Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Information Feed Tricks And Tips For Writers Part II - Definition of News

BUT FIRST (yes, this is news) -- I have to announce that the Sime~Gen Novels (by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Jean Lorrah, and various combinations of us) along with new ones, are now coming out in Kindle, Nook, Apple, and almost all other e-book formats, plus new paper availability.  HOUSE OF ZEOR is available now in paper, in December 2011 on Kindle, Nook, other formats, so you can give it as a holiday gift.

You'll find news, updates, on this (huge) project on http://whatsnew.simegen.com/ 

Here is the link to my Kindle page which now has MOLT BROTHER and CITY OF A MILLION LEGENDS with the Dushau Trilogy and the omnibus Hero/Border Dispute in Kindle

And here's the link to Jean's page on Amazon

Now to work:

In Part I, posted Nov. 16, 2010 on
we discussed the 5 questions to answer in order to tease the tangled lump of a "story idea" out into a straight line and grind it into "bread-crumbs" that can be laid down to lead a reader into a huge universe.

We noted how the story and plot "dance" together, and how genre is a bit like different dances because of the pacing of that dance, waltz, fox trot, macarena, square dance, grand march, quadrille.

Notice how each dance name evokes era, pacing, dress, level of social intimacy, -- a whole story-universe in a word.

Your plot and your story "dance" together just like that, and readers choosing which book to buy recognize those dances and choose by their mood or taste. Your novel opening has to identify which "dance" your story and plot will be doing in order to engage the reader.

Readers will engage (or not) when they see that "first step" into the dance on the "downbeat" (on page 1) of your novel. From that first step, they know the name of the dance and the steps. They want to watch your characters do this dance because they've enjoyed watching others doing it - maybe they've done it themselves. They like this dance. The moves feel good.

The 5 questions we discussed last time lead you to name the dance (genre) for your novel, and to submerge out of sight all the pairs of characters doing a different dance, to put the spotlight on the couple (protagonist; antagonist -- or lovers-to-be) who will entertain us.

And now we'll add a 6th question, after we look more closely at the structure of a breadcrumb.

In this case, a "breadcrumb" is a tidbit of information about your universe, your characters, your story, that answers a question and contains the next question.

This is part of what we discussed in how to structure a scene, and string scenes together. As a professional reviewer, I've seen (and discarded) a number of mass market novels lately that fail at scene structure. To rise out of the pack after publication, structure your scenes thusly:


Here is the key concept you need to be able to apply this writing technique of breadcrumbs and structured scenes to the tangled story-idea seething in your head so the plot and story "dance" with each other.  


That's it. That's the whole secret to generating suspense, creating a page-turner novel, writing non-fiction about boring topics and getting people to read it and talk about it.


It's so simple a caveman can do it.

Do you have a "nose for news" as a journalist must?

Do you know the difference between news and gossip?

Why is it that seasoned journalists write novels that attract big publishers who lavish vast sums on publicity campaigns for them? (and they do marvelous scene structure, and sell film rights!)

Because working in journalism hones the "nose for news."

And "news" is what fiction-plotting is all about. No story is widely interesting unless it has a plot.

Here's where I showed you the difference between story and plot and how they're glued together into a novel.



In brief, I use the word "plot" to represent the chain of events initiated by the protagonist which culminates in the final climax, or resolution of the conflict.

I use the word "story" to represent the meaning of the events to the characters involved, and how the plot-events prompt or cause the characters to learn life-lessons, articulate theme, and change their actions. "Story" is the sequence of changes characters undergo as they "arc."

It doesn't matter what words you use to designate story-components.

Every professional writer understands fiction to be composed of components each of which does something important to communicate to the reader. It doesn't matter what you call the component, just so it does what it is there to do.

Editors, too, recognize those components (and call them by different names). And they recognize the dances between plot and story, and call them by different names. It just doesn't matter what you call it as long as you do it.

See the 7 part series on Editing starting here:

So using my definitions, (which I didn't make up, but learned from professionals) fiction-plotting is the process of taking that amorphous lump of material in your mind that you "just know" and are tangled up in because it's so interesting to you, and spreading that lump out into a straight line

You take the ball of string in your mind and unwind it, laying it down across your living room as many loops as necessary to get it all laid out.

Now you look at how long that string is. It may be several novels long. Don't try to stuff it all into one volume if it's too big.

How do you know how big it is?

A really big idea will have a lot of characters doing things that change everything, very likely dancing different dances between the character's story and the overall plot of the universe.

A really big idea will have characters who are massively changed by events.

That is there are lots of events, and characters learn huge lessons that turn their lives totally around.

The older the characters are, the more "backstory" they have accumulated through their lives, the wider the turning-radius for the ship of their life. Big characters make big changes one tiny event at a time.

Young characters can turn on a dime. One event, and BOOM, the teenager sees the light and starts behaving differently.

A fifty-year-old CEO of a corporation has a habit of life-coping-strategies ingrained into the subconscious. One event, they start fending off the temptation to wonder about their habits. Two, three, four, maybe they'll wonder. And so on -- takes a lot to change an older person, usually ending in a huge calamity and the necessity to risk all to save others.

So the age of the main characters, the number of main point of view characters, and the size of the character-arc is what determines how many novels it'll take, and how big those novels have to be.

Here's where to learn how to estimate the size of your project and how to construct theme-structures robust enough to support larger stories.

If you make your characters "see the light" after one tiny event, you end up with something called "thin plotting" -- with a kind of comic-book or juvenile feel to it. Just not plausible because the character changed too much from too little impetus.

OK, so now you know how to unravel your universe from a ball of twine, separate out the odd little threads tangled through it, and straighten it out into a linear sequence of EVENTS (i.e. plot).

You have charted how the events affect the characters, so you have a story-line, all neatly linear.

Your interesting universe has become long and tedious -- even boring.

Now what do you do?

Like I said, the key is news.

To make it interesting, you FEED the INFORMATION you have organized into a linear sequence to the reader/viewer as one event after another. Breadcrumbs. Tiny ones, so the reader is kept hungry and looking for the next crumb in the trail.

Each event will be CAUSED by the previous event, and the first event is caused by the PROTAGONIST.

In Chess the first move is made by the white player - it's a protocol.  In novels the protagonist is defined as the one who moves first. Usually, "pro" tagonist is defined as the one the reader is rooting for to win, and antagonist is the one the reader wants to lose.

A reader chooses a book off a bookstore shelf, or an editor chooses a manuscript out of a slush pile, or a reviewer (like me) chooses a book to read through with an eye to reviewing it, by reading the first paragraph.

If the "white" - protagonist - character to root for to win, isn't doing something in that first paragraph or first page to make the reader want that character to succeed in solving the problem presented in paragraph 1, the book will be tossed aside (unless of course you have a known byline, guaranteed to deliver the goods in the end).  

If the story-plot dance doesn't have an interesting rhythm, the book will be tossed aside. There are a lot of other books that have the sought-for attribute. No need to read this one.

Now, it may be that the antagonist's action is EVENT 1 of your novel.

Your protagonist is sitting in his living room with his feet by the fire enjoying a pipe, and the antagonist breaks the door down and yanks him out of his comfortable home.

You, as the writer, must know why the antagonist attacked the protagonist.

But you don't tell the reader -- that would be boring exposition. The protagonist doesn't know, so why should the reader?

Instead, you keep it secret, but let the reader know you have a secret and that you will try to keep the reader from finding out what it is. That's the game you play with the reader - a game of wits. You lay down the breadcrumb trail and lead the reader on a merry chase, with just enough challenge to be fun.

Controlling that information feed, the space between breadcrumbs and the size of the crumbs, is your job as a writer. It's the skill and artform that makes you a story-teller.

So you go back to question 1 and question 2 in Part I of this post. Find out why you want to tell this story (it'll be the reason why the reader wants to read it).

Take your semantically loaded vocabulary list, and then describe the protagonist's comfy living room, the fire, the kind of socks he's wearing, anything he's doing or thinking, SYMBOLIZE his spiritual situation and his starting point -- SHOW DON'T TELL WHY THIS PROTAGONIST DESERVES TO BE ATTACKED - maybe not by this antagonist, but inherently needs to be attacked, and is just begging for it.

The first bit of news, the first breadcrumb, the reader should see has to symbolize and contain the answer to this new question:

6) What did this protagonist do to deserve this?

That is the content, the subtext, of the calm, quiet opening scene before the antagonist does something.  It is the pose of the tango dancers on stage in Dirty Dancing, that indrawn breath before the downbeat AND!.

And this first breadcrumb then makes it clear to the reader that the protagonist has made the first move that has set this chain of EVENTS into motion. The protagonist's story is now dancing with the antagonist's plot.

It takes more skill to do that than to have both story and plot be driven by protagonist. Don't let the editors see you practicing.

You must pose this question of what the protagonist did to deserve this to the reader in such a way that there are many answers, and a lot of them are correct. Different readers will choose different answers, different ways of understanding this protagonist. Don't limit the reader here. Eventually, you want to have the audience dancing in the aisles.

Now back to NEWS.  News is information that's added to what the hearer already knows that changes the significance of what they already know. 

This concept NEWS is so important, and so much harder than it seems.

The exact same information presented one way is boring, another way is news.  

What makes your boring universe interesting to your reader is that the reader encounters a bit of news that raises a question that changes a significance of what happened before.

The reader then strives to find the answer to that question.

In striving, the reader becomes invested in your universe, just as you are, and your universe becomes interesting to your reader, because they have a stake in "what happens next?" They've guessed what will happen, and now need to find out what will happen -- and if they find they're wrong, they have to see that what does happen is better than what they expected.

Oh, do watch Dirty Dancing again for that stage scene where they do the tango for the audience. Will she do the lift? Now compare the stage dance to the finale where she runs down the aisle at him. Study that film for the way the story and the plot "dance the tango" together. It's a very old film, and it still "works" because of how the story and the plot tango, while the surface of the thing is a girl learning to tango professionally.  


But just because you can see some Hollywood writers did it, that doesn't mean you can just do it with your own material.

How did they do it?

Let's look at how to apply the idea of breadcrumbs as news items, or beats in the dance rhythm.

When you set out to write a novel, what you are actually doing is writing a NEWS ITEM FOR A NEWSPAPER OR TV SHOW.

The mental process you use is identical to that a journalist uses.

The journalist is using that process on "reality" -- the tangled mess of say a traffic accident caused by a bank robber fleeting the scene of a messed up getaway attempt facilitated by a bank employee who let the robber in, but the robber shot the employee on the way out, but the employee survived to testify, but the robber was paid to rob the bank by someone who wanted the employee dead because the employee was helping them launder money for a charity that was accused of (but innocent of) funneling money to Al Queda.


Just as a news story unfolds from a twinkle of light ricocheting off a bit of metal hidden in deep shadow -- so too your novel must UNFOLD one tiny bit at a time in linear form.

Breadcrumb 1 is a traffic accident, Breadcrumb 2, protagonist is bank robber, and each crumb follows the last forming a trail into a huge news story (probably complete with a Trial scene - maybe jail visits, an appeal, being exonerated, getting out of jail free at last).

So just as a journalist needs a "nose for news"....

"Traffic accident? That was no ordinary traffic accident. Who was driving? Bank? What bank? ..."

-- so too does a fiction writer telling a wholly fabricated story.

Yet I've never seen anyone try to teach a beginning fiction writer how to find the news story inside the complex universe that comes with having "an idea."

Where do you get a "nose for news" -- how do you tell what's news and what isn't?

One reason so many of the new fiction writers trying for their first publications as self-published e-books are failing is that the TV news does not "model" (or demonstrate) the difference between what is news and what is not news.

The "news show" comes on, flicks through a few items that might be news worthy, then settles into long pieces on items that are absolutely not news but are labeled news. And so the definition of what is news is no longer ingrained in young minds from their earliest years. But it's still what novel readers want.


Definition of News

Information that changes your understanding of what has happened before.

Information that changes your understanding of what will happen next. 

Information that changes what the READER/VIEWER will anticipate.


The essence of "news" -- change. 

Most of what you see on "news" shows on TV these days isn't news.

Even "the top five stories" on the AP wire online are rarely all "news."

These news sources are advertising driven. Therefore they must attract not just large audiences, but audiences larger than the other news shows.

Advertisers pay per eyeball, not per news story. So instead of giving you the information you really need to know about (which would bore you away from the text), the "news" organizations are now giving you what you want to know about.

That would be fine, and really useful to fiction writers, provided we mostly wanted to know what we need to know.

If a novel gives you what you want to know, pretty soon you lose interest because "nothing's happening."  What you want hasn't CHANGED.  So you get bored.  

It's the strangest thing. Satisfying a desire causes the desire to go away. You don't want your readers to go away too. Every once in a while, something has to happen to cause a new desire to know, a new curiosity. Something that makes the plot progress, something that CHANGES understanding of what is happening, has to emerge along the breadcrumb trail.

The schools in the USA have somehow fallen off the curve in terms of educating our children. Today they "get an education" instead of "become educated."

That huge difference has gone unnoticed, and as a result we have about two generations of people who are easily bored.

You can use that to make a living if you pay close attention to it.

Reading good novels can teach how to follow a breadcrumb trail, and how much fun it can be to out-figure the writer (i.e. dance with the writer).

People who "get an education" are taught what to think. They are forbidden or discouraged from reading the entire textbook for a course before Lesson Two or Class Two. They are discouraged from reading textbooks or sources other than the one chosen for the class, and if any test questions are answered with information from other sources, the answer is marked "wrong" even if it's right and the class text was wrong.

This starts in the earliest grades. It teaches that Authority is always right.  Get to be an Authority and your opinion becomes fact for others whether they want that or not. 

The implication is by extension that once you "finish" school, you stop learning. You've learned what to think. So you've no idea what to do with information that contradicts what you were taught. You've never seen a Teacher have to yield to a fact which contradicts the textbook.  You don't know how to think. 

Also the teaching techniques make learning boring, not fun, so nobody in their right mind would ever try to do any learning on their own.

Can you see what a huge readership awaits the clever author who studies TV News?

We had an incident in our neighborhood recently where some cars were broken into. The police responded in force and with a rolling crime lab (quite a sight!) but shrugged it off. They get a rash of car-break-ins every time school lets out.

The minute there are no classes they're forced to sit in, students stop learning.

That's failure to produce educated people, not failure to educate -- which is why we can't solve the problem of what's wrong with the schools. The politicians are trying to solve the wrong problem, so they make no progress on the real problem. (oh, what an opportunity for fiction writers!)

So when confronted with an authority like a TV screen that demonstrates "this is a news show" -- today's young students take the contents as the definition of what news is.

Later, having become well educated, perhaps in college or life, trying to write a novel, such a student will not know how to reduce the "idea" to a sequence of News Events - because they don't know what News is.

If you've been caught in this trap, and you've read this far, it's no problem anymore. Here's what you do.

1) Learn the definition of news above
2) Observe the world
3) Find the News out in the world
4) Compare with what the media label as news

Now, understand that your target readership for your novel is more confused than you ever were.

But it doesn't matter. Hit them with News along your plot-line and story-line, and they'll not only recognize it, but clamp their mental jaws on it and worry it like a dog with a bone until they crack it open and understand it to the marrow. And they'll learn how to think, not what to think. 

That's what people do, whether they're smart or not, whether they're educated or not. It's a survival behavior, very cave-man, very primal.

Any information that CHANGES EVERYTHING is inherently fascinating, especially if it's a tip-of-the-iceburg, a hint of something hidden, better yet something SECRET, something the writer knows but isn't telling.

Practice identifying news in your everyday reality, and noticing how much of what is on the TV News is not news at all because knowing it changes nothing in your life.

Now, do the same thing with the characters in your novel.

Things they do and the things that happen that CHANGE NOTHING are not news, and therefore not interesting, not plot events, not story events. Skip them. They may happen, but they're not part of the scene structure. 

Frame your scenes from the consequence of previous NEWS to the arrival of NEW NEWS.
As the news arrives in your character's life, your character will change behavior, change opinions, ask new questions, seek new answers, understand how he/she was wrong to begin with and go through all the stages of adjusting to that shock. Hit the character with NEWS again before the shock wears off, and you've got a plot going that'll dance with your story.

NEWS moves the plot. NEWS moves the story.

That's the very definition of NEWS, you see. News changes things.


Most of what comes off the TV News shows today is not news, but it is gossip. Usually, it's really good gossip, too.

What's the difference between news and gossip?

News changes things. News moves the plot. News moves the story. Gossip does NOT.

Gossip is stationary. Gossip goes around and around and AROUND the same material, perhaps revealing deeper rounds of more of the same juice, but changing nothing.

For example:

NEWS: A drunk driver drove a tractor-trailer rig off an overpass, and it fell onto a school bus in a freak accident on the first day of school. VIDEO: tractor-trailer spinning through air in improbable ballet.

NEWS: Driver of a car who was drunk when he hit a tractor-trailor rig that fell on a school bus killing twelve has been convicted and given a 20 year sentence.

Between those two news stories, our TV delivers gossip.

What the drunk driver's mother had for breakfast (beer?). Who sold the drunk driver other drugs. Funerals for the 12 kids killed. Interviews with doctors who prescribed impairing drugs for the drunk driver. Psychiatrist interviews. Drunk driver's brother's testimonials. A 1 hour feature on rehabilitation for the quadrapelegic tractor-trailer driver. Interviews with 3 people running for office who pledge to get the railing fixed on that overpass so nothing else falls off. Marches of anti-drunk-driver organizations.

All of that is gossip, not news. It's all interesting if you have a focus on drunk-driving, but it doesn't change anything for you (unless you drive drunk, that is).

That gossip would be news if that was the only freak traffic accident caused by drunk driving this year, or in 10 years, or ever.

In fact, what makes the steady stream of accident reports, fires in apartment buildings, bank or 7-11 robberies, kidnappings, missing children, gossip rather than news is that the events focused on are not unique.

NEWS: Traffic fatalities are down 20% year over year as a result of enforcement of the new cell phone laws. (uh-oh I better get a hands-free cell rig for my car)

GOSSIP: a tractor-trailer fell on a schoolbus killing 12. It was awful for everyone involved.  It was really awful.  It was even more awful than that.  (oh, that's terrible; maybe I'll donate some money)

If a story on the tractor-trailer accident were about the first and only time any such event had been handled by "the system" then how it was handled would be news you could use in voting on how the system should be changed to avoid this in the future.

Another example: the coverage of the BP Gulf Oil disaster.

A good 10% of that coverage was actually NEWS. We needed to know what had happened, how it happened, why it happened, what was being done to fix it, and the results of the efforts, and eventually (not during) who was responsible and what penalty was leveled at them (so we can vote for Congressmen who advocate new laws).

But go over the coverage and you'll see that information is buried amidst huge heaps of gossip.

Note the questions: WHO, WHEN, WHAT, HOW, WHY. News answers those questions, and that's it. The rest is "color" and "filler" -- details that you don't really need to read or remember.

Detail can, however, be important.  It speaks volumes beyond the hidden opinion that twists the essential facts. From the details in a news story you can reverse engineer the news into what really did happen, the actual facts, if you understand the difference between news and gossip. 

But, as with fiction, too much detail obscures the useful information feed, and ultimately bores.

So TV News laden with gossip function to direct attention away from the actual facts, to dwell on the unimportant, the data that isn't information until viewers get bored and go away. (that systematic process is now called a news-cycle and lasts about a day for most events).  When Neilsen's ratings drop, they move on to another story. 

Given that this kind of gossip-laden TV News is how audiences have been trained to view news, the clever fiction writer can imitate the rhythm that glues that huge audience to their screens, and sell a lot of books.

Finding that balance between News and Gossip, the rhythm, the spacing between bread-crumbs, the style of the dance between story and plot, the fiction writer can plant breadcrumbs of news for the characters to discover along the way and keep readers glued to the page.

We may be back to this subject to study the composition of crumbs, so in the meantime, study the structure of your favorite TV News, and then study the News shows you really hate (those are the most revealing).

Channel surf from one news show to another, watch the placement and duration of commercials, chart that throughout the day (prime time news has more commercials and shorter intervals).  Think about "who" those commercials are aimed at - that gives you the demographics of the audience, and you can therefore see how the content of the show is crafted to grab that specific audience.

Selling fiction to an Agent who sells to an Editor who has to enthuse to the Marketing Department, etc. is the same process in reverse.  Reversing your mind is hard, but it's the difference between a reader and a writer, a viewer and a TV News Editor. 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Yes! I couldn't agree more, with every word of your post.

    I think now I understand why I am rather disappointed with TLC's "Sarah Palin's Alaska", which could/should have been a great platform for her to rise politically, and show herself to be more than what the media has portrayed her to be.

    The first episode wasn't bad. Her climbing the glacier, despite her fear, and ultimately prevailing. (It was amusing when her husband climbed like a billy-goat right up the damned thing after she took 45 minutes.) Not exactly "news" but it contained to some degree the right ingredients: a protagonist who makes a move, develops, changes. She did make it up the hill although there was a time when she didn't think she could.

    But the second episode that just aired fell completely flat. She took her daughter on a fishing expedition. So TF what. Then she's smacking halibut with a club. What's that going to do but piss off greenie activists? No one's going to applaud her for doing that, despite it showing her ability to do (in a very masculine way) what needs to be done no matter how unpleasant or rough.

    The producers could take some lessons from you, Jacqueline! The show is missing the mark as you outlined here. It is a chance to show Sarah as someone who is worthy of becoming POTUS (important/news), not some backwoods mama with attitude (fluff/gossip).

    And with regard to the education system such as it is today, I have a son who is now a senior in HS. He's usually on the quiet side, a solid B student. No discipline problems.

    When he was a freshman, I was surprised to hear at conferences about his tendency to be argumentative at times, albeit politely.

    Of course he and I talked about it. It seems the teachers didn't like to be questioned. They just wanted to present the material and move along.

    Three plus years later, I hear from teachers who complain he sits in class basically staring straight ahead.

    Good job, teachers. Way to bleed
    out his desire to speak up and ask questions. :(

    Well, then. Thanks for yet another thought provoking post and hope you have a good Thanksgiving!

  2. Thanks, Jacqueline!

    I'm constructing the next book in my series and I just figured out that all the characters from the last story need a 'Side Story' now, as well as a Backstory. In other words, I need to know what happens to them between The End of Sugar Rush and the first page of Sugar Baby. Otherwise, when it's they're turn I won't know what went into making them what they now are and they won't make sense. So, I have composition book for that and other necessary details plus a growing diagram on posterboard on my wall. And I have a growing list of things which must be researched, such as what are the currents in Prince William Sound? Can you buy a battery-operated salad shooter?

    Back before I took this writing thing seriously, I just sat down and wrote.

  3. Miss Sharp: Yes, the "non-fiction" world is attempting to use "fiction techniques" to communicate points, and they are about as effective as Romance Writers were when they first tried to work in an SF background -- as KimberAn says, she used to just sit down and WRITE -- but now she knows what questions must be answered first.

    I have not (and likely will not) watched the Palin adventures, but your IMPRESSION (regardless of what I'd see) is very informative.

    Non-fiction folks don't yet grasp the relationship between fiction and non-fiction, and probably don't know there is a relationship to grasp. That is, however, changing fast. Jean Lorrah has been a pioneer in that blending of fields since she wrote her first Professorial "Paper."