails three times, the reader will root for them to keep trying. If it succeeds three times, the reader will either sympathize when it fails or revel in our hero’s crushed ego. Either way, the reader becomes vested in the outcome and willing to read on.
The best failures tie back into early story events. Use a situation that remains unresolved early on, forgotten, but then rears its ugly head at worst possible moment. In the beginning, Lassy escapes the dog-catcher due to a flat tire on the impound truck. Later, just as Lassy runs to tell Timmy’s mom that Timmy fell in the well, the dogcatcher reappears and captures her. An overzealous cop arrests our hero for a warrant on parking tickets when he’s out to save the world, that sort of thing. The problem should also be dramatically inferior to the problem our hero is trying to resolve, bind the hero completely for a short time, leaving the reader in complete suspense just as they thought the story almost over.
2. Into the Fire: Each solution leads to a new, and possibly worse, problem. Think of Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom. He escapes the bad guys by hopping a plane… owned by the bad guys. When they crash the plan, he escapes in life raft… onto the side of a mountain. The boat slides down a mountain into a river… in the middle of hostile territory. This is almost as much fun for the author as it is for the audience. It keeps everyone on their toes and adds a little variety. It’s a great way to drive a plot, or drive your character nuts.
3. Background Action: Every scene has two story lines running, one in the foreground and one in the background. J.K. Rowling uses this in the Harry Potter books. You might have the characters discussing their big plans in the foreground, while in the background a cat and mouse chase each other, a ghost frightens other students, various mishaps occur. Usually these do not interrupt the main story line, or even play a necessary role in the story. They do, however, add comic relief, action, and tension without tasking the main characters.
4. Who Else is Here? The world is full of other creatures, all intelligent, all scheming toward their own success. Your character won’t realistically get through any plot without bumping into other plots. Maybe the superhero can’t go catch criminals today because his kids have a school recital. Maybe our hero misses her first big date with her lifelong crush because her boss makes her work late. Whatever it is, we’re surrounded by other plots. How those plots interweave through your own makes your world that much more realistic, adding tension and complications along the way. There’s another reason to think about this, though. How do you know you picked the right lead character? Maybe one of those other plot lines rightfully takes over the whole story! That leaves a lot of doors open for the writer.
5. Not Snakes! Your strong character has one insurmountable flaw. Flaws build character. Great flaws build great character, provided the author remembers. Robert E. Howard’s legendary Conan (the novels, not the governor of California) never felt comfortable around sorcery. He would plow through two dozen men with a laugh, but sorcerers gave him the heeby-jeebies. Anything he couldn’t cut with a sword made him queasy. It’s no wonder that nearly every story eventually pits him against dark magic. If you’re not challenging your characters, you’re not challenging your readers.
6. Location, Location, Location: In the past five years, five Academy Award films nominated for Best Picture took place during World War II.* If you think this is a coincidence, you’re missing the most important decision you will ever make for your story.
ANY story is more interesting when you have World War II behind it. We have such a clear notion of the great evils, the epic battles, the deep privation, that the most paper thin character gains instant depth. An etymologist struggling to save his beetle collection would win an academy award if it took place in Dresden during the fire bombings. It’s a pathetically easy technique to use. Best of all, every manner of everyday plot line took place during the war – love, death, births, family, horrors, science, you name it. Whatever you’re writing a book about, chances are you could set the same plot during World War II.
But let’s pretend for a moment that you don’t want to sell out. Say your characters are about to have a conversation that will break up their marriage. That could happen at home at the kitchen table, but it’s much more interesting if it happens in a drastically public location, preferably during a contrastingly happy event. Let’s talk about why.
Choose locations more carefully than plots, conversations, or even characters.
A conversation can take place anywhere, so think of the most interesting place for it to do so. Why? Your audience usually has a preconceived notion of a location. They understand what is “normal” there and what is obscene. After thousands of years of storytelling, you might as well let tropes work for you.
Ever notice how action movie conversations take place inside moving cars, strip clubs, or rusting factories? Because it makes the conversation more interesting! Did you see the movie Moneyball? Six old fat white guys sitting around a table talking. BORING! The same conversation could have been held, at the very least, on the field during a practice.
Try to pick places with other people to react to the events, other emotions to intrude, other action happening. It is fine to say, “I’m leaving you” at home. It’s a little more dramatic to say it in Rockefeller Center at Christmastime when your significant other is down on his knees proposing and the crowd is cheering. Let the setting make the scene. It’s so easy, it’s a shame not to make the effort.
In fairness, I’ll share the notes I wrote for myself when I started Red Sand. I tried to remain faithful throughout the writing process. These are not a formula to follow directly, but to give you some food for thought on your own story. Most of all, keep writing!
Plot elements to keep in mind:
1. Speed. Things happen fast. - No bewitching words.
2. Rotate point of view as story necessitates – try to use chain events to facilitate this.
3. Allegiances shift in dangerous situations. This can be a plot twist or a betrayal.
4. No Repose, No comfort, No beauty
5. More descriptions, less dialogue. [I went the other way on this one, and glad I did. Dialogue drives action better than descriptions. When in doubt, let a person describe something verbally to the reader, the way doctors do during autopsies on crime shows.]
6. Damn the editors. We’re writing for the WB audience. Big words ok.
7. Use cliffhangers at the end of as many paragraphs as possible.
8. Resolving one problem always leads to another, worse problem. Out of the pan into the fire.
9. Overlap story lines as much as possible. There should always be a minimum of two series of events concurrent in every scene. The personal conflicts continue despite their surroundings. Stay in character.
10. Start each chapter somewhere else – back on the boat, or back on the mainland in their regular life – creates a fuller picture while adding tension by delaying the present action. Just when someone is wondering "What happens next?" you take them somewhere or somewhen else.
11. Use witty referential banter to establish personality. What do they say they care about?
12. Always enact an internal struggle between good and evil. We must think the characters have the potential to choose the wrong thing, even if they never do.
*War Horse, Inglorious Basterds, The Reader, Atonement, Letters from Iwo Jima