The first in a series about finding your writing process, starting with writing toward the basic shape of all successful stories, the Basic Plot Structure.

I thought I’d start simple and work outward to the more complex, since that’s the most sane way to write stories themselves. In fact, it is the basis of one popular process I’ll go into later called the Snowflake Method. But first, let’s look at one underlying process or structure that seems to be common to all successful stories: the plot structure.

Whether you’re a Pantser or an Outliner, eventually a story must be honed into the right shape that is recognizable as a satisfying story. Any writer will already know this shape, resembling a triangle or a mountain, which our hero must climb to find their Inner Hero. It involves a Setup to get us up to speed on our fictional world, an Inciting Incident to rip our main character out of their comfort zone, a long series of ever-increasing obstructions for them to climb over, a Climax where they figure out what they needed to do from the start, and a Resolution where they find their new life.

Whether you support the whole idea of writing to a structure or form, thanks to all the movies and books your audience has watched and read already, this is the form of story they are already expecting to see. If we deviate too far from it, we run the risk of our work hitting the wall (literally) or a trash can before they finish reading it. Luckily it’s a pretty open and forgiving structure.

Note the Three-Act structure laid out beneath that triangle. This is also a pretty common part of an audience’s expectations, though they may not consciously register the passing of each Act. The Acts are more a measure of turning points that should (some say “must”) happen for the hero in a successful story (and just about every movie you’ve ever watched and enjoyed). We can talk about Acts later on.

This shape doesn’t just happen–it must be designed. Outliners start out with this shape in mind and plan their scenes to “rise to the challenge” their heroes will have to face. Pantsers, like their fellow audience members, already “feel” this shape and roughly write toward it, only to later revise and nudge things into the right places. Neither way is better than the other, of course, except for the writers using it.

Whatever works for you is the way to go. That one thing we must remember, or nothing that follows will seem wondrous … oops–I slipped into Scrooge territory there. Sorry.

It is interesting to note that the triangle above used to be drawn more like an isosceles triangle, before the Internet and a million action movies jaded us to the plodding pace old movies and books now must seem to younger audiences (well, to me, too, anymore). Especially the beginnings and endings.

The Freytag structure

Back then, as you can see in this Freytag graph, beginning setups were much longer, and resolutions more gradual. Nowadays, we’re clever enough to do the Setup as part of the Inciting Incident and the Resolution is practically melded into the Climax itself. It’s elegant and makes a lot of sense, especially when dinosaurs are roaming about eating everyone.

As far as processes go, this is pretty basic stuff, almost to the point of being subconscious anymore to the practiced writer. But it is upon this model that most other processes are built, or at least target, so I thought it best to put it out there for those just starting out.

For a much more in-depth exploration of the importance of story structure, I recommend reading Super Structure* by James Scott Bell. This book is not only friendly and fun to read, but immediately breaks the myth that writing to structure confines your process; instead freeing you to write your story faster and in a way that will connect more solidly and emotionally with your audience.

(*affiliated link)

Next week: The Snowflake Method.

dude looking for his process

As a longtime writer, I’ve found facets and depth in that word, Process; especially when I realized it means something different for each writer.

One big chunk of my own Process involves a constant battle with the ever-present Resistance, which deserves a blog post all its own. But beyond that, I believe even marginally successful writers develop their own habits, tools, and practices that help get them from idea to completion more quickly.

Process seems to be a constantly evolving critter that is unique to your own personality and work style. That said, I’ve found it helps to try other writers’ processes along the way to expand and invigorate your own. I’ve tried a bunch of writing strategies and tools from far more established writers than myself along the way and gleaned a little or a lot from each. So I thought I’d share a handful of the ones I found most intriguing and useful over the next few weeks.

I’ll try to remain as subjective as possible (concealing my own personal preference), so I don’t bias your own evaluation of them. Your process must come from you. I’ve found in my own research into process that it seems almost mandatory for a writer writing about writing to sell their process as “The Process,” perhaps from pressure from their book editors; but it is obvious they all can’t be right.

Go ahead and try out different ones, but take them all with a grain of salt and observe how it affects your projects’ productivity. You’ll know when something works for you, even if it is just a small piece of their puzzle. Don’t let anyone bully you into going only with their way of doing things. Take it from me, I’ve wasted bunches of time wrestling with being “pure” to someone else’s complete process. You have to be true to yourself.

If you have a favorite process or tool that works for you, or would like me to investigate one here, please leave a note in the comments below. In the meantime, take in as much as you can from other writers and let your subconscious piece together its own Method of Success. It usually knows what it’s doing.

cute puppy passenger

There’s nothing like a puppy face to make the world a better place, especially on days you really need one. For example…

Have you ever had someone unexpectedly completely ruin your day?

The sun is shining, you’re driving somewhere fun, life is good. Oh, here’s a merge up ahead… You turn on your signal to let someone know you’d appreciate a place to squeeze into the highway queue–

When some arrogant dick who looks like he eats kittens for breakfast stares at you through his window as he takes your signal as an invitation to not only cut you off, but slow down and try to drive you into the barrier ahead, staring at you through his passenger window the whole time.

The road troll. A person who goes around attempting legal hit and runs for his own amusement. Big city people know this vermin well, but we try not to think about them, because they suck.

I disappointed this one by not dying, but he won in the end: an hour later I was still upset about it. The idea of such a person, roaming the streets being inhuman to people, for fun. The sunshine had lost it’s shine, the springlike air seemed somehow grubby, my fellow humans felt less trustworthy, and I felt like I was having a Bad Day barely before the day started.

Thanks to adrenaline and broken expectations about common morality, this sort of feeling is truly hard to break out of, especially for the more sensitive of us. Other, tougher souls probably shrug it off like Portland rainwater, but I wonder if even they can feel it inside, nibbling away at their happiness.

Oddly, once you get into this funk, the day seems to follow your revised expectations, becoming a self-fulfilled prophecy. A Bad Day will be had, whether more bad stuff happens or not, while the regular stuff just takes on a bad feeling. We change our world by how we observe it, seeing the shadows instead of the light. There is the potential for good and bad in everything, and we can bring it out simply by focusing on it.

Thanks to our caveman evolution, we’re wired to see the bad things as far more important, simply to avoid getting eaten. Five yummy venison meals are great, but it only takes one hungry saber-tooth tiger to ruin that whole week of happiness. Why do you think it takes a dozen very expensive roses to say “I’m sorry”?

We don’t need this instinct as much now, but it’s wired in, so it often takes three to five good events to offset one bad one.

So, there I was coming out of a restaurant over an hour later, still in a funk. As I approached my car, an SUV was pulling into the spot next to mine, driven by an older lady. She noticed my approach and graciously held up pulling all the way in to give me access to my car. She even smiled and said hello. I smiled back and said Hi, but I was still too funked up to put much feeling into it (bad people are contagious).

But as I walked past, I looked over and saw a little black Terrier sitting in the passenger seat beside her, looking back at me with that little puppy face…

Suddenly the day kind of hiccuped: sunlight spattered everything with a twang, a breeze tousled my hair in playful slow motion, the smiling lady became a neighbor, the Earth’s bearings got a new squirt of grease. The universe very, very quietly said “boop”.

It was a while later I recalled being cut off by the dickhead, and when I did, I thought to myself “karma, do your stuff” and forgot all about him.

But I can still remember that puppy face many hours later. It was the expression of a creature who embodies innocence, whose only concern in the world is whether it was giving as much love as it could at this moment. Because a puppy can only live Right Now. That’s all that matters: Love, Right Now.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t get what I mean (I only do enough) or even agree with it. All I can say is, when you’re feeling doubt, anger, sadness, or a loss of faith … like many do these days: all you need is a puppy face.

Kittens and bunnies also work in a pinch.

If you’re curious, visit one at a shelter near you. Take one home if you see what I mean. Don’t let all that love go to waste.

First quantum toast experiment

This paper is an attempt to explain the ubiquitous nature of [Quantum] Toast. In fact this so-called theory is so incontrovertible, it is barely appropriate to call it a theory. The “Universal Law of Quantum Toast” might be more apropos. Or perhaps “Quantum Toast Physics”. Or “Dude, Make Me Some Quantum Toast!” In any event, the concept of Quantum Toast is so unfathomably obvious, it is barely worth taking the time to explain the truly ubiquitous nature of Quantum Toast.

So I won’t. Although perhaps an example would help those of us who have mysteriously not yet grasped the obvious nature of Quantum Toast:

Imagine a piece of bread. This scenario has barely any cosmic value whatsoever. But inject said bread into an average toaster, or a greater than average toaster oven. Activate said toaster. Suddenly, moments later, you find yourself in the presence of Toast.

Ah, you begin to see the cosmic significance!

Toast, by itself is the epicenter of human perception when crispiness is at hand. Placing an object on toast, say butter, or jam, or an egg, or a meatball, or cheese, or even—gasp—a slice of onion, or perhaps a smattering of peanut butter . . . Suddenly you are wondering how this toast has somehow gained it’s true nature. Surely the toast embodies the apex of true matter and energy in the universe.

In fact, again and again in random taste tests, freshly toasted toast has been found to occupy the very center of universal awareness, at least for a moment. There have been theories that anything placed on toast, even perhaps … a human of your desired gender, has been found to also attain at least a temporary state of centered-universedness. Often ecstatically so.

I thus come to the inevitable conclusion that toast is in fact the Center of the Universe.

Studies continue to look into the possibility that toast therefore contains all of the dark matter that has been theorized but never before found in the universe. But a few scrapings of slightly overdone toast has revealed bits of dark matter that may explain this deficit to-date. Some even surmise that further overcooking of the toast may create a toaster-centered black hole, but scientists are hesitant as yet to test this theory without proper containment. Stayed tuned.

In an unspecified sheep field in the Welsh countryside, scientists are even now constructing a huge quantum-field toaster that will be able to toast a toast to the precise level of overtoastedness, to create the first toasted black hole. Less educated citizens are sadly unsupportive of this important work and are picketing the site, but the theory of Quantum Toast—albeit barely a theory at all in its obviousness—is expected to find universal acceptance, once everyone realizes that toast is in fact the obvious center of the universe.

And anyone ingesting said toast will, for the moment, occupy that universal center, simultaneously.

Practical uses for this phenomena are mind-boggling. So much so that we are still awaiting our best minds to become un-boggled enough to identify the first practical use. Expectations are high, much like the scientists “studying” this phenomenon.

In the meantime, it is recommended that you exercise care in the amount of dark matter you create in your own toaster and to properly butter your toast before placing a desired partner upon it. Quantum Toast is there to be enjoyed by all.

(Dedicated to the inspiration of friend Riley, whose discovery of the utter significance of toast will change the face of history and presumably the very laws of physics. We will be eternally grateful.)

crunch crunch crunch

References

Toast!

Map: Wildfire near Portland Oregon

Nine days ago my neighbors and I stood out on the sidewalk peering up at the sun gone an eerie red. A massive dark ominous cloud devoid of rain seethed an angry yellowish red just to our south. We felt like extras in a Poltergeist movie, and it was descending on us fast.

Within a day the air thickened and became so unbreathable we had to duct tape around our doors to keep the acrid smell from leeching in. The small mountain across the highway out front slowly disappeared into a reddish-gray haze, then all color disappeared as the cloud of smoke shrouded the sun completely.

We were already wearing masks in stores due to the pandemic. Now we had to wear them to put out the trash or to talk with our neighbors, the air was burning our lungs. One of us commented, “all we need now is a volcano erupting”. I nodded my head at this. The world seemed an unfriendly place to live all of a sudden.

Living with a view of purgatory was only the beginning, as local news tallied homes burning and lost just to our south, barely a dozen miles away. Soon our cell phones all bleeped at once: we were on Evacuation Alert, Level 1 (“Get ready”). Online, we could see the Level Two evacuation area (“Get set”) was perhaps ten blocks away, and Level Three (“Go!”) barely a block behind that.

Already suffering through a pandemic, our trust with strangers at a premium, where people can no longer visibly smile at each other, jobs are gone, or we’ve dropped out of the workforce for being in a sensitive health demographic; and now this: We must choose what we can’t afford to leave behind. And hurry.

As a minimalist, I’ve grown less dependent on physical things as much as possible. But without an income for several months, the things we have suddenly become more valuable since they cannot easily be replaced. A bed, a computer, a set of plates, clothes. Suddenly we are asked to prioritize what will fit in a compact car before we drive from the encroaching flames. And if you have a family, or a couple of fur-children like I do, most of that space will probably be taken up by them.

Staring at the alert on my phone, I suddenly felt what it must be like for people living with war, or refugees running from their own country. Their homes gone or occupied. Everything they owned lost, except for what is on their backs. The smoke thick between my place and my neighbor’s only helped to paint this picture. Life seemed so tenuous and frail for that moment. I knew I was only getting a tiny glimpse of such an awful life. I felt almost thankful later to be able to appreciate their plight, if only a little.

Last night thunder and lightning hammered and flashed across the sky like a war approaching. But instead of a barrage of shells, a roaring rain pounded down. It was three in the morning and I was watching it from the living room window, tempted to run out there and cheer it on. I imagined tired smoke jumpers doing just that.

Later that morning, as a normal-colored sun lit the floor, I opened my window for the first time in nine days and let fresh air pour in, thankful that the world was feeling merciful this time.

Although the feeling of life’s frailty has stuck with me, I have to admit we had it easy. We get to sleep in our own beds in our own homes, unlike many to our south who have lost theirs and whatever they had to leave behind. I am sad for them–for anyone in the world who has lost a home. That has to suck so badly.

It’s a funny time, when gratefulness meets guilt, to have survived unscathed.

Be safe out there. I wish you all the best.