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Fighting for Story

There’s a quiet battle waging in the entertainment arena these days.

Classic story design versus minimal story design.

Plot versus character.

Story-driven versus problematic situations.

Good fighting evil versus shades of gray.

Linear plotting versus webbed plotting.

Bold and vivid versus drab and small.

Scene-based conflict versus discussions of problems.

Resolution of story versus open-ended stopping point.

Now, there’s no simple explanation for this situation. Too many factors ranging from the flux of trends in prose fiction, TV, and films to cultural pressures and social agendas are all mixing into what’s currently taking place.

The why, in this context, is less important than the acknowledgement of what is happening. And writers need to be aware of it so they can decide whether they want to stand for one side or the other or whether they simply want to follow the current trends like flotsam riding a river.

Classic story design versus minimal story design

What is this? What does it mean? What’s the difference?

Classic design is the plot structure that’s archetypal — meaning it’s worked universally since the dawn of time. It follows this pattern:  a protagonist pursues a goal despite the active opposition of an antagonist until the conflict escalates to an ultimate showdown and the protagonist prevails or loses.

Minimal story design is where the protagonist is facing a problematic story situation but is reactive to it and may not necessarily be facing a direct foe.

Plot versus character

This debate seems a bit pointless to me because plot derives from character and what a character wants. However, the phrase “plotted story” generally means a story that follows the archetypal pattern of a protagonist in pursuit of a specific goal despite direct opposition.

The “character-oriented story” is sometimes shaped around the circumstances surrounding the protagonist and how that individual responds to or thinks about it. There may be a perception of a desired goal, but little action will be taken toward it.

Story-driven versus problematic situations

Story-driven refers to the protagonist initiating confrontations in scenes in order to accomplish a specific objective. Each confrontation causes a chain reaction or consequences as a result that lead to bigger complications for the protagonist.

Problematic situations are difficulties in the life of the protagonist or problems afflicting someone the protagonist cares about. But there’s no particular human foe behind those difficulties. They are often stemming from adversity such as illness or financial worries or some nebulous sense of unhappiness or misery.

Good fighting evil versus shades of gray

It’s become unfashionable to label fictional characters as the good guy or the bad guy. To consider someone a villain means you must make a judgment. You must gauge this person against your standards, ethics, and principles, and find him or her lacking.

In classic story design, we need villains just as we need heroes in order for the story to take shape. Fiction is art, and art makes order of reality. The story protagonist must become heroic in order to prevail over an opponent who chooses expediency enough to become a villain.

While some mainstream fiction out there seeks to explore the concepts that there is good and evil in every person, classic story design acknowledges this while pushing the characters to move to one side or the other of that line. In other words, will the flawed protagonist change and take risks or overcome inner fears to become heroic and win? Or will the character waffle and wallow in doubt and angst until nothing ultimately is achieved?

Linear plotting versus webbed plotting

Classic design unfolds a story in a logical, cause-and-effect chronology. It begins with the catalytic moment of change in the protagonist’s circumstances that forces him or her to take action. Thereafter, it moves in a linear direction toward the finish where the story’s climax will resolve the protagonist’s problem one way or another.

Webbed plotting involves numerous flashbacks to dramatize past events or character motivations through scene action. It involves several viewpoints, which in turn requires the story to present each viewpoint as directing a subplot. Strict chronology of story events is deemed less important than a character’s feelings or perspective. Although web plotting can generate more depth of characterization, if handled poorly it can result in a split focus in the story and much difficulty in achieving effective story resolution.

Bold and vivid versus drab and small

In classic design, there is no attempt to hide a scene antagonist. Every scene is focused around conflict, which is created by the clash between the protagonist’s goal and the antagonist’s goal.

Classic protagonists are heroic, strong, and admirable. They are presented to readers in ways that make readers like them, sympathize with them, and relate to them. This is not by accident. It is through the writer’s design and intention.

Classic antagonists are devious, ruthless, and driven. They may hide some of these qualities beneath charm or lies, but they are not depicted so that readers will like them.

I’m not saying that good guys won’t have flaws or bad guys won’t have positive qualities, but whatever the character design is … go for bold. Exaggerate that quality. Own it. Flaunt it. Build it bigger. Don’t be timid in writing characters. Make them vivid.

The drab, small, insignificant character that’s designed for realism is a character that comes across as flat, dull, and unimportant.

Writers who fear being considered melodramatic and cheesy tend to constrict their characters into bland, monochromatic, non-achievers.

Scene-based conflict versus discussion of problems

Is there anything more boring than two drab characters sitting in a small, drab room, discussing a small, drab problem without ever getting up to do anything about it?

That’s too realistic for my taste. When I read fiction, I want to follow a viewpoint character through tough problems right into the heart of conflict and see that character meet the challenge or be temporarily flattened by it.

Minimalized plotting reduces the drama, shrinks the scene conflict, seeks subtlety at the expense of story progression, and usually devolves into dull yammering circular dialogue.

Conversely, scene-based conflict focuses a confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, brings an issue out into the open, pits the two characters against each other, and drives one or the other into victory or defeat.

Resolution of story versus open-ended plot

Okay, I get that the current fad is to leave stories hanging in order to entice readers into buying the next volume in a series. I get that in this rough economic climate publishers are desperate for a sure thing and would rather expand a book series than take too many risks seeking new authors or fresh stories that might or might not grab public fancy. I get that TV series are generally now structured like novels from start to finish of the season or all the seasons in their entirety, stopping weekly episodes with cliffhangers like book chapters, to keep viewers tuned in.

I get it and I understand it. However, the danger with too much of it is that readers — and inexperienced writers — lose touch with how stories should be resolved, how questions raised within stories should be answered, and how readers should be taken through a cathartic experience of anticipation, suspense, emotion, and satisfaction at the story’s conclusion.

You can resolve a plotline and settle issues between hero and villain sufficiently to give readers a feeling of completion without losing opportunities to set hooks for the next installment to come.

The habit of leaving every single thing open and hanging eventually creates a perception that this is the norm. This is realistic. This is believable.

No, it’s too much like real life.

Fiction isn’t supposed to be realistic. It’s art, and art focuses on the message its creator wants to convey. Story is contrived by writers to transport readers to a different place and time, to put them vicariously through tremendous challenges and difficulties, and to let them survive, prevail, and grow as individuals.

Last weekend, I settled in to watch ABC’s special presentation of Cecil B. DeMille’s masterful feature film, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. I have been watching that film since childhood. Some years I focus on the costumes or sets. Other years I skip the parts I like less and wander in and out of the living room when the movie reaches the points I enjoy most.

This year, what struck me was the writing and how strong in technique it actually is. The storyline of the two rival princes vying to be Pharaoh’s successor is well written so that each character is powerfully motivated, and every scene — even if it is between a princess and her faithful servant — carries clear, easy-to-follow conflict. Every scene centers on a clear character goal, and every scene ends in a setback for the central character.

I was surprised by my reaction to the technique. Usually I acknowledge it as a matter of course, but this year I found it soothing and reassuring. It was comfortable. It worked. The plot rolled forward, and even the subplots made sense. I felt myself relaxing and truly enjoying the way the story unfolded. I realized how much I’ve been missing that kind of writing in what I view–and often read–these days.

In contrast, I took advantage of commercial breaks to click over to my public station to check out the Henry VIII drama on PBS Masterpiece — WOLF-HALL. Granted, I was watching it in small snippets, but the characters were drab and drawn with such subtlety that I found the drama hard to follow. Few historical events are as dramatic as the battle between King Henry and Cardinal Wolsey, and I’ve seen — and read — several fine fictionalized accounts. But this version was small, realistic, drab, talky, and shaded to the point that I wasn’t sure whom I should be rooting for and whom I should revile. Only my actual historical knowledge of the characters involved helped me understand anything of what was going on.  Scenes faded into each other. There didn’t seem to be any significance to what was depicted. The episode didn’t make me care. If you think I’m being unfair by comparing DeMille and ancient Egypt to a smaller BBC production of Renaissance English politics, then pit WOLF-HALL against the film ANNE OF A THOUSAND DAYS.

 Even so, the two programs I watched Easter Sunday couldn’t illustrate the point of this blog better. One classically designed, clear, easy to follow and compelling. The other modern, realistic, webbed, shaded in drab stripes of gray, no clear-cut hero to cheer for, no clear-cut villain to boo, no reason to keep watching, no point in returning.

Call me old-fashioned if you wish. But muddled technique does not a compelling story make.

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Jump Forward, Fold Back

Linear plotting may be straightforward and designed for readers to follow easily, but that doesn’t mean it has to plod or be predictable.

Hooks and plot twists serve to jazz up a story and hold off monotony.

One variant of the hook technique is known as the jump forward, fold back strategy. It can be used to open a book chapter partway through a story. It can be used in the middle of a short story to keep readers slightly off-balance and intrigued.

Generally, it’s most often employed after the protagonist has planned what he or she will do next. Okay, Reader thinks. This is what we’re going to do next.

Except that when the page is turned, Reader finds herself jumped ahead of the planned event with the characters already involved in what follows it. Then there is a foldback that summarizes what was jumped over.

This technique injects a little excitement into a story event where something important to the characters is going to occur, but it lacks enough conflict to be dramatized into an actual scene.

Let’s draw an example from romance author Betty Neels, one of Harlequin’s most successful authors, who wrote well into her 90s. Often in these “sweet romance” stories, the waif-heroine will be offered an outing or a date with the handsome, rich hero. It’s built up with much anticipation. The heroine has to plan the outfit she’ll wear, and she usually worries a little about how the date will turn out. Directly after this build-up, Ms. Neels jumps forward with a transition sentence such as …

“Late that night, Heroine climbed into bed and thought over the evening. It had been more special than she’d ever dreamed possible. The restaurant was … ” And then the high points of the lobster thermidor gourmet meal, the dancing, etc. are mulled over in the heroine’s thoughts.

Another variant of this technique is when the event that’s jumped over is both dramatic and vital to the development of the story. In such an instance, the fold back becomes a flashback delivered in full scene/sequel structure. In novels, it’s useful in the middle to convey backstory and explain character motivation by dramatizing some key points of conflict between the protagonist and another major character. Televised soap operas also employ this method.

It can also be used to open a story at an exciting point and then deal with what led up to it.

An example would be this week’s episode of the television program CASTLE. Generally, CASTLE is one of the better-written shows on television. Aside from the little injections of humor, a deftly handled romantic subplot that’s broken the so-called MOONLIGHTING Curse, and engaging characters, the show is worth being studied for the way its scripts are written.

Last night’s teaser opened with a night-shot. A huge building fire roars in the background. Firemen, cops, and paramedics are standing around helplessly. Beckett is on the phone with tears in her eyes, telling the pregnant wife of a fellow officer that “something’s happened.”

Then the story rolls back twelve hours and brings us up to speed on the case and the investigation.

This was a brilliant plotting strategy, given that the crime of arson this time overshadows the crime of murder. And the best way to effectively convey arson isn’t by showing a ruined ash heap but by showing fire engulfing a building.

Jumping forward and folding back is simple enough to use. It works effectively, yet it’s not confusing. Just make sure that you work out your plotline in a straightforward, linear, step-by-step fashion for your own understanding. Pick the slowest spot in your story and jump over it, making sure that you then inform or show the reader what initially seemed to be skipped.

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Plot Extinction

Since the days of antiquity, since before the alphabet and written literature, story plots in western civilization have been linear in design.

Meaning, they have a beginning, a middle, and an ending whereby the hero struggles against forces of antagonism, nearly fails, but prevails through sacrifice and heroism. The hero is changed by the experience, and as a result, the closing lines of the story point to this individual living a better life in future.

This basic template is founded on the structure of mythological tales. We respond to it as instinctively as we do anything that starts with “Once upon a time …”

However, in the last decade the linear plot has fallen out of fashion. Editors sometimes reject it in favor of a nonlinear storyline. Writers are told that readers are now web-thinkers (and we ain’t talking spiders).

A while back, I lost what would have been a very lucrative book deal because I was offering a story that was “too linear.” At first, I tried to make rocket science out of this new plotting concept. Then I figured out that all editors want are multiple viewpoints, cross-cutting, and lots of flashbacks mixed with a blistering-fast pace.

Not so revolutionary, after all. Thriller writers have been employing strategic viewpoint shifts and cross-cutting between subplots for years.

However, the trendy push is to employ these web-like plots to all genres, especially those for young readers. So far, fine.

But what I’ve been noticing lately is a more disturbing result of this trend–in plots that are increasingly frenetic and chaotic. They’re fast. They jump about with forward progress counter-balanced with flashbacks. They feature a lot of characters, sometimes to the point of making it difficult to tell who exactly is the protagonist. At their best, they’re lively, engaging, intriguing, and complex. At their worst–and I’m seeing more and more of the worst–they’re impossible to follow, confusing, and boring.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with a novel–the latest in a long-running and fairly successful series. In this author’s books, the characters and their backstories are emphasized over the plots, which are simple and small in scope. That’s perfectly fine. Sometimes I enjoy a book that’s more character-driven. But this particular novel had no plot. It featured instead a situation: a reunion of characters. The characters could barely speak to each other without us flowing into reverse for long flashbacks culled from past novels. The novel was short, but it took me forever to finish it.

Normally I would toss it aside with a shrug, chalking it up to a writer temporarily out of ideas who had to meet a contractual deadline.

Except that recently I read another novel that rambled around. It was a genre book, not mainstream at all. It should have had a plot. But it couldn’t seem to get going. Reading it was like trying to drive with a clutch for the first time. Jerky starts. Lurching stops. Stalled.

Normally I would say, new writer lacking in experience. But it wasn’t. This author has written many novels.

Television is on a similar trajectory, perhaps even more so than novels. Once upon a time, a TV show was episodic, meaning each weekly episode served a complete story. It had a beginning, middle, and end. The problem was resolved; the star saved the day; we knew that on the following week there would be a new story problem and new guest stars to see.

Of course, TV–in a rather odd development–now moves along a novel-type structure with each weekly segment of the show contributing to a continuing storyline. The entire season comprises the story arc. If you miss an episode of these dramas–let’s call it instead a weekly chapter–you’re in trouble. Still, that’s what DVDs are for. You can settle down with your popcorn in your living room and watch the entire season in one weekend marathon.

But even TV’s grip on plot is slipping more and more as it attempts to juggle the novel structure of linked weekly installments with the trend of web-like plots.

In September 2013, I sat down in excited anticipation to watch the season opener of PERSON OF INTEREST. Normally this is a well-written, intriguing show. The flashbacks feeding backstory on various characters takes some getting used to, but generally it goes well.

Not the season opener. I couldn’t follow it. Was I experiencing the onset of senile dementia? Or was I trying to watch a mish-mash of too much cross-cutting and references to past events from prior seasons? It’s TV. I shouldn’t have to work that hard to watch an episode. I shouldn’t have to have watched every second of multiple seasons in order to follow the plot. Granted, if I had done so I might have gotten all the nuances written into the script, but I should be able to click on, understand the gist of the story, and reach the closing credits without saying, “Huh?”

Okay, it’s supposed to be intelligent and complex. But this season has been a mix of shows that made sense and were very satisfying and shows that made me say, “Huh?”

I couldn’t help but compare it to another popular program, BURN NOTICE. Splashy, colorful, action-driven. A lot of plots and subplots woven through the seasons. However, I could miss half of a season, click on and pick up easily. The episodes made sense, even if I didn’t recognize a new character that had been on for several weeks during my absence.

Over this weekend, I came across a Dr. Who episode. It began with a great hook. The sets and costumes were a marvelous steampunk montage. Alien lizard girls in Victorian dresses–YES! The modern Dr. Who shows have better budgets, better set design, and better makeup departments than the low-budget versions of the past. Woo-hoo!I thought. Let’s watch this!

What I saw began well, shoved great concepts at me, and failed to deliver. The script hopped here and there among the characters, tried to handle more characters and subplots than the writer evidently could manage, cross-cut with all the reckless abandon of a drunken driver veering down a highway, and grew increasingly chaotic, fast-paced, and pointless. By the finish, I’d moved on from “Huh?” to “Who cares?”

Now, if someone wanted to defend this program, he might mutter to me about my having seen only the conclusion of that particular plot segment. Doesn’t matter. I should still be able to follow the story.

I’ll contrast it with another modern Dr. Who episode that I saw a couple of years ago. Different doctor as the star. It, too, was the concluding episode of a plot segment. The setting was Venice and some girls’ school where all the young maidens were vampires. Evil aliens were about to conquer Earth. (The Whosians out there will probably recognize this one.) In three minutes–I was up to speed. I could follow the story, and I didn’t have to strain to do it. The script made sense. It clearly wrapped up all the threads in the storyline. It served a satisfying conclusion with the little trademark twist of the program. Terrific and fun.

So what’s my point besides a rant about how plotting is falling into the decay of anarchy?

Plotting is falling victim to anarchy.

It doesn’t have to, of course. But writers have to stand fast against sloppy plotting, weak storylines, and the mistaken notion that chaos equals complexity, that speedy pace alone guarantees reader/viewer involvement, and that giving all the characters equal attention delivers satisfaction.

Methods of storytelling evolve with changing times. But the linear plot works well, if you’ll let it. Complexity is desirable, if we don’t unleash it like kudzu and let it smother the forward progress of the story.

Balance and control. Managing the story so that it unfolds quickly and unpredictably, intriguing our audience while holding them enthralled. That’s a writer’s job. That’s a writer’s responsibility. Trends come and go, but effective story design has to be preserved … and delivered to our readers.

Maybe I’m just an alarmist, paranoid enough to see the fall of civilization based on a few badly written books and teleplays. And maybe I’m an individual who grew up reading every novel I could get my hands on, watching television written by people trained in the old studio systems to deliver solid plots week after week. I’m not satisfied with the drivel of reality shows and book plots that crumble like cupcakes baked without eggs. I want more than that, and so should you.

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Dramatic Strategy: Flashbacks

Suspense writer Robert Crais created a stoic tough character named Joe Pike. You may have read Crais’s novels. If so, you’ll be familiar with Pike, who has arrows tattooed on his upper arms. The arrows point forward. They are to remind Pike to always look forward, never back.

Same thing with plotting. Most readers of adventurous, plot-driven stories want to go forward. They want to follow a story’s progression from start to finish. They want to see the next scene of conflict, experience the next rush of action and plot twists. They want to get on with it.

Inexperienced writers, by contrast, want to look back. They have pages and pages of background, history, and explanation that they feel readers should know first in order to understand what’s happening when the story begins.

Resist this urge.

Wise Walter Writer–a seasoned professional wordsmith–knows that it’s best to align a story’s plot with what readers want.

That’s why you’ll seldom see Walter Writer crafting a flashback at all, and he’ll never insert one early in a story.

In the middle of a book, however, Walter may want a subplot to come in or he may want to deepen characterization. If he presents background for his protagonist, he knows that dramatizing a portion of it in a scene will be more effective than a dry summary in narrative.

In such a case, the flashback serves an effective purpose.

Writers should signal clearly that the story is jumping to a past event. Use a space break and write obvious transitions, such as

Thinking back to that summer day three years ago, Julie remembered how she’d been stirring supper in a skillet on the stove when Steve walked in. “I want a divorce,” he said. “You can have the house. I’m taking the car and the dog. That’s it. I don’t want to discuss anything.”


The scene can then play out, with Julie and Steve in conflict. At the scene’s conclusion, another transition should indicate that we’re leaving the flashback–the story’s past–for the story’s present.

After Steve left, Julie stood there, sobbing while the hamburger and onions charred in the skillet. That night, she’d packed a suitcase and fled the house, never to return … until now. As she drove slowly up the gravel driveway and parked, she knew the years of absence couldn’t buffer her from what was coming next. Getting out of the car, she stared up at the dusty windows and sagging porch, her memories still colliding between pain and a steely determination not to be hurt again.

Now, let’s consider an author who relies heavily on flashbacks to illustrate character back story. Jennifer Chiaverini’s highly successful series of Elm Creek quilting novels are character-driven. However, because her focus is on the inner arc of change in her characters and because the resolutions of her books hinge on the story people coming to grips with their pasts, the flashbacks become more like plotlines. They work for the kind of inward story Chiaverini is creating.

For most straightforward plots dealing with external conflict, limit flashbacks to one or two key points in the story’s progression. For plots derived primarily from character growth, flashbacks can be used much more heavily to enrich the unfolding drama.

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Dramatic Strategy I

In its simplest, most basic structure, plot is an alternating construction of scene + sequel + scene + sequel + scene + etc. The two dramatic units dovetail closely together and will keep the story action advancing in a plausible and exciting way from start to finish.

However, that kind of plot can become too linear, too predictable. Consequently, it can become boring.

So writers should draw on other techniques to enhance and enrich their stories.

We have at our disposal, a number of these strategies, including:

*big versus small scenes

*variant ordering of scenes and sequels

*subplots

*flashbacks

*plotting for character

*multiple points of view

You can change up your plot structure by using only one of these possible strategies, or–depending on the type of story you’re writing–you can employ them all.

We’ll deal with them separately in the posts to come.

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