Showing posts with label story. Show all posts
Showing posts with label story. Show all posts

Using Tropes to Fix a Weak Plot

I am heavily plotting Post-Apocalyptic Ninjas (with Mechs!) in a vain effort to forget that, right now, agents are judging my soul. It's taking a lot longer than I think it should (the plotting, not the soul-judging), partly because my wife and I decided nine kids wasn't enough, and partly because Post-Apoc Ninjas is the novel I have to love more than the one I'm querying,* so I want the plot to be STRONG before I start writing.

And I've discovered a couple things: (1) my first idea is often a trope I'm dangerously familiar with and (2) the weak parts of my plot are where I used my first idea.

Take, for example, the Engineered Public Confession (warning: TV Trope link), in which the hero tricks the villain into admitting to his plan while he secretly records it. It was done in Minority Report, UHF, Monsters Inc, practically every episode of Murder, She Wrote, and it's #189 on the Evil Overlord List.

Does that mean we can't do it? HECK, NO! (Dude, Murder, She Wrote ran for twelve seasons!) The question is: how?

First: Identify the point at which the reader will recognize the trope. It could be as early as when the hero confronts the villain, or later when the villain begins to gloat, or (depending on how you play it) it might not be until the hero reveals his recording device. Finding the point is subjective, and varies depending on what genre you're writing (a reader of detective novels will probably see it coming long before a romance reader, for example), but do your best.

Everything before that point doesn't matter. It's what you do after that point that makes or breaks the trope.

Second: Decide how to play the trope. There are a number of ways you can do this:
  1. Subvert it. We talked about this before. Subverting a trope means it looks like you're going to do the trope, then you twist it in some way. Maybe the recording device doesn't work, or the villain is genre savvy and doesn't fall for the trope, or the intended audience hears the confession and doesn't care (or agrees with the villain!). Don't make the mistake of thinking your twist is completely original, but it's a good way to keep the reader guessing, and it can take you down some unexpected plot paths.
  2. Avert it. This means don't do the trope at all. The reader recognizes the trope is coming just doesn't. There never was a recording device, or there was but the recording is never used. Sometimes averting a trope can be just as clever as a subversion. Sometimes it's just a different trope. But it's another way to go.
  3. Play it straight. Wait, wouldn't that be cliche? That's always a danger, but even played straight, there are a million ways you can pull it off (TWELVE SEASONS!). The recording could be accidental. It might be witnessed instead of recorded. There might be obstacles keeping the hero from showing the recording to the public. (This, btw, is where is most useful).
The trick is to keep it unpredictable. That point when the reader recognizes the trope? It's at that moment she creates expectations in her mind of how the story will play out. If you meet all those expectations exactly, you will (probably) have bored your reader. That's what you have to avoid.

* Yes, there's Cunning Folk. There are definitely things we like about Cunning Folk, but we're not convinced it's the novel to get us an agent, not without a significant amount of rewriting anyway. (When did we start using the royal we?) Anyway, it's not trunked yet, but neither is it a priority. It's just waiting for me to love it again.

Tropes vs. Cliches

A trope (in a story sense) is any plot, character, setting, device, or pattern that we recognize as such. It's kind of everything, from the unassuming farm boy to the rebellion against an oppressive government to the wise mentor to the chase scene in which the car smashes through a pane of glass being carried across the street.

Tropes are what make stories run. A story is not good or bad based on whether or not it has tropes. ALL STORIES HAVE TROPES. A story is good or bad based on how those tropes are used.

What we like about tropes is familiarity ("Yay, ninjas!"), excitement ("Oo, the hero's going to get all awesome on the badguys!"), and especially when our favorite tropes are twisted in interesting ways ("I did NOT see that coming").

What we don't like is when tropes are predictable to the point of boredom. That's when a trope becomes a cliche.

Now, cliches are subjective. What's old and tired to you may be brand new to someone else, or it might be someone's favorite trope--they don't care HOW much it's been done; they love it every time. So how do you keep your stories from slipping past trope into cliche? Here are a few ideas:
  1. Be trope-savvy. One of the things I loved about Avatar: The Last Airbender was how it was always aware of its own tropes. Sokka knew he was the comic guy, the plan guy, the boomerang guy, or "the guy in the group that was normal." They knew they were being silly (and yet a little bit serious) when they came up with a name for their group or for the bounty hunter Zuko sent after them.* It worked because they showed you they were aware of their tropes, through action and dialog.
  2. Subvert the tropes. I thought Megamind was fantastic because even though it used all the superhero tropes, it never played them straight. It took one of the oldest tropes (villain captures girl, threatens hero, hero outsmarts villain), showed they were trope savvy (girl mocks villain's threats as cliche), then twisted it (villain kills hero?!). And that was where the movie started. That sort of thing kept me guessing the whole time, even though I knew the ultimate end.
  3. Don't bother. Seriously, the subjectiveness of cliches is one of the reasons you can't please everybody. One completely viable method of dealing with this is to not even try. Use the tropes you love, put them together in ways you think are awesome, then find the people who agree with you.
What do you think? How can we use the same old tropes (there are no new ones) while avoiding cliche? When have you seen it done well?

* And the fact they never tell you his real name proves even more they know the tropes they're playing with:
Sokka: Wait, YOU sent Combustion Man after us?
Zuko: Well, that's not his name, but--
Sokka: Oh, sorry. Didn't mean to insult your friend!

The Power of Story

I sometimes come across the opinion that non-fiction is "useful" while fiction is purely for entertainment. For someone who loves to read, it can be hard to hear (especially when it's followed by an implication that what I write is not useful).

Ah, but it's not true. Non-fiction is certainly useful, just like a history textbook is useful, but it doesn't have the power of story.

Let's start with geography. I'm pretty good at it, but even I have trouble finding most countries in Africa. I can find Egypt, Libya, Madagascar, South Africa, and maybe Ethiopia and Somalia, but the other 48 countries are harder to pin down. I think most Americans are the same. Why? Well think about the countries you know. I know Egypt from the Bible (among other things). I know Madagascar because its the only island nation and I've seen the movie. I know Libya and Somalia because we've fought wars there.

And I know Tunisia because of Star Wars.

I know where these countries are because I have stories--even dumb ones--associated with them in my mind. No matter how many times I've memorized African geography (and I have), the only nations that stick over time are the ones for which I've learned a story.

Another example: I've been to church my whole life, but I'd have a hard time telling you the content of most sermons. Not because I didn't listen, but because they didn't stick. I do, however, remember stories. Like when my pastor went fishing without a line "so the fish wouldn't bother him." Or the story of the bridge raiser who sacrificed his son to save the people on the bridge.

Stories stick, even fiction. I have trouble remembering the details of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, but I will always remember the moment in Voyage of the Dawn Treader when Eustace needed Aslan's help to shed the dragon skin he could not.

We DO write fiction to entertain, but I hope the stories I write also have meaning for those who read them. Because those stories--meaningful or not--will stick in their minds a lot longer than most non-fiction.

What stories mean something to you?

Hey! Writing's Actually Useful!

I love writing, but aside from crafting novels doomed to obscurity, it's a skill I rarely find useful. Knowing how to write a query letter doesn't keep my boys from killing each other. And being able to describe the smell of coming rain doesn't help when the toilet's clogged (that requires a different scent entirely).

But every once in a while...

So my wife teaches dance. You probably didn't know that. I love seeing her do something she loves, but of course I can do nothing to help her since all my dance knowledge comes from watching Center Stage.

But the other day she was trying something new. She wanted to choreograph something with sort of a story, about a girl with no self-confidence, who fails no matter how hard she tries. To me it felt a lot like Hagai's story (the song she's using was even part of my own inspiration).

She had a problem, though, because what she had so far made it look like the girl was just trying to fit in to the rest of the group, even succumbing to peer pressure. I suggested she do what I do when one of my good guys looks like a jerk: show them doing something nice. Make the group sympathetic by showing them trying to help the girl -- that it's the girl's choice to give up, not the group excluding her.

My wife loved it, and we started talking about other ideas for the dance. I got so excited I didn't realize I was trying to outline the whole thing for her. I completely forgot that anyone who's seen a single season of So You Think You Can Dance is more qualified to choreograph than I am.

Fortunately, she forgave me.

I don't know if she'll use everything we talked about, but for that moment I felt useful. Like I had exactly the skills needed to help her. Who knew fiction was good for something besides, well, fiction?

Have you ever used your writing skills for something other than writing?

Spoiler Camps

There are two extremes when it comes to thinking about spoilers. On one side, there is the ALL SPOILERS ARE BAD camp. These folks seem to believe that once a story is spoiled, it's not worth experiencing. I once saw a Facebook comment that said, "Any Ender's Game film will be a disappointment--imagine watching The Sixth Sense if you'd read the book first!"

I can't agree with that extreme. I'd love to see an Ender's Game movie, even knowing how it ends.

The other camp says THERE ARE NO SPOILERS. In Stephen King's words, "You might as well say 'I'm never gonna watch Wizard of Oz again because I know how it turns out.'"

It's a good point, after all we re-watch movies and re-read books all the time. But the first time you saw Wizard of Oz you didn't know how it would turn out. And I think a lot of the reason we revisit stories we love is to re-feel what we felt that first time.

Obviously I fall in between these camps. I think experiencing a story spoiler-free increases the emotional impact. The second and third viewings not only remind us of that impact, but also free us to see more in the story than we saw the first time -- clues we didn't catch, subtle hints that show the author knew what they were doing the whole time.

Spoiling a movie essentially skips that first viewing. We are half experiencing it for the first time and half watching for the clues that hint at the twist. But the emotional impact is gone because we know it's coming. At least that's what I think.

So I believe there are spoilers, but just because you've seen a movie before (or read the book) does not "spoil" it the second time.

I suspect most of us fall in between the camps, but I don't know. So where do you stand on spoilers? Have you ever had a book or movie ruined by spoilers (or the opposite: heard spoilers but still loved the story)?

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Someone asked me this the other day. I didn't have a good answer then; I kinda shrugged and said, "Everywhere." I didn't know what to say, or even what he wanted me to say. I mean, where do people think writers get our ideas from? Dreams? God? "Inspiration"?

I think my answer was right though -- we do get ideas from everywhere, but not because there's something special about us. It's just how we choose to look at the world.

Like the other day, Natalie posted on Twitter that she had a freckle on the inside of her left eye. Then her and Jodi spent the next half hour discussing what sort of superpowers the freckle would give her, and how she might obtain access to them.*

I joined in and said my first thought was not superpowers but "alien egg." I expected them to be grossed out, especially Natalie as it was her eye, but she said, "Actually, I was thinking it might be an interesting story."

All those stories -- the various superpowers and the alien -- came from the same thing: a freckle. There was nothing special about the freckle that made it story-worthy. The story came from the way the three of us looked at it. It's because our brains were constantly asking, "How can I make a story out of that?"

I think all creative people look at the world this way, to some extent. Journalists look for news stories. Photographers look for pictures. Comedians look for jokes. Pastors look for object lessons. Bloggers look for posts. And genre writers look for magic and aliens.

So when I'm dry for story ideas, it's not because the ideas aren't there, it's because I haven't been looking for them. Ideas happen around me all the time, but if I've been converting them into blog posts or devotions for the kids, I won't see them.

I keep trying to come up with a good ending for this post, but all I can think of is that alien egg. How does the alien eat after it hatches? How does it reproduce? Maybe if I spend an hour on Wikipedia, something will come to me...

Meanwhile, where's the weirdest place you've gotten a story idea from?

* It sounds like I was eavesdropping, which I guess I was, technically. Then again Twitter let me. Nothing's private on the nets, right?

Hero's Journey

Last time I talked about the Three Act Structure as a way to map out your story. Today I want to talk about the Monomyth, or the Hero's Journey.

This one's kind of cool because it has transcended both time and culture (i.e. it's really old and lots of cultures' stories use it). Meaning this story is one that, for whatever reason, resonates with us as people. In fact, you'll see a lot of similarities between this and the Three-Act Structure.

The hero's journey is separated into three sections: Departure, Initiation, and Return. Each section has its own features, not all of which are present in any given story. But you'd be surprised how many are.

Innocent World:
The hero starts in the normal and mundane, though they are not always mundane themselves. Frodo in the Shire. Luke on his uncle's moisture farm.
Call to Adventure: Something happens that draws the hero outside their world. Frodo inherits the Ring. Luke meets Ben Kenobi. There is often a refusal of the call at first. Frodo doesn't want to leave. Luke refuses until his aunt and uncle are killed.
Supernatural Aid: Once the hero has committed to the quest, their guide appears - Gandalf or Obi-Wan.
Crossing the Threshold: The hero passes through some ordeal to leave the innocent world and enter the world of adventure. Frodo is hunted by a Ring Wraith. Luke and Obi-Wan fight their way out of Mos Eisley.

Road of Trials:
The hero faces a series of tests, often failing. Frodo's fall at Weathertop. Luke's attempts to save Leia.
Meeting with the Goddess: The hero finds his love, or something like it. Frodo meets Galadriel. Luke meets Leia.
Atonement with the Father: The hero reconciles with whatever has been holding him back. Gandalf's death and Boromir's betrayal forces Frodo to set out on his own. Obi-Wan speaks to Luke after his death.
Apotheosis: Literally, becoming divine. In the story, this is when the hero comes into his/her own. Sam faces temptation from the Ring and rejection from Frodo, and he overcomes them. Luke turns off his computer in the Death Star trench.
Ultimate Boon: The hero achieves their goal. The Ring and the Death Star are destroyed.

Sometimes the hero does not want to return to the normal world. Frodo wishes to stay with the Elves.
Flight: Sometimes, when the quest is complete, the hero must escape, and/or there is a return threshold that the hero must cross. Frodo and Sam escape Mt. Doom. Luke flies away from the exploding Death Star.
Master of Two Worlds: Part of the resolution shows the hero as competent both in the adventuring world and their normal world. Frodo and friends rescue the Shire from Saruman. Luke (later) returns to Tatooine as a Jedi.
Freedom to Live: This mastery of both worlds leads to a new contentment, freedom from fear, and love for life. Sam gets Rosie. Frodo leaves for the Gray Havens.

Obviously not every story is a hero's journey, but it's surprising how many of them are. Personally, this is one of my favorite stories. I find myself constantly coming back to this structure when I'm plotting. I hope this is useful for you too.

Three Acts

By popular demand (8 out of 15 votes), the new working title for my WIP is The Cunning. I want to thank everyone who voted and commented. You've given me a lot to think about for later when I give this thing its real title.

And a special thank you to the folks who said they liked the story idea. That kind of encouragement is always welcome here :-)

So I'm plotting out The Cunning now. I freaking love this part. Everything's out there, just waiting for me to figure it out, and (because I plan before I draft) I don't have to spend a lot of time doing it. I might talk more about that later. Right now, because it's on my mind a lot, I want to talk about the Three-Act Structure and (maybe later) the Hero's Journey.

The simple form of the 3-Act goes like this: (I) setup, (II) confrontation, (III) resolution. In more detail...

Act One

* Introduce protagonist, "normal" world, and supporting characters.
* Introduce simple conflict.
* Ends when the main conflict is introduced and the protagonist's world is irrevocably changed.

Act Two
* In an effort to solve the main conflict, protagonist tries and fails against increasingly difficult obstacles.
* Ends with the Final Reversal - the last bad thing before everything is resolved. The protagonist has had enough, or the villain thinks they have defeated the hero for the last time. Whatever.

Act Three
* The protagonist faces the main conflict in the climax.
* Everything else is resolved.

That's one way to look at it, albeit a simple one. But it doesn't explain much about Act Two, which is supposed to be half of the story. Screenwriter Syd Field saw this and improved upon the 3-Act Structure calling it the Paradigm...

Opening Image:
The first image or scene that summarizes the story, especially its tone. This is kind of a screenplay thing, but it can work in novels just as well.
Inciting Incident: The protagonist encounters the problem that will change their life.
Plot Point 1:
The turning point, in which the protagonist's life is irrevocably changed.

Pinch 1:
A reminder, halfway between the beginning of Act Two and the Midpoint, of the overall conflict (e.g. while the protagonist deals with his obstacles, cutaway to the villain for a scene).
Midpoint: An important reversal or revelation that changes the direction of the story. Field suggests that driving the story to this scene can keep the middle from sagging.
Pinch 2:
Another reminder scene, connected to Pinch 1, and halfway between the Midpoint and Plot Point 2.
Plot Point 2:
The final reversal, when the hero has had enough or the villain believes they've defeated them for the last time.

Midway through Act 3, the hero confronts the problem for the last time. They don't have to win.
Resolution & Tag: The issues of the story are resolved, giving the audience closure.

This post is long enough already, so I put my examples in the comments. Feel free to add your own too; trying to match stories to this formula will probably teach you more than I could. (I learned a lot just figuring out my examples).

And remember, the three-act structure is not The Formula By Which All Stories Are Told. It's just one way to think about things. If you're not sure where your story needs to go next (like me) then it can be really helpful.

Up and Interpretations of a Story

Chapters Edited: 20
Scenes Edited: 67
Words Murdered: 5078 (6.6%)

People whose butt Sam has kicked: 42
People who've kicked Sam's butt: 2

People whose butt Hagai has kicked: 0


Last time, I chided George Lucas for revising Star Wars after they'd been released to the public saying, "Once it's out there, it's no longer yours." What I mean is that the story you write, and the story someone else reads (or watches), are two entirely different things.

Here's an example. My wife and I went to see Pixar's Up last Friday. Up is about a retired old man named Carl. His wife and childhood sweetheart dies; they couldn't have children, so he's alone now. For her sake, he decides to go on the adventure they always said they would go on but never did. Along the way, he learns that the seemingly boring things in life are what make memories - they're the real adventure.

My wife and I had different reactions to it. Superficially, I liked the airships, and she didn't like the talking dogs, but then we started talking about it and discovered we had different ideas about what was important.

I liked that Carl pursued his dream, doing what he'd always longed to do. I also liked the relationship he formed with Russell, the young boy who went with him. These are themes I'm commonly drawn to: doing what you're born to do and fatherhood, which says a lot more about me than the movie.

Cindy, on the other hand, was more interested in Carl's relationship with his wife. To her, the fulfillment of the wife's lifelong dream was more important than anything else, so when Carl chose to set the dream aside in order to rescue a bird that had become important to Russell, she kind of lost interest.

And the thing is, she's not wrong. She latched on to what she had brought to the movie, just like I did. In both cases, we got things out of the movie that were not its primary focus - were maybe never intended by the creators at all.

That's what I mean. Once someone else reads your story, it becomes something different, something that belongs to them. You can revise it, but in doing so you may wipe out the story they thought they had read. If it's a beta reader or something, they'll understand. If it's a fan of 20 years[, George,] they won't.

Sigh... I liked that Han shot first. It made him cooler.

Elements of Fiction: Why?

I've been reading this book, Blue Like Jazz, where Donald Miller talks about his Christian journey in decidedly non-religious terms. It's refreshing, and I highly recommend it, whatever your beliefs.

At one point, he talks about a lecture he went to on the elements of literature - setting, character, conflict, climax, and resolution - and he (and I) began to wonder why? Why do stories have to have these elements? Nobody invented them. Nobody said, "This is how it shall be done," and so we all do it that way. These elements are in the core of our being. Humans of all cultures identify with stories that contain these elements and have trouble with stories that do not (literary fiction, I'm looking at you).

The real reason (and this isn't my idea, but Miller's) is that these elements speak to things inherent in the human condition. Let's take a look at them.

Setting. This one is obvious. The fact that we exist means we exist somewhere. We cannot experience life without a setting in which to experience it.

Character. Likewise, there is no life but it has characters in it. Even the most secluded hermit has himself in his own story.

Conflict. Life sucks; it has hard things in it from the beginning. Pain. Loss. We want something, but there are always obstacles. There is no life without conflict.

Climax. As we face more conflict and more obstacles, eventually things come to a make-or-break point. Will I ask her out? Will I try out for the team? Will I propose? Will I win the contest? Will I have a baby? We must make a choice, we must act out that choice, and the experiences and decisions we've made up to that point all play a part in determining how each climax plays out.

Resolution. Whether the climax was a success or failure, the resolution is what happens as a result. Questions are answered. Loose ends are closed. Cliffs are left hanging towards the next climax.

The fact that these are inherent to life suggests some things too. Perhaps our lives build towards a climax and have resolution - maybe death is not an abrupt end to the story, but some kind of climax itself. Perhaps also there is something after death, with conflict and climax of its own (though of what kind, I cannot possibly imagine).

Because if there is one thing that is true about all stories, it's that they never end. After one scene reaches its climax, the conflict-climax-resolution cycle starts again in the next one. A few such scenes, and you've got a chapter. Many chapters, each with their own climax, make a book. Many books make a saga. Sagas make life.

And then it all starts again.