plot

Writing Is A Bad Habit: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of a.k.a. The MacGuffin

It’s that time again, folks, for your weekly Writing Is A Bad Habit article.  This week, let us tackle that mysterious source of plot generation, the mighty MacGuffin.  Be it a mysterious briefcase that glows, a lost statue, or the lost manuscript of Shakespeare, MacGuffins are those objects that everyone in a plot seems to want, yet are themselves often unseen or unknown.  It might be considered a bit of a hackneyed plot point, but many great books have been based on the premise of a hunt for a MacGuffin, like it or not.

Why is it that some MacGuffins put us off the books they are in, while others draw us in with their mystery?  There are quite a few reasons behind both of those, many of which are not related to the MacGuffin itself.  See, there’s nothing inherently wrong about using a MacGuffin, just as with many other tropes and plot devices.  It is rarely the plot device itself that makes for a bad bit of writing, but everything else around it.

That being said, I think there are a few important do’s and don’t’s about using a MacGuffin that center on the device itself.  It really centers on what makes a MacGuffin a compelling object to the reader, not necessarily the characters (though that is important as well).  Thinking about it, the two kinds of MacGuffins I have found the most compelling in fiction are the complete mysteries and the intimately understood ones.  It is when the narrative around the object hangs in some vague middle ground that things go wonky.

How does that make any sense, with total opposite approaches being compelling ones?  Well, to me, it comes down to the allure of mystery and the draw of intimacy.  Let’s take MacGuffin A, the mystery briefcase that only is described by the glow that comes from the interior when it is opened.  We are told nothing else about this case save for the mysterious events that happen around it and the fact that so many people want it.  Our protagonists and the readers are kept in the dark, never knowing what it is or why exactly everyone is willing to die (or kill) over it.  That cloak of mystery is seductive.  We read on to find those hints as to the MacGuffin’s true nature and it spurs our imagination as we come up with our own theories and deductions.  That mystery is what draws our interest and keeps us solidly glued to the tale and, as the MacGuffin doesn’t need to be minutely described, the author can concentrate on the characterization and plot, knowing he has your attention.

What about the other factor, that draw of intimacy?  Let’s look at MacGuffin B, the ancient statue.  Though a mystery at first to the readers and protagonists outside of the fact everyone wants it, the statue’s history is laid out for both of us in intimate detail.  We know not just what it is, but why exactly everyone wants it.  Though deprived of its cloak of mystery, that is replaced by the true understanding of WHY this hunk of statuary is so vitally important.  We are pulled in because we so completely know the stakes, so the dramatic tension is set at a suitably high bar.  As with the cloak of mystery, the draw of intimacy again focuses the readers’ attention and, once established, leaves the author free to focus on the characters and plot.

Both of these approaches do have pitfalls.  A mystery MacGuffin can be foreshadowed shabbily, with no real indications given as to its importance.  That glowing suitcase is obviously SOMETHING special, even if we don’t know WHAT it is.  If the MacGuffin is left too plain and a total unknown, with no hints to its nature at all, you don’t generate that interest or spark your readers’ imaginations.

As for the intimate MacGuffin, the risk comes in not making the object compelling enough once you reveal it.  If the rationale for the desire for the object is poorly laid out, if the object simply is uninteresting once unveiled, or if the characterization of those wanting it don’t match what it actually is … there are all potential pitfalls.  In a way, it’s like revealing any other mystery in a book.  If it doesn’t hold together, you exchange the dramatic tension of the stakes for a breach of suspension of disbelief as the readers shake their collective heads.

Those are my thoughts on the venerable MacGuffin.  Do you use this particular plot device and do you have any advice to others about it?  Feel free to drop a line in the comments below!

Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

Writing Is A Bad Habit: Just Lie To Me a.k.a. The Unreliable Narrator

A key element to creating intriguing fiction is to have an air of mystery and the unknown during the plot.  It works on the basic premise of human curiosity.  We want to know things, to understand things.  There are many ways to go about this, but one particular device that adds a human element to the mystery is the use of unreliable narrators.

An unreliable narrator is, if you didn’t know, a viewpoint character in a story that does not necessarily tell the whole truth.  The actual facts of any scene they are in or story they communicate to the reader may be distorted or straight out fabricated compared to the ‘true’ plot of the story.  It doesn’t matter the character’s reason for doing so or if it is intentional or not; they are still unreliable narrators.

Why bother using such a character as a mouthpiece?  After all, technically, the writer can simply misrepresent facts in the text on his/her own.  There is a problem with that though.  Readers consider words from the author, such as text that is not attributed to the viewpoint of a particular character, as being, in essence, the word of God, true facts.  If you, the author, as the voice of God, lie about the truth of any situation you describe, you build mistrust with your readers directly and they begin to question the entire narrative that you are weaving.  By putting the source of distrust into a character’s viewpoint, you avoid that intrinsic mistrust with the fictional world as a whole.  Any person can lie for whatever reason; the gods don’t.

Now, at first thought, you still might shy away from the concept of unreliable narrators.  If your Point of View character is your protagonist, for instance, and you’ve established her as scrupulously honest, you might feel it’s a breach of character to interject any kind of mistruth to their tale.  However, remember that just because someone always tells the truth doesn’t mean they always speak the absolute facts.  Maybe they don’t know all of the facts and thus have to make conjectures.  Maybe they didn’t see the whole situation and thus misrepresent it unwittingly.  Maybe their other emotions and experiences color their perceptions, turning the facts somewhat into their own personal truth.  Or maybe you just want to have a point-of-view character who is far from honest.

Even if you don’t intend to have a traditional unreliable narrator, you can still take elements of this trope to interject some uncertainty and drama into a story.  If you go with a first-person perspective or a limited third-person viewpoint, there is always room for uncertainty as the information and viewpoints that you use to transmit the story to the reader is limited.  The viewpoint characters probably don’t know everything or perceive every event, so their recollection is inherently skewed.  You can use that to your advantage to turn what the character (and reader) thought was fact into fiction.

In the end, consider using an unreliable narrator, in any permutation, from time to time.  They can add a dash of uncertainty and drama into any literary concoction!

Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

Writing Is A Bad Habit: There Are Only So Many Stories a.k.a. How Original Can You Be?

You think you have the greatest, most original plot idea ever … until you wind up looking through your bookstore and see it.  There, right there, is a book that seems to be your exact same concept!  Someone beat you to the punch and so there goes a great idea!  Or does it?

They say there are only seven core plots in the world and that’s pretty much right.  No one has a problem with that.  It is even said there are only so many stories ever and that even makes a certain degree of sense.  When you have billions of people in history all being creative, there’s bound to be convergent thoughts that lead to similar plotlines and story ideas.  That doesn’t mean you should give up or simply throw away anything that seems similar to previously told stories.

The trick about writing is not always coming up with a unique idea (there are few, if any, of those left), it is how you tell the story itself.  No one tells a story in the same way and no two characters are totally identical.  You can take a plot that may be identical in its key points to another story, then change it all up by implanting different characters, different styles, and different dramatic beats.  New themes, new ideas, and your own unique perspective can radically alter a tale.

All the same, if you do find that you’re looking at a mirror image of a book on the shelves, it might not hurt to compare them.  The last thing you want is to wind up on that one-in-a-million chance that you running on such a convergent set of thoughts that it really seems like you *are* copying the other work!

In the end, you can take any plot and apply your own unique style and outlook to make it your own.  Until next time, good luck, good reading, and good writing!

Writing Is A Bad Habit: One of Many! a.k.a. Writing Story Arcs In A Series

Book series are the norm for today’s writing culture as opposed to the exception, much like it is in the gaming and film world.  The reading public overall seems to crave long-term stories as opposed to single flashes these days, so we as authors are often eager to feed that craving.  It helps, as well, that writing in a favorite series can be like snuggling down in a warm, cozy bed, bringing with it a sense of familiarity and ease that makes our work that much easier.  Of course, like any other writing methodology, series writing has its own needs and its own pitfalls.  Today, I want to talk about a particular pitfall that I have run into both as a writer and as a reader: balancing the story arc of a single volume versus the story arc of the whole series.

As with most literary problems, this one seems a simple thing on the surface.  Obviously, it is important for each volume of a series to have a complete story arc that is properly explored while also advancing the overall arc of the series.  The problem comes most often in the implementation of those ideas.  From my reading experience, the most common issue is when the author leaves the story of any one volume rather anemic, instead focusing on the overall story of the series.  In essence, the author turns the series of novels into one giant serial novel.

What’s the difference, you might be asking?  Serials are one continual story, broken into chapters; series are a series of individual stories all with a common theme.  To be honest, most modern book series include dashes of both, leaning towards traditional series, but often with an underlying serial plotline as well.  That being said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with writing a ‘series’ as a serial, as long as you are clear about that upfront.

However, one vital thing to consider in this ‘serial vs. series’ debate is the length not only of each book but the overall series.  Think of it like this: the longer each book, the greater the need for self-contained story arcs, thus the greater likelihood you need to balance more towards series writing.  Not many readers want to read three hundred pages and have no dramatic pay-off and no real resolutions!  However, if each installment is, let’s say, only a hundred pages, you could easily string together a six-installment serial or more.  A reader will understandably expect more of a pay-off as your works grow longer.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have long-term series storylines!  Naturally, the core concepts of character arcs and continuity call for it.  There are quite a few huge, famous book series with only the loosest of continuities and overall story arcs (The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Mack Bolan, The Destroyer, among others), but many modern readers have come to expect continuity in modern books.  Again, this goes along with trends in both film, comics, gaming, and other related creative arts.

What I suppose this comes down to is this: for each volume in your book series, ensure there are some dramatic pay-offs and resolved story arcs, even if you do go full serial or full series.  The more you trend towards series, the more self-contained each book should be, the more serial, the more chapterish each book should feel.  Whichever you decide to do, be clear about it in describing and marketing your book and then stick to it!

Did you find what you read helpful?  Want to see more and expanded content in the future?  Support me through my Patreon or by just buying my books!

Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

Plot and Motivation: No Plot Survives First Contact With The Enemy

Hey folks!  Between writing chapters for my next book (the last book of Three Seconds to Legend) and getting the next Starving Review ready, I’m behind on actual writing thoughts.  However, today’s writing inspired me to fire off a quick article for you folks out there.  Today’s Plot and Motivation deals with all of your hard work on plot and how it can all fall apart in a moment.

I think every writer would offer as advice that preparation and research is vital to writing.  Just as likely, every writer will also suggest that it is also vital to be ready to shift your plot and preparation when it feels wrong or when the actual writing starts to trend away from the preparation you have already done.  This is horribly contradictory advice to some and, on the surface, it is.  We say ‘prepare and plot ahead’ and then say ‘ditch that work at the moment’s notice’.  What does that actually me?

Experience in writing now makes me realize what this all really means.  At least to me, what this means is that to write something properly, to write about things we don’t know about, we have to research it to give it truth and to make it understandable and believable.  Also, for many writers, pre-plotting and figuring out a series of events before starting a longer piece can be very helpful in avoiding continuity and character problems later in the book.

However, with that said, the second bit of advice is critical as well.  What *that* advice actually means is that it is very possible to start writing a novel and, in the course of the practical application of your outline or pre-plotting or what not, realize that there are errors and flaws in what you had originally planned.  Was your original plot flawed?  Maybe but possibly not.  Things simply could have changed.  You could have had inspiration that makes some of your old ideas seem out-of-date now.  A character could seem different when written than your original conception.

When this happens, you are almost always going to be best off following that new inspiration or new idea.  You have to be unafraid of your instincts and unafraid of being able to change when the needs of the piece demand it.  The trouble some people have with this is that they are afraid of making changes that lead to a series of second-guesses that unravel their entire concept.  Overturning even the best ideas they have when those bad ideas hit.  It’s an understandable fear.  As with all things though, there is a vital middle ground and here it is the place where you, as a writer, realize when a new flash of inspiration is for the best of your book and when that flash is just a sizzle in the pan.

Until next time, good luck and good writing!

Plot and Motivation: Exposition in Motion a.k.a. Smoothing the Info Dump

My apologies for the quietude around these parts for the last few days!  There is a lot in the works for me at the moment.  Incorruptible is back from the editor’s so the last revisions and changes need to be made, I am still waist-deep in The Twelfth Labor‘s first draft, I have more content to write for Doppel, and there’s plenty of books to devour to try to catch up during my request hiatus.

Still, that won’t keep me from putting my hunger-addled mind to musing about more writing topics.  Today’s Plot and Motivation is going to tackle an approach to exposition that might help keep the Info Dump blues away.  So roll up your sleeves and let’s get to work!

Now, it is very easy to want to info dump.  Especially if you’re working in a genre or world that is radically different from the real world, a writer can feel tremendous pressure to get the reader up to speed.  After all, the plot is waiting and the readers need essential information to understand it, right?  Best to get all this exposition out of the way as soon as possible and be done with it.

The thing is that excessive exposition ruins your pacing, shooting dramatic tension in the head before it even has a chance to build.  It doesn’t matter where in the story you put an info dump, it almost always has this effect.  So how can you get your information across without leading to large blocks of explanations?

The first vital step is figuring out what exactly your reader *really needs* to know.  You would be surprised, perhaps, how little that can turn out to be.  Again, it is all about giving the reader the benefit of the doubt that they are smart enough to pick up on inferrence and foreshadowing.  You can get a lot across without directly saying every little fact.

Once you have distilled down the information to the bare essentials of what the reader needs, you can then distribute it into your plot.  The point is not to dole out all vital information in one sitting but to instead weave those facts into the flow of the scenes.  That isn’t to say you can’t bring up a factoid before it becomes vital.  If you do that, it will make new revelations seem more and more like sudden writing inventions as opposed to planned parts of the story.

However, you can usually find a way to bring up facts and exposition in a more staggered manner than in one solid dump.  It can certainly take time and several revisions to get it to where it needs to be, nuanced but not mystifying, but it’s well worth the work to do so.

Planning a staggered exposition like this not only helps to preserve pacing, it can also be used to heighten intrigue, raise reader interest in the story, and cause your readers to be more invested.  It becomes obvious to them early on that there are more facts, more history, more insights hidden throughout the book instead of being bored with all the need to know all at once.  They will want to dig deeper and continue to find out those facts, seeing if each new answer matches their own expectations drawn from the foreshadowing.  That reader engagement will do wonders for the enjoyment of your book.

This isn’t even the only way to tackle this problem.  What other avenues do you use to work in exposition in your writing?  Feel free to share with us below!

Until next time, good luck and good writing!

Plot and Motivation: How To Lose When Winning! a.k.a. Building Tension for Heroes

Wow.  Between the constant demands of being a Starving Author AND a Starving Reviewer, I’ve had so little time to just … write an article.  Well, I throw off the shackles of responsibility and, despite the fact I really should read my next book/write a review/write a chapter/edit a chapter/promote a book/do my laundry (pick your favorite three!), I am going to instead write a new chapter in Plot and Motivation!

In the past, we’ve talked about such tropes as the Invincible Hero and the Ace, archetypes that are, usually, invincible in traditional physical conflict.  Now, this is all fine, there are usually other approaches to add dramatic tension outside of the realm of action and direct combat and such.  However, what if you’re writing in the action genre OR a genre that relies on action/competition/conflict as the core plot element?  Well, again, easy answer, don’t use such overpowering archetypes or find a way to deconstruct the tropes.

AH-HA!  We’re not done yet!

What if you don’t have a choice about the character for some reason?  Or what if the constraints of the plot demand victory for the heroes?  For example, in a fantasy world, many conflicts could very well be life or death.  Defeat isn’t an option.  Or in a sports novel if there is a tournament the protagonists must win for the plot but there isn’t a losers bracket by the rules of the game?  There are situations where you can’t let the protagonists lose but you’re afraid of steering too far off the realm of believability into breaking your reader’s suspension of disbelief.

Well, the first and simplest solution is to simply make every conflict a challenge.  Heroes that don’t lose don’t have to be Invincible.  If you can capture the struggle, the risk, the difficulty of every encounter, you can still harness the dramatic tension needed to entice the reader but still not throw your plot off-line with strange explanations as to why things differ This One Time.  If you set rules or a tone for your world, it is important to keep with it.  Easier to make things very hard than to provide conspicuously out-of-place reasons.

A second closely related solution is to ensure every victory has a cost.  With some scenarios, this is simple.  Anything involving direct physical struggle or potentially dangerous situations is easy: injuries and wounds don’t magically disappear and even the best fighter is not untouchable.  In any physical activity, even non-contact sports, injuries can happen and fatigue can be a crucial factor.  Having to perform at one’s peak day after day in a hard physical activity is impossible, eventually wear and tear sets in.  Frankly, any extended effort, mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual, is taxing and should be presented as so.  In team situations, with multiple protagonists, the cost may be in lost teammates or defeated allies.  Even material costs are possible with tools, money, equipment, and ammunition as all things that can go away to make each step a bit more challenging.

A third idea, last on my short list, is to break the rules.  Yes, I know I said that it is important to keep world rules in place but, even in our own hard-set reality, exceptions and unforeseen events happen and rules we consider iron-clad by Mother Nature sometimes seem to be meaningless.  If you DO feel the need to take this route, it is important to point out that fact, that what just happened defied all expectations/laws of nature/rules of magic/etc., and then try to ensure it doesn’t happen again!  Rare once-in-a-lifetime events happen.  It becomes trite when that once-in-a-lifetime event happens twice.

While this kind of situation might seem rare, in some genres it comes up more than others.  Having to struggle with it myself in my latest writings, I had to think long and hard about it so I felt it fitting to share with others out there who may wind up dealing with the same issues in their own works.

If you have any comments or input, feel free to let me know!  Until next time, good luck and good writing!

Into the Action: Clean Up Aisle Five! a.k.a. Action’s Aftermath

Oi, I feel like a million miles of bad road.  This starving author has just spent one hour too many on late night writing binges.

But that’s not YOUR problem, dear reader, and so the show must go on!  Today, for your edification and entertainment, let’s touch back on an article series that’s been gathering dust for a bit.  That’s right, it’s time to get back Into the Action.  For today’s episode, let’s touch on something that can be an issue in writing action adventure tales: what happens *after* the action concludes.

This may sound like a no-brainer.  The action ends, the plot continues, life goes on.  That may be true, but I’m trying to steer us into looking at all the collateral effects of an average action sequence and how those things should be included into and woven into the story.  This includes the big stuff (damage property, crimes committed, injuries given and taken) and the little stuff (aches, pains, fatigue, getting a new shirt to replace the blood-stained one).

Now, you could simply take a page from the action movie genre and pay lip service to these things and then brush them off.  A short dramatic scene of patching up a wound, daring to show the character actually reload a gun, or a scene as the protagonists dust the debris off themselves from an explosion and walk away, we’ve all seen things like this in movies and either just accepted it as part of movie reality or been put off by it.  It would certainly be valid to use the tropes of the action genre to explain the aftermath away with a few sweeps of the pen.

The problem is that literature and movies are two different forms of media.  Those media carry different thoughts and expectations as well have radical differences in how information is delivered.  What may work for, say, an ’80s action movie may not work for your book and, in fact, I’d wager it won’t.  However, at the same time, dealing with the effects of a major action sequence in a fully realistic fashion could take more research and pages of your book than the actual action did.

The key, as with most things in literature, is to strive for a balance based on the level of realism in the world of your story.  If you are going to have people bouncing back from broken bones and bullet wounds, make sure there’s support for that in your fictional world.  Advanced medical technology, superhuman powers, magic, mutations … all sorts of things could be imployed in a universe-by-universe basis.   Even in a mostly realistic world, you can still employ some of that movie magic, just apply a lighter brush.

The fact is that humans can be scarily resilient at times and also that other real world systems are prone to breakdowns and mistakes.  Why aren’t the cops chasing down the protagonists after they were part of a high-speed chase?  Maybe they couldn’t positively ID them.  Maybe the pursuing officers were too focused on the chase and never got the license plates.  Maybe there’s just a breakdown in the system and red tape keeps an APB from being issued.

I suppose what this boils down to is that you can deal with all of the problems a big action sequence would incur in the real world in ways that won’t cripple your plot, but will also help the reader keep a healthy suspension of disbelief.  We’ll believe the action hero can shrug off a bullet wound in his/her shoulder so long as there’s blood, treatment, and reminders of that wound impairing his/her ability for the rest of the story.  Remember, as in all things writing, the devil AND the angel is in the details.

Good luck and good writing!

Plot and Motivation: The Big Payoff! a.k.a. Resolving Dramatic Tension

Hey folks!

So many reviews so little time, not to mention my own projects (one manuscript writing, one manuscript editing), eats into a man’s time, but never let it be said that it has kept me from my duties as a blogger.  Grab a seat, folks, and make sure to sit on the edge of it because today’s Plot and Motivation is going to look at dramatic tension.  Oh My God Drama!

So, Starving Author, what is dramatic tension and why should we care?  Well, as most in the writing business know, dramatic tension is excitement and anticipation a person feels before the resolution of some action.  In the case of writing, substitute ‘reader’ for ‘person’ and ‘some action’ with ‘a plot point’ and you’re good.  In other words, it’s that anticipation and feeling built up that keep the reader reading and looking forward to the resolution of a plot point, be it a subplot or the main plot line.  In essence, dramatic tension is one of the greatest motivating factors to read a piece of sequential fiction.

There are, in my eyes, two major components to dramatic tension: the Build and the Payoff.  The Build is just what it sounds like.  It is the rising action, the layers of mystery, the array of antagonists that help build excitement and doubt.  It is the true definition of dramatic tension itself and that tension also often leads to the reader investing in the characters of the story as well.  If they feel the need to see the end of the plot, it is likely they will feel an attachment to the characters involved in said plot as fellow travelers down the plot river.

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Plot and Motivation: Keeping Secrets and Mystery

As I mentioned in my update last week, the time I have spent reuniting with my biological family has been really enlightening about a lot of things, providing a big pile of new insights and topics that I could apply to writing.  In today’s Plot and Motivation, we’re going to take a look at the very tip of that iceberg.  Now, no doubt you’ve looked at the title and think that the story at the heart of this topic is a horrible one about family lies and secrets.  To be honest, it isn’t.  In fact, the story itself is a heart-warming one, but it showed to me just how easy it can be for there to be secrets and plots going on right under one’s nose.

The story in question is a good one.  My recently-deceased best friend Jon, my mother told me, had been the actual contact point she had first found when she tried to get in contact with me once more.  Jon, having been there when our family had drifted apart, engaged my mom in a long conversation and, once he was sure that everything was of pure intention, directed her to me and, without me realizing it, subtly influenced me to be more open to her approach this final time.  I never knew what he had done until just this past week, when Mom told me all about it.

It’s a beautiful story but where, you may ask, is the takeaway that can be applied to writing?  Well, first and foremost, it shows that, no matter how close a character may be to others or to a situation, it is entirely possible to plot a mystery around them, to have secrets withheld (good or malign), and have them unaware of it, no matter how intelligent or perceptive.  This means, obviously, that you *can* have a smart, perceptive, or deductive protagonist in a mystery and not feel like you are suspending disbelief or be forced to have them act in a counter-productive manner to sustain the mystery or secret for any length of time.  Often, the closer a secret is being held, the harder it can be to focus on it.

Also, this story is illustrative of the manner in which a plot or a scheme or a mystery can be carried out without anyone the wiser.  It all comes down to the approach and the events that you, the author, lay out.  It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of feeling the need to create more and more elaborate twists and turns in an attempt to throw off a reader from the mystery’s resolution.  This, unfortunately, often ends badly as the plot becomes so convoluted and arcane that there is no ‘OH!  So that’s how it happened!’ moment for the reader.  The essence of a good, enjoyable mystery isn’t just keeping the mystery under wraps until the end, but providing enough clues and foreshadowing to make it possible to be deduced.  Yes, a very astute reader will figure it out early, but it ensures that everyone will ‘get it’ in the end.  No one wants to read a mystery just to have it revealed to have been a nonsensical plot that wasn’t confirmed by the story or that the story was so convoluted the facts were obscured.

I guess what I’m getting at in the end is that a good mystery is easier to put together than it seems.  Focus on the elements of secrecy and attention to detail, especially in enforcing a character’s point of view and knowledge of a situation, don’t overly complicate the plot for complication’s sake, and never forget the power of secrecy.  Obviously, there’s more to it than that, and if you have more tips for the would-be mystery writer, please leave them in the comments below!