Friday, 30 October 2009

Plot: themes expanded

In this last blog before I start the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month if you didn't already know), I'm going to go slightly deeper into the topic of themes.

But first a digression. The aim of the NaNoWriMo is to write a fifty thousand word first draft of a novel in a month, the month being November. This is my first attempt. I've done the sister campaign, the April Script Frenzy, when you write an entire movie script in a month. I did a mock NaNo in July, when I wrote 100K words. So this time I'm aiming for 100K words as well.

To that end, I've been outlining the plot and detailing the characters using the snowflake method - see Randy Ingermanson's site for more details. Basically, you describe the story in one sentence. Then expand it to a 5 sentence paragraph. Then create character summary sheets. Then expand the plot to 5 paragraphs, create a one page character synopsis for each of the major characters and so on.

The idea behind all this is to ensure that come November 1st, everything is worked out, plot is known, each scene is sketched out and all I have to do is write around 4000 words a day.

So what's my story about (I hear you ask)? What's the theme?

By theme, I mean which essential human emotion is being most thoroughly explored. Which element of the human condition is being plumbed and exposed.

There aren't that many themes, just as there aren't many basic emotions. Perhaps the commonest ones, the heroic ones, together with some filmic examples are:

  • Vengeance - (Gladiator)
  • The reluctant hero (High Noon)
  • Overcoming inner demons (My Beautiful Mind)
  • The tragic hero (Troy)
  • The family protector (The River Wild)
  • The coward transformed (Deliverance)
  • The tortoise and the hare (Die Hard)
  • True love conquers all (Casablanca)
  • Doomed lovers (Romeo and Juliet)
Now, my story can be summed up in one sentence:

"Can two lovers persuade their opposing factions to fight the enemy in their midst?"

What theme is being explored here?

I mention lovers, so there's obviously a romantic element. I mention opposing factions, so there's obviously conflict. I mention an enemy so there's more conflict.

It's clear from that one sentence that the lovers are going to have to convince warring groups to co-operate, so Romeo and Juliet might spring to mind.

But there's personal tragedy a-plenty, for which vengeance must be sought. Neither of the lovers wants to be a leader or a hero, so they're reluctant. Each has his and her own inner turmoil to confront. The enemy at first seems unbeatable, so tortoise and hare. The only ones that aren't present in bucketfuls are the family protector and the coward transformed.

This is often the case. A novel's main plot may express one theme, but other themes are brought out in the sub-plots. One major character may represent one theme while another may have completely different motivations.

And so it is here. I would say that honour and duty are the predominant facets of both the major characters, so reluctantly, they do what must be done, no matter the cost to themselves or others.

In my next post, whenever that may be, I'll expand on the ideas of conflict and romance a little more, as they are two essential elements to nearly every fiction and every theme.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

7th Son: Descent by J C Hutchins

Just a quick reminder: I don't give 5 stars (well maybe once or twice a decade). I'm stingy. I'm mean.

So, on with the review.

7th Son: Descent by J. C. Hutchins

Now, I haven't read all of this book. I've only read the first 33 pages. So I can make no comments about the book's overall structure, or character arcs, or sub-plots.

What I can comment about is the quality of the writing.

It is superb.

From a real kick-ass opening, unexpected metaphors and unusual word formations flow with assurance. Characters are introduced with almost dizzying rapidity, yet each establishes his individuality, his own personality, rapidly and with great economy of prose.

The dialogue is believable, snappy; the internal thought processes consistent with the character thinking them. Vignettes of their various normal lives are pointed enough to let us get an idea of what they were like before something happens to them.

Something unexpected. Something horrifying.

The action sequences - and yes, there is plenty of action, from the prologue on - are well executed and realistic.

The basic premise of the book is excellent.

All I can say is that I'm going to order a copy this week - the print version comes out on the 27th - and if the rest is as good as the start, I'll write another review, this one going up, perhaps to that fabled 5 star realm where only the literary giants dwell.

OK, hyperbole, but this book is really very, very good.

So, Mr. Hutchins, or Chris if you prefer, excellent beginning. I was hooked from the first page.

I'm happy to give it 4 stars.

PS - I bear no relationship or affiliation with the author, and have not been offered any inducement of any nature to write this review, apart from a simple request that I do so. I don't know if it's a requirement to make that statement yet, but I thought I'd make it clear anyway.

Previews and the first episode of the book can be seen at

The book details are: ISBN 978- 0- 312- 38437- 1

and it is available to order online from:

Barnes & Noble

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Review: 'Riders of the Spew' by Robert Thompson

Remember, I hardly ever expect to give 5 stars to anything. 1 star is so bad, I wouldn't even finish the book.

2 = OK, passes the time
3 = Good, would recommend and read again
4 = Very, very good.

'Riders of the Spew' by Robert Thompson (available from Smashwords and Amazon)

OK, where to begin with this one? Don't think I've read a book quite like it before. Robert Thompson fills nearly all his pages with action, action and more action. Occasionally interspersed with dry humour.

It would have been hard for me to imagine that I could have come to empathize with a collection of six sociopathic, sadistic killers and their savage, mutant steeds, but perhaps the book contains a kernel of hard truth. A few centuries in hell changes a person. And some of the creatures they encounter!

Well drawn characters, natural dialogue and a host of unexpected twists kept me reading 'Riders of the Spew' non-stop from start to finish. I look forward to the sequels - their work is not yet done. Well worth three stars.

Reviews: Spellbound by Jaimey Grant

My review system:

5 stars is only given to books that are brilliant; ones that I will want to read again and again, ones that will become classics. I haven't come across more than a double handful of those in my lifetime, and I read a lot.

4 stars is given to books that are very, very good.

3 stars goes to good books, that I enjoyed and which had few or minor slips.

2 stars means that it passed the time in the absence of anything better to do, but I wouldn't want to read it again.

1 star indicates that I was sorry I ever picked the thing up, and wouldn't want to recommend it to my worst enemy.

"Spellbound" by Jaimey Grant, ISBN: 1440414726

I read this recently.

Now I have to admit, the genre, Regency romance, is not something that I habitually read. Well, to be honest, it's not a genre I've ever read.

I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. It was a lot better than I was expecting. The protagonist, Raven, was someone I took to immediately. There was an admirable supporting cast of eccentrics, Regency fops, nobility in various shades of good, evil and torment, and a good story line. It's not a genre I could relate to, but I was hooked and made to care about the ultimate fate of Raven. All the characters were believable and well-realized. There were sub-plots and red herrings in abundance, and the dialogue was often snappy, believable and witty. There were a number of words and phrases that were new to me, but that were authentic to the Regency period.

The book was also proofread and edited with very few mistakes that I noticed.

I have to admit I got confused at the late introduction of the nemesis, but overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it; much more than I was expecting.

So I am happy to award this a 3 star rating. Nice one, Jaimey.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Plot structure - expanded

This post focuses on the classic Aristotelian three act structure.

Broadly speaking, any work of fiction, whether a novel, novella, short story, play or film script, will fit into the three act structure. I'm going to generalise here, but the structure goes something like this.

Act one:
About one quarter of the length of the work. Starts off with the main characters going about their daily business. A little scene-setting, as it were.

A short way in (3-7 minutes for a film, somewhere in the first chapter for a novel) comes the

Inciting incident (also called the complication.)
This is the thing that forces the protagonist into motion. It doesn't even need to be in the work. It can have happened way back in the back story. In Lord of the Rings for example, you could argue that the inciting incident happened in the Hobbit, when Bilbo found the ring. Or a thousand years ago, when Gollum found it. Or three thousand years ago, when Isildur didn't destroy it. But generally, it happens in the work you're creating.

The II is the thing that propels (or perhaps compels) the protagonist to become involved in the action of the story, often reluctantly.

Also in Act one, all other significant characters are introduced, especially the nemesis. The threads of the main plot are laid. Some of the major sub-plots are introduced.

Act one ends with

Plot point one, a critical incident. Our hero(ine) discovers a crucial fact, gains a significant ally (buddy, rival, mentor or similar) or develops a talent he or she will need to defeat the nemesis.

All the significant features of the story have now been exposed to the audience. From this point on, all that occurs is inevitable because of the groundwork you have done.

Act two:
This is where the majority of the character development, the other sub-plots and a lot of the action takes place. Generally about half the length of the work. If Act one was about laying the foundations, Act two is about building the house. About halfway through this act comes the

Midpoint. This is the first significant trial of strength against the nemesis. Our hero may retire, defeated but alive. He may defeat the chief lieutenant of the enemy. The point is, it is inconclusive. The threat remains, and from here on to the end, intensifies.

Act two concludes with

Plot point two (also called the Crisis.) Our protagonist is at his lowest ebb. His wife has been kidnapped, his dog shot, his son proves to be the spawn of the Devil, and he's hanging head down over a vat of boiling sulphuric acid.

This point is perhaps the most important of the whole story. This is why our protagonist is a hero. Remember the classic themes mentioned in the last post.

Now, any reasonable being would give up at this point. Heroes don't. They're too stubborn, or stupid, to recognise that they're beaten. Instead of dying quietly, they get mad. They stiffen themselves for one final attempt.

They take full responsibility for their life and their actions, taking charge of events. If they have been reacting so far, now, in a titanic expenditure of will and courage, they take charge of events, driving on to the end. Their entire life has narrowed down to one focus; victory or death.

Act three:
This occupies the final quarter of the work. If Act one was laying the foundations, and Act two was building the house, then Act three is defeating the neighbour who objects on planning grounds, stopping a horde of crazed bikers from trashing the place, throwing up a wall of dirt to stop the flood from washing the house away and finally moving in with your loved one.

Almost immediately, we are plunged into the

Climax. The final trial of strength. Our hero generally overcomes his fears, his limitations, masters that crucial flaw and defeats his nemesis, who cannot do the same.

OK, our hero may die in the process. In many ways, it is deeply satsfying if he does. After all, who would actually want to know or live with a genuine hero? They can't be easy people to get along with.

Of course, if you're writing from the 1st person POV, it is not a good idea to have your hero die here. That's the end, fini, right there. If you've used third person, shifting POV, fine. Film scripts, you have written omnisciently anyway, so no problem.

The climax was presaged in Act one, developed in Act two, and is now fully realized in all its violent, terrible beauty.

Act three finishes with the

Resolution. All the loose ends are tied up. Unless you want to leave room for a sequel. Boy gets girl, music swells, they walk hand-in-hand into a beautiful sunset. The audience sighs in appreciation, gets gently returned to reality and walks out happy, having shared time with someone who took charge of their destiny, albeit briefly.

Something most of us can never, will never do.

That's why they're called heroes.