Posts Tagged ‘common problems’

The Power of Talking Through a Plot Problem

We all know that writing is a solitary process, one where a writer stereotypically locks themselves away somewhere and bangs on a typewriter (keyboard) until brilliance comes out. Your story usually is between you and your brain (and your muse, if you go in for such things).

That being said, I think a lot of us yearn from companionship. I think that’s one of the reasons NaNoWriMo has been so successful. We like other writers. We like to talk about our stories. We like to know that other people have had the same problems, and hear what they did to conquer them.

And that’s why, I think, when you have the right audience, talking through your problems can be hugely helpful. Sometimes you need to look at things another way and another point of view is the perfect solution.

I have a (largely defunct) LiveJournal that I have used over the years to post information about the high fantasy trilogy I have been working onĀ forever. I think only 10 or so other people have had access to it. But even the act of writing information out like someone might read it has help me solve numerous worldbuilding problems, from my magic system, to languages, to number of sentient species. It’s also helped with plot problems, such as the relationship between the main characters and how things had to develop to reach the final showdown with the antagonists.

Of course, the best person to talk to is one that is relatively familiar with your story. These people are the best next to your own brain to understanding what you have and where you need to go, as well as what your end goals are.

So ideally you talk to someone who has read your story, or is at least somewhat familiar with it through small snippets and worldbuilding. Barring that, someone who is familiar with and regularly reads your genre can work as well, because it’s less conventions to have to explain.

Tonight, at my storycraft meeting, I’m running a plot problem clinic which should prove interesting. Everyone’s to bring a problem of some sort, which the rest of us will then try to help them through. However, I don’t believe anyone is familiar with anyone else’s story and don’t necessarily write the same subgenres (my writing group is specifically for scifi/fantasy/horror writers), so it will be interesting to see if this is any help.

But who knows? Maybe getting those other subgenres into the mix will help add unexpected depth to the answers.

Do you have a friend you go to when you have story problems? Is it the same person every time, or do you have a range based on the type of story/type of problem?

Beginning Problems: The Mirror

Another common issue found in the beginning of a lot of early drafts and first novels is the mirror. Generally, this is combined with the dream sequence, where the main character wakes up from their dream, stumbles into the bathroom for mundane showering/teeth brushing, and then stares into the mirror, where we get a full, detailed description of their eyes, their hair, whatever other visual quirks, such as freckles, that the author has decided exist.

There are a ton of problems with this. The first of which is that it’s plain weird. I don’t know about you guys, but the last thing I think in the morning after I stumble into the bathroom is how sparkling my green eyes are, and how luscious my wavy blonde hair is, and man, aren’t my long lashes just the best?

(This is true even if the mirror is not related to a dream sequence. I see the “wander down the street and look at one’s reflection in the windows” variation a lot as well, and it still is weird.)

Second of all, it breaks up the story flow. Ideally, a short starts with something happening, even if it’s as simple as fighting with a sibling or being late for school. When you stop and spend a paragraph (or more) on appearance, the story loses its forward momentum.

Third, by dwelling on the main character’s appearance, it’s like the writer is saying, “I don’t know how to properly show characterization, or I think that somehow my character’s appearance is their characterization, and it’s important that I tell you all this now or you won’t care enough to keep reading.”

No reader cares about a character because they’re pretty/plain/brunette/a special snowflake. Readers care about a character because they’ve got a relate-able personality, a problem that’s interesting, something intriguing that pulls a reader along. Frankly, a character’s appearance is the least important aspect of their characterization in most cases (exceptions exist to every rule of course–the only black kid in the neighborhood is an important distinction to note up front, for example) and there’s no reason to dwell on it up front or in such detail.

I’m not saying that appearance can’t be noted–it’s the infodump qualities of the mirror sequence that make it a problem. A line of description here, another there–spread out throughout the narrative, not disrupting flow or plot.

What do you think, Squiders? Disagree with me that the mirror is a problem? Have examples of stories where the author manages it without ruining their momentum?

Beginning Problems: The Dream Sequence

Beginnings are an interesting beast, and what I find fascinating is that so many writers start their first stories the same way, like there’s some instinctual drive to do so. Like we were all taught to do so, even though most of the time they are a terrible, terrible mistake.

Let’s take the dream sequence. Dream sequences, in and of themselves, are not bad. Done right, they can convey information, tension, foreshadowing, etc. Some people can even pull off starting a novel or short story with a dream sequence.

However, most people can’t, and the problem isn’t even necessarily the dream sequence, but how it ties in with the rest of the story.

See, the typical dream sequence beginning goes something like this: Main character has a dream, where they either remember something that has recently happened that is interesting, or they has some sort of cryptic dream that hints interesting things are to come.

Main character then wakes up, goes to the bathroom (generally takes a shower, though brushing teeth is common as well), and any conflict or tension that was built up during the dream is immediately lost. The story doesn’t try to build off of it, and so everything just collapses into boring mediocrity.

There’s a bigger issue with the remembering something that has just happened kind. Why not start with that event? Why tell about it after the fact instead of showing it in action, especially if it’s something major, something that rocks the character’s world, something that starts the main plot?

But sometimes it doesn’t do any of those things–it’s just a one-off, something to hook people in right at the beginning, that doesn’t actually have anything to do with the main plot or the goals of the main character. That’s got a whole heap of other problems tied to it.

Beginnings are hard–they have to hook the reader, set up your MC and his/her world, and be relevant to your plot and your MC’s character arc. Getting that balance just right is a skill that generally takes a lot of cultivating.

If you’re starting with a dream sequence, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What am I hoping to show about my plot/character with this sequence?
  • Could this information be better conveyed in another way?
  • Does the content of this dream sequence directly tie in to and influence the main plot of my story?
  • Am I managing to keep the tension up once my character wakes up?

What do you think, Squiders? Do you have any examples of a starting dream sequence done right? Have you run into this issue in your own writing (or even professional writing) in the past?