Monday, July 20, 2015

Elements of Storytelling: Anatomy of a Plot - Basics


It’s always good to start with the basics. For plot, it’s beginning, middle, and end.

 

Scratch that. It isn’t. It’s actually beginning, middle, climax, and resolution. Ending a story at the climax isn’t always a good idea, especially if there’s dangling plot threads. Also, the audience will want to know how the characters have changed since the beginning of the story.

 

The beginning sets the story in motion. This is where you have to hook the reader, introduce the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s), set the pace, and let the reader know what the protagonist must accomplish before the end (the goal might change later in the story, but that’s for another article)—and all preferably within the first couple pages (or first 10-15 minutes). You should never devote more than 5-10% of the whole story to setting it up. Because of this, the beginning is often the most difficult part of the story to get right, and if you don’t get it right the whole story will end in epic fail. So it’s always best to devote more time to figuring out how a story begins than with any other part of the story.

 

Yes, yes, I know that J.R.R. Tolkien never followed that rule. But you and I are not Tolkien. Don’t try to be. There was only one Tolkien. And there’ll likely never be another.

 

The middle is where the largest bulk of the story will be, 75% at minimum. It’s in the middle where you start complicating the plot with twists and (if you want a big story) divergent plot threads (not too many, mind you. You risk losing the audience if you do that). It’s also in the middle where minor characters can be introduced and resolutions of minor threads can be resolved as you head toward the climax. Whether you strive for a slow but building pace, or a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows, the pace should be faster than at the beginning by the time you reach the climax. In short, it’s a lot like sex.

 

It is important to keep the action going and to avoid bogging everything down with too much exposition. The reader doesn’t need to know every single teeny tiny detail of your world, characters, setting, what they look like and/or wearing, how they’re feeling (unless you show how they’re feeling), etc., etc., ad infinitum. All the reader (or viewing audience) needs is enough to grasp the big picture and not get lost. The bulk of the trivia is best left for later guidebooks, sequels, or spinoffs (hint, hint).

 

The climax is where everything comes to a head—often with lots and lots of explosions if it’s an action story. But even in a romance story, the climax still needs to be “explosive” emotionally. And that is the key word to describe the best climaxes—emotional. See? I told you it’s a lot like sex.

 

This is the point where it’s do-or-die. The protagonist either succeeds in his/her goal(s) or doesn’t. And the more difficult you made the journey/task/war campaign/whatever, the better. And the climax must be where the protagonist faces his/her most difficult challenge, preferably something two to three times more difficult than anything the protagonist faced during the middle. And if it’s a war story, this is where you want the death count to skyrocket. If it’s a porno, well, you know what needs done.

 

It’s also important to never let the climax be longer than 5-10% of the story. Any longer and you drag it out to where you exhaust the reader. Any shorter and it becomes anti-climactic. And we all know how embarrassing pre-e...uh…you get the picture.

 

And last but not least, the resolution. Any dangling plot threads that weren’t resolved during the middle or climax must be resolved here. Whatever changes the character(s) underwent can be reflected on at this point. And if you planned your story to be more than one book/film/etc, this is the best place to let the audience know that it’s not over yet. And your wiggle room is 5-15%. And since we’re on the topic of characters undergoing changes, it shouldn’t only be the protagonist who underwent change (whether emotional, mental, physical or all three). If the antagonist didn’t change a little also, then you’re doing it wrong.

 

It can’t be emphasized enough that all of the above are not hard and fast rules, but guidelines only. If you want to, for example, start the story at the climax or middle then weave the beginning and/or middle into it with flashbacks, then go for it. But you better damn well know what you’re doing before even attempting something like that.

 

Still with me? I haven’t scared you away yet?

 

What are you, a masochist?

 

Good. You need to be to make it in this biz.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Brick Marlin's Wednesday Excerpt!

Those who have read my novel Sectors should enjoy this read. For those who haven’t, no worries. Let me catch you up: The main protagonist, Gilbert, a boy who lost track of his best friend in an old abandoned house while the two were ghost-hunting succumbs to an odd world called Sectors, small universes flavored not only with humans, but monsters, ghosts and robots. The evil creator of Sectors, Baron Fields, continues to rule the land, bringing horror to anyone falling victim to his worlds.  
In Gilbert’s last scene we joined him in his escape from a horde of the Converted, slipping through a door in the old abandoned house…


Running Sequence 8 Dash 1

Needles stabbed his face.
A whine of gears spun with a low pitched brrrrrrgggggttttt!
Gilbert rapped his knuckles against something hard above his face in the darkness, attempting to fend off the needles.
Brrrrrrgggggtttt!
He gasped. The sound of the Baron’s robots caused his heart to skip. Horrifying scenes flashed his memory of escape from the last Sector. All his friends were either dead or Converted into robots, their brains wired to new, infection-free, eternal robotic shells.
His lungs filled with a scent of freshly cut pinewood. Flakes sawdust forced a cough and a hack. Nearly a wretch. Spastic contraction of his abs forced his forehead and knees to contact the hard surface, already previously discovered with his knuckles.
Tiny needles poked at his lips; side-stepped into his left nostril.
Gilbert blew out a squirming pellet. Rubbed his violated nose. Rapped his knuckles again. Another set of needles tattooed across his forehead. His eyelids snapped shut just in time as the needles traversed.
He knocked the invader off, earning an annoyed brrrrrgggggtttt!
He grabbed small handfuls of empty space, each side of his person, rather than above his face. Though didn’t help masking the dread of confinement mixed with fear alongside blossoming panic.
More needles tattooed his forehead, prickled bare skin on his torso, his arms, and his legs. Gilbert twisted violently, flapping his arms, kicking his legs, shunning the unseen molesters. Thrashing did little to dislodge his invaders, though limited his micro-sized space.
BRRRRRGGGGGTTTTT!!!!
Sawdust drained any reprise of clean air as he thrashed harder in an effort to rid the invaders. Though his right knee hit the surface of his prison repeatedly, a few painful, he heard a muffled crack! As his neurotransmitters transmitted more panic, he ignored it and the knee pain, striking the weakened area again.
And again.
Adrenaline-fueled he planted both palms and shoved, splitting wood, causing moist earth to sift through the crack, finding its way into his mouth, nose and eyes.
He turned his head, spat.
Blew out what he could from his nose.
Tried blinking some of the offensive material out of his eyes.
He clamped his mouth and eyes shut, held his breath, resumed his attack on the damaged wood.
The crack widened. Digits clawed the earth as he wormed a path out of the subterranean horror. At some point in his ascension, something bitter and slimy squeezed through his lips.
He spat the squirm out.
Squinting at the overpowering light, eyes slow to adjust, he staggered, caught his balance, wiped dirt from his person. Sucked in a deep breath. Coughed. Expelled more dirt from his throat.
Something scraped his skin, pricked his neck, vibrated, voiced an annoyed brrrrggggggtttt! Sunlight snatched a wink of chrome before it burrowed itself into the dirt.
What the heck were those things? Mechanical bugs? Gilbert shuddered. Geez! Am I ever going to find a way out of this demented place? Blink. A rub of more dirt from his face. What Sector am I in now?  Could the Baron be watching him under a microscope or hunched over a crystal ball, maniacally rubbing his hands together, emulating the Wicked Witch of the West from the Oz stories?
Sadly, he had left behind his Converted friends Bobby, Wendell and Rodney.
No.
No longer friends.
Conversions, sheathed in metal shells. An interior dressed with spinning cogs. Multi-colored wires. Bolts. Screws. Only duplicates of friends whom he once knew.
Unbidden memories of his parents flashed. Stabbed his heart. He’d never see them again. Ever. They too had been Converted, condemned as pieces of machinery, insignificant pawns in the Baron’s game of blood. Reviewing the horror in his mind, realization signified a skintight blue bodysuit and a red cape, both emblazoned with a huge stylized S, and to be from the planet Krypton, if he was to have any hope of getting out of this mess.
If only it could be that easy
The focus of his thoughts swept aside as he snatched a view while standing at the base of a rise. An endless plain smothered with triangular shaped headstones, crooked as bad teeth.
A rerun of Sector 5? With zombies? At this point anything is possible… 
Gilbert wished against the occupants of the marked graves to leave their buried homes.
Sure, Gilbert, use your telekinetic ability you don’t have.
Single and double digits marked each stone. Numerals precluded any perceived pattern. Etched as if a child’s hand had scratched them.
            A breeze kissed Gilbert’s cheek as he started off.




Monday, July 6, 2015

The Elements of Storytelling: "So there I Was...."


I know what you're thinking. "What? Yet another 'how to write' column on the Internet?"

Well first off, there's no such thing as too many "how to write" articles. While the basic mechanics are the same, each writer tends to have a unique approach or perspective to it. But aside from that, while writing is certainly involved in the process of storytelling (even if all you need to do is jot down notes), if you think this column was titled "The Elements of Writing" then you need to go get an eye checkup.

This column will not be specifically about writing, nor will it be specifically about podcasting, or film making, or illustrations, or plays, or even campfire tales. It will involve the basics behind all of these, for regardless of the medium you choose, you still have to first know how to tell a good story. And that is something much easier said than done.

Sharing stories has been a part of human culture since the days when we lived in caves and we were covered in a lot more body hair. Indeed, it could possibly be one of the first things we ever did, right after sex. Whether the stories were true accounts, completely made up, or a slick combination of the two, we were sharing them.

Sharing them a lot.

At first inside the caves and around camp fires, then in the fields. We spoke them, acted them out, sang them. And when writing was finally invented, we wrote them down. Over those centuries and millennia, it became apparent to the earliest storytellers that certain elements worked to captivate and entertain an audience and certain elements didn't. And from that observation, the techniques evolved.

And many of those techniques are still used to this day. The mediums might have changed and expanded, became more advanced as technology progressed. But outside an occasional (and necessary) tweak or two, the basics of how to tell a good story has never changed.

And knowing the basics can mean the difference between having no audience at all or creating the story that later spawns the next "new" religion (How’s that “Force” thing working,fellas?).

That's a lot of weight to have on your shoulders, Grasshopper. Carry it well.

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