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Archive for the ‘Plot’ Category

Sorry for the lack of content over the past six months or so. I’ve been both very busy with my day job AND very uninspired in my writing. But all of that is changing. Here’s my second post of 2014:

IMDb Logo

I recently discovered that IMDb, the Internet Movie DataBase, has an incredible collection of keywords tagging the movies in their database.

How can a writer use this?

  • To predict the popularity of what they are writing.
  • To choose between potential plot points.
  • and most certainly many more…

Visit: http://www.imdb.com/Sections/Keywords/ for the MoKA home page. If you scroll down, there are lists of all the keywords broken down by starting letter, keyword length (!), and tag count.

I think the list of keywords tagged on 10,000 or more movies is quite revealing:

  • Death (11,357)
  • Family Relationships (10,721)
  • Father Son Relationship (12,334)
  • Female Nudity (14,770)
  • Husband Wife Relationship (10,371)
  • Love (13,509)
  • Murder (20,994)
  • Sex (13,022)

So there we have it. There have been more movies about Murder and Death, Family Relationships, and Love and Sex than on any other topics.

So should we all be writing murder-death-kill thrillers about families involved in complicated love quadrangles featuring kinky sex scenes?

Of course not.

Write what you know. Write what you love. Write what you would enjoy reading. This is only one measure of success. But a writer should always use multiple metrics because past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Charles Goodhart put it another way: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. 

So we must use IMDb’s MoKA appropriately. It is interesting information, but it is an indicator, a measure, a metric, and not your writing goal. It is a tool best used to hone existing material. If used prescriptively when creating material, you will have relied on it too much and the quality and direction of your writing will likely suffer.


Note: I removed the following non-plot keywords from the list above:

  • Based On Novel (29,833)
  • Based On Play (13,908)
  • Character Name In Title (42,430)
  • Independent Film (35,628)
  • Number In Title (13,716)
  • TV Mini-Series (10,145)
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Journeys in Stories

I think journeys are common in stories because they echo our own travels through life. As we navigate life, we make decisions and choose between alternatives. Sometimes we know the consequences of a choice, sometimes we don’t, and sometimes we know where a choice will lead but don’t care.

Notice how even the language used to illustrate this point is loaded with journey imagery? Travels. Navigate. Lead. It is difficult even to find neutral words.

To illustrate: What is the core difference between the atheist and the believer? Between the naturalist that thinks life’s origin is explained by evolution or the Christian that trusts in the existence of a Creator? One has chosen to believe in the existence of God and the other has chosen not to. What a difference that single choice makes in the life of a person!

Life is a journey, choice is powerful, and the future beckons to us all.

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It’s an age-old problem: How to share information in a novel without readers picking up on your clues until the reveal at the end. Here are some strategies I’ve picked up on:

  1. Hide clues in plain sight.
    • Duh. Most people are not that observant and rarely see what is right in front of their face.
    • If you include information in the form of a list, always bury the most important part in the middle. People notice the last thing in a list best, the first next-best, and the middle last.
  2. Share clues out of order.
    • If you know that John has access to Love Potion #9 (A), Love Potion #9 actually causes explosions (B), and an explosion destroyed the rebel headquarters (C),  then it’s reasonable to conclude that John is responsible for blowing up the HQ (A -> B -> C). Many crimes in detective novels are constructed by the writer this way whereas the hero often learns A, B, and C in REVERSE order. The crime (C) comes first, then the method (B), with the connection to the culprit (A) arriving only at the end.
    • The drawback of this method is that it excludes any kind of surprise ending. Avoid this by changing the order: Share (C) and (A) with your reader while withholding the crucial (B) that links the two to stretch out the suspense or setup a twist.
    • For longer chains of clues (A -> B -> C -> D -> E) you can get very, very creative. Just don’t get so complicated that readers can’t follow the chain.
  3. Establish a secondary purpose for something already included.
    • In the book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, the mind game program that Ender periodically interacts with is used to explain how the buggers communicate with Ender at the end of the book. However in the sequel, it must ALSO be the source for a sentient computer program.
    • We humans like our loose ends packaged up into nice, neat little containers. Card surprises us by killing two birds with one stone. It’s efficient and it’s always unexpected when done right.
  4. Share something trivial or common or innocuous that has important consequences when taken to its logical conclusion.
    • In Agatha Christie‘s murder mystery play The Mousetrap, a couple is having an anniversary at the beginning. Taken at face value, it tells the viewer about their relationship. At the end of the play it is revealed that they were hiding anniversary presents from one another which led to an explanation of the bigger mystery. Christie was a master of this technique.
  5. Add in misdirection.
    • The most famous form of misdirection has to be the Red Herring – a false clue mixed in with the correct ones to lead its interpreter to the wrong conclusion. Red herrings can be left accidentally or purposely by actual culprits or sympathizers.
  6. “Make the reader think they know what’s going on, even though it isn’t.” – Adam Heine on Holding Back Surprises – Author’s Echo
    • “Scooby-Doo was a master of this … for 7-year-olds. If your audience is any older, you’ll have to get more creative. The trick, I think, is to believe your own lie as you write it.” – Adam Heine on Holding Back Surprises – Author’s Echo
    • This form of “[m]isdirection has a lot of flavors, but I like putting the knowledge out there only to have the MC [Main Character] interpret it for the reader … wrongly. If your reader is bonding well with your MC, this can work well (as long as your MC isn’t being stupid – which is a very relative term!).” – Susan Kaye Quinn on Holding Back Surprises – Author’s Echo
  7. Have an expert argue against the correct interpretation.
    • Humans tend to focus on experts in novels as in real life. When a character takes a stand against something, the burden of proof is on them as a person. Thus the focus moves away from evaluating the evidence to evaluating the expert. Make the expert believable and you will have deceived the reader.

Note that you can also combine these techniques for even better results. For example, place a shotgun on the back wall in your opening scene (hidden in plain sight). Readers won’t be looking for a gun (shared out of order) until someone gets shot in chapter 4, but you can bet they’ll remember it’s there in the last chapter if you’ll only remind them where it was the whole time.

Get creative!

Image Source: http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/artsandentertainment/cyrils-magical-mystery-tour/338627

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Listen to the following podcast: “Writing Excuses 6.18: The Hollywood Formula

Or if you prefer a transcript, visit http://wetranscripts.livejournal.com/49969.html

Wow! It was so worth 20 minutes of my time.

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[Author’s Note: This post is now outdated. Read the expanded and updated version.]

It’s an age-old problem: How to share information in a novel without readers picking up on your clues until the reveal at the end. Here are some strategies I’ve picked up on:

  1. Hide clues in plain sight.
    • Duh. Most people are not that observant and rarely see what is right in front of their face.
    • If you can include information in the form of a list, always bury the most important part in the middle. People remember the last thing in a list best, the first next-best, and the middle last.
  2. Share clues out of order.
    • If you know that John has access to Love Potion #9 (A), Love Potion #9 actually causes explosions (B), and an explosion destroyed headquarters (C),  then it’s reasonable to conclude that John is responsible for blowing up HQ (A -> B -> C). Many crimes in detective novels are constructed by the writer this way whereas the hero often learns A, B, and C in REVERSE order. The crime (C) comes first, then the method (B), and is only connected with the culprit (A) at the end.
    • The drawback of this method is that it excludes any kind of surprise ending! The solution is to mix up the order. Share (C) and (A) with your reader but withhold the crucial (B) that links the two until the end to stretch out suspense or setup a twist ending.
    • For longer chains of clues (A -> B -> C -> D -> E, for example) you can get very, very creative. Just don’t get so complicated that readers can’t follow the chain.
  3. Establish a secondary purpose for something already explained.
    • In the book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, the mind game program that Ender periodically interacts with is used to explain how the buggers communicate with Ender at the end of the book. However in the sequel, it must ALSO be the source for a sentient computer program.
    • We humans like our loose ends packaged up into nice, neat little containers. Card surprises us by killing two birds with one stone. It’s efficient and it’s always unexpected when done right.
  4. Share something innocuous that has important consequences when taken to its logical conclusion.
    • In Agatha Christie‘s murder mystery play The Mousetrap, information is shared with the audience at the beginning. Taken at face value, it tells the viewer nothing but at the end of the novel it is used to explain everything.

Note that you can also combine these techniques for even better results. For example, place a shotgun on the back wall in your opening scene (hidden in plain sight). Readers won’t be looking for a gun (shared out of order) until someone gets shot in chapter 4, but you can bet they’ll remember it’s there in the last chapter if you’ll only remind them where it was the whole time.

Get creative!

Image Source: http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/artsandentertainment/cyrils-magical-mystery-tour/338627

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Source: How-to Author, Randy Ingermanson – Margie Lawson.

The only teacher whom I’ve seen mention this is Robert McKee in his book STORY, but he doesn’t explain how it’s useful to the novelist, because he’s interested in teaching screenwriters.

This critical layer [of plotting] is the “sequence of scenes.”  McKee explains in his book that the tension builds in intensity through a sequence of scenes–usually 3 to 5 of them. Then something important happens and the tension goes down.  It begins building again in the next sequence of scenes.

When I read McKee, I realized that this is the golden key for writing the synopsis.  The synopsis is easily the most hated piece of writing that any novelist ever does.  But you have to write a synopsis.

Here’s the secret:  When you write a synopsis, each paragraph should summarize a sequence of scenes.  If you try to summarize each scene, that’s too much detail. Summarize several scenes together as a single unit.  If you do that, your synposis will come out to about 2 single-spaced pages which is just about right.  If you don’t do that, you’re going to hate your synopsis.  (Okay, you’re going to hate your synopsis no matter what you do, but if you do it this way, you’ll get a good result, which is all that matters.)

You gotta love Randy’s humor – and his attention to detail with the craft of writing.

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Source: How-to Author, Randy Ingermanson – Margie Lawson.

Characters always do something for a reason. Writers usually call that reason the “motivation.” I like to break that out into three main parts, and let me go backward from the most visible parts to the least visible parts:

1) A STORY GOAL — Each character should have only one of these and it should be a clear and objective goal. Your reader should know what it would look like for the character to reach her goal. Scarlett O’Hara wants Ashley Wilkes. Either she gets him to marry her, or she doesn’t. Either way, you can have no doubt. This part of a character’s motivation should be one-dimensional.

2) AN AMBITION — Each character has something abstract that they want out of life. Miss America wants “world peace.” But what does that look like? Ambitions are always fuzzy. They have to be; they’re abstract. Each character translates their ambition differently into a concrete story goal–which we talked about above. Scarlett wants to be “the belle of the ball forever.” And she believes that marrying Asley will give her that. She’s mistaken, but that’s OK. She believes it. That’s what drives her. This part of a character’s motivation should also be one-dimensional.

3) VALUES — Each character believes certain core truths to be self-evident. No proof is needed that these core truths are really true, because it’s “obvious”–at least to the character. The ambition we talked about above always springs from your character’s values. This is where you want your character to be multi-dimensional. You want your character to have several values–core truths–and these should be in conflict. Scarlett thinks it’s obvious that “nothing is more important than being the center of attention.” This drives her ambition to be the belle of the ball. But Scarlett also believes that “nothing is more important than surviving.” This leads her to do all sorts of things that some of her friends are just too genteel to do. Scarlett is willing to get her hands dirty doing things that no belle of the ball should ever do. Scarlett’s values are in deep, deep conflict, and that’s what makes her a three-dimensinoal character.

I’ve never heard it explained exactly like this, but I think Randy is absolutely correct.

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