Monday, 26 November 2007

Story Structure: Phase 2 - New Situation

So, after the first Turning Point, Michael Haugue describes the next phase of the story as the New Situation. It’s basically the end section of act one, as the next turning point will send your characters headlong into the second act.

I see this as a kind of in between stage. Vogler’s hero’s journey concept deals with the idea nicely. If you think of old-fashioned fairy tales or myths, there is often an adventure the hero (and by this I mean protagonist, not just the main male character) must go on. Vogler calls the second act the Special World of the adventure – often the hero must journey to a new land to fulfil his quest. In modern-day tales, our protagonists may not be fighting dragons or slaying giants, but they may get pushed out of their comfort zone and find themselves in a new emotional landscape. For many romance stories, the relationship itself is the adventure, and this will be the stage of the story where they’ve met, but they haven’t quite got it together yet.

So, by now our hero has had their “call to adventure” – the trigger/inciting incident to get the story going – but they haven’t yet committed to it fully. Our protagonist may refuse the call briefly, even if it is only a few moment’s hesitation, or higher stakes may push the hero into acting when maybe he’d rather not. Sometimes preparations need to be made – the hero may need to acquire new skills to embark upon his quest.

Pretty Woman:
Edward and Vivian have met. She helps him get to his hotel and he almost goes inside and leaves her waiting for the bus – but he doesn’t. Something about her zest for life intrigues him, and he invites her inside for the night. Time after time in the next few hours she defies his expectations, and this pushes him into doing something unusual when the time comes to pack her off back to where she came from…

In a sense, the second act of this story is the length of the contract between Edward and Vivian ($3000 for one week) – this is the ‘Special World’ of this story. You couldn’t just jump from Edward picking her up in the car to immediately asking her to stay the week. Something more has to happen to push him into that unusual decision; it has to be set up.

And this is what this phase of the story is about, moving things into position so the hero and heroine can cross the threshold into the second act and get the adventure (in this case, the romance) going!

Notting Hill:
Anna gets cleaned up at William’s house and, just as she leaves, she kisses him, and he is dumbfounded. Then they play a game of cat and mouse for a while. She leaves a message; he doesn’t get it – and when he does he gets sucked into the publicity machine for her new movie.

It’s Anna who controls where the story goes at the moment. William wants to pursue the connection (of course!), but Anna is wary. At first it seems she is just going to make sure he is ‘okay’ about the kiss and then dismiss him but, after he is adorably flustered doing a fake interview, she changes her mind. Up until the end of the first act, they are dancing around each other and the audience is not sure whether a romance is going to get going or not.

You’ve Got Mail:
This is an interesting one. Kathleen has just discovered that Fox Books are opening a store in her neighbourhood and right after that, she and Joe meet in real life, without knowing that they are online sweethearts – and there’s a connection.

Norah Ephron does a marvellous job of setting up everything in this script! I see the adventure, the ‘special world’ of this story as being the fight between Kathleen’s true-hearted little store and the Fox books Goliath. And, before the battle gets going, the writers set everything up for maximum conflict.

Not only are Kathleen and Joe getting on well in cyberspace, but there’s a spark in real life too – what a pity that they’re going to become mortal enemies in a matter of days! Having them meet before the conflict gets going raises the stakes and makes the audience sigh for what they know can never be! Now, that’s good writing.

So, in this section of the story, you have to decide how your characters are going to respond to the story trigger, their call to adventure. Will they embrace it or reject it? And what needs to happen so that, when they embark on their adventure, all the necessary pieces are in place?

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Story Structure: Turning Point 1 - The Opportunity

This is the part of the story where things start to get juicy! Your main character is wandering around in their ordinary world, doing their thing, and – BAM! – something happens that is going to change the course of their life!
Depending on which book on writing you read, this crucial story moment might be called any of the following:

  • Call to adventure (Christopher Vogler)
  • Inciting Incident (Robert McKee)
  • Catalyst
  • Trigger
  • Opportunity

I say ‘crucial’, because without this element, your characters would just keep wandering around doing ordinary things. Even if your character has a so-called exciting life, if nothing actually happens, your reader is going be nodding off very shortly.

They may not know it yet, but how they respond to whatever happens may determine their future happiness. Your character may receive some news, or meet someone. They may lose something and need to find it again or an event may happen in their community. It even can be a stirring deep within your character that makes them make a change in their own life. What exactly happens will depend on each individual story.

In a romantic story, the event that often sets the story in motion is the first meeting between the hero and heroine, although not always…

  • In Notting Hill, it’s the moment when Anna walks into William’s bookshop. Her celebrity life has just intersected with his ‘ordinary’ one. Funnily enough, this event almost isn’t enough to get the story started. Their paths cross, they go their separate ways and, but for William spilling OJ down Anna’s front a few minutes later, they probably never would have met again. But, I doubt that Anna would have agreed to go to William’s flat to change if she hadn’t met him in the bookshop earlier, so I think that first meeting was the story trigger. Thinking of it as a "call to adventure", it's as if they both chicken out a bit the first time and fate needs to give them a helping hand - a second chance.
  • In Pretty Woman, the story trigger is the moment Edward gets lost on Sunset Strip and stops to ask Vivian directions.
  • Interestingly enough, in You’ve Got Mail, Kathleen and Joe have already met – online, so this can’t be the story trigger. I actually think it’s the moment when Fox Books reveal they are going to open a store in Kathleen’s neighbourhood. This event is ultimately going to cause the main characters’ internet lives to clash with their ‘real’ lives. It also raises an interesting question. The audience knows the identity of Kathleen and Joe, even if they don’t, and at this point, they wonder: “Will she ever be able to love him if he puts her out of business?”

Asking a big question is the main job of this turning point. It asks the central story question to which the climax (turning point 5) will be the answer. “Can a ruthless businessman find warmth and love with a cheap prostitute?” “Can a movie star and an ordinary guy have a long-lasting relationship?”

According to Michael Hauge, it’s hard to start a movie with this kind of turning point, but not so in a novel. Some novels work best when the inciting incident occurs right there on page one! Sometimes it needs a bit more setting up than that, but the idea is to not dawdle about at this point. Get the story started and hook that reader in!

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Blind-Date Marriage Special Offer

Just to let you know that, if you live in the UK, you have a second chance to get hold of a copy of my award-winning first book Blind-Date Marriage! This book won the RNA's Joan Hessayan New Writers' Award in 2006 and was nominated for two RITAs in 2007!

Mills & Boon are running a promotion with QS clothing shops. Customers who spend £15 will get a free book - either Blind-Date Marriage or Breakfast at Giovanni's by Kate Hardy. Not only that but there will be a coupon for £2 off any other M&B series book redeemable at W H Smiths.

So, get on down to QS and treat yourself! They have over 200 shops nationwide and you can find your nearest one here.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Even better than the last!

I was pleased with the UK hardback cover for English Lord, Ordinary Lady, but I've just spotted the North American version up on Amazon, and it's even better. Sigh.

Now I'm itching to get my hands on my author copies! I so love this book and I really hope it does well. Let's face it, it's going to have to live up to its cover now!

Monday, 12 November 2007

Story Structure: phase 1 - the set-up

We all know that stories need to have a beginning, a middle and an end. Act One of a story is the beginning. We meet the characters, find out what their lives are like and discover what problems they are facing.

Set up
In Joseph Vogler's Hero's Journey, this stage is called the Ordinary World. We see the protagonist as they are before the journey they are about to embark upon changes them. This is the place where we have to introduce our hero and heroine and create sympathy for them and curiosity about them. Now, according to Mr MIchael Hauge, in a movie, this should take about the first 10% of the screen time. In a novel, however, there is more room to play. Sometimes there is not set-up at all and we meet the hero at the first turning point. It all depends on the requirements of the story. In fact, just about any of these structural elements depend what may fit your story; there are no hard and fast rules - only what works.

The main thing to avoid is stretching this section out by dumping in backstory, or including events that do nothing to move the story forward. If anything, as novelists, we can be guilty of setting up a little too much. Another trap to avoid is to have lots of scenes showing who your main character is before anything really happens. Show only what the reader needs to know and get the story started as soon as possible. The best way for the reader to find out what your characters are like is to give them something to do! Make them face problems, test their limits.

Lovely scenes that sketch out your character are nice, but if you do too much of that in the set-up phase, your reader is going to turn the light off and go to sleep. Not good. The Set-up is where you want to hook your reader. Right from the first page. Right from the first paragraph. From the first sentence, if at all possible. Just because this is the world that is "ordinary" to your characters, does not mean it should be dull! Top-selling M&B Romance author Liz Fielding has a great article on her website about opening scenes. Go and check it out.

I'm struggling with the opening sentence of my wip at the moment. It started of as, "Louise wasn't looking at the man sat opposite her—the one voted "Hollywood’s Hottest Hunk" in some stupid magazine poll only last week. " Presently it is: "Most women would have given at least one kidney to be in Louise’s shoes—both literally and figuratively."

Who knows what it will end up as. But the point is this: ask a question with your very first sentence if you can. Maybe my first effort raises a more interesting question: if you were sat opposite a drop-dead gorgeous movie star, would you be staring at your cutlery? Of course not! So why is Louise not gazing into his eyes and drooling? Your first sentence question may not be the main story question (although extra points if it's related somehow) but even a little question that gets the reader to keep going until you can hit them with an even bigger, juicier question is good.

I've decided to look at a few well-known movies for examples (because more of us have seen the same movies than read the same books) to see how this story structure stuff hangs together:
  • Notting Hill - as the credits roll, we see Anna's 'ordinary' life as a movie star. (It may not be ordinary to you and me, but it's her ordinary life.) And shortly afterwards, we meet William, an average guy living in Notting Hill and running a failing bookshop.
  • Pretty Woman - Edward is a cold, ruthless business man who cares only about the bottom line. Vivian is a cheap hooker with dreams of bettering herself and is struggling to pay the rent.
  • You've Got Mail - Kathleen is the owner of a small bookstore and has a pretentious boyfriend. However, online she is ‘shopgirl’ and she is having an internet romance with ‘NY152’. Since they don’t talk about personal details, she can’t know that he is Joe Fox and that his family owns a chain of book megastores.

So, after all that, a little challenge! Julie Cohen did a first page challenge a while ago where she asked people to post the first few paragraphs of a book/work-in-progress; I'm doing a first sentence challenge. Either post your sentence on your blog and provide a link, or use the comments section here. Go on, hit me with your best shot!

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Repetitive what?

I'm wearing my hat as guest colomnist for the Pink Heart Society today and blogging about why it is important to look after your body when you are a writer.