Stepping into the forest of my mind

Stepping into the forest of my mind
Just as every journey begins with a first step, every story begins with the first word.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Going Beneath the Surface in Story #AuthorToolboxBlogHop



To go beneath the surface in your story, or shall we say beneath the plot, the writer needs to ask why what happens in the plot matters to the protagonist or the characters in the story. As Lisa Cron of Story Genuis fame says, the plot gets its emotional weight based on how it affects your protagonist who is in pursuit of a goal.
http://victoriamarielees.blogspot.com


Let’s see how it works in two books I enjoyed.

The Boys in the Boat, Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown is an historical non-fiction book told as a riveting story. The plot is about how these nine disparate, poor American college boys finally come together as a team to win the eight-oared crew race in the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany. [Eight oarsmen, 1 coxswain = nine American boys in the boat]
http://victoriamarielees.blogspot.com
That’s what happens.
But who would really care if not for the why it matters to one particular boy in the boat, Joe Rantz. This book is mostly his story. Of course, Brown brings to life all of the crew members, the coaches, the boat builder, Joe’s family and girlfriend, the Depression, the Dust Bowl, and Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
What Joe has always wanted is a family who cares about him. The reader watches Joe’s attempts to get his father and step-mother to care about him, to be proud of him. And we feel Joe’s pain as he is abandoned again and again by his family.
We see his misbelief become a reality, that he can’t trust anyone to be there for him. The reader is part of his search for family and connection. And he finds it in rowing and realizing that he can trust his fellow crew members.

In fiction, John Grisham’s The Client works the same way. The plot is about the suicide of a mafia lawyer who knows about the mafia cover-up of a murdered Louisiana senator.
Okay, it’s about the mafia’s dirty works. Why should it matter to regular folks?
It matters because the protagonist, an eleven-year-old, street-wise but poor boy named Mark Sway, tries to prevent the lawyer from committing suicide.
http://victoriamarielees.blogspot.com

Okay, so what?
It’s the backstory in any story that helps the reader understand why the plot matters to the characters.
Mark’s always wanted security for him and his mother and younger brother. He’s been taking care of them since before his abusive father left.
What happens in the plot matters to the Mark because he feels responsible for bringing a mafia threat into his family. A heavy load for an eleven-year-old to bear. Like any good story, problems escalate. Not knowing who to turn to, Mark retains a lawyer for his family with a dollar. Together Mark and his lawyer Reggie Love, a woman with her own complicated backstory, end up in a race to discover the body before the mafia moves the body.  
Again, this all matters to Mark because he doesn’t want his family to live in fear of the mafia killing them.

            I’ve only given a basic outline of what I’m trying to show here with the above two titles. It’s easier to show how the questioning system works with finished stories. It’s much harder to do this in your own work of creation.

In each scene, the writer needs to know:
What the characters go into the scene believing,
What they want, and
Why what is happening in the scene matters to them.

By the end of each scene, the characters need to change; their outlooks on the situation, their feelings, or their next moves, even if it is just slightly. Writers need to let the reader into the character’s head.

In the first scene of my memoir about attending college as a mother of five, Victoria is at school with her special needs’ daughter Marie. They are meeting with the guidance counselor from the high school to choose a curriculum for Marie.

Victoria enters the scene believing that she’s inferior to college-educated professionals, but if she can only get the counselor to understand Marie’s needs and what Marie wants to do in life [attend college to become a teacher], choosing the curriculum will be easy.


What Victoria wants in this scene is for the counselor to listen to Victoria. [Counselor ignores Victoria.]


Why what is happening in this scene matters to Victoria is because she is reliving her own struggle of trying to convince her parents that she desired to attend college, and Victoria, too, was told that she was not college material.

Victoria changes by the end of the scene [only slightly] by deciding, as a mother, to give her daughter the opportunity that Victoria was denied so long ago. Victoria allows her daughter the opportunity to at least try to attend college. [Counselor makes Victoria sign paper stating that if Marie fails high school it’s Victoria’s fault because Victoria wouldn’t follow recommendations made by teachers and the Special Education Department, people who are more educated than Victoria, who wanted Marie to stay in Special Ed classes.]

Writers of fiction as well as memoir need to remember that we never just give us the what in the story. We need to always dive into the why. In other words, when creating story, writers need to know the questions to ask of every scene, every character:
What happened?
Why did that happen?
What did the character do as a result?

If we keep asking why and where the feeling is coming from and what does it mean to that person, we can discover the true meaning of our story.

I want to thank JennieNash of Author Accelerator and Lisa Cron for helping me to understand which questions to ask for each scene in my memoir.
*As before, please offer any insight or comments you may have about my college memoir. Thank you! * 

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33 comments:

  1. Hi Victoria ... well you've made me want to read 'The Boys in the Boat' ... and yes I get your point. It's so difficult getting someone else to understand the point we are trying to make about someone who has different challenges to us - thanks for this great explanation - cheers Hilary

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    1. Hi, Hilary! Thanks for stopping by Adventures in Writing. You will love The Boys in the Boat. It's a great non-fiction story. And thank you for your kind words. They're greatly appreciated. It truly is difficult to get someone else to really understand your life, especially when you are trying to do it through story rather than just laying on the facts.

      It's always a pleasure seeing you here at Adventures in Writing. Enjoy your week!

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  2. Focusing on the why is a great approach to each scene, the way you describe it. It helps understand the reader what's going on, without giving away too much. I'm glad you figured out, with the help of other authors, which questions to ask for each scene in your memoir. Figuring everything out and building the scenes, developing the characters seems so much work, while all I want to do is write and tell my story. :-)

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    1. That is so true, Liesbet. I just wanted to tell my college journey when I started this writing project, and I did in my first few versions of the memoir. Yes. Figuring everything out and building scenes take lots and lots of time. It helps to have the right questions to ask along the way.

      It's always a pleasure seeing you here at Adventures in Writing. Enjoy your week!

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  3. Spot on. Another writer I'm reading (John Truby) advocates using a character's weakness (and the struggle to recognize and overcome it) while pursuing their goal as the key to creating character growth, but in many ways it's different paths to the same point.
    As you say, it all comes back to why. Why is the character motivated to pursue their goal, and why can't they succeed (yet)?

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    1. This is true, Adam. John Truby has a great point. The struggle to recognize and overcome weakness is what every character should do in story. And yes. For story, it always comes back to the why.

      I'm having trouble locating you online. Could you please give me your blog link?

      Thanks for your note here at Adventures in Writing. Please visit again.

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  4. What a great way to think about plot. I love it! Thanks for another great post!

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Raimey. They mean a lot. I'm glad my Adventures in Writing posts are helpful to all my Author Toolbox friends.

      It's always a pleasure seeing you here at Adventures in Writing. Enjoy your week!

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  5. Good post Victoria - I try to remember to use Kipling's poem: I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.

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    1. I like this, Tony! Thank you so much for sharing this with my Adventures in Writing followers. I'm going to write this one down.

      And thanks for your comment on Adventures in Writing. It's appreciated. All best to you, sir!

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  6. Thank you Victoria. I always learn so much from your posts.

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    1. Thank you, Nas, for your kind words. They're greatly appreciated. I try very hard to help my fellow writers as I, in turn, learn so much from them online as well.

      It's always a pleasure seeing you here at Adventures in Writing. Enjoy your week!

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  7. "In each scene, the writer needs to know:
    What the characters go into the scene believing,
    What they want, and
    Why what is happening in the scene matters to them."
    Great advice! Thanks for sharing :-)

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    1. My pleasure, Ronel. Thanks so much for stopping by Adventures in Writing and leaving a note. It's appreciated. All best to you!

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  8. Interesting that the school would play the blame-game with Victoria. Unless it was less about blame and more about the money for support/care givers to get her daughter through the last few years of high school. Just saying...

    Anna from elements of emaginette

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    1. Please, Anna, say anything. Thank you for this insight. I think it's about NOT blaming the school system for any bad results AND about more money for the Special Education Department through more students in the program.

      Thanks for your comment on Adventures in Writing, Anna. It's truly appreciated. All best to you, my dear!

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  9. Your advice made me think. From now on, as my stories progress, I ask what my main characters are doing and thinking at the beginning of each scene.

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    1. Definitely a good thing to do, D.R. Thanks so much for stopping by Adventures in Writing and leaving a comment. It's appreciated. All best to you!

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  10. I've never looked at each scene so closely to see if my characters experience a change, but now that I think about it...they do...as you said, with either what they do next, their emotions, or how they look at the situation. Very neat insight. Thanks, Victoria!

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    1. My pleasure, Chrys. Writers do a lot of this without even thinking about it. I just need to pay attention to be sure it happens in each scene I write.

      Thanks so much for stopping by Adventures in Writing and leaving a note. It's appreciated. All best to you!

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  11. Delving into the why is exploring what makes a character human and allows us to connect with them. Well put, Victoria and I like your examples. I particularly need to remind myself that "Writers need to let the reader into the character’s head." Sometimes, I think the rationale behind an action is obvious, but showing a character's thoughts isn't just about indicating the reason but how the character envisions the reason they are doing something. Thanks again!

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    1. So true, Erika. The thoughts are really about what the character believes the action or choice will mean in their life. It's how the character sees the problem or action or decision.

      Thanks for your kind words. They mean the world to me. I truly appreciate your comment here at Adventures in Writing. All best to you.

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  12. Very insightful :) Knowing the why behind the characters is very important. Thank you for sharing!

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    1. Hello and welcome to Adventures in Writing! Thanks so much for stopping by. Thank you for your kind words. They are greatly appreciated.

      Thanks for your note here at Adventures in Writing. Please visit again.

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  13. Thank you, Victoria. I'm still trying to figure out all of my motivations. Digging deep into that is confusing for me. Going scene by scene, makes me think of Anne Lamott's taking things bird by bird.

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    1. This is very tough to do, Dawn. I'm still trying to figure it all out--scene by scene--myself for the memoir. It's confusing. It's scary. It's wondering if you went deep enough on the page. Scene by scene. It's the only way I'm crawling forward in the memoir. I love Anne Lamott's writings. They are so true.

      Thanks so much for your comment here at Adventures in Writing. Please stop by again.

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  14. Your right when you say something has to change in every scene. Thanks for sharing these tips

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    1. My pleasure, M.L. Thanks so much for sharing your insight here at Adventures in Writing. All best to you!

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  15. I like the constant reminder of asking ourselves "why." It keeps us from getting lost in a different world and gives us an anchor. Thank you. Excellent post.

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    1. Asking why helps to ground the writer and the reader in each scene. Thanks so much for your kind words here at Adventures in Writing. Always a pleasure seeing you here. Enjoy your day!

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  16. Hi Victoria! Dropping by to say Hi and to tell you I have one memoir writer's interview up.

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  17. Good for you, Nas. It's always a pleasure seeing you here at Adventures in Writing. All best to you, my dear!

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  18. This is excellent advice, Victoria—and a great explanation to something that baffles many.

    Thanks so much for your lovely comment over at MIchelle's IWSG post re my bit on nonfiction!
    Guilie @ Life In Dogs

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