Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Plot & Structure by James Bell

Plot and Structure by James Bell he gets started with the common basic stuff, but then goes into lots of useful examples of how to do the things he's talking about, like stretching tension and raising stakes.

LOCK is the acronym he likes. Lead, Objective, Conflict, Knockout (a strong ending, like in boxing, instead of a draw). He boils down all stories to this basic schema for the 3 act structure, and you then add your unique non cliche ideas on top to make it interesting.

Act 1
a) introduced to world
b) call to action
c) through doorway number 1 (can no longer continue in their normal life)
Act 2
a) hero meets mentors and aids and maybe picks up some useful artifacts
b) scenes get more intense
c) hero might go through a dark patch
d) through doorway number 2 (direct path to final showdown)
Act 3
a) final battle
b) wrap it up

The inciting incident creates reader interest, but is not necissarily the main story point. Doorways of no return (aka plot points) how to get from Act 1 to act 2, and from act 2 to act 3, shove your characters through a decision/event they can't return to how things were afterwards.

Coming up with ideas:

Come up with a cool title to a book, then write the book that goes with it. Come up with a cool opening line and run with it: "ever kill anyone?". Quickly jot down a list of nouns, then go back and look at any associations you have with them. Write on an issue you care about: poverty, war, etc. "I think arresting fiction is written out of a sense of outrage." -Robert Ludlum. Come up with the most intense climactic ending scene you can, then fill in the story before it.

Establishing a bond with the reader:
Identification: character goes through an experience we've all had (not getting the toy you want at the store)
Gain sympathy with, Jeapordy, Hardship, Underdog, Vulnerability, Likeability, Inner conflict (people who react without 2nd guessing or being afraid are too different from regular people)

ARM action, reaction, more action, fundamental rhythm of a novel. Lead character has to be doing something, can't just stand there, they're trying to achieve a goal, and for the scene to be interesting there needs to be something in the way. More conflict and tension you can add the more interesting the scene will be.

Keeping them reading through the long Act 2

Trim the dullness, combine or cut characters, absorb uninteresting subplots, look at your scenes if one doesn't have enough conflict punch it up, or kill it and drop the knowledge into a different scene.

Stretching the Tension
There has to be something to be tense about, potential badness about to happen to the character. Set it up so the audience know: "Saturated by silence, the house brimmed with also with an unnerving expectancy, as if some bulwark was about to crack, permitting a violent flood to sweep everything away." -Dean Koontz, he then spends the next 7 tense pages walking a girl through a house to find her drugged up mother. Slow down to make more tension. Action, thoughts, dialogue, description, milk them and more to slow down the pace of a scene and get the reader more into it, so they're worried about what's going to happen and you're pointing out every detail, in film they do this with slow motion. What's the worst thing from the outside that can happen to my character? What's the biggest trouble they can get into? Is the reader prepped enough? (can't worry if they don't know they're supposed to) Emotional tension, go through it beat for beat with the character showing what they're going through, where their thoughts are flitting, what emotions are boiling up, what they're emotional stake makes them physically feel. What is the worst thing from the inside that could happen to the character? (hint: look to their fears) What is the worst information my character could receive? Does the reader care enough about the characters to go down with them? Stretch your big scenes out of course, but also stretch out little passages as you go (not a whole scene but a momentary bad thing a half paragraph instead of a half sentence) It's easier to stretch all the bad as far as you can in your first draft and pull it back, then try and cram it in later.

Raising the stakes
If you can create a character worth following, and a problem that must be solved - and then along the way raise the stakes even higher - you're going to have the essential elements of a page turner. 3 aspects of stakes to consider, flowing from: plot, character, and society. Plot stakes the bomb, the papers, What physical harm can happen to my character? What new forces or characters come into play against my character? Is there some professional duty at stake? What's the worst thing I can do to my character? Character Stakes inner turmoil, How can things get more emotionally wrenching for my character? Can I twist the emotional knife in my character through another character? (law and order governer's only son is under suspicion for murder ,what's our gov gonna do?) Are there dark secrets from the past? Societal Stakes like Scarlet O'harra's can raise the tension. Whose on which team socially? What big sociatal issue could they be dealing with? Now take your list of troubles, sort them from least to worst, and now you have a stakes outline (don't have to use all of it) to keep ratcheting things up as act 2 rolls along. Just keep asking: What else can go wrong, how can I make it worse?

HIP: hook, intensity, prompt
hook pull readers in, don't start with boring description, suck them into the action, tease them with what's gonna happen, etc.
intensity keep the reader anxious through tension, make the tension with emotional or physical conflict.
prompt make the reader want to know what happens next. Where does this new revelation leave the characters? How will they react to this news? How are they going to get out of this one? What are they going to do about this? Reversals, surprises, questions.
Intensity Scale: Within a scene the intensity will change. And different scenes will have different overall levels of intensity. If you analyze your scenes from this angle it will help you build your story. A novel usually revolves around a few Big Intense scenes, like guideposts you move from one to the next (passing through less intense scenes) always going up to the climax. If you've analyzed your scenes (go ahead, make a graph, each scene 0-10 (although 0 is probably too boring)) then you can plot out your story to have good balance, to always be stepping it up, and to be giving the readers a breathing break everyonce in a while.
4 scene chords: action, reaction (minor chords) setup, deepening.
Action scene: character trying to achieve something (scene objective). He comes against an obstacle to keep things interested. Commercial fiction majority of scenes are action based.
Reaction scene: how character feels about what has happened, often done beat by beat. (literary novels may feel like they have more reaction scenes, because they are more about the interior or the characters.) Can put a reaction beat in the middle of an action scene. If you handle action and reaction well your plot will move along smartly.
Setup scenes: are needed for the rest of the scenes to make sense, they potentially can be dull, so build in a problem to pep them up.
Deepening: not really a full scene, use it sparingly, it's added spice. The "barf-o-rama" story in Steven Kings "The Body"
Scenes fall Flat: find the hotspot, the essential point of the scene,(if there isn't one, dump the scene) circle the hotspot and go up from there trimming dead wood sentences that don't catapult you into the hotspot

Long Novels
Like the story of a snot nosed Irish urchin who grows up, emigrates to America, and dies as the major mob boss of New York. Treat each section as a mini story, 3 acts, LOCK, but change Lead to Locale, and K to Kick in the Pants prompt to read the next part. Locale:Ireland, Objective:get out of Ireland, Conflict: Abusive father, Kick:beats up Dad and runs. Locale:Boston, Objective:find a way to live, Conflict:gangs and cops, Kick:kills a cop. Locale:NY, Objective:Rule it, Conflict:Rival mobs, Knockout ending:becomes mayor. Have to make each section work on it's own.

Character Arc
Our core self, who we really are, we surround with harmonious layers. To change you have to penetrate through all the layers to the center (self>core beliefs>values>dominant attitudes>opinions). Take Ebenezer Scrooge: opinions (xmas is a humbug, clerks try to take advantage)<attitude (profit greater then charity)< values ($ more then people)<believes (love is pointless)<core (miser and misanthrope). Can't just jump to a change, have to break down all those layers.

The rest of the book (half of it) goes into different ways to write, outlining, not outlining, getting through the first draft, different archetypes of story (quest, revenge, love, adventure, chase, one apart, one against, allegory) Common problems (wandering on a tangent, characters taking over, writers block.)

Show don't tell. Showing as if you were watching it: Marc's eyes widened and his jaw dropped. He tried to take a breath, but breath did not come..." the reader feels the emotions along with the character. Telling: "Mark was stunned and frightened." Don't list: "Perry Mason, on the other hand, was urbane, fair, logical and smilingly frank to the jury." we don't really believe he's urbane fair logical and frank just because we're told.

Soap Opera tricks: 1)Don't resolve anything to soon, raise questions then delay answering them. 2) If you can cut from one scene leaving the reader hanging, to another scene, then cut from that scene leaving them hanging. In other words force them to come back for more because you always leave more threads then you tie up.

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