Does it add to the story?

Sometimes a day feels like Groundhog Day (or Death Day, if you’re a horror fan or your life has hit a frustrating point); the same events repeating over and over. The lunch hour goes by too quickly, the phone conversation with the unhappy customer takes forever, the commute is a lifetime but at least you’ve got a good music playlist, et cetera.

It’s tempting to introduce a character by having them do something that happens every day in their life. Here’s Jane Doe brushing her teeth. Here’s Jane Doe making toast with jam for breakfast. Here’s Jane Doe almost forgetting her keys when she walks out the door to go to work. Here’s Jane Doe jamming out to “Billie Jean” at a red light. Here’s Jane Doe making small talk with the receptionist. Now you’ve got a great insight into Jane Doe, right? Right!

Well, that depends. Does that everyday thing (getting ready for the workday) have anything to do with the plot?

Whether you consider the plot to be a series of events (like a spy escapade or surviving a zombie apocalypse), or the development of characters (X falls in love with Y, Z accepts past trauma and moves on), the plot always has to be moving forward in some fashion.

If Jane Doe is brushing her teeth because she wants to get the taste of blood out of her mouth from a night of nefarious vampire shenanigans, then maybe it matters.

If Jane Doe makes toast with jam because that’s how her husband used to do it before he died, and she’s determined to solve his murder, then maybe it matters.

If Jane Doe almost forgets her keys before she heads out the door because she’s been having weird memory problems, and she doesn’t know why but she thinks it has to do with the mysterious stranger with the weird necklace she saw at the supermarket last Saturday, then it matters.

And if Jane Doe sees that mysterious stranger out of the corner of her eye when she’s talking to the receptionist at work — whose necklace, on closer proximity, turns out to be the symbol of a rival vampire clan — then, well.

Then you’ve got a scene that advances the plot.

Mental Music Videos

Another short post, sorry folks. Life likes throwing spanners into the works. In this case, post-surgery siblings.

Apparently one way to create a character is to do like my Method Two, only with songs. Put on the radio, or a playlist on shuffle, and find a song that you like and try to create a character out of it. As usual, your mileage may vary; I prefer my usual two, though you may find a song-created character to be the bomb dot com.

What’s fun also, though not necessarily productive, is going through your day listening to music (for example, the daily commute) and hearing a song and thinking “Ah, Yes, this song matches the relationship between these two characters perfectly.”

Sometimes it is productive, though. If a song comes across as a montage, then you can take the feel and themes of the song and try to transmute that onto the page. Or if a song lays out a series of events — whether those events are exactly the ones described in the song or not — then you can put those events into your plot.

Is that plagiarism? Well, if you take song lyrics and write them down into your story without getting permission from the singer, the writer, the studio, and their great aunt Agatha, then yes, it’s plagiarism. But if you don’t write the lyrics? Look: people have been singing about the same things since the beginning of time when we first discovered we had a voicebox. It’s not the story that you tell, it’s how you tell it that matters.

So yes, go ahead and write your Jukebox Hero.

Cursing in YA

On the one hand: You need a relatively good imagination to be able to insult people without using a curse word, and if you cram enough multisyllabic words in there it can be quite satisfying in and of itself. Shakespearean insults are nice for this sort of thing, but pull out a thesaurus and I guarantee that you’ll find something that not only came from one of the past two centuries but that sounds pretty impressive. SAT words! Yay!

On the other hand: There’s no substitute for the pure simplicity of saying a four-letter word. It gets across your meaning exactly.

On the other other hand: Characters who want to swear, but who can’t swear for one reason or another, are freaking hilarious. See Calhoun in the Pixar film Wreck-It Ralph. Now there’s a lady who wants to cuss a blue streak.

On the fourth hand: Characters (and people) who swear all the time, at the drop of a hat, can also be funny, but it’s a fine tightrope between “okay that was hilarious” and “dude, what the heck, you use these words so much that they’ve started to lose all meaning”. See the Melissa McCarthy movie Spy, where every single scene contains at least three four-letter words.

And YA is a touchy subject because, you know, kids are involved. Teenagers. I shudder to think what teenagers would do with the knowledge of swear words! Swearing in their literature! They’d start swearing in real life!! Oh the uncouth youth!!!

Yeah, I went to public school, and I guarantee you, they already know all of those words. They just don’t say them in front of you.

So when it comes to YA — books written for and about teenagers — it doesn’t really make sense to cut out swearing altogether. Like I said, they already know the words; a lot of them use them like they’re going out of style; frankly it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. And to quote from Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day:

“I didn’t hear you swear.”

“Yes I did. I said ‘damned’ and ‘hell,’ and I meant them.”

“Oh, that’s not swearing. They came out of the sinful category an age ago!”

I’m not going to tell you that you have to swear. Sometimes coming up with alternatives can be way more fun, a way to flex your creative muscles. But let’s keep the pearl-clutching censorship to ourselves, shall we?

Dreaming

Dreams are probably the purest, sometimes very weirdest, type of fodder for stories. Some people foreshadow in dreams. Some people put flashbacks in dreams. Some people take the idea of a dream, the weird symbolism and the nonsense and the potential, and they turn it into a long-running graphic novel series. Hey, it works for them.

I went to a lecture about dreams in literature once while I was in college. Essentially, the lecturer’s points boiled down to: If it’s actually realistic and nonsensical, it won’t make sense, so either do it for style or plot or both, but for God’s sake don’t get heavy-handed with the symbolism.

Some people remember all of their dreams, apparently. I’m not certain whether that’s a gift or a curse. After all, nightmares fall under the dream category too. But dang, I’d say a good third of the dreams that I experience are lost when I actually wake up enough to go brush my teeth. (Now that’s a handy plot idea, isn’t it? Clairvoyant dreams remembered in scraps; clairvoyant, foreshadowing dreams that the protag forgets by breakfast the next day. Verisimilitude strikes again.) I’d like to be able to remember more of my dreams just so I could examine them.

Talking about the dreams you have is a no-no. It’s dead fun to talk about your own, and dead boring to have to listen to someone else’s. I remember in high school I had a “my dreams” blog for about two minutes before I got bored with it myself. But even if the only conversation you’re having is an internal monologue (which hey, aren’t dreams internal monologues anyway?), I still think it’s worth it to dissect dreams.

Not in a Freudian way, not in an “oh for the first act everything was red and for the third act everything was blue which symbolizes this” way. I mean in terms of the visceral way the dream feels.

Have you ever gotten to fly in a dream? Then use it! Oh my God, use it in your writing! Airplanes and hang gliders and bungee jumping aside, dreams about flying are the closest we’re going to get. Please take advantage of it. And the same goes for raw emotions. The sheer building horror or gut wrenching sadness that a nightmare gives you — the elation from one of those really good dreams, whether that was meeting a cute girl or eating a delicious cake — the half second when you’re waking up that you believe the dream was real — take it, save it, and write it. Look, writers are magpies. We take ideas from everything in our lives. Dreams are no exception.

This is what I’ve got

Bouncing ideas around with other people is really fun when you have a few plot bunnies but not much actually written down. You can take a shred of an idea and then, with the help of someone else, expand it into an entire short story — a novel — maybe even a series. It’s fun to do by yourself, and with someone on the same wavelength as you, it can be even more fun.

I’m learning that it’s a bit awkward when you already have a set idea and have written more than 10,000 words about it. Not because sharing ideas is bad, not because the other person is necessarily wrong, but because at this point it’s impossible to be on the same wavelength.

By the time I’ve put more than 10,000 words into a story, I have a pretty fleshed-out idea of where, plot point by plot point, the story is going to go. It’s the fiddly bits in the actual scenes that gets me stuck — but I know what the main story is. The person I’m bouncing ideas off has no idea of the movie that’s rolling behind my eyes. And unless you make it clear that you only need help with the fiddly bits, people are going to offer their opinions on everything from the foundation up. So while you already have a set story, they’re just creating material out of thin air, with none of the constraints you’ve already made for yourself.

It’s weird to tell someone the backstory for the main plot and then have them come up with something completely different from what you were already writing. Not bad, just weird.

What’s weirder is going away from that idea-bouncing session feeling like you have a resolution for the problem you initially had, but that you now have a bigger problem. Gentle readers, once I wrote an entire 50k words of a story that made no sense whatsoever. (A product of NaNoWriMo, by the way.) I’m certain it was good for me to write all that crap so I could get to the good stuff later, but it still makes me a little uneasy. Frankly, I need to practice my craft all the time, but I don’t want to have to scrap — or rewrite until it looks unrecognizable — another entire book. So looking at what I’ve already written, versus the idea that just popped into someone else’s head, well, hello Doubt my old friend.

Looking at the reasons I wrote what I wrote, and then saying “this is what I’ve got, let’s keep going” — this isn’t me trying to be inflexible. Other people make suggestions, and I can take them or leave them, because I’m the one who’s writing it; I’m the one who knows why the characters do what they do, and how different actions will affect the overall plot. But at this point, with the first draft unfinished, I’m not looking for critiques. That’s what the editing stage is for. If I went and rewrote the first draft while I was still writing it, I’d never finish the darn thing. And that’s the most important bit — that it’s finished.