Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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When Is Your Story Done?

by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

When have you arrived at the end of your story - exhibited by words on a typewriter.

How can you tell when it’s time to stop editing your work and start sending it out?

We’ve all been through that question. Sometimes every few days, sometimes every few books. But for just about any writer, there are times when it’s hard to know WHEN the work is ready to go.

It doesn’t matter whether this is your first manuscript or your fifty-first. It doesn’t matter whether the recipient is your first mentor or the agent of your dreams. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a contest entry, a novella, a full-length novel or a trilogy. At some point you have to decide:

Yep, this is ready to send.

And yet it’s so tempting to keep working. To keep tweaking that final scene. To keep revising the first-encounter dialogue. To keep switching the ellipses to dashes and back again. Revision can be downright addictive.

There are times, of course, when it’s absolutely necessary. After all, most addictive things DO start out fine. Nobody can argue that a celebratory brownie is a Bad Idea. But seven brownies for breakfast...not so good.

So how can you tell the difference between revisions that are making the work better and revisions that are a waste of time?

Let's face it, sometimes declaring "all done" is a really tough decision. How do you know another pass won't make it better? Even just a tiny bit better?

And what if that tiny bit makes all the difference?

It's funny that we don't usually go through that kind of angst when it comes to other "yep, I'm finished" decisions. Getting dressed in the morning, for instance -- might those other shoes be better? Or, wait, what about this pair? And now that I look at it, this shirt might not be the best choice. Or should I adjust the collar? No, wait, these shoes still aren't right...

We've all been through that, before some really important event where it's absolutely crucial to look our best. Say, for instance, the high school prom. :)

Even those of us who only went with the nerdy brother of our sister's date -- um, yes, in fact, that WOULD be me -- still remember the quest to look Totally Perfect.

But now, however-many years later, I look back on those weeks of getting ready for the prom and marvel at how much emotional energy I devoted to what was essentially a non-issue. I remember what I wore, sure, but not whether the selected shoes turned out to be the Very Best Choice or a Sad Second Best.

And you can tell where this is heading, right?

Someday you'll look back on the work you're reluctant to send, and marvel at what a big deal it seemed like at the time.

Because the thing is, fixing that one pesky phrase or one comma or one description or even one entire scene isn't going to make the difference as to whether or not the recipient is thrilled with your work.

The overall book will make a difference, sure.

But how many revision passes can you DO on a book?

Four?

Fourteen?

Forty-eight?

Four hundred?

At some point, revision becomes an excuse to avoid moving forward.

How do you know when you're there?

A couple possibilities are when you discover that you're:

  • Shifting things back and forth rather than making a change
  • Wondering why you ever liked this story in the first place
  • Unable to envision when this will be ready to send

If that happens, how do you get around it?

Well, maybe you don't NEED to get around it. Maybe you're just flat-out not ready to send this material, but you haven't actually acknowledged that. If somebody's pressuring you to get that work out into the world, but you don't want to take such a step, it might seem easier to just keep revising than to declare "I don't want to send this yet."

But if you think it over and decide that yes, by golly, you DO want to send this -- and that decision is coming from YOU and nobody else -- then what do you do?

Tell yourself "this work is the best I'm capable of at this point in my life. Sure, a few years from now I'll probably be even more skilled, but at this time I've done the very best job I can do." And after that:

Give yourself a deadline.

Be specific: "This has to go out by September 16 [or whatever date seems reasonable], no matter what."

Then see what happens. If you make the deadline, even if it's a day or two late, you're all set. If not, figure you're just not ready -- whether or not you've officially acknowledged that -- and turn your attention to some other project. You can still keep writing without submitting, even if you've shoved this particular book under the bed.

But it's more likely that answering the questions above and giving yourself a deadline will do the trick in terms of deciding when you're finished with revisions.

Now, before you’re finished with revisions...

What do you need to address? There are 11 things to consider, some of which you’ve already handled beautifully because they’re your natural strong points and others of which might need some work.

Those are what we’ll talk about in “Revision Hel--No, Heaven” next month, and if at least 25 people answer the question below, one of ‘em will win the drawing for free registration to this class.

Which leads to our:

Prize-Drawing Question

What’s a revision item you always pay attention to? Something you know, right from the start, that will need to be addressed. Please share it down in the comments!

Note: It’s okay if your answer repeats what someone else has already said. It’s okay if your answer is something no one else has mentioned. We each need our own toolbox, and it’s always fascinating to see what various writers keep in theirs!

About Laurie

After winning Romantic Times' "Best Special Edition of the Year" over Nora Roberts, Laurie Schnebly Campbell discovered she loved teaching every bit as much as writing and revising...if not more. Since then she's taught online and live workshops on craft topics, like next month’s two-week email class, and keeps a special section of her bookshelves for people who've developed that particular book in her classes. With 52 titles there so far, she's always hoping for more.

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4 Questions to Ask When Writing Flashbacks

by Tiffany Yates Martin

Image is words with Flashback in the center and character, pace, seasoning, reaction information, story, purpose, backstory, realization, action, essential, specific all parts of the four questions to ask when writing flashbacks.

Two commonly misinterpreted canons of story can make rampantly using flashbacks in your story deceptively seductive: “Backstory is the story” and “Show, don’t tell.” Flashback seems to fit the bill perfectly, doesn’t it? Dramatizing your main characters’ past in a “real-time” scene from it surely handily addresses both issues.

But used unskillfully, flashbacks risk yanking readers right out of your story, confusing or overwhelming them with backstory, and stopping momentum in its tracks.

The Real Truth

The truth—as it often is—isn’t quite so black-and-white: Backstory is key to a story, yes, but it’s not the story—the main story is the story, and losing sight of that by leaning too heavily on flashback is one of the prime reasons they get a bad rap.

And as I frequently tout, the tired story saw of “show, don’t tell” should more accurately reflect what your kindergarten teacher already knew perfectly well: show and tell—both have important roles to play in story, and knowing which to use when is a big part of keeping your readers engaged.

I’m a fan of the flashback—well executed and woven smoothly into a story, flashbacks can bring your characters more fully to life; deepen reader investment in and understanding of them and of their arcs; and make the story more vivid and visceral.

So how do you access the power and potential of this often-maligned narrative device, while avoiding its many possible pitfalls?

The trick lies in asking yourself four key questions before plunging in.

What key information or action does the flashback contain?

Flashbacks shouldn’t be used just to flesh out or paint a pretty picture of a character’s past.

Making them feel intrinsic and organic to a story means ensuring they are used intentionally and effectively. What specific, relevant info do they convey about your characters or story?

For example, let’s say you have a scene with a couple in the office of a marriage counselor they’ve gone to for help with their struggling relationship. Readers need a sense of this couple’s history and their current dynamics for the scene to have the impact it needs to—character and story cannot exist in a vacuum, and stakes come from character and reader investment in what stands to be gained or lost. Perhaps one specific occasion from their past (or recent present) could illustrate these key points strongly and vividly.

Some Examples

For instance, one character recalling a positive event like the sparks when they first met, or their magical first date, or the joyful birth of their first child might show readers that they once were deeply in love or that there’s still great love between them.

Or recalling an early “red flag” of contention between them, or a betrayal, or a recent terrible fight could indicate the major cracks in their foundation.

If you are considering showing a flashback, first determine whether it contains something specific, directly relevant, and germane to a story and scene.

How does the flashback essentially illuminate the character or story?

Even as you glance backward with flashback, the story itself should always be moving forward. A well-used flashback accomplishes this by serving to spark a realization, reaction, or action in the protagonist in the present-day story, moving your character further along their arc.

Going back to our floundering couple in counseling, what effect does recalling the event contained in the flashback have on your character in the context of the current scene and the main story?

For instance, does remembering the fervor with which her now-husband once courted her make her decide there’s something worth fighting for, no matter how deep the current breach between them might be? Or does it perhaps make her realize that he hasn’t looked at her like that in years, and the spark has long since gone out, stripping her of hope?

You’re the storyteller—you’ll decide what best serves the story you’re telling—but making sure the flashback fulfills some essential, momentum-furthering function in the main story is key to harnessing the power of flashbacks.

What makes a flashback the strongest way to present this information?

Flashback is just one of three major types of backstory, along with context and memory, these latter two of which are usually by far the predominant tools for building seamless backstory.

But flashback is seasoning, not the stew.

Because of their risk of stalling the story out flashbacks should be used very judiciously, and only where they are the most effective, impactful way to convey the necessary information.

In our troubled-couple example, it’s essential that readers have a strong sense of these characters and their relationship so that we feel invested in the outcome of this counseling-session scene (which you’ve hopefully itself already vetted to ensure it’s also essential to furthering the main story).

You may be able to do that effectively by using context (which is backstory woven into the present-moment story, a form of “tell”) or memory (backstory recalled by a character while planted in the present-moment story, usually “tell” with a “show” component).

But depending on what information or action the flashback comprises, it may carry more emotional heft and resonance to briefly pull readers away from the current scene and let us live the flashback memory with the characters directly.

It depends in part on the purpose and pace of the main scene: If it’s a high-stakes, high-drama, fast-paced scene, then a flashback may unnecessarily stall that momentum and detract from the main scene/story. If it’s a more internal scene, or one without a major story development that a flashback might risk pulling focus or impact from, then using one may complement and help add resonance to the current scene.

What makes it essential to show the flashback now?

Ask yourself whether the info in the flashback is necessary or maximally effective at this moment in the story. To paraphrase the Watergate hearings, it depends on what the reader needs to know and when they need to know it.

For instance, in our running example, if readers already have a good sense of this couple’s dynamic, history, and each one’s attitude toward counseling, then pausing the action to dip back into a scene from early in their marriage illustrating that may not serve the story best.

If there is no subsequent turning-point moment as a result of the flashback, no illumination of the main story that is essential for this scene to be most effective or carry deep resonance, or to move the story forward in some essential way, then using a flashback here may not be the best use of this powerful but potentially disruptive tool.

Alternatively, if the flashback presents crucial, specific information that is essential for the unspooling of the main story, and in particular this scene, then this could be the exact right place for it.

General Guidelines When Writing Flashbacks

A few other tips to keep in mind for smooth flashbacks:

Weave Flashbacks in

If you do decide flashback serves the story best in a particular place in your story, help ensure it enhances the story and is woven in seamlessly by connecting it to something specific in the present-moment scene to transition into and out of it smoothly. Don’t default to cheesy “segue” lines like, “She remembered it as if it were yesterday” or “The memory played in his head like a movie.”

Bring Flashbacks to Life

Use concrete, specific aspects of the memory to build the flashback scene organically within the main story and bring it fully to life. Generalized or vague flashbacks risk stalling your story for no strong reason—if there’s not some key, specific incident contained within the flashback, then consider whether the backstory you want to convey would instead be more effective in context or memory.

Regular Fonts

And I beg you, please don’t set flashbacks in italics, or in a different font. It’s like posting a “FLASHBACK AHEAD!” sign that pulls readers out of the story; wearies readers’ eyes; and most publishing houses will change them to regular font anyway (predominant house style).

Over to you, authors--where do you stand on the dreaded flashback, friend or foe? Do you use them in your stories, and if so how do you decide whether and where they serve the story best?

Special Deal for WITS Readers

And if you want to dig deeper into what makes flashbacks work and how to weave them into your stories or nonfiction, I’ve just launched a new online course “Master the Flashback.” (WitS readers get a 25% discount with code WITSFLASH.)

About Tiffany

Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York TimesWashington PostWall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers, and is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your WritingUnder the pen name Phoebe Fox, she's the author of six novels, including the recently released The Way We Weren't(Berkley/PRH). Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com or www.phoebefoxauthor.com.

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The Frame of a Story: The Forces of Antagonism

by Lynette M. Burrows

Photo with a man and a woman, each has a hand extended and thumb and first finger frame a simple line drawing of the frame of a house which is much like the frame of a story.

In constructing a story, I am both a pantser and a planner. I plan the frame of a story, then place the characters in that frame and discover what they will do in that situation. It’s taken years for me to figure out a method that works for me. I share it here, not so you have a blueprint to borrow, but to illustrate one way to build your own frame.

As I explained last month, the first step in building a story’s framework is the story sentence. The next step I take is to decide on the Forces of Antagonism that will best express my story.

I first came across the idea of forces of antagonism in Robert McKee’s book, Story. No disrespect to Mr. McKee, but I didn’t get it at all. I had a more narrow definition of antagonist that I conflated with the word antagonism. Plus, his terminology didn’t resonate with me. In fact, I barely understood what he was saying. Then a friend reintroduced me to the concept. 

The Forces of Antagonism 

“… the principle of antagonism is the most important and least understood precept in story design.”

Story, by Robert McKee

The first part of the principle is easy. It’s about people. Humans conserve energy, all kinds of energy. It’s part of our DNA. If we see two choices ahead of us and one seems easier than the other, most of us will do the easier thing. We avoid taking risks, if we can. 

Mr. McKee explains “the principle of antagonism is that a protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotional compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.” He says the more powerful and complex these forces are, the more completely realized the character and story must become. 

If you’re like me, you read antagonism and think antagonist. Most likely you are thinking of a single person or group who will oppose your protagonist. But that’s not quite right. 

What are the Forces of Antagonism?

The Forces of Antagonism include all the opposition the protagonist faces. Even in stories with simple antagonists, there’s more than the actions of the antagonist that slow or block the protagonist’s movement toward her desired goal. When a child begs her mom to stay home or a sidekick gives her a strongly worded warning or a flood forces her to change her route, those are all expressions of antagonism. If you are still stuck on the word antagonism, call it the forces of opposition

Who cares? You, the storyteller, do.

The power of the Forces of Antagonism is that they are a way to be certain there are at least two layers of growth in your story. With more opposition, your protagonist grows as she faces tougher and tougher challenges. But the Forces of Antagonism can do more. You can use them to make certain her opposition grows stronger as she is growing stronger. Bear with me, we’ll get to the how to use it.

Mr. McKee divides these forces into four parts or values that are cross connected. He labels them positive, contradictory, contrary, and the negation of the negation. He sets it up as a square, the four corners that form the frame of a story.

Image shows a box with the word Positive in the upper left corner, contrary in the upper right, the negation of the negation in the lower left and contradictory in the lower right. These are the forces of antagonism, the four corners of the frame of a story

This is where he lost me until I looked at them as values or principles of behavior. 

The Positive and the Contradictory Forces

When you sit down to write a story, you may think of it as a story about your protagonist seeking justice or love or some other positive value. That’s a great place to start, but it won’t power your story very far without some opposition or a contradictory force. 

Contradictory: a proposition so related to another that if either of the two is true, the other is false, and if either is false, the other must be true. 

Merriam-Webster.com 

Mr. McKee uses the example of Justice. If Justice is the “true” (positive) side of the contradictory forces, injustice is the false or contradictory.

Added under the word positive is the word Justice. Under the word contradictory is the word injustice. A red arrow draws a diagonal line between the two words, two corners of the frame of a story

Simple Isn’t Bad

Many stories are told at this level. A simple back and forth between two opposing forces, such as justice and injustice, good and evil, right and wrong, or winning and losing. Those aren’t bad stories, they can be quite enjoyable.

But using two forces makes a weaker frame for your story. You need a solid, four-sided frame, if you want to construct a story that is richer, more textured and layered in a world peopled with characters who leap off the page as if they are real. This is where the Contrary and Negation of the Negation comes in.

The Contrary

This is also where I got stuck over and over until I understood the terms better. To clarify the next two forces, I’m splitting them apart. 

According to Mr. McKee, the Contrary Force of Antagonism is “a situation that’s somewhat negative but not fully the opposite.” Taking his example again, what would be the contrary of Justice? He says it’s unfairness because some things are unfair but not illegal. Such as nepotism, bias, bureaucratic delay, etc. 

The clearest explanation I’ve found for the Contrary is that it is a state of compromise between the positive and the contradictory.

Contrary is somewhere in between justice and injustice or true and false, like an exaggeration. An exaggeration is not the truth because it’s inflated, but it’s not all false either. For me, thinking of it as “between” the Positive and Contradictory Forces helps. It also gives the storyteller lots of room to explore many values.

This frame of a story has the added word of unfairness under the word Contrary.

The Negation of the Negation

Oh boy. This one stumped me. Mr. McKee explained this as being “at the limit of the dark powers of human nature.” In his example of Justice, he said tyranny was the negation of the negation. I agreed with him that tyranny is bad, but still didn’t get it. After a long discussion with my friend, I saw it in a different light. 

The negation of the negation expresses a negative that is disguised as a good thing. Ah, ha! Tyranny is often justified as being “good” for the people when in fact it is one of the worst injustices in existence. Another example is that someone can say they love their child, but privately, they hate or resent that child. 

The Strength of the Four Forces

Now Mr. McKee’s example is a completed square. 

The lines show how one may move between the forces. The power of this is that you can put these forces together in a way that builds the power and layers of the story.

Perhaps you start with an injustice done to your primary character. She sets out to find justice, but the legal system isn’t fair, then perhaps she discovers a lawmaker who wields his power in a tyrannical way. Slowly, you build each case of unfairness and injustice and reveal the tyranny. How can she win against tyranny?  

Putting the Frame to Work

Let’s say I want to tell a story about a young woman who learns to empower herself. I’ll call my positive force empowered and my contradictory force powerless. I always find the positive and contradictory forces to be pretty easy.

Image shows a box with the word Positive in the upper left corner and the word empowered under it, the word contrary is in the upper right, the negation of the negation in the lower left and contradictory in the lower right with the word Powerless under it. These are the forces of antagonism, the four corners of the frame of a story

The Contrary and Negation of the Negation are often more difficult for me and require brainstorming with another writer. There are many points between empowered and powerless. For my story, I’m going to choose Safe. Safety meaning walking the line between empowered and powerless, not challenging anyone or anything in order to be safe.

Are there other choices I could have made? Of course. You choose the forces that will illustrate the growth you want to see in your story.

Image shows a box with the word Positive in the upper left corner and the word empowered under it, the word contrary is in the upper right and now has the word safe under it, the negation of the negation in the lower left and contradictory in the lower right with the word Powerless under it. These are the forces of antagonism, the four corners of the frame of a story

What would be my Negation of the Negation?

Or, let’s put it in my terms, what negative is being portrayed as a positive? The story I want to tell is about a character who becomes empowered or chooses her own path. So what would be the negative—not the opposite—of her power to choose? A brainstorming session resulted in the power to self-destruct. 

Image shows a box with the word Positive in the upper left corner and the word empowered under it, the word contrary is in the upper right and now has the word safe under it, the negation of the negation in the lower left with the words the power to self-destruct under that, and contradictory in the lower right with the word Powerless under it. These are the forces of antagonism, the four corners of the frame of a story

Now that I have all four of my Forces of Antagonism, I can plan my story in a way that allows me to be a pantser.

I choose to start with my character in Safe. Every character, every scene, every conflict I write will challenge or reinforce my character’s need to stay safe. It will also show my antagonist as empowered and desperately needing to keep my character in Safe.

The end of that first quarter or first act will be some move by the antagonist that forces my primary character to move out of safe and into powerless. Rinse and repeat until the challenges force my character to be empowered or retreat into one of the other forces.

The Power of the Frame

The Forces of Antagonism are a powerful tool for the planner and the pantser. Each of you could use the same four forces as the frame for your story, and none of the stories would be the same. You can apply the forces as you write the first draft, or during the editing and shaping of your story. The order of the forces you choose builds a story and conflict unique to you. Will there be similarities? Maybe. Consider the dozens, if not hundreds, of variations of the story Cinderella. Similar doesn’t mean bad.

Use the forces, writers. The frame of a story empowers you to build a story and conflict with a depth of character and conflict that compels your reader to find out what happens next

Writers, how do you frame a story? Do you use the one I mentioned above, or another construct entirely? Please share it with us down in the comments!

About Lynette

Lynette M. Burrows loves hot coffee, reading physical books, and the crack of a 9mm pistol—not all at the same time, though they all appear in her books. She writes action-filled science fiction with characters who discover their inner strength and determination and make courageous choices for themselves, their family, and their world.

In Book One of the Fellowship Dystopia, My Soul to Keep, Miranda discovers dark family secrets, the brutality of the Fellowship, and the deadly reality of rebellion. Book two, If I Should Die, continues Miranda’s story with heart-wrenching choices and page-turning action. If I Should Die is available for preorder now and comes out on May 24th.

Owned by two Yorkshire Terriers, Lynette lives in the land of Oz. When she’s not procrastinating by doing housework or playing with her dogs, she’s blogging or writing or researching her next book. You can find Lynette online at her website, on Facebook, or on Twitter @LynetteMBurrows

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