The “Big But” in Storytelling

The bike path I ride to work

I’ve been thinking about story structure a lot this summer, thanks to the juicy writing projects I’ve been immersed in. Besides my own works in progress, I’ve spent lots of time beta reading for a couple of writer friends. Beta reading is a fantastic learning experience that makes me consider the essentials of storytelling at a fundamental level.

When I was teaching full-time, I’d launch my unit on story structure by writing “The BIG BUT in Storytelling” across the board. In a classroom full of tweens, it’s an attention-grabber for sure. Once the giggles had died down, we’d define effective story structure in fifth grade terms. Our curriculum called this structure “Somebody, Wanted, But, So.”

  • Somebody (the character)
  • Wanted (the character’s goal)
  • But (an obstacle)
  • So (the action he takes in response to the obstacle)

You must have a “BIG BUT,” I told the kids (more giggles), because the Big But keeps a character from reaching his goal. This creates conflict, which holds the reader’s attention.

After pinpointing these elements in short stories and popular fairy tales, the kids would move on to writing their own stories, but not before identifying their main character’s goal and an obstacle. “Make sure you have a Big But!” I liked to say.

It’s a great exercise, but naturally it gets trickier with longer works. In a novel-length piece, a character must enter scene after scene with a goal and some sort of obstacle that stands in his way. No obstacle, no conflict.

Structuring+Your+Novel_08 In Structuring Your Novel author K.M. Weiland writes:

Conflict comes in many variations—everything from a knife fight to a cave-in to a lost credit card. It doesn’t have to occur between two people. It doesn’t even have to be a fight or an argument in the traditional sense. All that matters is that it hinders the achievement of the scene goal. (p.183)

Lack of conflict, or the feeling that “nothing’s happening” is probably the number one reason I abandon a novel. I don’t need nuclear holocaust or loads of outrageous melodrama. Knowing what a character wants, no matter how small, and the struggle to get it, is what keeps me turning the pages.

When Katniss Everdeen entered the arena in The Hunger Games, one of her first goals was to find fresh water, a small step toward achieving her plot goal of surviving the deadly arena. BUT author Suzanne Collins did not let her obtain it easily. Katniss’s search for water consumed page after page, her quest becoming increasingly desperate while her physical and mental faculties slowly deteriorated. Then, just when she’d decided she couldn’t go on, that it was okay to give up the fight, Collins allowed her to achieve the scene’s goal. Beautiful conflict, beautiful storytelling!

The challenge as a writer is to create this sort of conflict, and to keep it coming in almost every scene. This basic structure is what’s guiding me as I restructure my novel: determining each scene’s goal, and the Big But standing in the way. Much easier said than done, of course!

Do your works in progress have enough Big Buts?

Categories: Writing | Tags: , , , , , , | 30 Comments

Writing What Moves You

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“Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.” –Neil Gaiman

Lately I’ve been struggling to write anything. You’ve probably been there at some point. The creative well inexplicably runs dry, and no amount of effort gets it flowing again.

It’s amazing, the difference a year can make. Last summer, I felt invincible. I’d outlined a new novel idea that I couldn’t wait to get down on paper. I committed the month of July to starting the first draft, and the words cascaded out of me, effortless and sweet, like a delicious river of melted chocolate.

Then around 30k, doubt began to set in and I stalled. Even though I tried to press on, my gut told me it was all wrong. I was no longer feeling it.

After taking some time off, I went back to square one, starting with my protagonist and premise. I worked out from there, jotting down every idea, answering every “what if” question, and following every trail until it ran cold. But nothing felt right.

Guilt began to set in, and then desperation. I didn’t want to abandon another project; I’ve done that too many times. So I piddled away my writing hours reading blogs, scrolling through social media feeds, mindless surfing on the Internet. The writer’s equivalent of rock bottom.

My reprieve came last week with a bad chest cold that zapped every ounce of my energy. I could scarcely lift my head off the couch. Finally, I had a legitimate excuse not to write.

Last Thursday night, I lay awake for hours, coughing, coughing, coughing, my throat on fire, ribs aching from the constant jarring. But despite the physical misery, somehow, my mind had come alive. Between fits of coughing, I began to think about a character I’d dreamed up a few years ago. She starred in a flash fiction piece that was violent, raw, and emotional, but her story had moved me more than anything I’d ever created. I remember my hands actually shook as I typed. Needless to say, it was a powerful experience.

This nameless character consumed me throughout the night. What happened to her after her brief story ended? The ideas came slowly at first: her name, a sibling, a fleshed-out setting. But soon, those droplets turned into a steady stream of ideas–another setting, a love interest, a goal, an antagonist, a journey.

“Write while the heat is in you.”
—Henry David Thoreau

Friday morning I woke after a few fitful hours of sleep, my body fatigued, but my mind still animate and buzzing. I started a new Scrivener file and scribbled down as much as I could remember from the night before. And then I just kept going. I wrote and I wrote like I hadn’t in months, afraid that if I didn’t continue, I’d never get it back. I rambled and gushed a chaotic word pile, a messy, grammatical nightmare. But it felt wonderful.

I’m not sure what will become of my other WiP. I’m not ready to give up on it yet, but I need to back-burner it for a while. The thing about writing is, you must write what moves you, and I haven’t been moved in a really long time. A spark has again ignited inside me, and I need to let it burn.

Have you ever set aside one project for another?

Categories: Writing | Tags: , , , | 52 Comments

Tell the World You Are a Writer, and You Will Begin Acting Like One

Earlier this year when I was teaching fifth grade, I worked with my students through a unit on discovering one’s identity. After deciding on a class definition (being your unique self, and not somebody else), we delved into further exploration through reading, writing, and discussion. In the culminating project, students narrowed their own identity down to a few primary labels.

Applying this fifth grade exercise to myself, I can come up with a few labels of my own: mother, wife, teacher, runner, and even writer. I take no issue with telling the world I’m a mother, a teacher, or a runner. But the writer side of my identity is something I’ve generally kept on the down-low. It’s a scary thing, exposing this vulnerable side, for it opens your inner self up to some inevitable expectations, and maybe even judgement or criticism.

I’m excited to welcome author Francis Guenette today, who will offer her take on calling oneself a writer. What happens when we dare to don the writer identity cloak? Take it away, Fran!

Fran's cabin, nestled in the woods on Vancouver Island.

Fran’s cabin, nestled in the woods on Vancouver Island.

Hands, do what you’re bid:

Bring the balloon of the mind

that bellies and drags in the wind

into its narrow shed.

~ The Balloon of the Mind by W.B. Yeats

In bird by bird, an inspirational gem of a book, author Anne Lamont tells us that when we go out into the world and say we are writers, a cascade of things begin to happen.

I was reminded of Lamont’s words as I read Gwen’s recent post describing how she was pinned to the wall at a local book club when a ‘real’ author put this question to her, “So, you’re the writer. What are you working on?” Though filled with trepidation, Gwen came through with flying colours and discovered people were interested in what she had to say. She tried on the writer identity cloak and it fit just fine.

CDN Softcover Proof

Chasing Down the Night is Guenette’s third novel.

Getting comfortable with owning up to being a writer is a lengthy process with ill-defined signposts to guide one along the way. I’ve just released my third novel with another due to come out in the fall. I’ve sold a decent number of books, reviews have come in and locally, people I’ve never met act as though they know me. Now, that is a strange experience. My point is that even after all of the above, I hesitate when someone asks, “So, what is it that you do?”

As Gwen discovered, after going out on a limb and admitting that one writes, the invitation to elaborate might be right around the conversational corner. This is far preferable to another possibility – the blank stare. Believe me, that stare is a brutal thing.

I, like Gwen, usually stumble through a couple of incomprehensible lines before I hit my stride and realize that, yes indeed, I do have something to say. I know about my own writing process, and talking about the stories I write is not all that difficult. Shutting me up once I get going is a more likely scenario. You can ask my husband, Bruce, about that.

Writing is, in so many ways, a terrifying process. I wonder how any of us have the nerve to do it at all, let alone own up to that doing. We make things up … or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. The scary little voices in the back of our minds remind us that with every word we write, we reveal ourselves more plainly. How could we do anything else? If that doesn’t scare a writer into catatonic silence, I’m not sure what would.

Then we writers must accept that the story we have given so much of ourselves to tell only takes on meaning in the mind of the reader. Interpretation is theirs to give, not ours to impose. Out into the world, our fragile children wander and they will be judged by whatever lens a particular person brings to the reading.

So why, you may well ask, do I congratulate Gwen on taking up a writer’s identity? To paraphrase the Bard – if it were to be done, then better it be done quickly. Despite the many challenges, the urge to tell stories is so strong that we writers will simply disappear in plain sight if we don’t get on with it. And once we’re on the writing path, the desire to own that reality will come to all of us.

Embrace the inevitable. We only become who we truly are when the eyes of others reflect back to us that reality.

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Fran’s new release, Chasing Down the Night is available on Amazon, Nook, and iTunes

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Francis Guenette is the author of The Crater Lake Series – Disappearing in Plain Sight, The Light Never Lies, and Chasing Down the Night. Set on the shores of a Northern Vancouver Island lake, her novels are rich in rural life, family dynamics, and romance.

Categories: Writing | Tags: , , , , | 21 Comments

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