Category Archives: Writing Tips

Using the “Save the Cat” Format to Develop Your Story

Some of you who are familiar with Screenwriting may have heard the name Blake Snyder. Blake originally popped on the scene back in 1989 when he sold his scrip “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot” – which he sold for a half million dollars. He eventually went on to write a dozen more screenplays.

Along with his screenplays Blake developed a series of books called “Save the Cat. The Save the Cat books found that stories all followed a particular pattern. Movies that do NOT follow the format are actually not very good. All the best movies actually FOLLOW the SAve the Cat format.

What about novels?

Jessica Brody followed up with a book for novelists “Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need”. Jessica made a similar connection with great novels. Great stories all seemed to follow the Save the Cat format.

I highly recommend checking out either Blake or Jessica’s series of books as they both get into more details than what you’ll find here. Regardless, I’ll provided some of the high level detail here.

Save the Cat

The whole Save the Cat concept is centered around a series of necessary plot points or beats. Blake and Jessica show that great stories all have these. And although I was skeptical at first, once I learned the beats I can’t stop recognizing them as I watch stories.

Following Jessica’s beat structure, the Save the Cat structure begins with:

The Opening Image

The opening image essentially begins your story by providing a snapshot of your hero in his or her world.

Theme Stated

The Theme Stated is a scene briefly and provides a hint to your hero’s story arc. The arc is what your hero needs to learn by the end of the story. If your hero doesn’t learn your story will fall flat. Your story may be about a hero fighting aliens but that’s only the premise of your story. And yes folks are going to read your story based on the premise…but all great stories have an “inner goal”. In the Theme Stated someone (usually another character) will state what your hero needs to grow.

In Bridget Jone’s Diary, a question is posed to Bridget at a party: “How does a woman manage to get to your age without being married?” The question implies that it’s Bridget’s fault that she’s not married. In the end Bridget learns (spoiler alert!) she doesn’t have to change herself just to get a husband.

Setup

The Setup is required to demonstrate to the reader your here’s Act I world. It points out your hero’s faults. This is the world before we journey off to the road to growth.

The Catalyst

The Catalyst is the necessary scene where your hero is flipped into a new direction. This is where your hero is forced to leave his comfort zone. In the film Jaws, this is where a shark comes out and feasts on beach goers on their fourth of July festivities.

The Debate

After being thrown into a new direction there is a scene or scenes where your hero has a debate. The debate is usually in the form of a question, asking whether your hero should go? Sometimes it can be a preparation beat. For instance, when Harry Potter is invited to go to wizard school there is no question that he is going. Harry goes to Diagon Alley with Hagrid in preparation for attending Hogwarts.

Break into 2

This is the official move to Act II. Your hero is leaving the familiar world of Act I to a new upside down world of Act II. The Break into 2, is the point where your hero makes that jump. In Harry Potter, the Break into 2 is the point where he boards the train for Hogwarts, officially leaving the Muggle world of Act I.

The B Story

So if your story is a hero fighting evil aliens then your B Story is the story centered around your hero’s growth. At this point of your story, your hero will meet some helper characters whose job it is to help your hero learn the theme.

Fun and Games

This is where the premise of your story comes out — the reason why your readers picked up your novel. This is where your hero fights with the aliens.

There are two general directions that your hero can take here. Your hero is either on an upward path or a downward path. He or she is either winning or losing. So if your hero is fighting aliens then the plot shows your hero winning. This doesn’t mean that your hero flounders but it does mean that in general there is a gradual rise to success. Alternatively, your hero can be on a losing streak. Things get bad for your hero gradually. This happens to your hero up until the …..

Midpoint

The midpoint is literally the midpoint of your novel. It is marked by either a FALSE VICTORY or a FALSE DEFEAT.

If your hero was on a gradual upward winning path then the midpoint of your novel is marked by a FALSE WIN. It’s called a false win because –you guessed it — your character doesn’t actually win. Winning for your character can only come in the form of learning his or her inner goal and applying that knowledge to reach their goals.

Likewise if your character has been floundering during the Fun and Games beat then your midpoint results in a false defeat.

Example: In the story with your hero fighting the aliens –let’s say your hero’s arc is related to his lack of confidence (he doesn’t believe he can fight the aliens) and as a result he keeps running away. The fun and games portion of your novel is set with gradual defeats. His friends are dying, his town is devastated, and his family is lost. We would set up the midpoint with a false defeat — perhaps his best friend is killed.

It’s a false defeat because at this point we think things are over for our hero….but if it were then our story would be dead. We know that ultimately your hero will learn his arc and will defeat the aliens. But not yet!

Bad Guys Move In

Soon after the midpoint the “bad guys” start moving in. It doesn’t have to be literally bad guys but it could. And it isn’t only the external bad guys – this is where the internal bad guys come in.

Your hero has been doing things the wrong way up until now. to recap your hero’s Act I world shows him or her living with some flaw. A problem happens (Catalyst) and your hero tries to solve things using their own (flawed) ways (Break into two). Now after the midpoint, those same flawed ways begin to wreak havoc on your hero. For example, if your hero finds drinking as a coping mechanism (flawed way) for solving problems, the Bad Guys Move In beat involves your hero attempting to drink his/her way out of the problem.

….and of course that doesn’t work!

All Is Lost

Now that your hero attempts to fix things (the wrong way) the result is terrible. Your hero has lost everything. They are at the lowest point in the story. Bad guys have moved – it appears that your hero has lost.

Dark Night of the Soul

This is a quiet “reflection” beat that follows the All is Lost, where your hero takes time to think things out. Your hero reflects on their mistakes and finally learns the theme. Your hero learns that they were doing things the wrong way and now he or she is going to go through real change. Your hero’s arc has come full circle.

Break Into 3

Your hero comes up with a plan to fix everything and make things right. The plan will be a reflection of a theme learned. Your hero no longer will be doing things the wrong way.

Finale

This is the beat where your hero’s plan is put into action. This beat is also where friendships are mended. Your hero will gather the troup and “storm the castle”. The dragon is slain, the princess is saved.

Final Image

This is where your hero is now you show them in their new world. It is literally an inverse image of the opening image.

Your Hero Saving the Day!

That is it. There really isn’t a way to cram everything related to Save the Cat into one article so I plan on writing more in-depth analysis. There really is a lot more detail that we can go into. So if you haven’t done so please SUBSCRIBE to make sure you don’t miss anything!

Take care, and KEEP WRITING!

Show Don’t Tell

What does it mean to ‘Show, Don’t Tell’?

If you’re new to writing you most likely came across the multitude of articles that point out the importance of showing the reader as opposed to telling the reader the story.  The reason for the heavy emphasis comes down to the reality that readers are put off by having the story told to them.

Consider the following:

Telling:

Mellisa put on her shoes then ran to the door.  When she opened it she saw it was Jake her ex boyfriend.  He was the last person she wanted to see because he dumped her on their last date.  She slammed the door shut.

Showing:

Mellisa grabbed her shoes and ran for the door. Jake? “Seriously?”  she lashed out.  “I thought it was over?”  Before Jake could explain the door was already shut.

Most readers will find the second one more pleasing.  The reason is that it elicit’s a visual of the scene.  Readers, especially voracious readers, tend to prefer passages that paint the picture.  Fast readers tend to be more visual.  Telling causes them to slow down.  The only visuals they see are the words themselves.  This ends up taking them out of the story….and from then the likelihood they will stop reading increases.

Here’s another example.

Telling:

Mario quickly put the car in fifth gear and then proceeded to pass the other car – a corvette.

Showing:

Mario slammed the stick shift in high leaving the corvette in the trailing cloud of dust.

Which one elicits a visual?  Of course the second passage.  We can almost smell the burning rubber!

When editing your writing ask yourself if you are telling the reader what’s happening.  If so, rewrite it.  Practice will definitely make you better at this.

Of course there will be times when you will tell the story to the reader.

Here’s a passage from the novel I’m working on:

Todd’s leg was on fire.  Blood trickled down around the knife and down his leg.  He took a deep breath and then pulled it out.

The last sentence could have been written like:

He grasped the knife with both hands and felt the blade as it slid out.

It would have worked but I elected to put in the “telling” simply to change things up.  Too much colourful language will cause the reader to get tired and adding a bit of telling changes the pace.

Telling occasionally also has the effect of keeping things ‘natural’.

Try changing things up when you edit but if you have to err, err on the side of showing.

How Writing is Like Saving for your Retirement

Years ago I remember dad telling me to start putting cash away for retirement.  I remember scoffing at the idea, not because I thought there was anything wrong with it but because it just seemed so far off in the future.

Today I see things different.  As I approach retirement I realized that every cent I would have put in would have amassed along with some interest.  The later you wait the less interest you can draw on.  The point is you want to start contributing as soon as possible….because you will have more to draw on later on.

Writing

A lot of writers, especially newbies to the craft see writing as a quick transition into a lifestyle.  There will always be exceptions to the rules but for the majority of writers — good solid writing only comes from the interest accrued from writing.

The next time you sit down to write keep in mind that the effort will pay off.  Even if the writing project doesn’t amount to anything the mere effort you put in will add to your skill level.  This applies whether your writing is very good, good, mediocre or just plain lousy.  Yes, even the worst writing will later pay off.  At some point you will look back and say “Ughhhh!  I wrote that!”  the real writer will look at that and say “GREAT!  I’ve improved to the point where I can recognize bad writing!”

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Simple Exercise to Drastically Boost your Writing Output!

There is one exercise that can:

  1. Improve your writing, and
  2. Boost your output

I will be  ‘walking the walk’ in writing this article.  I’m currently timing myself.  Why? Because I have been slowing down.  That’s right, slowing down and breaking my own rules.

You see, all of us have a tendency to fall into our Comfort Zone.  This is that zone where we become complacent. Like all areas of our life we eventually want to reduce stresses.  That’s why we would rather sleep in than get up a half hour early and go for a run.

If you imagine your comfort zone as a circle surrounding you.  When you traverse that boundary things tend to get tough.  If requires work.  However, a special thing happens when you continuously push yourself to do more than what makes you feel good.  That’s right your comfort zone circle expands.

So back to walking the walk.  What’s that about?  Well, I am pushing myself to increase my writing speed.  Normally I write comfortably at about one to two thousand words a minute.  Today I’ve been raising the bar.  I’m writing some four thousand words an hour.  Of course doing this takes work.  For starters, I had to gradually work my way up.  The way to do this is to practice, practice and practice.

To do this properly you should:

  1. Write as fast as you can for a specified amount of time (i.e. like 15 minutes)….and time yourself.
  2. To ensure you are improving you will need to keep track of your writing speed.  I use an excel spreadsheet to write down my writing speed.  Now sometimes I write for 15 minutes and other times I may go a full hour.  You’ll need to normalize your speed and so similar to the way you would keep track of your driving speed (miles per hour) you can express your writing speed as words per hour.  So if you write 200 words in 15 minutes your words per hour (or WPH) is 200 x 4 = 800 WPH.
  3. Finally keep pushing yourself to surpass your speed.  If you start off writing at 800 WPH try pushing yourself to write faster.
  4. When writing – just write!  That means no stopping to go back and fix errors.  There’s a time for writing and a time for editing.  Nows the time to lay down your first draft. There will be plenty of time later on to go back and edit.

So here’s the walk the walk surprise.  I’ve been using this method to write this article.  As of NOW the word count is 418.  The time writing is 7 minutes.  So my WPH is (418 x 60)/7 = 3583 WPH.  That’s not bad.

Now you try it.

Here’s an exercise.  Write 15 minutes non stop trying to write as fast as you can.  Tomorrow try it again but this time try to go a little faster.

‘Free Flow’ Writing – A sure way method to improve your creativity!

Many years ago (back in 1986) I read ‘Creativity  The Magic Synthesis’ by Silvano Arieti.  This work had a profound effect on my confidence in my pursuit of the arts.

Arieti argued that Creativity is a gift but that it cannot be manifested without hard work.  I begged to differ on the idea that we live in a society of ‘gifted’ individuals.  I wholeheartedly believe that we are ALL GIFTED to be what we DESIRE TO be.  I also don’t mean being mediocre in attainment of our pursuits but rather being truly excellent in our craft.  However, and here’s the ‘but’, Arieti’s ‘formula’, requiring the artist to put in considerable effort.

I approach the writing art more from the Anthony Robbins perspective – where you can truly achieve anything you want provided you:

  1. Know what it is what you want.
  2. Take action, take MASSIVE action towards attainment of your goal
  3. Notice if the action you are taking is working or not
  4. If it isn’t – change your approach

….but I digress!

Back to the title of this article “Free Flowing”.

Those familiar with Silvano Arieti’s work will know that he studied schizophrenic patients.  He would make observations where his patients would describe something and that thought would ‘morph’ into a related concept.

For example:  Patient A would start talking about her cat.  The conversation would go something like this:

I love my cat George.  He’s only two years old but I feel like he’s been my friend all my life. I named him George because of George Washington.  There really isn’t any reason why I picked Washington.  I guess its because I did a paper on Washington back in the seventh grade.  I was twelve years old in the seventh grade.  We lived in the Bronx and dad drove a bus.  He loved his job but I don’t think mom was crazy about him being a bus driver.  He had an accident and was in the hospital for a week.  Luckily no one died.  

Arieti noticed that Schizophrenic patients would often flow from one idea to another.  Something would link the two thoughts.  In non-schizophrenic discussions people normally know to keep the idea flowing from the topic sentence.  They may (and often do) shift to a related thought but then will circle back and keep on the main topic.

How can this help you as a writer?

The concept of ‘Free Flowing’ is on some very subconscious level an element of creativity.   When momentarily inhibiting your conscious reasoning your subconscious takes over and something truly amazing happens.  You begin to pull up associations that are truly creative.

This method of writing may not appeal or even work for everyone but it always does accomplish bringing out elements that one would not normally not accomplish when writing in the natural and reasoning mindset.

Will it work for you?

You can try this exercise:

  1.  Begin with the intent to sit down and write for a predetermined amount of time.
  2. Begin with a topic sentence and then write freely.
  3. Don’t stop!
  4. Don’t try to think too hard!
  5. Allow yourself to write pure garbage.
  6. Allow the thoughts to flow and even drift from one topic to another.
  7. Repeat steps 3 to 6 above.

If you did this correctly you will have created something pretty interesting.  a lot of it may be totally unusable – and that is absolutely normal.  However, you may have achieved some or potentially all of the following:

  1. You may have one or more ideas for stories
  2. You may have wonderful lines of writing that are not only usable but absolutely genius!
  3. You may have developed or fleshed out background for an existing story or for a character.

I hope you enjoyed this.  Please let me know in the comments section if this actually helped.

Thanks and keep writing!

Phil

Using Subtext in Writing Dialogue

Some people just have a knack for writing dialogue, however it takes more than just a “good ear”.   There are other important elements that go into effective dialogue writing.

Some writers may believe that eavesdropping on  a conversation on a subway car provides instruction for how dialogue should be written.  Sure it may sound great.  After all how much more real can you get than hearing people engaging in real conversation?  Surprisingly their conversation may sound great but it will rarely make it to an award winning work of art.  Why?  Because writing good dialogue that makes readers fall in love with your characters and drives them to want to continue and finish your novel involves Subtext elements.

To understand what Subtext is all about, consider the following dialogue:

 

MARY:    “What did you do to your hair?”

KATE:  “I tried something different.  Do you like it?”

MARY:  “Well, to tell you the truth – no.  It makes you look like a hooker.”

KATE: “Well you don’t have to be so mean about it.”

Now consider the same exchange but with subtext:

MARY:  “Did you forget something?”

KATE:  “What?”

MARY:  “Red Lipstick, and shoes and dress to match? You know something to go with your new hairdo. “

While the first exchange falls flat, the second one provides more dramatic style.  Mary simply suggests that Kate looks like a hooker rather than tell her.  But even then, the subtext could be even more subtle.

Let’s look at the following exchange between a couple who hate each other – on the day of their wedding anniversary.

BILL:  “Happy Anniversary Honey.”

JANE: “Twenty years already.”

BILL:  “Twenty happy years.  We should celebrate.”

JANE: “It’s so underrated.  Let’s do something we both enjoy.”

BILL: “Agreed.  There’s a ball game this afternoon.  I’ll see if Pete wants to go.”

JANE: “And I’ll ask Betty if she’d like to go to the mall.”

In this exchange, “Something they both enjoy” translates into something that doesn’t involve each other.   It works because it falls under the rule of showing not telling.  We are showing the feelings each other have for each other.

Next time you write dialogue ask yourself the question Can I write this exchange by showing how the characters feel without being direct? In other words can you use subtext to convey the dialogue?

 

 

 

 

 

Get Your Damn Novel Written Already! Three Critical Rules

This post doesn’t have anything that is new.  It just cuts to the chase and lets you in on the bare essentials of writing.

First things first….there are many tips – great tips – on writing but never become too prescriptive on your approach.  Why? Because every writer is different.  Keep what works, drop what doesn’t.

So let’s get started:

Rule 1:  Don’t get discouraged!

Here’s a scenario: you’re an avid reader; you work in a dead end boring job; you decide you want to write a novel.  You finally sit down to write a novel.  You have an idea (perhaps you don’t) and you stare at a blank piece of paper and after 10 minutes you write the first sentence:

   It was a rainy night and Bernie was lying dead on the asphalt of his driveway.

You decide you’re tired and go watch TV and the next day you read the first sentence of your first novel.  You conclude it’s crap.  You decide you’re no writer.  Full stop.

Getting discouraged is EASY.  It has happened to the GREATEST writers.  The single biggest detriment to writing that great novel is YOU.  You need to believe in yourself and get passionate about what you’re going to do.  It’s not the easiest pursuit but it may be one of the greatest ways to earn a living.

Rule 2: Inspiration doesn’t come – it’s made!

That’s true.  Many beginning (and some established) writers only write when inspiration comes.  The truth of the matter is that inspiration comes when you take the time to write.

So how do you actually make inspiration come?  You need to follow the next rule.

Rule 3:  Set aside time each day to write!

Writing consistently is key to gaining momentum on your writing.  One of my biggest challenges as a new writer was setting the time each day to write.  Then some ten years ago I came across NaNoWriMo.  The annual event that challenges writers to write a complete (50,000 word) novel during the month of November.  That first year I wrote 63,000 words.  The novel turned out to be crap but the experience was key in developing a writing habit.  To this day I write every day.

Rule 4:  Don’t re-invent the wheel!

There are only a few dozen stories to write.  That’s it!  Some 20 Plots  make up the bulk of any (good) story that has ever been written.

The Plot forms are as follows:

  • Ascension and Descension
  • Coming of Age (also called the “Maturation” plot)
  • Escape
  • Forbidden Love
  • Rescue
  • The Riddle
  • Rivalry
  • Underdog
  • Temptation
  • Metamorphosis
  • Adventure
  • Chase
  • Discover
  • Love
  • Quest
  • Revenge
  • Sacrifice
  • Transformation
  • Wretched Excess

All great stories come from these basic plots.  Learning and mastering their form will make for not only well-rounded stories but also help you in deciding how your story will (and should) develop.

 

Using the Right Word – Le Mot Juste!

Painters use paint, house builders use bricks – and writers use WORDS.

Influential French novelist – Gustave Flaubert – would spend days searching for the one right word.  He believed that success to good literary work required the painstaking task of foraging through until le mot juste – popped off the page.  It was no wonder if would take him weeks to write a single page.  This technique greatly limited his output – but there is no question as to the quality of his work.

The Right Word isn’t The Biggest One!

Writers, especially beginners believe that you need to replace every word with an obscure replacement from a handy thesaurus.  In reality, a simple word is sometimes your best bet.

Which sentence sounds best?

  • I crossed the field and kicked the ball to the back of the net.
  • I crossed the field and struck the ball to the back of the net.
  • I crossed the field and propelled the ball to the back of the net.

There really isn’t a right answer.  Choosing the right word isn’t just a matter of context within a sentence.  Sometimes the word must reflect the entire paragraph – or page – or chapter.  For instance, the more uncommon a word is – the less you should reuse a word.  In the above examples, I can get away with using the word “kicked” several times…but using “propelled” would not be advised.

Profanity

Sometimes the right word is a bad one!  But be cautious not to overuse them.  Doing so will reek of amateurism!

 

How to Make Your Story Believable

Making your story believable is dependent on your “authoritative voice”.  Convincing the reader must be paramount if you want your novel or short story to succeed.  Here are some key methods great writers use.

Research

Research is key.  Readers are smarter than you think.  They can easily sift out “fake facts”.  On the flip side, injecting some true researched tidbits can gain you respect from your reader.

But a word of caution….you can OVERDO it!  Don’t make your story sound like a Wikipedia article!

Hook The Reader Quickly

Inject tension early in your novel.  Doing so (early) tells the reader that the writer – has an important story to tell.  Starting the story off too immersed into pointless description and expository is a great way to lose your reader.

Keep the Story Going!

The story should keep the plot going.  Think basketball, where the aim of the game is to keep the ball moving and ultimately make the basket.  If all you’re doing is dribbling aimlessly your reader will lose interest.  Every seen should be directed at moving ‘the ball’ to the ultimate goal (plot goal) or subplot.

 

As a writer, your ultimate goal is keeping the reader engaged.  The techniques above are only a few that are key.

 

You Can Write a Novel! The Five Essential Rules to a Polished Manuscript

Something I’ve come to learn about the craft of writing a novel is that anyone can do it.  However to do so there are certain RULES that you must abide by.  Break one and you are likely to fall into one of the following scenarios:

  • You’ll hit the Writer’s Block wall
  • You’ll get discouraged and quit, or
  • You may find another way through it

If you fall within the last category consider yourself lucky.  By all means, writing isn’t an exact science but certain principles have proven trustworthy to get writers (both novice and professionals) through the process – from original idea to final polished script.

Some tips – such as creating an outline of the story before you start is certainly advantageous but it isn’t necessarily a magic bullet intended to benefit everyone.  Some writer’s swear by the outline whereas some will disagree claiming it hampers their spontaneity and creativity.

But some rules are dogmatic to the writing process.  Break these and you’re likely to stumble.

RULE #1: Come up with an Idea

Seems simple enough yet many starting writers have a very bleak idea of what their novel is about.  If asked what their novel is about they’ll say something like “It’s about a boy growing up in New York.” Okay, but what’s it about?  Note, I’d like to make a distinction here regarding what the story is about and not necessarily about how much wording you need to use to convey your idea.  If you recall from my last article, a good idea could (and should) be conveyed in as little wording as possible.  But in order for a story to work you need to have conflict.  A problem is what defines a good story.  Without it all you have is a bunch of words and no matter how good a writer you are – you couldn’t keep a reader interested without introducing conflict.

Instead of “It’s about a boy growing up in New York.” try “It’s about a boy in New York running from the law.” or “It’s about a lost boy in New York.”  Suddenly your story gains the interest of the reader.

 

RULE #2: You Must Write

Seems simple enough but you would be surprised at the sheer numbers of aspiring writers who have a good idea for a story but fail to take the next step of writing it.

To do it effectively you must set aside time (preferably each day) to sit down and write your story.  Without a good writing schedule you will fail.

RULE #3: Don’t Wait for the Muse

When you sit down to write you must hit the ground running!  Inspiration doesn’t come easily.  If you wait for that “good feeling” you’ll just sit staring at your notebook or computer screen.  No, instead you should begin somewhere anywhere.  Start writing and don’t STOP!

Once you have a few good pages – another helpful tip is to go back and edit what you have written.  But don’t dwell there too long.  Immediately you should start a new sentence and write.

RULE #4: Don’t Edit While You Write

By now you should know that you shouldn’t text and drive at the same time.  Your brain can only focus on one thing at a time.  For writing this concept is especially crucial because writing and editing are done via two different brain processes.  You can either go into one mode at a time.  A good analogy is going for a workout at the gym.  For many – myself included – I find it difficult to get off a warm cuddly couch in the middle of winter and drive to the local gym for a workout.  I’ll do anything and everything to avoid it.  But incredibly, once you get to the gym – what happens?  You immediately get into the mood for a workout.  Writing is like that too.  You either decide you’re sitting on a couch watching tv or running laps around the track – and once you commit yourself – you’re committed.

Say to yourself you’re going to write for an hour straight – or half an hour – or for a time that meets your schedule.  Once you begin don’t stop for anything.  Don’t even go back to correct spelling errors.

RULE #5: Edit, Edit, Edit

After you finish the writing exercise you will need to go back and edit.  In fact, you may need to go back many times to polish your manuscript up.  Whereas rules one through four are critical in getting to a manuscript, unless you never plan on submitting your novel to a publisher or agent, editing is the step that will get you to a finished manuscript.

So there you have it.  Follow these 5 simple rules and you WILL have a finished manuscript.

Happy Writings!