Posted in General, writing

Creating Titles

This post is an update to one published March 8, 2018.

Titles and first lines are two of the hardest things to come up with in writing. Titles can be the easiest things to come up with, and other times a good title evades us for months on end.

There’s a good reason for that as well. Titles, like your first line, have to hook the reader. Unlike first lines, your title stands alone, without the potential for readers to try just one or two more lines. Your title has to catch your reader’s attention in a sea of other disconnected titles. Essentially, a title is your most basic (and important) piece of marketing. After all, you can’t tell your friends about a book with a title, so how can your readers?

A title has three main functions. Firstly, it catches attention. This is it’s first and foremost function—again, not unlike the first line. The idea is to give your reader enough of a hook that they’re at least interested enough to read the blurb.

Secondly, a title helps your readers predict the content. Don’t think this is a bad thing either—if you’re looking for a light historical fiction romance, you’re not going to be looking at titles that indicate a lot of heartache and blood, or even titles that indicate you’re dealing with the factual accounting of Henry VIII’s sordid affairs.  

Third and final, your title is an identifier for your story. This sounds complicated, but it’s really not. Going back a little earlier…you can’t recommend a book without a title, how can your readers? A title identifies your book, and gives you a basic place to start your marketing.  

The good news is that your title may end up changing up until publication. This might occur during edits, or as you’re working on marketing materials. Depending on the route you go to publication, it might happen because of something your editor or early readers suggest. While searching for a title, it might help to have a working title on hand—that is, something you plan on changing later.

Your main character’s name might very well step up for the title, a la Jane Eyre or Harry Potter. There are entire series which are known by the name of the main character. Think Anita Blake or Sherlock Holmes. This also applies to locations. Think something like Bridge to Terabithia.  

Alternately, theme might give you a good place to look. Think not only Sense and Sensibility or Eat Pray Love but also things like the Fast and Furious franchise. This gives you a chance to pinpoint what your story should feel like and what it’s going to focus on.

Playing off theme, you can also use key or symbolic items. This might give you something like Blood and Chocolate. It’s an easy option that can help you earmark other points of metaphor in the story. If your story features a MacGuffin, you’ve got a ready-made option here.

Finally, use your main concept as your title. Star Wars springs to mind easily. The basic idea behind the story has a lot of unexpected power. Concept titles tap into that.

Remember that you can mix and match titles as well. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix does just that: uses both the main character’s name, and the main concept. Try mixing and matching a couple of different options.  

As an exercise: To give yourself a little material to work with, try to come up with a list of at least ten different titles (hint, come up with two from each of the above categories, plus another two mix-and-match options). Following that, try to find ten lines or phrases in your manuscript that resonate with the story as a whole. You should end up with roughly twenty titles, all of which you can now tweak and play with.

Posted in worldbuilding

Worldbuilding: Currency and Wage

Part of creating an entire fictional world often comes across the question of economics. At its core, economics is the way in which resources and goods are affected by value. There’s a lot to unpack in economics, so it may help to start with your currency and their units.

Start by figuring out what your lowest value unit is. The common, day-to-day grocery shopper may not have a lot of power as an individual, but your lowest unit determines the lowest possible cost a merchant can charge. From there you can scale it up into the higher currencies. This is usually where math starts getting involved.

It might help to think of currency as a sort of rarity mark. You have extremely common, common, uncommon, rare and extremely rare. Each level of your currency has more purchasing power than the previous unit, building off each level below it.

For example, we’ll use the American quarter. It’s worth twenty-five cents. Four quarters (extremely common) to make one dollar (common). That means to get to a five dollar bill, you need twenty quarters.  To get to a ten-dollar bill, you need ten ones, or forty quarters. To get up into the rarer fifty-dollar bill, you need two hundred quarters, fifty ones or five tens. Building up to that fifty would take a little saving.  

Once you’ve determined the units and the scaling of your currency, it’s time to start assigning value to things. You don’t need to get super specific here. Instead you can use the rarity level of that particular resource or good to help you figure out how much it might be worth.

Common, everyday items such as food probably won’t be worth very much unless there’s a scarcity of it. Items that require either specialized skill or equipment become harder to produce and as a result become rarer. This is where the innerworkings of the economy begin to branch out and get messier.

For example, your common citizen. They can likely buy their common items such as food quite easily. This is something they need to either buy or produce themselves every single day. A new winter coat however, is something they’ll only need for part of the year. A fancy coat with lots of decoration and add-ons requires more skill to produce, which drives the price higher. This means the cost of that fancy coat could jeopardize your citizen’s ability to purchase the common resource they absolutely have to have. Ergo, they buy a simple coat, and the rich merchant buys the fancy coat because it won’t impact his ability to buy food.

This presents another consideration for your economy: wage and wealth. Wealth is how much access a person has to any given resource. Currency is largely a form of wealth granting access to any purchasable resource. Often, we gain wealth as a wage, either by performing a task for someone else or selling something we’ve produced.  

For the most part, this holds true across your common population. Either they’re performing a task in exchange for a wage, or they’re producing something to sell. In essence, they’re exchanging their time and labor for currency. This is the basic idea of a wage: the value of a person’s time and/or labor.

The more valuable a person’s labor or time is, the likelier they’ll earn more. There’s a number of factors in this including skill, experience and job hazards. A highly skilled craftsman can produce four items in an hour. His apprentice can only produce one. That means when the crafts go to sale, the skilled craftsman earns more than his apprentice. Over time, the apprentice can catch up and begin selling as many wares as his mentor, but to start he’s going to make less.

In theory, a hazardous job should also earn more. Though this often applies when dealing with adventurers going off to slay monsters and the like, depending on the rest of your worldbuilding and other outside factors, this might not be the case. Mining is a stressful and dangerous job. With modern technology and safety advancements, thousands of miners still lose their lives every year. In the 1900’s, a day’s wage for a miner was often only six or seven dollars—often for ten and fourteen hour days.

Another place where your wealth and wage might get a little funky is in restricted resources such as land.   

If you own land, you can sell it, but it becomes a one-time sale for that particular piece of land. Alternately, you might be able to rent it out in some cases, such as allowing a farmer to work the land in exchange for a small amount each month. This applies to buildings as well: you can sell them, or you can charge rent for someone to live or conduct their business inside. Although making money that way would take a little knowledge and thought, the effort is relatively low—yet because access to land ownership is often barred, it’s possible for landlords to make a tidy sum.

Although this is only scratching the surface of economics, these are two of the basic questions to ask when working with your fictional economy: how much do things cost and how do people earn enough to purchase those things?

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?