Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Storyboarding: A Useful Writing Management Tool

Story Steps 10

Suppose you decided to use my Story Steps to get started on your latest project. Let’s recap them:

  • the idea for a story 
  • a theme or message you want the reader to take away 
  • compelling characters 
  • a working title 
  • the essential story ingredients of a story–protagonist, antagonist, situation, motivation, goal, and conflict 
  • appropriate character names 
  • writing a narrative synopsis

Today, we’re going to look at storyboarding, a technique that helps with the actual writing of your book. For starters, let’s look at the definition:

Storyboarding is a sequence of pictures created to communicate a desired general visual appearance. Although storyboarding has been traditionally associated with cinema, its beginnings can be traced back to Leonardo da Vinci, who put his ideas on a wall and examined the layout prior to producing the final painting. (She Sat, He Stood: What Do Your Characters Do While They Talk?)

Popularity of Storyboarding

Storyboarding has become popular in many professions. If you’ve seen any documentaries on making a film, such as The Mandalorian docuseries, you’ve seen examples of story boards. I discovered storyboarding way back when I took a web design course. It made me realize one doesn’t have to be an artist to utilize the story board concept.

It helps to own a computer and have access to the Internet which abounds with pictures of everything you might need. Need a character? Plenty of photos of all types and ages of people are available. Need the picture of a space ship? The photo of a Bernese Mountain dog? There are millions of photos from which to chose as you visualize your story.

Writing Management Tool

Here’s a little background on my storyboarding evolution. I used the old fashioned 3” x 5” index card system for a long, long time. What is this system? You use an index card for each scene. This tool helps you see the big picture in small doses.

The size of the cards makes it easy to shift them around as you’re trying to decide the best way to tell your story. You can design them to reveal whatever information you want. And of course, the neat typed cards often end up with hand written notations all over them.

My transition to computer generated cards was gradual. At first, I wrote story information on the cards. I would cut character photos from magazines or newspapers and copy photos of period clothing from library books, journals, or my own library. All this pictorial information was kept in file folders because the index cards were too small for them.

Then, I learned how to set the page size and run off computer generated 3x5 cards. At first, I continued as before and the cards were text only. But as I became comfortable using computer graphics, I started adding small pictures pertinent to the scene: a carriage, a pretty hat for my heroine to wear, or a piece of antique furniture. Items that helped set the scene for me.

Here’s a sample index card from Scene Two of Butterfly Bride (Saderra Publishing, 2019).

As you can see, the lack of artistic talent doesn’t prevent a writer from using this technique. Storyboarding is a fun way to better visualize your story and it’s easy to tailor storyboarding to your needs. 

However you chose to use it, storyboarding is an excellent writing management tool.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Narrative Synopsis: A Tool for Story Writing

Story Step 9

Writing a short narrative synopsis of my story is another step I take in this process. What’s a narrative synopsis? According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, a narrative is

  • a spoken or written account of connected events

while a synopsis is

  • a brief summary or general survey of something.

In my mind, a narrative synopsis is a summary of the connected events that will take place in my story. I like to think of the synopses as short stories of my novels written in a compelling format that will catch editor or reader interest.

Preliminary Writing Tool      

Many writers dislike writing a synopsis and save it for last. I followed that school of thought in the beginning of my writing career. I didn’t write the synopsis until I finished the manuscript. Eventually, I began writing a short narrative synopsis during the early stages of my story writing. Now I see the synopsis as a powerful preliminary writing tool, because it makes you pare the story down to the essentials. 

More importantly, it unveils the theme.

How can a synopsis do all this? Think about it. If you’re planning a 100,000 word novel and condense it into 500-1,000 words, you have to strip the story down to its essence. The exercise helps you find the dreaded “theme,” because to find the core of the story, you must think in terms of one overriding idea which, of course, is the theme.

Components of a Synopsis 

The seven essential ingredients I mentioned in Story Steps Seven (protagonist, antagonist, situation, motive, goal, conflict, and resolution) offer a good starting point for writing a narrative synopsis. It’s also helpful to have major turning points or plot points in mind. These are the obstacles or events that are going to cause your characters to “turn away” from the path they were following. It always helps to have some idea of why your main character(s) can’t reach their goals easily.

Remember this is a short story of your novel. It should contain the prerequisite beginning, middle, and end.

A narrative synopsis provides material from which to draw your pitch for that all important editor or agent meeting. Or to write the 100 words or less ad. Or hook visitors into reading an excerpt at your website. Or write press releases and advertisements.

Six Reasons I Love the Narrative Synopsis

Here are six reasons I love to write the narrative synopsis:

  • It gives me the opening paragraph or hook for my query letter.
  • It makes me think about the story from beginning to end which helps me organize the story line.
  • It forces me to create interesting characters with viable needs, goals, and flaws.
  • It makes me think about the middle of the book.
  • It gives me vital turning points so I have specific places to go with my story.
  • It gives me an ending to write toward.

What I love most about the narrative synopsis is that it eradicates the problem of blank pages. Each sentence in the synopsis is a scene waiting to be written. I now have the bare bones of a story just waiting to be fleshed out.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

What to Call Your Characters

Story Step 8

In Story Step 6, I suggested you don’t need to have the perfect title before you write your story. Working titles are fine. Stumbling across the perfect title during the process is always fun.

On the other hand, choosing names for your characters is an important early step when writing a story. Assigning names helps you bond with your characters better than calling them Male #1 or Female #2.

Names carry a lot of weight. This is as true in real life as it is in a story. Choosing the right name for your characters is important.

I love names and have a spreadsheet of several hundred male and female names I’ve collected over the years. I’ve visited cemeteries to record names and life span dates from gravestones. I’ve found unusual names in obituary columns and news articles, and I’ve plucked names off the identity badges of sales clerks.

I’m not shy about name gathering or asking the story behind an unusual name. After complimenting a person’s name, I often ask him or her about its origin. The stories vary, but often their parent is paying homage to a relative or friend, or they’ve taken the name from a story by a favorite author.

I also regularly access the U.S. Social Security Administration’s baby names web pages. This site comes in handy for researching the popularity of names by the decade. Did you know the girl’s name “Emma” was not only the most popular name for 2018, it was also the top contender in 1880?

I write historical romances and one way to keep characters’ names true to a certain time period is to check the bibliography of nonfiction books. Mary Chestnut’s Civil War, a memoir edited by C. Van Woodward, offers a treasure trove of mid-nineteenth century American names. Historical biographies or memoirs from any time period provide the writer with many choices for character names.

When selecting the names of your characters, be sure you have a variety of names that begin with different sounds. If you pepper your story with too many alliterative names, it can be confusing to the reader. Your goal is to keep your reader reading, not confuse him or her. If you’ve ended up with a Polly, a Paula, a Patsy, and a Petunia, you need to rethink your characters’ names.

Now, I realize parents sometimes get a little carried away when naming children and some love the idea of all the names beginning with the same letter. But think about the classic Little Women for a moment. By giving the four sisters completely different names (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy), Louisa May Alcott ensured we’d be able to tell them apart as we read their story.

Another pitfall for writers when naming a character is to pick hard to pronounce names. To be honest, if I can’t figure out how to pronounce a name, I just come up with a nickname to use. I know I’m not the only one who substitutes an easier version when faced with an unpronounceable name.

My suggestion, think twice about wasting a lot of time coming up with a name your readers can’t pronounce. If you just can’t let go of an odd name, you have two choices: use it on a supporting character or supply its correct pronunciation as soon as possible. If you chose option two, weave it into the story. Perhaps another character stumbles over the pronunciation and the main character corrects him or her. Using an easy to pronounce or well known word as a synonym will probably help readers the most.

For example, this character’s name is Terry Lough.

“Ms. Luge?” The nurse looked up from the file she was reading to scan the waiting room. The mispronunciation of her name grated across Terry’s nerves. She stood and headed for the nurse. As she drew closer, she said, “Not the toboggan race. Lough, as in a tree log.”

Always remember, your goal as a writer is to write a story that captivates readers. When the reader gets hung up on the pronunciation of a character’s name, unwillingness to continue reading is the more likely response.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Essential Story Ingredients

Story Steps Seven

You’ve got an idea for a story, some characters with interesting backstories, a general idea of your theme, and a working title. Now what?

Personally, I like to write a synopsis of my story. I see it as an opportunity to sketch out the major events of the story. It’s not written in stone, but it gives me an idea of where I’m going. It can also clue me into weak points or details I may need to further research. A synopsis offers any writer the opportunity to see if the essential story ingredients are there.

Say what?

Essential story ingredients, you ask? What could those be?

Well, a story needs at least one protagonist–I mostly write romance so we have two: the hero and the heroine. The word protagonist originated in Greek drama and means the main character–or two characters in a romance. This is the story character you want the reader to like, to cheer on, and become the most emotionally invested in whether or not he or she succeeds.

Then you’ll want an antagonist. This just a “writerly” word for adversary or opponent. Someone who doesn’t want the hero and heroine to achieve their goals. While the antagonist is usually another character, it could be a natural event such as a flood in the man against nature stories. Or the whale in Moby Dick.

Then a good story needs a situation that bumps the characters out of their current rut. The situation needs to be something that forces the main character(s) to act. In my recently released Regency novel, Butterfly Bride, the hero returns to England and discovers his wife has initiated divorce proceedings. This situation forces him to act.

Another important ingredient is motivation. The hero in Butterfly Bride is motivated by the need to avoid scandal. Plus, he’s motivated by the potential loss of his wife’s dowry. A divorce would mean repaying monies he doesn’t have which will ruin him financially.

The situation and motivation provide a goal for characters, another important component of a story. Due to the situation and motivation, my hero adopts the goal that he must convince his wife not to divorce him.

Every well written story has conflict. For my story, the hero faces conflict because his cousin has fallen love with the heroine. The cousin encourages the heroine's plan to divorce the hero because then she will be free to remarry him. There are, of course, many other obstacles for the hero to over come. A writer cannot make things easy for the main characters or the reader will become bored with the story.

Last, but not least, the story has to have a satisfying resolution. In other words, the story needs to resolve the issues in such a way that satisfies the reader.

Ensuring I have all the essential ingredients in the synopsis helps me figure out any holes that might exist. A writer needs to keep in mind that people have been telling and listening to stories for time immemorial. Good storytellers accept that readers bring certain expectations to the reading experience. Expectations you must meet to keep your readers reading.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

What To Call Your Story

Story Step Six

As some point in this writing process, you’re going to want to hang a title on your story. Don’t worry over what to call it this early. The purpose of giving a work in progress (WIP) a title is to differentiate it from any other story you’re writing. Finding the perfect title isn’t as important as writing the story.

The role of a working title is to give substance to your project. Ideas for possible titles will hit you as you wrestle the story into submission. Rather than change the working title every other day, just keep a list of possible titles.

Titles are not my strong point and I set myself up for headaches with my Tassanoxie series (all the stories are set in one town, but can be read in any order). It all started with the first book, Feather’s Last Dance. I was rather proud when I thought of it. Then, the second book ended up being titled Ellie’s Song. Hmmmm, by happy accident both books contained the heroine’s name.

Two published titles containing the heroine’s name gave me the (crazy?) idea to include the heroine’s name in all my Tassanoxie titles. For someone who lacks the coming-up-with-a-great-title gene, this probably wasn’t a good idea.

A holiday short story was the next entry into the Tassanoxie family. I set about choosing a heroine’s name that would reflect the season. Then I wrote a story the editors ended up calling A Christmas Diamond for Merry. It’s a mouthful, but my first and catchier choice (sorry, I don’t want to confuse you when you go looking for it!) had a lot of competition. It seems we writers share some of the same ideas for titles, especially ones for Christmas stories.

Susannah’s Promise, a novella, followed Merry. It took several tries to arrive at a title my unofficial committee of title approvers liked. I think the title for The Courtship of Selena Smith took longer to choose than it took to write the short story.

While it can seem a little daunting to come up with story titles, my advice is to write your story, get to know your characters, and your world. Stick with your working title, but keep your mind open to other possibilities. As I said earlier, jot them down. Let them age like a fine wine. What you thought would work well when you started your story may not feel right by the time you reach the end.

Then again, the working title might end up being the best title!

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Building Character Backstory

Story Steps Five 

As I was winding up my undergrad degree many, many years ago, for fun I took a Creative Writing class. Somewhere along the way I lost the handy dandy writing how-to book we used in the class, but one recommendation stuck with me: write a detailed biography for characters prior to writing the story.

After the class, I subscribed to several writing magazines. They echoed the author’s opinion that a writer had to “get to know” story characters completely before you could write about them. Over the years, I read articles and attended workshops that abounded  with character lists. Hair color. Eye color. Date of birth. Educational background. Height. Weight. Favorite foods. Foods dislikes.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

I wasted a lot of time writing biographies full of trivial information for characters. Information I never used and soon forgot after writing it down. Gradually, my biographies changed. I started concentrating on events that shaped the characters into their current worldview. What in their past had molded them into the person they were now? I decided if I was going to spend time writing about my characters, it seemed best to create information I was actually going to use in the story.

Keep in mind when I started my writing journey, the word backstory hadn’t been invented yet. According to Miriam-Webster, the word’s first recorded use was in 1982, but that doesn’t mean the word became well known that year. It just means someone used it for the first time in writing. When I finally came across the word “backstory” in my perennial quest for writing advice, I just thought it was a different word for character biographies.

Therefore, I didn’t pay much attention to it. I just continued to write character biographies my way without even realizing I had developed my own method for writing backstory.

As with so many words associated with writing, backstory has several meanings depending on which expert wrote the article, blog, or book. Even the dictionaries differ.

Years ago, at a writing workshop, one instructor didn’t really use the term backstory but suggested you record at least three life events that happened in your characters' pasts that influence who they are now. His suggestion helped me focus a little better and reduce the sprawl of my backstories, but I can’t let go of creating characters with more dimensions than that seemed to suggest.

I wanted more history.

Probably because I used to be a history instructor and had learned there are always many layers to historical events.

Gradually, I developed my own approach to writing backstory and it seems to have more to do with building a character’s internal story rather than their physical looks. I discovered this a few years ago when an editor wanted to buy my short story, “Love to the Rescue.”

To entice me to agree, she actually had a cover artist put together a really cute cover. During the process, she realized I had never truly described the hero–his height, his eye color–that type of thing. She was amazed she hadn’t realized the lack until it came time to create a hero for the cover!

Actually, I didn’t notice either. I do usually have some physical description of my characters, but in that particular story, I didn’t. Or I did and it got cut in revisions!

Anyway, I loved the concept of the cover, but the contract had me signing away every right under the sun. I just wasn’t comfortable doing that and decided to Indie publish the short story. You may have noticed I didn’t put any characters on the cover. 

I’m not saying the author doesn’t need a basic grasp of his or her story characters. It helps to have a general idea of who they are, physically, mentally, psychologically, etc. But I no longer write detailed biographies full of minutia when I sit down to write a story. Instead I concentrate on events that made them who they are. I figure we (the characters and I) are in this for the long haul and I will get to know them better as I write about them.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Building Story Characters Bit by Bit

Story Steps Four

Sierra showed up at our small local airport, a starving, flea and tick infested Beagle. No microchip, no tags, she became an immediate addition to the family. She was an anomaly in the Beagle family because she seldom barked. From all accounts, barking is a perennial Beagle issue.

She arrived with some additional baggage, she didn’t run to the door when we arrived home. This is a major dog duty and we resorted to bribing Sierra into acceptable dog-at-the-door behavior. We kept treats in the garage to reward her when we opened the door. My husband even came up with a “Sierra’s happy we’re home” dance.


Naturally, I came up with a backstory to fit her behavior. If she’d been kenneled by her previous owner, she wouldn’t know how to greet anyone when they arrived home. How can you greet anyone when you’re locked in a kennel? Why would you bark at anything, if you’re locked away from the windows and doors?

Just as I build a backstory for my rescued pets, I build a backstory for my characters. When I first started writing, I followed the school of thought that mandated each character should have a complete biography prior to writing the story. I wrote pages and pages about each character, where they were born, where they went to school, who their best friends were, their favorite foods, their physical appearance, etc. You name it, I wrote it down. And then promptly, forgot all the information while I was writing the story.

Over the years, I realized I came to know my characters best when I lived with them and got to know them, just as I do with my pets. It’s impossible to know everything about anyone all at once. What we know about our friends, our siblings, our relatives, acquaintances, or our pets, we learn gradually. Sure, we get the physical stuff the first time we see them. We know how tall they are, the color of their eyes, their weight, whether not they have bad breath, wash their clothes, or dye their hair. We know their exterior, but we don’t know their interior.

Based on their exterior, we draw instant judgments because first impressions weigh heavily in our biological background. It’s what warns us whether we should run or stay. We all have stories about a poor first impression we’ve made on someone else. And stories of people mistaking something about us based on a first impression we created.

Writing Characters

I’m not dismissing the importance of a character’s backstory, but I found I learn more about a character while I’m writing the story, just as I learn about other people by spending time with them. I found I’m more interested in the characters’ hearts and souls, than what school they attended. And to learn about their hearts and souls, I have to write their story.

That’s not to say what school the character attended isn’t important, but maybe it isn’t germane to the particular story I’m writing. And if it is important, the character will let me know as I get to know him or her. Just if they will let me know that they are shy, or talkative, or scared of the dark.

Next month, we’ll continue to explore building story characters bit by bit.