Thursday, August 30, 2007

Weekend Writing Workout #1 (NEW!)

I'm a big fan of writing exercises and warm-ups. I never just jump in and start working on my story. I do backstory exercises, plot brainstorms, I type up notes, anything to get my brain working and thinking about that particular story. I usually keep doing exercises until I have an AHA moment (discovering something new), which launches me back into my story.

Each week I will post an exercise I've been recently using.

I'm currently working on a novel series. This is new territory for me. I accidentally wrote one novel. Now it looks like I'm going to accidentally write 6 more. Whoops!

In order to do this, I've stepped back to look at the big picture. Reading the final Harry Potter book helped me to do this. Each of Rowling's books has a story arc, which is a sequence within the larger series arc. Having the larger arc in sight will help the writer to develop the story so that it comes to a logical and satisfying conclusion at the end.

(If each book in the "series" is an individual, self-contained story, like The Wizard of Oz for example, I consider that a collection rather than a series. The difference being, for a series like His Dark Materials, you have to read the books in order for them to make complete sense. I don't know if this is how the industry differentiates between the two, it's just for reference here).

The same ideas behind the story structure of a single screenplay or novel apply to the entire series:

There is a dilemma (intruduced - or at least referenced - in the first book)
There are complications (that build in sequences)
There is a final crisis that our hero must face (and, of course, the hero usually succeeds. How many death threats would there be on Rowling's life if Voldemort had taken over the world?)

I actually have a lot of issues with the Harry Potter books, as much as I love them and can't put them down, which I'll address later in my Summer Reading Review post. Regardless, it's a great tool because the story arc for the series is so clear and the stakes get higher with each book. It HAS to work this way for the series to be effective.

Think about one of your favourite movies. There is an "inciting incident" that propels our hero into this journey. The hero faces a dilemma (two equally painful / dangerous / difficult choices). Complications ensue. The stakes get higher and higher. You think it's about as bad as it gets... but wait, there's more! As the drama builds, our character must face her SPLAT. She is forced to make a decision or take action. She succeeds or fails. The story concludes.

This isn't just action/adventure. In the moving drama Away from Her by Sarah Polley, the protagonist must face the fact that his wife has alzhiemer's. His dilemma - he can't take care of her at home any longer and he can't put her in a home because he's never been away from her. Eventually, he must put her in a home and can't see her for a month. He's devastated. But wait, there's more! When he can finally see her again, she can't remember who he is AND she's got a new "boyfriend" in the home. Now what is he going to do? He can't NOT see her, because that is too painful and he can't visit her either, because THAT is too painful. Wow - dilemmas are us!

For this week's Weekend Writing Workout:

Whether you are working on a screenplay, novel, or book series these exercises will apply. If you are working on a novel series like I am, use these exercises to think about the LARGER story arc of the series.

Set your timer for 7-10 minutes. Write for the entire time without stopping. Do not edit, this is a brainstorm. Let it flow, it doesn't matter how strange, silly, stupid it sounds. No one will ever have to see it.

1) My protagonist's dilemma begins when... she can't _________ because... and she can't ________ because...

2) Complications ensue when...

By the end of this series/story my character must...

Advanced Workout:

1) If you are writing a series, do the above for EACH book in the series as well as the ENTIRE series itself. I've been writing dilemma/complications/conclusion for each book in the series and it's working really well.

2) Write out the beats of the story, mapping out all the complications, making sure the stakes are increasing at each point.

Have a great weekend!


Alyssa Goodnight said...

Sounds like a great exercise! I'm going to give it a try. I'm not familiar with 'beats' though, and I'm been having trouble finding out what exactly they are.

Danika / OpenChannel said...

Hi Alyssa, thanks for asking. I guess "beats" is more of a screenwriting term. It's basically a list of everything that happens without the details. Each significant incident is considered a story "beat."

For example:

-Sally runs away from home.
-Her boyfriend runs after her.
-They fight and she accidentally kills him.
-Sally hides the body.
-She receives a blackmail letter in the mail from a witness to the murder.

What do you call this in fiction writing, simply an outline? I like the term beats, as it's like the rhythm of the story.

In any case, if you write out the beats, you can see a) if you have any superfluous scenes, b) if you need to add any scenes, and c) the progression of the dilemma as the stakes increase.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

I have heard other fiction writers use the term beats--I just never knew what they were referring to. I recently did this same thing (with a smidge more detail), and I've been calling it my outline. It's really been helpful for me.

Thanks for the explanation!
Forgot to mention how cool I think it is that you work on Psych! I love that show!

Danika / OpenChannel said...

yeah, I think it's really useful to have a snapshot of your story.

Psych is awesome. The show is well-written and it's fun to be on set (not always the case in show biz). The cast and crew are really great people.

Vicki said...

Wow, great exercise. Since I'm starting back writing tonight this is just what I need to get going.

This is going to be fun. I'm so glad you're doing it.

Danika / OpenChannel said...

Awesome. I'm glad you're back (and writing) and that this could be useful.

Congratulations on completing your house move!

more4dan said...

As your screenwriting exercises were open to novelists I'm guessing your novel writing exercises are open to screenwriters? ;)

I look forward to continuing with your helpful posts as I attempt a rewrite. I would also welcome any advice on rewriting.