Monday, May 21, 2012

Master Class: Impossible to Put Down: Mastering the Three Levels of Story (SIWC 2011 notes)

 Last but not least, the final set of notes from the 2011 Surrey International Writer's Conference.

At this point, I'm going to add the obvious disclaimer: these notes are what *I* came away from the workshop with. They are in *no* way a substitute for the real class; you had to have been there, and being there was *so* worth it. Donald Maass is a fantastic teacher and I can't say enough about how much SIWC has done for me. That being said, this was a three-hour workshop in which I took a LOT of notes, so this is a longer-than-usual post. Enjoy!

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Impossible to Put Down: Mastering the Three Levels of Story
Donald Maass

Getting published for the first time today is no more difficult than it was years ago.

But our stories need to be bigger, deeper, stronger.

Stories have inside them an iron skeleton, the essential conflict, the large problem around which the novel is built.

With that iron skeleton, the book won’t collapse.

Scene structure: scenes need to do something. There’s a goal in each scene that is either met or not. Strong scenes carry story forward.

Fiction that keeps us enthralled works on three different levels at once: the macroplot, the scene structure, and the line-by-line tension. A throbbing beat that keeps us dancing/reading, enthralled.

The First Level of Storytelling: Macro-Structure

Often Under-developed:
-    The premise – When powerfully constructed, will demand that there will be a complex and multifold story that carries everything forward.
-    The middles are woefully malnourished. – Not enough happening.
-    The setting

Whatever story you’re working on, whatever it is, think of the main protagonist of your story. What is the tough problem that your protagonist has to solve?

What would make this problem not just tough to solve, but impossible to solve? What is so enormous, so disastrous, so unsolvable that at the end your protagonist would actually fail?

What if this problem happened right away? What if the problem were impossible to solve from the outset? What if the conditions of the story were so that this was impossible for the character to fix it?
-    Coming of age: is the person in power moveable?
-    Plot driven story: when the big disaster happens – how close to the disaster can you put the opening of the story? How inevitable can you make the disaster, when there is no way to stop it?
-    Romance – all the reasons they can’t be together
-    Murder Mystery – impossible to catch the killer
-    What if you started that way?
-    Irresolvable conflict. Problems that cannot be solved. Conflicts with no solution.

Take all the characters in your story, and put them into two parties/camps. One is pro-protagonist, one is anti-protagonist.
-    What kind of history do they have? What will put them at war forever? What kind of injustice was done?
-    What grief or grievance can be so deep that it lasts for generations?
-    Those who work for your protagonist and those who work against them
-    Can you create a hatred between those who are on the side of your protagonist, and those who are not?
-    What could the protagonist have done that is unforgivable? OR, what grievance does the protagonist have that is fundamental to how they look at life? What is the ONE thing they will not stand for, that the other side has done?

The world of your story itself: What kind of world is it set in? What time/place/setting? The world of your story. People in ANY world are driven by ideas. They hold ideas dear. What are two opposing, conflicting, irreconcilable principles or ideas present in your story? What do people stand for, and how are some of those ideas in powerful conflict with each other? Tensions they can’t escape because they are where they are and in the time they find themselves? What two ideas are in conflict?
-    E.g. the Occupy meetings: being angry
-    They don’t make demands, because they hate the entire system.
-    Who’s powerfully against something? How is each camp right? Even the Germans had grievances in the 1930’s.
-    Who in the story stands solidly on each side? Who will not be moved? Who is a true believer? Who knows that they’re right? Who *is* right?
-    When you build in an irresolvable conflict, you have the premises for a lot of story.

What’s the worst thing that happens to your protagonist currently in the story? What’s the biggest setback?
-    Every bad thing that happens has a personal cost, does damage, takes something out of the character. What’s the cost to the protagonist? What does the protagonist lose?
-    Even just “belief that the world is good” or “assurance that things will turn out okay”
-    Something that gets shot to bits when bad things happen.
-    Your protagonist has therfore somehow become unhappy. What’s made them unhappy? Can you make it in some way the foundation, the very core of your protagonist’s happiness in life, that they lose?
-    What one, two or three ways can what is lost become the most important thing for your protagonist?
-    Lost: The affection of a family member? These two characters mattered to each other. How could they matter more? What is the airtight, unbreakable bond between them? What did one do for the other that could never be forgotten?
-    Lost: Piece of self/soul? Can it become a treasure, the deepest part of the character’s identity? The one part of them that will never change? What can be lost when things go wrong?
-    Have it cost the protagonist everything.
-    Need to build up whatever will be lost.
-    The terrible thing that happens: what’s the worst way that it can happen? What will twist the knife in deeper? How can it be even more devastating? Who can it affect? What’s the worst possible time for it to happen? The most public, the most humiliating, the most downright evil time/place this could happen? How can you compound this event? Can  you bring it closer to other terrible events?
-    “You like your protagonist, right? Get over that.”
-    Betrayals: Who can betray your character in the story? Are you resisting that idea? Yes, you want to do it. Who is the worst person, the one who your character thinks will never betray them? How can they betray them in the worst way?
-    Give yourself time to work out and plant the seeds of betrayal earlier in the story, so that your the reader doesn’t see it coming. Come up with three reasons why this character would betray the protagonist. How craftily can you disguise this so that when the betrayal itself happens the reader goes “Oh, of course” and the penny drops.

What’s your protagonist’s worst mistake/goof-up? Have another character for whom this mistake is unforgivable.
-    For whom would this be the breaking point, the thing that cannot be tolerated? What relationship will be broken?
-    Now you have more groundwork to lay for the middle of your book.

Is there a love in your novel that is forbidden? Or is there some way, some pair of people who love each other when they shouldn’t? Make that love impossible if you can. Not just forbidden, but impossible. What does that mean? Write it down and make it happen.

Kill someone. Whom can you kill that is not already dead? There is always room for more death. Who can die? Once you’ve picked that character, work backwards. How can you make this character more beloved, wise, warm, sweet, generous? What kind of spirit does this character bring to the world that others see and feel? What’s the best thing this character does before you kill them?

What death/disaster/misfortune has boxed your character in for life? What haunts your protagonist, has a grip on them? Write down 2-3 reasons why it’s impossible for your character to let that go, get over it. What makes that injury more personal, more inescapable, more excruciating? What keeps them up at night and makes them lose sleep? What thought will not go away for your protagonist at 2 am?

Or is there somebody else that could be cast under a spell? Why is that spell in place? Why will it never be broken? What is it about that spell? How can it be broken? Who carries a grudge? Why can’t they forget a past wrong? Can you make them a central character, impossible to avoid dealing with?

Or is their something wrong in the world, something broken, something dark and evil, something that’s cast a pall over everybody? Write it down. When you have, write down the names of more people who can be sucked into the vortex, who can be affected and particularly how. Get specific about who and how. Then write down the names of several additional characters and the ways that they, too, will be affected by the darkness in the heart of your story.

So, you’ve done some lousy things to your protagonist. Of all of the bad things you’ve come up with in the last 45 minutes or so, what’s the one thing you haven’t thought of yet? What atomic bomb can you throw on your protagonist or blows them off the map, what unimaginable thing, what mindfuck can you throw at them? Something your protagonist hasn’t seen coming. What is it? If you feel bad about doing this to your protagonist, remember: Your protagonist is not real. Ultimately it’s going to come out okay (maybe)

Regardless of what you’re writing, what is it that your character wants to become? What do they aspire to? What is unfinished, undone? What gets in the way? Now, what else can get in the way?
Janni: wants to be a healer, not a queen falls in love with Brennant

Then, write down what they’re going to do when they find out that they’re not going to become the person they want to be. What relationships change? What goals change?

The story’s going somewhere. Close down that road. Close it off. They can’t get where they’re trying to go, period. When does your protagonist want to explode, lose it, freak out, say what’s really on their mind, does what they really want to do? Rant and rage and tell the truth to somebody’s face? What does this mean for your protagonist?
1.    What are the consequences?
2.    How do you set up the explosion?

Somewhere in the story does your character face a terrible choice, a moral dilemma?
-    Moral choice: choice between two wrongs, or two rights
-    Something has to be lost either way.
-    If you don’t have this, can you invent that choice?
-    How can you box in your protagonist, make the choice more important?
-    How can you make the consequences even bigger? Devastating to someone?
-    How can you force the choice on your protagonist? Who’s going to force them into it and how is time going to force them into it?

Imagine someone writing a story like yours, same plot, same themes. Imagine there’s a more fearless writer than you. What would this writer do with your story? What truth, what turn, what emotionally-charged event isn’t in that story yet? Write it down, because it’s going in that story now.

The big, important parts of the story, that drive the story, that have the consequences, are the foundations of the premise – now you have a story that demands that things occur.

No one expects that you’ll come to this conference with a manuscript that’s not going to change. Else what are you doing here?

The Second Level of Storytelling: The Scene

Shift focus now: to the scene.

Most novels are built of scenes. Scenes are the most powerful units. Discrete units of time when something happens.
-    Unskilled writers will write scenes sequentially.
-    It’s possible to create passages that carry the protagonists that transition the story well.

Start at a particular moment, end at a particular moment; between those two points is the scene.
Typically one point of view character.
Start somewhere, end somewhere, something happens.

Pick a scene from the middle of your novel that sucks.
-    Is there a travel scene where not much happens?
-    Is there an interview scene not very much happens?
-    Traditional fantasy: is there a stage of the journey that you wonder whether or not it should be there?
-    That blah scene that’s been there since the first draft that you’re not that sure about

Think about that scene. What circumstances actually change? What’s different at the end than was true at the beginning? A cliffhanger? Something physical? What has shifted? You wrote it because there was something you were trying to get there. What changes in that scene? Even if it’s something intangible, like a sense of progress or an understanding of self, of someone else?

Write down the precise second in that scene when the change occurs. What is it that we can see that actually shifts things for your POV character? What new information arrives? What new perception arrives? When is their insight, understanding, fear, new worry? When does the bell go ding? What is that marking event? If we could not hear their thoughts, if we could not know what they think or feel, if an objective observer was watching a videotape of that scene and could point out where things turn/go wrong/change, this is the turning point in the scene. The reason the scene is here.

So let’s fix that moment and start to do some things with it. The event, the objective thing that anyone could see or hear, how can it be made stronger, more dramatic? How can you make this turning point more unmissable?

Now imagine that there’s a chronometer running. Stop that videotape at that point and wind it back ten minutes. Now, write how this character sees themself. Who are they right now? How are things with them? What’s going on with them? What is their self-perception ten minutes before this scene happens?

If you’re stuck: write down what this character doesn’t want to tell anyone right now. What’s the thing this character would most like to fix? What is the character proud of, satisfied with about themselves? Specifically, how? In what way? Write down the one-word descriptor that your character would say to sum themselves up. Survivor? Loser? Healer?

Take the self-perception of your character 10 minutes before. Now wind the tape 10 minutes after. Ask them the same question: who are they? How do they see themself? How are they, right now, after that turning point? What has changed?

Is there a difference in self-perception for your character? What’s the inner turning point? What not just changes, but your character changes, is now different in some way?

When a scene both changes and changes the point of view character, that’s dynamic movement. It moves the character a step along in their journey/character arc/character transformation. What we’re getting at is why this scene is really here. If you can bring onto the page both the change (and make it clear) and how the character is also transforming in the course of the scene, then you have a scene that is necessary to the story, that doesn’t need to be cut, that is doing more work than before.

Scene structure: one of the most common ways in which we hear things discussed: the POV character wants something/has a goal. At this moment in time (at the scene’s start), what is your POV characer hoping for (or hoping to avoid) What do they wish will happen now, is afraid will happen now? “If I do nothing in the next [whatever the duration of the scene is], I will become/discover __”. New info & questions are good. What is your character seeking right now? What does the character want to feel? What is the goal?

Now write down three things that will suggest to the reader that the character’s wish will come about or not come about. Then write down the opposite: what’s actually going to occur.

Now, how much else can you eliminate from the scene? (4 pgs = good, 6-7 pgs is average length) Does your scene go for too long? Can you cut everything else, and pare it down to the essentials that happen? Extreme, but what if you did? A lot of what you have on those extra pages is not that essential stuff.

Basically, what a scene does to move along can be done in a fairly tight space. There is not much that is needed. Everything good that we can add to this scene is diluting the scene (atmosphere, dialogue, a clear beginning and end), but we don’t need as much.

Set the scene and bring it alive.

Flat description, even when it’s good and involves the 5 senses, can often be skipped. Readers skim those parts.

What they don’t skip is where it is set. The physical location, the time of day/year, etc. Where and when is  your scene set?

Take a look around the environment, the room, the place, and write down 3 details only your POV character would notice, that everyone else would miss.

Now write down something else: At the outset of the scene, as your charater arrives (unless you’re crafty enough to not let your character arrive) – AS THE SCENE BEGINS, take a moment to let your character soak in the environment. The place itself, minus the people. How does the place itself make this character feel right now?

How does the color of the place, the quality of the light, the shape of the place, make your character feel? Do they like it or not? Is there a conflicted answer? Is it possible that at the end of the scene, your character can feel the opposite? If not, how can they feel differently about the place (not the people, but the place)?

Write a passage conveying the sense of this place from the POV of this character.

This isn’t about setting. It’s about how the scene comes alive in the writer’s imagination. Flat description doesn’t quite work. Even descriptiveness can have a dynamic, evolving effect for the reader. You can do that even with a place. Description never has to be flat; it can be lively, create tension on the page. Explore the POV character’s perception of things and how this character experiences this place. 

Dialogue in the Scene

Imagine the most essential piece of dialogue that needs to be in the scene. With just quotation marks, no more than six or seven words per dialogue. No attibutives or incidental action, the dialogue snapping back (rattatatt dialogue).

Now this lean dialogue: is it doing the job? Is it getting the information accross, the essential exchange between the two characters? Do you really need the attributives, the twirl-the-pen action? Very often, you don’t. In fact, very often you need fewer words spoken than you might think. Very often in weak scenes, the dialogue is a mess, buried in non-dialogue.

Dialogue can do a lot of work, can move a scene along rapidly and efficiently, be a powerful tool if you need it to be.

Here’s how to work on it: take out everything you don’t need. Take a passage of exposition, thoughts and feelings, turn it into dialogue. Take it out of the character’s head.

Write a single sentence that summarizes what happens in this scene.

If in an outline, write it in the present tense. If in the present tense, write in the presnt tense, in the past then write in the past – summarize this scene in the same tense you write it in.

In the actual manuscript, could you subsitute the sentence you just wrote for the scene? If you can,  your scene isn’t doing enough yet. If it’s really that blah, sometimes you can just cut it and summarize it or make it a transition. Sometimes when we’re having trouble with a scene, we just don’t need it. If too much else is going on in that scene, then yay! You have a functional scene.

Sometimes, revision means revolution.

The Third Level of Storytelling: Microtension

Line-by-line tension. What makes the book a page-turner. What makes it impossible to put down because we’re reading everything.

Doesn’t work every time in every line on every page, but can be useful to put it into

Quiet tension, simmering tension, under-the-surface tension

Principles to keep in mind:
-    In dialogue: how can  you make the two speakers more hostile to each other, even if they’re friends and on the same team? How can you ratchet up the friction, the uneasiness, the hostility, the worry, even if they love each other? Once you’ve decided what at this moment has these two in conflict with each other, push it up another degree: how can that tension/hostility/worry/anger/need/resistance get into what they’re saying to each other? How can we feel it through the way they’re using the words they’re speaking to each other?
-    Try rewriting that ratattatt dialogue as an exchange of insults. There is no exchange of dialogue that cannot become more insulting. Insults are the easiest way to get friction going with each other. Have you ever been snide with a good friend of each other? If it’s out of character, well, it’s in character now. There’s friction in how they’re talking to each other. Not from the incidental action or the adjectives. Have the characters take things more personally. The same thing is being said, not violating or adding anything new to the characters, but we’re adding tension. Make the reader unsure of what’s going to happen, the next thing on the page.
-    What is one piece of action that occurs in this blah scene? Some kind of action in this scene if it’s worth keeping. Look at this action: write out the action, as it’s going to occur. It doesn’t need to be big or dramatic, it could be as simple as walking across the room – something physical we can see happening, moving.
-    How can we add more tension to this action?
-    Tension is what creates uncertainty/uneasiness/discomfort/a question/mild apprehension/off-balance in the mind of the reader. What creates tension? What makes the reader want to know what happens next?
-    All that has to happen is the movement. Add tension words to the movement, but even that doesn’t help. The action itself, whatever it is, does not create tension, nor does ramping up the action or the descriptor words. BUT, what does the POV character feel about that action? What does the character think? Can you have a reversal, create a shift in the thinking, a disconnect, a change, a contradiction to what the POV character felt before? Create dissonance in the mind of the reader. That dissonance is the uncertainty in the mind of the reader, and the reader reads it so fast and feels it before they can articulate it and are on the next thing on the page. There is a conflict that needs resolution. Only way to get it? Read the next thing on the page.
-    Thoughts and feelings on the page don’t necessarily create tension. Restating the obvious doesnt make it richer. It only turns it over again.
-    Exposition creates tension when it creates conflicting feelings at war with each other.
-    Pick up an old favorite novel, or something you haven’t read yet, and read it with an eye to how the author’s creating tension. Pay attention to where you read avidly, where you skip, etc. Where you read is not guns, glamour, it’s the tension created between people and inside them that is what keeps the reader reading.
-    Trend: 3rd person is becoming more limited, seeing as the character does. Passages of authorial writing are becoming increasingly rare. Tension really resides in conflicting and contrasting emotion.
-    “guts twisted in regret” is primary emotion; “picked a rose and paid for it, knowing he would never give it to someone” is more subtle.

Tension exercise: Throw your manuscript in the air so it’s truly out of order, then put it in the drawer for two months, then re-read the random pages so there’s truly tension on every page.

“A Reliable Wife” – First chapter involves the character just standing on a train station platform. But the inner conflict, the tension, is what drives the character. “hardly a damn thing happens, but the book is so rife with tension”.

What drives your character? How can you build a character and story so rife with tension that it drives the reader?

These are the three levels of tension that make the novel engrossing, gripping, powerful.

Character development, character arcs. “The inner journey” later this conference. [Note from Laura: Unfortunately, I missed this class. I think I was occupied pitching SOTS to an agent.]

Lastly, 5 senses is a bit of an outdated recommendation: don’t just go for flat description. Go for dissonance and tension and not purple prose. Go for subtle. Create tension internally in the character.

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Donald Maass has a new book out very soon: Writing 21st Century Fiction (writing about the death of genre, or at least the death of genre thinking and that genre crutches will be thrown away, about the conjunction of literary fiction and commercial fiction, how the NYT bestseller list has changed yet again, about books that have been selling well for weeks and weeks on end and every one of them is published originally as literary fiction, and what is wrong with this picture? Because they marry the best of what commercial fiction does and the best of what literary fiction does. Each group has something the other group needs. He’s reframing “plot” for literary writers and “lovely writing” for genre writers/storytellers; about the marriage of great storytelling and beautiful writing).


  1. Thanks for the notes, Laura. Also, can't help recaptioning the pic:

    More cat bell.

    1. Oh, Deb! That's hilarious. I think you *can* re-caption it at the website, if you want.

  2. This looks awesome, Laura. Thanks so much for sharing! No time to digest it all now, but I'm bookmarking this to come back to. Thank you!

    1. Understandable, Shari. Every single question there feels like it could take awhile to digest. It was a poweful class.