Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How I Impressed My Wife With Story Structure

Think story structure is just for writers? Guess again.

Recently, my daughter was assigned to watch a movie for her 7th grade theater class. The movie was “Newsies,” a musical based on the New York City newsboy strike of 1899. So my wife picked up a copy of the DVD at the local library and brought it home for the family to watch. We popped some popcorn, snuggled into our sofa, turned out the lights, and started the movie. Although I had some reservations about watching a musical, it turned out to be pretty good, although I could have done without the singing. But that’s just me.

Anyway, we were somewhere past the halfway point of the movie when my wife turned to me and asked when I thought the movie would end. Turned out she had to leave for an appointment in thirty five minutes, and if she was going to have to leave just before before the movie ended, she would rather stop the movie right then and have us finish it later.

According to the DVD jacket, the movie was 121 minutes long, but as we hadn’t noticed when we’d started, that wasn't much of a help. It’s possible, maybe even likely, there was some way of having the DVD player tell us how much time had elapsed, but none of us knew how to do that, so my wife was ready to press the stop button, much to the dismay of our daughter.

Then I suddenly realized the movie was in the middle of the “All is Lost Moment.” For those of you unfamiliar with story structure, the AILM is that point in a movie or book where it appears the hero is about to lose. In this case, the MC had been arrested, the evil newspapermen had threatened the father of the MC’s best friend, and the strike was falling apart. Classic AILM.

The AILM comes at the end of the second act, just before the second plot point, and according to story structure, should occur at the three quarter mark of a book or movie. And according to Larry Brooks (Story Engineering) and Blake Snyder (Save The Cat), Hollywood takes the timing of these milestones very seriously. For a 121 minute movie, therefore, there should have been only thirty minutes left before the end. So I told my wife the movie would end at 8:17. She was skeptical, but agreed to let the movie continue.

The movie ended at 8:19. Booyah!
The wife was much impressed.

I may struggle with putting my thoughts into words on paper. I may have trouble with showing versus telling. But dammit, I understand story structure.

Thanks guys.

Links worth checking out.

Story Engineering

Save The Cat

Plot and Structure

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Showing and Telling in a Nutshell

I'm always on the lookout for books dealing with the concept of "showing versus telling," so when I discovered  Jessica Bell's new book, Show & Tell in a Nutshell: Demonstrated Transitions from Telling to Showing, I volunteered to post some information about the book on my blog.

I purchased the e-book for my Kindle last week, and after pouring through the pages for a few days, I find myself able to recommend the book, although that recommendation comes with two caveats. 

First, the title suggests the book will show examples of "telling scenes" being converted to "showing scenes" - which isn't exactly true.  The "telling scenes" aren't really scenes at all.  They're synopses of scenes - four or five sentences describing what will happen in the scene, similar to what a writer might jot down on an index card.  This might sound like nitpicking, but I believe it's an important distinction.  Writers who have trouble with telling (like me) rarely jump right into a scene and start showing.  Typically we only get around to fixing (or trying to fix) the telling after the scene has been fleshed out.  So for us, starting out with a fully realized scene and transforming some of that telling into showing is where we need the most help.

Second, no explanations or discussions accompany the converted scenes, nothing to explain the author's rational for how and why she wrote the scene as she did.  I understand this might raise the price of the book, but in my opinion, such discussions would be worth their weight in gold for those of us struggling with telling.  It's easy to look at a scene (written by someone else) that "shows" and agree that it's good.  It's much harder to figure out how to write it yourself, which is what I struggle with every single day.    

Anyway, if you're interested in fixing all that telling you've been doing, keep reading the blurb below and consider buying Jessica's book.

Click to add me to Goodreads!

Have you been told there's a little too much telling in your novel? Want to remedy it? Then this is the book for you!

In Show & Tell in a Nutshell: Demonstrated Transitions from Telling to Showing you will find sixteen real scenes depicting a variety of situations, emotions, and characteristics which clearly demonstrate how to turn telling into showing. Dispersed throughout, and at the back of the book, are blank pages to take notes as you read. A few short writing prompts are also provided.

Not only is this pocket guide an excellent learning tool for aspiring writers, but it is a light, convenient, and easy solution to honing your craft no matter how broad your writing experience. Keep it in the side pocket of your school bag, throw it in your purse, or even carry it around in the pocket of your jeans or jacket, to enhance your skills, keep notes, and jot down story ideas, anywhere, anytime.

If you purchase the e-book, you will be armed with the convenient hyper-linked Contents Page, where you can toggle backward and forward from different scenes with ease. Use your e-reader's highlighting and note-taking tools to keep notes instead.

The author, Jessica Bell, also welcomes questions via email, concerning the content of this book, or about showing vs. telling in general, at

“Jessica Bell addresses one of the most common yet elusive pieces of writing advice—show, don't tell—in a uniquely user-friendly and effective way: by example. By studying the sixteen scenes she converts from “telling” into “showing,” not only will you clearly understand the difference; you will be inspired by her vivid imagery and dialogue to pour through your drafts and do the same.” ~Jenny Baranick, College English Teacher, Author of Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares
“A practical, no-nonsense resource that will help new and experienced writers alike deal with that dreaded piece of advice: show, don’t tell. I wish Bell’s book had been around when I started writing!” ~Talli Roland, bestselling author

Purchase the paperback:
$4.40 on Amazon US
£3.99 on Amazon UK

Purchase the e-book:
$1.99 on Amazon US
£1.99 on Amazon UK
$1.99 on Kobo

About the Author:
The Australian-native contemporary fiction author and poet, Jessica Bell, also makes a living as an editor and writer for global ELT publishers (English Language Teaching), such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, Macmillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning.

She is the Co-Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and co-hosts the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek Isle of Ithaca, with Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest.

For more information about Jessica Bell, please visit: 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Are You a Plotter, Pantser, Or Something Else?

We’re half way through NaNo and, as expected, I’m behind on my word count. No surprise there – I’m a slow writer – but changing the plot five days into NaNo didn’t help either.

What’s more important is that I’ve learned something about my writing process. In my first book (which is still a work in progress, BTW), the plot, subplots, and characters changed over and over again during the first couple of years. I figured this was probably just a natural consequence of having never written a story before, along with the fact that I hadn’t bothered to plot anything out beforehand.

One thing I did learn during those two years of revisions was that I was a plotter at heart. Story structure makes so much sense to me these days, I can’t write without it. So for my NaNo story, I outlined the whole thing ahead of time. Plot points, the midpoint reversal, the “all is lost” moment – yep, it was all right there. None of this “I’ll worry about that stuff later” attitude. So when November 1st rolled around, I was sure the writing process would go more smoothly this time.

Yeah, right.

After five days of writing I was ready to change the plot…
and some of the characters…
and most of the scenes.

Just like my first book. Arrrg!

So what have I learned in the last two weeks? That no matter how carefully I outline a story beforehand, the real story ideas don’t occur to me until I’m actually putting words down on paper. I may begin a project as a plotter, but I have to switch to pantser mode when I’m write. Then, after all these new ideas come pouring in, I have to switch back to plotter mode in order to fit them into the story. And then I switch back to pantser mode again and continue to write. Back and forth. Over and over again.

I feel like Jekyll and Hyde. I’m not a plotter or a pantser. I’m a plotser.

So which one are you?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Insecure Writer and NaNoWriMo

Today is November's contribution to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group.

What makes me insecure this month?
NaNoWriMo, of course.

Waking up every morning for the rest of the month and wondering if I'm going to be able to write another 1667 words before the day is over isn't something I'd wish on my worst enemy. Besides, I have far worse things planned for them anyway.

I’m happy to say I met my NaNoWriMo quota for the first five days (yay!). And I owe it all to having created the story outline in October. I've learned many lessons during the three years I’ve spent (so far) writing my first story and one of those lessons is that it’s a good idea to put together your outline before you begin writing.

When else would someone write an outline, you ask?

Afterwards, if you're me.

When I began writing three years ago, all I had were individual scenes. No plot and nothing to tie the scenes together. Yeah, I know. Total newbie. But at the time I wasn't planning on writing a story. It was more of an intellectual exercise.

Eventually I worked up a plot and began ordering the scenes, but that turned out to be more difficult than expected. Scene X would have to go before scene Y, but after scene Z, while scene W would have to after scene Y but before scene X and... Arrrg! For a while I almost gave up trying to find an order that satisfied all the scene requirements, but eventually it all worked out. But I'll never begin writing a story again without having the plotline already developed.

So it's good that I have an outline in front of me this November. Unfortunately, I also see a potential downside. What happens when I run into a scene that's tough to write? Will I just sit there and fight my way through it, or will I glance down at my outline and skip ahead to a scene that’s easier to tackle? If I do too much of the latter, I'll wind up spending the last half of November with nothing but tough writing and my NaNoWriMo word counter will come to a grinding halt.

Wish me luck!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Why Did I Ever Sign Up For NaNoWriMo?

It’s becoming a pattern. I wake up in the morning, ready to start another day, then cringe and hide my head under the pillow when I remember I have to write another 1666.66 words for NaNoWriMo. Arggg!

One of the tricks to succeeding at NaNoWriMo is to find ways to motivate yourself for the task of sitting down in front of the computer (or notebook) every day. And for me, that means setting up the proper atmosphere. I do most of my writing in my basement office, so I've decorated that room to look much as I would expect a potions master's office to appear.

Hey, what do you expect? I'm a chemist.

My desk and bookshelves are filled with books on alchemy, along with flasks, beakers, and bottles with brightly colored liquids and powders. Lighted candles help create the necessary ambiance for writing stories about magic and castles and such things. (To be honest, the candles also serve a more practical purpose. Since I haven't gotten around to replacing the fluorescent lights in the ceiling yet, my only other source of illumination is the computer screen.)

So far, my office has done its part to keep me motivated. But we're only three days into November and I have a loooong way to go, so wish me luck.

BTW, if any of you entered NaNoWriMo, be sure to buddy me. My username is ChemistKen.