Sunday, May 22, 2011

Creating Problems

Yesterday my family went hiking here in Arizona where we're on vacation and I talked with my dad along the way. He was telling me about the story of Dune because I had never read it and from there we talked about the desert and I asked him to help me brainstorm ideas for a story set in the desert. He started generating ideas and before long had sketched out an entire story. When I was younger he'd do the same thing but I asked him this time how he came up with it. He said he was a problem solver so he was just solving problems.

It's interesting to think of stories from the standpoint of problems. It's what we're supposed to do, and we give it different names: conflict, drama, tension. How does it work? Well, in this blog I'll talk about one way.

Character vs. Plot

Obviously you have to have both characters and plot in order to write a story. But which comes first? I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all answer to that question but I do know what works for me. Plot. Characters are people you find who are willing to do the things your plot requires. So the question I always find myself with is, how do I create a good plot? This is where the act of creating problems comes in.

Create a Problem you Want to Solve

When I was a younger writer, I would just create “cool” characters that I liked and then launch into some sort of story about them. This didn't work, (and resulted in many abandoned stories), because what happened was, as I wrote I created problems for my characters that I didn't like. I lost interest because my characters were caught up in things I didn't really care about.

How do you know what kind of problems you'd like to write about? It's actually pretty simple. And, for example, I can think of many problems I do not like to write about because of my failed attempts to work on them. A simple way to brainstorm for problems you might enjoy writing about is to think about your favorite stories, books, or films. I thought of a Studio Ghibli film (an animated film) that I love called Castle in the Sky. The central problem is that Sheeta, the main character, has something that everyone else in the film wants: the government, the pirates, and Muska, the government agent who has his own agenda.

We talk about the Knight's Quest of olden days, and what problem did a quest present? An evil dragon who stole a maiden. The knight went out into the wilderness, battled enemy knights, had to hunt for food when he ran out, and finally battled the dragon.

Obviously there are much different problems as well, though. For example, I love the author John Green, and he writes contemporary young adult fiction. So in the book Paper Towns, the problem the main character faces is that he is in love with an idealized version of a girl—a girl who doesn't really give him the time of day. He wants to interact with this beautiful creature he has imagined, but the real girl doesn't really pay attention to him.

So there's the problem of the main character having something that everyone else wants and the main character wanting something from someone who won't give it to them. I like those two especially, but obviously there are others. I was thinking about The Dark Knight, which I like quite a bit, and in that you have two superhuman characters who want opposite things (the Joker wants society to crumble, Batman is focused on making sure society doesn't crumble). That one is difficult because the stakes have to be raised constantly, neither side really making progress until the end.

Anyway, just some thoughts about using problem brainstorming for story planning. It's a very small slice of planning, I will admit, but sometimes the part you don't notice at first can be very helpful.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Before Writing Checklist

So I'm at the library right now. It's nice to have a change of scenery. I've written more today, here, than I have at home in a long, long time. Which is good. It's all part of making goals for the summer. I'm constantly trying to re-motivate myself, as you well know, and I think I'm finally figuring out some effective ways to do that. For now, at least :P

A new idea I've had is the “Before Writing Checklist.” The concept is that you use the checklist to give yourself some concrete steps leading up to the actual words on page. If you're like me, you find it difficult to just sit down and produce. This checklist is designed to help with that.

Two things to keep in mind. First, this is my version, so you might want to tweek it a bit. And second, it's heavily inspired by Mystery and Manners, a collection of essays written by Flannery O'Connor, specifically the one on fiction. :P


Step 1: Turn off your wireless internet, or simply remove the bookmarks bar (in chrome, ctrl + shift + B will remove it and the same will put it back), to stop internet surfing distractions.

Step 2: Write at least one hundred words in a blank document on any topic to warm up. Sample ideas: Describe what you see around you. Steam of conscious about any emotions or thoughts. Random musings about your characters.

Step 3: Review the fundamentals (you may have different fundamentals, I find these helpful and they are drawn from the essay by Flannery O'Connor).

A) “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn yourself getting dusty, then you shouldn't try fiction. It's not a grand enough job for you.”

B) Characters are abstract, but the details of their behavior and personality make them concrete.

C) “Aspire to anagogical vision: the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or situation.” Create a concrete plot, concrete settings, and concrete character details.

Step 4: Review yesterday's work and perform minor edits. Get a sense of where you are in the story.

Step 5: Use a notebook as a tool. Make a list of plot, setting, and character (in that order), and fill out what you're doing in the next scene that needs to be written.

Step 6: Write.

Step 7: Take a break, but make sure that your break is not distracting. A break should be restful, but also accomplish something. Try another activity or chore that you were putting off, or work on a blog (that's what I'm doing right now!) Then go back to steps 3-5, if necessary.

And that's it :-) Discussion is open! What do you think? Have you ever tried a checklist?