Friday Fictioneers – Obedience

overhead-window
PHOTO PROMPT © J Hardy Carrol

When things started falling upwards, I knew it wasn’t going to be an ordinary day.  The colander and the beer tankard whirled above my head, making a tiny planetary system.

If life gives you lemons, as they say, make lemonade. I spread my arms and prepared to float into the roof lantern. We’ve all dreamed of flying, right? But my feet remained planted.

That’s my failing. If there’s a rule, I obey it. The law of gravity held me sullen in its grip as the cat began slowly to ascend the blue dome of the sky.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

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122. The robot will see you now: writing apps reviewed

We’re a long way from robots writing compelling stories, but software can make an author’s life simpler. There are three broad classes of software intended to help writers.

  • Planners help you plan a story,
  • Organisers help you write it,
  • Editors help you edit it.

I list some of the main alternative here.

As I’ve said before, though I love software, I’m not a big fan of the Organisers for authors. I’m just as happy using an ordinary word-processor and a spreadsheet. So none of the programs in the Organiser category is in my toolkit and I haven’t attempted to test and review them. Remember, a computer program won’t write a single word of your novel for you. I do however recommend Beemgee from the Planner category and ProWritingAId from the Editor group. I’ve also tried Contour from the Planner group and it’s pretty good. I was less persuaded by the usefulness of Contour’s companion program, Persona, compared with Beemgee.

beemgee

Planners

Most of the software in the organiser group below includes some planning functions. However, there are more dedicated planners

  • Contour is aimed at screenwriters supporting them in developing an outline. It’s based on four key question: Who is the main character? What is the main character trying to accomplish? Who is trying to stop the main character? What happens if the main character fails? It costs US$39.95
  • Persona is character-creation companion software to Contour. It’s based on archetypes and costs US$39.95
  • Beemgee offers a very detailed series of prompts for defining character and plot outlines. I like the way Beemgee links plot to character. The basic version is free. The premium version with more functionality costs €59per year.
  • Dramatica, like Contour, is based on a writing theory. In this case, the central idea is that “every complete story is a model of the mind’s problem solving process”. It costs US$99.95.
  • Storyweaver is a simplified version of Dramatica. It costs US$29.95
  • Snowflake Pro.  This is Randy Ingermanson’s famous method turned into software. It will cost you US$100. Or you can just read the ten steps of the Snowflake on his blog for free.

 

Organisers

This type of software acts as a word-processor and filing cabinet. They conveniently store your plot outline, timeline, notes on background research, and your stray snippets. Some include prompts for generating characters. All include a stripped-down and uncluttered word-processor. The particular advantage of word-processors for writers is that they’re designed for you to move chapters and chunks around easily. Scrivener is the best known of these.

In addition some include templates or other devices to help you build your story arc.  I’d recommend treating this facility with some caution. Following templates may lead to mechanical stories.

writenow storyboard
WriteItNow storyboard

For ease of presentation, I’ve listed all the features and the costs of the main products in a table.

story organisers

Editors

In a previous blogpost I reviewed Fictionary (which implausibly claims to give your novel a structural assessment), and copy editors Autocrit and ProWritingAid, as well as some free alternatives.  I recommended ProWritingAid as best value for money.

 

The bottom line

Many of the story Planners can be copied out as question templates. So you could try the demo version, copy the questions, and create your own tool. There’s pretty much nothing in the Organiser group you can’t do with a word-processor and a spreadsheet, or indeed paper and pencil. Only the Editing tools depend on algorithms and databases you can’t copy.

Friday Fictioneers – Until Yesterday

book-ceayr
PHOTO PROMPT © CEAyr

Yesterday was Tuesday. Much like Monday, nothing special. But today is totally changed. Until yesterday, you were in the world, and now you’re not. I don’t know how to comprehend this.

I pick up the book you were reading. Sniff it. But it smells of printers’ ink, not you. I try to read the words, the last words you saw, the same ideas that passed through your mind filling mine, as if some semblance of you might remain in them.

Until I reach the word “yesterday”, such an innocent word. But I cannot continue.

 

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Cracks

penny-gadd-shelves
PHOTO PROMPT © Penny Gadd

The day before yesterday, it was charming—a sport of nature. I popped it into a wine glass and provided water to drink.

The seed grew so fast, tendrils unspooling and feeling along the walls. Even when I realised, I did nothing. Perhaps it was already too late, but I didn’t try.

These were not branches but emptiness, spreading cracks in reality. You’d expect to feel terror, but the mind adjusts, as if to an ache. I can admit only to curiosity about events.

Maybe the cracks will widen and something will come through.

 

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

121. Test-driving the Story Grid tool

Can systems reproduce what a genius does intuitively? I’m a sucker for the idea, and every now and again I take a look at a new writing method. I usually end up disappointed.

There are many systems for constructing, analysing and editing stories. The most elaborate are the Snowflake method, the Scene and Sequel method and the Story Grid.

There are also methods based on templates, such as the Hero’s Journey and the Contour software suite .

I’ve covered the Scene–Sequel method in a previous post . In this post I’ll look at Story Grid.

sg-genre-clover-1

 

Why a system?

Systems are seductive. They carry the promise that anyone can copy the skills of craft masters by following a step-by-step recipe. In the business world, the equivalents are the strategic planning methods which claim to turn the mental processes of successful entrepreneurs into guides that the averagely gifted executive can follow. And so it is with story systems.

 

Story Grid

Story Grid is at pains to say that it’s an analytical tool, not a recipe. It derives from the editing process of identifying problems and fixing them, rather than from the writing process. The method rests on two elements: an analysis of genre and of scenes. It also includes a useful template for analysing the entire arc in a single page (the Foolscap summary originally developed by Norm Stahl).

 

Story Grid and genre

The first question Story Grid asks about a work is “What is the genre?” The second question is “What are the conventions and obligatory scenes for that genre?”

Their notion of genre is a little different from normal. When we think of genres we normally mean Westerns, Thrillers, Romance and so on. Those categories, which it calls Content, are there in Story Grid. But there are four other categories too—Reality, Style, Structure and Time.

Rather oddly, Science Fiction and Fantasy, which most readers would consider to be Content genres along with Romance and Thrillers, are part of the Reality category. This troubles me. The Content category also includes elements you won’t find as part of the shelving classification in your bookshop—Society, Performance, Status, Worldview, and Morality.

In part, this is because of a rather interesting idea about what content genres are.  Each is related to a different human need. Some social theories postulate that human needs follow a hierarchy from the physical requirement for food, water, air and shelter to more spiritual goals like self-actualisation. When we’ve met our physical needs, safety becomes important. When we can assure our safety, we seek love, and so on. Story Grid attempts to relate this hierarchy to content genres that respond to each need.

Story Grid need and genre

Hence the need to invent (or discover) unusual genres at the more spiritual end of the hierarchy. These new genres trouble me. How troubled you are will depend on what you think genres are.

The method also has interesting notions about the controlling idea behind different genres and the core emotion each genre must evoke in the reader.

 

Genres are for readers

I believe genres are for readers. Some writers decry genre, equating it with formulaic tales and denying that their work should be constrained by genre. Readers rarely do this. They know what kind of books they enjoy and seek out similar stories. Genre assists their selection. They expect certain elements to be there when they pick up a book in a particular genre. Romance fans, for example, will expect that the lovers must meet, surmount obstacles, get together, break-up (usually in an all-is-lost moment), and then get together again in a proof-of-love climax.

This doesn’t mean they want formulaic repetitive stories. On the contrary, most readers want to be surprised and delighted by the inventiveness with which an author plays with the conventions of their favourite genre.

We only become writers when we create for readers.  Complaining about these reader expectations is as pointless as complaining about their insistence that we use words which have agreed and understood meanings. Everything in writing is circumscribed by rules—of grammar, spelling, prosody, narrative structure and genre.

 

Story Grid and obligatory scenes

It follows from the argument that genres embody readers’ expectations, that there will be defining features of each genre. I don’t have a problem with Story Grid arguing that there are conventions and obligatory scenes, though this will rub a few writers up the wrong way.

Obligatory scenes are, as the name suggests, scenes that must be there for the work to fall under that genre. For example, the lovers’ break-up in Romance, or exposure of the crime/caper in Crime.

Conventions are not scenes. They are elements like cast of characters, setting, and method of turning the plot. That said, the Story Grid website exhibits occasional confusion between scenes and conventions with features appearing as conventions for some genres and scenes for others.

I did two exercises to check how useful these lists of scenes and conventions were. The first was to assess my own work-in-progress against them. I classified my book as a Status genre and was pleased to find most of the five conventions and eight obligatory scenes for the genre.

But that made me wonder. Since I’d never heard of the Status genre when I drafted the novel, how had I matched so closely with the expectations? Another writer who’d done the same exercise told me:

“To be honest, it wasn’t hard to make it fit, but only because I was able to re-interpret inner meanings and motives of what I’d written to suit the criteria it was supposed to meet. The actual prose I’d written didn’t need to change at all to tick the boxes – I just had to alter my interpretation of its purpose at that particular point.”

The second exercise I did was to tabulate all the obligatory scenes and conventions for seven genres (Action, Thriller, Crime, Love, Society, Status, and Worldview). This was a way of testing how unique to each genre those lists were.  The yellow shading indicates areas where the overlap between lists was greater than 33%.

Story Grid genre conventions and scenes

The overlap between criteria at the “survival” end of the hierarchy of needs (Action, Crime and Thriller) is perhaps not surprising. Nor, arguably, is the overlap at the social end (Society, Status and World-view).

What is more astonishing is the overlap of obligatory scenes between Action and Society and World-view.  This should only occur if the scenes are inappropriately vague and generic. And that is, indeed, the case. The scenes that cause the problem include:

  • Protagonist avoids responsibility to act
  • Initial strategy to defeat antagonist fails
  • All-is lost-moment: Protagonist must change approach

You could push such scenes into almost any work. I conclude that the obligatory scenes list in particular is too vague.

 

Story Grid and scene analysis

The other major part of the method is the scene-by-scene analysis. A scene is the atomic unit of the story where something changes. Scene analysis allows the writer to check that the story contains changes that will interest the reader and to identify precisely where a story goes wrong and fix the problem. Typically, a novel will contain between 50 and 75 scenes. Story Grid uses an extensive list of 13 elements to analyse each scene. I won’t go into the detail because there are lots of different methods of analysing scenes.

The big distinction of Story Grid is that it uses this fine tooth-comb to build back into a big picture analysis. The chart below is their analysis of Silence of the Lambs.

Story Grid Silence of the Lambs arc

The blue line is the character arc of the protagonist, Clarice Starling. The red line is the plot arc.  Here’s where I wanted to understand the magic. It turns out there is no magic. You construct the arc by subjectively assessing the magnitude of the change in each scene and whether it’s positive or negative. Well, I can do that without the Story Grid method. And once I’ve done it, all I’ve really checked is that the arc … well … arcs. It doesn’t tell me where any big structural problems might lie or how to fix them.

 

The bottom line

In summary:

  • A lot of thought has gone into Story Grid. The initial summary format is useful
  • The comparison of genre and the hierarchy of needs is interesting
  • The list of genres is odd, including categories that don’t fit with reader ideas of genre, and not including some major genres like Science Fiction and Fantasy in the list of content genres is a (forced) omission
  • The lists of conventions and obligatory scenes for each genre are deficient. They do not uniquely identify each genre and create meaningless overlaps between very different genres
  • The scene-by-scene analysis is not unique to the method and, like other forms of scene analysis do not lend themselves to better analysis of the large-scale structure

Have you used Story Grid? What was your experience with it?

Friday Fictioneers – Ancestor

linda-kreger-prompt
PHOTO PROMPT © Linda Kreger

With each day I am moving into the time before. I am becoming an ancestor. My limbs are frail and my breath comes heavy. Never again will I chase down a deer.

But the young ones sit at my feet and ask me “In your experience, how is this done?” And with every answer, they venerate me more. I move in a loop, catching up now and again with the era of my forebears.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here.

Friday Fictioneers – Ten Steps

dales-restaurant-photo
PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogerson

Ten steps lead up to the door. I’d dated Esther ten times. These things have a meaning, I know.

In my pocket, Mum’s ring bumps against my hip as I mount the stairs, like an ambassador bringing tribute to a potentate.

I press the bell. Overhead, a flock of new-hatched starlings trace patterns in the sky. There are ten of them.

She opens the door and I smell the scent of gardenias. A waft of coriander has followed her from the kitchen. On one knee, I proffer the ring.

“Are you nuts?” she says. “We’ve been on, like, ten dates.”

 

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

120. Stories that are hidden from us

A character arc is a fancy was of describing the changes a character goes through from the beginning to the end of a story. There is a hidden assumption in the idea of character arc that stops us seeing the possibility of other stories.

character arc

Consider the classic three act story. An individual is confronted by a problem (an external challenge or an internal flaw). They encounter trials and tribulations in which they are tested. They emerge better than before. Or, of course if the story is a tragedy, they succumb to the problem and emerge worse than before.

What does this remind you of? All those self-help and personal growth programmes perhaps? There is a view of the person and of development contained within these formulae.

  • We are individuals
  • We choose our own fate and can change

These principles of character arc seem so obvious we hardly even notice them as assumptions. But they come from a particular kind of society and, to other cultural traditions, they are far from obvious. How about these propositions:

  • People become people through other people. This is the core principle of the Ubuntu cultures of Southern Africa. In other words, humanity is a quality we owe each other. Or, in the European tradition, John Donne’s famous “no man is an island”.
  • The number of people on the planet who can choose their own fate is extremely limited. The starting conditions of wealth, gender, race, status and caste circumscribe our choices. For many people, change is unthinkable. Those who do escape their circumstances are not representative of their peers.

These differences are not only narrative, but moral. The first principles are individualistic, the second communitarian. What would character arcs be like if we used this second set of principles?

Let’s take an example of well-known tale. Here it is using the first formula. Follow the grid clockwise from top right to top left for the character arc.

Cinderella plot

Using the second formula, the story might look like this.

Cinderella communitarian plot

The Cinderella story has morphed into something more like The Handmaid’s Tale.

Other cultures’ story-telling traditions can be very different. While the modern Western tradition requires dualities between subject (the character who acts) and object (the world which is acted upon), protagonist and antagonist (who represent good and evil), this is not true of all cultures. Many use ambiguous Trickster figures who are neither good nor evil. The European tradition used to have Trickster figures but this has now been lost.

Similarly, some traditions don’t require the protagonist to undergo change. In some Japanese literature the character remains unchanged and the reader’s interest is maintained by growing understanding of the character. Similarly, in many Japanese stories the character’s goal is irrelevant: the plot is driven by causality.  Though Japanese literature recognises the Three Act structure, they also have a Four Act structure (introduction, development, twist, reconciliation) and Western readers may find it hard to recognise anything they consider as an ending.

Another way of representing the classic, individualistic, character arc of the Western tradition is:

  • Goal: what does the character want to achieve?
  • The Lie: misconception that prevents them reaching their true potential
  • The Truth: character rejects the lie and embraces the truth, leading to self-improvement

What if the conventional character arc is the lie? It describes a fantasy world in which most of us do not live.

In a complex modern economy, we are materially dependent on each other but socially indifferent. The goods and services on which we depend are furnished by strangers about whom we know and care nothing. This one fact contains the possibility for a huge variety of drama.

Friday Fictioneers – Purple Emperor

demolished-purple-tent
PHOTO PROMPT © Jan Wayne Fields

It’s purple. Not like a bruise but like an emperor. What’s it doing on my drive?

Perhaps it’s a swarm of rare butterflies on their elusive migration. The Purple Emperor avoids flower nectar and seeks out rotting flesh.  Maybe what’s in my cellar is attracting them. With a shiver of revulsion, I try to brush aside the fear.

But too late. Already lepidopterists are gathering under my trees, armed with nets and small packets of Stinking Bishop cheese. I rush to bolt the door but two have taken up station with field glasses in my kitchen.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Martians

trespass_randy_mazie-1
PHOTO PROMPT © Randy Mazie

You probably remember the headlines about bacteria in that sample of Mars rock. Life on other worlds!

You won’t remember, because nobody blabbed, the bacteria were earth-like. Same genetic code, same enzymes. Too earth-like.

Buy me another whiskey and I’ll explain.

We thought contamination, of course. But the sample was four billion years old. Here’s the kicker—life on earth started around three and half billion years.

You put the pieces together. Life on Mars was earth-like. It began before life on Earth. See? Our life originated on Mars. Nothing else fits. They suppressed that.

Another? Thanks. You’re a gentleman.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here