Writing prompt: setting

Let this picture inspire your story. What ‘what if’ question does it inspire? What characters would you place here? Who are they and what do they want?

What critical climax develops in this narrative? What keeps the characters from achieving their goals?

tunnel

Happy writing!

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Writing prompt: Setting

What little slice of heaven is this? How could this setting inspire or influence your characters? What would they be doing in a place like this? Who are they? What do they want? What stands in their way? What brought them to this location?

Happy writing!sunset

If the stakes are high…. Your story will fly!

One of the ongoing problems I see in my students’ screenwriting is that the stakes simply aren’t high enough in their scripts. What I mean is, they set up a problem that—no matter the solution—will leave the hero in the same position at the end of the script regardless of whether he wins or loses.

This is a huge problem.

In order for the script to work (and really this is true of a novel and likely short story as well) the world must change dramatically if the hero wins, but it must also change dramatically if he or she loses too. Otherwise, what’s the point of the story? And your audience/ reader will see right through it.

To ensure your stakes are high enough for your hero, consider the following points:

  • The hero wants something and has shown through his or her actions that they’re willing to do anything to get it. A person who is this intense and working toward a life-altering goal is doing things he or she may never have tried before—and they’re likely exhibiting some kind of courage to do it. With that being said, how could life ever be the same again?
  • Ask yourself why the hero wants to achieve this goal. What are the solid answers to that question? Usually this centers somewhere in the realm of the hero’s view of his/ her own self-worth. This is not an issue to be taken lightly.
  • Articulate clearly before you write how the world will be different if the hero wins or loses. This might make the concept of stakes clearer and more tangible.
  • Near the end of the story the hero should have exhausted all avenues in their efforts to find success. In doing this, the world has already changed. For better or worse is up to you—but the change will be there.
  • This may be a little bit of a side-note but something else that helps me make sure the stakes are high enough is knowing how my story will end before I start writing. It’s a habit I picked up when I studied screenwriting, but I find it helps in all forms of writing in terms of character development, plot progression, and even setting the stakes. I’ll likely write a separate blog post about this in the future.

Setting the stakes can seem like a daunting task at the beginning of the process. But if you think about anything you’ve done in your life that you’re incredibly proud of or that was very difficult, and you’ll likely find the reason this was so was that there were clearly established stakes that made all the difference.

Film examples of setting the stakes – Big Fish (Edward will die before his son knows who he is, and before their relationship—they’ve been estranged for years—is healed), Bruce Almighty (Bruce is selfish and if he doesn’t change he won’t really understand what love is or how to treat others), Wall Street (Bud is bent on success, but if he finds it, he may lose his family and soul)… see how important this is? Your hero’s victory or defeat is the center of the story- but only because in that he/ she’s life is changing in dramatic, unbelievable ways.

So, what are the stakes for your hero?

Happy writing!

What if…? The writer’s perfect question

The question to end all questions- what if…? It is a writer’s treasure trove. It is how I began writing one of my recent screenplays.

I should have been paying attention the sermon in church and instead I was looking at the back of this woman in front of me and wondering if she would find love or if men would only see her as the wheelchair she sat in. My ‘what if’ question was ‘what if a woman in a wheelchair met the man least likely to see her as anything but the wheelchair?’

And thus became the start of a story that wouldn’t leave me for years. The woman became Daisy Parker, the man, Robby Grant, the screenplay, and then novel—Picking Daisy.

So how do you construct a great ‘what if’ question that will lead to a novel, screenplay, short story, or other work? In my case it boils down to a few key elements:

  • Curiosity- as writers we should be curious people. Asking ‘what if’ almost all the time about the people and things around us will provide no end of inspiration for writing
  • Engagement- although there will be times, of course, when we can’t just be thinking ‘what if…?’ otherwise, we’d get nothing done. That said, engaging with and paying attention to the world around us is essential to the successful and constant creation of ‘what if’ questions. In other, more direct words, pay attention
  • Creativity- the ‘what if’ question needn’t end after only one has been posed. Don’t hesitate to ask more than one of them until the right one that sparks your creativity strikes. Additionally, don’t let the more direct, easy answer to the ‘what if/\’ question be the only idea you embrace. Test drive a few until you find the one that fits your writing situation.
  • Answers- Answering the ‘what if’ question can be the most fun you’ll have with this experience. Once the right ‘what if’ question is formed, the real creativity begins. Your characters and scenarios will develop more easily and you’ll have fun experimenting with the many options available as answers to your questions.

The benefits of the ‘what if’ question can’t be overstated. Not only will it spark your creativity, it will also help you avoid that terrible problem of writer’s block.

So go ahead and try it. Take a look around you and ask ‘what if’ and see what happens. Comment below with any intriguing insights from your ‘what if’ experience.

Happy writing!sunset

Films that inspire writers: Stranger than Fiction

It’s not surprising that writers look for inspiration everywhere. Because of their visual nature, films can offer encouragement and insight for writers in any number of ways.

The film Stranger than Fiction is one such example of a valuable writing film. This film explores many relevant areas for writers, including writer’s block, inspiration, creativity, the writing process, and even writer’s preferences in terms of writing spaces, process, and more. While the insights presented may be a bit far-fetched (most films are so as to bow to the needs of the silver screen), they can encourage writers to try new techniques or ideas to find writing success.

In short, the film Stranger than Fiction is about a writer named Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) who is struggling through writer’s block as she seeks to decide on the perfect way to kill her protagonist, Harold Crick (Will Ferrell). This film is a great illustration of the deep waters writers have to go through to bring their characters to the page. The acting in the film is excellent, and overall the film is well worth watching.

Check it out!

What films inspire your writing?

Character creation 101: Banning ‘Magic Mike’ in favor of heroes with real drive

So I foolishly made the mistake of letting my friends talk me into going to see Magic Mike when it came out in the theaters.

It will bMagic-Mike-Movie-Postere funny, they said.

But I wasn’t laughing.

And it probably wasn’t for the reasons you might be thinking.

Sure, the plot was stupid, the action tasteless, and the humor raunchy. I’m fairly certain all of that goes without saying (and it wasn’t surprising). But what struck me more than anything else was that the film actually had a chance to make a point, but it never bothered to come close to going where it should have.

And it was a problem that—given better writing—could have easily been solved and made the film more than tolerable. It might even have been good.

So what was the problem? Where did this pinnacle of cinematic excellence (please, I’m being sarcastic) go wrong? Sadly, it’s the same place many writers lose the audience.

The problem is that a number of novelists and screenwriters falsely believe that it is enough for their heroes be one dimensional. OK- maybe they don’t set out to do this, but they get so wrapped up in the plot that they fail to recognize the important role a multi-dimensional character plays in the success of the film or novel. Writers who struggle in this area often have characters who think their readers or audience will be satisfied by a hero who is in love with the girl, wants the job, or is just plain cute.

Not so fast.

Think about it- does a man only want to ‘get the girl’ in real life? Even the most smitten man has priorities and drives beyond—or at least in addition to—finding love.

Narratives that fall into such a problem fail to develop a rich story or believable characters. In the case of ‘Magic Mike’ for instance, the chance for a great narrative was squandered in favor of following a character the audience is supposed to believe has been forced to take his clothes off for a living so that he might –someday- be able to follow his ‘real’ dream of woodworking and making furniture. This might have worked if the audience saw him even once working in his wood shop. Realistically though, to make this narrative believable, the audience would need to see, feel, and believe that without the ability to create, Mike would wither away and die.

But novelists suffer this problem too. Many writers spend ample time leading the audience to believe the hero lives magically (pun intended, we’re looking at you Mike)- and solely- on the drive to get together with the heroine of the story, failing to recognize that even the most smitten man sometimes has to go to work, engage with family or friends, or even develop hobbies, skills, or education that in no way relate directly to the woman for whom he pines.

The answer to this flat-character dilemma isn’t so simple. In my experience the only real way around it is spending time on the front end of your writing project developing the hero’s backstory. He must be fully formed (with a past full of LIFE) in order for the audience to be sympathetic to his dilemma.

So, what is it that makes your hero real?

Some great resources for answering this question exist. See the end of this post for links to some of them. But for now, here are some questions that might help:

  • What does the hero do in his spare time? Hobbies?
    • What is he an expert at?
  • What comes easily for the hero? Why?
  • What does he hate to do? What is he allergic to? What is he bad at?
  • Has the character been trained in any way (college, military, technical school)? What was this experience like for him? How does it influence him today?
  • What are his vices? Favorite things? (think Oprah- make a list!)
  • What is his family life like? With whom in his family does he interact on a regular basis?
    • Friends? What do they do together for fun?
  • Habits? (dining out, church/ ministry, clubs, etc.)
  • What goals does he have? How does he plan to achieve these goals?
    • How does the love interest support/ conflict with these goals?
  • What do the hero and heroine have in common?
    • How are they different?
  • What does the hero not want to do (but keeps doing anyway)? What is in the hero’s past that he wishes he could escape?

I could go on for days with questions such as these. In essence, if you look around at your friends, family, and colleagues, what makes them who they are? What makes them do what they do on a daily basis? While I don’t recommend pulling too much actual information from these sources, allow them to inspire you to see parallels within your characters’ lives so one dimension quickly becomes a fully-formed individual.

Once you’ve worked your way through some or all of the above questions, you will need to weave them organically into the story—let the answers influence your character and give him personality—and more to talk or pursue beyond his love interest, career, or other story goal.

Here’s a short list of some resources that might be helpful in your backstory creation. (Note: don’t be afraid to apply any or all of this information to side characters, love interests, and villains as well).

https://www.writerswrite.com/journal/jun98/how-to-create-a-character-profile-6986

http://www.miniworld.com/adnd/100ThingsAboutUrPCBackGround.html

http://inkwellideas.com/2010/09/101-questions-to-help-create-character-backgrounds-and-personalities/

http://theathleticnerd.com/screenwriting/getting-to-know-your-characters

What are some ways you make your characters more believable? How do you give characters goals and depth? Feel free to comment below. And as always, happy writing!

Another excerpt from Picking Daisy…

Robby pulled the truck into a deserted parking lot and set the brake. His eyes searched her face.

Just a man in need.

“Things should be easier for you. Let me help,” he said, the words a sincere promise she wanted to believe. His voice was gentle, caressing her ear, silken and sensual. “I mean, in exchange for the help with my career. I’m…not a bad person. I’ve got to have my life back.” Robby drew a deep breath. “Will you help me? I can’t do this without you.” The sincere pleading in his voice was unsettling. He was a human being.

She refused to turn his way. If she did she’d be powerless to say what she really thought.

“No one would believe it,” she whispered.

“Come on, Harpo,” Robby pleaded. “You’d lose your house to save your pride? We’ll do this while I’m here helping Nick…that’s what? Two weeks or so? Max?” Robby leaned across the seat so that his lips were near her ear as he spoke in a whisper.

“Come on. I’m hot, I’m rich, I’m an excellent kisser…” he paused when she squirmed as if he were ready to seal the deal. He dropped his voice low so it came out husky and tempting against her ear. “I’m even better at…other things.”

Daisy’s head spun and they were nose-to-nose. Even Alec hadn’t done this to her. She was certain her physical response to his offer was nothing to be proud of. Her father’s face popped into her mind and she forcefully pushed Robby back to his own side of the truck. Her father was a man of God, respectful and kind, but also driven by the rules of the Bible. Daisy had been raised better than to fall into Robby’s lustful trap.

“I don’t want your money,” she stammered, brushing Robby’s touch from her arms in an effort to make the tingling sensations stop. “And I definitely do not want your body!” “Humph…you’d be the first,” he grunted, seeming to forget himself.

“Not everyone is like that.”

“Right, so when you realized who I was, why did you help me?”

It wasn’t difficult for Daisy to give an honest answer. “I was nice to you even before I put it together.” She looked at her lap, feeling silly and uncultured, but forging ahead anyway. “I did it because I…it’s what I was supposed to do. When someone needs help, you help them. It’s basic Sunday School.”

Robby smiled. “Well, I will be forever grateful to you and all of your Sunday school teachers…” He kissed her hand and she was suddenly aware he’d never let it go in the first place. Daisy yanked herself away and scowled at him.

Robby grinned. “We can break up in a few weeks. Happens all the time. No big deal and you’ll be free to go on with your life never again thinking of the way you slummed with me.” “If that’s how lightly you take relationships it is a bigger deal than you think,” she said.

Daisy longed to take him to Nick’s house and forget about him, but unfortunately, Robby’s uncle had more than one bottle of alcohol and left alone she didn’t know what would happen. She’d never forgive herself, and she doubted Nick would either if he hurt himself or slipped back into his old habits. Making Robby go away was out of the question, but that didn’t mean she be forced to agree to this. She hadn’t liked babysitting when she was younger and she didn’t want to babysit a grown man now. But most of all she didn’t want to pretend with her fragile, empty heart that she was in love with him.

Trusting herself seemed impossible. If she was pretending, she might become unable to recognize the difference between fact and fiction. That was her problem with Alec too. Her stomach turned.

“Say the word and you got twenty grand to bail you out,” Robby continued. “Even more if you throw in the ballad.”

“No,” Daisy said adamantly. “Forget about the song!”

…Enjoy what you’ve read so far? Get your copy today!

Creating your perfect writing space

Writing is a solo endeavor but it doesn’t have to be a painful one.

Creating the perfect writing space is essential to a writer’s productivity. Although my current office space at home is functional, I am considering ways to spice things up and improve the inspiration that surrounds me.

Below are some things I recommend you consider as you work on your own writing space. Maybe when mine is finished I’ll post some pics, but for now, I hope my work and insight can be helpful to you.

Desk:

The right desk will give you a place to create, write, and do what writers do best—dream. My desk is over a hundred years old and has many drawers and a roll top I rarely pull down for fear it will break. But I love it! If you’re a fan of vintage pieces, I suggest looking at consignment shops, antique stores, auctions, or even yard sales. I found my desk at a consignment shop. If you’re a fan of new furniture, but you’re on a budget, local discount stores or even Ikea might be the best bets for you.

Schedule:

Are you writing in the early morning or in the evening? Adding the right lights or curtains to your space will allow better illumination as you read, write, edit, or market your work. My overhead light is functional (and I have a large window on my office at home) but I added a lamp to my desk for those days when it’s gray or I just feel the need for a brighter workspace.

Color:

Selecting a carpet or area rug that features bright colors will inspire you. Then, you can pull from the carpet to bring accents to the room through curtains, pillows, paint color, and even wall hangings. Have fun with color to make your writing room feel focused and creative.

Shelves:

As writers it goes without saying that we have a lot of books. A. Lot. Of. Books. Proper storage is critical to making the resources you use often available and those you don’t handy enough that they are there when needed. Get creative and use your space well, but don’t be afraid to get rid of books you haven’t opened in a while (pssst! This just makes room for you to buy more books! Win-win!)

Chairs:

A comfortable seat is critical to writing well. Try out several that not only appeal to your sense of aesthetic in the room but also to your body make-up. Lumbar support and the ability to raise and lower the seat, as well as change positions as needed will be some factors to look for in choosing the right chair for you. But don’t limit yourself! Also consider having additional seating if the room allows so that you can get away from your desk and maybe put your feet up as you read, write, research, or edit your work.

Change:

Even if you settle on a color scheme, design concept, or organization tactic, you aren’t tied to it. Know that you can change what doesn’t work—and be open to new ideas that, thanks to the internet, will surely come up right as you complete the office overhaul.

And finally…

Pinterest:

Pinterest has been an invaluable tool to getting ideas for my oddly-shaped (but pretty cool) writing space. When it’s done, I promise to share some pics but right now it’s still a work in progress. Search as many different ideas as you can and create boards for your thoughts. Pull from these as you can and create the room of your dreams!

And check out my pinterest board for inspiration if you like: https://www.pinterest.com/kmm1717/office/

Happy writing!