Michaeline: How to Start a Story

 

Old ad for Zaratarain's root beer syrup with a little girl carrying a tray of small glasses

Make it at home! Or make it on a train! Or on a space ship! (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Usually for me, I start with a character, and usually, the character brings a setting along naturally. Rachel was a root beer fan on a spaceship. Olivia was a woman looking for a buddy to bundle up with during the coming blizzard, and it was easy to set her in upstate New York. Perz was a paranormal plumber, and my huge mistake with that story was not putting her in a setting with plumbing problems, but rather, in a cave.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been talking about putting a setting first, as a place that will naturally produce a lot of interesting characters. Maybe it’s a wedding – you’ve got confident wedding planners, unhappy bridesmaids, dashing men dressed like 19th century robber barons! (First, second and third parts.)

Or maybe you’ve rented a gentleman in Japan. This isn’t setting so much as it is situational, but you could have an interesting artist who might be entertaining himself by renting himself out, or perhaps you’ve got a Good Boy who was suddenly laid off at age 45, and needed a little gig to tide him over until he can find a better position.

So, these are the building blocks I usually don’t have problems with: a character, and a setting/situation. I’ve got a protagonist – now I need to use the setting/situation to create an antagonist – because it’s very hard to write a story that’s all in one character’s head. It’s so much easier when you have another character to add interest, input and plot complications.

When I first started writing, I would usually start with just one person, write a few pages, and then run out of gas. Nothing was happening!

Later, I would sometimes start with a team – three best friends, for example. However, they’d usually work well together, and I’d run out of steam after a few more pages. It was better than one person, but without conflict, nothing gets done.

A girl with root beer syrup and a glass of root beer.

“All you need,” Rachel said, “Is some water, some yeast, and this little bottle of magic!” (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Now, I’m at the stage where Continue reading

Michaeline: Villainous Love

Carol Kane gazing with a speculative look into a surprised Gene Wilder's eyes

Why should heroes have all the fun? Try out the scary side of romance with your villains! (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The villain is the hero of his or her own story. It’s an interesting proposition, and I have to admit, the best villains have good reasons for doing what they do. A smart, strong villain makes Our Hero’s ultimate win a more worthy one.

So, if we have a strong, smart villain (with a fatal flaw, of course), why not expand the analogy out to his henchmen, or henchwomen, as it were? And if two characters happen to have a certain chemistry, a twisted but loving symmetry, why not give them a romance of their own?

I stumbled upon such a bad romance on YouTube this morning. I’ve never watched Rio 2 (or Rio 1, for that matter), but this song between Kristin Chenoweth and Jemaine Clement encapsulates a romance between two vibrant characters who happen to have big problems keeping them apart. Jemaine’s character Nigel is an evil cockatoo, and Kristin’s character Gabi is a poisonous tree frog. While Nigel is sleeping, Gabi sings of her impossible love for him in Continue reading

Nancy: The Problem with Empathy

malice-toward-noneOdds are, if you’re a creative person, you use your creative expression to process and make sense of the world around you. Knowingly or unknowingly, you also might be working out your personal issues in your work. This lesson came home to me a few weeks ago when I realized a struggle I was having with a character on the page was the very same struggle I was having with some real-world people in my life.

The character in question is an antagonist who did a terrible thing to the protagonist’s best friend years earlier, and that bad act comes back to haunt all of them in the present in the story. The real-life people I’ve referenced have recently stated beliefs and claimed values I didn’t realize they had, and I can’t make peace with it. In both cases, I’ve lost my capacity for empathy, and it’s a problem.

A few months ago, I posted about writing as our superpower. One of the things that makes that power so super and immutable and important is the ability to make readers walk in the shoes of the ‘other’. Stories take us places we’d never go in real life and introduce us to people we’d never meet otherwise. It’s especially important that an author empathize (and make the reader empathize) with the protagonist, even when she’s doing stupid or dangerous or infuriating things. Even when she’s weak or making bad choices or not living up to the challenges we’ve given her. Empathy allows us to go deep with the character to understand why she’s making these choices, because within the bounds of the story, we view the world and feel her feelings from her perspective. But what about the antagonist, especially if s/he goes into some seriously dark territory and does some truly heinous things? Continue reading

Nancy: Shades of Gray

Marco and John: Where did they go so wrong?

Marco and John: Where did they go so wrong?

Longtime readers of the blog know I like to binge-watch TV series (I’ve posted in the past about Justified and The Killing). My most recent obsession binge-watch has been the Netflix series Bloodline. Netflix has released two seasons of the show thus far and has ordered one more. The creators have said they have enough material for five to six seasons in total, so there could be even more coming.

Because I like to binge-watch series the way I like to read books – all the way to the end one time through, then returning to favorite episodes to analyze particular story arcs and writing techniques – it’s unusual for me to get sucked into a series so long before the ‘final chapters’ are available. But I’d heard good things about this show from different reliable sources, so I made an exception. The downside to this decision is that season two ended on not one but two cliffhangers, and I want to know All The Things right now! The upside is that there is enough crunchy writing stuff to review and digest that I can (almost) wait for the next season to be released sometime in 2017.

One of the crunchy writing aspects that has occupied a lot of my brain space for the past few weeks is the way the series has had two of the ‘good guys’ each do egregious things, pitted them against each other, and made us root for the one who did a Very Bad Thing over his now-antagonist who only did a Bad Thing. ***SPOILER ALERT***. To discuss what the writers did with this storyline and how they did it, I’m going to reveal some pivotal plot points. If you have any plans to watch the series AND you need to have your story come to you fresh and pure as the driven snow, you’ll want to take your leave now and go watch some adorable kitten GIFs. If you’ve already seen the series OR you’re willing to sacrifice some surprises in the interest of squeeing over good writing, join me for the rest of the discussion.  Continue reading

Jilly: One and One Makes Three

One and One Makes ThreeOne of the most interesting and enjoyable workshops I attended at RWA was called “Villains, Deviants and Serial Killers: Inside the Criminal Mind.”

I don’t have any plans to write romantic suspense. I don’t intend to turn my antagonist into a deviant or a serial killer, but I thought a round-table discussion featuring a cop, a corrections officer, a psychotherapist, a probation officer and a New York Times bestselling author would give me some great insights into writing a credible, fully developed bad guy.

I was right about that – the subject matter was fascinating, and the grim was leavened with plenty of dark humor – but I got lots of other good stuff too. For example, I hadn’t really thought about the effect a hero or heroine’s dangerous lifestyle would have on their family and community. Those are people who know what could happen to their loved ones and who steel themselves every day in case it turns out to be the day the worst finally happens. In my story, that could be my hero’s mother.

Among all the great notes I got from the workshop, a comment by author Karen Rose stuck in my mind and has been taking root there for the last couple of weeks. Continue reading

Michaeline: Goddess Maya Bows Down to June

A man kissing a woman with a skinny man lurking in the background with a sword.

Lovers Paolo and Francesca couldn’t expect a happy ending because they already have spouses. But with a different backstory, their love could end in joy and with the defeat of the person keeping them apart. (Radically different backstory.) Image via Wikimedia Commons

Even in Japan, the phrase ジューン・ブライド (jun buraido or June bride) has currency. It’s a popular month to get married, even today.

Here in the northern half of the northern hemisphere, we are four days into June. Up where I live, winter is five months long, and it’s not unheard of to have snow in May. So nature gets very exuberant and bouncy during the short summer months. May is frantic with planting and weeding and babying the new plants along, but when June rolls around, people on my island have time to relax. This is when the sports days are scheduled, because people once again have a little free time to spend a long day watching kids playing, then finishing up with barbecues and various fire-based ritual cuisines.

This agricultural cycle must be behind the June bride thing. The way I remember it, May was dedicated to a jealous goddess, Maya, who would curse anyone who got married during her month. I think it was probably more a matter of if you fooled around getting married and having honeymoons, you didn’t get your crops in the field, and you starved during the winter. That would certainly look like a curse, wouldn’t it?

I do think the story makes a great template for a story. You’ve got a classic love triangle: the strong, demanding antagonist, the handsome hero, and the beautiful heroine, who must somehow find a way to defeat or placate the antagonist. Continue reading

Justine: Fiction Fundamentals, Part 3: Conflict (2nd Installment)

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 9.09.18 AM

Conflict? Mmm…perhaps. (Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin in “The Princess Bride” (c) 1987 Act III Communications)

Welcome to Part 3 of Fiction Fundamentals. In Part 1, I discussed character goals. In Part 2, I covered a character’s Motivation…the “why” of what they want to do in your story. Last time, in the first of a two-parter, I talked about the Big Enchilada that ties it all together and makes for a good read: Conflict.

This week, I’m delving a bit deeper. I’ll discuss scene- vs. story-level conflict, the difference between conflict and trouble, and those pesky “misunderstandings.”

Scene-Level (or “Mini”) Conflict

Let’s be clear about one thing: conflict must be in each scene in your book. Every. Single. One. However, that doesn’t mean the conflict had to be between your protag and antag relative to their goals, nor does it have to be massive, big-stakes stuff. It can be smaller. Call it mini-conflict, or that which does not directly affect your character’s goals. Said another way:

The conflict in each scene doesn’t have to be directly related to the protag or antag’s stated goal.

Here’s why: Continue reading