Story Core

Today’s classic was originally posted on November 17, 2011. 

A few days ago, I came across some advice that has transformed the way I’m thinking about my current WIP. I found an interview with Robert McKee (who’s famous for his book, webseminars, etc. on screenwriting) where he says this:

Story begins when an event, either by human decision or accident in the universe, radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life, arousing in that character the need to restore the balance of life. To do so, that character will conceive of what is known as an “Object of Desire,” that which they feel they need to put life back into balance. They will then go off into their world, into themselves, in the various dimensions of their existence, seeking that Object of Desire, trying to restore the balance of life, and they will struggle against forces of antagonism that will come from their own inner natures as human beings, their relationships with other human beings, their personal and/or social life, and the physical environment itself.

I knew, of course, about the concept of an “inciting incident”–that thing that happens that starts the hero or heroine on their journey, the thing that sets this particular day off from all other days. However, I’d been thinking of it more in terms of the “call to action” that takes place in the classic hero’s quest.  And I knew that my character had to want something–and that there had to be something that prevented her from achieving what she wanted.

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But I find that this idea of balance clarifies my thinking about the core of the story itself: why is the MC’s life out of balance? What triggered this imbalance? (Was it a slow evolution or something that happened suddenly, catastrophically). In short, it’s not enough for the character to want something–she has to want something because it will restore something to her life that she feels that it lacks.

For example, in the lovely children’s book The Higher Power of Lucky, Lucky is continually searching for the “higher power” that she hears people talking about in the various twelve-step recovery programs that she eavesdrops on. Her search is intensified when she begins to fear that her guardian, Brigitte, is going to leave her and go back to France. Once this fear develops, she searches for a way to keep Brigitte in Hard Pan (pop. 43).

Sometimes this imbalance is dramatic: the death of someone in the MC’s life, a divorce, a break-up. Sometimes, though, it can be as simple (and complicated!) as falling in love, realizing something unwanted about yourself, or feeling like an outsider.

So now I’m back to another revision–but one I feel hopeful about, because I feel like I’m finally peeling away some of the issues that are holding the story back. I know what needs to happen (if not how it happens). (Also, McKee reminds me that 90% of what we write is crap–and that’s why we revise.)

What about you? What tricks have you discovered for unearthing the core of your story? And what sustains you as you revise?

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Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is now available. The sequel, LOST CROW CONSPIRACY, comes out March 27.

Creating Delicious Stories

My husband and I are big fans of The Great British Baking Show—one of the biggest payoffs is seeing the expressions of bliss on the judges’ faces when a baker nails a particularly difficult bake (as Mary Berry might say, the bake was “scrummy”). As writers, we’re looking for this same reaction in readers—we want our stories to be delicious.

There are lots of different elements that go into this, of course, but as I’m knee-deep in revisions at the moment, I’ve been thinking about how this magic happens in revision. Some of it, of course, is making sure that each scene serves the overall purpose of the story (characterization, plot, setting, etc.). But a serviceable cake is just that—serviceable. It’s not necessarily delicious.

I think one key to a delicious book is building in what Susan Dennard calls “cookies”: “those sparks in a story that makes you WANT to write. It’s the romantic tension you love and just can’t wait to reach. It’s the high-action fight you’re itching to write or the awesome sneakiness of your villain. It is basically the reason you wanted to write THIS book at THIS moment.” For Dennard, these are moments that you plan in as you’re plotting your story, as a motivation to keep writing and as a guide to awesome stories. Dennard argues that every scene needs to be a cookie scene, and I think she’s right.

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But the idea of cookies—something delightful in each scene—isn’t just helpful as you’re drafting, but as you revise. There’s a story that P.G. Wodehouse, comic writer extraordinaire, used to post pages of his novel around the room as he revised, and then he’d mark up each page to make sure that each page had something funny. And while not all of us are comic writers, I think we can all borrow something from this idea.

We need to find the thing that makes our stories delicious to our readers (often it’s the same thing that makes the story sparkle for us)—and then make sure each scene (better yet, each page) has something rewarding for readers. Maybe it’s a particularly sharp bit of dialogue. Maybe it’s a romantic moment, or a humorous one. Maybe it’s a setting that inspires wonder.

Not all of these moments have to be huge ones—not every scene can be that intense, almost-kiss that leaves readers swooning (not unless you want to gradually rob that scene of its impact)—but they do have to be there. Scenes that bore you as a writer are generally scenes that are going to bore your reader.

As I’m revising, I find that this focus—looking for the bits I find delightful and pruning the rest—is helping me to see more clearly which scenes are critical to the story, and which are just structure, a method to get from point A to point B.

Here’s hoping that the final “bake” is as delicious as I envision!

What are some of your favorite revision tricks?

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93299-cyxmu9i1

Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is now available.

Facing Your Writing Fears

I have mixed feelings about Halloween as a season–costumes and candy, okay. The celebration of horror and fear? Not so much. (I’m pretty much a wuss when it comes to scary things–my mind can work something terrifying out of very little material).

Perhaps this is why facing my own fears can be the most difficult part of writing.

We all have them, those quiet (and not-so-quiet) gremlins in our head, just waiting to pounce when we’re at our most vulnerable.

You’re not good enough. Why are you wasting time on this?

You’ll never be good enough. 

None of your ideas are original.

People are going to hate this story–and they’ll hate you too.

Your voice doesn’t matter. No one needs your story.

I’m not sure these fears get any easier the farther you get in publishing: if anything, I think you become more aware of the myriad ways you (or your story) can fail. Two weeks before my debut came out, I hit a point where I was so terrified of the potentially public failure that I wanted to call my editor and beg her to stop the book from coming out. (I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t, but the terror was very real).

When we write, we put ourselves on the line. We let other people–strangers–get glimpses of the insides of our head, of our hearts. That kind of vulnerability can be terrifying.

Writing also has very few clear guidelines: what works well in one novel might  not work in the next. This kind of uncertainty can be frightening, even if more than one author claims that uncertainty is critical to the writing process.

I don’t claim to have all the answers–sometimes the core of our fears are valid. Some ideas aren’t as original as they could be. Sometimes our craft isn’t where it needs to be. The good thing is, these are all problems that are fixable–our fear doesn’t have to be the final word. We can brainstorm. We can study craft. We can improve.

Here are a few things that have helped me face my own fears

Name your fears.

Sometimes, the simple fact of acknowledging what you’re afraid of can help you move through fear. Some fears are actionable–if you’re afraid you’re not good enough, you can work to be better. Some fears are outside our control (like the fear of public failure if your book isn’t well received)–and recognizing that you can’t control it can help you let go of that particular fear or expectation. (Note that I say help–I don’t think it alleviates the fear entirely.)

Learn to sit with uncertainty.

Some degree of fear is almost inevitably going to be part of the writing process. Mindfulness practices teach us that feeling uncertain (or afraid) is not in and of itself a bad thing–we just need to be aware of what we’re feeling and move on. Sometimes, we have to be willing to sit with that uncertainty. (A good meditation app can help too). Don’t be afraid of that fear–it’s normal!–and don’t make decisions on your writing out of fear.

Remember that your job is to create, not critique.

A month or so ago, one of my friends, knowing I was struggling with fear, sent me this article. In it, James Clear describes Agnes de Mille, the choreographer for Oklahoma!, who was confused by the show’s success, as she didn’t feel it was her best work. She talked to Martha Graham, a successful choreographer, who told her this:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

Clear goes on to say,

it is not your job to judge your own work. It is not your place to compare it to others. It is not your responsibility to figure out how valuable it is or how useful it can be. It is not your job to tell yourself, “No.”

Instead, your responsibility is to create. Your job is share what you have to offer from where you are right now. To quote Pema Chodron, the Buddhist teacher, your job is to “come as you are.”

When I struggle most, I tell myself this: my job is to create the best I can. Whether the thing I’ve created is any good is not my judgment–that is up to readers. Somehow, I find this incredibly freeing. That’s not to say I won’t have to make some judgments about my work as I go along, but it reminds me not to preemptively judge my stories before I’ve worked through them.

Writer’s Digest also has a wonderful post on some ways to work through fear. What are some things that have helped you?

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93299-cyxmu9i1

Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is now available.