Tag Archives: unpredictability

Growing Acorns

“Sometimes … the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”  –A.A. Milne

Through my career, I have often been asked by newspaper reporters or newbie writers how I get ideas. It is not a good question, or a useful question, or even an insightful question. Most professional novelists sneer at it. Some might even label it “dumb.”  Innumerable jokes have been generated by it. When asked, you feel superior and clever. You try not to smile or burst out laughing, if you’re a courteous person. And if you’re a kind person, you might even answer this question with some degree of honesty, especially if the inquirer is a new writer genuinely trying to understand. But if you’re neither kind nor courteous, then you could succumb to the terrible temptation of being flippant, disdainful, or even misleading.

For a long time, I found the very notion of seeking an idea to be laughable. My imagination was teeming with so many plots, characters, and settings that I despaired of finding time to write them all. I had no patience with anyone that claimed to suffer from writer’s block. I felt that anyone lacking in ideas should go and do something besides write.

These days, I’m less arrogant. I’ve learned that you can hit emotional dry holes that leave you empty, too drained or distracted to create. It’s not the same as being blocked–not exactly–but the result is similar, in that you sit at your keyboard but produce nothing beyond a new Pinterest board. I’ve also realized that some new writers feel so timid and unsure that they can’t judge any idea that comes to them.

Fear and uncertainty can kill ideas by draining away all the belief and excitement generated by creativity.

Expectations that are too high can blight a story idea before it barely gets started. I’ve known beginning writers so determined that every word be perfect, so focused on the mistaken belief that their first writing effort would not only be amazing but an instant bestseller that they could not move their project past an endlessly polished Chapter One.

And good ideas can starve and wither when an unprepared writer lacks the skills, experience, or craftsmanship to write them well.

Writers at all stages seek ideas every day, and every day good ideas come to them. Some will make a writer clap hands and chortle with glee. Others don’t look like much at first glance. They get pushed aside, ignored or even forgotten.

But often the best ideas are much like the Milne quote I began with. They are small and quiet. They creep into your mind when you’re paying no attention to them at all. But unlike your grocery list or your promise to walk the dog after supper, they aren’t forgettable. They take your notice, fade to the back of your thoughts, then return. And each time they come again, they’re slightly bigger or they’re better or they shine with a gradual brilliance that finally forces you to look at them, thump them, tug them this way and that, and at last to start testing them for inherent conflict, unpredictability, and marketability.

Milne wasn’t writing about writers when he penned that sentence I’ve quoted. His simplicity of expression, that bell-like quality of purity and the direct thinking of childhood, is what grabs our reading attention and makes us think, Hey now. That’s profound. I’ve pulled this quote from its original context and applied it to our topic without any straining to make it fit.

As writers, what takes up the most room in our heart? The big overblown, over-plotted, grandiose story with a cast of hundreds? Or a story of smaller scale that’s deeper and more complex? Either or none or both?

You decide.

But the little idea can grow into something large and worthy. Don’t be too quick to judge it invalid. Don’t dismiss it as foolish. Don’t call it silly. Don’t criticize it to death to prevent others from potentially picking holes in it.

Evaluate it by all means. Ideas have to be turned into plots, and that process involves stringent tests and plenty of thought.

But don’t try to make it bigger than it wants to be. And don’t throw it away because it’s only a short story idea and you wanted a novel or it’s in a genre you don’t want to tackle or it’s sweet when you want to be dour and mysterious or moody when you want to write romantic comedy.

Listen to it. Think it over without prejudgment. If it stays in your heart and grows, give it a chance.



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Magic: Part III

The third rule of magic that I’m addressing in this small series of posts requires that it be limited.

Now, the word limited, plus all its synonyms and all their meanings, nearly always raises a writer’s hackles.

Who wants to restrict us? Who dares to constrict us? Who presumes to hold us back, keep us in, lock doors, set boundaries, inhibit our freedom, and otherwise stand in the way of our imagination and creativity? Our wildest instinct is to fight this, and yet we must learn the writing principle behind this rule of limitation and how/why it works for us if only we’ll let it.

Willful Writer has decided that Ms. Sagacious is less than competent to teach writing. Disappointed by her unfavorable reactions to his two previous stories, he’s convinced himself that she doesn’t understand fantasy or high concept. Therefore, Willful has decided to write a saga so big, so fabulous, so amazing that it will knock her nylon socks off.

This time, Willful promises himself, he’s going to reach for the stars and beyond to infinity. His newest protagonist, Wizard Warlord, can draw on the very energies of the cosmos. Wizard Warlord is a giant among other sorcerers. He can summon plasma bolts from the sun and fry enemies on the spot. No other character can withstand him. And not only is he all-powerful, but he is also possessed of a tender and forgiving heart. He is noble, self-sacrificing, and kind. Although he is certain to fry the puny villain Malicious Malton in a wizard-fire showdown, he intends to let Malicious Malton’s minions go free. This will prove how heroic and worthy he is.

Are you yawning yet?

You should be.

Willful’s story is going to last two pages, and most of the words he types will be description of the alley where the wizard battle will take place. Thinking he’s building anticipation by spinning things out, he lavishes minute attention on painting word pictures of the pavement, the buildings, the purple sky overhead, and the twittering of the birds in the trees at the end of the street. But at last, after much stalling and purple prose, he types the one-paragraph confrontation, showing Wizard Warlord strapping on his greaves and standing at the agreed dueling spot at the prearranged time. Wizard Warlord looks magnificent. He is charged with so much magical power that he glows in a nimbus of wizard fire. He is ready, ready, ready for the battle that can have only one outcome–his complete and total victory. Only, Malicious Malton doesn’t show. He isn’t there. Has he fled? Did he just stay home? After all, why bother to turn up? Oh, just imagine the joy that fills Wizard Warlord’s heart, for once again he has prevailed and won.

“Phooey!” says Ms. Sagacious, and slashes a line of red ink across Willful’s manuscript. “Too short! Too certain! No suspense! No hook! Nothing to hold reader interest.”

“But I’ve written flash fiction,” Willful protests. “It’s, like, over in a flash.”

“You have no story,” Ms. Sagacious insists.

Willful trudges out. Phooey, he thinks. She doesn’t understand my genius. My concept was so huge she missed it entirely.

Poor, bone-headed Willful. Once again, he has broken a rule of using magic in his fiction. He has refused to limit the magic his character draws on, and in doing so, he has created a sure-thing.

This is not only a suspense killer, but it leaves a plot nowhere to go. Magic without limitations, magic that can do anything and solve everything, leaves a story’s outcome absolutely dead certain. The story question is answered right away, leaving writers with nothing else to convey.

When we write fiction, the reason an antagonist is stronger than the hero or has the advantage over the hero is so that we can make the outcome uncertain. That, in turn, forces us to generate a longer story as our beleaguered hero tries one tactic after another with little to no success. Conflict, resistance, adversity, bad luck, betrayal, and trickery all play a role in blocking a hero’s easy path to success. That, in turn, pushes a protagonist into abandoning the easy path and stepping out of the box, taking bigger risks, leaving comfort zones behind, and embracing change in order to survive and win.

Magic that’s too powerful or too easy or carries no limitations at all is magic that unbalances a story and answers the question too soon. That destroys any suspense and does not entice readers to keep turning pages to see how it turns out.

That is why, in many stories, we see a confident character dealing with a spell that suddenly goes wrong, or meeting a terrifying, more-powerful mage that scorches her. It’s okay to jerk the magical rug out from beneath your fantasy characters, and in fact readers are hoping something terrible and unexpected will happen. Because when things go wrong for your protagonist, or when the unexpected flips her upside-down, the story has to move forward, and readers will be eager to find out what happens next.

On the other hand, if the antagonist is too powerful, possessing magic, spells, warding protections, and demonic assistance to the point that the hero has no chance whatsoever of prevailing, then why show up? Why not forfeit the contest, like Malicious Malton did, and just surrender? It’s not very heroic, granted, but it’s safer.

A story with a fateful situation, with an antagonistic force that’s unbeatable, is pointless. The hero is doomed before he starts. Cheering him on is futile. And readers don’t want to vicariously pretend to be a doomed character.

What readers want instead is a hero that only seems to be doomed. They want an antagonist that only seems to be unbeatable. Then they can experience the hero’s attempts, struggles, and hard-won victories with great enjoyment. A chance–no matter how small or risky–makes all the difference. And limiting the magic helps provide that chance.




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Moon Alligators

I think that sometimes the writing craft can start to take itself too seriously. We can get so wrapped up in scene structure and character complexity and viewpoint rules that it’s possible to lose our nerve, our verve, and our sense of fun.

After all, the imagination is like a child. Nurture it and set it free, and it will laugh, skip, and play. Hem it in and restrict it with too many rules, and it will sulk.

That isn’t to say that we should set aside what we know about structure and craft. But we should never let those elements chain us down until writing is a dreary, tedious chore.

When the storyline is bogging down … when my creativity seems stilted and static … I know it’s time for a plot twist, the less predictable the better.

In such emergencies, I can’t worry about what’s already been laboriously set up to happen in the story. I need to bring something in from left field. My writing teacher Jack Bickham called this tactic an “alligator” because it would be dangerous to the hero, arrive unexpectedly in the story, and be capable of doing anything.

Last week, I read a zany fantasy novel by Jim C. Hines called LIBRIOMANCER. Halfway through the book, the protagonist Isaac suddenly finds himself on the moon where he proceeds to fight robotic automatons in conditions of zero gravity and kicked-up moon dust.

In a million years, I wouldn’t have expected a fantasy novel to suddenly land me on the moon. (In the words of that Dish satellite commercial: “How’re we breathin’?”)

Hines doesn’t care how his protagonist is breathing. I’m still not entirely sure how Isaac even got up there or how he got back, except that magic was used.

Going to the moon was an alligator. It was unexpected. It woke me up. The protagonist was so jazzed to find himself on the moon that he made me happy to be there, too. The event didn’t make a lot of logical sense and it could have been cut without affecting the story. However, I’m so glad no dour editorial instinct slashed it to the trash bin. It’s charming.

Long ago, when I was writing the first novel that I would actually sell to a publisher, I got stuck about halfway through. I was befuddled and tired. I couldn’t think of what should happen next. I knew I wasn’t ready to push the characters into the climax. What to do?

That’s when I learned to cut loose with the “what if” game.

The only requirement for the “what if” game is that you should go for the most outrageous, crazy, wild thing you can think of.

Never mind how it will work or connect. Let yourself go with anything that strikes a chord with you.

In effect, give yourself permission to throw a pie in the protagonist’s kisser.

Hines let his protagonist walk on the moon. Then he found a way to make it fit.

In my first novel, A LOVE SO WILD, I put a dead rat in the heroine’s picnic basket. Why? Where did that come from? Dunno! But it made her scream, livened up a blah scene, and gave her a reason to fling herself, weeping, into the hero’s manly arms.

Even better, by bringing in an alligator, I found my flagging interest in the story revived. My energy level improved. My imagination went back to work. Yes, it was a challenge to plant a plausible explanation for the rat, but that’s what revision is for. Meanwhile, I wrote onward with renewed zest.

So when you’re stuck, try reaching for a moon alligator. Don’t censor yourself. Just have the courage to play.

You’ll write all the better for it.

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Sparkle: Make That Plot Zippy!

When I’m reading a novel, there’s nothing more disappointing when–after a promising chapter one–the story slows and dulls down.

This week, I’ve been wading through excessive explanation, dialogue without conflict, and banal incidents strung together. It’s a second book from a new author whose debut last year was a real sparkler. Second novels are notoriously difficult to write. Alas, this one has all the zing of a wet sponge.

Do not let this happen to your story!

What do you do to avoid it?

Make sure you keep the plot strong by utilizing three techniques: hooks, conflict, and twists.

Hooks: You probably know there are myriad hooks of all shapes and effects. We’re not going to count them here. What’s essential to understand about them is that any hook you use should result in–unpredictability.

That means you open your story with a hook. You start your chapters with hooks. You end your scenes with hooks. You introduce your characters with hooks.

Grab your reader’s attention without stalling, without hesitating, without timidity. Think about the opening line to Sidney Sheldon’s IF TOMORROW COMES: “She undressed slowly, dreamily … and put on a red negligee so the blood wouldn’t show.”

I refer to this example often because it never fails to deliver zing. Sheldon leads your imagination in one direction (the feint) and then socks you with surprise (the upper cut). Is it subtle? Not at all. Hooks are not about subtlety. They’re about giving the reader entertainment.

Conflict: What makes a story boring faster than any other cause? Lack of sufficient conflict. If your protagonist isn’t in trouble, facing trouble, wading into trouble, or fleeing from trouble, YOUR BOOK IS IN TROUBLE.

It’s that simple. So what, exactly, is conflict?

Conflict is goals in opposition.

That’s a pat and quippy definition. What does goals in opposition mean?

Simply that as soon as your protagonist wants something specific, tangible, and obtainable, the antagonist will seek immediately to thwart the attainment of that objective.

Example: Polly Protagonist wants to buy a horse.

I’ll warn you right now that the above goal statement looks specific but is in fact vague. Push Polly to do better.

Polly Protagonist wants to buy her neighbor’s horse, a bay gelding named Artemis.

Why? (What’s her motivation?)

Polly Protagonist wants to buy her neighbor’s horse, a bay gelding named Artemis, because she’s dreamed about owning a horse of her own since she was a child. Every day, she drives home past the pasture where Artemis is grazing. She sees the sun glinting on his reddish coat. The wind tosses his dark mane and tail. She knows he’s a gentle animal from the times she’s sneaked over to the fence and lured him to her with apples and carrot chunks. She’s fallen in love with him, and she wants to take him home.

Now for the conflict. Remember that it’s goals in opposition. So we need Andy Antagonist to step in and thwart Polly. Andy can be the owner of Artemis, and he doesn’t want to sell. Or he can be a guy who wants to buy Artemis because he’s also fallen in love with the horse.

Again, in either scenario, you have to know why Andy is taking action. It needs to matter, so let’s push the scenario a bit and say that Andy has an autistic daughter and Artemis is the only creature the little girl has responded to. So he’s desperate to obtain this horse in order to help his child.

Now we have conflict between two people with valid reasons for being in opposition. Each wants to buy the horse. One wants the horse because of a lifelong dream. The other wants the horse for his daughter’s health.

Only one of them can buy the animal. Who will win? Which of them will persuade the owner to sell first? Who deserves to succeed over the other?

Weak conflict equals weak story.

No conflict equals dull story.

Strong conflict equals a story that has spark, life, and movement.

Twists: These are unexpected developments that turn the story in a new direction. A twist can appear as a plot point, a piece of information, an attack against the protagonist or someone the protagonist cares about, or a threat.

As with hooks, the effect that a twist should create is unpredictability. You may have only one twist in a short story. In a novel you need at least three, strategically placed so that a twist lands in each story act.

Keep your readers guessing. Keep your readers intrigued. Achieve this by doing anything but what’s expected, and motivate those surprising character actions through conflict and strong goals.


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