Monday, April 28, 2014

Crafting Your Best Story - Writing Tip #6 - Midpoint Reversal

What is the midpoint? It’s just what it sounds like. It’s the middle of Act 2, the middle of your book, 60minutes into a 120 minute movie. As writers, when we reach the midpoint, we know we are half way there. We can go celebrate with milk and chocolate chip cookies!
It’s also the point where you’re reminded that you still have half the book to write. But you got this far, you can make it the rest of the way.
So what exactly happens at midpoint?
Well, the story got kicked started early in chapter one (within the first 30 pages) with the inciting incident. Then we gave it another push at Plot Point 1 propelling us into Act 2. The thing about Act 2 is that it’s twice as long as Act 1 and 3, so even though there’s only three acts, the midpoint gives us four equal (ish) parts.
I like the phrase I first heard coined by author Janice Harding. She calls it the midpoint reversal, because ideally, something major should happen here to completely turn the story on its head, and throw the protagonist (main character) into a tizzy. It’s the lack of such of an event that creates what’s known as the saggy middle. You’ve probably read books like that (or maybe you’ve written books like that, I know I have), where you feel like skipping pages to get back to the exciting stuff.
Here’s a free tip. It should ALL be exciting stuff.
Planning a reversal of fortunes in the middle helps to give a story that extra punch.
To go back to TWILIGHT as one of our example stories, the midpoint reversal begins at the baseball game when James and co. show up. James gets a whiff of human Bella Swan and his primal nature kicks in. He wants her. And more than that, he wants to take her away from Edward. Now there is a brand new problem and the tension soars.
Let’s look at another popular book turned movie, HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S(SORCERER’S) STONE.
Since we didn’t cover this in earlier chapters, let’s quickly go over the Inciting Incident and PP1.
The inciting incident in the first Harry Potter book happens when Hagrid shows up to whisk Harry away to Hoggwarts. If this event didn't happen, Harry would’ve unhappily grown up living with the Dursley’s and the rest of the story wouldn’t have unfolded.
Plot Point 1 occurs when Harry and Ron rescue Hermione from the troll. This event forges their three-way friendship.
The midpoint of the first Harry Potter book happens when the three friends get past the three-headed dog and claim the stone that Voldmort is after. This is the reversal event because possession of the stone changes their position of power (now they have it) and it makes them, and especially Harry an even greater target of Voldemort's. Now they are in real danger, and the tension amps way up.
In HUNGER GAMES the midpoint happens at the Cornicopia. The Hunger Games begin and Katniss thinks Peeta has betrayed her.
The midpoint, or any of the major structure points, doesn’t always have to be a big external event. Sometimes it’s a more subtle, internal crisis.
In CLOCKWISE, the midpoint reversal isn’t anything that other people could witness, but it’s a huge game changer for Casey. Up to this point she and Nate were growing closer together through their adventures in the past. She’d been crushing on him since the beginning, but somewhere along the line those feelings became serious. And she believed Nate’s feelings towards her had changed as well. So when they finally go back to the present and Nate barely acknowledges her presence, it’s a blow that turns Casey around and causes some serious soul searching.
This is what the scene looks like.

-He drove into the school parking lot in his rusty ’82 BMW. It was great to see him in jeans and a hoodie again. He looked tired, but hot, hot, hot.

I waited by the door, wondering what he’d say to me, hoping he’d talk first, because I had no clue what to say.

He caught my eye. His mouth pulled up slightly at the corners, a sparkle in his countenance, an acknowledgment: we shared a secret.

Then his eyes flitted over my head to his jock friends and he brushed by me with a little nod. No one else would have noted our brief communication.

That was it. Just like I knew it would be. I was beneath him. Lucinda and I, we were minions on the totem pole of Cambridge High. Nate, he was perched on the very top.--

Can you identify your midpoint?
Next post is on, you guessed it, Plot Point Two.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Crafting Your Best Story - Tip #5 - Plot Point 1

We determined in the last post that the inciting incident is the answer to It all started when… In other words, if this event never happened, the story couldn’t have unfolded. This happens early on in the first Act.  In future posts I’ll cover what kinds of things happen in each Act, but for now, I'l go over what defines each major point.
The First Plot point is a key event that happens at the end of Act 1 and propels us into Act 2.

M.d Tabish Faraz describes it this way:

“Plot point I or the first turning point in a screenplay is the event that takes place either by the will of the protagonist himself or without his will and forces his circumstances to a whole new direction. The plot point I is the result of the inciting incident.” (italics mine)

Though Mr. Faraz is referring to screenplays, this structure is applicable to novels as well.
When you are plotting out your novel, you are looking for an event or situation that forces your main character into a new, unforeseen direction.
In TWILIGHT, the first plot point happens when Bella is being followed by dangerous men in the alley and is dramatically rescued by Edward. This is when she determines that he is indeed a Vampire.  This knowledge and her decision that she doesn’t care, pushes her life into a whole new direction.
In HUNGER GAMES plot point 1 happens when Katniss and Peeta are alone for the first time on the train to the Capitol – (sense of dread/fear of the future, one of them has to die for the other to win)
In CLOCKWISE,  the first plot point, the event that pushes us into Act 2, is when Nate asks Casey to dance and in her excitement she travels back in time with him in tow.
This is how it looks in the scene:

--“It's Nate,” Lucinda whispered. I know, Nate, Nate, Nate. She nudged me again. I looked to my right. I felt like a girl dying of thirst in the desert, convinced there was a stream of water running toward her. It really looked like Nate was walking our way.

I glanced behind me. Just a wall. Back to Nate. Yup, he was still walking towards us. My eyes popped wide. My brain was shutting down. I tried to remember my mantra. Hate Nate. Hate Nate.

He stopped right in front of me. The only thing I could think of was how tall he was. Even with my heels on, he had to look down at me.

“Would you like to dance?” he said. To me. Nate to Casey. Wants to dance.

I should have said no. My mind understood this. My spirit understood this. Somehow my mouth got it wrong and I heard myself say, “Okay.”

The thing was it was a slow dance. He took my hand in his and put his other hand around my waist. I wasn’t breathing. I put my free arm on his shoulder and gulped. Maybe I'd fainted from lack of punch and standing against the wall for too long, and this was just a hallucination. He sure seemed real. He smelled good, spicy. Was I moving my feet? I was still standing so I must be breathing. My heart beat wildly. I was going to hyperventilate.

When I dared to look at his face, he smiled. I was so confused! I stole a glimpse at the crowd by the punch table. Nate's friends were laughing.

Jessica looked really mad, and pulled Craig tighter, if that were possible. I was starting to enjoy this.

We didn't talk, just swayed to the music. I wondered what life was going to be like for me post-dance. I would be miserable. Purely miserable, since Nate would surely never set eyes on me again. Jessica would make certain of that.

I decided to just enjoy it for what it was.

“You look very nice tonight.”

What? He spoke! He thought I looked nice. I was hyperventilating. I felt faint, dizzy. Was that bad? Nate was so strong, he would hold me up.

Uh-oh, it was bad. Very, very bad. I wasn’t dizzy because of Nate.

Oh, no!--

Review your favorite movies and books and see if you can determine the Plot Point 1 scene.
 I’ll cover Midpoint reversal in the next post.

Crafting Your Best Story - Writing Tip #4 - The Inciting Incident

The Inciting Incident (sometimes called the Catalyst) is the trigger that starts the story. It’s not necessarily the first thing that happens in the book, but it should occur within the first 30-50 pages depending on the total length of the book. It’s the completion of the statement, It all started when…. 

Les Edgerton discusses the Inciting Incident in his book, HOOKED (great book, btw), where he draws from the movie Thelma and Louise.

The story opens with a series of very brief vignettes back and forth between the two women, establishing their relationship to each other and letting the audience know about a trip they’re planning to take together. The inciting incident occurs right after, when Thelma is talking with her husband, Darryl, in the kitchen.

It quickly becomes obvious from Thelma and Darryl’s conversation that Darryl is mostly condescending to his wife and has an exalted opinion of himself as being much smarter than Thelma. It’s also clear he fancies himself a ladies’ man and has been treating his wife badly for quite some time.

Thelma is on the verge of telling him about her impending trip with Louise and asking his permission to go, when he answers her innocuous and sweet, “Hon?” with a snide, impatient “What,” delivered in the tone of a parent condescending to a bothersome child. As a result of his tone, she decides to go without asking permission. This a small but significant turning point—the inciting incident that creates the surface problem and starts to expose Thelma’s deeply psychological story-worthy problem.

Edgerton goes on to point out that most people think that the inciting incident in that movie is when Harlan tries to rape Thelma, and Louise shoots him.
Let's use a book that most YA readers know well for illustration, TWILIGHT, by Stephanie Meyers. The inciting incident in this book is when Edward saves Bella from being crushed in the parking lot. Before this, she had a new move and she was intrigued if not disturbed by Edward and his behavior, but she still could've lived life quite uneventfully. The encounter in the parking lot when Edward miraculously saved her life started the story.

In HUNGER GAMES, the inciting incident is the moment Katniss's sister's name is drawn and Katniss volunteers to take her place in the games.
In CLOCKWISE, the inciting incident happens on the first page. Without thinking Casey, the protagonist, catches her love interest's wayward football. If she hadn't done that, and just let the ball land and topple away, the rest of the story wouldn't have happened.  This is what it looks like on the page.
-- Impulsively, I jumped up and thump, Nate Mackenzie’s football, signed by the famed Tom Brady himself, was in my arms. I couldn’t believe it. I’d caught Nate Mackenzie’s ball!
 Gingerly, I raised my head. Sauntering across the field, with all his hunky hotness, was the cutest boy in the school, the most valuable senior varsity football player of Cambridge High, and the love of my life.  He stopped right in front of me.
 “Good catch.” His rugged and manly voice lassoed me. He'd said, good catch. I couldn’t move or take my eyes off his face. The way the sun glistened off  his sweat, emphasizing his strong jaw and the brightness of his blue eyes, brighter still because of the contrast of his dark, shaggy hair…
 “So, can I have my ball back?”
 My hands gripped his football with sticky sweat. The ticker tape in my brain searched for the right response before flashing ERROR in red neon twelve-point font.
 “Casey?” Lucinda nudged my back. With a slight swivel of my head I saw her expression. Mortification. Give the dumb ball back! Did I just have an aneurysm? I felt woozy, like throwing up. I imagined myself vomiting all over Nate’s feet.
 Unbelievably, there are some things worse than puking in front of the football team. A wave of dizziness threatened to wash me away into black nothingness. But I couldn’t be so lucky to just faint. It was happening. Oh no. Not here. Please, not in front of Nate Mackenzie.
 In an instant, my world brightened like a nuclear blast as I spiraled through a long white tunnel. When I opened my eyes, he was gone. Nate was gone and so were Lucinda and all of Nate’s football team.--
  Think about the book you’re reading now. Can you pinpoint the inciting incident? What is the situation where you could say, if this didn’t happen the story couldn’t have unfolded? What about your current WIP (work in process)? Do you know what your inciting incident is? Is it easy to identify? At least to you?
Next week I'll discuss Plot Point 1.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Crafting Your Best Story - Writing Tip #3 - Those Beautiful, Horrible Beginnings-The First Sentence

Where I do I start, I ask you, where do I start???

If you’re like me, you’ve jumped around from starting position to starting position, pulling your hair out as you go. If you’re not like me, well, lucky you.

Beginnings are so difficult for me, I almost feel like apologizing that I’m trying to instruct on how to write them at all. The most I can hope for is that you will learn from my mistakes.

But, you have to start somewhere. So pick a spot and start. It’s only by trying it on for size that you’ll be able to tell if it fits.

And I can tell you this: you’re probably going to re-write your beginning many times, so don’t get too hung up on it at first. Just write it and move on.

For the purpose of the following instruction, let’s assume that you are at revision stage and want to nail that beginning sequence.

Let’s start with the first sentence.

What does a great first sentence look like? Let’s look at a few from the assortment of books I happen to currently have in my possession.

THE CAY by Theodore Taylor: Like silent, hungry sharks that swim in the darkness of the sea, the German submarines arrived in the middle of the night.

GOING BOVINE by Libba Bray: The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World.

MATCHED by Ally CondleNow that I found the way to fly, which direction should I go into the night.

BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver: They say that just before you die your whole life flashes before your eyes, but that’s not how it happened for me.

And possibly the all time best first sentence ev-ah, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austin: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Take a look at your own first sentence. If that’s all you had to go on, not the strength of the next sentence or paragraph, just the sentence itself, how would it strike you? Is it a strong sentence? Does it make you want to go, what comes next?

Here are a few of my first sentences. Some are keepers, and some are subject to change, but they're what I'm working with for now.

 The pillar of smoke rising on the horizon could only mean one thing: a farm, which meant food.
Everyone has to live with something.
Helena’s father had cautioned her against wandering alone outside the perimeter of their villa, as mingling with the family’s slave and servant children was not allowed.
Zoe Vanderveen tried to focus on her summer reading physics text, but her eyes kept lifting away from her glass electronic reader to the dark haired boy across the room.

And let me share one more. This is from my son, many years ago when he was six: 
In the beginning it was very exciting and in the end it was even worse.

(Pretty much wraps up the writing life, doesn’t it? :D)

Why is this important? Because opening lines hook us into reading the second line. And hopefully more. I know when I’m browsing for a book, this is what I do—I read the first sentence. And then the first paragraph. I may read the whole first page, but not likely. If the first sentence and paragraph don’t grab me, I shelve the book and choose another.
 How many pages do you give a book before you put it down?
I will talk more about first pages in later posts.
If you want to leave the first sentence of your story or your favorite first sentence from a book you like in the comments, I'd love to read it!
Next week we talk about the Inciting incident. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Crafting Your Best Story - Writing Tip #2 - The Bones It Hangs On

Last week we talked about developing the Great Idea to the point where we have a file full of notes and an idea of the beginning, middle and end.
What's the next step? Building your structure.
Understanding structure early on in your writing process will really help you when it comes to getting other things right, like pacing and building tension.

Most of you will have heard of the three act structure commonly used for play and movie writing.  One thing I did after writing my first publishable novel was to re-write it as a screenplay. I highly recommend this as a writing practice tool.  Script writing deals primarily with action and dialogue and making the most with the least. You only have 120 pages to tell the whole story and the margins are very narrow.

At this point I look through my notes and pinpoint what my plot points are and where on the three act structure they should “hang”.   If I’m missing something vital, I see this right away before I get too heavily into it.  Especially critical is the midpoint, or what Janice Hardy coins the midpoint reversal. This is where something unexpected happens. It’s a twist that keeps the reader steadily hooked. Identifying your midpoint reversal early on will do wonders for preventing the chronic “saggy mid section”.

Since many of you are familiar with my time travel novel CLOCKWISE, I'm going to use it to illustrate.

 Act 1- Set Up: Story opens with the main character, Casey, watching a football practice with her friend Lucinda. We see that she's a teen girl with a crush and can imagine the high school setting.

Inciting Incident:  The story actually starts when Casey jumps up and catches Nate's football. If she didn't do this one thing, the story wouldn't have happened. The inciting incident happens early on in Clockwise, but it can happen a little later on, too.
Plot point I: Nate asks Casey to dance and the inevitable happens--they go back in time

Act 2 – Conflict: Casey has to convince Nate they really are back in time. Development of the subplots with Robert Willingsworth who creates a type of love triangle, and of Samuel the runaway slave

Midpoint reversal: We've spent a lot of time in the past and see how Casey and Nate's relationship is growing. She's scared but hopeful that maybe they have a future together (despite the existence of Evil Girlfriend). But when they go back to the present, everything they had forged in their new friendship collapses.

Plot Point 2:  I don't want to give this away in case some of you haven't read Clockwise, but like plot point 1, something unexpected happens to thrust us into the third act. (For those who have read it, it has something to do with Samuel.)

Act 3 - Climax and ResolutionAgain I don't want to spoil the climax, but this is where everything falls apart and then comes back together for a satisfying ending. (Again for Clockwise readers, this happens in a barn in the past and the twist happens in the present as part of the resolution on Mother's Day.)
I will delve deeper into what each of these points mean in future posts.
One exercise you can do is to go through your favorite stories and see if you can identify these seven points. If you want to learn more about developing structure, I highly recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.

Can you easily "hang" the plot points of your wip (work in process)?
I go a little deeper on teaching structure in this youtube video. You can see me in my very messy office and though you probably can't tell, I'm wearing my PJ's--every writer's official uniform!

Now that we've built the bones, the bones need some meat! We’ll tackle that next.