Tag Archives: KM Weiland

How Many Characters Do You Need?

Like the bromide about too many cooks, an overabundance of characters can spoil the novel. How many characters is too many? Well, like a lot of questions about writing, it depends. The type of story, the genre, the plot, can all affect how many characters show up in a novel. An epic like the Harry Potter series has a castle full of characters. A “quiet” novel that explores interpersonal relationships may have only a few.

I came across a helpful exercise by Janice Hardy in a June 2013 blog post.

Hardy’s exercise goes like this: Take a sheet of paper. Make two boxes in the middle, equally spaced apart. Write the name of the protagonist in one box and the name of the antagonist in the other. Write the names of other characters below the protagonist and above the antagonist, depending on which characters are connected to with character. Next, draw a solid line if the character is directly connected to the protagonist or the antagonist and a dotted line if indirectly connected. Finally, draw lines between the characters who are directly or indirectly related to each other.

“If you had a hard time finding room for all your boxes, that’s a red flag you might have too many characters,” she wrote. “Same if you have a lot of characters who have zero connections to your protagonist, but connections to other characters in the book. Lots of people with dotted lines to one person could be ones you can combine (like those extra thugs).”

The real value of this exercise, Hardy writes, is that it “forces you to think about how the various characters are connected.”

It is also visual. If your paper is cluttered with boxes, you just might have too many characters.

There are two main problems with having an abundance of characters, blogger and author KM Weiland writes.

First, when there are too many characters, the reader may be unable to keep track of who is who. Second, a writer who introduces too many characters runs the risk of fragmenting the narrative.

Most of the posts I’ve read on this subject advise something like this: How many characters do you need? Just enough to tell the story. That doesn’t fully answer the question, though. The real test for me is whether each character fulfills a purpose, either large of small. For example, let’s say the main character does something stupid as a teen-ager and is arrested. The cop who makes the arrest serves one purpose. He doesn’t need to reappear, unless he decides to mentor the young man.

Every main character needs a supporting cast. This cast can be small or large. It may include the following: sidekicks, mentors, confidants, spouses, siblings, parents, teachers, co-workers, friends, enemies. You get the picture. The writer may not choose to include everyone on the list; she will choose carefully depending on the genre and the nature of the story.

A related question is how many Point of View (POV) characters should a novel include? Personally I have trouble keeping up with more than five or six POV characters, yet I’ve read stories with as many as nine and the writer was able to make the narrative work. However, it takes tremendous skill to juggle nine or 10 POV characters without diluting the narrative.

What about you? How many characters do you create for each story? How many is too many?

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Books Read in 2013

Each year, I set a goal to read 25 books. Reading widely across all genres, including non-fiction work, is essential for fiction writers. This year, I fell short of 25 books. I also wanted to read more contemporary best-sellers, but I didn’t accomplish that, either. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the books I did read. Some were written by friends and colleagues, while others were penned by best-selling authors. The diversity of voices and stories have enriched my writing and I thank all of the authors on this list.

Fiction

The Lightning Charmer, by Kathryn Magendie
Waiting, by Ha Jin
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan
Third Willow, by Lenore Skomal
The Fault in our Stars, by John Green
Dune, by Frank Herbert
Looking for Alaska, by John Green
The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
News From Heaven, by Jennifer Haigh
Dented Cans, by Heather Walsh
Almost Armaggedon, by Jamie Beckett
Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane
The Night Eternal, by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo DelToro
Dear Life, by Alice Munro
Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe


Non-fiction

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, by KM Weiland
Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, by Donald Maas
Wired for Story: the Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Sciences to Hook the Reader from the Very First Sentence, by Lisa Cron
Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

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Book Review: Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, By KM Weiland

There are many fine books on how to structure a novel. James Scott Bell’s classic, Plot & Structure, comes to mind. Add to the list author and blogger KM Weiland’s latest book, Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story.

Weiland takes an analytical approach to the topic, but writes in clear prose and uses examples from film and literature to re-enforce her points. The book is divided into three parts: story structure, scene structure, and sentence structure. Like Bell, Weiland advocates the three-act story structure. She takes the reader through the various plot points that propel the story forward. She also covers topics like effective beginnings, opening chapter pitfalls, introducing characters, stakes and setting, and when to bait the hook and when to initiate the inciting incident.

One of the best aspects of this book is the detailed explanation how to handle the third act. This is where books succeed or fail. Weiland presents a comprehensive analysis of the climax, resolution and effective endings. “The Climax is where you have to pull out your big guns. This is a series of scenes that needs to wow the reader. Dig deep for your most extraordinary and imaginative ideas,” she writes.

She advises writers to set up the ending by foreshadowing it. “Inevitability and unexpectedness are the two key ingredients necessary in every perfect ending. And yet they’re incompatible…The trick to successfully combining inevitability and unexpectedness rests primarily upon two different factors: foreshadowing and complications,” she writes.

While the section on story structure is worth the price of the book alone, Weiland offers a detailed discussion of how to build effective scenes in the following section. Weiland breaks down the Scene (capital S) into two segments: scene and sequel. The scene is the action part and consists of three elements: goal-conflict-disaster. The sequel is the reaction part of the Scene: reaction, dilemma and decision.

Some of the insights I found most compelling included:

“Character and change. That’s what story is all about. We take a person and we force him onto a journey that will change him forever.”

“Readers love action (whatever its manifestation), and authors can’t create a story without it. But without character reactions, all that juicy action will lack context, and, as a result, meaning.

This book is an essential resource, especially for new writers.

KM Weiland writes historical and speculative fiction. She is the author of six novels and another excellent craft of fiction book, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. Her blog, Wordplay, is an excellent resource for writers.

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Writing “In Scene:” Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I outlined the basic elements of a scene in a novel: one or more characters, usually with the presence of conflict or tension, set in a time and place or moving from one place to another, action/narrative/dialogue, and something happens that must advance the story. Those are the basics, but an effective scene must go deeper.

One of my favorite bloggers, author KM Weiland, did a 12-part series on writing scenes. I highly recommend it. She devoted a lot of space to the concept of “scene and sequel.” What this means in basic terms is that the first half of the scene should contain action (goal-motivation-disaster) and the second half or sequel is the main character’s reaction to what happened. Weiland breaks it down into three parts: reaction (processing what has happened), dilemma (what does the character do now?) and decision (the character must figure out a solution).

Let’s look at the goal-motivation-disaster part of the scene, because this is essential to a scene’s success or failure. The goal is simply what the main character wants. The motivation is why he wants it. The disaster is what is preventing the character from reaching the goal. Simple enough in concept, but getting the goal-motivation-disaster right is much more difficult in execution.

The reaction-dilemma-decision is frequently overlooked, but equally important. It is what gives meaning and emotional resonance to the goal-motivation-disaster part of the scene.

Randy Ingermanson, who came up with the famous Snowflake Method of designing a novel, speaks about two levels of scene structure: large-scale and small-scale. He believes readers read fiction because the writer provides them with a powerful emotional experience. The large-scale follows the structure Weiland advocates (scene/sequel). The small scale consists of what Dwight Swain calls “Motivation Reaction Units, which alternate between what the Point of View (POV) character sees (motivation, which is external and objective) and what he does (reaction, which is internal and subjective). The writer should devote a separate paragraph to each.

Plot expert Martha Alderson, in a guest post on Jane Friedman’s blog, outlined the seven layers of a scene.

Note that Alderson’s final layer of the scene is its thematic significance. “The key to the theme lies in your reasons for writing the story and what you want your readers to take away from it,” Alderson wrote. “When the details you use in the scene support the thematic significance, you have created an intricately layered scene that provides meaning and depth to the overall plot.”

Another key element of an effective scene that is implied in each of these structures is stakes. Scene stakes must be meaningful, either on a micro or macro level.

This topic is impossible to cover in two blog posts. There is no single way to approach or structure a scene. There are, however, a number of questions a writer should ask before beginning a scene:

• What is the purpose of this scene? What am I trying to achieve?
• How is the main character challenged or changed in the scene?
• What are the stakes? Are they important?
• What is the proper pacing for the scene?
• What is the appropriate balance of action/narrative/dialogue? How does the setting, dialogue and action advance what the writer is trying to achieve?
• How does the scene advance the story?

While I cannot adequately cover the topic of scene crafting in so few words, I highly recommend Raymond Obstfeld’s excellent book, The Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes.

It is a comprehensive and enlightening guide to writing effective scenes and I refer to it often.

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Writing “In Scene”: Part I

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received came from author Dan Pope, who offered this nugget: “Always write ‘in scene.’” This gem has stayed with me to this day. Why? If story is the most important aspect of the novel, the scene is the building block upon which writers construct the novel.

An 80,000-word novel may need as many as 40 scenes, assuming an average scene length of 2,000 words. That’s a lot of scenes. To come up with 40 scenes, a lot has to happen. Understanding what a scene is and how to craft one are vital skills for the writer. But what does “writing in scene” really mean? Here’s an example off the top of my head of a beginning to a novel:

Ben always feared snakes. It was an irrational fear, really, but it went back to his childhood. If he lived on a farm surrounded by wild animals, he might have felt differently about snakes. But he didn’t. Ben grew up in a typical suburb. One time a snake escaped from his neighbor’s garden. He ran and got his brother, who took a heavy shovel and killed the snake. The snake may have been dead, but the fear remained in Ben. The only thing Ben feared more than snakes was girls. The thought of picking up the phone and asking a girl out on a date sent waves of terror through Ben.

This is a badly flawed start to a story. First, it’s all telling and no showing. Secondly, it is not set in any time or place. Typical suburb? Where? What part of the country? Did he live in a ranch house or a colonial? Who were his parents? His friends? The killing of the snake lacks detail. What does the neighbor’s garden look like? How big was the snake? What color? Did it writhe toward Ben? Did Ben run away screaming? How did his brother kill the snake? Did he chop it into pieces? This bland description doesn’t tell the reader what emotions went through Ben’s head. The transition to his feat of girls is abrupt. There is no timeline. The reader can assume Ben is much older when he reveals his fear of girls. Is it related to his fear of snakes? The reader has no idea.

What we have here is the start of a character sketch, but it’s not the start of a novel. So what do we mean when we say to “write in scene?” Here are some of the basic elements of a scene:

• Interaction among one or more characters, usually involving conflict and tension.
• Set in a specific time and place, or in some cases, moving from one place to another.
• Something happens or is about to happen.
• Contains action/narrative/dialogue.
• Advances the story.

But a scene must go much deeper than these basic elements. Scenes need one essential quality–what author and blogger KM Weiland refers to as “scene and sequel” – or action and reaction.

In the next installment, I will explore the deeper meaning an author must embed into each scene.

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Scene and Sequel: The Yin and Yang of Fiction

Author K.M. Weiland just completed a 12-part series on her blog (which I highly recommend) focusing on story structure. She spent a lot of time explaining the relationship between the scene and the sequel in fiction writing. When she spoke of the sequel, she was not referring to a series of books, but rather the reaction part of a scene.

Breaking it down to its simplest terms, the scene is where the action takes place. The sequel is where the reaction happens. The scene’s elements are goal/conflict/disaster, while the sequel’s elements are reaction/dilemma/decision, Weiland wrote. “This is where introspective moments, quiet conversations and character development happens,” she wrote.
Sequels must work on an emotional level. While the scene is action-oriented, non-stop action without a breather to give the reader a chance to reflect and the writer the opportunity to explore the character’s emotional depth through her reaction results in a story with poor pacing or no context. Or as Weiland put it, “Scenes drive the action forward; sequels allow characters and readers alike to absorb and react to what’s happened.”

I’d never viewed scenes this way, so this was a valuable revelation. I’ve always approached scenes with one of two goals: to advance the story by introducing new elements of conflict (or expanding existing ones) or to provide perspective through inner monologue or other reflective means. What I was really doing was what Weiland advocated on her blog: writing scenes and sequels. However, my scenes have rarely been focused as strictly action/reaction, and I’ve always been partial to writers like Anne Tyler, who dive deeply into the psychology of the characters (what Weiland describes as the sequel). Some of my work might follow this structure: scene/sequel /sequel/scene/scene/sequel. The sequel doesn’t have to be lengthy.

The sequel is flexible. “Although the sequel possesses three basic and unavoidable parts, just like the scene, it is much more flexible in execution,” she wrote. “The three parts may take place within a single sentence—or be stretched out over many chapters. Sometimes one or the other of the parts may be implied; sometimes they may appear to be intermixed with the pieces of the scene.”

This concept was first advanced by Jack Bickham in his book, Scene and Structure.

The concept of scene and sequel may not be right for every writer. Writers cherish the freedom to craft their stories in the way that works best for them. However, writers who are looking for a sound way to approach the crafting of scenes should give the scene and sequel method a try.

What structure do you use to craft your scenes?

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