Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Story Beats and Hooks that aren't for fishermen: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

It's Tuesday again, my fellow writing buddies! Time to talk about what we've accomplished this past week.

It was an interesting week for me. Most of it hinges on the Under Ground Writing Project meeting I wen to on Sunday.

Normally during the meetings we're critiquing one another's work - looking for stuff like plot, character, typos, that kinda stuff. This month we had a special guest critic, which we do from time to time, by the name of Jan CJ Jones. She's a producer at a local production company, Forest Rose Productions. And again, under normal circumstances, the guest critics offer their expertise as part of the larger group circle discussion.

But this time we ran it like a pitch session. As a producer, Jones is one of those people who is sitting on 'the other side' of the desk, like editors and agents and, well, movie producers. She offered to listen to all of us pitch our stories and give us pointers on the logline, the summary, and the first three pages of our novels. We took her up on her offer.

It was tiring. It was long. It was emotional. All in all, a good shake-it-up experience.

Generally I try not to focus on the marketing side of things, preferring to keep my energies on producing good language and developing a good story. However, after Sunday, I've figured out that pitching, or writing a query letter, or summarizing your story helps with the writing itself. Because, guess what, if your story is no good, your pitch material will show that. If you see a hole in your summary, there's a hole in you story. It's just how it is.

A month prior to this meeting we were given a handout that listed what we were to provide and present for our pitching session. First we were to provide information about ourselves: name, rank, serial numbers, where we are in our writing now, where we see ourselves in ten years, our writing strengths and our writing weaknesses. Then we were to give the low-down on the work we were presenting: genre, title, slugline/logline, and the 'back of the book' summary. After that, we listed the beats of our story: hook, inciting incident, midpoint, major setback, climax, denoument). Finally we read the first three pages of the book.

Let me take you through the bits that really stuck with me:

The logline:

So a few of us were whacked  on the knuckles right out of the gate (how's that for some mixing of metaphors?) with the loglines. It's one thing to know intellectually that you should be able to 'sum-up' your novel in one sentence - it's quite another to put it into practice. ***Nathan Bransford has a rockin' post on his blog about One Sentence Summaries - aka the logline - definitely check it out. He's right on the money.***

The one lesson I took out of this early section of the presentation: The Reader is Ignorant. This isn't as harsh as it sounds. Put very simply: the reader doesn't know what the heck your story is about. They are coming from a complete space of unknowing. It's up to you, the writer, to let them know what's going on. Seems obvious, right?

However, you the writer know your story inside and out - putting you into a high context relationship with your story. You can joke with your story. You can hang out and have coffee with your story. You know your story had a really hard time around chapter fourteen that you guys worked out together. How are you going to introduce this story to a person who doesn't know?

For educational purposes only, I shall share with you the logline I presented. (Those of you who know nothing about my story will see the problem immediately.) (And my goodness, you have no idea how hard this is to type, but I'll force myself...like I said it was kind of an emotional roller coaster of a day):

First: title and genre: "The Line. Dystopian."

Second: logline: "Those who fall below the Line are never heard from again. When her sister falls below, Susanna Purchase must save her before their father's actions kill them both."

Dost thou seest the issue? What the hell is the Line? Some figure of speech? A physical thing? This logline says nothing much. *Jenny bangs head against presentation podium*

The other thing Jones talked about was the set up of the logline - and Bransford talks about it in more detail and more articulately at the link I've already given you. Logline must include: main character, the MC's obstacle, and the MC's goal.

I've had a little while to come up with something else and I'll throw it out here so youse guys who haven't read my novel can tell me if it A.) makes any kind of sense and B.) intrigues at all.

Jenny's second attempt at a logline: "Susanna Purchase falls below the Line, a State developed system designed to hold individuals accountable to predetermined standards, when her sister is accused of treason. Susanna, held in a prison camp, must join an underground rebellion to save her sister before she is executed."

Meh. I'm not even done with the book yet, so I've got plenty of time to work on it.

The Beats:
Part of our assignment was to figure out the major 'beats' of our story. I'd never heard this concept before and during our discussion I thought that this was the most useful portion of the critiques. Since it's kind of like a summary, this is really helpful for character motivation and story coherence. So I thought I'd share the concept with you.

Here's what they are:

Beat 1: The Hook: This is the opening, what immediately grabs the reader's attention.

Beat 2: The Inciting Incident: This may or may not happen simultaneously with the hook. Basically, the thing to keep in mind with the inciting incident is that the main character is set on a course of action different than their everyday life. This is where the world will never be the same and the main character has to act. They 'gotta' have something, do something, etc. They are motivated to move.

Beat 3: Midpoint: Up to this point the main character has been figuring things out, trouble has been brewing, but here is where the stakes are raised. What happens if the main character fails? I'd never heard this question applied to a story before. Sure, you think about what your main character wants, what drives them, but this is the first time I'd considered what happened if they did not get it. Coming at it from the other side is a neat-o thing. What are the consequences? If there is no change because of the main character...well, that's just not a very interesting story.

Beat 4: Major Setback: Here is where the worst stuff happens. All the crutches are removed. The Bad Forces come into play. If the main character has some kind of character flaw, this is where it'll show up - and the main character will be either overwhelmed or will overcome.

Beat 5: Climax: All actions lead to this point. I think most of us understand what the climax is.

Beat 6: Denoument: Classically known as the 'falling' action. Where things wrap up, calm down, and a new order is established to the character's life.


...and that's what I learned this week. Have I gone on long enough? What'd you guys do?

3 comments:

  1. Interesting stuff. I may have to add these beats to my checklist.

    Obviously I was no help with the logline, but then I know what the book is about so it made sense to me. I really think this is the hardest part of writing. And as I want to be submitting fairly soon, I'd better get a handle on it.

    You're ahead of the game if you're working on these things before the book is 3/4s done.

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  2. I like this new log line. And I agree it's good to know all this stuff before you even begin to write, because it saves a boatload of time.

    I just spent several months hammering out the right outline, pretty much using similar techniques to yours here. Alexandra Sokoloff has a ton of stuff on plotting and outlines using this method (it's like script writing, basically) on her blog--I really like her method of using sequences.

    It's hard work, this writing gig, no?

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  3. I'm with you on the "beats." It's a clear cut way of thinking of the outline and it makes a lot of sense. I never used to be much of an outliner, but in the past year or so, I've been warming to them.

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