Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Enjoy the Ride--Guest Blogger

This is Lexie, trying to blog while on the road vacationing with her family...we just left an exhausting whirlwind of trying to catch at least a minimum of the sights in D.C. and are now visiting family in Connecticut. So, of course, I'll write of my adventures at a later date--right now I'm too pooped to
be creative.

So, please join my heartfelt welcome of Carla Damron, our guest blogger. Carla has spoken several times to our LowCountry Romance Writers group and is a mystery writer rather than paranormal, but there's a little bit of paranormal in all of us.

Last month, the LowCountry Romance Writers hosted Carla Damron, author of the Caleb Knowles Mysteries (BellaRosabooks) as our guest speaker. This is a summary of her talk, with her permission.

Carla’s topic was the not-so-easy basic of scene and sequel. I had only heard of Dwight Swain’s well-known Techniques of the Selling Writer, so some of the other approaches to this crucial tool were helpful to me. Hopefully, they’ll be helpful to you as well.

Just as an extra, my Sunday School class the next day (no kidding) included a question about Jesus’ parables—what makes a good story? I listened to the others in the class, rather than jumping in and heard what you might expect. One lady answered characters, she needs to feel she knows or could get to know the people. Another chimed in that the story needed to be believable and, the third, drum roll, please, said the plot.

The Sunday School extra is very apropos because Ms. Damron began with a quote from Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House in which he stated the mechanisms of hell are akin to the mechanisms of narrative. Baxter, and many others I’ve heard speak over the years, believe we should put our characters through hell—and that’s what makes a good story.

But is plot equal to story? Damron went on to say that a story is like a history, a simple retelling of events in the order in which they occurred. Plot, on the other hand, is a story organized by logic and drama. Structure is process, not rigid. Not static, but dynamic—from Bickham’s Scene and Structure.

A story starts at the beginning. Plot starts where it’s fascinating. I actually want to open this one up for discussion because I’ve seen it both ways—some argue start with a glimpse of the ordinary world while others argue start where everything changes. Just my opinion, but I believe books appealing to a middle, older, or literary audience might open with the ordinary world. Books which promise to be action-packed are expected to open with the change. Keeping your promise to the reader should also figure in here somewhere—some readers, believe it or not, don’t want action all the time. But…begin as you mean to go on—in love and in writing.

Now, to the meat of the matter. Damron went on to describe three different approaches to outlining a plot. Since Swain’s is so well known, I’m going to recap Carolyn Wheat’s Writing Killer Fiction as summed up by Damron. Laurel Dewey’s Formula for a Novel in Three Acts will be reviewed at a later date.

Wheat calls her approach the Four Arc System. In Arc I, the opening scene, the writer must grab the reader’s attention, introduce the main character, the problem, make a contract with the reader, and establish the setting.

Arc I must then establish the character’s inner need, introduce a subplot or two, use conflict to get the story moving, and end at a crisis point.

Arc II sees the main character tested. He or she (and I insert they both should) be given tasks at which they either fail and things get worse—or they succeed and things get worse anyway. Subplots deepen and move along to crunch points. The main plot builds toward a climax. Discrepancies between what the characters want and what they need grow. Again, this arc ends at a crisis. Since Damron writes mysteries, she says a sign of the end of each arc in a mystery is another dead body. With a romance, this may be where the main characters actually fulfill their sexual relationship (unless it’s erotica and my guess is that’s happening in Arc I) and instead of lessening the tension, it increases it.

In Arc III, the pace increases—and something I’d not seen before—Wheat suggests the chapters and sentences should become shorter. Threads are coming together, with subplots being resolved but the main plot getting worse—lower levels of Hades. The character’s drive towards his/her goal increases and the character rushes headlong to the black moment.

In Arc IV, the showdown between good and evil arrives. Evil appears to win. But then, the hero and/or heroine transforms in both internal and/or external ways. The reader is given the gift promised in Arc I.

To conclude (this episode—an hour-long talk with good discussion is difficult to briefly put to paper—or screen), Damron quoted Wheat, “Writing the middle of the book is like driving through Texas. You think it’s never going to end and all the scenery looks the same.” Our task is to make sure the reader doesn’t feel this way about the middle of our books.

Strange, I drove through Texas and I saw cowboys and women with big hair and the town where George Strait lives and the Alamo and the border patrol…so much going on if we just see past the typical. And if our plot is a wild ride rather than a scenic tour.


Evonne Wareham said...


Lovely summing up of what sounds as if it was a facinating talk. I liked the bit about having a dead body at the end of every arc.

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Lex--hope you have a blast on your vacation!

I like the way she broke things down into acts, like a play. It helps to plot a novel that way to avoid the dreaded sagging middle. :)

Lexie O'Neill said...

Thank you all for chiming in--Carla's never blogged before, and she works, so hopefully she'll be here later tonight!
Vacation's been fun--our version is to see everything until we're exhausted and then have some days like today--hour long nap just over:) Thank you for your good thoughts,

Savanna Kougar said...

Lexie, absolutely excellent presentation. And I've learned even more about the craft of writing. Thank you.
Most of what was discussed seems to come naturally to me -- or maybe it's simply osmosis -- I've absorbed it from reading all those books, watching all that tv, once upon a time -- and from being a movie fanatic -- except not like I used to be.
In the early 90's my sis lived in Alexandria, VA ~ so I got a chance to visit DC then. It was an incredible experience.

Carla Damron said...

Hey, Y'all, sorry I'm so late coming, I had the wrong day on my calendar.
I highly recommend Swain on this topic. I've used his format to check my scenes and find it helps me amp up the conflict/tension and keeps the story moving!

Mel Hiers said...

Welcome, Carla! (And don't worry, you're not as late as I am.)

Thanks for bringing us such great information! I'm about to start plotting a new WIP, and I think this'll help! :-)