One Writer’s Journey

May 17, 2019

4 Things to Study in Screen Plays

Recently Writer’s Digest published a blog post about studying screen writing and what you can learn by reading specific Oscar winning screen plays.  Their post was intended for people who are studying screen writing. I’d like to expand on this – study screen writing and screen plays no matter what type of fiction you write.  Because there is something to learn whether you write picture books, graphic novels, or young adult mysteries.

Here are four things you can learn by reading screen plays.

The Three Act Structure.  Stories frequently consist of three acts – the beginning (introduction), the middle (body of the story), and the end (or resolution).  While fiction writers in general are aware of this, among the first to realize the importance may have been screenwriters.  In her Plot  Whisperer book, Martha Alderson pulls examples from both books and movies.

The Hero’s Journey.  The importance of this form in story telling may have first been discovered by Joseph Campbell who studied ancient stories and found that throughout time they consist of certain types of characters and certain plot points.  You have heroes and mentors.  You have a call and a climax.  To read more about this and how it applies to writing check out The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.

Humor.  So often I see editors asking for books with more humor including books that deal with serious issues.  One of the screenplays on this list, The Apartment, was cited not only for being funny but also funny while dealing with the “unsavory.”  Loved the use of that word. Casablanca was also noted for its often humorous dialogue.

Characterization.  Speaking of Casablanca, another reason it made the list was for fully realized characters.  Even the cameos presented characters who were given an opportunity to shine.  There are no stock characters here so if you feel like your secondary characters come across as flat, check out this screen play.

Check out the post from Writer’s Digest, download the various screen plays and get to work.  It is time to make those manuscript shine!

 

January 9, 2019

Picture Books: Making It BIG and Personal

The other day, I heard someone comment that Where the Wild Things Are isn’t about the wild things or adventure. It’s about more than that. It’s about wanting to be loved.  In case you haven’t guessed, I read and listen to a lot when I’m on the treadmill.  I also have time to think as I’m step-step-stepping along.

Where the Wild Things Are is about both being wild/wild things and being loved.  One is the character’s outer journey (wild things).  One is the character’s inner journey (love).  One is the plot (wild things).  One is the theme (love).

But about some of the other picture books I’ve recently reviewed?

Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt is about a girl trying to figure out how to feed her friend’s family.  That’s the outer journey and plot.  But it’s also about friendship, the inner journey and theme.

Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love is about a boy who loves mermaids (outer journey/plot).  But it is also about self-identity (inner journey/theme).

Life on Mars by Jon Agee is a humorous picture book about a boy who is searching for life on Mars (plot/outer journey).  It is also about finding something new (theme/inner journey).

Theme is going to help young readers connect with your book because the theme should be something they will identify with.  After all, what preschooler doesn’t want to be loved?  Be their own person?  Or find something new and fantastic?

The specific plot line is what makes each of these stories unique.  But it is also what you can’t duplicate when you write your own story.  Try to sell fictional picture book about looking for life on Mars to Dial and they’ll turn you down.  They’ve got Agee’s book.  But try to sell them an original, creative book about struggling to find something new and you may very well have a sale.

Inner journey vs outer journey.  Plot vs theme.  Your picture book needs both.

–SueBE

October 30, 2017

What Do You Have? An idea, a premise or a plot?

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Today I had two ideas that I jotted down on my annual list.  Yes, I keep a list.  It helps me move forward with my current project but also gives me plenty of food for thought when it comes time to develop something new.  Although I call everything on the list an idea, I’ve long known that some of them are significantly more fleshed out than others.

Then I read one of Janice Hardy’s Fiction University posts from back in May.  In “The Difference Between Idea, Premise, Plot and Story,” she discusses just that.

An idea is that bare bones spark of inspiration.  In my case, the bare bones offerings can be anything from a first line to a character or even the plot problem that launches the whole story. What can I say?  My brain is a bit scatty.  You never know what it is going to throw at my feet.

“A boy attends a boarding school for wizards.” Who knows?  That could have been the idea that launched Harry Potter.

A premise is the next step.  As defined by Hardy it is “a general description of the story you plan to tell, and what the story is about.” It offers just a bit about the character and begins to develop the story, going as far as to describe the story problem.

“An orphan struggles to claim his magical heritage at the school where his parents once studied magic.”  We know now just a bit about the character and the problems he faces.

The plot describes the central conflict.  It gives you some idea what the main character needs to achieve to be victorious.

“Orphaned Harry Potter finds himself at wizarding school, the same one his parents attended, where he must claim his birthright and prove that he has the same right to be there as everyone else.  This will mean making friends and proving his skills in a world he never imagined could exist.”

I have to admit that most of the ideas I write down are either basic ideas or maybe premises.  Every now and again the basic plot pops into my head.  More often than not, I have to spend some time working with the idea to get that far.  But that’s okay.  That’s half the fun of working up a new story!

–SueBE

 

August 18, 2017

Plotting Your Story

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:03 am
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As an occasional writer of fiction, I understand how important plot is.  I even know how to use a plot diagram.  But I hate doing it when it comes to working on something book length.

When I use a diagram, I want to be able to fit everything on one page.  I don’t want to have to turn pages or scroll right and left.  Why?  Because it is jarring.  I’m visual and this pulls me out of what I’m doing.  And moving scenes from place to place on the diagram?  Ugh.  Drives me batty.

So I made myself a “full-sized” plot diagram.  The base is one panel of a triptych science fair board. It is approximately 1 foot by 3 feet.  The black line is the rising and falling plot.  The red lines indicate the 1/4 mark and the 3/4 mark.

My first plan for this is to use it to fix my yeti picture book.  It will no longer be a picture book and with ten chapters at my disposal I need a diagram that is big enough to work with.  I’m going to write-up my scenes/chapters on post-its and place them in the appropriate places in the board.

Need another scene between scenes 3 and 4?  No problem.  Post-its are easy to move.  Need to compress two scenes into one?  Again.  Not an issue since I can “stack” them and create a post-it column.

There will even be room if I want to break down the plot/scenes in a mentor text.  I can put those on a different color post it or use a different color pen and range them across the bottom of the board.

 

Once I have everything where I want it, I can lay the board down, pop my stapler open, and anchor the post-its in place.  That way I don’t have to worry about a nosy cat fluffing a scene off the board with her tale or rubbing it off as she makes the board her own.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some characters to torment.

–SueBE

June 19, 2017

Plot and Subplot: Using One to Strengthen the Other

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Okay, this entire post is going to be littered with plot spoilers so if you haven’t read David Baldacci’s The Fix you may just want to come back later.  Although I normally listen to his work on audiobook, I took the opportunity to read this one and found a novel that uses the subplot to strengthen various points in the plot.

Let the plot spoilers begin!   You were warned.  No, seriously.  I did warn you.

Amos Decker is walking up toward the entrance to FBI headquarters when he sees a man shoot a woman in the back of the head.  Before Decker can reach the man, he shoots himself committing suicide.  From this point to the end of the book Decker and his cohorts are trying to figure out what happened.  Why did this FBI contractor kill a woman he seemingly had no connection to?  Why do it outside FBI headquarters?  Could this man have been a spy, unbeknownst to his wife and daughters?

As they gather information they come up with more and more questions.  Eventually the realize that a family member was in trouble and this gave the bad guys the leverage they needed to turn the contractor into a killer.

But the FBI makes some mistakes as they gather the information.  They make assumptions concerning the roles of men vs the roles of women.  Because of these mistakes, not everything makes sense and it takes them time to fill in the blanks.  But the mistakes that they make in the subplot (how did the bad guys get him involved) are mirrored by the mistakes that they make in the main plot (was there a connection between the murderer and his victim.

Because the same mistakes are made at both levels, it strengthens the themes and the plot points surrounding the assumptions we as a society make regarding gender roles.

Everything is layered and nuanced if you can use your plot and subplot to mirror plot points, errors, and themes.  Try it and see if your story doesn’t feel tighter and more cohesive.

–SueBE

 

May 18, 2017

The Dot Test: Rising Tension

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:35 am
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I’ve been contempleting one of my new manuscripts, working on a rewrite.  This particular picture book has a fun concept and interesting characters.  I say “interesting” because one of them is more interesting than she is sympathetic although she does change and grow.

But in addition to this you also have to have a story arc and part of that arc is rising tension.  One of these easiest ways to test this in a picture book is with the dot test.  I first read bout this test in a post at Adventures in Agenting.

Here is how you test a picture book.

Draw a line across your page.  Make a dot at the left end of the line and label it 1.  That is the level of tension in your first spread – spread because it is a picture book.  Otherwise it would be chapter.

Anywho, read the first spread and then read spread #2.  Is the tension higher?  If so, make another dot to the right and slightly higher than the first.  If the tension is the same, the two dots will be parallel.  If the tension drops, Dot #2 will be lower than Dot #1.

Spread by spread, read through your manuscript and judge each spread compared to the one just before it.

Ideally, your spreads will plot out something like your traditional story arc.  You need to have a climb toward the climax with tension dropping off several times immediately following an attempt by the hero to solve his story problem. A story that continually climbs in tension but never drops off even slightly, may seem tiring and burn the reader out before they finish.  A story that plots out as a horizontal line isn’t climbing towards a climax.

How does my story test out.  It climbs and then holds steady and then climbs again.  Way too much time spent with no climb or drop.  At least I know where to focus my efforts!

–SueBE

 

November 11, 2016

Plotting a Novel with Depth

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:45 am
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Plot WhispererAs I get ready to make a second attempt at plotting out my novel, I’m rereading The Plot Whisperer and The Plot Whisperer Workbook.  I’m not even past chapter 2 and I’ve already found a problem with my earlier attempts at plotting which felt confused and haphazard.  The best books are plotted at three levels — the action, the emotional arc and the theme.  I had all three — sort of.

And, that’s good, sort of.  If an editor tells you that your story feels slight, you probably have all action and no character growth.  Or your theme isn’t well developed.

I wasn’t heading into a slight plot. I was heading into a haphazard plot.  One plot point would be from the action plot.  The next might be from the emotional plot or the thematic plot.  I couldn’t get things moving forward because I had created a tangled mess.

The first step to untangling it is to understand the three plots.

Action plot.  This is the part of the plot that we most often discuss when we say plot.  The character has a goal and these are the steps that are taken to reach it.  If I had plotted the action and neglected everything else, it would have made sense but it would have been slight.  Unfortunately, I created a jumble.

Emotional plot.  I notice this one missing from a lot of adult books.  Your character needs to grow and change.  This might mean that they discover that something they believed at the beginning of the book was a lie.  Or they misunderstood something.  Or they just needed to come to a more mature understanding.  This emotional plot needs to more or less keep pace with the action plot.  I often figure this one out last, right after I figure out the theme.

Thematic plot.  Is your story about family?  Or independence?  Or hope?  Along with the arc that deals with plot and the one that deals with character emotion, you need one for theme as well.

Now that I’m thinking about them as three distinct entities, I can make sure that all three are present in my story.  They will intertwine, but now that I know to keep track of them they (hopefully) won’t again become a tangled mess.

–SueBE

August 30, 2016

How to Add Depth to Your Writing

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:29 am
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depthFor the first time in quite a while, I am once again sending out manuscripts without a contract in hand.  And today was only the beginning. I’ve got another one to submit tomorrow.  And another to go out on Wednesday.  Still another is ready and will go out Thursday.  Deep breath.  Tale a deep breath, Sue.

It doesn’t matter how many sales I have.  If I’m lucky, sending material out like this means that I’ll get a rejection.  If I’m not so lucky, I’ll get feedback with an offer to read it again. How’s that unlucky?  I’m only joking, a little.  Getting feedback of any kind is actually great but it means that I’m running the risk of hearing one of the phrases that I dread.  “You need to add depth.”

I know enough to realize that this doesn’t just mean add to the word count.  Adding another scene isn’t the way to get the job done.

But what does it mean?  For different writers or different stories it can mean different things.

For some writers, your story may be too slight.  Yes, you have a plot.  It is a well-developed plot and your hero has to put out some serious effort to succeed.  That may be enough if you’ve written a picture book, an early reader, or a chapter book.  But novels, both for middle grade and young adult readers, often have subplots.  You may need to add one or more subplots that in some way mirror the main plot.

Sometimes the problem is that the reader needs more insight into your character.  Fixing this problem may be a matter of inner dialogue or making sure that some of the dialogue has not just text but subtext.

Last but not least, what is lacking may center on the setting.  You have details.  You have descriptions but they seem to be incidental to the story itself.  You need to find a to have the setting speak about the character, the story problem or a theme.

If an editor describes your story as slight or asks you to add depth, give the comment some thought.  Read your manuscript again with this comment in mind.  The key is to craft a solution that fits right into your story, seamlessly, as if it has always been there.

–SueBE

February 1, 2016

Gender Norms

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 4:28 am
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gender stereotypesDon’t use stereotypes when you write.  I know you’ve heard that advice but have you ever taken it beyond character?

You know what I mean by character stereotypes.  These are the characters that tend to be cardboard and two dimensional.  The perky cheerleader. The brainy but clutzy computer geek.  The melodramatic drama student. When we use these character types, editors reject our work because it just isn’t original or carefully crafted.

The problem is that we have similar problems when we create plots that contain gender stereotypes.  Not sure what I mean?

Who experience prom woes?  A girl such as Lizzie Bennett in Prom and Prejudice. 

Who seeks vengence after a loved one dies?  Boys or men including The Crow and John Wick.

Who has to hide their gender?  Girls like Ruby and Lord Athen in A Riddle in Ruby. 

Who creates/purchases a robot to date?  A boy such as David in Girl Parts.

Who has adventures with a stuffed animal?  Girls like Trixie in Knuffle Bunny and Amanda in Amanda and her Alligator.

Who wants to play football?  Boys like Mo Jackson in Don’t Throw it to Mo.

I’m not panning these creative efforts but let’s face it.  They’ve been done. You can bet that if we can name two or three books and movies in each category above, then editors have seen hundreds more.  “I know . . . she doesn’t have a stuffed bunny.  It’s a stuffed giraffe. Or what if Trixie never found the bunny?”  Let’s face it, we’ve all written a derivative story or two.

How could we shake these stereotypes up? For prom, you could write a story about a boy who wants to go but his girlfriend is entirely underwelmed by the idea.  Maybe she thinks its a waste of money.  Maybe she refuses to wear a dress and her school has a dress code.

What about a young woman who must avenge the death of her husband/boyfriend?  By some means other than poison which is often seen as a woman’s weapon.

When you start to craft a story, think carefully about your main character?  Is your plot stereotypic for this gender?  If so, what could you do to make your story and character unique?

–SueBE

 

December 28, 2015

Writing Real

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 4:26 am
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don't write downDon’t write down to your reader.  It is a piece of advice that sounds simple but applying it can take many different forms.

Don’t oversimplify vocabulary.  Not every word in a picture book has to be short or simple.  Some could in fact be deliciously complicated. Rich, specific vocabulary makes a manuscript sing.  For example, which word paints a picture? Dog or afghan.  Duplex or house.

Don’t oversimplify characters.  Characters that are overly simple become two-dimensional. Your cheerleader is perky and upbeat.  Your nerd loves role playing games and hates sports.  Protagonists are as pure as pure can be.  They drink their milk, respect their parents and always use proper grammer.  Antagonists are evil with hearts as black as coal. They loathe puppies and kittens and contemplate mischief, mayhem and cruelty at every turn.

But these overly simple characters don’t feel real to your readers.  They are just too simple. A proud hard-working person may also be an egomaniac who never makes time for her friends.  An honest person may be judgemental.  But a bad person, the charcter who smokes and drinks, may also be the character who is prepared to accept the protagonist when she falls from grade.  This character isn’t 100% bad after all.

Don’t oversimplify dialogue.  When you write dialogue, it shouldn’t be like a ping pong match.  Character A speaks.  Character B replies.  Character A speaks.  Character B asks a question.  Instead, have your character say one thing and mean another.  Or Character A might ask a question and although Character B responds, it isn’t actually an answer to the question.  Shake things up.

Situations are also seldom black or white.  Your character may be faced with two bad choices.  There may be no “high road.”

 

Don’t oversimplify plot.  In a simple plot, your character faces good choices and bad choices.  But what if there is no clean cut, good choice.  What if both choices are in some way undesirable?

Don’t write down to your reader.  It’s good advice, but remember to take it beyond simple word choice.

–SueBE

 

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