Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

A starting place for fiction writers

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 26•22

Well, we’re galloping through October and the region is finally getting real, soaking, save-our-parched-earth rainfall around here. In fact, we had a booming thunder storm–a rarity in the Pacific Northwest.

But since November and NaNoWriMo {National Novel Writing Month} are just around the bend, I wanted to mention a few things about starting a novel. I was on Pinterest  and I spotted my advice posted there. And then I noticed people were responding to it. Naturally I was curious…. One woman mentioned how she’d recently dreamed about a specific character and situation, and car {fun!}, and woke up and started writing, thrilled, but clueless about where the inspirations came from. Another writer said planning wasn’t necessary and another writer objected that knowing the ending to a story wasn’t necessary.  Then a writer added, ‘just write.’

If only writing fiction was that easy.

I tried to respond but there was a glitch in the software, so here’s what I attempted to say: I’ve taught thousands of writers and worked as a developmental editor for hundreds more, including wildly successful, best-selling authors. And here’s what I’ve learned: The more you know about where you’re heading, the easier it will be to arrive there. The more you know about the building blocks of your story, the easier it will be to plot, and the more likely you’ll finish.

Now, of course, you’ll entertain new insights as you write. You might slip in subplots that weren’t part of your original concept. Characters could simply walk onto the stage without your prior knowledge, much less permission. And if you’re lucky, your characters  might whisper their darkest secrets into your ear. Those whispers were key because you had no idea your protagonist harbored such as raw desperation, unresolved pain or grief. That’s all part of the delightful, kick-ass, {often} joy ride called fiction writing.

But even some planning and dare I say, outlining also helps your imagination launch and stay on course.

While I’m at it, let me add:

Stories revolve a central dramatic question: Who is Jason Bourne?

Your protagonist is the person who will be most hurt and changed by the story events. The antagonist is the character or entity that  forces the protagonist to change in ways he or she most needs to change.

Your storyline will transport your protagonist into new emotional and phsycial territory.

Early on, define your protagonist’s core personality traits–these are qualities and strengths that will help the character achieve his or her goals.

Jason Bourne would never succeed against the dark forces if he was addicted to video games, not a total bad ass. And marksman. Not to mention tough, fit, guarded, alert, think-on-his-feet human action figure.

Understanding the difference between what your protagonist wants and what your protaonist actually needs, is crucial becuase you’ll create conflict that drives the story forward.

In Toy Story Sheriff Woody Pride wants to remain the leader of the toys. Andy’s toys. But mostly he wants to remain Andy’s favorite toy. In order to stay on top, he needs to take down the newest, slickest toy, the brash Buzz Lightyear. The thing is, Woody is basically a decent sort, and believes a toy’s role is to be there for Andy or kids in general.  When he goes against his own nature and starts to undermine Buzz, things fall apart and he puts them both in serious danger. And the other toys are not having it. What Woody needs are frends–the underlying theme of the story.

A character’s needs creates the emotional core of the story.

When your protagonist figures out his or her true needs, he or she undergoes a character arc–the necessary change the story illuminates. A character arc is the difficult path of growth, such as dealing with an emotional need, overcoming fear, limitation, trauma or wound. Because often your lead doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know. Because characters, like real people,have false beliefs such as ‘I’m not loveable or I don’t deserve love’. False beliefs are potent because readers will likely catch on before the character does. Which leads to tension.

A lot of storytelling is about gaining knowledge–especially about the self.

It’s truely helpful to ponder these underlying factors. To analyze other stories.

To go deep.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

And those readers in the US,  please vote. Our democracy needs you.

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