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What we can learn from Beauty and the Beast About Plot, Tension and Obstacles

 

Disney’s much hyped adaptation of Beauty and the Beast was released at the weekend. The film broke box office records with an estimated $170 million, making it the seventh largest opening weekend of all time. It’s a story that engages your emotions and keeps you hooked to the end. I was discussing the film with someone today who wanted to go and see it. She said it was her favourite fairytale and we were talking about what makes this particular story stand out. It occurred to me that part of the pull is the constant tension throughout the story, the conflict of interests, and the fact that the Beast is somehow flawed as a love match for Belle.

We all know the plot – an arrogant young prince and his servants fall under the spell of a enchantress, who turns him into the Beast until he learns to love and be loved in return. The headstrong village girl Belle enters the Beast’s castle after he imprisons her father Maurice. With the help of his servants, Belle begins to draw the cold-hearted Beast out of his isolation.

There is a tension between Gaston’s claims that he will marry Belle, and her desire for independence and dislike of his puffed up ego. Part of her appeal is the fact that she doesn’t want a relationship and is a strong and independent girl. She loves books, loves her father and, unlike the other girls in the village, refuses to fall for Gaston’s false charm.  There is a tension between either Belle or her father being held prisoner in the tower.

There are obstacles in the way, in the form of wolves, Gaston, the villagers when they storm the castle, Belle’s need to rescue her father, and the Beast’s appearance and initial hostility. Every time you come up for air, another obstacle presents itself. Life can feel like this at times, but it is used as part of a plot to ramp up the tension and keep the viewer engaged and rooting for the main characters.

The fact that the Beast sees himself as unlovable and flawed because of the curse put on him, appeals to us because most of us feel flawed in some way, however big or small, aware of our less-than-perfect self. Yet, he wins her affection despite his appearance, which has kept him in his tower. It is in part because of this that we want their relationship to work.

I want to leave you with one of the highlights of the film…the library!

Beauty and the Beast

 

 


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That Awkward Question: Where Do Writers Find Their Ideas?

Leonid_Pasternak_001Throes of Creation by Leonid Pasternak

Yesterday I watched a really interesting set of readings from the Cheltenham Literature Festival. This was a special event (link to the programme will expire in 4 weeks) welcoming all six writers on the 2014 Man Booker Prize shortlist to the Festival: Joshua Ferris, Richard Flanagan, Karen Joy Fowler, Howard Jacobson, Neel Mukherjee and Ali Smith. The authors discussed and read from their shortlisted novels, then took questions from the audience. The readings gave a good sense of the tone and subject matter of the books. What was particularly interesting, and uncomfortable, though, were the questions after the readings. I don’t think there was a single question posed to the authors that wasn’t either ‘naughty’, in the words of the host, or just difficult to answer. They were asked, if they had to swap their novel with one of the longlisted books, which one they would choose. Needless to say, nobody answered this question. They were also asked how they felt about sitting with two Americans (the Prize was opened up to American authors for the first time this year). Neel Mukherjee said he preferred an inclusive approach over exclusivity. This has been much debated over the years. Joshua Ferris broke the ice with some humour, adding, ‘I think I speak for Karen when I say, we are completely beside ourselves’. The most awkward question, and this was possibly the worst set of questions I’ve heard from any audience to a panel of writers, was whether they had read each other’s books. Ali Smith, thankfully, had read the whole set and thought that they were ‘fantastic’. They were also asked how you know when you have truly finished your novel. The authors agreed that it was much like a painting where you added the last brush stroke. This was one of the better questions, but the question that struck me as particularly familiar came from a young girl in the audience. She asked the eternal, ‘Where do you find your ideas?’, question. And it’s one that makes many writers uncomfortable, primarily because it is difficult to answer.

WHERE DO WRITERS FIND THEIR IDEAS?

The responses from the authors varied. Karen Joy Fowler said that her ideas came from her daughter, and that the question had once been difficult to answer, but was now all sorted. A very tongue-in-cheek, and slightly evasive answer. Howard Jacobson suggested that the word ‘ideas’ may not be the right one to use, and that he sees a scene. He mentioned Milan Kundera in his point that it might be better to try not to have ideas. Joshua Ferris’s answer was closest to what I experience when I write. He said that he has sentences before he has ideas, and that those sentences come from somewhere. From that sentence come other sentences and at some point you find a rhythm. Ali Smith, after a joke about Waitrose (although she failed to mention Peter Andre), says that ideas are absolutely everywhere. Every single thing that we encounter is filled with possibilities and at some point there is a chemical process, a fusion of ideas. She talked about the need to have your senses open. Neel says he gets his from reading other people’s books. But don’t tell anyone! His title came from a a book called Light Years, by James Salter. And finally, Richard Flanagan shared his view that novels are a ‘crack diary’ of your soul.

“NOT TO LOOK FOR THE IDEAS BUT TO HAVE YOUR SENSES OPEN.”  ALI SMITH

I don’t think I have ever managed to answer this question successfully. But, if I look back to the seeds of a novel or a short story, and I have many short story ideas, the ideas come in the waking moments of half sleep, of semi-consciousness. Are they a dream? Not really. They are the thoughts that creep into my mind when it is not preoccupied with the thoughts of the day and the ‘to do’ lists. We wake with so many things to do and places to get to, that our imaginations become squeezed out by the necessary thought processes that we go through on a daily basis. Our imaginations wait on the sidelines for the quiet moments, to come into play when we have a conversation with the lady in the local chemist and talk about travel and family, when a friend tells us about a particular issue that they are facing (although I never use confidential information in my writing). They feed on the everyday encounters that we have, as Ali Smith said, when we have our senses open. Writers tend to notice people, body language, unusual situations, things that are out of the ordinary. They observe. Most will admit to being people watchers. Ideas also come from memory, from fears and from the ‘what if’ scenarios that play out in our minds. Neil Gaiman wrote a good essay on this question, saying that the ideas are not the difficult part, but creating believable characters and making the story interesting. He suggests that the most important questions are, What if, If only, I wonder, If this goes on, Wouldn’t it be interesting if…

I often begin with a scene, as Howard Jacobson mentioned, and if it won’t go away, I commit it to paper, building a story from that scene, asking who the characters are and what they want, what is blocking their desires and what might happen next. I try to feel the atmosphere. With my current work in progress I initially had five key scenes but I knew that they were scattered, and the difficulty lay in linking these once they were written. It became a jigsaw puzzle. I usually write chronologically, but there are no rules. And there in lies the problem: no rules, no solid idea of where the stories begin, but you only need a seed. You allow it to grow and then shape it into something that you hope will inspire and challenge readers. Ideas are as much a mystery to writers as they are to readers. You experiment with different ideas to see what works and, often, ideas will surprise.

 

 


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Narrative Arc: Shaping Your Story

 

story-arc

What is a story arc and why is it important?

story arc is the episodes within a storyline; it is the narrative structure of a book or a story (or even a film, or a series of TV episodes). It is the rising and falling of tension, and the pacing and timbre of a plot. The tension should, in turn, force a shift in the behaviour of the characters and changes in their behaviour as they evolve and are changed by what happens to them.

Although an arc suggests a curve, most stories look more like a roller coaster. The image above is only one of many examples of a story arc, with a zig-zag of tension which falls at the point of obstacles in the story and ends with a denouement, a resolution. Films often use a three act structure: Setup – Confrontation – Resolution. Short stories also have a story arc, unless you are Lydia Davis! Her short story, Children, is just two sentences.

The introduction draws the reader into a setting, the characters and any potential conflict or goal. It is where the reader discovers what drives the protagonist and what will stand in their way.

A series of complications will often develop in the core of the text, leading to perhaps a crisis or a series of problems. Each of these crises may be temporarily resolved but the story will lead to a climax. There is a rising and falling of tension with each crisis, but an overall rising tension as we approach the Climax.

Denouement ties up the loose ends and resolves the conflict. Tension, at this point, rapidly dissipates leading towards the ending.

The three act structure was used by Aristotle, and in Greek tragedy.

The importance of a story arc lies in the need for structure, however varied. Without it the reader will meander through the book, get lost and but the book down. As a writer, you need to keep them turning the pages. Structure is an area of writing which I am working on, as I tend to err on the side of descriptive narrative. It depends on your genre, and crime thrillers might need more plot twists and higher tension than literary fiction, for example, but the story arc should be such that the reader’s emotions rise and fall throughout the narrative. Too much high tension, and the reader will run out of steam, and too little tension will lose the reader.

Some useful links to posts on story arc:

Connecting Subplots. Victoria Grefer

What Character Arc Really Means. Jim Hull

The Importance of Story Arc. Alexis Grant

And finally, here is a humorous video of Kurt Vonnegut on Cinderella and the shapes of stories. It’s really exaggerated but comical.

 

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories


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Writing Advice And Inspiration

download‘A story needs rhythm. Read it aloud to yourself. If it doesn’t spin a bit of magic, it’s missing something.’ Esther Freud

download (6)‘Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.’ Will Self

Nobel-Prize-Literature‘I always have to know my characters in a lot of depth–what clothes they’d choose, what they were like at school, etc . . . And I know what happened before and what will happen after the part of their lives I’m dealing with.’ Alice Munro

download (7)‘Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. This sounds easy, but in practice is incredibly difficult… Common phrases have become so comfortable that they create no emotional response. Take the time to invent fresh, powerful images.’ George Orwell
images (10)‘Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.’ Zadie Smith

download (8)‘Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.’ Elmore Leonard
images (11)‘Don’t say it was delightful; make us say delightful when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers Please will you do the job for me.’  CS Lewis
images (12)‘Be daring, take on anything. Don’t labor over little cameo works in which every word is to be perfect. Technique holds a reader from sentence to sentence, but only content will stay in his mind.’ Joyce Carol Oates
images (13)‘My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.’ Anton Chekhov

download (11)‘Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.’ Margaret Atwood
download (7)‘Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion.’ Franz Kafka
images (15)‘Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other ­people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.’ PD James


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What Do Authors Have in Common with Orchestra Conductors?

Philharmonic Orchestra of Jalisco (Guadalajara...

Philharmonic Orchestra of Jalisco (Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The more I write, the more I am aware of  the variety of elements involved in creating a compelling story. These elements are all individual parts but they have to be pulled together to work effectively.  Alone, each part would sound  musical, lyrical, but together they create a depth of sound which cannot be created alone.

I used to play the clarinet in various orchestras and jazz bands and, while I also enjoyed playing music alone, nothing matches the sound of an entire section, woodwind in my case, or a whole orchestra. Some sections alone sound fragmented, have you ever listened to a double bass playing an orchestra piece without the rest of the string section? Unless it’s a jazz improvisation it might sound staccatoed and uncomfortable.

When you create a book you look at the story arc, the balance of dialogue and narrative, points of view, pace, action, language. When you conduct an orchestra, you need to see the different sections: string, wind, brass and percussion. Within each section are the individual groups of instruments. In the strings you would hear the violins, violas, chellos, double basses, and so the list would go on with each of the other sections. The conductor needs to be able to hear each section and filter out the other sounds as well as to be able to hear the collective sound. He or she needs to pull the instruments in at the right time, control the tempo and the volume, and to be able to create an even balance.

In the same way an author needs to be able to look at the different sections of the book, and to hear the sounds and feel the rhythm of the story; to be able to create balance in pace and point of view, a balance between high emotion and lower points of tension, a balance between dialogue and narrative prose.

The threads within a story weave together in a similar way to the instruments within an orchestra. If anything sounds off it can run the risk of throwing the rest of the story off kilter. There is a delicate balance between the threads, requiring the skill of a competent author or conductor, and at different points in the story and the music there will be certain elements that will be louder and clearer, more dominant, while others subside. The balance can make or break the overall sound and quality.


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Sewing the Seeds of an Idea: When to Start Planting

Different seed samples await germination testi...

Long before the first word of a novel is written down, there is an original seed, a thought, a scene which plants itself in the author’s mind. Once there, it grows and evolves into possibly a longer scene, a chain of ideas, a few characters and events, and maybe a whole novel.

The question is when do you start to plant the seeds in soil, water them and let them grow? When do you put the first words of the very first chapter down on to paper? It might seem like a strange question because most people imagine that the whole story just comes to you, like the carousel in Mary Poppins, and then you just sit down and write. But it’s an important question because the process of forming a story and growing a seed, if you like, is the bedrock of the whole narrative. The when of starting a story is often overlooked, but starting in the right place at the right time can save hours of painstaking editing and redrafting.

The answer, I have come to realise, is as late as possible. This is different to starting a story as late as possible in the plot and avoiding back story or long chunks of scene setting. It is waiting until your ideas have formed more than just a thought or an image, but a theme, a reason for the story, a conflict or a desire of your protagonist.

I have found the same thing applies with writing short stories, although the process is considerably shorter and you can afford to play around more with the text and change direction if you need to.

With a novel, the longer you leave the seeds to germinate, the more ready they will be to plant and grow in to the full and final plant product. It may seem counter productive to wait, and it might feel like a waste of time, but if you can wait until the ideas are more fully formed it will save heart ache in the long run and give you a clearer picture of the full story.

corn seedling


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Creating Believable Characters

images (3)        images (2)        images (4)

 

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”

― Ray BradburyZen in the Art of Writing

Character description is crucial to a good story that is both readable and convincing. For a reader to get inside your story, the characters have to seem real. They need to have characteristics which are compelling and hook a reader at an early point in the story. As writers, there are so many elements to plotting a novel which need to be considered, that it can at times be head spinning.

You have to focus on scene setting, dialogue, narrative, pace, story arc, point of view, voice and many other aspects. Without good characters, involving skillful characterisation from the author, the story will fail to bring the reader to the last page. So how do you pen characters who are enticing, captivating, abrupt, frustrating, lovable or frightening?

Study real people – Watch people’s behaviour, body language and conversations. Fictional characters need to take elements from real life. Even sci-fi has elements that can be observed from  every day life. Study human behaviour and you will be much closer to creating characters who resonate with the reader.

“By the end, you should be inside your character, actually operating from within somebody else, and knowing him pretty well, as that person knows himself or herself. You’re sort of a predator, an invader of people.” ― William Trevor

Watch films – They can be a good way of observing character traits and provide ideas for your characters. Look for what is not being said, look at the body language and each character when put into different situations and learn from great scriptwriters. Remember that you have to put together in words what a director will create with images and action. The two forms are similar but the difference is that you have a blank canvas with the reader’s imagination. Create atmosphere through your characters.

“As a writer, I demand the right to writer any character in the world that I want to writer. I demand the right to be them, I demand the right to think them and I demand the right to tell the truth as I see they are.” – Quentin Tarantino

Read books (classics, if you enjoy them) – The classics are still being read because they are timeless and because they contain characters who readers can relate to, characters they love and hate. This is the essence of good story telling.

“I wish we could sometimes love the characters in real life as we love the characters in romances. There are a great many human souls whom we should accept more kindly, and even appreciate more clearly, if we simply thought of them as people in a story.” ― G.K. Chesterton

Write character profiles – Imagine that your character needs a curriculum vitae for a job interview. What would you write for each one? Think about their individual skills and experiences. Push it further and consider locations or events which might have affected them and shaped their character.

“The characters in my novels are my own unrealised possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented.” ― Milan Kundera

Put together a pin board of images – this helps if you are very visual. I use Pinterest for this and I find it also engages readers who are interested in your work. Having a selection of portraits can help to remind you of features and posture, if you wish to use this method. Some people would rather writer freely with no prompts and therein lies the truth that no two writers work the same way.

“Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.” (Letter to Alexander Chekhov, May 10, 1886)” ― Anton Chekhov

Related articles:

Andrew Miller, Booker and Whitbread shortlisted author, wrote a Guardian article on Creating Characters.

Melissa Donovan has written a good blog post on tips for character writing.

Writer’s Digest wrote an article on How to Craft Compelling Characters.