Sunday, December 27, 2015

David Farland: My Story Doctor: Story Puzzle - Part 4

In this fourth segment on my review of David Farland's online workshop, Story Puzzle, I will be analyzing lesson four: Plotting. (Coming into the middle of this series? You can find the first post here.)

As you'll remember from the previous lesson, I am used to plotting and outlining my stories in a certain way. In lesson three (where we discussed conflicts), my first attempt at the assignment was basically a plotting assignment. Essentially, I jumped the gun and used my plot to help identify the conflicts.

So, you can probably guess that the plotting assignment was pretty straight forward. I took my final attempt from the conflicts assignment, and combined it with my initial attempt, and tweaked it just enough to follow the important take-away from the plotting assignment: try/fail cycles.

Let's take a moment to discuss try/fail cycles. As the name implies, these are cycles wherein a character attempts to accomplish a goal and typically fails ... until they succeed. A great analysis of try/fail cycles can be read here on Heidi Tighe's blog. The gist, however, is this: A character has a goal (be it rescuing the princess, escaping prison, fleeing the police, or making breakfast) and, as a means of escalating the dramatic tension over this course of the character's attempts to accomplish said goal, the character must make several attempts to accomplish the goal.

Why is this important? Because if your character succeeds in accomplishing his or her goals on the first attempt each time, your character will be unbelievable and, ultimately, uninteresting. Of course, the number of try/fail cycles a particular goal requires is directly proportional to the importance of said goal. Escaping prison is probably fairly important to a story and would therefore require several try/fail cycles. Eating breakfast ... no doubt not so important and therefore may require one or no try/fail cycles.

In crafting my own try/fail cycles for each of the major conflicts from assignment three, I chose to stick with the "Yes, but.../No, and..." format. This is a great way of escalating the tension for each goal. I won't get too detailed in this post since there are better examples here, here, and here. However, the gist is: Does the character accomplish his goal? Yes, but ... [escalating incident which creates a bigger problem] ... or ... Does the character accomplish his goal? No, and ... [escalating incident which creates a bigger problem]. This continues as necessary until the character ultimately attains his goal or ultimately fails.

Part of the importance of this particular assignment was to ensure the try/fail cycles of each character conflict could be braided together. For my particular piece, this was the greatest struggle for this assignment. I have thirteen characters, each with their own motives, and each with their own conflicts with each other, society, or themselves. Ensuring each of these try/fail cycles and conflicts wove together seamlessly was a bit of a struggle, but, a few weeks later I was able to finish it off.

All in all, this has probably been the best assignment within Dave's Story Puzzle workshop; in my opinion, the most helpful. Again, if you think one of Dave's workshops is good for you (and I think each of you should take one), you can find him here.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

David Farland: My Story Doctor: Story Puzzle - Part 3

For those of you following along, I am deep in the process of taking an online workshop with David Farland. This is the third post of a six-post series on my thoughts and struggles as I work my way through Dave's workshop. In case you missed the first two posts, you can find them here and here.

In Part 3 of Dave's workshop, entitled Story Puzzle, we are looking at character conflicts. He discusses the traditional man versus man, man versus self, man versus nature. He also adds a couple of new ones I'd not heard or thought of before: man versus god, and man versus society. The general idea with this particular assignment is to generate conflict for each of the characters we developed in the previous assignment.

I just want to tell you right now ... this was a struggle for me, and I had to complete the assignment twice before I got it right.

You see, I'm used to outlining my stories in a certain way. I utilize a combination of the 7-Point Plot system attributed to Dan Wells (though he'll be the first to tell you he discovered it in the pages of a role playing manual) and The Snowflake Method developed by Randy Ingermanson. With this hybrid method, I typically "pants" my way into character conflicts. Usually I'll have a general idea of where the plot needs to go and discover the conflicts between characters as I develop them in conjunction with the overall plot. (This may be why my conflicts never seem that great.)

With Dave's method, however, he asked us to create all of these conflicts ahead of time. The essential gist of the assignment was to take each character, describe what happens to let the character knows he or she has a problem, and list all the ways he or she attempts to solve that problem (and all the ways the antagonistic force gets in the way) until the problem is either solved or the character fails.

For example: Suppose your character has an exciting relationship with her boyfriend. He takes her to fancy restaurants and they always stay in expensive hotels. Then she discovers he's married. What does she do? She confronts him about his wife. He tells her they are separated. She doesn't believe him and tells him she's leaving him. She doesn't want to be a homewrecker. He kidnaps her and tells her she can't leave. She tries to call for help but he ties her to a chair and tapes her mouth. Et cetera. Et cetera.

The problem I had initially was that I was looking at the minutia of my story. I set out to explain the smallest (but still relevant and important) conflicts within my story instead of focusing on the overarching story-wide conflict for each character.

For example: in my story, my main character (for now let's call her Nadia) is sent to prison for murder. She committed the crime, but it was self defense. However, she was set up to have to defend herself. Instead of focusing on discovering the treachery that sent her to prison, I looked at each of the minor events that put her there: the jealous colleague who discovered her affair, the jealous wife who had access to the tools necessary to put her in that position, the corrupt judge who was morally obligated to protect his sister (the jealous wife), and so on, ad nauseum.

It took me days to get this far in the process, and when I finally sent my work to Dave I felt I needed a break.

It was a good thing I took one, too, because he returned my work with a much needed reprimand. "Your down in the weeds on this one." He saw my focus on the minutia immediately and sent it back to me with instructions to look at the 1000-mile view of the story.

Another of hours later I resubmitted an updated assignment. This second time around was much easier. Perhaps because I already had all the little details in place, all I had to do was zoom out a bit to see the overall story as a whole.

Needless to say, Dave's response to my revised attempt was positive an I'm now off to start the fourth part of his Story Puzzle workshop: Plotting.

For anyone interested in honing their craft to its best potential, I highly recommend one of Dave's workshops. You can find access to them here, or by clicking the banner link at the top of this post. Stay tuned for the next post in this series on plotting. I'm sure it will be as much fun as conflicts were.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Review: Djibouti

Djibouti Djibouti by Elmore Leonard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had never before read Elmore Leonard, but I'd heard good things, so I thought I'd give him a try. I chose Djibouti at random. It was interesting. Fiction with modern non-fiction tied in among the background. I was a little disappointed in the treatment of the story. There may be spoilers here, but: The story revolves around a woman who is a documentary filmmaker analyzing Somali pirates. It begins in a somewhat gripping yet nonchalant way with the woman showing up in Djbouti and meeting people associated with pirating around the horn of Africa. You get the sense that these are somewhat dangerous people, but that this woman ... the documentary filmmaker ... doesn't feel as if she's in danger at all.

She and her cameraman/grip/gaffer are set to go out on a boat to film these pirates doing their thing and getting their side of the story. Why are they being pirates? It's an interesting question, and one that is vaguely answered. The book shows them going out to sea, and then cuts to a single paragraph that says ... they were out to see for almost a month ... and then cuts to them back in her hotel room analyzing the footage they shot and discussing it. I felt it was a little weak, almost like watching a story unfold through flashbacks.

The rest of the tale doesn't follow this same pattern, however, as they soon realize there is more at play than just Somali pirates. There are some rather eccentric characters in the tale ... some who might be too much of a caricature to be real, but they are fun characters nonetheless. The billionaire sailor and his runway model girlfriend. The Al Qaeda members ... who might be gay, which seems incongruous with everything we know about Al Qaeda (though, perhaps not at all unlikely), the highly resourceful young man who seems to have unlimited funds, out to get our protagonists.

It was a super fast read, and was enjoyable for all the slightly unbelievable characters. I'll likely read another Elmore Leonard book again.

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