People are defined by their choices. This applies to poker players and politicians, world leaders and criminals, parents and coaches. Fictional characters are also defined by the choices they make. Choices start off a story because a character needs to respond to the inciting incident and first plot point. In Act two when the protagonist’s situation gets really complicated the choices and dilemmas become harder, even brutal.
In many genres these tough choices are made in each scene and sequel. Good examples to illustrate this are found in Act 2 of The Hunger Games when decisions are all about survival–at any cost.
In Act 2 she’s confronted with a dizzying array of choices:
- fakes a romance with Peeta
- shoots her bow with deadly accuracy toward the Hunger Game officials in the training center
- allies with Rue who personifies innocence and goodness and is a stand-in for her sister Primrose
- follows or ignores her Haymitch’s (her mentor) advice
- unleashes the tracker jackers after her enemies
- performs a ceremony/tribute to Rue when she’s killed
- shows disdain and defiance of the Capitol with a gesture into the all-seeing cameras
- trusts that Peeta meant to save her life and is not on the side of the Careers
- struggles to save Peeta
- returns to the Cornucopia at the center of the arena despite its dangers and the bloodbath that occurred there. It’s where desperate tributes try to obtain supplies…and often die for their attempts.
Choices are especially delicious when they’re moral dilemmas. And please, no win-win types. Decisions also need to align with a character’s personality traits, backstory, and morality.
When you stage choices they prove the natural trajectory of a character arc. In the case of Katniss and Peeta, they’re heading for an act of ultimate defiance, something almost unheard of in the Capitol.
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart
Thirty days has November and for thousands of writers around the globe, that means NaNoWriMo or National Writing Month, a giddy, exhausting yet exhilarating, marathon and communal activity where writers jam on the page, producing a 50,000-word novel in a month. It teaches writers discipline, commitment, and how to survive on not much sleep. A growing number of these drafts have turned into publishable novels proving that a lot of grit and butt-in-the- chair dedication can change a writer’s life.
And NaNoWriMo is just so cool. First it’s free, and second, the in-your-face deadline slaps with a resounding dose of reality meaning participants dump their inner editors and write hard and fast and smart to stay on top of their word count. When you’re writing in third gear your stories flow better, fear of failure fades, and writing comes from a deeper place. That’s because when writing fast you draw on worlds of intuition and improvisation that you’d never reach if you gave yourself years to slog through crafting a novel. But the main reason it works is that the more you produce at lightning speed, the more you have to tinker with in your second draft.
The thirty-day time frame works because it’s finite and it allows writers to prioritize the writing for a doable time commitment. It’s like a thirty-day sojourn into The Land of Novels. Just when participants are about to collapse and they’re tripping over dirty laundry, the month ends and they can return to normal life.
So it’s Sunday night, November 1. You’ve made it through day one. Stifle your yawns for just a minute and listen up. Once you’ve got your writing cave stocked with all the necessities for survival ponder this: the more you know your story and the basics of fiction writing before you start off, the better your chances of cranking out scene after scene. With that in mind, try these hacks to help you fly through the month.
- Don’t go it alone. You need to affiliate with at least one writer who is also involved in NaNoWriMo. I’m talking about an in-the-flesh writer, not just your online pals. Check in and goad each other toward the finish line. Ask for help, bitch a little, brag a lot, share quick fix-recipes and cool coffee shop locations. And stay in touch if you need support to keep going.
- Begin your session with a small but meaningful ritual. This signals your subconscious that it’s writing time. Make a pot of coffee, light a candle, organize your writing space for a few minutes, read a page that inspires you. Or write down your writing plans for the day. Limit the ritual to no more than 5-7 minutes, then plunge in.
- Know your main characters and their circumstances as best you can before you start writing. What does your protagonist want? What will get in the way of that desire or need? How much will inner conflict play into his or her plans? What is he or she most afraid of? What’s on the line?
- Remember that fiction pushes characters into new emotional and physical territory. The first push comes with the inciting incident—the event that comes from the outside world, kicks off your story and creates a threat. If you don’t have a threat hanging over the opening you don’t have a real beginning.
- If your opening chapters aren’t feeling right, carry on and skip ahead to Act 2. Openings are tough to get right and you might be a week or two in before you concoct a really sweet opening scene. Doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except that you pound the keys.
- Act 2 kicks off after the first plot point. Your protagonist will cross into new territory after that event. Make sure that it’s an event that is brought on by outer circumstances, not a character deciding to leave his/her comfort zone, like “Oh what a gorgeous day. I think I’ll pack up and head off on an adventure.” That only worked for Bilbo Baggins, though he had incentive to head out into the Shire because it was a change of heart. Remember too that the dwarves showed up at his door uninvited (inciting incident) and their demands and behaviors made him uncomfortable. He at first refused the call to join their merry gang. Sometimes this is called crossing the threshold and the old life or old ways are left behind.
- In Act 1 backstory is included on a need-to-know basis only. Plunge in. The front story or forward-moving action will energize both your and your story, keep you aimed toward a conclusion.
- Scenes are based on change. No change, no scene.
- Do the damn writing. Day after day. Like a grown up.
- Become obsessive about your story. Really obsessive.
- Stay limber. Hours spent at the computer are hell on the body. Move when you can even if it’s marching in place next to your desk.
- Speaking of marching in place, try this: Cross the midline of your body with your arms and legs. When you’re high stepping/marching in place tap your left hand to your right knee, then your right hand to your left knee. Speed doesn’t matter. This stimulates the corpus callosum—a huge fiber network/bridge that links your left and right brain hemispheres. Which leads to more breakthroughs, insights, and energy. Other tricks: juggle, play an instrument, write or eat or brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand from time to time.
- Try dancing when you need a break—I’m talking shaking your ass, boogie down—whatever makes you feel free and kind of crazy or bad ass.
- Just spit it out. Write, don’t edit, rewrite, or rethink everything you’ve put down. You got lots of time after the holidays to handle that stuff.
- Dominate. Wrestle with, judo punch and bitch slap like Ronda Rousey. We’re talking about your inner demons. She’s a mixed martial arts champion, Olympic medalist, and has trained like a maniac for years, has work ethic that would shame a drill sergeant, has mad and varied skills including judo. And now she’s taking up boxing to help take down her next opponent. This all adds up to speed, power, and instincts. NaNoWriMo is your training. Rousey is a great athlete, but one of her big strengths: she freaking believes in herself. She expects to win. Every time. And for god’s sake, be nice to yourself. November is going to be hectic enough. Be on your own side. Never call yourself names or give in to self-loathing. Expect doubt because every writer feels it at some time. Keep going anyway.
- Stay in your chair long enough to get out what needs to be on the page– for at least 45 minutes. The brain works effectively in 45-minute increments. Breaks don’t need to last longer than 5-10 minutes, but be sure to stretch, focusing on shoulders and neck. When you return to your desk/café seat tell yourself you’re returning with s strength and renewal.
- Teach yourself to focus, really leaning into each sentence, really allowing each scene to play out in your head. When your voice of judgment starts yakking at you (50,000 words you’ve got to be kidding? You? ) just shoo it out of your brain like you’re erasing a blackboard. Focus is also helped by feeling the words and scenes in your body. Feel the cold, the fear, the pain, the tension. You wrote a character with a lot of swagger? Adopt his or her posture and identity. Feel your character’s emotions when you write scenes. Is grief making her choke on words? Is fear making her palms sweat, hands shake, heart thud?
- Although there will be days when the writing is fun and even exhilarating, don’t expect it to be easy. What you can expect is feeling thick-headed and tired some of the time, especially later in the month. That’s when you might want to remember all the great writers who wrote great things while in prison, while ill, or under hellish conditions. As in no heat, rats scurrying around the prison cell, a weak lantern to write by, a freakazoid cellmate constantly drooling and slavering over your shoulder. Or with bitter Siberian winter winds whistling through your gulag cell and ice on your piss bucket in the morning. We’re talking harsh. You probably have heat, you softie. We’re talking Oscar Wilde, Martin Luther King, Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, Henry Thoreau. And don’t forget Christy Brown, author of My Left Foot who was born with cerebral palsy.
- Stay next to the story—walk around with it like a child’s invisible, make-believe friend. Which means you don’t care a whit if other people don’t believe in your pal.
- Carry a notebook around at all times for when your inspirations and fresh insights come calling. These little gifts are meant to be captured immediately. If you don’t capture them, they don’t happen as often. You can also use your notebook as your story bible filling in data when you’re not working on the story. Names, dates, ages, scene dynamics, notes to yourself. I’ll say it again: Keep this sacred object with you at all times.
- When you feel like you’re merely slogging along set a timer for 5 minutes. You can always endure five more minutes.
- Keep asking yourself what happens next. Better yet: what’s the worst possible thing that can happen next?
- Write your scenes by dumping in the dialogue first as the framework, then establish time and place and who is talking to whom.
- Probe the senses. What does the rain, snow, kiss feel like? This will take you deeper into the scene.
- Stop worrying about other people’s opinions. Write from your gut, trust your instincts.
- Keep reminding yourself that storytelling is about cause-and-effect.
- Plan for scenes that show your character is changing/growing. And yes, sometimes he’ll damn near fall about before this growth happens.
- Whenever possible begin every scene with a crisis.
- Keep asking yourself how your characters will react to what is happening on the page. With calm, rage, attitude?
- Keep digging deeper into what makes your characters who they are.
- Keep digging deeper into your core strengths and understanding of human nature.
- Think about your story before you fall asleep at night. Especially think about what will be happening next in the story.
- Before you fall asleep ask your unconscious for dreams about your story.
- Keep writing.
- Go easy on booze, caffeine and sugar. Prefer protein for fuel.
- Be willing to feel achingly and profoundly lonely at times. But it will be worth it.
Happy to announce that I’m in the latest issue of Poets & Writers in The Savvy Self-Publisher column by Debra Englander. It features the fabulous successes of Portland local William Hertling with me and Jessica Glenn of Mind Buck Media weighing in. A caveat, however, there are several typos or misquotes in my piece. The last number under my name should read $50, not $5,000.
Also, if you’re looking for inspiration on how to market yourself or create value-added content to your blog and website, be sure to check out Hertling’s site here.
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart
Fiction and memoir writers take a cue from film directors: In each moment and scene understand where you want to focus your reader’s attention. The director, and later the editors, have a distinct purpose for every shot, along with every detail, sound, color, tone, lighting, motif, subtext, and symbol. Without knowing it, the audience is staring at a particular scene, waiting for something to happen. Sometimes they’re following an actor’s gaze. Sometimes the director is using an establishing shot to set the scene. The camera might be panning the area, setting up a disruption, a character’s choice, or establishing cause and effect.
Sometimes harsh lighting is used; sometimes a thin light will illuminate a single object. Sometimes the camera moves to reveal a second character’s reaction to what has just gone down or the effect of a dialogue exchange. No matter the technique, the audience is constantly being fed information.
Do you want to zoom in on a character’s face, as in a close-up? Will the camera stop or pause to milk the tension or underline the emotions of a moral dilemma? Or do you want to showcase the overall setting–a gloomy warehouse or a noisy party–to build toward an action scene or an intimate connection? A wide-angle shot can create tension and cue the reader about space, layout, and sight lines. Or will you focus on a particular detail—evidence that someone has recently visited the warehouse, or something is out of place?
At the party the camera might linger in the guest room and the bed piled high with coats. Or is the party at New York penthouse and a rack has been arranged for the garments which include furs and expensive leather? Details and focus should prove that the character is approaching a building with trepidation. That he’s holding a gun or left it in his car. Or he forgot his flashlight. Or his crazy-ass sister has had too much to drink and is itching for a fight. What’s the most important thing the reader needs to know moment by moment?
Be purposeful in all your choices.
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart