Character Change Arc as Story Driver

Normally, I know the plot of a story first. Then I lay over that plot the main character’s character change arc. These two steps happen so close together, there’s not really a delay between developing the plot and the character change arc. With my current project, however, I did not have the plot figured out. I only knew the essence of what needed to happen.

To solve my dilemma, I set the plot aside and concentrated on the main character’s character change arc. Once I knew how the character would change, I returned to built a plot to support that change.

Over the years, I’ve studied many resources about character change arcs and feel comfortable with them, but to help with my current effort, I decided to review and refresh my thinking. I reread K.M. Weiland’s article series How to Write Character Arcs.

I was amazed how that gave me insights and ideas about my characters and the story plot. More details are still to be developed as I outline, but I’m excited about where the story is going.

Fantastic Insights Occur

I’m a planner, which means I know my story before I begin writing. However, that does not mean I don’t discovery write. The plan provides the structure for the story, but the details that complete it I discovery write.

During the writing process, fantastic insights occur. For example, in my most recent short story, I discovered the dragon has a thing for rocks. When she finds a rock large enough to sit on, she jumps on it and says, “This rock is my rock.”

That affinity for rocks then grew into a backstory where the dragon collects smaller rocks, her hoard, which she enjoys sitting on. That detail is not revealed in the short story, so I feel compelled to write another story with this character so I can explore her rock fetish.

I’ll put that one on the to-do list because I another stories to write first.

The rush from having these fun insights and ideas is part of the reason why writing is addictive. I’m always looking for another flash of insight, another spark of an idea, another fix for that addiction.

Short Fiction Builds Skills

Recently, I’ve been writing short stories. With them I can practice my writing craft skills quickly because a short story doesn’t take as long to write as a long-form story. This quicker turnaround allows me to refine my writing process by repeatedly running through it over several months rather than years. For these stories, I aim for 6,000 words.

Micro fiction is another form I dabble with. Every year I write a 100-word Christmas story. I tend toward long stories, so the first time I wrote one of these I was surprised I could. (Apparently, a 100-word work of fiction is called a “drabble.” That means I dabble in drabble.)

I searched for information about micro fiction story structure and discovered a variety of opinions, all of which are probably valid. The story I wrote this year has a three part structure: 1) Setup, 2) Bridge, 3) Consequence. I like the way it turned out. Later I’ll experiment with some of the structures and methods other writers suggest.

In December, near Christmas, the story should be available for you to read. Stay tuned.

2018 Clarion West Write-a-thon Finished

For this year’s Clarion West Write-a-thon, I worked on my short story skills. One story is in the submission phase looking for a market to call home. A draft of a second story is finished and is now being edited. The story is slightly long for my target markets, but with some work, it will be made right. After editing, my Alpha and Beta Readers will look at it and their suggestions will be applied as appropriate. Then it will begin its submission phase.

Word Cloud and Pages for draft of You and I will Change the World

Word Cloud and Pages for draft of You and I will Change the World

2018 Clarion West Write-a-thon

This year I’m again participating in the Clarion West Write-a-thon. My goal is to practice my writing craft skills on a series of short stories.

The Write-a-thon is a fundraiser for the Clarion West Writers Workshop. If you wish to donate to Clarion West in my name, go to my writer’s page and click on the Sponsor Lester D. Crawford button.

(You can also read an excerpt from my current short story project on that page.)
Clarion West Write-a-thon Badge

Bad Things Happen

Sometimes, bad things happen. Sometimes, many bad things happen. Sometimes, it feels like the universe is conspiring against me. At those times, it can be hard to work on writing. However, at those times, taking a moment to write can be a way to briefly escape this conspiratorial universe by visiting my universe where I am in control. That is how I feel right now. I’m going to visit my universe where dragons walk two circles and make little marching steps before lying down for the night. I will write the scene where Ladyhawk does just that.

Setup and Payoff

Tess of the Road book cover

Tess of the Road Cover

Another book that caused me to evaluate my writing is Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman. This story occurs in the same universe as Hartman’s Seraphina and Shadow Scale duology, but it is not a third book of a trilogy. It is the first book of a new duology centered on a new character, Tess.

Having multiple stories in the same universe is something I do, but that is not what struck me about this story. What enthralled me was Hartman’s use of setup and payoff. She introduces objects, cultures, characters, or concepts at organic moments in the story where learning about these items fits perfectly. However, the payoff is later when those items reappear at a pivotal moment in the story. Since we have already learned about them, the story charges forward without pausing to explain. I like the way Hartman does this. I, too, do this to some extent, but I could use with some improvement.

Twists that Thwart Expectations

Every Heart a Doorway book cover

Every Heart a Doorway Cover

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire is a fascinating read, but this is not a review of the book. If you are interested in learning more about the book, look it up. I only want to mention one of many elements that made me stop and think about my own writing. This element involves expectation and making a twist that thwarts that expectation.

Trying not to be too spoilery, the scene occurs in the first act when we meet the main character. She is described as having black hair with white streaks. We learn that when she was in a magical land, a character there had run his fingers through her hair making the streaks. My immediate reaction was: Where he touched her hair, her hair had turned white. Then the narrative continues with a description of how the streaks were made: The hair that was not touched turned white with jealousy. Oh! That was an unexpected twist. It was simple, straight forward, totally violated my expectations, and it was wonderful.

I often think about the need for big twists in my stories (an example of a big twist occurs in “The Sixth Sense” (1999)), but I had not considered little twists. Is there anywhere in my writing where I make such twists that challenge my readers’ expectations in surprising ways? I fear not unless I wrote the little twists without thinking about them. Reading “Every Heart a Doorway” changed me as a writer. I learned a new skill. Now, I need to intentionally apply it to my writing.

Structured and Organized

Some writers say they simply start writing having no notion about the story. They simply let the flow of words dictate where the story goes. I do something similar when I brainstorm, but when it comes to writing a story, I’m structured and organized.

In my IT career, I was the same way. I would experiment by writing code heuristically, but when it came to creating a computer application, I performed detailed analyses and design — figuring out what the application would do, how it would do it, and what the end result would look like — before cutting code.

As I’ve developed my writing craft skills, I’ve become a strong believer in story structure. The approach I’m using on short stories is to decide on the target word count, determine the word count for each step in the story structure, and then organize an outline for the plot points. This means that at every point in the story, I know how many words are needed, which allows me to know I’m on target for staying near my word count goal.

The items in the outline can contain very little or a great deal of information, typically from my brainstorming sessions. For example, for a recent short story, the Reaction step (the first quarter of the second act) said, “Boy talks with Friend about his plan to slay dragons. Friend tries to talk Boy out of trying to slay dragons.” From that I needed to create 760 words. This is where discovery writing comes into play; and, magically, it came together. It was thrilling.

Often, as the writing progresses, more ideas reveal themselves requiring adjustments to the outline, but those normally fit. Story elements that occur in one area turn out to be useful in another. And foreshadowing events pop out to help unify the story.

I spend time every evening exploring story ideas, but once those ideas are solid, I find having structure and an organized plan makes the writing of those ideas fun, and I always know where I’m going.

Word Count Goals for a 6,000 Word Short Story

Word Count Goals for a 6,000 Word Short Story

All Writing is an Experiment

All writing is an experiment.

The judge of the success of an experiment is the reader.

The principles of storytelling have existed since the beginning of human kind. Our minds are wired for it, and some people tell well structured stories instinctively. For all of us, the quality of our stories can be improved by studying, practicing, and actively implementing those principles. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of flexibility, but the greater the outlier the greater the risk of failure. It’s also true that the greater your fan following, the more deviation editors and publishers accept.

I strongly discourage writers from harboring the idea that they don’t need to learn the craft of storytelling, that they’re free to do whatever they want, and if a reader doesn’t like how something is written, it’s the reader’s problem, not the writer’s problem because there are no rules. I say learn the craft, learn the principles, learn the rules, and then you can deviate and know that you are. Then you can experiment.

One analogy I use is photographic composition. There are rules to composing a photograph. Those rules are as old as art itself. Most people with cameras don’t know them. Some people refuse to acknowledge they even exist. But all photographers, painters, and other artists benefit by knowing and following the rules.

Image contains two pictures.  One is well composed.  On is not.