Instant Plot! Just Add: Kidnapping!

This month, I’ve given you a few really good tips on how to get your limping story up to at least a hop-skip-run.  Now, I feel like I should emphasize that these posts are (surprise, surprise!) very tongue-in-cheek and not meant to be taken as entirely serious suggestions.  Just somewhat serious suggestions.

That I will probably make fun of you for later.

The fact is, there’s no such thing as an “instant plot”, but what we can do is look at books we admire and see what they did to move their stories along.  Sometimes even a cliché can be useful (le gasp!) if it is used in its proper context.  That is, you either have to do something pretty incredibly original with it, or you have to make sure your readers know that you know it’s a cliché and you’re going with it anyway.  Deal.

robert louis stevenson kidnapped novel cover
Or… you could just make this Instant Plot the ONLY plot and name your book after it. But that’s been done. So probably not.

And so I am going to leave you this month with one more Instant Plot suggestion, and this is one that I’ve used.  If you want to add drama and excitement to your plot, all you have to do is get one of your main characters (or one of their babies!) kidnapped.

Bam.  Suddenly, there is motivation and urgency and something for your characters to do.  It’s that simple!

Except, as I said, Instant Plot ideas should never be simple.  They should be integrated into your plot, should have a purpose outside of just making your reader freak out, and should be as realistic as possible within the confines of the world you have created.

In the novel that I am currently working on (and have been working on for… years…), I have a character who gets kidnapped.  Twice.  He gets kidnapped from the original kidnappers.  I was all over this Instant Plot idea.

However, I like to think that I made it work as a plot mover in more ways than one.  It is the initial cause of a long series of events that bring the story to its conclusion, and it is integrated into the world-building.  My character didn’t just get (double)kidnapped.  His kidnapping was a huge part of how my main character learns just what in her world is going on.

So what are the different common kidnapping scenarios that you might consider (but maybe not because they are common and your book is oozing with originality!!!).  Oh, and if you want it to sound way more serious, you can always replace the word “kidnapped” with “captured.”  That’s how your reader knows that this is really bad:

  1. Hero gets kidnapped.  This is a good one if you want to stick with one character’s journey to greatness.  The villain or a band of random miscreants snatches your hero away in the night and suddenly, your hero has an immediate problem to solve.  This will probably also be dreadfully inconvenient because your hero had a plan and a mission and a quest and a kidnapping is definitely an unwelcome detour.  Instant angst.  But this is an excellent chance for your hero to prove his/her worth by winning his/her captors over to his/her cause.  This is also a chance for your hero’s One True Love to prove him/herself by rescuing the hero.  Good relationship test.
  2. Hero’s One True Love gets kidnapped.  This is a marvelous chance to let your character sink into some pretty dark depths of despair and misery from which he/she must rise and overcome.  Character building is important, you know.  And, of course, you must make it very clear to your reader that the One True Love’s life does actually hang in the balance.  If you’re really mean, you’ll kill the OTL.  Talk about Instant Plot.
  3. Hero’s baby gets kidnapped.  I think we covered this already.  A kidnapped kid is ridiculously stressful – for your character, that is.  Your readers will be pretty confident that you wouldn’t actually kill a child.  Even a fictional one.  Would you?
  4. Hero kidnaps villain.  In a strange turn of events, there is suddenly a villain in custody.  Of course, if you were film-writing, you would immediately contain said villain in a big clear box with two-way communication so that the villain could eye the hero creepily and say disconcerting things and generally cause trouble.  Because locking him/her in a dark room and gagging him/her is such a silly idea.  
    villain in glass prison                Be aware that if the villain is kidnapped, you really won’t have much choice except to let the villain escape later.  Otherwise, your Instant Plot will sputter a bit.

As I said before, Instant Plot ideas are not really meant to be taken in complete seriousness as a way to solve your plotting problems.  But by considering common plot twists, we as authors can decide what we want to use and how we want to use it. Being aware of the clichés and thereby either avoiding them or wielding them wisely can make your Instant Plot an interesting and likable one.

However, if you’re just desperate, you could simply write a novel in which a secret baby is kidnapped.  Instant Success! I just solved all of your problems.

Let me know what other Instant Plot ideas you think could be added to the list of “usually cliché but potentially awesome.”  What did I miss?

The Weight of the Writer

I have spent the last three weeks rambling about my thoughts as I reread The Four Loves, The Mind of the Maker, and  An Experiment in Criticism.  It has been a busy week since last Friday and to my shame I have not read as much as I’d like to have.    That being said, I do not want to neglect my post or the promise that this month was themed around my ramblings on these books.

The Power of the Idea in the form of the Word is still making its rounds in my head. Sayers spends a good deal of time on this subject and rightly so.  Writing is a powerful tool and communicates not just stories, but ideas … revolutions … religion … war … hate … redemption.

I have to ask myself, what am I communicating?  What Idea am I putting into Words that will have Power with a mind?

It is dreadful to think what the wrong words, wrong ideas will do to a weak mind.  It is exhilaration to think of what the right word, right ideas will spark in the right mind.  It is a heavy burden for an author to consider.

We see this power in the reaction to Harry Potter.  There were so many people who were for the books, against the books, who praised them, who cursed them…the criticism goes on and on. There is power in the ideas that Rowling wrote.  Magic.  Something that we all fear and/or desire. But I think that those who get caught up in the debate about magic miss something.  They miss the real issue of her books – Death.  Or rather the fear of Death and conquering that fear by facing it with grace and humility.  Magic is the foil that Rowling uses to deal with a more powerful, more real concept that many of us don’t want to think about or consider.  Rowlings’s heroes are able to live full and happy lives because they face Death with humility and acceptance. This is a lesson for all of us – the Power in the Idea.

However, going back to the concept of Magic, I must ask the question, does the use of magic detract from the message?  I still know of people – good people, whose opinions I trust and admire – who dislike the books on the grounds of magic.  I have had many an argument with friends and family on this topic: is magic within a fantasy story good or bad?  I heard/read the news articles about the kids that were snooping into real magic/dark arts and things because they had read about it in Harry Potter. Do I blame the books for putting the Idea into their heads, or is there a greater issue here?  I read the books, I heard about magic, but I did not go off and try to do magic in the real world. I suppose I had read/heard enough about magic to know that within the confines of the pages magic was a medium to be respected and outside of the pages, magic was a force to be feared and avoided.

Magic is dangerous and very real.  It is not something any one should tamper with.  There is no “good” magic in the real world.  There is the power of God and there is the power of devils.  And the Bible is very clear about this subject.

Yet, I think of Tolkien and Lewis and how they used “magic” in their worlds.  Gandalf is a wizard and he wields power.  In Narnia, Aslan talks about the Deep Magic that created the world.  These are arguably good forces in the stories.  I suppose what I must consider is not the means but the Idea behind the means.  What do these forces in the book represent and what are they trying to teach?  Just like in Harry Potter, the magic is a foil to the greater concept of Death and how we deal with the notion of dying.

I am still not sure where I stand on the issue about the use of magic in writing and the fear of the implications in the real world. It is the weight that a writer must bear as he/she thinks about what they are writing, why are they writing, and what are they ultimately communicating to their readers.

A New Year’s Resolution: may your papers bleed red ink

Well it has been a month since my last post.  The month of November was dedicated to writing a novel, and if you remember (or care) I really did not succeed as well as I’d have liked.  However, I learned a lot about writing and discipline.

I am happy to say that I have written another ten thousand words on that particular story (Yeah, go me!). It is encouraging to see a story come to life and still have the desire to see it to completion.  Sometimes the story is just too overwhelming. Anyway, that is not the point of this post.

I want to look at a new year and a new month with a little more focus and clarity (not much of a good start, really).

New Years is full of resolutions, the hope for change and the realization that those resolutions are about as effective as asking a first grader to edit a paper – there will be an attempt, but it won’t be pretty and the end result may be a messy scribble of red crayon on white paper.  Like my resolution to try and write a novel in a month, most resolutions have strong beginnings, a weaning off period by the end of the week, a struggle to regain some ground by the third week and the profound comfort of strong coffee and a movie to ease away the guilt of neglect by the fourth week. (You can see that I am very hopeful!)

Writing projects are like new year’s resolutions but even more so are the editing projects. All those finished or unfinished stories from last year need to be looked at, revised, revisited, edited, and completely rewritten. Nothing is ever finished until it is published and even then there is no guarantee that it is at its best.

I do a lot of editing for Lantern Hollow and I have come up with several methods for editing (I am still not convinced which way I like best).  I want to take the next couple of weeks to focus on these concepts and methods..

I have a few disclaimers about editing to start with…

  • I am terrible at editing…MY OWN stuff. I can read a run-on sentence that I wrote all day and I won’t see it.  A misplaced modifier will always look “alright” to me if I wrote it.  I need more than a week away from something I wrote before I can safely edit it and even then I will not see all of my mistakes. My brain sort of auto corrects things for me without telling me.  It is a bit of an annoying habit really.  I think this is caused by something like dyslexia or maybe it is dyslexia – I am not sure.  Either way, it is a challenge that I have had to deal with since I started writing.
  • I like editing.  I like reading stories and papers and finding the missing pieces or trying to figure out why or how a sentence doesn’t work.  It is a puzzle.  Sometimes a sentence or idea doesn’t work because I, as the editor, have preconceived notions about meanings and tone.  I like expressing and articulating such distinctions.
  • Editing is tedious work and even the best of us makes mistakes.

But there are methods and ways around the challenges of editing.  So, in the next three posts I’ll be discussing editing tips, hints and means of editing that will hopefully help you.

In the mean time – happy writing!

NaNoWriMo – The end is only a beginning

So it is the last day of the month, the end of NaNoWriMo.

For some of you this is a sigh of relief – the pressure is off.  For others, it is despairing  knowing that you did not reach your goal.  Some of you may be experiencing the joys of a strong finish.  And still more of you are just glad to be done – finished never having to look at that story again.

I applaud you finishers!  I congratulate you writers of a novel in a month!

I, nevertheless, did not finish…strong or otherwise.

But I do not consider this a failing, just a lesson.

I set out to write and see were it took me.  I wanted to have a goal and strive towards it.  I wanted to discipline myself and win the battle against my fickle muse.  In many ways, I succeeded in that cause.  I discovered that if I did “just sit down and force words onto the page” I could bring about a story even if my muse thought otherwise.

I learned that life is full of more distractions that I truly realized.  There are family gatherings, friendly emergencies, daily duties, need for sustenance  and unexpected occurrences that take up time, energy and money.  These interruptions are not all bad.  Some are very good.  These distractions can and will hinder you from enjoying, completing or even actually writing. (This is true for any hobby or extra curricular activity that you do).   If  I am going to be a writer, I am going to need to be more disciplined.  Writing is work but if I wait for the inspiration or the time, I’ll never write.  I need to make the time.  I need to be consistent, purposeful  and resolved in my writing.

Instead of looking at my measly 30,000 word count and thinking that I have failed, I am looking at my 30,000 words as that much closer to finishing an actual story.  NaNoWriMo forced me to write and by writing I worked out many of the kinks in the plot.  I now have a story that is worth finishing.  I am not sure if I am only half way there with my story or not but I have a strong beginning and a hopeful ending.

Keep writing!

 

How NOT to Write: Problematic points of view

During the month of June, I thought I might share some insights from my nine years of teaching writing to college students of all levels–from freshmen to graduates.  These are some of the most common errors of omission and commission that I encounter on a regular basis.  What has this to do with writing fiction, you ask?  Fiction let’s us play around intentionally with many of the rules that non-fiction authors must live by.  Of course, the first necessary step to intelligently breaking a rule is to know what it means to begin with.  So, I will open with a discussion of the problem, explain what the rule should look like in normal prose, and then close with some ideas on how this can help your fiction.  I might even give a few ideas as to how you can even thumb your nose at it!

__________

“Point of view” (POV) is a powerful thing.  It obviously determines how we interact with the world around us, and how other people approach us.  It is a basic part of all knowledge and experience.  Even the great sage Obi-wan Kenobi observed to Luke Skywalker that much of what we believe about the world “depend[s] greatly on our own point of view.”  While I strong disagree with Old Ben about our POV determining truth, I agree that is too important to be overlooked.  It is ironic then that one of the most common problems I see in my courses deals with authorial POV.

POV would seem to be a simple thing in the academic context.  Generally, an author writes from his or her own perspective and that is that.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the goal of formal, academic prose is to communicate ideas as clearly and accurately as possible.  So, the author speaks to his or her audience, coaxing them down an intellectual path to (hopefully) reach the intended conclusion.  Good academic writers can get most people from point A to point B.  The best can make them enjoy the trip.  So what problem could there be?

It comes when we forget to read from someone else’s perspective.  What makes perfect sense to us doesn’t always seem so clear to someone else.  Take the following examples*, if you will:

  • (On a World War II poster) Save soap and waste paper!–So how much paper should we throw away, on average?
  • People across the country were shocked when Teddy Roosevelt had an African American for dinner.–I can see the book title now:  The Presidential Cannibal
  • The ship was christened by Mrs. Coolidge.  The lines of her bottom were admired by an applauding crowd.–I imagine that would provoke her husband and our 30th president, “Silent Cal” into a few choice words.
Right.  What all these examples have in common is the fact that whoever wrote them forgot to look at what he/she had written from the perspective of the reader as well as from that of the author.  After all, I’m sure that the author knew that the “her” in that last example referred to the ship and not Mrs. Coolidge.  Can’t everyone else see that?!

No, they can’t.  They can only see what we put on the page, and they will read into it the most obvious interpretation they can (and even a few that they can’t).

The only way we can hope to prevent this is to read our work from as many different angles as possible.  Leave time between drafts to relax and pursue other interests.  This lets your brain “reset” itself, and you’ll be better able to see what you actually put on the page…as opposed to what you wanted to put there and so now expect to see.

In fiction, POV is incredibly useful.  If you keep the distinction between author and reader in mind, you can have all sorts of fun manipulating your audience and make them like it.  I myself am only just now beginning to play around with it on my current project–a  series of first person novellas telling how a diverse group of people all arrive at the same place.    Whatever you might think of his later movies, M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense is a brilliant POV thriller where they audience does not even realize it has been tricked until the very end.  Winton’s POV in 1984 is another brilliant example.

When not mining them for ideas, we can apply the same advice on POVs to our fiction that I make my students apply to their formal prose.  It is never enough to stop with just the author’s POV.  The first step is to go beyond and anticipate the reader’s.  The next (and perhaps the most fruitful) is to get to know your reader so well that you can control their POV.  When you can do both at once, the possibilities are endless.

Next Week…a fresh perspective from July’s featured author on Fridays!  I’ll be around in my Sunday feature, “Meditations with C. S. Lewis,” and I’ll be back on Fridays in August.  Here’s hoping I can think of something new by then….

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*These aren’t original to me.  I believe I first read them in David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies, though I’m sure they weren’t original to him either.

More in the How NOT to Write series: