Posts Tagged “writing”
May 31, 2019
This is the third and final part of my summary of the book “The Emotional Craft of Fiction”, by Donald Maass. It’s a book about writing fiction, as you can imagine. This third part will explore chapters “The emotional plot” and “The reader’s emotional journey”. I skipped the last chapter, “The writer’s emotional journey”, because I didn’t have a lot of notes about it. You can find the first part and the second part on this blog.
The emotional plot
It’s common to motivate characters with public stakes (“if I don’t do X, Y will happen”). Those are fine, but personal stakes (from inner need and yearning) are more powerful. The rest of the chapter details methods for building emotional plots.
Tips on p. 90 (in short: find something warm and human your character cares about, and open the story with that feeling. Now find something curious, puzzling, or weird, and highlight it, but without giving away too much about it).
Why readers really fall in love with protagonists
Longing and inner yearning are more powerful than need.
The emotional midpoint
The midpoint is when the protagonist is utterly alone with themselves, defined only by hope or dread. It’s a second when the story is suspended, unable to go backward and about to plunge forward into the unknown: the character being face-to-face with fear, failure, a dilemma, or death; a moment of truth when a secret is revealed, the protagonist is shamed, or their actions are shown to have terrible consequences. Whatever its purpose, it’s important to mark it and make space for the reader to experience it. Tips on p. 99 (in short: write about how the protagonist viewed themselves before this point, and what about that view is no longer true; think about what your protagonist can see that couldn’t before, what can no longer be seen in the distance behind, what is coming, and what is never again to be).
Failure and defeat
In crisis, the past is erased and the future is a void. It’s the end of identity. Tips on p. 104 (in short: think about what makes the failure excruciating, and work backwards setting it up so it hurts more: who is counting on the protagonists, who is let down, etc).
Catalyst and catharsis
Tips on p. 108 (in short: what frustrates your protagonist? Find three new ways to increase the need and one way to punish your protagonist for having that need. Also think about in which ways can they act out, and what they can destroy in a fit of rage over this. Now, what can they do or say that they couldn’t before? Show it).
Scenes in which nothing happens
Tips on p. 111 (in short: identify your protagonist’s greatest inner need, that would be there regardless of the plot, and write a short paragraph or sentence explaining it; then, pick a scene in the middle of your story, and rewrite it using the short paragraph as a start; when you’re done, delete the first paragraph: is the inner need and the feeling still evident?)
Emotional goals in scenes
Tips on p. 115 (in short: look at the scene you’re writing right now. Who is the POV character? Identify the scene goal [what the character has to do, get, seek, or avoid], and then shift focus to the emotional goal: what in this scene is pulling the character closer of farther from the emotional goal? How does this character attempt to reach the emotional goal in spite of what’s happening? Write a passage that shows all this).
Emotional breakthroughs: getting real
Getting real is what happens when the scene’s subtext bursts through. Sudden shift in tone, unexpected openness, show of force, begging for compassion, etc. This shows that we’re in the middle of a struggle that has nothing to do with the plot. Tips on p. 118. In short: try to be a NYC cop, Mother Teresa, Oscar Wilde, or the Oracle of Delphi for one of your characters. Does the result help you pierce through the fog and the artifice? If so, use it.
Plotting the non-plot-driven novel
There’s nothing wrong with writing about the human condition with stuck characters, but these are hard to write as they can easily become passive. The recommended approach is to play off your reader’s feeling of impatience, expressed through unspoken questions like “why can’t the protagonist just get what he wants? why can’t she simply talk it out? why can’t he just walk away or quit? why can’t she simply change?” Tips on p. 123 (in short: work with the four questions).
In these kind of stories it’s important that the reader doesn’t feel lost, and can keep a mental map of where the story is. Tips on p. 127.
The true ending
The job is not finished at “Happily Ever After”: everyone else in the protagonist’s world has to be ok, too. The highest human good is not gaining happiness, but giving back.
The reader’s emotional journey
Tears, rage, and terror are big, but notice that when they occur thy are preceded by something. They come about when conditions are right. They also carry with them attendant feelings. Big emotional experiences are engineered by circumstances.
- Forgiveness: The act of forgiveness is a fundamental change that occurs, most important, in the one who must forgive.
- Sacrifice: It can be big or small: what makes the sacrifice moving is not its size but how much it is needed.
- Betrayal: It isn’t the act of betrayal that’s so bad, but who does it, and how.
- Moral dilemma: They work best when the stakes are both high and personal.
- Death: Sadness in itself is not a feeling that we want, but sorrow is. The former is a door closed; the latter is a door open to something good that we don’t want to give up. To make death poignant, make life beautiful.
Extra tips on p. 144.
They are more than flags, eagles, roses, rings, or rain. You can make symbols out of anything. Tips on p. 150.
Story worlds we don’t want to leave
The buildup of tension and its release is one of the big ways that a big story becomes big. Even better is when the tension comes from something good that we hope will happen, rather than from fear that something bad will happen. Thus the first task when creating a world is to create hope. The stronger the hope, and the more we fear is won’t be fulfilled, the greater will be the emotional release when things turn out ok.
Making the world a better place for others may inspire admiration, but what grabs us is a hope that for something that we want for ourselves. World peace vs. getting a smile from the beauty that serves at the coffee shop.
Hostile environments don’t make us want to stay. That goes for a story’s moral values as well. In that place, goodness reigns… or will reign again, once the protagonist wins.
Tips on p. 154 (in short: think about how your protagonist feels about the world, about where they find comfort or goodness or refuge [if it’s a hostile place], and what warms your protagonist inside. Find a way for the readers to feel that pleasure, comfort, security, or delight right away).
Change is the goal of every character and the true ending of every story. We want to know that despite the difficulty we can all change. Tips on p. 163 (in short: start from the new self, and work backwards: how’s the old self, what sparks the need for change, add some mentor and devil, find when must change happen, and find the most dramatic way for your protagonist to become their new self).
Seasons of the self
We go through transitions, and the self-awareness of who I was and who I am becoming now is very significant, maybe more so than what the characters do. Tips on p. 167 (in short: figure out the periods of the characters’s life, and which events started the transitions; figure out which phase the character is leaving behind at the beginning of the story, and what phase they’re heading towards; somewhere in the middle, change is being forced on the character: what makes the protagonist aware, what is good about changing, and why does your protagonist want to stay the same?)
Protagonists and other characters always change one another. Tips on p. 171 (in short: look at your current scene and figure out who wins and who loses in an interaction; then, figure out how your POV character is changed by that interaction; make a chart with characters and how they influence each other’s view of self, the other, the problems in the plot, people in general, etc).
Feelings without names
Unique feelings are situation-specific. They flare and then perish quickly, but leave a trace. The smaller and more specific the imagery, the more universal and expansive the unspoken feelings of the POV character. Small visual details turn into big invisible feelings.
I thought the book was quite interesting, and it made me think of, or realise, many things about fiction and writing. I had mixed feelings about the insistence on happy endings and good characters when I read it, but I guess there’s something to it.
In any case, I hope you enjoyed the summary!
May 30, 2019
This is the second part of my summary of the book “The Emotional Craft of Fiction”, by Donald Maass. It’s a book about writing fiction, as you can imagine. This second part will explore chapters “The emotional craft of fiction”, “Inner vs. Outer”, “The emotional world”, and “Emotions, meaning, and arc”. You can find the first part on this blog.
The emotional craft of fiction
How can I get readers to go on emotional journeys of their own? Readers may believe they’re living a story along with its characters. Actually, they are having their own experience that is occasioned by what’s on the page. This experience can be elicited by a number of story elements (plot, setting, theme, mood, dialogue… and what characters feel).
Why is it important to look at fiction writing through the lens of emotional experience? Because that’s the way the readers read. They don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook or outrage. They formulate their own.
Emotional impact is not an extra: it’s a fundamental to a novel’s purpose and structure as its plot.
Inner vs. outer
There are three primary paths to producing an emotional response in readers: inner mode (telling of emotions), outer mode (showing of emotions), and other mode (making readers feel something the characters do not feel; it’s an emotional dialogue between the author and the reader). All three are valid, but they can all fail to work.
- Outer mode: tips on p. 16 (in short: write feelings for a character in a scene, including obvious and non-obvious ones, then imagine how the character could act out, exploring different possibilities, then delete the feelings and leave the reactions).
- Inner mode: writing what the character feels should be a shortcut to make the reader feel that way, but it’s actually the opposite. You have to play with unexpected feelings, thinking about the layers of feelings for a given situation. Example on p. 21 using analogy, alternatives, moral judgment, and justification. Tips on p. 22 (in short: think about what a character feels in a given scene. Then wonder what else they feel, then a third layer. Go through the four steps of the example, then write about the third feeling).
- Other mode: readers want to feel something about themselves. They want to anticipate, guess, think, and judge. That they have been through something. That they have connected to your characters and their fictional experience, or think that they have. That is much more than just walking them through the plot.
The emotional world
The emotional life of the characters should be the focus, not a sideshow. Methods to make us feel as we read:
- Me-centered narration: Make characters talk about themselves. We open our hearts to those that do it first. That said, when characters say things about themselves, they say the opposite of what is actually true (tips on p. 34). It’s a good idea to describe the world not by explaining how it sounds, tastes, or smells, but by explaining how the characters experience the world.
- Emotional scale: Big emotions can be stirred in readers, but not directly or by force. It requires laying a foundation on top of which readers will place their own feelings. Small details and reminders that evoke situations preloaded with feelings. Tips on p. 38. Making characters struggle with their feelings force readers to wonder if they would feel like that, too. Tips on p. 41.
- Stirring higher emotions: Moral elevation: reading about good characters make us better people. Tips on p. 49.
- Moral stakes: Apart from the personal stakes for the characters, the moral stakes are very important, too. We want to read about good characters (when anti-heroes work, it’s a trick: they’re actually good), and we should establish that early in the story. That said, moral struggles that pervade the story makes readers get invested in it. Tips on g. 56 (in short: prepare a big change for a character, including three “anticipation” events to prepare for the last event in which the character finally changes).
Emotions, meaning, and arc
What shapes us and gives our life meaning is not what happens to us, but their significance.
Dry information can have a big emotional effect not because of what it means, but because of the personal significance for one of the characters. Tips on g. 67.
You might think your telling your characters’ stories, but in fact you’re telling us ours. Think of the universal significance of what happens.
Connecting the inner vs. outer journeys
Connect the plot and the emotional journey of a character by making the events in the plot (a) matter to them personally and (b) make them change. Also, make something outward happen when there’s an internal change.
Tension vs. energy
Pondering/reflecting/feeling vs. acting. Good stories make characters swing between those two modes. Tips on p. 79, 81.
May 29, 2019
This is the first part of my summary of the book “The Emotional Craft of Fiction”, by Donald Maass. It’s a book about writing fiction, as you can imagine. This first part is very short, and will simply distill what I think are the main ideas in the book. Later parts will explore the book more in detail, chapter by chapter.
Edit: See the second part of the summary on this blog.
What I can see as the main ideas of the book are:
- Showing and telling are both fine, but they have to be used well.
- Personal stakes (longing and inner yearning) are more powerful than public stakes (external need, “bad things will happen unless they do this”). Characters changing is the most important part of a story.
- Readers don’t feel the feelings they read. Instead, what they read makes them respond and feel their own feelings. You’re not telling your characters’ stories, you’re telling us ours.
- Uplifting endings and the assumption of goodness (the world is a good place, or will be by the end of the story) work better than the alternatives.
These are ideas that I found surprising, inspiring, and/or that are repeating throughout the book and seem important for the lessons to be learned. They might not completely make sense without the context of the book, though. Stay tuned for the more detailed, chapter-by-chapter summary!
Jan 7, 2017
This is my (partial) summary for the book “Writing Monsters” by Philip Athans. It’s a book with advice and tips for fiction authors on writing effective monsters for your stories. Instead of following the book structure, I’m going to try to summarise a selection of its ideas.
Predictability is the enemy of horror
This is by far the most important idea in the book, and many of the tips stem from this principle. I have marked in italics everything connected to this.
What is a monster?
Uniquely strange creature that we instinctively fear. A distortion in appearance, behaviour or thought. Characteristics:
Monsters have a disturbing capacity for violence.
They are amoral and beyond our control: cannot negotiate with them, don’t seek or respect our opinion.
They turn us into prey, sometimes isolating us and/or taking our weapons.
Note that shape, appearance (hideous to beautiful) and size (giant to microscopic) don’t matter!
A strange, terrifying creature might not be a monster once its behaviour is understood.
Uses of monsters
Villains: Monsters don’t have to be villains, and villains don’t have to be monsters. If a character is both, build the villain facet first.
As transformation: We’re afraid of what we can’t control, including ourselves and other people (werewolves, Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, etc). Our psychological well-being is as important as the physical, maybe more, because otherwise we’re expelled from society and civilisation.
As “natural disasters”: They bring the best and worst in people. Useful to explore honesty, loyalty, vanity, etc., not just good/bad.
As obstacles: Simply what stands between the protagonists and some goal. Note that “defeating” a monster might mean understanding it, helping/rescuing it, or sending it home.
Defining Your Monster
When defining your monster, define its offence (why it’s dangerous), defence (why it’s hard to get rid of it) and utility (features that gives it “colour”, like Blair Witch Project making stick figures and putting victims in a corner). Make rules for it, even if they’re never fully explained to the reader. You can use a monster form as a reference.
Archetypes like vampires, zombies, dragons, etc., are useful, but you need to define your own twist to them, see eg. 30 days of night and 28 days later. Otherwise, they’re unoriginal and, worst of all, predictable.
Describing Your Monster
Show, don’t tell! Describe the visceral experiences of the protagonists/victims (eg. use of “shuddering” instead of “being afraid” in Lovecraft’s Dagon excerpt on p. 142), the monster’s effects on people, and its possible intentions. Not knowing what the monster is, or not seeing it, is effective.
Think of all the senses. Limiting one, or all but one, can be effective. We don’t have to be turned away by appearance, smell, etc: sometimes predators use good smell to attract prey.
Revealing Your Monster
Monsters should be revealed in three stages:
Initial contact: Announces there is something. It’s fast (uses few words) and dramatic.
Build-up: Reveals aspects of it, takes the most space: increasing the threat, leaves reader wondering where does it stop. Reveal no more than necessary (our imagination makes them scarier), use “red shirts” (side characters who die) to show the danger.
Final encounter: Play with expectations and wait as long as possible to show the monster. Don’t actually show the monster until the end.
There’s much more to the book than what I’ve written here: I just included the parts that were more interesting for me personally. I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed with the book: it seemed messy, some of the ideas and examples I didn’t find enlightening or useful, and some ideas were repeated several times (didn’t feel like reinforcement, just messy writing/structuring). Maybe I had too high expectations.
That said, the book was interesting and useful, at least for a n00b like me. So I recommend it, just not wholeheartedly.
Dec 12, 2016
This is my summary of the book “2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love” by Rachel Aaron. It’s a very short e-book (also available as audio book) with tips for writers. It’s only $0.99 so definitely worth the money and the time if you’re looking for some writing advice and tips.
The book is divided in two parts: the daily process and the background work that allows for efficient writing. The second part is somewhat more subjective and personal and might not apply equally well for everybody.
Part one: Process
Many (competent, even!) writers equate writing quickly with being a hack. The author obviously doesn’t agree, and thinks that the secret of her method is that is removes dead times and waits. The method is based on three requirements. Improving any of the three is a win, but all three is the best.
Knowledge: The most important of all three. Know what you’re writing before you do it. No macro plot stuff, but exchanges in an argument or very rough descriptions. Five minutes is about enough to cover all the writing for a day.
Time: Record your word output per session for a while and figure out patterns. Do you write better/more when you write for at least two or three hours? At home? At the coffee shop? Without internet? In the morning or evening? Once you figure it out, try to make all of your writing sessions be like that.
Enthusiasm: Write stuff that keeps you enthusiastic. If you didn’t enjoy writing it, it’s likely that readers won’t have fun reading it. When planning the writing for the day, try to play the scenes in your head. If there’s any scene that you are not excited about, change it or drop it. Similarly, if you struggle to write one day, reflect on what you’re writing and figure out if you need to change anything. The process should be enjoyable.
Part two: Tips for Plotting, Characters, Editing
Plotting in 5 steps
To decide which book to write, choose an idea from the pool if ideas you have in your notebook, blog, or wherever. Signs to tell if an idea is worth the time/effort required for a novel: you cannot stop thinking about it; it writes itself (related to the previous point); you can see the finished product; and you can easily explain why others would want to read it.
Get Down What You Already Know. Characters, situations, magical systems, settings. Scrivener mentioned as the best thing ever.
The Basics. Start filling out the gaps from the first step, enough to figure out the bare bones of characters (main characters, antagonists and power players), plot (end and beginning, in that order, plus twists, scenes and climaxes you already know of; also the kind of story this will be), and setting (magic system if applicable, basic political system, general feel of places: technology level, culture, power).
Filling In The Holes. You already have the plot beginning, some interesting middle points, and the end. Tips for when you get stuck in page 28. This step is finished when you can write the whole plot, start to finish, without skipped scenes.
Building a Firm Foundation. Make a time line, draw a map, write out who knows what and when, memorise everyone’s particulars, write out a scene list, do a word count estimation, and do a boredom check (go through the whole plot: if some scene is hard to visualise or feels slow, figure out why).
Start Writing! Remember that no matter how carefully you have plotted, the story and/or characters will probably change dramatically.
Characters Who Write Their Own Stories
Characters with agency (that can make decisions that change the direction of the plot) write their own stories. They will help getting from a point in the plot to the next. Examples in pages 36 and 37. Basic character sheet consists of name, age, physical description, what they like, what they hate, and what they want more than anything. It’s filled during step 2 above. The rest of the character development happens as the novel is written, like a braid: this gives easier and better results.
The Story Architect
Most stories follow a three-act structure (Act I, put your characters in a tree; Act II, light the tree on fire; Act III, get your characters out of the tree). Act II is normally the longest. Act III is the climax, the big event. It has a lot of tension, and it shouldn’t be too long because the tension will fade. Don’t forget the resolution at the end: readers need a closure for the characters, enjoy their victory. Does not mean having to end the book happily: the point is tension relief.
The Two Bird Minimum
Scenes should do three things: advance the story, reveal new information and pull the reader forward. Sometimes combining several scenes into one can be interesting and add tension, plus makes the story leaner.
Editing for People Who Hate Editing
Many people dread editing and think they cannot do it, but it’s just a skill that can be improved. Tips on approach:
Change the Way You Think about Editing. The final destination of editing is reader experience: polishing the text so it doesn’t just contain the story, but it’s nice to read, too.
Editing Tools. Three tools to identify the problems the text has: updated scene map (tip: mark types of scenes, like love, main plot, and secondary plot, and make sure their distribution throughout the next is not too uneven), time line (includes important things other characters were doing “off screen”; helps find timing problems, when action too loose or tight, lagging tension, etc), and the to-do list (list of problems you have found).
Actually Editing. Take the to-do list and start fixing. Always biggest/hairiest problems first, never first page to last. Then do a read-through, making a new to-do list (typos and small things can be fixed on the spot), and possibly more read-throughs if the to-do list was big. Finally, read one more time, but from the reader’s POV (tip: use a reading device, not the computer used to write the manuscript). At this point you can involve other people, never before. Remember that involving other people means more rounds of editing. At least three more rounds is normal.
Here you have a pretty compact summary of the book, mostly useful for reference and to get a sense of what the book covers. Note that I skipped the chapter with advice for new writers and some other minor stuff, though. If you like this, go support the author (seriously, it’s just one dollah).