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WU Un-Conference Wrap-up, Part 2

If you missed yesterday’s introduction to our WU Un-Con recap, please click HERE and catch up [1]. Then come back!

Story and Plot
with Don Maass, Lisa Cron, and Brunonia Barry

Drawing by Melanie Conklin

Don: In the world of writing, we tend to feel that story is plot. They’re two different things.

Lisa: Story is how what happens affects someone in pursuit of a difficult goal and how they change as a result. The “how what happens” part is the plot. The story is about how it affects the protagonist. Everything in the plot gets its meaning and emotional weight in terms of its impact on the protagonist. Story is internal, not external.

Don: It doesn’t matter what the plot is. (His “radical” statement.)

What matters is that there’s a sense of meaning, a sense of import and emotional connection to the reader. The events of the book connect with what’s happening inside the character.

Lisa: You can’t write forward and get to know the character as you write. You don’t know how they will react to things. But if you do the character work first, it comes into the story.

Don: One way to look at plot is cause and effect. Consequences.

Don: Put a line at the beginning on the scene that states the need in the scene, the inner drive. When the scene is done, when it’s infused, go back and delete that line. You shouldn’t need it anymore.

Brunonia: I always tell the story from all different points of view to find what the story will become. What does the character want, and what’s keeping them from getting it? What do they fear more than anything? That has to be everywhere. It’s a reminder at the beginning of each chapter.

Don: If you have an idea of what needs to happen scene by scene, you can figure out how to connect that up and make it count for the internal and external journeys.

Lisa: A problem is that sometimes writers will write things in general. Nobody ever does things in general. We do them in specific situations. But the language for talking about emotions tends to be general. Make the experiences in the novel as specific as possible, and readers will plug their own emotions and specific experiences into it. Make them general, and no one will connect.

Don: Simple technique for getting story promise in and emotional connection: What is the true start of your story? Not when the inciting incident happens, but when your main character knows with certainty that things are changing. Something is changing and it’s not going to change back to where it was.

Don: The true ending moment of the story is when your protagonist knows with certainty that they’ve walked into a new world. Everything is different now, and we’ll never go back to where we were.

Therese Walsh, Velveteen Characters

Both successes and failures are full of value. There is no wasted experience.

It’s not *all* about the planning.

If you’re writing characters you don’t care about, stop.

Cast fear aside. It can inhibit Real.

What is your character afraid of? How can you make that a wild card in your story to make that character less predictable, more complex, surprising both your readers and even the character?

Characters held too close may never evolve, but they may become Real when you set them free.

Don’t presume to understand your characters fully at first imagining.

Backstory is everything. It’s about understanding where our characters come from, what has made them into the people they are when we begin the story, and it’s about knowing who they need to become by the end of the journey.

These people ARE the reason you write, aren’t they? Your desperation to tell their story well — your dedication to that end — is what will make them Real.

Drawing by Melanie Conklin

John Vorhaus, Squeezing Out the Stupid

You have the right to self-edit. You have the artistic right to take compete control of every aspect of your work. You have the choice to treat a novel as a work of art, as opposed to a work of writing.

Squeezing out the stupid starts with the determination to make the best piece of art we can—in terms of the work, not the ego.

So how do you know when it’s done? The question isn’t “Have I told the best possible version of the story.” It’s “Have I told a version of the story that works?”

A pivot in storytelling is a new piece of information that triggers a change in emotional state.

Something that’s happening or an emotional reaction to what’s happened: If it’s not one of those two things, it deserves close scrutiny.

Give the reader the minimal amount of information to describe the picture he’s seeing in his own head.

Self-awareness will allow you to bring clarity to your writing problems, and will help you get out of the mess. Need to think about value judgments—where the work is. Not whether the work is good or bad.

Meg Rosoff, Where Story Comes From

Out of the seven billion+ human beings on this planet, there is no other you. You are unique. The people you meet, the paths you take, the obstacles you overcome, the decisions you make–they all combine to make an individual that is uniquely you. Therefore, it only makes sense that what’s in your head is unique, too. And there is a Wilderness in there.

That Wilderness is your unconscious. Think of it that way. All the interactions you’ve ever experienced in your life are stored there, whether you realize it or not, and tapping into them is like discovering new medicinal plants in the Amazon Rainforest. These dormant thoughts, as with healing balms, will improve the condition–any diseased state–of your writing and make it resonate.

So how do we do that?

And last,

Don Maass, Microtension

If you are compulsively reading every word of a novel, even one of a genre you don’t like written in a style you loathe, it is because the author is creating a constant mild apprehension in you that forces you to read every next thing on every page. It’s a line-by-line micro-tension that is different from plot conflict and scene goals. It works like this:

In dialogue: Tension arises in the mind of the reader when there is tension between characters.

In action: Tension is provoked in the reader not because of the action itself but because what is felt inside the POV character, especially when that inner state is fresh and surprising.

In exposition (internal monologue): Tension arises when emotions are in conflict and ideas are at war. Rehashing worries that are already obvious and inherent in the situation, though, doesn’t work. What’s going on inside must be unexpected.

With micro-tension you can break any rule. You can make anything on the page work. It’s the secret that explains how some writers “get away” with stuff you don’t and why best sellers sell big when very similar novelists do not.

Don Maass, Secondary Characters

Middles sag. Tightening is only part of it.

[pullquote]What does he want? How does she see the main problem differently from the protagonist? When does this SC most love, and later least understand, your protagonist? What gift or self-sacrifice can this SC make? What is the worst way and time for this SC to betray your protagonist? What secret history do they share? How does each see the other differently at the end?[/pullquote]

Most middles need more: more events, more substance, more to chew on. Secondary characters can generate a lot of those events and substance. Give them agency, which is to say their own needs and wants, time to act, and room to change.

Helpful questions for a secondary character (SC): What does he want? How does she see the main problem differently from the protagonist? When does this SC most love, and later least understand, your protagonist? What gift or self-sacrifice can this SC make? What is the worst way and time for this SC to betray your protagonist? What secret history do they share? How does each see the other differently at the end? Work backward to make the starting point of their relationship an article of faith. (It’s going to change!)

Come back tomorrow for Part 3 of our WU Un-Con Recap!

About Jeannine Walls Thibodeau [19]

Jeannine Walls Thibodeau can't remember a time in her life when she didn't want to be a writer. She was dismayed at the age of five that a four-year-old had already claimed the title of youngest author. She graduated from Emerson College with a degree in Writing, Literature, and Publishing, and has had her work appear in a creative writing textbook and several small journals. She's currently at work on her first novel that she's determined to complete by March 2014.