Diana Anderson-Tyler

The 5 Steps of Storytelling

The 5 Steps of Storytelling by Diana Anderson-Tyler

 

One of my favorite personal writing rituals is watching YouTube videos or listening to podcasts on the subject of – you guessed it – writing![1] Yesterday, I found a wonderful 17-minute TED Talk featuring British author Simon Van Booy. I jotted down a few notes, which you will find below, and felt inspired to expound based on my own experience.

As a disclaimer, I will say that following these steps is by no means mandatory. Writers are nothing if not non-conformist and a wee bit eccentric, so expecting us to stick to a pre-determined set of rules is a ludicrous notion to begin with. However, as you read and consider Mr. Van Booy’s take on the writing process, perhaps you’ll discover the remedy for a current bout of writer’s block, be motivated to consecrate a special space solely for your storytelling, or feel a wave of relief when you realize that plot and characterization are not the mystifying monsters so many writing teachers and “experts” proclaim them to be.

Step I: Establish Time, Place, and Conditions

Form a writing routine that is exclusively yours. Before you start your week, look at your calendar and firmly decide on which days and at what times you are going to write. And, as you would a doctor’s appointment or other significant occasion, respect it and stick to it, no matter what pops up (within reason, of course…)!

Next, pick a place to settle into, where you can invite your muse to visit on a regular basis. Van Booy believes this should be somewhere reserved only for writing, such as a private room or section of the dinner table. Personally, I write on a super-comfy sofa, the same one on which I read, relax, scroll through Facebook, and watch movies with my husband. If you have trouble switching gears from playtime to work time and are easily distracted, then I think finding a writing-only location is in order.

Finally, do your best to set the writing mood. Maybe you like to sit near an open window or outside on the porch. Or perhaps there’s a certain candle you like to burn or music you prefer listening to. Realize, of course, that even when conditions aren’t perfect, you can still have an excellent writing session. I’m of the opinion that if the fiction you’re writing about hasn’t drawn you out of your reality and into its world, it might be that dreaded “B” word…Boring! You writing should so thrill and captivate you that you quickly tune out your surroundings.

5 Steps of Storytelling by Diana Anderson-Tyler

Step II: Don’t Read Anything You Don’t Love

I love this one! Remember, part of our job description as writers is “reads a lot!!!” Reading not only teaches us, it inspires us and fans the flames of our love for literature. Reading should never – unless you’re in school – make you miserable. Read something that, as Van Booy put it, “makes you tremble” because of how exciting you find it. If you’re not reading what you like, you won’t be inspired, which is a major disadvantage if you’re wanting to pen inspiring stories.

Step III: Sketching

My mom, an art major and former art teacher, is always sketching! Whether she’s in church (busted!), on the phone (busted again!), or anywhere near a tree, a garden, or a person’s profile, she’s making art and/or getting ideas for future projects. Writers should be no different.

While you can certainly schedule “inspiration outings” for yourself, in which you purposefully venture off in search of inspiring people or thought-provoking stories, you don’t have to do anything more elaborate than simply being aware of your surroundings and ready to take notes at any given time. Have a notepad (I use my iPhone) on hand to record anything – and I mean anything – that could serve you in your writing. I write down everything from book title ideas and plot twists to facial features and vocabulary words!

If you don’t know what to write about, “sketching” is an excellent way to generate ideas. After a few days of observing and notetaking, sit down and transcribe everything into your computer and see what catches fire in your imagination.

Step IV: Create Characters and Plot

“Easy.” That’s what Mr. Van Booy had to say about the notoriously nerve-racking and complicated process of concocting characters and the plot in which they’re embroiled. “Don’t let people overcomplicate this for you,” he said. Then he proceeded to tell this story:

“‘A man walks into a Chinese restaurant.’” He stopped himself because clearly this scene is already dull as dishwater. To make it come alive, he called upon someone he knows – his uncle Martin, to be precise – so as to inject his character with an invigorating dose of realism. He used his familiarity with Martin’s appearance and mannerisms to create a character whom readers can visualize and with whom, eventually, they can empathize. Writers, Van Booy said, “describe something real because it is real!” In other words, writers aren’t making things up, or not everything, anyway; “they’re simply taking bits from real life and weaving it together, and getting rid of the seams.”

When it comes to plot, Van Booy used the image of a string of pearls to illustrate the structure of a novel. Each pearl represents a chapter of your manuscript, and “each chapter is a major scene” in your protagonist’s life. You’re not telling their whole life’s story, only the crucial, conflict-riddled pieces of it, which together show the sweeping arc of your character’s evolution. As you did with characterization, you will draw from your real-life experiences and journeys, both physical and emotional, even spiritual, to lend to your novel an added dimension of believability, truth, and poignancy.

Step V: Rewrite, Revise, Edit

After you’ve strung all your pearls together, it’s time to make that necklace shine as brilliantly as possible. The editing process commences with the toughest and most painful exercise: rewriting. Read through your manuscript and pay careful attention to each and every pearl. “If you can take away a pearl and it’s still intact,” said Van Booy, “then you’ve found a superfluous chapter. If you take away a pearl and the rest of the string collapses … it’s good … because every chapter needs to drive the narrative forward.” Rewriting usually calls for extreme surgery on your first draft. Entire chapters, characters, and subplots may be eliminated, and that’s okay! Unnecessary elements will only slow and weigh your story down. If it makes it any easier, tell yourself that what you dispose of can be recycled into another book. 😉

Revising doesn’t require as much of an overhaul as rewriting does. This may consist of shifting scenes around and tightening the pace. Certain scenes may require more depth, dialogue, or description, or perhaps less!

Editing is the final polish. Don your Grammar Police hat and have a ball correcting every run-on sentence and comma splice! If you did a thorough job in the revising and rewriting stages, this part will virtually be a breeze!

5 Steps of Storytelling by Diana Anderson-Tyler

 

There you have it: five easy-to-follow steps to help you reach a finished work of literary art! Which ones do you find helpful? Which, if any, do you disagree with? Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below or tweeting me @dandersontyler!

 

 

Diana Anderson-Tyler writing blog

[1] I like to listen to something in the morning while I’m putting on my makeup and cooking breakfast, before I sit down to write.

5 Must-Follow Rules for Writers

5 Must-Follow Rules for Writers by Diana Anderson-Tyler

 

Hello, logophiles! A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon my dusty, dog-eared copy of Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul and, craving a bit of encouragement from fellow authors, decided to read one or two of its stories per night. I can’t tell you how inspiring it has been! Reading about how other writers have overcome obstacles, conquered fears, handled rejection, and found their voices has been tremendously invigorating. Today, I want to talk about one such story written by Dan Millman, author of Way of the Peaceful Warrior and The Life You Were Born to Live.[1]

Millman opens his essay by explaining that he was known not as an aspiring writer growing up, but as a promising gymnast. Toward the end of his college career, he discovered that writing to him wasn’t pure drudgery – he actually liked it! (A sure sign you’re a writer is when being assigned a research paper or short story is more exciting than Christmas morning.) Not knowing much about storytelling, Millman signed up for a correspondence course to learn the basics. “The rest,” he writes, “would depend on my willingness to rewrite and rewrite again until I got it just … write.”

Millman then transitions into what I found to be the most resonating aspect of his piece, something that I believe every writer can learn from:

“Training in gymnastics had taught me that elbow grease mattered far more than genetic gifts; that talent was made, not just born … I learned to break large tasks into manageable steps – and applied the lessons of sport to the field of writing.”

If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you know that raw talent only gets you so far. There are countless gifted writers whose words will never meet a single reader’s eyes because they don’t have the tenacity, discipline, and “elbow grease” necessary to advance from amateur to professional. Writing is only one facet of being a writer. Researching, outlining, rewriting, editing, querying, marketing, social-media engaging (yes, social media is a must for modern writers!), brainstorming and reading may not be as fun as writing blissfully by the seat of your pants, but it’s what professional writers, who take their work seriously, do.

For Mr. Millman, gymnastics taught him invaluable lessons that translated seamlessly into his role as Writer. Over the years, those lessons were distilled into the following five indispensable rules:

Show Up: Sit in the chair in front of your laptop or writing pad. Treat your daily writing time like it’s the most important appointment or business meeting of your life!

Pay Attention: Appeal to all five senses when you write. Doing this will draw the reader in and make your world come to life. Read your writing back to yourself, then notice the weaknesses and improve them as best you can before hiring an editor.

Tell Your Truth: Write the way the Good Lord created you to. Write the stories that are percolating inside you, the ones that keep you up at night and distract you during the day. There is no other person on the face of the planet who can write the way you can – don’t take that for granted!

Do Your Best: Rewrite repeatedly! Then, set the manuscript aside for a while – perhaps as long as a month or two! – before doing an even better draft.

Don’t Be Attached to Outcomes: You can’t control what an agent, publisher, book reviewer, spouse or friend thinks about your book baby. The effort itself is a success you should be proud of. Millman reminds us that “Not even Michael Jordan could control whether he made a basket – only whether he took the shot.” Every shot we take increases our chances of sinking literary baskets.

I hope those rules will be helpful to you in your writing journey! What’s your current favorite piece of writing advice? Which of today’s rules do you think you’ll find most beneficial? Please comment below or tweet me @dandersontyler. I’d love to hear it!

Diana Anderson-Tyler writing blog

 

 

 

[1] http://www.peacefulwarrior.com/

Tips for a Strong Protagonist – Part V

Tips for Creating Strong, Compelling Main Characters

If there’s one thing I can’t stomach when reading or watching a movie, it’s flawless characters. Going back to Part III of this series, protagonists certainly need to be awesome in one respect or another, but there should be at least one area of their life in which they, well, kinda suck.

Sherlock Holmes (if you don’t watch the BBC show, Sherlock, you’re missing out!) is an unparalleled detective, but has lousy people skills. Katniss Everdeen is selfless, brave, and unrivaled with a bow and arrow, but she sometimes acts impulsively and doesn’t follow orders. Woody from the first Toy Story film is charming and charismatic, but is also selfish and jealous, fixated on being Andy’s favorite toy. Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice is self-assured with a quick wit and keen mind, but also hugely capable of making poor judgments.

Characters need balance. They should have positive qualities and be excellent at one or two things, but they shouldn’t be perfect. If they’re the best at something, they should also be the worst at something. This is where conflict dwells. The space between Elizabeth Bennett simultaneously having a good head on her shoulders and a huge grudge in her heart is so taut with tension that readers and audiences are spellbound as they watch her story unfold.  And on a more practical level, flawless people are, frankly, boring and unbelievable.

Just as the best bad guys are the ones who are layered and complex (I love Gollum in The Lord of the Rings!) with qualities with whom your audience can empathize, the same goes for your M.C. When your hero is truly “good” in all situations, he is one-dimensional and uninteresting. We have no reason to fear for them because we know they will always do the right thing and come out on top. However, if you establish early on that your hero has weaknesses from which they’re hiding or of which they’re oblivious, then it’s easy for your audience to fear.

Creating strong, compelling characters via Diana Anderson-Tyler

There are two kinds of character flaws, a psychological weakness and a moral weakness.

A psychological weakness is a character trait within your main character that is ruining his life. For Woody, this is jealousy, which undermines his ability to lead. For my protagonist Iris in Moonbow, it’s deep-seated hatred and bitterness. A moral weakness is a character flaw that harms the main character and also other people. Keep in mind that weakness is not a disease, like diabetes or drug addiction, but a choice. Therefore, it’s important that you identify the root cause of your M.C.’s moral weakness, and not just its symptoms. Look at your character’s psychological weaknesses and see what moral weaknesses might stem from them. Woody’s jealousy, for example, led him to unsuccessfully try and trap Buzz Lightyear behind a desk, which only led to a series of unfortunate events (yay, more conflict!)

We can’t forget that a character flaw might also be something inherently “good,” like being too trusting, innocent, or generous. In Gladiator, for instance, it was Maximus’s integrity and loyalty to Marcus Aurelius that caused him to walk away from pledging allegiance to Commodus, therefore putting himself and his family in danger. In The Princess Bride, it was Westley’s deep love for Buttercup that led him to leave so that he could earn enough money to marry her, a decision that almost got him killed and gave wicked Humperdinck time to snatch her up for himself. To turn a positive trait into a character flaw, think about how it might harm the character and hurt other people.

 

I hope you’ve found this week’s tips helpful! Please comment below with your own tips and/or requests for future posts! Also, send me a tweet @dandersontyler and tell me what you’re writing about – I’d love to connect!

Also, if you’d like to write a guest post on your favorite writing topic, click here!:

Diana Anderson-Tyler writing blog

Tips for a Strong Protagonist – Part IV: Lessons from “Gladiator”

Diana Anderson-Tyler uses "Gladiator" as a teaching tool for building strong main characters

Tips for a Strong Protagonist – Part IV: Lessons from “Gladiator”

“There should be something about her in the first scene that gradually transforms (with the biggest point of transformation at the climax) so that she is a different person in the end than she is in the beginning.”

That’s a quote from my awesome editor, Ellen Brock, who helped me revise my debut novel, Moonbow: The Colors of Iris. What she’s referring to here is character arc, defined by Wikipedia as “what happens to the inside of a character over the course of the story.” Defining the character arc helps us as writers focus our protagonist’s personality and feelings, and should also help direct the novel, as the plot points should facilitate this change.

If you’ve read my last two posts, then you probably know that Gladiator is one of my favorite movies. Its classic Hollywood style and impeccable plot structure make it not only a marvelous cinematic experience, but a valuable teaching tool as well. Following Ellen’s advice (I’m sure the screenwriters consulted her before they got to work writing), the movie’s first and final images, though they appear identical to each other, actually symbolize Maximus’s transformation from reluctant hero to honorable warrior. Sure, he was an honorable warrior as a Roman general, but leading an army was his duty, his day job, and not a calling – two very different things.

Here’s a detailed look at Maximus’s trajectory from apathetic to heroic, beginning with the inciting incident, which is when Marcus Aurelius asks Maximus, not his flesh and blood, to become the next Caesar (I’ve put the high points in bold):

  • Maximus declines Marcus Aurelius’s invitation to rule Rome in favor of returning home.
  • Maximus refuses to pledge his loyalty to the new emperor, Commodus.
  • At his execution, Maximus kills off the Praetorian guards in order to break free and rescue his family.
  • When he’s too late, Maximus is captured and sold to slave dealer Proximo.
  • Maximus is made a gladiator, but, being heavily grieved and depressed, he refuses to fight.
  • Maximus is inspired by a speech given by Proximo and decides to fight.
  • Maximus kicks butt, gaining hundreds of fans who shout “Spaniard! Spaniard! Spaniard!” every time he steps into the arena.
  • Maximus learns that Proximo earned his freedom and stood before the emperor. He decides that he, too, wants to stand before the emperor. His purpose in doing so, however, is not to gain freedom, but vengeance.
  • Prior to a fierce battle in the Coliseum, Maximus rallies his fellow gladiators and tells them to fight together as a unit, leading them to victory and winning the crowd, as Proximo advised him.
  • Maximus’s impressive display in the battle reenactment turns heads, including Commodus’s. The emperor wishes to meet the “Spaniard,” and Maximus turns his back on him, then reveals his true identity (Commodus has thought Maximus dead the entire time).
  • Commodus’s sister Lucilla attempts to arrange a meeting for Maximus and the senators, but he doesn’t believe he can make a difference, as he is nothing more than a slave that can die at any moment.
  • Maximus defies the odds by defeating both Rome’s best gladiator, Tigris of Gaul, and ferocious tigers. He refuses to kill Tigris, to which the people cry out, “Maximus the merciful!” This, of course, only intensifies Commodus’s hatred of him.
  • On his way out of the arena, Maximus spots his former servant, Cicero. Maximus instructs him to tell his men that he is alive. Conscious of his mortality, Maximus knows he can use his troops for political purposes to buy his freedom and take down Commodus. His apathy is officially gone!
  • Maximus has Cicero tell Lucilla that he agrees to meet with the senator who also wants to overthrow Commodus.
  • Maximus requests that the senator buy his freedom so he can assemble his men to overtake Commodus.
  • Maximus asks Proximo for his freedom, insisting he will be paid, but Proximo won’t take the risk. Maximus reminds Proximo that Commodus killed the man (Marcus Aurelius) who set him free.
  • Maximus kisses Lucilla during their meeting in which she tells him she’s bought his freedom. This is a major moment for him because up to this point, he’s been suspicious of her and of everyone, in general.
  • Maximus assembles the gladiators. They agree to fight the guards to allow his escape.
  • Maximus escapes and finds his sword and shield. This is his “point of no return.”
  • Maximus finds Cicero on horseback. When he sees Maximus, he screams a warning. The horse bolts, and Cicero is hanged by the rope around his neck. Maximus attempts to save him, but archers shoot arrows into Cicero’s chest. Maximus is surrounded by Praetorian guards. There is no escape.
  • Maximus is chained below the Coliseum floor.
  • Commodus embraces Maximus and stabs him in the back. He instructs Quintus to strap on Maximus’ armor and conceal the wound.
  • Maximus and Commodus rise through the arena floor for battle.
  • Maximus and Commodus fight in the Coliseum before thousands of spectators.
  • Maximus drops his sword and drifts into the afterlife. Commodus pulls a dagger and attacks Maximus. At the last possible second, Maximus comes back and fights. (Go, Maximus!!!)
  • Using Commodus’ own hand, Maximus stabs Commodus in the neck with the dagger. Commodus falls to the ground, dead.
  • Maximus drifts into the afterlife again, walking toward his family’s home.
  • Quintus, Commodus’s right-hand man, speaks to Maximus, bringing him out of the afterlife. Maximus uses all his remaining energy to speak. He orders Quintus to free the imprisoned gladiators who helped him and reinstate Senator Gracchus, with whom he’d planned to overthrow Commodus.
  • Maximus dies. In the afterlife, he is back in the wheat field where we saw him in the opening image. His fingers glide across the wheat, and he is welcomed by his wife and son.

 

Diana Anderson-Tyler uses 'Gladiator" as a teaching tool for building strong main characters

Voila! We see that Maximus, who started out as a soldier bent on returning home to an easy, quiet farmer’s life, meets a valiant end as a gladiator determined to restore justice to Rome and peace to his soul as he fights to avenge and reunite with his family.

A wonderful exercise for getting a better grasp of character arcs is to create a timeline like the one above for yourself, using a film or book you adore as your source. Thinking consciously about how characters change and shift throughout their stories will help you as you shape your novel, with the transformation of your own M.C. in mind.

I hope today’s post has been helpful! As always, please leave a comment below with your own tips for creating strong main characters, and/or tweet/snapchat me@dandersontyler! (Find my snapcode in the sidebar!)

Diana Anderson-Tyler writing blog

Tips for a Strong Protagonist – Part III

Make your main character strong by giving him or her a clear, unwavering goal

 

If you are a dreamer, come in

If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,

A hope-er. A pray-er, a magic bean buyer…

If you’re a pretender, come sit by the fire

For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.

Come in!

Come in!

How’s that for an invitation to today’s post? Okay, I admit that I am not the wordsmith behind that delightful poem. In fact, it belongs to Shel Silverstein, one of my favorite writers as a child. Lately, I’ve found myself revisiting old books I used to obsess over and read again and again growing up, and his Where the Sidewalk Ends is one of those.

Today, I’m continuing on with tips for your “flax-golden” tale’s protagonist, based on lessons I’ve learned along my own artist’s journey. So far, my tidbits have been these:

  • Use sensory descriptions to make your main character come alive to and be cared about by readers.
  • Make sure your M.C. is elevated above the rest of your cast by giving him or her special abilities, attributes, powers, etc.

My third tip is one that I actually had hammered into my head in film school. It’s one that seems so obvious, and yet it’s easy for authors, especially new authors, to overlook it: your protagonist must have a concrete goal that drives the story forward.

In Gladiator, which is a classic, high-concept, Oscar-winning film, Maximus seeks vengeance for the murder of his wife and son. A secondary goal, one might say, is that he avoids having other goals that could distract him from achieving what he’s fighting for. He doesn’t get pulled into politics or wrapped up in a romance with Lucilla; he’s purely focused on bringing justice to that icky Emperor Commodus.

In The Princess Bride, Westley wants to win back Buttercup from Prince Humperdinck and live happily ever after. Not even the Cliffs of Insanity, an R.O.U.S. (Rodent of Unusual Size), or the torturous Pit of Despair can stop him.

Throughout The Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss’s primary goal is to protect her family. Her pretend romance with Peeta, becoming a crowd-pleasing celebrity, and taking on the role as Mockingjay are all steps she must take to keep her mother and sister safe, a responsibility she had even before the reaping changed her life forever.

Diana Anderson-Tyler blog for writers

The purpose of every single scene should be to either push your character closer or farther away from his or her goal. This is where conflict comes into play, because your M.C. shouldn’t be successful all the time. There should be obstacles at every turn, both internal and external.

Again, using Gladiator as an example, Maximus faces an internal obstacle when he suspects Commodus of killing his own father, Marcus Aurelius. His decision to refuse loyalty to Commodus, the new emperor of Rome, leads to the first major external conflict: his family’s execution. Now a slave, he effectively gives up on life until he’s inspired by a riveting speech from Proximo, a former gladiator, and learns that if he fights well enough, he can face Commodus and have his vengeance. But still, his journey isn’t easy as Commodus learns that Maximus is alive (his soldiers lied and told him he’d been killed) and does everything in his power to see to it that he perishes in the arena. Now we have protagonist versus antagonist, each with opposing goals, working against each other, which makes for an excellent watch or read!

I could go on with more examples, but I think you get the idea! No matter the genre you’re writing in, be it romance, fantasy, or action-adventure, your protagonist needs to want something so desperately that they’ll go to hell and back, if necessary, to get it (like Odysseus and Aeneas literally did in The Odyssey and The Aeneid, respectively).

Ask yourself as you enter every scene, “What does my main character want, need, and intend to do about it?” Knowing those answers will ensure that your scene doesn’t meander and serve merely as filler, but rather intensifies the drama and pushes your story toward a satisfying conclusion.

 

I hope you’ve found today’s tip useful! As always, please comment below with your own favorite pieces of writing advice, and/or tweet me @dandersontyler!

Diana Anderson-Tyler, writing blogger

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