Archive for the ‘Theme, Plot’ Category

Pocatello Writers Meeting
Marshall Public Library
January 20, 2018 3:30pm-5:30pm

You don’t want to miss this meeting. JUSTIN CALL has agreed to talk to the group about the hero’s journey, plotting and dramatic structure in the EPIC FANTASY genre, and the series he is writing that will launch in September.

Even if you don’t read or write fantasy, the plotting for a fantasy novel is a good model to study and discuss because its themes are usually more concrete and less abstract.

Justin said he is happy to share his insights on writing and his experience thus far with a traditional publishing company. As an academic, his primary focus was on plotting and themes in narrative traditions, which he wrote about for his master’s thesis and has carried over into his writing.

A good way to start the New Year! See you all there.

(No time for critiques this meeting.)  Keep in touch by joining our Facebook Open Forum at https://www.facebook.com/groups/pocatellowriters/.


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Marshall Public  Library
Saturday August 20

Tammy Godfrey will lead a workshop on WHY YOU NEED CONFLICT.  She says:

“A story conflict is a problem facing the main character. This problem might be a romantic rival or a horde of attacking zombies. It might be an internal struggle; for example, the character has to overcome a particular fear or a bad habit.  Conflict is important because it makes things happen. If everything in your character’s life is perfect, there is no reason for her to take action.  There is no reason for anything to change. And no change equals no story.”

This Saturday will be a two-hour workshop, so we won’t have time for any readings or critiques.  (Next critique session will be on September 3rd, if we can work it in so near the holiday.)

In the meantime, keep in touch by joining our Facebook OPEN FORUM at https://www.facebook.com/groups/250065325099597/

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Strategy: Helpful Patterns in Fiction
(review by Ralph Norton)

Theme & Strategy by Ronald Tobias (1st ed, 1989). Amazon rates at 3.5 out of 5 stars, based on 6 reviews. This report covers the first half of the book, discussing Strategy, and its use of Patterns in fiction. Strategy: either bulldoze ahead without one and hope for the help of the gods, or develop a strategy. Knowing how to write great dialog or gripping action, but more is needed to write cohesive fiction. Strategy is knowing the number of characters needed to make a plot work, how much action is too much (or too little), etc. Strategy holds your writing and scenes together.

Dramatic Structure: rise &fall of action, climax, denouement.
Deep Structure: plot, character, style, imagery, symbolism, tone; the glue holding the work together.
Pattern: what weaves together the fabric of the story; its logic and consistency. As a science analogy: in biology, patterns are in everything from macro scale migrations down to the colors and patterns in a moth’s wings.
Strategy: actions taken by the author to create sound & meaningful Patterns; an author wants to create an elegant, consistent Pattern. He must consciously control it, not cede it to readers. The human mind (including readers’!) takes randomness and turns it into patterns (like constellations in the night sky). Strategy encompasses other elements (most obviously: choice of Point of View, characterization, etc.).

1. Start with “a beginning” (note: not the necessarily same as “the beginning”). 2. Pick an ending. This is not necessarily the ending you stick with, and it might even end up being your middle and not the ending at all – but it IS the second point of the “line” you’re writing. Now you’ve got a direction! 3. Set Short-term Objectives. The ending is your long-term objective; in between you need way points (individual dramatic units) to write towards/through. Units may be scenes, acts, chapters, longer segments, etc. Note these smaller units have the same beginning/end structure as the larger story. 4. Develop a Working Strategy. A working strategy constantly readjusts itself to meet changing circumstances. Changes can be minor, or plot-altering: things like a character taking over the story, etc. 5. Don’t Ever Look Back. This is a comment re: worrying/editing earlier writing. Get the story told before editing.

PATTERN IN AUDIENCE. The relationship between the author and the reader is often taken for granted, but is what makes or breaks a piece of writing. Some writers (e.g., Steinbeck) become arrogant, think they/their “art” are above the audience. One writer suggests fighting this by picking one actual person and writing to him/her. Anticipation (i.e., the readers’), pattern, and strategy are the three elements of storytelling. A story is a shared experience between writer and reader. Every story should offer a challenge, a mystery to the audience (i.e., suspense, intrigue; e.g., Citizen Kane and “Rosebud”). This isn’t limited to works in the Mystery genre; it’s what keeps the reader interested. What’s going to happen? Or what’s coming next – suspense is not necessarily plot; it might be style, imagery, language (e.g., poetry). Mysteries can work on multiple concurrent levels: e.g., in The Old Man and the Sea, plot changes are intertwined with character development. What’s going to happen? What does the old man symbolize (e.g., Christ? Capt. Ahab?)? Writing should generate many actual and/or unasked questions. Just like in a mystery, the author gives clues, but not answers, until the end of the tale (or unit). Until the end, an answered question is to be replaced by a new one. Writing is like a chase, with the reader chasing the writer, trying to figure out the questions. If the reader wins, he loses (and so do you): you wasted the reader’s time. The writer needs to balance dropping good, accurate clues vs. the risk of losing the race.

PATTERN IN STRUCTURE. Stories are themselves part of a familiar pattern: there are no new stories, no new plot lines. All the stories we know are as “old as the hills;” only the presentation varies. Their patterns are so deeply ingrained as to be inescapable. Their patterns are images, plots, characters, sounds, etc., that are psychological archetypes . Embrace these archetypes and use them. Even the classic 3-part story structure (Beginning, Middle, End) is itself an archetype. Whether it’s the “start” or not (e.g., in medias res), sooner or later, you must write your Beginning.
Beginnings have several Objectives: Establish Character(s) – do one at a time or in small groups, and important characters first; Establish Place – don’t leave your characters in a vacuum – they need places to go, ground to walk on, things to see; Start Action – raise the central question of the story. Start the story late – start with the plane taking off, not with its loading and taxiing down the runway. Establish Tone: comedy, tragedy, adventure? Give a sense of the story’s style: breezy, silly, somber, whatever.
Middles are next, and harder than either Beginnings or Endings. Characters run into obstacles, twists, complications. Problems intensify. The writer needs to keep the reader just as off balance as the characters– don’t write in a straight line.
Endings are the resolution of the characters’ problem(s), for better or worse; it is the climax, the big finish, the sum of the beginning and middle. Think of classic fairy tales and myths: how they are structured, typically with three movements, each with their own Beginning, middle, end, in addition to the overall structure. The Rule of Threes is another classic fairy tale example. For more in depth examples: read the book!

PATTERN IN PLOT. Unlike real life, fiction takes place in a well-ordered, cause-and-effect universe. “The King died and the Queen died” might be a story, but it is not a plot. There is no connection between the two events. But with “The King died, and the Queen died of grief,” you have the beginnings of a plot: the two events are bound together. The linkage of events creates the pattern in events, thus creating plot.
As you write, you develop a web of connections (patterns) between characters, between places, between events, between readers’ expectations. All of these patterns are interwoven: what a character does/says is influenced by his location, etc. Patterns take shapes: e.g., the Revenge plot. Think of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” The first sentence gives pieces of the character’s motivation, establishes the revenge plot, sets up expectations (and questions), etc (book’s p. 52); the whole story is only 190 sentences. Aim to be as good as Poe! We’ve done exercises in our club re: continuing from an initial sentence. We build on clues or suggestions of the sentence: just so does a story build on the clues the writer provides. Poe also builds on his clues. Yet at the same time, Poe reverses the Patterns the reader expects: for instance, he never reveals why the central character desires revenge (actually making the reader suspicious of him, etc.). Poe takes a familiar pattern and makes it original by the way he tells it, not because no one has told a similar tale before.
In all of human literature, the book’s author states the total number of distinct plots is – 36. There’s been no new plot “since before the birth of Christ.” Of the 36, 8 are rarely used today

PATTERN IN ACTION. Action is the means to the plot’s ends. Actions build on each other, like tiers of a pyramid. Build properly, and the pattern of their structure builds suspense and tension. After writing a scene, ask yourself in what way it contributes to developing or answering the plot questions you have raised. If/when you get “stuck” and don’t know how to proceed, return to your plot questions and ask yourself how to direct your efforts towards answering them. Make sure not to overwhelm the reader with plot questions (two or three unanswered questions are usually enough). Start giving answers right away, but use different pacing – some get answered sooner, some in dribs and drabs over time. Readers must feels they are making progress in answering plot questions, or they lose interest. Make sure the action is consistent with the phases (or “acts”) of the story.

PATTERN IN CHARACTER. Action is character; character is action. Yet: plot is also action. It’s all inter-related. Character is pattern (i.e., Behavior). As you bring your characters on board, you enter the arena of Character Dynamics. Three characters (six relationships, or triangles) or multiples thereof is the most common in longer works; short stories can get by with only two main characters, but too often, two is too few. Many story lines (e.g., “Adultery”) require three characters. Note that increasing the number of characters increases relationships exponentially: 3 = 6, but 4 =12, 5 = 20, etc. The more characters interacting, the more complicated it is for the writer (multiple characters can be spread into their own “triangles” across different story units, however, keeping the triangles “separate”). Handling more than a “triangle” is not for the feint of heart or for the inexperienced!
You create characters not by their plot function (that will make them dry and stilted). You create them by their behavior, their patterns of interactions with other people, places and things. Those Patterns need to realistic, sound, probable (but not predictable – that’s boring). In terms of “knowing each other,” some characters will be better than others (just as in real life); but all of them will be constantly trying to understand the others. Likewise, readers will be assessing the fictional characters you create. Fiction is also about change in character, usually as a result of stress. Stress pushes characters into areas they’ve not entered before, and no person is capable of all kinds of action. Such stress is rarely induced by choices between good and evil; rather, it comes when one must choose between evils, or when good must fight good. Readers no longer know who to root for, or what is fair.
Characters also have two faces: the private one, and the public one. The two are often contradictory. Emotions must be consistent with character. Characters must be powerful: a mix of common and uncommon traits. Major characters must rise above the simplistic and generalized. Characters should be true to themselves. Character’s motivations drive plot, not vice-versa.

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Saturday 4pm-6pm
Marshall Public Library

Join us for our third Saturday meeting for June.

Ralph Norton will lead a discussion on Strategy: Helpful Patterns in Fiction.  The glue that holds your story together is the wise use of “patterns” in structure, plot, action and characters. Come listen how to write more cohesive fiction and improve your storytelling.

See you there,


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If you missed our Saturday meeting on writing without an outline, here is a copy of the meeting handout:

– Sherrie Seibert Goff

Free Your Muse
The Muses are nine goddesses who embody the arts and inspire creation with their graces.  Many writers are of the opinion that a plot outline acts like prison bars, restricting and stifling all the life out of one’s muse.

In school, teachers still assign students the task of crafting a plot outline, doing character profiles and identifying a theme, before they can start writing.  Today we will abandon the planning method and explore the freedom of writing organically – harking to the genius of the muse.

What is a Literary Seed?
If you are like most writers, you harbor a secret story idea you always wanted to explore, but you can’t decide where to begin or how it should end, or even what the title should be.  Maybe you started it and got stuck, never able to finish.  Others can’t think of anything to write about at all.

Or maybe you have had the surreal experience where some tiny fragment of a lingering thought or recurring dream, or vague impression or character trait, even some insignificant scene, word or phrase stays forever and strangely stuck in your psyche like some old song?  It might be just an overwhelming feeling or sensation that you can’t quite put a finger on.  It seems always there, like an old memory, just out of reach or meaning, occasionally surfacing from your subconscious for no good reason. You have no idea what it means, just that it must have gotten imprinted in your mind by some fluke of the brain or distant recollection from childhood.  Believe it or not, this is a seed that can grow into a storyline.

When you are out and about in the world, a tiny pocket notepad is an essential companion.  If something fleeting catches your eye or amuses you, record your impression lest you forget it because inspiration is illusive and short-lived.

Select one of your poignant seeds and start to water it, examine it, think about it.  Ask your muse: “What could be going on here?” “What if …?”  Start writing down random thoughts that well up from your subconscious no matter how silly they seem.  Query your muse with: “Who are these people?  What do they want?  What stands in their way?”  This is called free-writing.

Just as an acorn can become a mighty oak, a tiny seed can grow into an entire novel

First Step  – Finish a rough Draft
The first draft is about getting a rough storyline down on paper so that you have something to work with.  Don’t agonize over the best opening sentence at this point – just jot down any old thing and keep going.  Don’t stop to rewrite or revise or worry about grammar or spelling.

E. L. Doctorow said writing a novel is like driving at night. You can see ahead only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Silence your editor brain and write flat out as if no one will ever read what you write.  Some of your best writing occurs during this first draft because it is uninhibited, spontaneous and running on sheer inspiration.

Allow the characters to take over the action and determine the course of the story.  Repeatedly throw another problem or predicament at your protagonist because good books are tales of struggle.  You can make it through the entire first draft of a novel by asking yourself, “What else could go wrong?”

Trust the muse when she’s on a roll.  A tale that grows organically in bursts of creative enthusiasm feels more natural and inevitable than an artificially outlined plot.  As things get worse, the conflict, escalation of tension, and rising stakes will lead you to a moment when everything seems lost, resulting in a climactic encounter.

The hard part is quelling your left brain’s urge to edit each sentence and to go back over your work again and again.  Over-editing drains the life out of the work. If you succumb and start revising before finishing the manuscript’s first draft, the work’s brilliance dulls or dies.

Second Step – Hone the Story Arc
The arts are not only about the Muse, they are also about solving structural problems.  Now that you have something down to work with, ask your editor brain to step up and look for a story arc to make sure that you have a novel, not just a collection of scenes and snippets  From the beginning the story should rise in an arc of ever increasing tension, building higher until a final climax and resolution are reached.  Each scene and chapter should build on the one before it to grow the arc.

Hold the needs of the novel in the forefront of your mind as you begin to cut ruthlessly.  If your favorite scene doesn’t have a danged thing to do with the purpose of the story, it’s gotta go.  If nothing has changed by the end of the scene you do not have a scene. If something doesn’t either advance the action or serve to develop the characters, change it or cut it.

Don’t resolve things at the end of each chapter, unless you want the story to die there.  Let questions go unanswered.  Suspense is a key factor.  Keep readers hanging on the edge by never turning the light on.  End chapters on a note of mystery to grip the readers attention and keep them turning pages.  Also, don’t immediately get your protagonist out of trouble.  If your characters too quickly solve something without a big setback you do not have a story.

Now is the time to revisit the opening which is the most important part of the novel.  Fiction demands conflict, the yeast of all drama, so make sure the opening action has a stressful effect on one or more of your major characters.  Cut the deadwood that got you started writing.  Maybe even throw away the first few pages to find the best narrative hook.

Writing organically will usually lead you to a crisis and ending that feels fated to happen.  Once the final climax is reached then tension dissipates, all the loose ends are tied up and the story is drawn to a close – not drawn out. Make sure you provide the reader with a satisfying denouement by tying up the major loose ends of the tale, but leave trivial subplots unresolved or forgotten, up to the readers imagination.  If your draft runs on too long or tries to work out too many things for minor characters, then weed out the flowerbed to better display the perfect sweet ending.

Third Step  – Add More Seasoning
The next revision is a strange melding of your muse and your inner wordsmith.  Now that you know what your story is about – you had to write it to know that – start again at the very beginning and revisit every single word, sentence, paragraph and scene to add more sensory detail, character development and tension to the stew.  Don’t rewrite, relive.

This is where you will add everything that you left out.  At the same time, delete extraneous words, useless sentences, and even whole paragraphs to improve the pace.

Flesh out your tale by enlisting more powerful description, stronger characterization and better word choice (tools that we studied in previous meetings).  Bring the story to vivid life and make the desired goal very personal.

Look the hardest at any scenes that you left off-stage or skimmed through or resorted to telling, because these may be the very scenes you need to show in excruciating detail and dramatize to the fullest.  Usually such “missed opportunities” result from our own inhibitions or they are things far outside our own experience.  Tackle them head-on.

Slow the action down and milk these difficult-to-write scenes for all they are worth, maybe take up several pages.  Go through the scene beat by beat in your imagination as if you are watching a movie in slow motion. Alternate between action, thoughts, dialogue and description, and take your time with each.  Milk them.  These are the scenes that will stick in the reader’s memory.

Step Four – Copy Edit
The next pass is a meticulous copy edit to make sure all grammar, punctuation and spelling is absolutely error free.  Use your editor brain to start at the beginning yet again and go through every sentence.  Make sure the book’s format is correct for the publisher as well.

Even if everything seems pristine and perfect, don’t send it out yet.  Set it aside to clear your overloaded brain and give the book a rest for several days.

Step Five  – Final Reading
You need to do a last check on the book’s flow and readability, but the fiction writer’s problem is that he can never see his own work clearly.  By the time you have read what you’ve written over and over again, you are no longer capable of viewing it as a reader.  Distance yourself from the story for as long as three months, then pick up the manuscript and read it with fresh eyes, as if you are the reader seeing it for the first time.

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Writing Organically
Saturday  4pm-6pm
Marshall Public Library

In school, writing teachers usually make their students craft a plot outline, do detailed character profiles, and identify a theme before they can start writing.  The planning method may be good for learning the basics, but many fiction authors don’t or can’t write that way.

For them, a plot outline acts like prison bars, restricting and stifling all the life out of their work.  On Saturday we will explore the freedom of writing organically – harking to the genius of the muse.  Join us and learn how to grow a novel from a tiny seed.

The second hour is reserved for a Critique Workshop.  If any of you want feedback on your work, copy & paste it to a critique slot on the menu above,  or bring copies to the meeting if you worry about putting your work online.   Posting the piece ahead of time allows others more time to prepare intelligent suggestions and useful feedback.

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Thanks to Larry Ferro, who used his computer and the library wifi and projector to show us a TED (technology, education, design) online talk about STORY TELLING by Andrew Stanton, author of the movies Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, and John Carter.

Andrew Stanton said that a good story will make us care. In the beginning a good story offers a promise that it will lead somewhere interesting and makes us want to continue, trusting that it will be worth our time. Drama is anticipation mixed with uncertainty. Each character must have an inner motive, and the tale should have a strong theme running through it.

After watching the talk, we had a fine discussion about a few plot lines and how the author made the protagonist likable. We had time for Andrea to do a reading excerpt from her Ky Brothers work-in-progress, and also got in a few quick YouTube shorts on writing from Ira Glass and a handful of other writers. Also thanks to Judy M. for the refreshments.

If you missed this informative meeting, you can watch the TED talk portion of it on your own computer by following this link:

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