Finding the Positive

As I type this, it’s the close of Day 1 of my local community’s lock down. The world has not seen anything like this pandemic since the influenza outbreak of 1918. We are modern. We have prescription insurance and anti-bacterial hand soaps. We shouldn’t have to fear plagues, so what is this? What happened?

In a culture that a few weeks ago was overscheduled, hectic, stressed, busy, and addicted to social media, with nothing more exciting going on than political debates and watching Prince Harry of Great Britain repeating the actions of his ancestor, King Edward VIII, who abdicated royal responsibilities so he could spend his life with the divorced American woman he loved–suddenly, bam, pandemic.

As disruptive and frightening as it is, this health crisis–once and if we and our loved ones get through it–will eventually serve as fascinating fodder for future stories. We have plummeted into changes we could never have foreseen, and our emotional confusion is nearly overwhelming.

A writer’s chief stock in trade is character emotion. It fuels characters. It motivates characters. It drives them to smoulder and plan and weigh options and take action. It makes them seethe, resent, fret, lash out, worry, agonize, fear, flee, and panic.

This month, I have witnessed fear and panic. I have seen empty store shelves–and never before have I ever seen a huge supermarket wiped out of meat in a day. I have seen hoarding of supplies. I have seen generosity and kindness from strangers. I have seen people shaken from their self-absorption in their families and/or their social media friends to instead reach out and speak kindly to people they don’t know. I have seen the good in people, and I have seen barbarous indifference as shown in the Spring Break news feeds. At the latter, we shake our heads, yet it takes time to slow down a country and stop its wheels. We are a nation on the go, and yet now we sit on a side railing, waiting. We aren’t used to sitting idle. It’s unAmerican. It’s weird. We’re supposed to work, to go to school. We’re supposed to be busy and productive. We’re not supposed to sit in our homes, afraid when we venture out to move past the six-foot line. We’re not supposed to stay away from our workplaces or our houses of worship. We don’t quite believe this can be happening to us.

We’re in a situation that can certainly be called a lulu. If you ever needed to study human nature to gain insights into motivation, reaction, true nature, and capacity to act, here is opportunity. We are just over a century from WWI, just over a century from the deadly flu epidemic, just over a century from the sinking of the Titanic. History does repeat. It cycles around, and disaster strikes us when we aren’t paying attention. Disaster also forges us into something better than we were, or it shatters us.

I don’t want to belittle the gravity of what we’re facing now. But it’s a chance to observe, to gain insight into deepening our stories.

The point of plots is to put a protagonist through a stress test to see what this individual is made of. How much can the protagonist take? What does the protagonist fear? What secrets does the protagonist harbor? What is holding the protagonist back, and how can the story events push him or her into changing?

It is typical human nature to resist change. Change is perceived on a psychological level as threatening, and some people dig in so stubbornly to avoid change that they would rather remain in an unsafe situation than do anything differently. Consider the 58-year-old man that’s 250 pounds overweight and at risk for a coronary. His doctor tells him he has to exercise by taking daily walks and eat a healthier diet. Frightened, the guy heads straight to the grocery store and loads up on broccoli, kale, flaxseed meal, and salmon fillets. He struggles his way through a week of power-walking, then skips a day because of work issues, then never catches back up. It’s too hard. It’s boring. He gets too hot. His shoes rub blisters on his toes. He’ll exercise on the weekends. He’ll exercise later. And kale tastes like cardboard. Flaxseed meal makes him itch. The fish doesn’t agree with him. He hates broccoli unless it’s smothered in cheese sauce with bacon bits sprinkled on top. Hey, he can order pepperoni pizza with broccoli on it, right? Sure. And what has he changed within a month of his doctor’s warning? Nothing.

Let’s hammer this point with another example:  the elderly individual that won’t leave her house despite widespread flooding and an evacuation order. She has nowhere else to go. No family to take her in. She’s terrified of being put in an old folks’ home. Her cat has disappeared in the rain and if she leaves her cat won’t have anyone to come home to. So the water rises, and every day the woman climbs higher in her house, until she’s trapped in the attic. Finally her little house is swept off its foundation and goes bobbing along in the torrential waters, necessitating rescue personnel to risk their lives to save her.

Or consider the person that stays in an abusive relationship, afraid to leave for the children’s sake. Never mind what this toxic home life is doing to the kids. They deserve parents that stick together. They deserve the nice house, their own cell phones, laptops, and tablets, the pool, and their generous allowances. Such things will more than make up for the emotional misery and psychological/verbal abuse that poisons everything in this dysfunctional family day after day. Right? Otherwise, what’s it all been for?

How about the writer that sweats to complete a novel manuscript, but won’t submit it to a publisher because it needs just a bit more polish? It could be self-published digitally, but no it really needs a third-act rewrite. Despite the fact that it’s been written and rewritten six times in eight years, it really isn’t quite ready because the writer is afraid to expose it to any potential criticism. After all, it might be published and what would be so bad about that? Well, the writer would have to change by working on a new and different project. On the other hand, if it bombs, the writer will have to face that it’s no good and then change by working on a new and different project.

Change–good or bad–is threatening because it upsets the status quo. It makes things different. It jolts us from our ruts, our routines, our habits. While in real life we dodge change as much as possible, in fiction we need it. We should use it to jump-start our stories at the beginning, then let it pressure and challenge our protagonist into a steady arc of evolving in order to win, to succeed, to survive, to become better. Or, if you’re channeling Mario Puzo and design your protagonist to devolve, the arc of change will end in disaster and defeat.

And all the while, our protagonist is battling not just an antagonist, not just physical or emotional danger, but fear. Fear of the story situation, fear of the antagonist, fear of the mission going wrong, fear of the unknown, fear of a worsening spiral of trouble, fear of failure, fear of daring to leave the box and leap for a risk never attempted before.

Change and emotion. They force character action. They ignite the sparks of conflict. They push the protagonist into doing something, into taking risks, into leaving what’s familiar and known to try what’s different.


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Two weeks ago, I was browsing through a pile of used books and stumbled across a dark-gray volume that said Campbell on the spine, along with University of Oklahoma Press.

Bing! Bing! Bing!” sounded in my head. I pounced.

Sure enough, Walter S. Campbell authored the book. I’m always on the lookout for anything he’s written because he founded the Professional Writing program on the University of Oklahoma campus in the 1930s; I consider him a literary ancestor; and his photograph hangs on my home office wall.

The book’s subtitle is A Guide to Good Reading. It’s basically a bibliography of books written about the American Southwest, ones that Campbell considered to be worth a reader’s while. Given that by the 1950s Campbell had authored or edited about 27 books, most of them dealing with western subjects, he seemed to be as good an authority as any in his day to pick and choose these selections. I feel certain his authority would stand just as firmly now.

At first glance, I experienced disappointment. A bibliography? Really? Is that all? Once I dived into the book and actually looked at it, however, I realized I held gold in my hands. What an incredible resource.

In the table of contents, past Campbell’s introduction explaining how this project came about and quotes from a few other writers extolling the region’s beauty, the chapters of grouped selections are listed as follows.

BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY:  Statesmen and Generals; Writers, Artists, Scientists; Explorers, Travelers, Hunters; Mountain Men, Scouts, Indian Fighters; Soldiers and Army Women; Gunfighters and Outlaws; Marshals and Sheriffs; Texas Rangers; Cattlemen and Cowboys; Captives of the Indians and “White” Indians; Missionaries, Priests, and Reformers; Doctors and Lawyers; Businessmen, Oilmen, Prospectors; Women; Memoirs.

DESCRIPTION & INTERPRETATION:  Guidebooks; General; Indians; Spanish-Americans; Cities and Towns; Flora and Fauna; Horses, Cattle, Sheep; Arts and Crafts; Travel; Sport.




HISTORY:  General History; State History; Campaigns and Expeditions; The Mexican War; Indian Wars; Forts and Missions; Institutions, Industry, Business; Trails and Rivers; Cities.



ORATORY:  Political Papers and Forensics; Sermons and Homiletics.

POETRY AND SONG:  Anthologies; Individual Poets.




Naturally I possessed strongest interest in seeing what he lists in the chapter on Fiction. Here are some samples:

Aydelotte, Dora. Trumpets Calling. (New York, D. Appleton-Century, 1938.) Early days in Oklahoma. The Run and what followed. A good story with authentic background and color.

Baker, Karle Wilson. Family Style. (New York, Coward-McCann, 1937.) A novel about the oil game as a lady saw it. Manners rather than story or action. Interesting, well made, not very stirring.

Bass, Althea. The Thankful People. (Caldwell, Idaho, the Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1950.) A sympathetic and true-to-life picture of modern Indian life, the story of a little Seneca Indian girl, her family, neighbors, and friends, who try to keep the “long-house-way” in their hearts. Illustrated by Walter Richard West, the Cheyenne painter.

Davis, Anne Pence. The Customer Is Always Right. (New York, Macmillan, 1940.) One of the best Southwestern novels of the past twenty years. The story of a department store, with everything–from the bargain basement up–supplying a brisk Texas city. Good reporting, authentic color, humor, and styled for pleasant readings. An agreeable change from cowboys and gunmen.

You can be sure that next I’ll be hunting for old copies of the Davis and Bass books.

In Chapter 2, Campbell defines the Southwest region as including “West Texas, the western half of Oklahoma, New Mexico, and those parts of Kansas and Colorado which are definitely Southwestern in background and outlook.”

He also writes, “… we have in this Southwest, as so defined, a common sense arising from a common experience of Indian wars, cattle drives, county-seat fights, swift settlement, dust storms, badmen, oil wealth, and an agricultural and pastoral economy now reluctantly accepting industrialization. This common sympathy and way of life extends on the south to the Rio Grande in Texas and the Gulf of Mexico, and to the north somewhat beyond the Arkansas River in Kansas and the old Santa Fe Trail.”

And he adds, “The decision to halt this survey at the western boundary of New Mexico was not mine. Before the committee representing the University of Oklahoma and the Rockefeller Foundation approved my project, I was informed that others would make a similar survey of Arizona and California. Yet this decision, however arbitrary it may seem to some, fits in well enough with my own feeling, interest, and experience, and certainly affords a field quite ample for such a survey.”

Having spent most summers of my youth in southern New Mexico, I can certainly identify with this quote from D. H. Lawrence:  “But the moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend. There was a certain magnificance [sic] in the high-up day, a certain eagle-like royalty, so different from the equally pure, equally pristine and lovely morning of Australia, which is so soft, so utterly pure in its softness, and betrayed by green parrot flying. But in the lovely morning of Australia one went into a dream. In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the old world gave way to a new.”

I haven’t been to Australia, but I know the New Mexico sun and its intense blue sky. The land is fierce. It’s stark and wide and relentless. It can kill you if you’re foolish. It can clarify your mind and make you vividly aware of what is important and what is so much clutter or muddle. My experiences there remain among my most cherished memories. I miss it every day. So yes, although I was surprised to find myself sympatico with a writer like D. H. Lawrence, we share at least this one pinpoint of common ground.

Still, this reference of Campbell’s was published in 1952. Isn’t it rather out of date? What good does it do us now?

No doubt, in our modern world and way of thinking, our first reaction might be, what good is an antiquated bibliography when I can just Google up a list. But can you?

Of course you can.

I ran a brief Internet search and came up with a 2016 list compiled by someone named Jessica Pryde. Her geographical definition of the Southwest region includes California, New Mexico, Arizona, the Four Corners area of Utah and Colorado, and just a reluctant smidgen of West Texas. Her list leans heavily on fiction, including speculative, contemporary, thriller, historical, and romance, serving up a mere speck of biography, tossing in a bit of short story and poetry, and adding a few picture books for a diversified spectrum. Authors range from Tony Hillerman to Barbara Kingsolver to Terry McMillan to Paolo Baciagalupi to Elmore Leonard to singer Linda Rondstat. The autobiography of Samuel Holiday, a Navaho Code Talker, looks fascinating. The LEGEND OF PONCIANO GUTIERREZ AND THE MOUNTAIN THIEVES by A. Gabriel Melendez and Amy Cordova is a picture book.

The modern list serves its purpose, of course, especially if I am looking for a few Hispanic authors I might not otherwise discover or a sprinkling of recent fiction set in this region. However, Campbell’s list is much larger and comprehensive in scope. Older, yes, but far more sweeping and extensive, indicating considerable time, thought, and attention paid to the recommendations. Given my training in Professional Writing, I value his commentary and opinions of these works. I know they were not given lightly.

Yep, this resource is like gold in the hand.



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Watching People Work

Last weekend, I treated myself by attending the Land Run Antiques Show in Oklahoma City. It was a two-day show at the OKC fairgrounds. At closing the final day, I lingered to watch the dealers knock down their booths. I am friends with several of them, so no one minded if I hung around and stayed out of the way.

How people prepare for their work has always fascinated me. Whether it’s just my natural inclination or because it reminds me of how my grandfather carefully planned a project in his shop and kept his tools always in their proper place, I like to see how a toolbox is filled, how an office is arranged, how a secretary sets up her desk or a supply closet, how a wallpaper hanger positions her sawhorses, brushes, knives, and glue. Some people perform tasks carelessly and sloppily. Others are skilled, efficient, and highly organized.

Antiques and vintage dealers are expected to set up artfully arranged booths that will attract shoppers, yet it all must be packed and hauled out within a brief number of hours.

With the shoppers gone Sunday afternoon, the ambiance changed like a flipped switch. Out came boxes and plastic bins. Down came stacked shelves and folding tables. Away whisked the tablecloths. In roared a cavalcade of minivans and commercial vans with trailers.

I watched one dealer pack her wares by color. Her shelves broke down into a stack of boards and pipe framework that fit flat on the floor of her van. Her delicate china plates and porcelain figurines and pieces of Victorian silver vanished into bins that stacked neatly together behind the driver’s seat. A box of stacked mirrors followed, then a box of framed art. Then her array of vintage clothing was hung along the sides of the van, and finally more shelving and tables were folded and stowed.

The booth behind her was filled with costume jewelry and a few small pieces of vintage furniture. The elderly lady commanding it quickly and efficiently filled her minivan by stacking the thin flat showcases of jewelry, sliding her folded display tables into place, and fitting the rest together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. She was done in no time.

Over to the side, the dealer I always call “the glass guy” was busily wrapping an enormous booth filled with crystal stemware, serving pieces, and art glass. Each piece had to be carefully swathed in paper to avoid cracks or chipping, and there were a lot of pieces. He went at it systematically, with his wrapping paper stacked on the table beside him and as he filled a plastic bin he put it on the floor and proceeded in a systematic, orderly fashion around the perimeter of his booth. Green depression glass together. Purple crystal and serving bowls together. Blue opalescent items together. Pink cake pedestals together. He knew exactly how long it would take him to wrap his wares. His helper could not come, but he remained cheerful and busy, doing what had to be done.

It reminded me of my childhood, when the circus or a carnival would arrive. A cavalcade of trucks and trailers would roar into the outskirts of my community, heading for the county fairgrounds. By nightfall, the magic would be in place, glittering under an early autumn’s evening sky. You couldn’t look too closely or you’d notice peeling paint and worn rides and poorly maintained safety bars, but if you worked with the magic, if you tried to stay within the enchantment, it was fabulous. And then, after a few short days, would come the closing. The carousel horses would be removed from the merry-go-round. The Ferris wheel cars would be unhooked and folded and stacked. The magic would fade, and when all was stowed, strapped, and secured, away the cavalcade would go.

As I’ve said, last Sunday several dealers seemed surprised that I lingered to watch them close down. But my fascination wasn’t idle curiosity; it had a purpose. As a writer, I must  know the subtext of any scene I write. I must know what lies beneath the surface of my characters. If I don’t understand their background, history, and motivations, then they become flat, lifeless shades mouthing dialogue without effect. I must know the Wizard of Oz’s secret.

When my protagonist makes a promise, does he plan to honor it or is he lying? Why? What will be the result of that? Can he fool his enemy, his friends, my readers?

And just as important as knowing what lies beneath the surface is understanding how to hide it, how to create the surface magic, how to make lies sound like truth, how to spin suspicion into trust, how to persuade that horrified little girl who’s just beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus to hang onto her belief for one more Christmas.

Learning to shift adeptly back and forth across both the surface and subtextual meanings is part of my writing job. It’s part of what makes plot twists halfway predictable, or exciting, or galvanizing stingers.

Whether we realize it or not, we bring a carnival to town every time a reader opens the pages of what we’ve written.


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Crawling Back

Back in the dark ages of time and mist and memory, when I was a child being taught how to write a proper letter, I was instructed never to begin a letter to a friend with an apology for not having corresponded sooner or regularly.

That training is careening within my mind now, telling me to plunge into this post without apology or explanation. As John Wayne’s character Nathan Brittles says in the film SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, “Never apologize, mister! It’s a sign of weakness.”

Today, however, I’m less concerned with appearing weak than with being courteous. Therefore, I will say to those of you who have followed this blog in the past and may still retain some vestigial interest in it, Please forgive me for vanishing off the planet.

Life happens.

Sometimes we capsize and drown. Sometimes we capsize yet swim to shore and return.

That sounds very dramatic and mysterious. I think in the blogging universe, the explanation is more likely to be something along the lines of, I ran out of anything to say.

Choose whichever of these reasons appeals to you, and we’ll delve no deeper than that.

Years ago, Steven Pressfield wrote a small book entitled THE WAR OF ART. It deals with the various obstacles and blockages writers encounter when working on stories. Some of his insights are very sound. What has always stayed with me is his point about how the obstructive force he calls Resistance is strongest when something most needs to be done. And while this can sound flaky, weird, and downright woo-woo, it seems to be true.

I am currently working on another writing-technique book–this time about revision methods. Having finally gained the time and opportunity to focus on and complete it, I have hit every possible interruption and disruption imaginable, including a mislaid reference that will NOT turn up no matter how hard I search. Thanks to Pressfield, I can smile and shrug it off. Knowing that Resistance is trying super-hard to stop me is reassuring because it means this project is very worthwhile. (Resistance has even been working to stop resumption of this blog.)

However, being both resourceful and in possession of a creative mind, I am bypassing the temperamental meltdown that my imagination wants me to have so it needn’t work or produce pages. Instead, I have found another source for the mislaid reference. I will cope with the malfunctioning stapler, the lost password, the wonky computer mouse, the bidding war on eBay, the telemarketing calls invading my home office phone, and the lure of playing Word Crush on my cell phone, and I will forge onward. My imagination WILL have to work today and on subsequent days.

This blog post is insubstantial, but it is a post. I have managed to eek out nearly 500 words in triumph about generating the missing materials needed to resume my book. Meanwhile, here is resurrection, and subsequent posts will be better.



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Plotting III: Romance Structure

A working definition of plot can be a protagonist attempting to achieve a specific objective or overcome a problem despite direct opposition by an antagonist through escalating conflict and obstacles to a crisis point, whereby the protagonist either succeeds or fails.

Granted, this is cumbersome and convoluted–as many working definitions are–but it basically means the protagonist wants something and tries to get it despite an antagonist standing in the way. They clash and maneuver until a big showdown occurs that settles the matter.

While most commercial-fiction genres follow this linear, cause-and-effect, archetypal plot structure, two genres stand out as exceptions because they utilize different–somewhat unconventional–plot dynamics.

They are the romance story and the mystery. Both of them manage to confuse and entangle new writers frequently enough to warrant further discussion.

For this post, let’s examine the romance structure. On the surface, it seems straightforward and simple enough. The couple must meet. The couple must fall in love. The couple must commit. How hard can it be to write about two people falling in love with each other?


You’ve chosen your setting–perhaps a tropical beach with palm trees swaying in the breeze and turquoise waves curling onto pristine sand.

You can imagine your heroine’s curly auburn hair and tawny eyes. You’re planning to write a heterosexual story so the hero is handsome, dark-haired, and athletic. You envision them kissing passionately on the sand as the tide comes in–something like that famous beach embrace between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the WWII film, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.

Okay, and now what? What you have so far is fine, but it’s not a story. After all, besides going on dates and kissing, what else should happen? A genre romance–in contrast to erotica–is not just one torrid bedroom scene after another. And although you intend to bring your couple together happily ever after, you can’t seem to get there while you’re  contriving constant squabbles. In effect, you’re grounded on a sandbar.

So you attend some writing workshops, where the speaker advises you to create a protagonist and antagonist with directly opposing goals and talks about linear plot structure much as I did in the opening paragraph of this post. Trouble is, that advice of opposition, clashing goals, and conflict makes little sense for anyone trying to write a story intended to bring a couple together.

If the heroine is the protagonist, then who’s the antagonist? The guy? Does this mean he has to be an arrogant, foul-mouthed, ruthless, and awful villain? And if he’s like that, how stupidly besotted will a heroine be to fall for him?


The heroine isn’t going to be stupid. The hero isn’t going to be a villain.

Granted, some romance novels published in the 1970s and ’80s featured assorted rough and rotten heroes that today make us roll our eyes while muttering caustic remarks about neanderthals, but a successfully plotted–and plausible–romance can follow the classic, archetypal plotting principles just fine.

Allow me to explain.

If your heroine’s desire/objective is to meet and attract THE ONE into a wonderful, committed, forever type of relationship, she has a specific story goal. Furthermore, her goal is clear, obtainable, understandable, and fits the standard tropes of the romance genre.

The plotting principles of genre fiction, however, dictate that stories must have conflict and clashing goals. Does that mean a couple must bicker at every opportunity?

Not at all. It means they should disagree on specific goal-directed issues.

Let’s repeat the heroine’s goal: to meet and attract THE ONE. She meets him on the opening page and recognizes him instantly as THE ONE. That means, therefore, that she wants to attract him. She wants to be with him.

Now, to achieve plotted conflict that will advance the story, the hero–in this scenario–must NOT want to be THE ONE. Sure, he’ll like her. He’ll think she’s cute or beautiful. He might or might not seek a date with her. But despite his attraction to her, he will be determined to avoid becoming her ONE.

His reasons can be a variety of motivations that have little or nothing to do with her personally. Perhaps he’s committed to a bachelor existence and doesn’t want to change or settle down.

I recently read a novel by Cindi Madsen called JUST ONE OF THE GROOMSMEN, where the hero was focused on his recent job-loss and how he didn’t have a career, didn’t have enough money saved, and didn’t feel confident of supporting himself let alone a wife.

(In my youth, I dated a handsome guy who was just starting law school and didn’t want a serious relationship until he was finished with his training. I wanted to be serious, and he didn’t. Wisely or not, I moved on.)

Conversely, the heroine may be the individual that’s determined never again to be in a relationship. Perhaps she’s been burned before, and hero is exactly the type of guy she doesn’t want.

If this THE ONE / NOT THE ONE dynamic is set up clearly in your mind during the planning and outline stage, you will have the conflict you need to keep your plot going because although clearly ideal for each other, the hero and heroine will not be in sync until the story ends.

In the screwball comedy classic, BRINGING UP BABY, heroine Katharine Hepburn falls for an already-engaged Cary Grant and chases him mercilessly in a series of zany antics designed merely to keep her in his sight.

Occasionally, for the sake of variety, a writer will create a lovers triangle where a rival for either the heroine or the hero gets in the way and tries to prevent the course of true love.  In THE RAZOR’S EDGE, the hero’s former flame–who ditched him years before to marry a rich man–destroys his new relationship rather than see him happy.

A third plot variant is the forbidden romance with a parent or authority figure refusing to allow the couple to form a committed, lasting relationship. Tolstoy’s tragic story, ANNA KARENINA, centers upon an unhappily married woman’s love affair with a dashing young soldier while her husband and Russian society turn against her. War itself can also serve to part lovers as in the classic films CASABLANCA and  WATERLOO BRIDGE.

In the romantic comedy, THE MORE THE MERRIER, starring Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea, all three of these plot structures are employed:  she is seeking a female roommate to share her apartment and doesn’t want Joel McCrea for a tenant (she does not consider him THE ONE); although she’s very attracted physically to McCrea, she’s engaged to another man (lovers triangle); WWII is the authority about to deploy McCrea on a dangerous overseas mission, thus parting them (forbidden romance).

The WHY Factor

The romance plot structure requires a clear understanding of WHY from both opposing characters. In other words, WHY is he THE ONE for her? WHY is she so certain of it?

Or, if she dislikes him at first, WHY is she so determined to avoid and evade him as he pursues her?

The why factor is critical character motivation. Work through the why, and your couple will fight and disagree from valid, plausible reasons instead of bickering foolishly for bickering’s sake.

Also, remember that strong motivation will keep your protagonist from quitting, even when winning true love seems hopeless.


Jane Austen’s book has been delighting readers for over 200 years, which is a darned good track record for longevity. Her deft handling of the romance plot structure as well as where and how she turns it in unpredictable ways continues to charm readers.

Let’s look at it briefly as an illustration of my points. First of all, the why factor is critical in making this plot plausible. Darcy is eligible, handsome, and very rich. Austen must create valid, plausible reasons why Elizabeth does not instantly fall for him. And therefore, although he is handsome and rich he’s also very shy with strangers and tends to be brusque until he feels more comfortable. That is why he sneers at the people attending the dance and insults Elizabeth when they first meet. They each start off with a poor first impression of the other.




*Clashing personalities

*Stubbornness, misplaced pride, and prejudice

*Meddling from others

*Social inequality

Initially, both Elizabeth and Darcy dislike each other and are firmly convinced that neither is THE ONE.

Darcy is smitten first, but he fights against accepting Elizabeth as THE ONE because her family is unsuitable.

Elizabeth fights against accepting him as THE ONE because her feelings are hurt, then her sister is hurt, then she is deceived by Mr. Wickham, then she realizes what a social hindrance her family is.

Just as she is starting to accept Darcy as THE ONE, his clumsy first proposal insults her all over again. By the time she truly recognizes how much she’s misjudged him (as well as how incredibly rich he is) and realizes he is really THE ONE, he has backed away.

Back and forth they go, pursuing and evading then switching positions, but always in a dance of conflict until the final misunderstanding is resolved.





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Plotting II: Genre Choice

There are many ways to brainstorm, find inspiration, and be struck by ideas. This series of posts won’t be dealing with them. Instead, I want to supply suggestions for how to move your premise from a nebulous idea to a viable plot.

In doing that, let’s first consider genre. Commercial fiction relies heavily on separate, identifiable genres, and genres in turn are built on strong plots. As part of the weave of this shared dependence, plot itself is heavily influenced by its genre.

Therefore, I always recommend that writers start the plotting process by selecting a genre. How else can you know what you’ll need or how your story will go?

If you’re planning a road trip, don’t you program your GPS with the destination so you can choose your best route? Why, then, would you try to plot a novel without knowing what type of book it will be?

Imagine yourself walking into a Books-a-Million or Barnes & Noble store to buy a book for your vacation. What type of book do you want to read? Mystery? Romance? Thriller? You head for the appropriate section of the store to browse. And while you might prefer to wander through all the sections in hopes of discovering a new book that’s exciting or an author you’ve never read before, let’s say that you’re enroute to the airport and haven’t time to explore all the shelves. You need something fast. You want a sure thing, a book you’ll enjoy. You haven’t the time or inclination to gamble on the unknown.

The same principle works for plotting. You want to be efficient, productive, and professional in developing a story outline that will carry you from start to finish of your manuscript.

Therefore, choose a genre to write. If you’re unsure of what category your story idea fits into, ask yourself where in a brick-and-mortar bookstore it would be shelved. If you cannot answer that question, it’s time for you to stop immediately and do some honest thinking along the following lines:

*What type of fiction do you enjoy reading most?

*Is your story idea that type?

*If not, why not?

*Do you have elements from several types of stories swimming in your imagination?

*Do you want to impress others by writing a piece of Great American Literature?

*Have you assembled a heap of scene fragments, settings, concepts, and character sketches from a wide variety of influences?

*Are you feeling confused and overwhelmed?

So let’s dig a bit deeper into these questions.

If you don’t plan to write what you love to read, why not? Isn’t the type of fiction you love best the type of fiction you know best?

Do you think you’re not skilled enough to put together a mystery, despite having read them avidly since childhood and being able to dissect how clues are laid and misdirected in an Agatha Christie story?

Do you feel that even though you’re a romantic and adore curling up with a passionate love story–your cat on your lap and a cup of tea at your elbow–no one will take you seriously if you confess you’re writing a romance?

Do you think you can’t write science fiction because you flunked physics in high school?

Nonsense! Don’t let self-doubts hold you back from writing a story you’ll enjoy. It’s so easy to denigrate or short-change what comes easiest to us, when in fact that means we have a talent for it.

Furthermore, stop trying to impress others because doing so leads to phony writing or cliched imitations. Write what you love; love what you write. (Hmmm … should that be a tee-shirt logo?)

Now, if you’re overwhelmed, dazed, and confused because you have a variety of influences bombarding your mind, make a foundation decision and choose one genre.

From that selection, start selecting the scene fragments and character sketches that fit your chosen genre. Alter or set aside the rest. A wildly disparate mixture of motifs, influences, and concepts is seldom indicative of genius; instead, it signals a lack of focus. If this is a problem for you, don’t be upset. Whatever you eliminate is not wasted inspiration. It can be saved for other projects to come.

Genre choice will give you an anchor. You aren’t drifting rudderless now. Just as you chose a college major that immediately set you on a path of specific courses to take as well as courses you couldn’t, picking a genre clears away the infinity of limitless options and forces you to focus. This happens because genre choice affects the following:

*The length your story will be;

*The pacing your story will have–which in turn will affect how long and intense your scenes are, whether you can write scene fragments with fast scene cuts or instead need long passages of internalization and transition, and if you’ll put together a plot-driven or character-driven story;

*The types of characters you’ll need, as well as how many;

*The story’s locale;

*The amount of research you’ll do;

*The tropes required (modern versions that aren’t out of date);

*The coding of your language.

These seven areas by no means encompass all the decisions you’ll be making while in story development, but they’re a good place to start. As you focus on them, you’ll probably find more and even better ideas coming to you.




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Plotting Woes: Part I

For years, I’ve thought of story as a movie playing in my head. My characters want something and strive for it despite opposition and villainy. Their dialogue unspools in my head. I see them moving and gesturing. And I am a scribe, a secretary recording what I see and hear in my imagination just as quickly as I can type.

It took me a long time to realize that not everyone writes this way. Maybe the first inkling of this struck me back in the 1980s, when I was chatting with a guy working on his English Ph.D. He was writing a very ambitious novel set in Russia. His dissertation committee had agreed–hesitantly–to allow him to write a creative dissertation and use this novel manuscript. The work was going slowly. He was asking me questions, since at the time I’d had several books published, and for some reason I inquired if he saw his characters and plot as a movie.

“No,” he replied. “I see words on the paper.”

Recently I was working with a student that doesn’t follow cause-and-effect structure. His story events don’t occur to him in a linear progression. Instead, he thinks of a section of his story, then jumps to a different section, then jumps to yet a different portion. As a result, his rough drafts are chaotic and messy, very disorganized. Eventually he moves scenes and characters conversations around, but it seems to take a long time and the process strikes me as incredibly inefficient.

When I was putting together my book, FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING, I had to sit down and really think about people such as the two I’ve referred to here. Obviously writers have as many processes and strategies for putting stories together as they have ideas, but why? Why is the very approach to planning a story so easy for a few and so difficult for others?

Why is there so much confusion about what is and isn’t a viable plot, and why do some newbies resist help so stubbornly, clinging instead to what doesn’t work like a drowning man grasping a life preserver?

For a long time, I blithely dismissed it as insufficient reading. After all, when I’m suffering through the ineptitude and clumsiness of student writing, I can tell immediately whether the student reads currently or stopped long ago. One individual phrased his sentences so poorly, yet assured me he was reading all the time, that I finally realized he wasn’t reading. Instead, he was listening to books on audio and simply didn’t grasp how awkwardly he was formulating sentences. As soon as I persuaded him to stop multi-tasking and actually read a book, his syntax and diction improved.

Yet I know people who struggle with construction and plotting who read all the time. So I began to ask, “What are you reading? Who are you reading?”

The answer has been frequently those aimless, critically lauded novels that tend to meander without going anywhere. The kind of book some people use to impress others by having it spill from their backpacks or lie on the coffee table. Small wonder my student has been having trouble grasping plotting concepts!

Several months ago, a friend introduced me to the concept of stories delivered via texting. Naturally I was skeptical, so a video was found to show me two teenagers reacting to a dumb little drivel about a lost dog. The teens were enthralled.

I was appalled.

I saw at once that it wasn’t the story they were inputting because there wasn’t a story, not a real one. Instead, they were captivated by the novelty of delivery.

I hate to always bemoan the sad state of modern literature, but is our society becoming so illiterate, so removed from solid, intriguing, cause-and-effect plotting that we don’t even recognize it and can’t distinguish it from nonsense?

Good writing … good story … compelling plot has no need for gimmicks.

In this series, I’ll be sharing what plot is, how it works, and why we still need it.


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