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 Exercises

Exercise: Unheard

If you’ve ever had to be in the same room as someone on the phone, you’ve also had a huge chance to listen to half a conversation. The half you hear is just as important as the unheard half.

As an exercise: Take a two-person conversation from a story (yours or someone else’s). Designate Character A and Character B.

Now, remove all of Character A’s lines. Using B’s half of the conversation, come up with two or three possible responses to each line of remaining dialogue.  How does the conversation change when you only have one half to infer information from? How might changing this conversation change the story?

Posted in Exercises

Scene Unsticking Questions

It happens to the best writers. Even in the middle of a draft that’s going well and with a well-detailed outline, sometimes we get stuck on a scene. It might be that we’ve opened a huge plot hole we don’t know how to close. Or, we’ve written our characters into an impossible situation and were hoping to have a clever answer to get them out of it again that just isn’t coming.

Hopefully some of these will help. Instead of trying to push through and write your way out, take a couple of minutes and answer these questions about your current sticky scene. When you’ve answered them all, come back and see which answers spark more ideas and use those ideas to continue the current scene.

Remember! There are no limits to the answers here, even if they seem ridiculous or don’t fit your current genre conventions. You can edit or come up with a reasonable explanation for it later. Right now is just for unsticking your scene.

  • What would happen if you killed your current PoV character?
  • What clichés fit your protagonist and how can you change them?
  • How would your supporting characters react to their biggest fears appearing in the current scene?
  • Which supporting character has a reason to defect to the other side?
  • Which family member’s death would affect your protagonist the most?
  • Which character has most recently told a lie and what was it?
  • What stereotypes fit your antagonist and how can you change them?
  • What would happen if your protagonist’s mother came in on the current scene?
  • What would happen if your antagonist’s mother came into the current scene?
  • How would your antagonist react to your protagonist revealing their darkest secret?
  • What would change about the current scene if you set it in a busy mall? An abandoned house? A thick forest? An open plain?
  • What would make your Love Interest fall for the antagonist?
  • How would your current scene to change if you switched the protagonist with a supporting character?
  • What’s one threat that would make the antagonist and the protagonist work together?
  • What one thing would make the antagonist give up?

If none of these work, consider skipping ahead to the next scene. You might find hints and clues about how your stuck scene resolved as you develop the next.



Posted in General

Music as Inspiration

Music is a universal force. No matter where you go in the world, part of the culture includes songs, instruments and the like. Which is why it should come as no surprise that music can also provide a lot of inspiration.

Music, like literature, breaks down into genres. Folk, R&B, country, classical—genres in music as extensive as genres in literature. Each one is earmarked by content and style differences. Sometimes they can bleed together in unexpected ways—again, something literature does as well. Consider your style and genre. What sort of music fits the way you write?

In many cases, lyrics can also tell a story. Whether it’s rock’n’roll or jazz, the words often tell of a situation, event or even a full-blown story. Try it with some of your favorite songs. What stories do they tell?

One way to help use music to inspire your storytelling and worldbuilding is by creating a playlist for a given story or set of stories.

Character Playlists. Think about what your characters might listen to themselves? What are their favorite songs to sing? Which ones make them dance around when they think no one is watching? Also consider which songs reflect their internal conflicts and personal feelings about a situation. What sort of lullabies would they have heard as children?

Scene Playlists. If you’re having trouble getting a scene to work properly, think about what sort of music you’d want playing in the background during the movie version. For action scenes, it can also help you by giving you something to choreograph the scene too. Listening to those songs as you’re writing can help you set the mood and tone by matching the mood you want for the scene.

Inspiration Playlists. When all else fails, think about what you’d want as the theme song for your characters, the TV-adaptation, or even what sort of music video your characters would make for the song in question.

I’m curious. What songs are on your playlists? Let me know in the comments!

Posted in Exercises, writing

How To Start a Story

With the new year opening before us, it’s a good time to start thinking about beginnings. More specifically, how to begin a story. Beginning lines and scenes are two of the things that need the most polish and effort put into them, largely because those are the first two things a reader sees when they start your book.

That fact alone can make them feel daunting, and there are some arguments about what should or should not be done. Keep in mind that at the end of the day, you are the writer and you’re the one who ultimately has to be happy with where you choose to start.

Because opening scenes are a little bigger, it can help to start there, especially during the early drafts. Leave your first line for a little bit. Just get something down so you can get to the rest of it, even if it is something like ‘Once upon a time in Anytown, Any Country, there was a boy/girl/robot/bird/etc.’ You can rewrite and fiddle with the first line once you have an idea of what you’re starting with.

That first scene will need to do a couple of major things, hence we’re starting there.

  • Establish a goal.
  • Introduce the character(s)
  • Establish conflict

I’ll note here that introducing characters comes as a secondary to establishing what they want. Characters can be a lot of things–but goals mean every thing. I might not like your character right away, but if I know what they want, that gives me a reason to stick around and see if they accomplish their goal. Giving your characters a goal gives your readers a reason to keep reading.

Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

—Kurt Vonnegut

That said, you do need to introduce your character to us. Make sure you get their name and any pertinent details about them down in that first scene. This is the first time we’re ‘seeing’ your character, and since we don’t have a picture of them, if we spend two chapters reading about them and picturing them as a short, stocky guy only to find out they’re a willowy, lithe model it throws readers off, and we’ll still spend the rest of the book picturing them as a short, stocky guy.

The key there is pertinence. These are pretty simple–basic physical description and maybe one or two interesting notes such as scars, tattoos or enchanted jewelry. Don’t get hung up on every detail of their hair, clothes, eyes, etc. Keep it relevant to what’s going on in the scene and story. I don’t need to know that your MC hates his hair being short because it reminds him of his too-strict military father. I just need to know your MC wears his hair long because that’s what he prefers, even if it is a little messy.

That also goes for initial parts of backstory. When introducing a character, avoid dumping their life story right in the first few paragraphs. Give us a teaser–he’s had a strained relationship with his father since the accident. She’s still carrying guilt about what happened to her sister. Little clues about big events in their life before the story deepens reader investment–not only do we now want to see whether or not they get to their goal, but we also want to find out what happened before we met them.

The final thing your opening scene needs to do is establish conflict. This doesn’t have to be your main conflict right away, but there needs to be some sort of conflict. If we take Kurt Vonnegut’s advice and make their first goal a glass of water, that’s fine. If they get out of bed, go to the sink and get a glass of water, then we’ve got an open-and-closed conflict with no reason to keep reading.

If however, their attempt to get water is interrupted by finding a burglar in their home stealing all of their drinking glasses, that’s conflict: they now need to get their cups back before they can get a drink.

With your opening scene established, you can come back to your first line now. If you did indeed write a throw away line, you can go ahead and throw it out now. If not, here’s an exercise to help you find the first line you like:

  1. Write the first line as a statement of fact, or as a pairing of facts.
  2. Write your first line as a piece of dialogue.
  3. Write it as an action sentence.
  4. Write it as a metaphor or simile.
  5. Write it as if your main character wrote it–use their voice.
  6. Write it with as vivid imagery as you can.

Do these separate sheets of paper (I like using post-it notes for this). Have a couple of friends or critique partners read over your first line choices and have them note down which ones make them want to keep reading. Once you have the feedback, look at which ones fit your scene. Look at what fits your scene and which of the top three choices you like best. If you’re torn or stuck, try building an opening paragraph from your remaining choices–which paragraph flows the best, or makes you want to keep reading?