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10 Points to Ponder When You Write


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Author Ray Morton just came up with a nice "Top 10 List" of questions to ask yourself when you sit down at the keyboard and start writing. They were intended for people writing screenplays, but I think they apply 100% to fiction writing as well. Here's a shorter version of his original piece, and a link to the complete article at the end:

Alfred Hitchcock once said that 90% of the effectiveness of his films was determined in preproduction, based on the decisions he made in the scripting, storyboarding, design, and casting phases. I’m of a similar mind when it comes to screenwriting – I think that the success or failure of most scripts is determined in large part by decisions the authors make prior to the actual writing. To help you make the right decisions about the right issues, here are ten questions to ask yourself before you begin writing.

1. What is the story you want to tell?

2. Who is the protagonist?

3. What is the ending?

4. What is the theme of your story?

5. What is your script’s genre?

6. If you’re going to use a gimmick to tell your story, do you have a good reason for doing so?

7. Where is the entertainment value in this story?

8. Why would someone want to see this movie? [substitute "read this story"!]

9. Who is your audience?

10. Why do you want to tell this particular story?

I think all of these are very important questions, particularly the theme: "what is the point of the novel... what is the idea or moral that you want the readers to come away with, once they've finished reading it?"

Lots of food for thought.

http://www.scriptmag...8&rid=233239165

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While I've never listed all those questions -- not aware enough to do so, probably -- I certainly am aware I answer them with every story I write. You're correct, Pec: those are of valid importance to a writer, and if you can't answer them once the story is finished, you probably didn't have a firm grasp on what you were doing and the story will reflect that.

I can also say with some assurance that if you know the answers to all those before you begin, the writing will be much easier and more directed. Frequently, I can only answer most of them when I start. In those cases, I'll invariably come to a stopping point, and it's generally built around trying to answer the ones of those questions I failed to have answers for when I began.

Good list to ponder.

C

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All very important questions to ask and answer in advance of writing. I'm particularly impressed that the all-so-important Question #7 is included, for if the story (or poem or essay) isn't entertaining, there isn't much hope for its success. Equally important, and often overlooked, I think, is Question #10. Every writer needs to ask himself this one, for without consistent and sustained motivation the writing of it will drag on and on.

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While I've never listed all those questions -- not aware enough to do so, probably -- I certainly am aware I answer them with every story I write.

I can think of an additional question I would add to the list from my own experience:

What does the lead character want?

I find find that in most great stories, every major character wants something. Scarlett in Gone with the Wind wants a husband and a lavish lifestyle with her house, Tara; Michael Corleone in The Godfather wants to protect his family and crush his enemies; Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz wants to help her companions get what they want and go home to Kansas. Too often, I read stories on the net that are kind of confused and muddled, like the author hasn't really sat down and asked these essential questions. In particular, I think you have to know the guts of the story, just so you could do a three sentence synopsis as a blurb for the back cover (if it were a physical book) that would pique readers' interests. Too often, I get the feeling with novels -- especially serial novels that go on for 50, 60+ chapters, that the author doesn't really know what it's about except the day-in/day-out life of the characters, which I don't think is enough.

I would disagree with Morton that I don't think it's necessarily important to know the specific ending of a story before you write it. In my case, I've always had the bare bones of the ending in mind -- I generally know who's gonna live, who's gonna die, and what the lead character will learn on the journey -- but there are always surprises that happen on the way to the ending. Stephen King has said that with half of his 50+ best-selling novels, he had no idea what the ending was going to be until he got there. But in fairness to Morton, I think in many of those cases, King might have been better off to plan the stories better, because some of them really sucked. (And some were unquestionably brilliant.)

I find these "big picture" questions to be a lot more important than simple spelling or grammar. To me, if you don't have a clear idea of what these answers are, all the grammar and spelling in the world ain't gonna help you. (And that goes for movies, TV, plays, fiction, everything.)

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Well, the theatre (my obsession) aims at revelation at the end, even if it is accumulative throughout the play; by which I mean that the pinnacle of the message can be at any time in the work, but its understanding might be spread out and discussed or even stated many times.

These "big picture" helicopter (satellite) views of a work may even be concealed, waiting for the reader/spectator to make the effort to dig them out of the tomb where the author has buried them. Of course, for many that is too much effort, or they don't understand the nature of the rewards of entering into the world that the author creates, provided he has done his job.

As for the day to day wish fulfilment stories that go on and on for 50 to even a 100 chapters describing each and every vegetable served at every meal in the story, I think that comes from the horrors of daytime TV soap operas. Unfortunately, those meandering examples of petty emergencies in the lives of perfectly groomed characters has seeped their way not only into Internet stories but they have afflicted mainstream movies and worse; been adopted as acceptable goals by film-maker lecturers in our universities and colleges.

Profound truths or superficial amusements need much care if they are to be disseminated in a story. You can't brow beat your audience any more than you can lecture them, and this is where the entertainment value must come first. If you aren't entertaining your audience you have probably bored them to sleep, or you should be in politics or the church...which might explain why these two are often confused in people's minds. At the least, be prepared to explore.

As far as knowing, and working, towards the end, I do think it is important to have an opening, a middle and an end, but at the same time never be frightened to change them if the muse provides something better along the way.

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Kurt Vonnegut Writing Tips

It is interesting to compare Kurt Vonnegut's own version of the list of rules that Pec has provided. In his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, Vonnegut listed eight rules for writing a short story:

Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

Start as close to the end as possible.

Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense.

Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

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Unfortunately, those meandering examples of petty emergencies in the lives of perfectly groomed characters has seeped their way not only into Internet stories but they have afflicted mainstream movies and worse; been adopted as acceptable goals by film-maker lecturers in our universities and colleges.

Regarding this, I blame Tarentino. Not that I dislike him, but his imitators miss the mark.

Consider his famous Royale with Cheese conversation from Pulp Fiction.

It's not just a wandering quirky talk. It sets up the whole movie by explaining the relationships, the history, and personalities involved. When Jules decides at the end of the movie to wander the earth, it's set up in that first conversation when he's enthusiastically asking questions about France.

This relates to Pecman's complaints: Lots of dialogue is indeed bad when it doesn't obey Vonnegut's rule about revealing character or moving the plot forward. Once it does that however, long, meandering conversations can be fun. And so can descriptions of eating lembas or tearing up a tree trunk or learning math.

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I was thinking more of Days of Our Lives...etc., or in the case of the more recent attempts, Gays of Our Lives. Sorree.

Tarantino has never been a favourite of mine. I find him imitative, predictable and boring. Boring being only slightly removed from banal.

Certainly I admit he is popular, and the often stated opinion here amongst drama tutors is that his films have immense appeal with 18-25 year old heterosexual males, who inevitably fail as they try to imitate his work.

I find most modern films to be less than watch-able, whilst some real gems are overlooked or dismissed too easily. One film I recently saw and liked very much, was Chris Colfer's Struck By Lightning, despite his voice being a little too high. The depth lurking behind the story, I thought, was very entertaining and thought provoking.

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I've heard it said that 90% of art produced in any age is crap, so modern movies lacking in quality is no surprise.

I'm not sure that a lot of people writing gay fiction are soap opera fans. I'm not buying that as a source of the disease. Maybe 'How I Met Your Mother'?

It might not be an outside influence at all. Just a failure to adhere to the rules about knowing the ending and having everyone want something.

That's probably why those stories get into trouble, because the author never defined an end goal for the story OR the characters and thus the story keeps going like some perpetual daydream.

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It's not just a wandering quirky talk. It sets up the whole movie by explaining the relationships, the history, and personalities involved. When Jules decides at the end of the movie to wander the earth, it's set up in that first conversation when he's enthusiastically asking questions about France.

I love that scene, and I generally love Tarantino's dialogue. There are rare exceptions, like the long, drawn-out conversations in Death Proof (which got pretty bad reviews and made no money). His latest, Django: Unchained was a riot -- I enjoyed it from start to finish, though I concede that the outrageousness of the concept might offend some people. And I understand there are people who don't "get" Tarantino. It took me awhile to come around, too; I didn't watch either Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs until about 2004-2005.

That's probably why those stories get into trouble, because the author never defined an end goal for the story OR the characters and thus the story keeps going like some perpetual daydream.

Exactly! Well-said, Steven. I've said here before, when I encounter a story on Nifty or other sites that have 80 or 90 chapters, my eyes glaze over and I just go, "why? Why couldn't this story be told in (say) 100,000 words?" It's especially vexing when you go through chapter after chapter and nothing happens. I appreciate Vonnegut's rule from Merkin above: "Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action." Very wise words.

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I appreciate Vonnegut's rule from Merkin above: "Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action." Very wise words.

Wise words, but impossible. I can't imagine a story with no background, no scene setting, no description, no color -- it just wouldn't work. Sounds good, I admit. But impossible.

C

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Well, I'd argue that if the words are setting the background, describing the scene, providing color... all of that does advance the action to some degree. I get that steps like this help make the specific locations more real and vivid to the reader, and they're necessary for that very reason. What I object to is when there's a lot of chapters in a long story and they just seem extraneous -- or at least, the plot is kind of wandering around, unfocused.

Steven's and Des' comments above about soap operas are apt: I think you can only go so far into describing people's everyday lives before it just becomes repetitive and boring. There's a good reason why dinner scenes in movies rarely start at the beginning of the meal; instead, they start near the end of the meal, in mid-conversation, leaving the audience to kind of figure out on their own what happened prior to that, and just get to the point of the scene faster. (The dessert, if you will!)

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"Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action." Very wise words.

Cole has taught me a lot, and he is right that every sentence has got to advance the plot, or make you understand more of the characters or make the story move forward.

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Far be it from me to presume to disagree with Kurt Vonnegut, one of the giants of the Twentieth Century and the author of Slaughterhouse Five, one of the greatest books I have read, but I suggest that there are times when a story requires that not all the facts be laid out in the first chapter. Sometimes, it helps the mystery of the story and to build interest for readers if they aren't quite certain what the story is about, as long as they know that it actually is about something and they won't be abused by being led to read a story without a purpose.

I did as Vonnegut suggested in Dance of the the Wicked Boys. In Chapter One, I immediately reveal that Jeremy is a dancer, that his parents are dead, that he lives with an uncle who believes dancing is a sin, that Rafael and his mother don't get along, and that if Rafael doesn't help Jeremy, no one will. However, in the sequel, I am taking my time revealing the critical issues, bringing them out slowly and taking several chapters to present the entire conflict.

I think there are situations in which the story demands the facts be brought out at the beginning and situations in which it is better to take some time. One of my creative writing teachers in the eighties said that all rules are made to be broken and that sometimes, breaking a rule can actually strengthen the writing and make a more profound impression on the reader. Of course, breaking the rules just for the sake of breaking rules may not improve the story. It is a rule that breaking the rules must have a purpose. (or is it? Hmm.) :razz:

I do try to follow Vonnegut's other suggestions Merkin lists as well as the excellent points Pecman lists. These are excellent guides for aspiring writers.

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One of my pet hates is the murder mystery that reveals the murderer far too soon. It's fun to try to work out 'who dun it', although I confess to wanting to strangle the idiot investigators who are obviously incompetent.

I'm a firm believer in not revealing everything, but holding back a little mystery about a character or plot, finally resolving in a surprise ending. Sometimes it's the author who is surprised as he had no idea about the mystery he was concealing.

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I think restricted POV solves the Vonnegut dilemma. It allows the story to come alive with conflict and possibilities up front by giving the reader a good dose of information, but the plot gets to develop along surprising lines by having the reader discover new information with the POV character.

I suspect the real problem is when the POV character reveals that he saw the ivory mask when he visited Sir Elmont's house and thus the butler did it, but the mask was never mentioned in the actual section narrating the visit to Sir Elmont.

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I think restricted POV solves the Vonnegut dilemma. It allows the story to come alive with conflict and possibilities up front by giving the reader a good dose of information, but the plot gets to develop along surprising lines by having the reader discover new information with the POV character.

Yep. If the story unfolds (mainly) through the eyes of one or two characters, and we're greatly restricted in what we see and hear from the rest of the suspects, the identity of the murder can be held back for a long time. What's fun is when you can toy with the reader and let them inside the actual murderer's head but not quite give them enough information to make the connection... yet later on, all the details add up and the scene is justified.

I suspect the real problem is when the POV character reveals that he saw the ivory mask when he visited Sir Elmont's house and thus the butler did it, but the mask was never mentioned in the actual section narrating the visit to Sir Elmont.

Some of it is a lot of smoke and mirrors, but omitting certain details in mysteries is a trick that goes back to Conan-Doyle and the late 1800s. Sherlock Holmes would routinely describe the scene, and only at the end would he bring the details together and explain how one situation (or one bit of evidence) related to the other in such a way as to implicate the killer.

One of the cleverest twists on this I ever saw was Columbo, where each episode would start with the murder, the audience knew exactly who did it and how they covered their tracks, and then the rumpled detective would step in and slowly start figuring it all out. That was a devilishly clever show.

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I could have saved a lot of time and work writing my story A Totally Smashing Thanksgiving if I'd followed two of Curt Vonnegut's axioms:

Start as close to the end as possible.

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense.

Here's the story, revised per the above:

David and Carson are twins.

The End.

Colin :icon_geek:

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I could have saved a lot of time and work writing my story A Totally Smashing Thanksgiving if I'd followed two of Curt Vonnegut's axioms:

Start as close to the end as possible.

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense.

Here's the story, revised per the above:

David and Carson are twins.

The End.

Colin :icon_geek:

But if they both wanted something, you're still OK.

C

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Starting at the end of the story:

Gone With The Wind: "Tomorrow is another day!"

The Greatest Story Ever Told: "It is Finished."

Romeo and Juliet:

Some shall be pardon'd, and some punished:

For never was a story of more woe

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

As for modern speech in historical drama, I'm not opposed to it provided it serves the purpose of communicating to the audience.

Let's update Julius Caesar's assassination scene:

Caesar (having been stabbed, staggers towards Brutus): "You too, Dude?"

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Loses something in the translation, dude.

Nevertheless, I would make the claim that Shakespeare did not write in Latin; he wrote Julius Caesar (and all his plays) for Elizabethan England in Elizabethan English. Neither Caesar nor Cleopatra would have understood anything but the odd sprinkling of Latin that he used for flavour. Further, he modified historical facts to suit his dramatic purposes and the current mores of his society. Much of our relationship with the past comes to us modified by Shakespeare, and other authors including, no less, Hollywood historical dramas. Many of those movies tell us more about the period in which they were made rather than the history of their subjects -just the same as we learn about Elizabethan England from the creative works of that time.

So in reference to our concern with language being colloquial, there are two points to consider; two filters for our use of words. There is the communication of the time in which we live, and the way we use the words to suggest the time and characters in our stories. Somehow we need to blend the two so that we convey whatever it is we want to say to our readers. If we send our readers scurrying to their favourite information resource then I see that as a plus, provided that it doesn't reach a point of interference which discourages reading the story for the majority of readers.

I say the majority of readers because inevitably, sadly, there will always be some people who just don't understand the joy of making the effort to comprehend the rewards of persevering with a 'difficult' book, or one whose subject, form or style is unfamiliar to them. But I presume, we all have had the experience of some books and stories that failed to capture our ongoing attention.

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