It’s worth noting that Coyne in his book, The Story Grid, lets us off the hook of understanding the WHOLE topic of Genre with a simple statement: If you take away nothing else from this book, learn how to write a scene.
So here’s what he suggests as the recipe for a dramatic scene (paraphrased and diddled with by me).
Inciting incident — something throws the protagonist’s world out of whack
Progressive complications — as the protagonist tries to fix it, more obstacles appear
Crisis — Should hero go forward, or go home?
Climax — Protagonist makes a decision. Reader should be surprised and satisfied, feel some catharsis or change of worldview. The climax should fit with the earlier parts of the scene.
Resolution (turn) — Who won, who lost, can protagonist go back to how things were? If the answer is yes, it’s relatively boring. If the hero must go forward, your story becomes about life or death.
The Resolution is called a ‘turn’ because every scene is about CHANGE. If nothing changes, what you have is a pile of words. Your scene must have conflict. Someone must win or lose. Hero’s outlook on the world (or the world itself) must change by the end of the scene.
Learn to identify the five components of scene in everything you read. Watch what the turn of the scene FEELS like.
Work to create the inciting incidents that convey the most meaning and rocket fuel for the story you want to tell.
If you can write one good scene after another, you’ve got a book.
After a delightful evening at the casino, a few of us writer types from the Ashland (Oregon) Writers’ Group put together a list of what it takes to get traction in the indie book market. Your mileage may be zero. But hey, go for it!
- Be a celebrity
- Don’t use too big a words
- Be a social media animal
- Make it about a boy and a girl, aged 13 – 24
- Make it an epic quest for Power and Things
- Throw in a zot of moral superiority
- Make it a trilogy, at least.
- Accept that grammar and punctuation are stylistic bits
- Spellcheckers aren’t worth the money
The future is a catastrophe to the past, so us outsiders with the paper 3D glasses need to man- or girl-up. The reality is virtual, from here on out.
Author Creds: The Donald Maass Literary Agency sells over 100 novels annually to publishers worldwide.
I was excited to find this book, as Mr. Maass has been working with professional novelists for over thirty years. Among the first things that woke me up about his book, and my own writing, is a paragraph that punched through strongly:
“…a novice thriller writer opens with a “grabber” scene in which an anonymous victim is slain by a nameless assailant—the reader’s interest level is only mild at best.”
For me, even worse than the fact that every James Bond movie I’d ever seen begins with something quite like this, was the fact I had launched my latest thriller, Halcyon Threshold, with a first chapter that does exactly that.
Not that you can’t start a novel with a meaningless murder, many have begun that way and others will in the future. But Maass speaks in his title about a breakout novel, a book that will ignite the reader’s passion and imagination for the characters and situations you have created, keep them flipping pages to the end, and keep them talking about it.
Maass follows with this line: “Strong reader interest results from a high level of sympathy, which is grounded in knowledge of character and enriched by personalizing details.”
Maass goes on to lay out his first three required elements of a breakout plot.
FIRST PLOT ELEMENT: Engage the reader’s sympathies.
“The first plot essential, then, is not events per se, but a highly developed and sympathetic character to whom they will happen.”
SECOND PLOT ELEMENT: Shit happens.
“Conflict appears, something happens or is about to happen to that character: a problem arises. Easy-to-solve problems are easily forgotten. Complex conflicts… stick in our minds, nagging for attention. If you want your readers to think about your novel long after the last page is turned, consider putting your characters into situations in which the right path is not obvious. Ambiguity and moral dilemma might seem as if they would muddy a story, but in reality, that makes it harder to forget.”
Human beings are complicated. They are messy, they are contradictory. They are flawed. This I felt is what’s meant at the deepest level by knowing your character. In an earlier post I wrote that putting a character on the stage with their worst enemy would lead to drama. What if your character’s worst enemy is a contradictory part of themselves? There you have the meat of a complex character who can be riveting, if you pick the right complications to bring out the things about human nature that interest you.
THIRD PLOT ELEMENT: Greater depth.
“The third essential element of a plot, most agree, is that it must deepen; that is to say, it must undergo complication. Without that constant development, a novel, like a news event, will eventually lose its grip. There are many ways to conceptualize conflict: the problem, tension, friction, obstacle to goal, worries, opposition, inner warfare, disagreement…”
Don’t listen to me, this article is merely a taste. I am reading this book now. Get it. If you’re serious about your fiction in any aspect, get the book.
Note: My only real negative on this helpful book is the introduction. While there is useful information there, it’s meandering with many rhetoric questions. Cut to Part 1 where he starts about premise and you won’t be sorry.
Reading biographies on literary agency websites, I often see a statement such as: “I’m a sucker for a believable, well-painted world.”
This tells us a couple of things. Agents are people too, and want to escape the ordinary as they read the slush pile day in and day out. ‘Escape fiction’ is a redundancy, for escape implies a new world to enter, even if only slightly different from our own. As readers we want to see how a downtrodden character (because many of us feel that way sometimes) resolves an ethical or moral question that has great emotional impact for them. We want to learn something.
The new world can be a courtroom, a TV soap, an emergency room, a racing stable. We’ve all entered those worlds with skilled writers as our guide. And what we find is that those worlds are not merely backdrops, but can act as a character. The world performs in the writer’s hands to strengthen our illusion of being there while highlighting the theme or premise of the story.
Agents and readers are looking for ideas with emotional impact. They look for potent characters who are active, and are not afraid of conflict. (Or maybe your character is afraid of conflict, but must face it all the same.)
It is axiomatic that if you put an interesting character on the stage with their worst enemy, you get drama. To flesh that out, you’re investing emotional capital in a struggle between two main characters, in the context of a high-concept idea. So when a man takes his wife to court for custody of their child, you might get Kramer Versus Kramer, or if a man unknowingly makes a pact with the devil, you might get The Firm.
It’s also axiomatic in the publishing world that your fiction or memoir plot has to provide some information or insights to solving problems in the real world. Orson Scott Card’s novels, largely YA, often address themes such as leadership.
A memoir is only impactful in the writer’s interpretation of the events. Readers are willing to look through other eyes if they will learn something about how to handle the world. The same is true of narrative nonfiction… how would you tell about the events of 9/11 through your own eyes, so we could all find out something new?
Newly published authors these days usually come out with a high-concept idea that is story-worthy and can be phrased in one sentence. So, agents are looking not for a story, but for a drama. To put that into marketplace terms, if someone pays $29.95 for your book, and wades through 400 pages of text, they have made a huge commitment. What are you going to teach them and how are you going to make your story dramatic and believable enough to rise to that commitment?
Here’s one way. If you can deliver a solution to a moral and ethical dilemma that provides useful insights into the real world while pushing believable though imperfect characters into conflict in a well-painted yet possibly quirky world, you have met that challenge.