March 1, 2018 / 1 Comment

It’s All Uphill From Here

            No, the title’s relevant. Really.  Just wait.
            Okay, so… we started with linear structure, and last week I went on for a bit about narrative structure.  This week I want to close up my extended TED talk by discussing dramatic structure.  It’s the way I weave the previous two forms together to form a killer story.
            Fair warning up front—this one’s going to be the longest, so if the others strained your patience or ate into your lunch break… hey, I told you.  Go hit the restroom, grab a snack, and pour yourself a drink. 
            What, now you’re drinking at work? Seriously? You might need to talk to someone.
            You might recall I said that linear structure is how characters experience the story and narrative structure is how the author chooses to tell the story. In that vein, dramatic structure is how my audience receives the story.  As the name implies, dramatic structure involves drama.  Not in the “how shall I make Phoebe love me” sense, but in the sense that the tension and interactions in my story should almost always be building.  Any story worth telling (well, the vast, overwhelming majority of them) are going to involve a series of challenges and an escalation of tension.  Stakes will be raised, then raised again.  More on this in a bit.  
            I hate getting really clinical with this stuff because… well, we’re talking about art. Not in that “ARRRRRTTTTT!!!” sense, but in that golden rule, we’ve-all-got-our-own-methods-of-doing-things way.  The art part of this is personal and we should all be cautious when someone starts slapping down graphs and charts of how “good” stories go together.
            But… I also think most of us here have been doing this writing thing long enough to understand that sometimes there are rules. There may be a few exceptions here and there, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are some very solid guidelines that cut across the vast majority of stories. Especially the vast majority of popular, successful stories.
            That being said…
            Let me show you some graphs and charts of how good stories go together.
            No, don’t freak out.  They’re really simple, and this is the easiest way to demonstrate the points I’m trying to make.  Hell, if you’ve been following the ranty blog for any time now (or gone back and read a lot of it) you’ve probably seen them before.
            On all these graphs, X is the progression or the story from beginning to end, Y is dramatic tension, high to low.  This first graph shows nothing happening.  Absolutely nothing.  This is me getting a good night’s sleep.  From my point of view.  I didn’t even have any interesting dreams.  No highs, no lows, no moments that stand out.  It’s flat and monotone.
            Boring as hell.
            As my story progresses, I want the tension to rise.  Things need to happen.  Challenges need to appear and be confronted by my protagonists.  By halfway through, the different elements of the story should’ve made things much more difficult for my heroes.  As I close in on the end, these difficulties and stakes should be peaking.
            Check this out. Here’s a bare-bones dramatic structure.  We start small, and tension increases as time goes by.  Low at the start, high at the end.
            Mind you, these don’t need to be world-threatening challenges or huge action set pieces.   If the whole goal of my story is for Phoebe to ask Yakko to the Sadie Hawkins dance without looking like an idiot, a challenge could just be finding the right clothes or picking the right moment in the day.  But there needs to be something for my character to do to get that line higher and higher.  There’s a movie out right now called Please Stand By where the main character’s goal is traveling to Los Angeles so she can submit her amateur Star Trek script to a screenplay contest.  The challenge is that she’s kind of high on the autism spectrum, so doing something this far out of her routine is a huge deal for her.
            Make sense so far?
            Okay, now here are a few things we need to keep in mind. 
            And there are visual aids, too
            First, you may have heard that “starting with action” thing that so many gurus preach.  A lot of folks start with that line up around eight… and then they increasing tension.  This doesn’t leave a lot of room for things to develop, but we’re hitting the ground running and going until we drop.
            Thing is…when we plot this out, the line looks a lot like the one on that first graph up above.  It’s pretty much just a straight line because there isn’t anywhere for things to go.  And, as we established earlier, straight lines are pretty boring whether they’re set at one-point-five or at eleven.  They’re monotone, and monotone is dull.
            This brings me to my second point. Dramatic structure can’t be a nice, even rise like the second graph.  That’s another straight line, and straight lines are… well, you get it by this point. 
            Think back to high school physics for a minute.  We don’t feel a constant velocity.  If I’m driving a car at a nice, even speed, I can reach out and play with the radio. I can have a drink of water or soda or coffee.  I can wiggle around and take off my jacket or get my wallet out or whatever.  And it doesn’t really matter if I’m moving at 40 or 60 or even a hundred miles per hour.
            Y’see, Timmy, we don’t notice the constant, we notice the change.  That’s what grabs our attention.  When I have to hit the gas or slam on the brakes or turn fast—these are the moments that grab me. These points stand out above the constant ones.
            In a good story, there’s going to be multiple challenges and my hero isn’t always going to succeed.  No, really.  He or she will win in the end, sure, but it’s not going to be easy getting there.  There’s going to be failures, mistakes, and unexpected results.  Ups and downs.  Because that’s normal. We don’t want a character who’s good at everything and never has a problem.  So that line is going to be a series of peaks and drops.  For every success, every time we get a little higher, there’s going to be some setbacks. A new, bigger challenge that appears.
            Still making sense?
            Good.
            So, with that in mind, here’s my big graph.
             This is everything I’ve been talking about these past few weeks.  Just like above, X is narrative structure.  It’s the story progressing from page one until the end of the story.  Y is dramatic structure. We can see the plot rising and falling as the characters have successes and failures which still continue to build.  And the letters on the graph are the linear structure—we all know what order the alphabet goes in.  We’re beginning at C, but there’s also a flashback much later on that go back to A, and we understand that occurred before C even though we don’t see it until this later point..
            Pretty much every story should look like this graph if I map it out.  Not exactly peak for peak, no, but they should all be pretty close to this pattern.  They’re all going to start small and grow.  We’ll see tension rising and falling as challenges appear, advances are made, and setbacks occur.  Small at the start, increase with peaks and dips, finish big.
            That’s it.  This is the big, easy trick to dramatic structure.  No matter what my narrative is doing, it has to keep increasing the tension.
            Simple, yes?
            Keep in mind, this isn’t an automatic thing.  This is something I, as the writer, need to be aware of while I craft my story.  If I have a chapter that’s incredibly slow, it shouldn’t be near the end of my book.  If a scene has no dramatic tension in it at all, it shouldn’t be in the final pages of my screenplay.  And if it is, it means I’m doing something wrong. 
            Not to hammer the point, but this is what I’ve talked about a few times now.  There needs to be a reason for this shift to happen at this point—a reason that continues to feed the dramatic structure.  If my dramatic tension is at seven and I go into a flashback, that flashback better take it up to seven-point-five or eight.  And if it doesn’t, I shouldn’t be having a flashback right now.  Not that one, anyway.
            See, let’s take another look at that A-B flashback up above.  Even though it’s near the end of my story, it’s still pushing the story higher than everything that came before it. I’m choosing to put this information in this place in order to create a specific dramatic effect.
            Think about a lot of your favorite stories.  When the readers learn things affect the kind of stories they are. And that change affects the dramatic structure.  Because dramatic structure tells us that things in the beginning are small, things at the end are big.  Something I know at the start is automatically a minor point, but it could be a major one if it’s revealed closer to the end.
            Got all this so far?
            Don’t worry, we’re almost done.
            There’s one last cool thing I can do with dramatic structure.  It makes it easy to spot if a story is worth telling.  I don’t mean that in some snarky way.  The truth is, there are a lot of stories out there that just aren’t that interesting. We all know this. Since we know a good story should follow that ascending pattern of challenges and setbacks, it’s pretty easy for me to look at even the bare bones of a narrative and figure out if it fits the pattern.
            For example…
            I’ve read a lot of zombie books (not surprising) and seen a lot of movies.  I’ve read and watched stories set in different climates, different countries, and with different reasons behind the end of the world.  I’ve also seen many different types of survivors.    One that crops up too often is the protagonist who decides on page seven to turn their house into a survival bunker for the thinnest of reasons. They stockpile food, weapons, ammunition, and other supplies.  But twenty pages later, when the zombies finally appear out of nowhere…  damn, are they ready.  Utterly, completely ready.  There’s no mistakes, no problems, no setbacks, because they have prepared for everything.
            In other words… there’s no change.  No challenge.  The plot just drifts along from one incident straight to another, and the fully prepped, fully trained, and fully loaded hero is able to deal with each one with minimal effort.  That’s not a story worth telling, because that story is a line. 
            And I’m sure you still remember my thoughts on lines…
            On the flipside, some of the best zombie stories have people caught unawares, or finding their plans collapsing around them.  The Undead Situation has a young protagonist who suspects the end’s coming and stocks his home… with candy and pet treats.  In Fiend we find out that meth addiction makes you immune to the zombie plague… but being on meth makes it challenging to survive the zombie apocalypse.  Roads Less Traveled has the protagonist work out a meticulous zombie-survival plan with her friends… which slowly unravels as people don’t follow the rules, come up short on their requirements, and generally act like, well, people.
            Again—dramatic structure isn’t an automatic thing.  Just because I reveal something later on doesn’t guarantee it’ll be more dramatic.  But if I map out my story like this, even in my head (and be honest with myself about it), I can get a better sense of how well my story’s structured.
            And honestly… I think with that I’ve thrown enough at you.  I wish I could offer you more.  But a lot of this is going to depend on you.  While the other two forms of structure are very logical and quantifiable, dramatic structure relies more on gut feelings and empathy with my reader.  I have to understand how information’s going to be received and interpreted if I’m going to release that information in a way that builds tension.  And that’s a lot harder to teach or explain.  The best I can do is point someone in the right direction, then hope they gain some experience and figure it out for themselves.
            On which note… next time I’d like to talk about getting started.
            Until then… go write.
February 22, 2018 / 4 Comments

Our Story Begins Ten Years Ago…

            For those who came in late…
            So we’re in the middle of a big discussion/lecture/infodump about story structure.  To be more exact, the different typesof story structure, because there are several of them and they all serve a different purpose.  If you missed me blabbing about linear structure last week, you might want to jump back and read that first.  Or maybe re-read it as sort of a refresher before we dive into this week’s little rant.
            Speaking of which…
            Now I want to talk about narrative structure.  Remember how I said linear structure is how the characters experience the story?  The narrative structure is how the author decides to tell the story.  It’s the manner and style and order I choose for how things will unfold.  A flashback is part of the narrative structure, as are flashforwards, prologues, epilogues, and “our story begins ten years ago…”  If you studied (or over-studied) this sort of stuff in college, your professor may have tossed out the term syuzhet. 
            One more note before I dive in.  Within my story there might be a device or point of view, like a first person narrator, which gives the appearance of “telling” the story.  For the purposes of this little rant, though, if I talk about the narration I’m talking about me, the writer, and the choices I make. Because I’m God when it comes to this story, and the narrator doesn’t do or say anything I don’t want them to.
            That being said…  here we go.
            In a good number of stories, the linear structure and narrative structure are identical.  Things start with Wakko on Monday, follows him to Tuesday, and conclude on Wednesday. Simple, straightforward, and very common.  My book, The Fold, fits in this category.  It’s loaded with twists and reveals, but the linear structure parallels the narrative.  Same with Autumn Christian’s We Are Wormwood, Dan Abnett’s The Warmaster, or Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male.  These books may shift point of view or format, but they still follow a pretty straightforward linear narrative.
            We don’t need to talk about this type of narrative too much because… well, we already did.  When my narrative matches my linear structure, any possible narrative issues will also be linear ones.  And we discussed those last week.
            There are just as many stories, though, where the narrative doesn’t follow the timeline of the story.  Sometimes the writer does this with flashbacks, where a story is mostly linear with a few small divergences. In other instances, the story might split between multiple timeframes. Or the story may be broken up into numerous sections and the reader needs to follow clues as to how they all line up.  These are often called non-linear stories, or you may have heard it as non-linear storytelling (it was the hip new thing for a while there).  My own Ex-Heroesseries employs numerous flashbacks, all in their own linear order.  So does F. Paul Wilson’s latest, The God Gene.  In his “Vicious Circuit” novels, Robert Brockway splits almost every other chapter between present day and the events of forty-odd years ago.
            Narrative structure involves more than just switching around my story elements, though.  It’s not just something I can do off the cuff in an attempt to look trendy.  If I’ve chosen to jump around a bit (or a lot) in my narrative, there’s a few things I have to keep in mind. 
            Be warned, we’re moving into an area that requires a little more skill and practice.
            First off, putting things in a new narrative order can’t change the linear logic of my story.  As I mentioned above, the week goes Monday through Friday, and this is true even if the first thing I tell you about is what happened on Thursday.  Monday was still three days earlier, and the characters and events in my story have to acknowledge that.  I can’t start my book with everyone on Thursday baffled who stole the painting, then roll the story back to Monday where everyone was a witnesses and saw the thief’s face.  If they knew then, they have to know now.  If I have Yakko act surprised to find a dog in his house on Friday and then have the narrative jump to him adopting the dog from a shelter on Tuesday, I’m going to look like an idiot while my linear structure collapses. 
            These are kinda stupid, overly-simple examples, yeah, but you’d be surprised how often I’ve seen this problem crop up.  Writers want to switch stuff around in clever ways, but ignore the fact that the logic of their story collapses when the narrative elements are put in linear order.  This is an easy problem to avoid, it just requires a little time and work.
            The second thing to keep in mind when experimenting with narrative structure is… why?  Why am I breaking up my story instead of telling it in order?  Sure, all that non-linear stuff is edgy and bold, but… what’s the point of it in mystory?  Why am I starting ten years ago instead of today?  Why do I have that flashback at that point?  How is the narrative improved by shaping it this way?
            Now, these may sound like silly questions, and I’m sure many artsy folks would sweep them aside with a dry laugh.  But they really deserve some serious thought. I talked a little while ago about how when my reader knows things can greatly affect the type of story I want to tell.  By rearranging the linear order, I’m changing when people learn things.
            And if this new narrative form doesn’t change when people learn things… again, what’s the point?
            The  third and final issue with having different narrative and linear structures is that people need to be able to follow my plot.  I mentioned last time that we all try to put things in linear order because it’s natural for us. It’s pretty much an automatic function of our brains.  This flashback took place before that one.  That’s a flash forward.  This flashback’s showing us something we saw earlier, but from a different point of view.
            The catch here is that I chop my narrative up too much, people are going to spend less time reading my story and more time… well, deciphering it.  My readers will hit the seventh flashback and they’ll try to figure out how it relates to the last six.  And as they have to put more and more effort into reorganizing the story (instead of getting immersed in said story), it’s going to break the flow.  If I keep piling on flashbacks and flash-forwards, and parallel stories… that flow’s going to stay broken.  Shattered even.
            And when I break the flow, that’s when people set my book aside to go watch YouTube videos.  No, it doesn’t matter how many clever phrases or perfect words I have.  People can’t get invested in my story if they can’t figure out what my story is.  And if they can’t get invested… that’s it.
            Y’see, Timmy, narrative structure can be overdone if I’m not careful.  This is something that can be really hard to spot and fix, because it’s going to depend a lot on my ability to put myself in the reader’s shoes.  Since I know the whole linear story from the moment I sit down, the narrative is always going to make a lot more sense to me, but for someone just picking it up… this might be a bit of a  pile.  Maybe even a steaming one.
            That’s narrative structure.  However I decide to tell my story, it still needs to have a linear structure. Perhaps even more important, it still needs to be understandable. 
            Next time, I’ll try to explain how linear structure and narrative structure combine to (hopefully) form a powerful dramatic structure.
            Until then… go write.
February 17, 2018

Getting Our Story Straight

            Running a little late this week.  Again.  Crazy busy these past few days.  Craig DiLouie was here in southern California, so we hung out for a day. Then there was Valentine’s Day.  And if you haven’t seen Black Pantheryet I highly recommend it.  Fantastic movie.
            Oh, plus a couple of outlines for new projects, too…
            Anyway…
            This past week at the Writers Coffeehouse I babbled on about different forms of structure and how they work together.  I haven’t really gone into that here in a couple of years, so I figured now might be a good time.  While it’s all fresh in my mind.
            Fair warning—this is kind of a sprawling topic so it’s going to spread out over the next two posts as well as this one.  I also may use a few terms in ways of which your MFA writing professor would not approve.  But I’ll do my best to be clear, despite all that.
            Speaking of professors…
            Structureis one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot when we’re talking about writing.  Sometimes in a generic sense, like that last sentence, other times in much more specific ways. You may have heard gurus talk about narrative structure, dramatic structure, three-act structure, or maybe even four- and five-act structure (if you’ve been dabbling with screenwriting a bit).
            An important thing to be clear about before we go too far—all of these are very different things.  I think this is why people get confused about structure sometimes.  A lot of things fall into this general category, and while some of them are vital to the storytelling process… some aren’t.  And it doesn’t help when “expert” gurus try to conflate them.  I read an article once where one guy was trying to use the five-act structure of television shows to demonstrate that three-act structure was an obsolete form (ProTip–it’s not).
            When we talk about structure, we’re talking about the underlying framework of a story.  The skeletal system, or maybe the nervous system, depending on how you want to look at it.  And, just like with anatomy (or architecture or programming) there can be more than one underlying system. And they all work together to make a functioning person. Or house.  Or story.
            It’s key to note that all these systems (or structures) are not the same. Sometimes things will overlap and serve multiple purposes. Sometimes they won’t. And, as I mentioned above, just because something worked in that story doesn’t mean it’ll work in my story.
            Okay.  Got all that?
            Good.  Get ready to take a few notes
           The three main structures in a story, for our purposes these next few weeks, are linearstructure, narrative structure, and dramatic structure.  They all interact and work with each other.  Just like with anatomy, if two elements are strong and one is weak, a story won’t be able to support itself.  So it’s important that I have a good grasp of all three and understand how they work.
            The one we’re going to deal with this week is linear structure.  Simply put, it’s how my characters experience the story.  There’s a Russian literary term for this called fabula.  Another term you may have heard for this is continuity.  Thursday leads to Friday which leads to Saturday.  Breakfast, coffee break, lunch, dinner.  Birth, childhood, college years, adulthood, middle age, old age, death.
            There’s a simple reason linear structure is so important.  Almost all of us are experts with it.  That’s because linear order is how we experience things all the time, every day.  We notice when effect comes before cause, even if the story gives them to us out of order.  A good way to think of linear structure, as I mentioned above, is a timeline.  When detectives break down the clues of a crime, them may discover them out of order, but it doesn’t change the order the events actually happened in.  If I’m writing a story—even if I’m telling the story in a non-linear fashion—there still needs to be a linear structure. 
            A good way to test the linear structure of my story (a method I’ve mentioned before) is to arrange all the flashbacks, flash-forwards, recollections, frames, and other devices in chronological order.  My story should still make logical sense like this, even if it’s lost some dramatic weight this way (more on that later).  If my story elements don’t work like this (if effect comes before cause, or if people know things before they learn them), it means I’ve messed up my linear structure.
            Now, I want to mention a specific example where linear structure gets messed up a lot– time travel.
            In a time travel story, it’s very likely there’ll be multiple linear structures.  My time traveler might be experiencing Thursday, Friday, then Wednesday, and then Thursday again.  They’re still experiencing four days in a row, though—even if their friends and coworkers are only having three. And their three are Wednesday-Thursday-Friday.
            I mentioned this diagram at the Coffeehouse on Sunday. It’s a pair of timelines featuring two characters from Doctor Who—Jack Harkness and the Doctor himself.  I’ve marked a few key, mutual events in their lives.
            Jack’s life is pretty straightforward, for our purposes here.  A is when young Jack first meets the Ninth Doctor and decides to travel with him for a while.  B is when he later encounters the Tenth Doctor and Martha.  C is when they all briefly meet again a year or so later to stop Davros and the Daleks.  They meet again (D) much, much later in Jack’s life.  And Eis when the Doctor’s there for Jack’s death at the ripe old age of twenty billion or so (mild spoilers, sorry). 
            That’s a pretty normal, linear timeline.  Young to old.  The one most of us have (just slightly exaggerated in his case).
            Now… look at the Doctor’s.  This is the linear structure of the show because we (the audience) are following the Doctor around (more on this next week).  He travels in time, though, so he meets Jack in kind of an odd order.  First time for him isn’t the first time for Jack, and vice-versa.  But it’s still a logical, linear order for the Doctor—he’s living his own timeline, A-B-C-D-E, just like Jack.  A and B are the Ninth Doctor, C through E are the Tenth.
            Make sense?
           Y’see, Timmy, no matter what order I decide to tell things in, the characters are experiencing the story in linear order.  If halfway through my book one of my character flashes back to what happened a week ago, this isn’t new information for him or her—it happened a week ago.  So all of their actions and reactions up until that flashback should take that information into account.
            It sounds pretty straightforward and it really is.  Linear structure is going to be the easiest of the three forms I blab about over the next few weeks because it’s logical and objective.  But, alas, people still mess it up all the time.  And the mistakes are usually because of… narrative structure.
            But we’ll talk about that next week.
            Until then, go write.
January 18, 2018 / 5 Comments

Down to Basics

            It’s come up once or thrice that I’m a lover of bad movies.  Partly for the laughing aspect, partly because I think you can learn as much from bad storytelling as you can from good.  Partly because I need to justify my drinking, and some of these movies make it reeeeeally easy.
            A while back I tossed out a list of really basic things a lot of these movies messed up.  Film school 101-level stuff that people were getting wrong.  Even though some of them went to film school.  And I wondered if it might be possible to do something with stories in general.
            Kristi Charish (of the fantastic Kincaid Strange series—book two coming soon) recently mentioned this idea (for a different topic) in a much better way—the invisible handshake.  It’s sort of an unofficial, unspoken contract between the author and the reader. If you’re picking up my book, there are certain automatic assumptions you’re making about what I’ll be providing you with, and I should be meeting these assumptions.  Basic things about plot and structure and character that are just… well, basic.
            At the end of last year I read a book that fumbled that handshake.   Fumbled it bad.  It was like that awkward moment with someone at the end of the night where you’re not sure how to say goodbye, so the two of you make a bunch of half-moves toward different things.  Do we hug?  Shake hands?  Peck on the cheek?  Write an awful book? 
            We’ve all been there, right?
            I ranted a bit about said book on Twitter, but even then I was thinking I should revisit a lot of those issues here.  And while said book was very rant-worthy, I’ve been .trying to keep things a bit more on the positive side here.
            So, a few general things I need to keep in mind when I’m writing.  I’ve mentioned most of them before, but I thought a general, all–at-once
            First, I need to be clear who my main character is.  If I spend the first four chapters of my book with Yakko… everyone’s going to assume Yakko’s the main character.  This book’s clearly about him, right?  So when he vanishes for the next seven chapters… well, people are going to keep wondering when we’re getting back to him.  Because he’s the main character.
            Now, a lot of books have a big cast of characters.  An ensemble, as some might say.  That’s cool.  But if my book’s going to be spending time between a bunch of characters, I need to establish that as soon as possible.  If the first three or four chapters are all the same character, it’s only natural my readers will assume that’s going to be the norm in this book.
            Secondis that I need to keep my point of view consistent.  This kinda goes with the first point—being clear who my main character is.  Even with a third person POV, we’re usually looking over a specific person’s shoulder, so to speak. Which means that character can’t walk away and leave us behind.  Likewise, we can’t start over Wakko’s shoulder and then driiiiiiiiiiiiiift over so we’re suddenly looking over Dot’s.
            Again, it’s cool to switch POV and there’s nothing wrong with it, but I need to make it clear to my readers that I’m doing it. If they start seeing things from new angles or hearing new pronouns, it’s going to knock them out of the story and break the flow.  That’s never a good thing.
            Thirdthing I need to do is be clear who my actual characters are.  Who’s part of the story and who’s just… well, window dressing.  If my two protagonists go out to dinner, there’s going to be other people in the restaurant.  But I shouldn’t describe them all. Or name them all
            Names and descriptions are how I tell my reader a character’s going to be important and worth remembering.  Three paragraphs of character details means “Pay attention to this one.”  So if I’m telling the reader to keep track of people for no reason, I’m wasting their time and my word count.

            I want to note a specific way people do this, too.  I’m calling it “describe and die” (trademark 2018).  This is when the author introduces a character, spends five or six pages describing them, their history, their goals, their loves, their life—and then kills them.  We’ve all seen this, yes?  Here’s Yakkoshiro, a twenty-nine year-old salaryman who spends all his free income on Gundam models and always wears long sleeves to the office because he won’t stop wearing his fathers watch, even though nobody wears watches anymore and looking behind the times like that could hurt his chances at a promotion so… long sleeves, never rolled up, even when the air conditioner dies (which happens a lot). And tonight he has a date with the beautiful woman from the Gundam store, who he’s exchanged nervous banter with for months now and, oh, he’s dead.  A kaiju stepped on him.  Now, back to our heroes…

            Don’t do that.
            Fourthis that I need to have an actual plot before I start focusing on subplots.  What’s the big, overall story of my book?  If it’s about Wakko trying to save the family car wash, I should probably get that out to my readers before I start the romance subplot or the backstabbing partner subplot or the Uncle Gus has cancer and wants to travel around the world before he dies subplot.  After all, they picked up my book because the back cover said it was about saving the family car wash or escaping that Egyptian tomb.  I should be working toward that first—meeting those expectations.
            If I’m spending more time on a subplot than the actual plot, maybe I need to revisit what my story’s actually about.
            Fifth, closely related to four, is that my subplots should relate to the main story somehow.  They should loop around, tie back in to the main plot, or at least have similar themes so we see the parallels.  If I can pull out a subplot out of my story and it doesn’t change the main story in the slightest… I probably need to reconsider it.
            And if it’s an unrelated subplot to an unrelated subplot… okay, seriously, I’m wasting pages at that point.  Not to mention this all starts getting, well, distracting.  I don’t want to kill whatever tension I’m building in my main plot by putting it on hold for eight or nine pages while I deal with… well, something completely unrelated.  It’s like switching channels in the middle of a television show. Nobody’s saying what’s on the other channel is bad, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the show we’re trying to watch.
            Sixth
            Okay, this is an odd one.
            Remember how much fun it is when you meet someone you’re interested in and there’s all these fascinating little mysteries about them?  We want to learn all their tics and hidden secrets.  Where are they from?  What’d they study in school?  What movies do they like?  How’d they develop a taste for that?  Why do they have that accent?  Where’d they get that scar?  Just how big is that tattoo?
            But… we don’t want to learn those secrets from a book report.  We want to hang out with these people, talk over drinks, go on road trips, maybe stay up all night on the phone or on the couch.  It’s how we get to know real people… and it’s how we want to learn about characters, too. Pages and pages of backstory often makes characters less interesting because it leaves me with nothing to reveal about them.  It kills that sense of mystery, because there’s nothing left to learn about them.
            There’s nothing wrong with me having all that backstory, but I don’t need to use it all in book.
            And I definitely don’t need to reveal it all in the first two or three chapters.
            Seventhand last is flashbacks.  Flashbacks are a fantastic narrative device, but they get used wrong a lot.  And when they’re wrong… they’re brutal. A clumsy flashback can kill a story really fast.
            A flashback needs to be advancing the plot.  Or increasing tension. Or giving my readers new information.  In a great story, it’s doing more than one of these things. Maybe even all of them.
            But a flashback that doesn’t do any of these things… that’s not a good flashback.  That’s wrong.  And it’ll bring things to a grinding halt and break the flow.
            Seven basic things to keep in mind while I’m writing my story.
            Now, as always, none of these are hard-fast, absolute rules.  If I hire a pastry chef for my bakery, there’s always a possibility this particular one doesn’t use a whisk.  There can always be an exception.  But I should be striving to be the exception, not just assuming everyone will be okay with me not following all the standards. My readers are going in with certain expectations, and I need to be doing honestly amazing things to go against them.  
            Because if that same pastry chef also doesn’t use a spatula…  Or butter… Or flour…
            Again—the invisible handshake (trademark K. Charish, 2018). 
            It’s a legally binding contract in forty-two states and four Canadian provinces.
            Next time, I’d like to tell you about something that happened off-camera on a TV show I worked on years ago.
            Until then, go write   

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