Tag Archive | plot

How My Minor Character Didn’t Listen to Me

I love playing The Sims.

There’s just something so oddly entertaining about taking control of a character, creating a story, and then telling them what to do.  One Sim skips work to swim all day while the other practically lives at the office.  Another Sim flirts with every person that walks in the room while the other stays faithful to that one, special love.  One Sim is lucky and gets everything handed to him easily while the other Sim gets a shock just for trying to fix the kitchen sink.

But if you’ve ever played the Sims, you know that sometimes the Sim doesn’t follow your command.  Yes, that Sim will purposely skip eating dinner and will near themselves to starvation just so they can binge watch the television for ten hours straight.  No matter how many times you tell them they must eat that macaroni and cheese to live, somehow the news is more important.

I’ve found in writing that my characters must think they’re Sims.  No matter what I tell them to do-what to say, how to act, or where to go-they somehow don’t listen.  They somehow go off on their own accord, even if it’s a bad idea.

Perhaps you’ve had it happen in your story.  You’re writing a scene and the plot is unfolding perfectly.  Everything is going to plan and you can’t help but pleased at how smoothly everything is going for once!

And then it happens.  As you are writing, your character does something drastic and strays from the original plan.  The story changes and suddenly chaos erupts as everything you thought your story was going to tell is thrown out the window because the character didn’t listen.

It happened to me recently as I was writing the second book in my series.  Everything was good until I started writing a scene with a certain minor character.  As I was writing, oblivious to the world around me, an idea popped into my head, and before I could rationally think the character’s actions out, it ended up on paper.  A new scene, a new plot point, and a twist that suddenly turned the story upside down.

All because the minor character didn’t follow the original plan.

I joke, of course, that my minor character had a mind of his/her own, but how many times (as writers) have we been in this predicament?  When the story doesn’t go to plan and suddenly a new story emerges in the middle of writing.  It’s frustrating for me at times when it happens, as I’m the kind of writer who enjoys planning things, but far too often I find the story moving away from the plan and creating its own unique path.

And in this situation, it wasn’t a bad thing.  Because my character didn’t follow the plan, a plot twist was developed that gave a whole new meaning to the series.  Because my character didn’t follow the plan, a once minor character suddenly developed a major role that basically altered the future for everyone in the story.  Because my character didn’t follow the plan, a typical story soon became deeper and more involved (and in my opinion, more interesting).

When I play The Sims, allowing my Sims to take the reins of their own free will doesn’t always produce good choices (I’m still waiting on that one Sim to eat the macaroni and cheese.)  But sometimes, as writers, when we allow our story to “write itself”, so to say, the product can be good.  Maybe even great.  It’s good to stick to a plan, but I’ve found in my own writing it’s even better to be open to spontaneity as well.  Inspiration and creativity are rarely on a schedule, and when it arrives you can’t help but take advantage of it.

Even if it makes your minor character not listen to the plan.

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Well, I didn’t see that coming…(A Note on Plot Twists)

So like any other writer on vacation, I’m spending my free time thinking about story-specifically the one I’m hoping to have finished by spring/summer of 2014.  (No-not the NaNoWriMo novel.  I’m actually putting that one back on the shelf to percolate a little bit until I get some of the plot bunnies sorted out.)

Anyways, in the story I’m working on, the main protagonist has some secrets.  Some may or may not be found out throughout the tale yet there is one secret, a rather big one, that is a big part of his character that effects how he interacts with others.  In all honesty, this secret could be argued as the main tipping point for his fall from grace.  But the problem I had with this main plot point was this:

The story is nearly finished, but I still have no clue what the hero/villain’s “big shocking secret” is.

Nothing like writing with no clue where you’re going, huh?

So late last night as I should’ve been sleeping (ha!  Yeah right…)  I was instead thinking of a what this character’s big, shocking secret should be.  It couldn’t be predictable (that would be boring), but it needed some extra elements that would set it apart in the tale.  I wanted it to be big, surprising, something the reader didn’t see coming.  But with this being my first big story, I had no clue where to even begin on writing it.

Plot twists, as those big, shocking moments in story are often called, are one of the few gems that can either make or break a good story.  Grant it, not all stories have (or need) them, but it’s something that can really make a story stand out. I’m sure we can all identify some great shocks in story that made us scream at the screen, drop our mouth open in surprise, or talk about it for weeks with friends just to figure out what on earth happened.  Examples could include the famous “Luke, I am your father” scene from The Empire Strikes Back or the astronaut Taylor finding a crumbling Statue of Liberty on a beach at the end of Planet of the Apes.  Recently, the “Red Wedding” episode of Game of Thrones produced a lot of shocked-fan reactions that surfaced on the internet.  It became a topic of conversation for days afterwards for even people who did not watch the show.  These three stories had plot twists that not only made them good, but soared them to new heights as fans were all left telling each other, “I didn’t see that coming!” or “Now it all makes sense!”

But take a look at stories whose plot twists weren’t very shocking.  (Again, I’ll let you insert your own stories here.)  I’ve read many books who have fallen prey to this, unfortunately.  The beginning was strong, the characters could be related to, even the plot had promise.  But when it came to the “big reveal”, the story fell flat.  Everything was predictable.  The story suddenly became boring.  No lessons were learned by the characters and no growth was seen by the end.  I recently saw a movie over the summer that fell under this.  The beginning was good, the characters showed promise, but the plot twist was so subtle and a bit confusing that I left the theatre thinking I had just wasted a few hours of my time.  The movie wasn’t terrible, but it certainly wasn’t memorable.

Creating a plot twist can be difficult.  It’s easy to make one that’s predictable and boring and a lot tougher to make one that’s going to stand out and make the story shine.  As I create my own, my hope and goal is to make one that is far from predictable and will soar the story to new heights.  And after looking at some successful plot twists, I find myself asking the following questions about the one I’m writing:

  • Will the big reveal come as a surprise or will it be expected?
  • Does the plot twist connect to the overall story?  If a plot twist makes sense, you will leave your audience with understanding.  If a plot twist doesn’t make sense, you will leave your audience with confusion.
  • Is the plot twist exciting?  Does it leave your readers or viewers wanting more?
  • Does it somehow change the story-i.e., does it put it in a new direction, does it change the tale’s perspective, does it push for character growth, or does it tie the story together towards a fitting conclusion?

And if the plot twist can make me want to know more of the story, I can only hope it’ll make others want to know more as well.

Follow the Audience or Follow Your Heart? Just Ask Mom.

In my last post I discussed audience opinion of story-how it differs with each person and how a piece of brilliance to one can be a piece of trash to another.

So now we come to a new discussion: how to craft a story.  Do we mold what we want to say based on audience reaction and want, or do we write the story that is found in our heart, even when the audience doesn’t care for it?

When working on my first story, I had the entire plot figured out.  My villain was a villain and my hero was a hero.  There were the bystanders and the sidekicks and the comic relief all in between.  I wrote it all in my outline (which was eventually ditched, as you’ve probably read in an earlier post) and then wrote a few chapters just to see how the story would go.

Now I’m the type of writer that needs a guinea pig-the poor, unfortunate soul who has to listen to me ramble on and on about plot points, character dilemmas, and the fifty different endings I have planned for the next chapter.  And since she was the only one willing to listen to my rambles, my mother became my guinea pig.

(There is a special reward in Heaven for that woman for putting up with me.  Remember the boring teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?  Yeah, that’d be me, and my poor mom is the class.)

So I read my sample chapters and outline during lunch and what surprised me was her reaction.  “I like it, but…can’t the guy and girl get back together?”

I then explained to her that said guy was a villain and that there was no way he was having a sappy romantic ending.  This story was supposed to be melodramatic!  I was not writing chick lit.  No.  No, no, no.

But then she gave me the puppy dog look.  You can’t say no to your mother when she’s giving you that.

So I conceded.  I changed the entire plot line just because she wanted the bad guy to get his old girlfriend back.

I expected the story to be ruined.  I expected my plot points to fall apart.  I expected my awesome action drama to lose all credibility because it gained romance.  But my mother’s request to give the bad guy a break actually made the story…better.  It made the antagonist suddenly turn into a tragic hero and gave rise to a more conniving, deceptive villain who before only had a small role.  It added romance to an otherwise dull love story.  And it eventually changed the plot.  The story began as a regular cookie cutter tale with a predictable ending and evolved into something more complex and gray.  My mother’s questioning of my original idea made me, in the end, more creative, as I had to think of a new story to replace the old one that was planned.

In this case, audience opinion won.

But in that same story came another plot point that was questioned.  One of my main characters was not going to have a happy ending.  Her side plot was sad and rather unfortunate.  When I read this part of the tale to my mom, she begged me to change it.  “Please give her a happy ending too!” She said.  Knowing that changing the plot at my mom’s suggestion worked before, I thought I would try it.  But no matter what, the plot never improved.  In fact, it worsened.  Said character’s fate had to remain the same because without it, the middle and ending of the story-with all its careful connections-could never happen.  Also, the guy-who-was-a-villain wouldn’t get the girl in the end.

The plot point stayed the same because I knew the story couldn’t move forward without it.  The characters each had their own role to play, and for this specific character-her role was set in stone.  There was no moving away from it.

It took about a year for my mom to accept that.  She still wanted the character to have a happy ending, but after months of conversation, she finally conceded.  “I may not like it.” She said in the end, “But I know you’re right.  It has to happen in the story.”

Score one for following your heart.

So which option is best?  Do we write to please the audience or do we write what’s in our hearts no matter what the audience thinks?  I think the answer depends on the story and the author writing it.  In my case, I’ve seen the benefits of both.  Listening to my mom’s request brought about a whole new world for one of my “villains”.  Not listening to her, however, kept the story strong for a side character’s role in the plot.  It just depended on the story that was being written.

No matter who the writer is, I think this question will have to be answered as he or she is writing the story. On one hand, the answer seems easy. But when you really look at the story from both your perspective and the audience’s, the answer gets a little murky. And that’s when the writer must decide-follow the audience or follow the heart?

How Did Sherlock Survive?!

I admit I’m a bit late to the BBC Sherlock scene.

I’ve heard bits and pieces about it before, how it was an amazing show and that the actors were brilliant in every scene they were in.  And being familiar with both Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s film work (both were brilliant in their most recent films, Star Trek: Into Darkness and The Hobbit), I decided to check the show out.  I’ve loved other BBC shows like Dr. Who and Robin Hood and figured Sherlock would be just as great.

So I went to YouTube.  I watched a few trailers and scenes released for show promotion.  I also read viewer comments.  And the one thing I heard over and over was how brilliant the series two finale “The Reichenbach Fall” was.  It got me intrigued seeing such a positive audience reaction, so I ordered both DVDs and decided to check the series out.

I wasn’t disappointed.  Series one and series two were both well done and I’d honestly put the show as one of the best I’ve seen in a long time.  But then I saw the ending to the Reichenbach episode.

(Spoiler alert!  If you haven’t seen the episode, note that some spoilers are below!)

I didn’t expect the show-down between Sherlock and Moriarty to be so intense.  It was a battle of the brains in which both players lost (or so it had seemed).  Moriarty died by his own hand to basically force Sherlock to jump off a building to save the people he cared about.  And Sherlock jumped-of course after a good-bye phone conversation with Watson that was both beautiful and heartbreaking.  The hero died in front of his best friend and the audience was left wondering-“Is this how it ends?”

But then there’s the funeral.  There was Watson and Mrs. Hudson grieving at Sherlock’s grave site and Watson left asking for one last miracle, for his best friend to be alive.

And before the episode ended, I saw Sherlock-alive and well-standing in the distance watching everything play out.

By the time the credits started rolling, I had one question in my mind.

How did Sherlock survive that fall?!

I’ve been fortunate that the answer to that question will come soon with the arrival of Series 3.  But for many fans who saw the episode as it premiered, they were left with a cliffhanger– an ending that leaves a part of the plot unresolved until the story continues-and they were going to have to wait for the answer longer than a few months.  It would be practically a year.

For many fans and audience members, stories that end with cliffhangers can seem dreadful as we are left wondering what, how, when, or why about a specific plot point or character.  Audiences analyze, debate, discuss and dissect every bit of information from the cliffhanger just to figure out what happens next in the story.  For some, this is the fun part in the wait, but for most, having to wait is the worst idea of fun one could think of.  Audiences often say they don’t like the cliffhanger simply because it drives them nuts having to wait (so long…) for the answer.

So why do storytellers use them?

I think the answer varies between storytellers.  I’m sure some will say they use cliffhangers simply to play with the audience.  Some may add them because it adds to the plot.  Some may add them just because there’s nothing else in the story that will fit.

For me, however, a main reason for cliffhangers can be found with my (and other’s) reaction to the Reichenbach episode.

After the episode aired, I searched for fan comments and opinions, wanting to know their theories on how Sherlock survived.  I researched the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story that the episode was based on, just to find a clue.  I also planned that I would watch the series 3 premiere of Sherlock no matter what so I could finally find out how that brilliant detective faked his death.

In other words, the cliffhanger had me invested in the show.  It made me want to watch it even more, despite the fact that being left with such a cliffhanger drove me nuts wondering how it was done.  This isn’t to say this is the reason the writers of Sherlock put the cliffhanger in there-who knows what the reason was.  It was just how they wrote it.  But for me, this was the effect of the cliffhanger on myself.   It made me want to hear more of what happened next and it allowed me to connect with other fans to discuss the show.  It promoted a greater love for the story and a tighter community with the audience.

So when series three does air, I (along with so many other Sherlock fans) will finally have our answer as to how Sherlock survived.

And then the question will be-who’s prediction on how Sherlock survived was right?  🙂

I Ditched the Outline…Don’t Tell My Teacher.

When I was in elementary school and learning about the writing process, I remember three distinct things:

  1. Have a beginning, middle, and end.
  2. Have a thesis statement in the beginning (if you really want to get an A on that report!)
  3. Create an outline of your writing project before writing the actual content.

Simple enough, I thought.  I did all three and got an A- on my biography of Neil Armstrong, my first big report. I continued the routine into high school and college, and aside from a few poor reports (darn that comparison essay on the Roaring Twenties in history class!), those three little points I learned as a kid helped me learn the formula of successful writing in school.

So when I sought to write a fiction novel, I thought I’d follow the same formula.  After all, you had to have the three points to write, right?

And so I went through my steps.  The story would eventually have a beginning, middle, and end, so that was all set.  Fiction books typically didn’t have thesis statements-it was more drawn out into the plot of the story.  So…I guessed that would eventually work itself out.  And the outline?

It was the first thing I wrote.

And so my novel was planned.  Every detail, every plot point, every character entrance.  The outline was a novel in itself after I was through with it.

So when I started with my novel, I began at Part 1 and planned to write the chapters as I came to them chronologically.  It was how I did every paper before.  I mean, it got me an A- on my Neil Armstrong biography!  That’s the best success any 10 year old could ask for. If it worked for a school report, it would work for a novel.

The first few chapters were written within a few weeks.  So far, success!  But then something happened in the middle of writing.

I got an idea-a side story, a new character-and it didn’t fit until later on in the chapter.

I tried to go back to the outline.  I had to stay on task.  I couldn’t have a bunch of chapters lying around, not connected!  But more ideas came, and they were sporadic.  I had the ending written before the book was a quarter of the way finished.   Pretty soon, the outline became just another stack of notes.  I had abandoned it all together.

By the time the first draft of the novel was complete, it was different.  What was written on the outline was like another story all together.

Had I done that on my previous school reports, I would have mortified some of my teachers.  The outline was supposed to match (or at least be somewhat close) to the final product.  Or at least that’s what I thought.  But then I realized I missed the purpose of outlines and the story writing process in general.

I’m starting to think there isn’t one right way to write a story.  For some, the outline is a necessity.  It’s what helps them stay organized and helps them connect the intricacies of a plot and character together.  For me, it was helpful in the beginning as it helped me plan my first story, but then it later lost its purpose for me.  I found I wrote better on whim and inspiration, as sporadic and disorganized as it was.

The point is that a lot of us first learned about writing in a set of rules like the three points I described earlier.  Are they a bad thing?  Of course not.  They help us learn what good writing is in an academic setting.  But creative writing is different.  It’s allowed to be creative- it doesn’t always have to follow the “rules” of writing.  You can write a poem or song without a thesis statement.  You can write a novel without following an outline to the letter.

Are there rules of commonality within writing?  Of course.   Grammar is a good thing, people.  Punctuation in the correct places of a paragraph can make the words in a story sound so much better when read.

But my mistake was that I limited writing.  I thought I was supposed to write a novel like I wrote my school report of Neil Armstrong.  Three points.  An outline needed to be followed.

But after a few weeks I didn’t need it anymore.  It was my personal preference as a creative writer.

And so I ditched the outline.

(Just don’t tell my teachers.)