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A Conflict-laden Plot Pattern that Works

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 24•16

Hunger Games citizens, capitalWant a shorthand formula for a successful story? Start with a heroic protagonist who is sane and moral, but, of course, flawed. Then create  the world he or she operates in as crazy,  chaotic,  askew. Stir in antagonists who are immoral. Create conflict that’s essentially a test. Mix in at least a few sympathetic supporting characters for readers to root for. Better yet, make as endearing and  quirky as hobbits.

This archetype works on many levels and can be shaped into so many patterns. It can be written as a quest, a battle between good and evil, or survival in a Wasteland. It’s often adopted in dystopian fiction, particularly sci fi or fantasy stories aimed at YA readers. A dystopian story features a world that’s the opposite of rational, humane, and functioning society. Usually an event like a massive-scale war, a pandemic, or global climate change has shifted society to topsy-turvy.

The Hunger Games is a prime example of this type. Hunger Games Dictrict 12Katniss Everdeen is trying to survive in a world gone mad amid a family and community facing loss and deprivation.  One reason the broken world setting works so well is because it naturally creates many levels of antagonism, conflict and danger. This series has it all.

The trick to writing such a scenario is that the protagonist’s existence is tenuous, the future unknowable. Rules make no sense. Who can you trust? What is the truth? Sometimes the old order has crumbled and the new order is shaky and corrupt. Often the corruption is so pervasive  that the protagonist and his allies have no choice except to rebel.

Villains play a large role in these narratives exemplified by President Coriolanus Snow, the leader of Panem. He personifies depravity, evil, and power gone mad.  The Capital reveals a vapid, numb society of banality, vanity, and ultra-crass consumerismHunger Games, Snow. The brutal Games force children from the country 12 Districts to fight to the death for the Capital’s entertainment, while reminding the citizens of formerly-rebellious Districts who is in control.  The people who govern the Games are also antagonists and the layers of tyranny and oppression are far-reaching.

Now, a justifiable criticism of The Hunger Games series is that it’s utterly implausible. A whole country meekly stands by as children slaughter each other? The morality of the Games is never questioned in the Capital? Really? Only a handful of moral citizens exist? Survival of the fittest is justified?   

The Maze Runner series by James Dashner also capitalizes on a dystopian setting. The kids who end up in the Maze world are essentially experiments of the laboratory-rat variety, only on a much larger scale. Heroic characters, check. Chaotic, ruined world, check. Villains galore, check. Nobody knows the rules or what the heck is going on, check. These stories often feature gruesome puzzles at their core. 

MazeRunnerCastIn The Maze Runner Thomas, a teenager, finds himself descending in an elevator without any memory of who he was. When the elevator ‘arrives,’ Thomas is greeted by a group made up entirely of teenage boys.

He learns that the group calls themselves the Gladers, after the Glade in which they are imprisoned. The Glade is surrounded by an ever-shifting Maze, populated by creepy, lethal creatures called Grievers. Thomas wants to escape and so the conflict heats up…. The Gladers eventually escape the Maze and discover that the whole setup was an experiment run by a group calling itself World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department.

In these crazed worlds, innocents are naturally at risk.  Usually the author sacrifices a vulnerable character or three (think Rue in The Hunger Games) to increase heartache and tension (nobody’s safe!).

Cold mountain battle sceneSince Homer’s Odysseus, wartime as a backdrop for fiction also uses this narrative pattern. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier comes to mind. After suffering a gunshot to the neck, Inman, the protagonist, decides to leave behind the brutal Civil War battlefields and return to his beloved Ada Monroe and his beloved mountain home. Home is hundreds of miles away and he’s walking despite his injury. Readers understand that war is unpredictable and always includes a body count.

The climax of these stories usually involves gutting the corrupt world and people in power. Eventually Katniss and the rebels overthrow Snow and the leaders of Panem. The Gladers are rescued by rebels and discover that their environs (The Scorch) came about because of The Flare, a  deadly virus. Inman’s enemies are vanquished and his wanderings through the war-ravaged countryside reveal horrific realities and the sad dawning of a new reality. 

A few suggestions/words of caution:

  • Populate your world with complex characters with complicated motives. It’s too easy to create evil overlords or cartoonish, power-mad dictators. Give your villains plausible backstories so readers know how they came to be.

  • Create dynamic characters who are going to change Cold Mountain Adaover the course of the story. Ada Monroe’s dramatic character arc is a terrific example to follow.  She transforms from genteel and helpless minister’s daughter to a steely survivalist.  This goes for secondary characters too.

  • Strive to create fresh themes. Your readers already realize that power corrupts.

  • Create a highly detailed world. Know exactly how every aspect of your story world works down to what scavengers eat. 

  • The MazerunnerBeware of creating cannon fodder secondary characters.

  •  Understand the historical distance for your setting. Star Trek or The Martian couldn’t take place in our century because humans don’t yet have the technology for this level of space travel. Stephen King’s The Stand takes place in the 26th Century after a deadly plague wipes out most of the population.   How long would it take for a virus to decimate the population? How many generations could survive a global-wide drought? 

  • Although survival is the central question, take care that you don’t create a complete downer. Somehow your story needs to be sprinkled with spots of sunlight.

  • Create helpers to lighten the mood and the protagonist’s plight.

  • Imbue the protagonist with an extra dose of grit and determination.

  • Dystopian YA isn’t known for its plausibility, subtlety and subtext. You can do better.

  • Pile on the hardships. Inman’s infected wound takes time to heal with the help of an old goat herder woman he encounters on his journey. He also suffered starvation, dysentery, capture, betrayal.

  • Plan ahead for the protagonist’s arc. How will he and she transform in ways that make sense? Will he/she end up wiser? Cynical?Will he/she become a leader? 

  • If it makes sense for the story, create a parallel spiritual arc for your character. If the story begins with him devastated and broken, will he be redeemed like Inman?

  • Stakes need to be life or death. Always.

  • Don’t use the story as an excuse for social criticism.

  • Plant reversals–lots of them. In Cold Mountain Ada’s father dies. Ruby arrives to help the starving and helpless Ada. Ruby’s estranged father returns to disrupt her new life.  Inman is turned in by a moon shiner and then captured. Then narrowly escapes a chain gang after a battle.

  • Don’t be afraid to surround the hero with adversaries. In Cold Mountain Home GuardCold Mountain members of the  Confederate Home Guard–a militia formed to defend the home front against the Union–are opportunistic, corrupt, and creepy. They also tracked down deserters like Inman.

  • If a real war is your story’s backdrop, be sure to cover fresh ground. Make certain that readers learn aspects of the war not always shown such as the deep divides in the South. In Cold Mountain the Home Guard proves how people always profit on war and misery.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Abandon Ship! Or why your readers might bail on you.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 15•16

shipwreckTo name names or not to name names, that is the question?  What the heck, the book is called Eeny Meeny by M.J. Aldridge. So far so clever, right?

I recently abandoned  this thriller about two-thirds of the way through. I know. It’s a weird place to stop reading. It felt spiteful, but was borne of frustration. A few nights later I skimmed the final chapters because I was still annoyed, but needed to find out if he’d pulled off the ending.   I don’t read a lot of thrillers, but sometimes they’re just the chocolate chip cookie you need to balance out life’s broccoli. Or something like that because actually I love broccoli.

Arlidge is a former television writer and the book has glowing, and I mean glowing, reviews. It’s called an international bestseller that “grabs the reader by the throat.”  It’s written in short chapters –117 of them—ala James Patterson.  The story also introduces a new series character Helen Grace and it fills in a major chunk of her backstory.

It also has a fabulous, gruesome premise, but is burdened by a number of problems that ultimately sink it and make it mediocre. These include: police procedural details that are maddeningly incongruous; lack of depth in the protagonist (although this was partly intentional) and clunky explanations about how the characters are feeling and thinking. A brief and incongruous affair begins and ends, but is never adequately fleshed out. A major character dies, but he’s also paper thin and readers don’t come to know him adequately or feel much when he’s gone.

Back to that premise: It begins when young lovers return to consciousness after being drugged.  The first lines are: Sam is asleep. I could kill him now. His face is turned from me—it wouldn’t be hard. Would he stir if I moved? Try to stop me? Or would he just be glad that this nightmare was over?

Turns out they’ve been dumped in a weird, cavernous,gun with blood empty space lined in cold tiles. Apparently the van driver who picked them up while they were hitchhiking had dumped them there. No matter how they scream or struggle there is no escape, no one hears them. And here’s the kicker: they’ve been left with a pistol with a single bullet in it. They were also left with a cell phone that has a single message on it: Once one of them is dead the other victim will be freed. And they have no food or water.

Told you it was a great premise. The chapters where the victims are held captive are the best in the novel.   I won’t mention who the villain is—readers are given teasing snippets of her backstory throughout the book. She’s finally on stage in the final chapter, but to my mind, not enough and the showdown is melodramatic.

As I already mentioned, there are some plot details that defy credulity. One that had me scratching my head was how you could drug your victims with champagne. I mean it’s corked. And the taste of drugs would be easily discernible.  And since this is a procedural all aspects of an investigation (especially when a serial killer is involved) need to be accurate and plausible. They are not. Especially troubling were Grace’s interactions with her co-workers. The medical details about extreme hunger and thirst need bolstering.  The victims’ dehydration symptoms are sketchy at best.

Then there’s the small stuff. The author describes Helen Grace as a copper and that term is used exclusively and often to describe police. She’s  drives a Kawasaki, but the verb most often used is oddly, bicycling or biking.  And no, she’s not a traffic cop, she’s a detective. And no, she doesn’t wear leathers.  And though it rains as it should in the south coast of England, she doesn’t get wet and the roads aren’t slippery. The story takes place in Southampton which never quite comes to life, but has a lot of vacant places where a serial killer can imprison victims. 

There is far too much telling of emotions as in: Helen paced outside, angry and frustrated.

Because of the quick pace a lot of actions are summarized and evntually the reader longs for a fresher approach and more physical details of the characters. At Sandy’s house, the water cascaded over Hannah, reviving her instantly. The experience should have been soothing, but Hannah was too wired for that. She was full of questions, but her overriding emotion was one of girlish excitement. She had hit the jackpot. She and Sandy had pulled it off.  

Oddly, besides improbable plotting,  it was probably the clichés and trite expressions  scattered throughout the story that annoyed and distracted me the most. To name a few starting on the first page: I rack my brains; she was too far gone for that;  a flash of anger;  And there it was in a nutshell.His ex-wife swept off her feet by another man—with Mark left out in the cold. Charlie seemed like a nice person and had handled her with kid gloves.  At first Peter Brightston had avoided his victim like the plague—Charlie felt her pulse quicken. This was personal. A grandfather who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Cool as a cucumber. Screaming all the time at the top of her lungs.

And sudden and suddenly are used a lot because coppers are suddenly bursting into rooms or screeching off on a chase.

Language is the small stuff according to many. But if I’m turned off as a reader, others will be too.

Bloody HandprintHere’s my point in criticizing this author (and his editor): The mistakes that ended up in this published novel are the same sort that I see in my clients’ manuscripts. But we fix them. Alridge and his editor didn’t correct these blunders. I find this baffling. I often spend hours researching as I edit manuscripts, especially when accuracy is essential such as in thrillers, crime novels, procedurals.

And if you take more care than Arlidge, then  his success should fill you with hope.

Finally, this author has lots of promise. If he can work with a persnickety editor, emulate Patterson less, and craft better sentences his career could be stellar.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Advice to Writers: Quit Whining

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 10•16

glass-blowingThere’s a lot of whining among writers. I’ve never quite seen the like among other groups; say among plumbers or glass blowers or dentists. We seem to believe that kvetching is part of the writing lifestyle.

We think wrong.

And heaven knows there’s a lot of procrastinating and wasting time. Not to mention all the precious hours we spend yakking about the writing, rather than doing the writing.

You need to adopt a pragmatic, problem-management frame of mind. You need to freaking get it.  You need to be feet-on-the ground practical and the architect of  habits that put words on the page and makes your goals a reality. Stop whining to other writers about how things aren’t going well or how the deck is stacked against you.

Close down this crazy circus that is populating your head and move on.

Writing is a job, plain and simple.

And since we realize it’s a job, not a dance among celestial bodies, roll up your proverbial sleeves and get down to it.

You also need to face the reality that some days of writing are going to pretty much suck. In fact, I can guarantee these days of suckiness will happen, just as sometimes your stories will go nowhere and you cannot for the life of you stop using adverbs and making typos and geeky amateurish mistakes that make it look like a drunken chimpanzee seized control of your keyboard.

moon phasesSometimes your drafts won’t work out because you don’t yet possess the techniques or skills to bring it to fruition. Learn those techniques. Everybody’s work hits snags from time to time. Sometimes you discover that the idea or story that seemed perfectly clear in your head is, in fact, an incoherent mess on paper. If you want to, then you’ll find a way around these snags, and sometimes even enjoy circumventing them. You might need to backtrack, dig deeper into your themes, or come to know your character better.

Because writing and accessing words is not moonbeams and magic, and it’s certainly not accomplished by wand-waving ease. In fact, ease and writing probably don’t belong in the same sentence.

And  don’t freak out along the way. Face head on the big, messy emotions that crop up while writing.

Because writing can transform a wisp of an idea or remembrancecastle chalk drawing into a complex,  fully-imagined tale which when you think about it, is pretty amazing. And it can transport you from the slog of daily life. It can become lasting and true, especially in a hurry-up  and noisy world.

Writing and storytelling are an ancient magic, a tangible magic.   So stop the pity, the angst and just get on with it.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Gather your support team

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 03•16

Soccer girlsWriting, as we all know, is a sometimes glorious, but often lonely occupation. As if isolated on the raft of creativity amid a turbulent ocean, we struggle with words and ideas, plots and themes. Alone. At times this isolation makes us feel apart from the world, even abandoned. Sometimes our fight to bring a scene to life convinces us we’re going a little mad. At times we doubt not only our sanity, but our skills, our truth, our path.

This is what it feels like:  Midway through writing your novel (insert screenplay, self-help book, etc.), your own ‘ dark night of the soul’ descends, followed by a stretch of despair; then comes a breakthrough in chapter six, followed by a poisonous attack of doubt, erased by progress on chapter seven; which is succeeded by raw terror, later eased by a charming new character who comes to you in a dream and adds a new dimension to your sagging plot and offers the tiniest glimmer of hope, which is then diminished by reading the latest bestseller which  has a similar storyline and leads you to conclude that all is lost and you’ve come too late to the party.

Into this vale of tears, we must insert camaraderie, someone, or preferably a group of someones, who we can commiserate with when the literary chips are down. Or we won’t make it.

Because our team inspires us with their persistence and faith, because they understand our love of words and films and stories in any form. We speak a kind of shorthand that  doesn’t need to be interpreted. And we discuss the best office chairs to save our aching backs.

            Here is author Elizabeth Berg’s take on the subject: “People who support you in the right way make you feel really good about writing. They give you encouragement without sounding false. They try hard not to be resentful of the time you need to take away from them to write. Also—and this is critical—they make you feel that you will do even better. That’s not because they like what they’re seeing now; rather, it’s because they like what they’re seeing enough to believe that you’re in this for the long haul, and that you will continue to grow and improve as a writer.”

Keep writing, keep dreaming, hang out with fellow writers

June

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 01•16

yellow stamen, pink flower

Live outside your own head

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 31•16

I’ve met way too many reclusive writers, especially science fiction and fantasy writers, who spend all their time obsessively plugging away at a 200,000-word manuscript and reading only stories in the genres they’re writing. Or their idea of a night out is hanging out in a coffee shop with their laptop.

It would seem that an impressive page count might also equal an impressive story. Alas, this is rarely true.  And it’s so disheartening when a rambling tome is thin and undistinguished.I’m not just talking about a sputtering storyline. Writers need a bigger life so their readers can enter a specific, enticing and sensory world. When a world isn’t fully rendered readers never feel the characters’ emotions. Never smell the air or feel the pebbly ground under the character’s feet.

This lack of sensory participation happens because the writer spends most of his or her time looking inward, when a trip to Scotland or just some fresh air, is needed.

It’s difficult to write about castles if you’ve never visited one. Touching the centuries-old stone walls is so inspiring, especially if you’re in a tower room gazing down at a river where humans have traded and paddled past since the Vikings arrived.

Now, lots of writers write strictly from their imaginations and never leave home. It can be done. But if you can manage travel, do so.

I interviewed Diana Gabaldon a few years back. She’s the author Diana Gof the mega-selling Outlander series set in the 1700s. The series is a meticulously researched and racy portrait of life in the 1700s and seems to have it all: a great love, epic battles, political intrigue, smugglers, time travel, pirates, and men in kilts.  She’d just returned from a trip and had spent a delirious afternoon wallowing in battlefields.”

JM: Do you walk around? Take photos? Buy postcards?

Claire and JamieDG: I almost never take photographs of any place because I find that stops me from actually seeing what I’m looking at. I just look and develop a strong sensory portrait, not only of what I’m seeing but how the air feels. Am I hearing trees in the wind? I have a very vivid memory of being on the Yorktown battlefield late in the evening. The light was failing and the trees were just beginning to move overhead as the sun set and this deer came out of the field on the far side and stood there looking at me for awhile. That deer will turn up in the next book, but probably not in Yorktown.

You develop all these things that stay with you if you’re paying attention in a more concrete way than just looking at a photograph. Now sometimes I’ll buy postcards because they’re often historical paintings of people who were present at this or that battle. Because I find it very helpful to look at the actual faces or at least a simulacrum of the actual faces of the people who were there. I go to museums whenever I can. Artifacts are extremely moving, especially seeing an actual object that was handled by a person of that time.”

If you can meet new people, do so. Interact with someone besides your mother and your few mega-nerd friends. If you cannot travel far, a walk in a park or forest or visiting a waterfall will bring your senses to life.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Writing requires emotional risk

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 23•16

Walter WhiteBitter truth: Writing requires emotional risk. After the brilliant actor Bryan Cranston played the dark, devious and sometimes evil Walter White in the Breaking Bad series, he played Lyndon Johnson on Broadway in All the Way. His Walter White character arc was one of the most remarkable in our times. White, a high school chemistry teacher, is handed a terminal cancer diagnosis and is desperate to provide for his family.  His solution: to brew potent meth amphetamines and become a drug lord. And to enlist one of his druggie former students to help. Of course this took many steps, but the transformation from the guy next door to a murderous thug was convincing. Or as the show’s creator Vince Gilligan said, “Mr. Chips to Scarface.” And the show lasted for six seasons as the body count grew.

When the series ended Cranston needed distance from his meth-brewing character and he needed to wipe eradicate Walter White from his persona. LBJ was a perfect foil, brilliant, devious, but concerned about the good of the country. The play’s run was successful, Cranston’s portrayal uncanny and HBO adapted it into a film.

In an interview Cranston revealed that he used his father who abandoned him in childhood as inspiration for White’s character. He turned his pain into someone devious and pathetic and desperate. He even adapted how his father carried his body, rounded his shoulders.

Just as in acting, our best writing will require revealing something about ourselves that might be stored in a rarely-opened closet. Because the best writing reveals an emotional truth only the writer knows. Perhaps it’s that aching loneliness that has never dissipated since your divorce or your mother’s death. Perhaps it’s rage at a childhood scarred with abuse. Or desires that never came true.

Trust in the honesty of your body. Feel yourself deeply, down to your core when you write. Go where the pain is. Your words that are most alive, most vivid will emerge. And you’ve earned that dark forest of memories.

 Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

 

worthy

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 14•16

Sherlock HolmesYour protagonist must be worthy of the challenges in the story. Because when things go wrong— which is what fiction is all about– the protagonist will somehow set them right. He or she acts and reacts, solves problems to bring balance back to the world that became unbalanced in the first story events. Your protagonist must bring it.

His/her capacity for solving the story problem will come from his/her primary personality traits. Master detective Sherlock Holmes is observant, smart, analytical, and fearless. He’s the perfect man for the job. To defeat Moriarty, to venture into the moors to uncover the truth of mysterious happenings, to help the King of Bohemia recover incriminating photographs.

Your protagonist’s main personality traits are always showcased when he or she is at work on the story problem. This is a really simple method for creating and thinking about your main character.

What poetry reveals….

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 28•16

world map antique 3“It’s not that poetry reveals more about the world, it doesn’t, but it reveals more about our interactions with the world than our other modes of expression. And it doesn’t reveal more about ourselves alone in isolation, but rather it reveals that mix of self and other, self and surrounding, where the world ends and we begin, where we end and the world begins.”
– Mark Strand

 

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 22•16

Saturn 1“Why ask art into a life at all, if not to be transformed and enlarged by its presence and mysterious means? Some hunger for more is in us – more range, more depth, more feeling; more associative freedom, more beauty. More perplexity and more friction of interest. More prismatic grief and unstunted delight, more longing, more darkness. More saturation and permeability in knowing our own existence as also the existence of others. More capacity to be astonished. Art adds to the sum of the lives we would have, were it possible to live without it. And by changing selves, one by one, art changes also the outer world that selves create and share.”
– Jane Hirshfield Ten Windows