Tag Archives: Narrative Structure

Stronger Narrative Structure, 3 Ways

art by Mel Anastasiou, narrative structureOn a panel at this year’s  Creative Ink Festival, three of us talk about planning processes for strong narrative structure.

The first describes himself as a “pantser”.  He writes what comes next, and doesn’t worry about outlines. He thinks hard about his story and its turnings; he doesn’t write it all down.

The second is a “move sections around” writer, who, like Truman Capote, believes in the scissors over the pen.  She writes great scenes, trusting her inner writer that they’ll fit into the plot and move it forward.  Her inner writer doesn’t let her down.

I’m the third writer on the panel. I’ve tried pantsing and moving scenes around. These approaches brought me no success, because I needed to strengthen my understanding of storytelling.  I read, digested, applied and analyzed everything available on narrative structure.  Now, I outline everything.  Story, scenes, character arcs for everybody.  I do this partly because I want to go to my drafting desk ready to write, partly because I love outlining like the first Greeks loved Prometheus’s gift of fire, but mostly because the criticism that I used to get from editors was, I can’t tell what this story is about.

As I gaze at the two gifted writers beside me I reflect that each of our approaches to story planning involves a confident understanding of narrative structure, and careful use of available writing and planning time.  What a pleasure to know that some aspects of writing come naturally to each of us, and that the rest may be learned.

I hope you’ll have another brilliant week in your writing career.

Cheers, Mel

From Pulp Literature Press:

If you’re a fan of Mel Anastasiou’s writing tips, you may enjoy her pocket-sized writing guide The Writer’s Boon Companion: Thirty Days Towards an Extraordinary Volume. Motivates, organizes, encourages, inspires.

From Pulp Literature Press

 

Creating Suspense and Sustaining Tension, Part 1

At the wonderful Creative Ink writing festival I sat on panels on creating tension and suspense.  I have been thinking ever since about ways to accomplish these.  And, from the point of view of time management for writers, if we can create suspense and sustain tension as we plot and draft, then we save a crazy amount of hours on revisions.

First, it’s worth taking the time to develop a protagonist the reader will care deeply about. We’ve heard of the Monkeysphere — the theory that humans can only keep a certain number of people close to their hearts.  Along with family members and friends, we appear to have  room for fictional characters as well. Right, Netflix?

To develop engaging characters, it’s worth taking the time to list flaws and balancing strengths.  I see so many flawed protagonists in our subs box, but few of them achieve the balance that helps the reader take them to their hearts. Balance involves developing

  • inner and outer longings.
  • kindnesses and sacrifices.
  • falls and redemptions.

Look at the extraordinarily flawed and engaging Lisbeth Salander, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  She’s not all flaws; in fact, her ferocious loyalty, physical strength, and world-beating intellect balance all the imperfections that make us love her.  Looking at my submissions inbox, it seems that there’s a lot of great work on developing flaws in characters, but not much attention to the strengths, as if somehow strengths were old-fashioned.

Once we create that engaging character, half our work in sustaining tension is done for us as the readers bring their own anxiety for the protagonist to the page.  The stakes, depending on our genre, may be survival, love and belonging, power, or freedom. These same stakes resonate with us all, through a character readers can believe in and take for our own.

I hope you’ll have another brilliant writing week.  Cheers, Mel.

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Great Openings Via Tone and Setting


Establishing tone and setting right away is a good way to get point of view quickly and firmly established.  It’s not the only way to begin — we certainly read successful starts composed of rants, reflections, and resonant difficulties.  But, it might be worth our while to examine some excellent examples of authors establishing their authority with POV through tone and setting.

“A big noisy wind out of the northeast, full of a February chill, herded the tourists off the afternoon beach, driving them to cover, complaining bitterly.”

-The Quick Red Fox, John D MacDonald 

“The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.  The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot.”

-Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt 

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

– Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

Sometimes, if a writer is dissatisfied with the start, it may be worthwhile to dig about the first pages of the work, where lines like these may be lurking unnoticed, and try one of them as line one of the tale.

I hope you’ll have another brilliant writing week. Cheers Mel

muse smallThis week from @yourwritingmuseYour amazing ending complements your story beautifully. You saw it from the start. Your Writing Muse #amwriting @pulpliterature

 

  

Four Quick Fixes for Chapter Starts and Finishes

galaxiesmallMost writing exercises are useful in some way or other, but some take us so swiftly and directly towards our goals, that they’re worth identifying and emphasizing. For example, taking a close look at the beginnings and endings of chapters.

  1. When changing POV character, it would seem a no-brainer that you want to get the new character up and identified as soon as possible. However, setting the reader directly into the character’s skin is more important still, while they’re learning whose skin they’re now wearing. The reader is naturally reluctant to leave the previous POV, and to name the new one too soon may cause the reader to set the book down rather than read on. To settle, see the next point.
  2. At the start of every chapter, and arguably every scene, we want to cover time, place, setting, tone, promise of genre, and a hint at the central conflict.
  3. At the end of every chapter, it’s worth making sure that it doesn’t actually “finish.” A great sentence that feels like an ending to the conflict may cause the reader to close the book. Sometimes the sentence must be removed; sometimes it works to move it to the next chapter.
  4. Watching out for rhythms in positive and negative starts and stops is a subtle way to establish storytelling authority. As author Beverly Boissery once put it to me, chapters that always begin positively and end negatively, read flop flop flop. If a chapter ends negatively, consider beginning the new chapter negatively as well, and end it positively, with a hint at future conflict.

Chapter starts and endings set us up to keep reading, keep invested in the characters, and love the book. Whether drafting or revising, these are fairly easy fixes to create even greater narratives.

I hope you’ll have another great week in your writing career. Cheers, Mel


If you enjoy Mel Anastasiou’s writing tips, you might try her pocket-sized writing guide The Writer’s Boon Companion: Thirty Days Towards an Extraordinary Volume. Motivates, organizes, encourages, inspires.

From Pulp Literature Press

Getting Past Editorial: Narrative Structure

“I don’t want to spoil the party, so I’ll go.” –Lennon & McCartney

croppersherosmallOf the three top reasons for rejecting short fiction, the too-slow emergence of the central conflict is the one I note most often.  It was certainly the reason editors cited for rejecting my own work in the past.  Now, I’m writing the same notes next to fully two-thirds of the short fiction submissions I read.  Lack of storytelling structure spoils the party every time.

We all know that in storytelling, composition and structure are vital.  Even those selections that show up in your university text, and appear to be put together with pipe cleaners and cut-out words from the newspaper, are works of structural genius.

Every reader has inside his or her subconscious mind an expert in storytelling structure.  Even a very young reader feels disappointment at the deepest level when writers miss a beat.  On the positive side, since we writers, as readers, are also equipped with the same expert critic, we have probably fewer steps to take than we realize, in order to make our stories work.

But until we do learn how to nail it, our revisions and re-submissions take far too much time.  Once we’ve nailed it, we have uncounted more hours to give to our works in progress.

There are a number of books teaching story structure.  My personal favourites are Vogler’s The Writer’s JourneySnyder’s Save the Cat, and Wiesner’s First Draft in Thirty Days.  These experts, among others, show writers the bones of the stories we love to read and those we love to write.

I hope it’s another brilliant writing week for you.

Cheers, Mel

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Scene Cuts: What Can You Teach Me Today, Lee Child? Part 2

leechildmay1How can a writer cut scenes to raise tension and keep the reader up late at night?

Returning to A Wanted Man, I notice that Lee Child cuts the scene right after the moment when the characters realize that the stakes are ramped up. FBI Agent Sorenson, investigating a kidnapping, says to her investigating partner,

“She’s seen their faces. They’ll kill her.”

Structurally, we’d expect to see our characters react to this raising of the stakes, but Lee Child cuts the scene right there. He doesn’t show the investigators’ reactions because our reaction will be just the same as that of the investigating team. Tension rises even more sharply when we readers feel the fear for the kidnapped woman first hand, rather than second hand through narration.

If the characters’ reactions had been different than the reader’s reaction—for example, if an antagonist felt guilt, calculation or satisfaction about the hostage’s situation, or even if the two investigating characters had experienced differing individual reactions—then wouldn’t our master writer love extending that scene!

Thanks very much for your help once again, Mr Child.

 

Lee Child, A Wanted Man. Bantam Press, London, 2012.

 

Outlining with Brooks and Da Vinci

Da Vinci, Master Outliner
Da Vinci, Master Outliner

“He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.” –Leonardo da Vinci

“Outline, outline, outline.” –Terry Brooks

I’m finally finishing revisions on my novel The Extra: A 1934 Hollywoodland Mystery, wherein two Vancouver girls run away to Hollywood in 1934 to become movie stars, only to discover the dead body of a famous actor on their living room sofa. I’ll bet I’ve written and rewritten it half a dozen times. The trouble was that when I began writing The Extra, I didn’t much like outlining. Oh, I had an outline in my mind Sort of.  Certainly, I

Knew

                                                        Where

It

                                                        All

Was                                                                          Go

Ing

There are enormous sections of that book that languish unemployed in dozens of Moleskines.

During the course of these revisions, I began outlining each character’s growth over the arc. I learned to outline the whole narrative, the section, the chapter and the scene. I developed graphic organizers for outlining. I learned to love outlining (I’m a sucker for graphic organizers). Meanwhile, three years into revising The Extra, I began a second mystery series, Stella Ryman and the Fairmount Manor Mysteries. Working from outlines from the very beginning this time, I finished the first omnibus in good time and am nearing the end of the second volume in that series.

I’ve just about got the last chapter of The Extra right at last. Fortunately, I never got tired of my hero Frankie Ray or her struggles to clear her name and escape the electric chair.

But it’s a shame to waste that kind of time. The I-could-have-written-eight-other-books kind of time. More planning, less drafting. Da VInci said it: ”He who thinks little errs much.”  In a workshop I attended, Terry Brooks said it at least as well: “Outline, outline, outline.”