Posted in Exercises

Exercise: Pitch It

If you’re going to run a marathon, you probably start out doing basic, small runs and work your way up. Same thing if you’re doing MMA, or any other physical activity. It’s also what you probably do if you’re an artist: you start working on quick sketches and build up.

Writing exercises are like those little workouts, concept sketches and the like: they’re meant to help you flex your creative muscles.

If you’re intending to write for publication however, you often run into a problem: your pitch.

There are several dozen sites out there that will tell you what not to do, or what you should do to write a great pitch, but here’s a cold fact: How often have you actually practiced writing a pitch? Be honest here. Have you given your pitch as much effort as you do the writing? Do you have a stash of pitches hidden somewhere that you might drag out one day to work on some more, or to expand?

Chances are high that you’re answering no to most of those. So, we’re aiming to change that.

As an exercise: Write a pitch in 250 words or less for your favorite episode of your favorite TV show. When you’re done, write a pitch for another episode of another show. Then switch it up, write a pitch for a podcast episode or even a music video. Try to have fun with it and follow the general pitch guidelines: No more than one page and 5 paragraphs.

Let me know how it goes in the comments below!

Posted in character, General

Emotional Arcs

In every scene of your story, your characters should want something. What they want can vary wildly and often contradicts what other characters want. This is a part of creating conflict and tension. Today however, we’re talking a little bit about actions and reactions. More specifically, we’re discussing how emotional arcs work in scenes.

With the exception of a few characters, most of your characters will have some form of emotional movement. As people, our emotions often change in response to external stimuli. Within the context of a scene, that means your characters should have emotional responses as their scene-level goals are blocked, both by obstacles and other characters.

Keep in mind that there’s not a clear cut spectrum of emotions. Rather, they work more or less like a color wheel: shifting and blending into each other almost imperceptibly. Fear can turn into anger just as easily as it can give way to affection. The change is a result of the stimuli from outside.

For example: Your standard ‘monster under the bed’ complaint from many children. Their goal is pretty simple: get rid of whatever is under their bed that’s scaring them. Mom or Dad’s goal is to get some sleep. How the parents handle the complaint often affects the kid’s emotional arc.

Mom or Dad could easily get upset, scoffing at the complaints and dismissing their child’s statements. Kid eventually gives up, fear giving way to hopelessness, or perhaps even anger as they feel unprotected and unloved. This is a good place to ask how that might impact the character arc—do they lose trust in their parents at this point?  

Alternately, Mom or Dad takes a moment to check out the under the bed, reassuring the Kid. Based on the response, the kid’s goal is satisfied, and their emotions taper into love and happiness, leaving them (hopefully) with pleasant dreams. Mom and Dad however, now have to deal with the regret of an half-hour of lost sleep. How would that effect the next morning?

Because each action causes an emotional reaction, this gives you an opportunity to build your scenes off one another and helps tie your character arcs directly into scenes of your story.

As an exercise: Take a scene from your story and label it with the emotional changes your characters go through. What causes their emotions to change? How are they feeling at the end of the scene? Then, when you’re finished, look at the next scene. How does the end of the previous scene impact the next?  

Posted in worldbuilding

Worldbuilding: Folklore

Part of building a world completely from scratch includes figuring out what the myths and legends of the world will be. Folklore is such a big component of how we view the world and conduct ourselves that it can be impossible to get away from it completely. Every culture on earth—our very real world—has folklore in all its glorious forms.

Don’t be fooled by the name. Folklore isn’t just the stories and myths. It also crosses into the songs, proverbs, dance and traditions of a culture. The largest difference between folklore and culture in worldbuilding is that folklore exists to help teach and preserve a culture.

Although folklore is intended to teach and preserve, many of its forms are also meant to entertain or celebrate. Folklore is often used to pass on wisdom and advice to children. Many fairy tales carry a moral message and even superstition relies on doing right or wrong as evidenced by things like ‘step on a crack, break your mother’s back.’

For that reason, folklore actually becomes very easy to create. You might already have a few pieces of it already, to explain things like seasons or why night and day exist. You can expand on these by creating stories or rhymes about what happens when a person or animal obeys or doesn’t follow the advice or morality of the tale.  Take a look at any of Aesop’s Fables for examples of how this goes.

When creating a proverb or even an old wives’ tale, you can be more direct about the message or lesson. The key with these is that they should be short and memorable. If it helps, try creating an analogy between natural actions and your proverb. For example, wild birds will often fly away when startled or threatened. A tame one however, remains in hand and has no need to be recaptured. Forsaking what you have at home for the unknown of the wilds isn’t always a good idea. You may end up with nothing, even when there’s supposedly so much out there—after all, a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.  

I’d love to know! What’s some of the folklore in your world?

Posted in writing

Creating a Plot

Plot is often the one element that makes or breaks a story. Essentially, plot is conflict. Even in existentialist stories, the conflict is often hidden in the discussion of what life and existence means. For almost every other story out there, the conflict is easier to see.

Usually the basic plot structure is something along the lines of Character wants something and someone or something is stopping them from getting it. There are several variations of the basic plot premise as well, such as:

  • Character must stop someone or something from happening.
  • Something has happened to change Character’s life and they must adapt.
  • Someone broke something and Character must do something to fix it.
  • Character must complete a task or face severe consequences.

Regardless of your variation, your plot is driven by your conflict. Knowing that makes it easier to create a plot. There’s three simple questions you can use to help find your plot, even if you don’t have a plot structure yet.

  • What is your conflict?
  • Who is trying to resolve the conflict and why?
  • What actions are they taking to resolve it?

For example: the three little pigs. The wolf wants to eat the pigs, which the pigs don’t want. Character (the Wolf) wants something (to eat the pigs) which someone or something (the pigs) is stopping them from getting. Just by looking at that, you already know who’s involved and can take a pretty good guess at why these characters are specifically involved. The wolf is hungry and the pigs want to stay alive. That leaves you just one question to answer.

What actions are they taking to resolve it?

In most forms of the story, the pigs try to protect themselves by building houses. First of straw, then of sticks, then of bricks. Their actions cause the wolf to react, mostly by huffing and puffing to blow the houses down. Depending on the version of your story, the wolf either wears himself into exhaustion and is killed by a hunter or woodsman while the pigs keep their hooves clean, or his efforts to blow the brick house down somehow injure and kill him without anyone else interfering.

However your wolf comes to an end, the actions he takes to reach that end still create your plot. If you’re a planning-type writer, those actions can be plugged directly into your preferred story structure. If you’re finding gaps between those actions, remember that your characters will react to each event.

Back to our example: the first pig reacts to the destruction of his house by running to his brother’s house. The wolf reacts to that by chasing (and potentially getting a two-for-one meal). Upon arriving at another house, he uses the same action that worked the first time, forcing both pigs to react, again by running away.

These actions and reactions create the try-fail cycles which push your plot forward. The pigs tried and failed to protect themselves with simple houses. The wolf tried and nearly succeeded at catching the pigs by blowing their houses down.

Although creating a plot can be work intensive, at it’s base, you’re dealing with conflict. Take a look at your own story and ask yourself the above questions. What is the conflict? Who is trying to resolve the conflict and why? What actions are they taking to resolve it?