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A Writing Prompt for Dreams

I don’t mean the goals kind of dream. This writing prompt is meant for those weird, hazy, wtf dreams that happen in your sleep and fade within hours (if not minutes) of waking. Most of the time, they make no sense – talk about the art of the unexpected! That’s actually one of the best reasons to apply dreams to your writing.

Yes, dream logic is not normal logic. In dreams, you accept stuff that causes bewildered or amused expressions when you wake up. But it’s that very lack of logical flow that makes them useful. It means that there very well may be ideas in them that you would not come up with when awake. Ok, not all of them are good ideas, but many of them could be useful when modified or at least make decent inspiration for writing.

Unfortunately, due to the transient nature of dream memories, this writing prompt requires a bit of footwork. I’m sure you’ve already guessed it – you have to write down or otherwise record your dreams. The sooner after you wake up, the better (you’ll remember more).

I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you do this already or at least keep a notepad next to the bed. Many of the artists I know tend to have ideas as they go to sleep or wake up, and, to keep from missing out on any of them, they write them down at the moment they happen (ideas can be awfully fleeting).

Once you have some dreams written down, read through and hunt for something that seems interesting. Something that you could use to start a story. Here are some examples of things to look for.

  • The goal or the quest: Even when the scenes or plot points of the dream don’t make sense, the overarching goal might (with a bit of adjusting, specifically adding more details since dreams are often vague).
  • Worldbuilding and magic: The reason we consider dreams illogical is that they don’t follow the rules of the real world. If you take one of the events of the dream and make it possible in your fantasy/sci fi/horror world (make it part of the rule system), however, it suddenly makes more sense and may lead you in an intriguing direction.
  • Mood: Dreams are really good at toying with our emotions (well, they do have a direct link to the system). That may mean that certain scenes will have very vivid moods, which can help as inspiration for setting a scene in a written piece.

That should give you a starting point. Since people dream very differently (I’m told some people dream only in black and white, for example), you may come up with all sorts of ideas from your dreams that I wouldn’t (and vice versa). Just remember that you can’t use them if you don’t remember them – so write them down!

Once you do, I bet you’ll have plenty of fodder for your writing. Now, given the personal/assumed revealing nature of dreams, I won’t ask you to tell us about the dreams unless you want to (beware the TMI problem!), but if you find any good uses for them, please share!

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Plot Uniqueness: The Macro vs. Micro Problem

For all that people say that there are only 2-3 stories, no one wants to be the author who makes people grimace and say that he (or she) writes the same plot over and over again. At the same time, a plot that jumps around completely out of left field can leave the story feeling disconnected and jarring (or just plain bad). No one wants to be predictable, but to be readable, we can’t be completely unpredictable.

So what can we do? How do we make our stories new if there are only 3 plots (max)?

I’ve already touched on one method in “Thought-provoking Fan Art” and “Schrödinger’s Setting,” and that’s to add uniqueness through your worldbuilding. Changing the setting and the surrounding culture can make a plot seem new even if it’s the same plot that’s been told for hundreds of years. I’m sure you can think of plenty of stories that seem different because of the world(s) they’re set in.

The other method for making the story seem fresh is related, and that’s to put effort into making the details of the story interesting. Character quirks, dialogue, small moments in the plot, writing style, figurative language – all of those aspects (and more) work together to make stories seem different from each other.

So if you want to emphasize difference, focus on the micro scale.

It’s when we zoom out to the macro that we can see the similarities in plot. From a distance, all the nuances and levels of difference become indistinguishable, and only the overall shape remains. That’s what they’re talking about when they say there are only so many plots. Yes, when you look at the overall shape, there tends to be a lot of similarity. The rhythms of pacing – the crescendo of the rise and fall and rise and fall of the action – these are parts of telling a story in an entertaining way. So, yes, there’s going to be overlap in the shape.

What those people forget, however, is that when you’re reading a book, you’re not looking at the macro alone. In fact, if you get sucked in, you’re mostly looking at the micro scale. So as a writer, that’s the place to worry most about differences.

So what if all your books are hero journeys? Are they different hero journeys? Do the details of the journey change? Does each book have separate twists and turns? How many books have you read with a save-the-world hero plot? Do you consider them all the same story?

The fact of the matter is that saying there are only 2-3 stories is a simplification. Yes, it’s interesting on a theory level (it can be fun to ponder the idea and what it might reflect in regards to the human psyche), but on a writing level, it’s more likely to lead a writer astray than to help him/her improve. It sets up and unhealthily strengthens the need to be different for the sake of difference.

I promise you that if you’re writing a modern romance novel, the demographic for that genre is not going to be mad because your macro scale followed the usual plot: man and woman meet, go on an adventure, and fall in love. Just like no one’s going to protest if your horror book is scary, and horrible things happen to the characters. Or if your mystery has a crime that gets solved. The big plot arcs have become more or less the definition of the genre. They’re what the readers expect and generally enjoy.

That’s why uniqueness is less the story you’re telling and more how you tell it.

If every single one of your leading men looks the same and has the same job and mannerisms, it’s going to get old. When every book is set in the same area with similar twists and similar characters, all but the most loyal readers start to get bored. And I guarantee that if your characters solve the same mystery or are attacked the same way by the same supernatural creature in each book, you’ll lose the mystery and horror crowds.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s a lot more important to be unique and creative on the micro scale than on the macro. If you can figure out a way to write a completely new plot that works well, that’s brilliant! (Congratulations on your genius and well-deserved fame!) If you can’t, that doesn’t mean you have to write the same story over and over again (At least, as long as you don’t zoom out too much…).

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Plotting & Progress Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

I tend to forget how much I like plotting. The adrenaline rush of figuring out the twists and turns, the superior feeling that comes from tying up loose ends, the thrill of realizing the perfect spot to sneak in a red herring: that’s all forgotten about 2 chapters in.

See, once I get into writing the story, plotting starts to feel like a delay. Instead of moving the story forward, it puts the draft on hold while I figure stuff out (if it don’t add to word count, it don’t count [sic.]). Sometimes, I’ll even keep writing when I shouldn’t because the urge to make progress overwhelms my desire to plot my course. That’s when I end up having to re-write – after I do some plotting.

Counter-intuitive as it is, there are times when pausing to plot is a better way to make progress than writing.

And after all the delay tactics, I get into the plotting and suddenly remember, “Hey! This is fun!” There might even be some maniacal laughter as I route the characters through the story. Or as I imagine tricking unsuspecting readers (if I had roommates, I’d probably end up in a cell). How could I forget how entertaining plotting can be? I get to build a story. I get to weave it together, throw in all sorts of complications, and lead characters around by the nose (or whatever).

What’s not to like about that?

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5 Ways to Improve Your Writing with Improv Exercises

Have you ever done an improv exercise as part of a camp or icebreaker? If you did, you probably thought it was either 1. hilarious, energizing, and fun OR 2. ridiculously hard, stressful, and embarrassing. Well, that’s improv for you. As a rule, improvisation training involves intense scenarios, fast-paced responses, and a lot of strained brain cells – which is exactly why it’s so good for your writing.

As writers, it’s easy to get stuck into patterns of thinking (and writing). At the same time, we struggle not to make our stories too predictable. Well, improvisation is all about thinking on your feet, finding unusual solutions, and looking for opportunities (Think “The Art of the Unexpected“).

5 Improv Exercises for Improving Your Writing

If you’ve ever seen an improv troupe like Whose Line Is It Anyway?, you’ve probably seen most if not all of these games. While you might get more out of them working with other people (more surprises), these are all exercises that you can apply to your writing and thinking to improve creativity and flexibility.

 5. Backwards Scene

For this, actors start a scene with the last line and work backwards. Try to do the same with a story: instead of trying to find the end from the beginning, try to find the beginning from the end. Although it might make you cross-eyed, it can definitely loosen up how you think of your plot.

 4. Change of Company

Change of company is a game where the actors have to change characters in the middle of the scene without changing the scene. I’d probably use this on a new story rather than one I’d been working on (or separate from the actual text). Pick your characters and start the plot. After a bit, change the characters but continue the same plot. Rinse and Repeat.

How do the differences in characters affect their actions? How do the changes affect the plot? If you want to practice character-driven plots, this is the exercise for you.

 3. Director

Like Change of Company, this game has the actors start a scene with specific characterization and circumstances given to them. Then after a little while, a different actor (the director) stops the scene and tells them to do it in a different style, in a different setting, with a different motivation/emotion, etc.

This can get a little complicated from a writing perspective, but it can be pretty fun at the same time. How would your characters act in space rather than New York City? What would your story be like as film noir?

 2. Interrogation

Interrogation is a change of pace from the last two. It’s a game where two actors question a third about an absurd crime (suggested by the audience). In this situation, it’s not the characters or writing method that are so strange as it is the scenario. Like trying to keep a straight face when confronted with something ridiculous, trying to consider motivation and write dialogue in a bizarre situation can be a bit of a challenge.

If you’re trying to work on your comedic writing, this is a good exercise to choose. Some of the best comedy comes from acting serious about something that’s completely ludicrous.

 1. Quick Change / The Bell Game

This game relies on a specific signal (a bell ringing, a buzzer, someone yelling, “Quick change!” etc.). The actors start a scene, and every time they hear that signal they have to change what they just said. Or they have to go back and do the last part of the scene in a new way.

This is a fantastic brainstorming exercise for a continuing plot. You can use post-its, an outline – whatever. The main point is to take up the story from wherever you left off and plan 1 way for the story to go. Then, set it aside and plan another. And another. You can give yourself a time limit or aim for a certain number of stories.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably noticed a pattern: 1. set aside your first response and try an alternative OR 2. try to think of serious options for unusual circumstances. Each exercise pushes thinking patterns in different ways, but the end goal is to be more flexible and more creative – to think of options you wouldn’t have thought of before (and there are plenty of other games to try).

I’m not saying you’ll become a great improv artist (odds are against it) or even that you’ll be able to use whatever you write as part of these exercises (it’s possible); however, practicing the thinking patterns of improv is like ballet stretches for your brain: maybe, you can’t put your foot behind your head now, but if you work at it, who knows?