Showing posts sorted by relevance for query first chapter foibles. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query first chapter foibles. Sort by date Show all posts

Monday, March 10, 2008

First Chapter Foibles

Since Cindy talked about prologues, I'll talk about first chapters. I know we played around with opening lines/scenes a few weeks back. We'll deal less with word choice here and more with content.

One of the biggest problems writers have is where and when to start the story. If you're like me, most of your stories emerge as a serious of scenes or conflicts in your mind--rather like a movie trailer with flashes of action, passion, problems. If you're lucky, the opening scene is in one of those flashes.

I'm rarely lucky. More often, I have to ruminate on the feelings those flashes have given me. I have to let what I see as the conflicts percolate, ferment. I have to get into my characters' skins. Then I have to decide where and when to start the story.

I learned that's easier to decide when I listen to the experts:

"You can start a story in any way and at any point and, regrettably, I've read the manuscripts that prove it," writes Dwight V Swain in his Techniques of a Selling Writer. "But that doesn't mean that some beginnings aren't better (read: 'more effective') than others." To Swain, the more effective technique involves change. "To start a story, a change my prove the trigger for continuing consequences. That is, it must set off a chain reaction. Responding to change, your character must do something that brings unanticipated results. He must light a fire he can't put out."

I love that last line: He must light a fire he can't put out.

"The story starts where the elements that will conflict to generate the plot first come together, eyeball to eyeball," says Jacqueline Lichtenberg on her Sime~Gen writer's school pages. "That contact starts the cause-effect chain which is the plot. The story can't start until that has happened. The story is the sequence of changes inside the character caused by his changing internal conflict. It is SPURRED by confrontation with the external conflict. "

Continuing consequences or cause-and-effect chain... it doesn't matter what you call it. But the impetus is the same. Something significant (to the character) and unexpected happens. This is where you start your story.

"Every good story starts at a moment of threat," writes Jack Bickham in his The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes. "Nothing is more threatening than change."

Now, don't be overpowered by the words here: conflict, threat, change. This does not mean you have to start your story with a car going over a cliff. Though that certainly is attention-getting. Threat and change can be small things. They only have to be big to your main character. Whatever the threat or change is must matter deeply to your main character. It can be something as innocuous as a change of schedule. Or a cell-phone mistakenly left at home that day. It can be a decision a character makes, believing it's the right decision. But it turns out to be very, very wrong. (IE: the road to hell is paved with good intentions...)

I like to think of the key ingredient of a first chapter as The Point of No Return. From here, your main character has nowhere to go except into more trouble as he or she tries to deal with the change or threat.

However you do it, what happens in that first chapter forces the rest of the book to unfold. It's critical to remember that because one of the more common errors I see in beginning novelists is to start with a lot of backstory, or a travelogue or paragraphs and paragraphs of setting description. They don't get to the change, the impetus for the conflict, until chapter 3 (and many an agent or editor will tell you that beginning writers' manuscripts can almost all have the first two chapters deleted and be the better for it--for just that reason).

"Fiction looks forward, not backward," Bickham writes. "When you start a story with background information, you point the reader in the wrong direction, and put her off. If she had wanted old news, she would have read yesterday's newspaper."

I've used exactly those techniques in every one of my published novels. In Finders Keepers, Captain Trilby Elliot's routine repairs on her ship are interrupted by the unexpected arrival of an enemy ship...that crashes. And presents her with a wounded survivor. In Gabriel's Ghost, Captain Chaz Bergren's daily fight to survive on a prison planet is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of a former enemy--who she believed to be dead. In An Accidental Goddess, Gillie Davre wakes up in a space station sickbay--three hundred and forty two years later. In Games of Command, Captain Tasha Sebastian learns she's been busted down to the rank of commander and now must work side by side with a former enemy. And in The Down Home Zombie Blues, Commander Jorie Mikkalah arrives on a planet to find her undercover agent is dead and a key piece of equipment is now in the hands of the locals.

Each of my main characters handles the change by starting a fire she can't put out. Every one of these changes put my main characters eye to eye with the cause of the conflict.

Backstory, history and setting are all woven in as the characters act and respond. As they move from one problem to the next. As they take one step forward and two steps back. As conflict builds. Until by the end of the first chapter, the character has nowhere to go but into more trouble.

And the reader has no choice but to turn the page to start Chapter Two.

Take a hard and honest look at the first chapter in your unpublished manuscript or work-in-progress. Have you opened at The Point Of No Return? Or have you started with backstory, or have you left your character too many routes of escape, too many options?


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Constructing The Opening Of Action Romance

Story openings are difficult to construct and even harder to troubleshoot once constructed.

Information must be coded, compact, subtle, "off the nose" and at the same time explain to a totally disinterested reader why they should read (or viewer why they should view) this story.

I've discussed openings and how to construct them in the context of many other posts on -- posts on theme, character, plot, and the other working parts of story.

Here's some posts on structure which reference the skills of constructing an opening.

And here's one on first chapters by Linnea Sinclair

And my usage of the words "story" and "plot" just to be clear about that.  Theme is what glues them together.

If you've been trying to apply these techniques, I now have a really great example to illustrate them. 

Here is the novel IMMORTAL by Gene Doucette - a writer I met via twitter and #scifichat #scriptchat and others.


The structural issues make this a very borderline book, and it may not make it into my professional review column for that reason alone.  However, there is a compelling resonance here that makes this a "can't put it down" read.

The structural issues that are a put-off for me might well be the real source of interest to others.  Structure is not absolute.  There are elements of taste involved.

So I have to say that the structure chosen to tell this story seems unnecessarily involuted to me.  It's too complex for the material.

What is this structure?

The first-person narrative does hold to the POV of first person (an Immortal born so long ago language was only grunts).  So I have no complaints there.

The structure is clever. 

Each chapter is introduced by a few paragraphs set in italics that are happening while the main character is a prisoner (hung hero) in a laboratory setting where they are obviously investigating his immortality and immune system.

If the novel were told starting with his capture and going through his escape attempts until he succeeded, it would be a drag, long, boring hung-hero dealing with distractions rather than advancing the plot.

The plot is not about him escaping prison. 

The actual narrative tells the story of this Immortal discovering that someone is after him.

This "someone" is rich and powerful and hires "demons" as hit men tasked with taking him alive.

Other people, though, die all around him. 

So the straight-through plot is this Immortal being chased by humans, hit-men, demons, (actually some online gamers being used as dupes) and there are vampires, and a female who may be as old as he is (or older) he isn't sure.  There's another woman involved, too, so you have a sort of "triangle" situation which isn't made clear even at the end of this volume.  But the ending leaves us eager to read the next installment in this guy's Relationship problem. 

He's been playing tag with this Immortal woman for millennia.  (I told you this is good stuff.) And in the end of this novel, he learns some things about her, and his Relationship to the woman he meets in this novel changes substantially -- so the plot is advanced and there is a solid "ending" leading to a sequel. 

At JUST THE RIGHT POINT (I told you the structure is well done for what it is) we get to the event where he gets captured at just the point where he hatches a successful escape attempt.

All the elements (characters and tools) to create this escape have been properly introduced in prior scenes.  The possibility that he can die permanently has been made real. 

So what's "wrong" here?  This plot rumbles along like a well oiled machine.  Why is it a chore to read? This is a good writer with a solid track record.  What happened here?

There are 2 very abstract technical problems with this absolutely fascinating novel (don't worry, there's a sequel in the works that'll be better).

#1) The point in time chosen for Chapter One is wrong.

#2) The innate "character" of this character may be either badly presented or actually formulated wrong. 

OK, let's start with #1 because that's easy to fix once you understand why it doesn't work.

------SPOILER ALERT -----

As often stated in this blog, I don't believe a good story can be "spoiled" by knowing what's going to happen in it.  If it can, it's not a good book.  If you understand that, read on fearlessly.  You'll still love reading this book.  In fact you may love it more after reading this discussion.  

The first characters introduced after the main character wakes up out of a drunken stupor end up dead right away. 

It is established that this dissipated and dis-likeable main character telling the story actually holds this pair of unlikeable college men in some affection -- mostly because they enjoy getting drunk and watching ballgames on TV with him.

This is a portrayal of college students that does not "work" for me.

What rule is violated by this portrayal? 

Many 1940's SF novels elevate and laud drunkenness as a means to accessing higher consciousness or even one's innate intellectual skills.  I used to like those novels.  I know too much now to find such an attitude laudable. 

Opening a story with a guy (apparently homeless bum) crashing in a college student's apartment and supplying beer and liquor to keep them drunk just doesn't work for me.  I feel no sense of identification with this main character and couldn't care less what happens to him.

The information fed into the story-line by this opening situation is that this guy is not homeless, not poor, is capable of affection for these young men, and is -- ta-da! Immortal. 

He ended up in the apartment having been brought there to a party by a friend (not-human not-magical iifrit) who also plays dissipated drunk convincingly. That friend later returns to move the plot forward, solidly and convincingly.

So I don't like this immortal character because he gets humans (who can be harmed by drunkeness) drunk while he drinks to a stupor but can't be harmed by it.  He stays drunk for centuries just for the fun of it. 

We see a portrait of an individual blessed with long life, not invulnerable but Immortal (so far). 

I dealt with this problem of being immortal among mortals in my Dushau Trilogy, but my immortals there were aliens (I do vampires in other universes such as Those Of My Blood.)

Dushau (Dushau Trilogy)

My Dushau Immortals studiously avoid close personal relationships with mortals because they have perfect memories and too many bereavements can lead to insanity.

Doucette saw this problem as well, but handles it differently and with some intriguing twists.

In the course of the opening set-up chapters of this novel, we see this Immortal experience affection and friendship for a number of humans.  His heart opens and he bonds easily with all and sundry (even vampires). 

This makes him, to me, an irresistible character.  Could not put this book down.

But at the same time, there's the "gritty realism" that this character has murdered -- over thousands of years, for many reasons, causing death has become no great big deal.  And we see him murder mercilessly.  Maybe with some justice, but with a callous attitude. 

Now here we come to the Information Feed issue.

Go back to SAVE THE CAT! (the 3 books by Blake Snyder on screenwriting).

Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need

What does the title say?

To engage your viewer INTO bonding with the main character whose story you are about to tell, you MUST first reveal something about him that will arouse viewer sympathy, empathy, identification or a yearning to become "like that."

The first thing we learn about the dingiest, dirty-harry character you want to present has to be LAUDABLE, universally laudable.

So Blake Snyder says -- show your hero SAVING THE CAT.  Taking a risk for the helpless, or otherwise revealing an admirable character trait BEFORE you reveal the gritty traits that make the 6 problems the character has to solve.

Nothing in the introduction to Doucette's Immortal is in any way "saving the cat" -- drunkenness itself which is not a real PROBLEM for the Immortal but which harms those humans he associates with is not laudable.  Bumming around among college parties with an Iffrit with dissipated habits is not laudable.  That this is done by choice because he has nothing else to do is cause for reader disinterest.

So, while there are many traits about this Immortal character that are absolute grabbers, what we learn first are put-offs.

The put-offs will eventually become the problems that establishing Relationships will solve.

But as depicted in the opening, this Immortal has no conflict (internal or external) in forming friendships. 

The first real plot event is the news that the college students who hosted him have been murdered by a demon -- and the assumption that the demon had been aiming at the Immortal while the college students just got in the way.

The structural problem with this plot event is simply that the Immortal was not in the apartment when the demon killed the students.  The event happened off stage.

The Immortal actually feels a little sad and maybe miffed that the humans he felt affection for (briefly, in passing, without depth) had been murdered because of his presence in the apartment.

If not for that feeling, he'd have just blown town.  But the murder of the humans made it more personal. He wants to fight back. 

So from there on, the story gets interesting.  The plot advances, and you begin to see where things are going with the bits at the beginning of chapters showing he's going to be captured.

The next structural innovation that is unnecessarily complicated is a shift in the narrative voice at the point where the two narratives (the chapter headings during captivity and the chapters leading up to being captured) come together.  The standard first-person past narrative suddenly becomes first person present.

This is unnecessarily jarring, a real put-off.

In a different sort of story, it wouldn't be a put-off.

In fact, the entire structure could be the best artistic choice for some stories.  Stories that involve say, time-travel, could work this way.  Or stories about known historical events -- a King Arthur legend, The French Revolution, etc. 

But in this particular narrative, the device seems like an erroneous choice because the material itself is strong enough to carry the reader straight through the plot.

So what we seem to have is a story-concept, a very intriguing character, that needed introducing to a readership.

There is a huge over-burden of background to work in.  This character is 10's of thousands of years old and his development as a human being has direct relevance to how he relates to the modern century.  He admits that at first his people were barely self-aware.  He still has long-distance running skills from running down game for days at a time.  He has trouble relating what happened to him in his life to the various calendars that have come and gone. 

There's a lot of background to work in.  A lot of information to feed.

The Immortal's story is being picked up when two women come into his life and that changes things significantly.  But that means the story has to portray how things were for him "before" so that how things become "now" and will be "after" these relationships start to affect him. 

How can you plot that when it's all information feed.

How can you avoid expository lumps? 

The story and the plot are totally stationary in this Immortal's life all through this novel. 

He's a "hung hero" on two levels -- being captured and imprisoned to be studied, and being chased down to be captured but he doesn't know by whom or why until the last third of the novel.

So the author cleverly structured the two stories against each other to give the illusion of movement.

Without the headings at the beginnings of chapters, we wouldn't anticipate him being imprisoned or why or how hard it would be to escape.  It's foreshadowing by expository lump, cleverly translated into show-don't-tell (yes the chapter headings read very well, no mistakes there).

Without the story of his being chased down and captured, the story of escaping from prison wouldn't carry the novel.

So given that you have this terrific character with a huge exposition needed to introduce him, and NOTHING HAPPENING in his life to make a story, what do you do?

The solution to clever-up the structure is actually a work of genius. 

But for me it just doesn't "work" because the story there is to tell about this Immortal does not require artsy-craftsy tricks of structure.

This Immortal's story actually begins when he meets the woman who will change his life, his self-concept, cause him to become involved in the modern world, in humanity and humanity's future by using all his past experience in the service of a greater good.

For any man, that change is always caused by a MATE - a SOUL-MATE (for most it's female, but not always). 

The element is LOVE.  The journey is from today's misery to "happily ever after." 

When that story starts to move, the novel begins.  All the rest is throat-clearing. 

The story starts where the two elements that will conflict first come together. 

So for this Immortal, that point is where he meets this human woman who will become significant forevermore.

But the story of his being captured and escaping is an incident, an excuse for action scenes, not the story, not the path to resolving the conflict.

Taking Blake Snyder's advice, the story starts where SHE sees HIM "save the cat" -- i.e. do something that endears him to her, that makes her willing to RISK something to save him.

Do you see where this is headed? 

We have a classic PASSIVE HERO - he fights, he takes action, but his decisions do not actually make a real difference.  This very clever, very skilled author has hidden this salient fact under some virtuoso writing, but the fact itself spoils everything in this novel.

What do you do to solve a PASSIVE HERO problem?  What do you do to avoid expository lumps?  What do you do to find a new opening for the novel that does not focus on a hung-hero who can't do anything about his problems and about whom the only important facts are odious to the very readers who would most enjoy the novel? 

The solution is excrutiatingly simple. Think hard. It is a tried and true classic any seasoned editor would toss at a writer who sent in a chapter and outline like this.  Why is this writer fumbling to tell this story when he obviously knows how to write novels?

See my 7 part series here on editing -- here's the 7th which has a list of links to the previous parts:

Now, think-think-think. 

If you've read the novel now, you may see the obvious solution. 

This whole thing is not the Immortal's story.

The expository lumps cleverly avoided by having the first person narrative allude to events in past millennia (a literary device that works) are filled with information we don't need to be TOLD -- on the nose. 

And though these allusions are cleverly phrased to appear incidental, they are "on the nose" data-dumps.  The data is mostly irrelevant to the Immortal's story.

How do you avoid that?  What do you change? 

I loved reading this Immortal's "voice" -- but that didn't change the fact that the expository lumps disguised as clever narrative that carried characterization just don't "work."

Why don't they "work?"  Because the information in each memory is not something I wanted to know before I read it.  No suspense.  No revelation.  I didn't have to work for it.  I wasn't asking the question "what happened to this guy in Egypt?"  I didn't NEED TO KNOW in order to solve the mystery of who's after him. 

Because of that I didn't care who was after him or why.  He felt it was ho-hum, being chased another time -- yawn.  So it bored me.

At the opening, in the college student's apartment, this Immortal wakes up from a drunken stupor. 

If ever you are tempted to start a story (and yes, I've done it!) with the main character "waking up" in some improbable circumstance or confused -- STOP WRITING and go back to the drawing board.  Something is wrong conceptually with the structure or the character. 

The story opens where the two elements that will conflict to generate the conflict which will be resolved in the last chapter first come together.

What happens in the last chapter of this novel?

The woman the Immortal meets pretty well into this novel finally gets what she wants, positions herself where she wants to be. 

The Immortal succeeds in achieving NOT ONE THING that he SET OUT TO ACHIEVE in the opening.  He wasn't either setting out or achieving.  He was stationary in his life when SOMETHING HAPPENS TO HIM. 

The two types of plot that go with this kind of material are:

1) Johnny gets his fanny caught in a bear trap and has his adventures getting it out

2) A likeable hero struggles against seemingly overwhelming odds toward a worthwhile goal.

In the opening to this novel, the Immortal does not DO ANYTHING, decide anything, take any action, learn anything, or even pray for anything that CAUSES anything else to happen.

Thus the Immortal (Johnny) does not GET his own fanny caught.  That is he does not take an action that initiates a because-line. 
In this novel the Immortal is not introduced by any trait that is even remotely likeable by any substantial audience-demographic.  He is by any measure no hero and most importantly, he has no goal. 

All of these fatal flaws are totally hidden by the superb writing craftsmanship. 

And hereby hangs a cautionary tale.

When you are writing a story that has hold of you by the guts, a story you just have to get others to read, a compelling story -- and you find that you have to HIDE THE FLAWS, then STOP RIGHT THERE and go back to the drawing board.

Readers may not know how to tell you what's wrong, but they will sense something wrong and many of the very readers who should read the book just won't finish it.

Don't use your skills to hide flaws.  Use them to eliminate the flaws.

The flaw in the novel IMMORTAL by Gene Doucette is the very most common flaw I see in manuscripts (and even published novels in Mass Market), and I see the very readers who would enjoy the novel most putting it aside.

It's a simple flaw and it's easy to fix.  You know it's there when you face pages of utterly essential expository lumps. 


Now re-imagine this novel, IMMORTAL, from the woman's point of view.

She is the online gamer.  She has an eclectic education, a vast imagination, an embracing nature.  Her story starts when she gets the first inkling that such a thing as "an Immortal male" exists.

Her goal, which she pursues as relentlessly as the Immortal once ran down game animals, is to meet a living Immortal man. 

When she meets him, her GOAL shifts to getting him into bed. 

Her goal shifts when her heart opens to embrace this Immortal as a person, not just an icon. 

Her goal shifts again when she realizes she wants this guy, she wants to be with him. 

And that final goal, at the end of this novel, seems to have been achieved.

She is the one whose life changes, by her own actions, by her own determination, by her own will, by her own heroism.  And that change is a WORTHWHILE GOAL that can be achieved only over SEEMINGLY OVERWHELMING ODDS. 

She is the likeable hero who struggles against seemingly overwhelming odds toward a worthwhile goal - one she only sees dimly when she takes that first, fateful, step. 

This novel is her story.

Here is a marvelous post by Linnea Sinclair on Point of View.
Now from within her point of view, FINDING OUT, or discovering, or unfolding, or digging up the information about how The Immortal interacted with the ancient past, what his opinion of it is, and any relevant detail of his past experiences, becomes the main story-imperative.

As we sink into her point of view, we adopt her urgent need to know, and feel sparks of triumph every time we worm some new tidbit out of the Immortal.

All the expository lumps disappear and we learn his story through her eyes.  What we don't know becomes spice, incense, and erotic triggers. 

Saving him from the laboratory (which she does very cleverly) becomes the plot which culminates in conflict resolved and if not an HEA at least an "off into the sunset" ending leading to a sequel where we chase the HEA which is now suddenly possible - but maybe not going to happen.

So this opening novel, the introduction to the Immortal as a character, is not his story because his life is static at that point. 

Yet through her eyes, we can enter into his life, understand what makes him tick better than he does himself, and see what he needs to do to learn what he must learn in order to change and grow, i.e. to be alive in a real sense, not just immortal.

Sometimes a character's story can be more compelling, more dramatic, easier to write and easier to read when that character's story is seen from outside.  Remember Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. 

Always turn your material around and around, looking at it through the eyes of various characters before writing. 

Notice here the power of THE OUTLINE.  Given an outline of the plot, it would be immediately clear that the ending does not match the beginning and the middle doesn't hit the right "mid-point" tension note.

Once you see that the ending happens where one character achieves a goal, and the other character acquires a goal, you will know where the story starts.

Maybe you'll read this book and totally disagree because the character revealed in the smart-ass inner dialogue is just too interesting to lose by switching points of view.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg  

ps: in a few weeks we'll walk through the step-by-step process of stitching all these disparate techniques together and invent a world bursting with story-potential. That'll be at least a 7-part series of posts.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Theme-Plot Integration Part 10 - Use of Co-incidence in Plot

We've been discussing a contrast/compare among 3 novel series, 20 novels in all.  This post is about these books, and contains spoilers as well as opinion and a suggested "take-away" from this study.

Here is a link to Part 8 where we launched into this 20-book comparison, and Part 9 with links to them all, and the index to previous parts:

Remember, posts with "Integration" in the title put together the craft skills we've discussed singly in previous posts.

Also remember, most of this "work" is done subconsciously.  A writer telling a story wouldn't be consciously aware of doing any of this.  Those who do it as a "Talent" and get goshwows for their adroit use of these skills probably learned them just by reading eclectically, not necessarily thinking about what they were reading. 

Here's where we discussed Talent in writers:

Inborn, innate "Talent" is often signified in a natal chart by a quincunx or quindecile between outer and inner planets (fame is totally different).  We observe the results of Talent from outside the person by noting how "easily" they pick up certain skills (the child prodigy on the piano). 

Theory is that this ease of learning happens because the actual hard-slogging up the learning curve was done in a previous life, and the Soul selected that ability to be brought into this life.

Theory is that any "person" has a Soul with many-many Talents, and this person you are dealing with "now" has only a smattering of the Talents he/she has stored in their Soul.  Some of what a person has now is relevant to what they're doing in this life -- some not at all relevant. 

We "observe" the shapes of lives from the outside by reading biographies -- from the "inside" by reading autobiographies (at least the ones actually written by the person named), and by watching the people around us for the patterns we saw reading those books.

That's why a writer's best work is usually not done in their teens or twenties.  It takes many years to read enough and observe enough people to perceive the patterns scattered deeds and events create.

As you read the rest of this series of Theme-Plot Integration posts, think about an ant crawling  up one of those huge, hanging tapestries you've seen in museums, the kind women used to make to hang in drafty castles. 

You sit on a bench ten feet away or more, and gaze upon the picture with all the different, entwined figures cavorting in different settings.  You see a lot of different scenes from one side of the tapestry to another.  Then you think about the scenes and you see an entire story of a Historical Event (such as a war) or perhaps the mythological gods and goddesses whose stories carried the philosophy of that Age.

But what does that ant see?  The ant doesn't have a human eye, or a human brain.  The ant may pick up strands from the colored threads, not discerning the color differences, just that the strand supports its little feet. 

If the ant were an Artist, it would infer the pattern and run back to the next and try to explain that pattern to other ants. 

We are ants trying to discern the pattern of our lives.  (yes, I know the answer is 42.) 

That underlying PATTERN is what Art reveals.  That pattern is what writers study.

A writer will go to the mall and people-watch, just as actors do.  Just sit and watch people juggle packages and kids and scramble from store to store -- think about "who" those people are and where they are inside one of those PATTERNS.

Finding a pattern in random dots is what artists do for a hobby.  For a living, artists SHOW YOU the pattern they see. 

The most commercial story-form today is the Novel.  It has developed over more than a century and diversified at various periods into a variety of genres. 

The commercial Novel is a very specific type of Work - it is a story with very specific shapes.  Academics like the word "trope" to describe such shapes.  Those who burn with a desire to shatter the art world as they see it often refer to a trope as a "formula." 

The worse opprobrium cast upon the most highly commercial fiction is the term "formulaic."

Once a formula or trope has become well enough known to a consuming market to be identified as "formulaic,"  that particular shape is on its way out of the commercial fiction arena. 

Since we live our everyday lives amidst a turbulent sea of unrelated, even random, dots of information, Events, and tasks, we love to relax with a nice, predictable STORY we can trust to deliver as expected.

But since we live amidst those random dots, and can't see what patterns Artists see  amidst the random, we just plain don't believe fiction that we can see "through" -- that we can see a pattern in, that we can see the formula behind.

So writers spend a lot of time disguising the bare bones behind their stories, the "plot."

Just as Hollywood producers want "the same but different" so also editors want "the same but different" because viewers/readers want "the same but different."

Fiction consumers want that predictable formula, but they don't want to be able to SEE it. 

If your reader can see the bones, the formula, the PLOT, the story is not plausible.  But if your reader can find no bones, no formula, no PLOT, the story is not plausible.

In other words, there has to BE a plot, and it must be something resembling the "plots" that subsume the everyday reality of the consumer's world, but your plot has to be as invisible as the plot of your reader's real life is.

How do you make a plot, a pattern you've striven to discern in reality for years and years, into something invisible underlying your story?

You cloak your Plot in the flesh of Theme.

Just as no two human beings look identical, but all have bones, no two stories look identical but they all have a plot.

The essence of all those plots is conflict.

All novel type stories are the story of a conflict that is resolved.

And the same is true of a series of novels (or a TV Series).  Here is a conflict.  Here's how it got resolved.  Here's the resolution. 

That's the bones, the plot, the part which, if it somehow sticks out of flesh that's too lean, will disappoint or disgust readers who need the mixed-mashup of random dots that they see in real life around them. 

So let's look at the three novel series we're studying.

In Part 9 we ended up with theme sketches:

Corine Solomon is in love with a guy whose Talent is "Luck."  That has a whole backstory having to do with his parentage, but the point is that Talent and Luck (co-incidence) drives the plot of all 5 of the Corine Solomon novels.

(Alien Series) Kitty-Kat has a Talent for organizing other Talents, for leading a group of talented warriors while Luck sweeps her through personal combat, chase scenes and armed combat.  She remembers what's worked before and uses it to good effect again.  But her real Talent is for asking Question -- yes, capital Q questions, such as Kirk's "What does God need a spaceship for?"  Those are the obvious questions nobody else ever thinks of because people rely on assumptions they haven't tested when trying to solve a problem.

Sten has a Talent for surviving.  He learns the Art of War, but it isn't inherent in him.  He finally grows up enough that all he wants is to stay out of combat situations.  But he's living a Destiny, so the harder he tries to avoid combat, the worse the combat gets.  His Talent doesn't help him get out of his Destiny, which he can't even see coming -- any more than you can see a tornado coming until it's too late.

Perhaps the overall theme of the Sten Series is that forging the path to your destiny must inevitably affect, deflect, or inflect the paths of others toward their destinies. 

--------end quote--------

The Corine Solomon novels by Ann Aguirre are action/romance with paranormal dimensions added.  They are essentially Romance, with a main character (Corine) who starts out striving for independence and loving being independent -- but galled by the boyfriend she is separated from.

The PLOT is basically, an Independent Woman perfectly satisfied with being independent, pursuant to her own code of Honor, helps those who help her.  In so doing, she rescues her boyfriend from (literally) beyond Death and marries him. 

They separated basically over his Luck -- terrible trouble would strike, followed by harrowing, heart-stopping adventure, narrow misses, and escape.  It was a life-pattern she couldn't stand and he couldn't stand inflicting on her.  She, too, has a paranormal talent - she can touch an object and read it's history.  She applies that Talent to earn a living in antiques.  But then she gets mixed up in (by "sheer co-incidence") Mexican gangland wars, and the harder she tries the worse it gets (by ever more improbable co-incidences).  Co-incidence, happenstance, and luck drive the problems into her path.  She solves those problems by repeated applications of "doing the right thing regardless of the odds" and (by co-incidence) Wins (temporarily.) 

Corine is a problem-solver by nature, and views each of the disasters that befalls her as a problem to be solved.  At the end of the final book,  Agave Kiss, she rescues her boyfriend/lover from beyond Death (he's a half-breed son of a god, so when he dies his father tries to make him into a working god).  This is an application of the plot-bones of mythical stories -- they always work in fiction.  And in the process she gives up her original Talent, so now she can't read objects.  He proposes in a romantic setting smacking of the opening sequences. 

In the final Corine Solomon novel, the author Ann Aguirre (on twitter  )  mentions that she didn't think her editor had confidence in her ability to bring the series to the Happily Ever After (HEA) ending required for the "trope" or formula, but here it is and it is an HEA.  Yes, indeed it is exactly that.  Corine Solomon got what she wanted (even needed) even though she didn't know in the beginning of the series that this was what she had to have. 

Because of the paranormal dimensions involved in the worldbuilding, the Corine Solomon Novels are a good example of how to use co-incidence in plotting and produce something other-worldly that resembles our everyday lives. 

The ALIEN SERIES by Gini Koch is a bit more than a Romance. 

The 7th Alien Series novel comes out this month, May 2013, and Gini says on twitter ( ) she has contracts through book 11 with plans for more beyond that.  So it's hard to sum up right now, but let's try.

It doesn't END with the marriage to an Alien, but goes on to challenge that marriage, beget a child, and change the world that child will grow up within (with the infant's Talents helping). 

In that, it resembles the Sten Series more closely than it does the Corine Solomon series.  The two series are about an existing "order of things" that is challenged by introduction of a New Element, with the resulting instability resolved by a Hero (Kitty Kat or Sten) who "does the right thing regardless" just as Corine Solomon does. 

The setting for the Alien Series is Earth plus one other Planetary System inhabited by Aliens, and a backdrop of a galaxy out there somewhere (filled with threats). 

The Plot of the Alien Series might be stated as "Woman who thinks she's an ordinary human who doesn't believe in co-incidence just by co-incidence walks into a battle between Aliens resident on Earth and Aliens inimical to the well-being of Earth, and completely by "accident" wins the battle and the undying love of one of the Aliens resident on Earth.  She keeps on doing the right thing, which includes fixing up the world to be hospitable for her child." 

Kitty Kat's Talent for asking the obscurely obvious Questions is a result of her disbelief in co-incidence.  She keeps trying to connect the dots of her life into a Pattern, absolutely sure there is a pattern there somewhere.  And she keeps finding those patterns where nobody else can find them.  She acts on the pattern she sees, and "co-incidence" and "luck" pursue her.

A theme can be discerned by connecting those bits of co-incidence.  Let's look at the Sten Series.  There are 8 novels extant, and on the fanfiction blog-post (once a year, on Empire Day) Allan Cole has posted a possible opening chapter for Book 9.

STEN starts with a young boy, child of indentured servants (slaves really) on a high-tech manufacturing Space Station.  He sees the life his parents live (and die in) and where the kids of other parents likewise indentured live, and every cell in his body says NO! 

Sten defects, fights the system, grows to maturity as a "rat in the walls" of the Station, fighting every step of the way.  Eventually, the station is invaded by representatives of The Eternal Emperor, and Sten "is rescued" because of his fighting prowess -- and sheerest, dumbest, purebred and insane LUCK.  Absolute co-incidence changes his life as he participates (using his hard-won skills as a wall-rat) in the combat between the Station owner and the Emperor's Representative (very similar to the kickoff Event of the Alien Novels). 

The writing rule is that you can use CO-INCIDENCE to kick off a plot, to start a story, -- happenstance and accident (i.e. Uranus transits) often change our life-direction so it's plausible that trouble comes via co-incidence, because that's generally how it seems to us in our "reality."

But from a writer's point of view, it isn't random dots.  Co-incidences and accidents "happen" because of some inherent, intrinsic, basic, unknown-to-ourselves, trait we hold within our innermost psyche.  It is our Soul ramming through into external Reality, that "creates a stirring in The Force" -- that moves the currents of Time And Space -- that somehow effects the random Events like a magnet attracting filings, and brings "things" into our lives that disrupt existing patterns.

Consider the axiom: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. 

That is a pithy saying, an adage, a bit of Wisdom of the Ages (has a basis in Kabbalah, as the Light of Good attracts the klippot for a perfectly Good reason), and it's more than irony or pessimism. 

Somehow, the sum total of all our generations observing "life" has distilled this bit of wit from random Events.  No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.

There is a relationship between what you DO and what HAPPENS TO YOU, but it is not cause/effect.  There's no way to game the system, or bribe G-d. 

You could say (theme is a philosophy) that no bad deed goes unrewarded. 

There are tons of self-help books about Why Good Things Happen To Bad People, or vice-versa.

It's not "cause/effect" which is the basis of all Science, but it's not Random either. 

There is a pattern -- some call it "poetic justice."  What goes around comes around.  As you sow; so shall  you reap. 

There's a reason the ancients developed the idea of "The Music of the Spheres."  The universe we live in can be described by mathematics, and so can music.  Poetry and music thrum within us all, so when we see a plot "come full circle" as songs and poems do, finishing what was started on the same "note" -- we feel satisfied, vindicated, safe in our comprehension of our reality. 

Ancient Greek and Roman fiction is filled with tales of Destiny, Fate, mighty Heroes fighting with their gods (mostly losing in the end).  Those civilizations were based on "you can't win" but our civilization is based on David and Goliath, and "The Bigger They Are The Harder They Fall."  We champion the Little Guy, and the Little Guy wins -- that's poetic justice to us.

Sten is a Little Guy who at first gives his innocent loyalty to The Eternal Emperor, finally gets to meet the Emperor in person and see him as a rather ordinary seeming Being, smart but not infallible. 

In the typical Uranus transit, we assert ourselves, our most true-to-self core identity comes roaring out into the world with massive amounts of built up energy behind it.  (here's an index to posts on Astrology Just For Writers)

So Sten's desire for freedom comes exploding out of him when the oppressive Establishment that basically consumed his parents, is under attack by a larger, unseen and not-understood by him, authority.  Using all the skills and tools he's developed over years, he gets himself caught up in a CONFLICT between the Emperor and one of the Emperor's (apparently) Loyal Subjects -- between the Emperor and the corruption that the Emperor's governing style allows to suppurate. 

That corruption (the indentured servitude thing) has shaped Sten's personality, drive, ambition and view of reality, as well as his Values.  He has a lot to learn, but what he learned before his rescue is what eventually generates his ultimate response to the Emperor's behavior. 

Having been rescued, he willingly gives his loyalty to The Emperor (well, The Empire), and becomes a soldier, then a member of an Elite Service.  He climbs the ladder to high command and even to Ambassador speaking for the Emperor -- but by that time, it's a very changed Emperor. 

Sten grew up rejecting the oppressive regime of a slaver, and now discovers -- very slowly over the millennia, the Eternal Emperor has slowly been deteriorating.  The current reincarnation of the Emperor is not the man Sten first met -- this one is insane, a mad dictator worse than the slaver who killed Sten's parents.

This Empire sprawls over so many galaxies, is peopled by so many Beings, that the picture Sten must find amidst the random dots is very blurry.  Remember that ant crawling on the tapestry we mentioned above?  That's Sten -- trying to understand The Empire, and what has happened to The Eternal Emperor -- and why it's all gone bad.

Sten's path from wall-rat to Emperor's Nemesis appears, point by point, assignment by assignment, to be a Random Walk -- a path of co-incidence, chance, and luck.

And in so appearing, that path states the overall theme of the Sten Series.

What is that theme?  Well, I don't know and I doubt even the authors Chris Bunch and Allan Cole, actually know for sure.  I think though, that Allan Cole has a very good idea of what it is saying.

As I see Sten's Path -- it says that we all bear the seeds of our destruction within us.  We scatter those seeds and sometimes it takes so long for our seeds to germinate, grow, and bear fruit that comes hunting us that we don't recognize our destruction when it comes back at us.  But it comes from within.

That is not a theme unique to The Sten Series; rather it is a technique all great writers use to replicate in fiction the pattern of life we observe from our eyes, (as the ant on the tapestry.)

The deep subconscious conflicts within your main character generate the Plot Events outside that character, the Events that cause him Joy and Sorrow, Elation and Grief. 

The antagonist, the Nemesis, of a character is the reflection of the character's deepest unconscious.

Sten's unconscious was "programmed" because of his origin as a slave's child, to need to destroy Authority. 

He fought to free himself of oppression (mid-series he "retires" to an idyllic world he has earned enough to buy, and nearly goes crazy because there's no oppression to fight any more), and gave himself to a bigger, more elaborately disguised by random-dots oppressor, the Eternal Emperor.

All along the path, Sten fought to free others of oppression, to serve freedom, to make the Empire a better place, and so his skills (gained as a wall-rat) generated miraculous wins that catapulted him on a meteoric rise to the Emperor's good graces.

But the velocity of that rise (the sheer Uranus/Aquarius Power for Freedom), made him an Individual (Uranus) to the Emperor -- and that velocity itself could only be seen as a threat to the Emperor who had lost his own sense of Individuality, his own sense of uniqueness (Uranus). 

Uranus rules accidents.  And individuality.  And Aquarius -- The Age of Aquarius. 

And this is where the themes of the Corine Solomon novels, the Alien novels, and the Sten novels resonate harmoniously, different instruments in the same orchestra playing the same symphony.  Art. 

Corine Solomon is Fantasy, the Alien novels blend Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Sten is just Science Fiction.  Yet they're all made of the same thematic stuff.

We might term that stuff Co-incidence, or Luck, or Destiny. 

The heroic plot is crafted from the thematic substance of how the Individual projects the Self onto the substance of reality, crafts the world in which he lives.

The exterior World you build around your character to cradle them and display them (as a jeweler displays a diamond on black velvet) is molded from the subconscious of your character.

Whether that truly reflects how our real world works, how life works, or not, is irrelevant to the Art underlying story-craft.  It is how we SEE the lives people around us live.

We see people get their comeuppance -- oh, not right away, to be sure, but get it they do.

But we don't see what happens to ourselves as our own comeuppance.  At least, not the first few times it happens. 

Maturity might be defined as the ability to see how you deserve what happens to you, so that when something you don't deserve happens to you, you know for sure that you didn't deserve it.

In that clarity of knowing the difference between what he deserves and does not deserve, in his maturity, Sten decides he must take down the Eternal Emperor.  This Destiny has chosen him. 

And so Sten turns and stops running from the bald fact that the Emperor is now no different from the owner of the slave-factory space station where he grew up.  And Sten takes him down. 

The Sten Series is not a Romance with an inevitable and obvious Happily Ever After.  It's not about finding a Soul Mate -- it's about first finding the Freedom (Uranus) from tyranny (Saturn) that will allow Sten to be able to notice and identify his Soul Mate. 

The Corine Solomon Series, the Alien Series, and the Sten Series all have that one Plot element in common, Co-incidence that is NOT REALLY CO-INCIDENTAL.

The co-incidences and luck that beset the Main Character arises from the Main Character's own character, mostly subconscious. 

Their world arranges itself to challenge them to grow and mature into someone who can surmount one final challenge and achieve an objective. 

Originally a Hero was a half-god/half-human Being who could do things normal humans can't (Hercules), but who shared human foibles, faults and were subject to the whims of the gods.  They usually fought the gods and their destiny.

Today a Hero is a human who comes to do something he/she couldn't do before - who matures into a more powerful Being by meeting challenges to their weakest spots.

Very often they die during this process.  But sometimes they survive maimed, with new challenges to overcome. 

These 20 novels are stories of how a Hero matures.  The theme they share is that of co-incidence arising apparently in response to a Hero's actions/feelings/movement.  The plots are crafted from how the Hero creates co-incidences-to-order without having a clue that they're doing that.

These 20 novels are extremely hard to analyze for a distinction between Theme and Plot because the themes and the plots are fully integrated.  Only the author can know, and usually it's better that they don't know. 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg