Allison's Book Bag

Musings Meme: Current Reads #17

Posted on: April 21, 2014

MusingMondaysWhat are you reading right now?
What do you think of it?
Why did you chose it?

About a year ago, I started working through activities in writing guides, which I had brought after the 2012 National Novel Writing Month. Four of them are listed at the end and they focus on characterization or description. Today I’d like to introduce a couple more, both which have to do with plot.

Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress requires one to do a lot of analyzing published works and then applying lessons learned to one’s own work. Both the section on beginnings and the section on endings contain one chapter which looks broadly at a novel’s first or final third, one that looks more narrowly at just the opening or closing scene, and then one short chapter that contains general tips.

What is most important about the beginning? How about an implicit promise of an interesting story? One which gives the reader a character to focus on, events which aren’t going as expected, and details which not only anchor one’s story in reality but also set it apart from all the others out there. After these three are established, and only after that, should one add in backstory and flashbacks.

What is most important about the ending? How about the use of characters, conflicts, and tensions to show a collision or climax? It’s where the climax lives up to the forces which all the other chapters have been building towards, as well as delivers an emotional impact and remains logical to the plot. When one has does that, one has fulfilled a promise to both their readers and to their self.

There’s also a section on middles, which is often where many novels sag, but where Kress tells how to keep one’s story in motion. She explains how to pick the scenes to write and how to develop and change the motivation of one’s main character. As with the other sections, there is also a short chapter which includes general tips.

Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell is a much longer book, focused on two specific areas of plot, which requires one to undertake several interesting activities. The introduction defines the concepts of conflict and suspense. What is conflict? Basically, it’s what causes two sides in a story to clash. What about suspense? Well, it arises out of conflict, and is the tightening of an emotional experience for a reader. Bell goes on to use the comparison of a boxing match. The two combatants are in conflict. The suspense arises from the questions about how the fight will proceed.

Bell starts his section on conflict by suggesting brainstorming for ideas through activities such as What If…? lists, creation of an image through music, dreams, or movies, exploration of familiar and unfamiliar settings, theft from classic plots or first lines, and even random opening of the dictionary. From there, Bell explains how to integrate conflict into the beginning, middle, and ending of a novel. There are some standard activities such as outlining the four acts to your novel or creating a character grid. There are more unusual activities such as writing the cover copy for your novel or keeping a voice journal for your main character.

Bell summarizes the section on conflict by saying that it’s all about having the reader ask: “What’s next?” He lists and gives examples of four types of suspense: macro, scene, hyper, and paragraph. Then he proceeds to describe how to use elements of fiction such as dialog to build suspense. Bell also provides and overviews activities for practicing aspects of fiction which are unique to suspense such as cliff-hangers.

I enjoyed both books, but especially appreciated that every chapter at the end of Kress’ book contained activities. Her book also helped me view chapters as being made up of scenes and scenes as being units within themselves which fit into the larger whole. Bell’s book made me think a lot of how to ramp up the tension in my novel, although it had the negative side effect of my creating too many problems for my characters in my second draft. Also, especially for the section on suspense, I had to work harder to find activities to practice the skills taught.

If you’re at any stage of writing, any or all of the guides which I have reviewed as part of my Current Reads would be worth adding to your shelf. They’re all ones which I used to create the second draft of my novel. Now I’m on the lookout for guides to help me with my third draft. 🙂

What is your current read?

2 Responses to "Musings Meme: Current Reads #17"

I just read. Every time I think I will write I find another book I want to read and do that instead. Thanks for the post.

What I like about the writing guides I purchased after National Novel Writing Month is that all of them have end-of-chapter activities. So, I get to read and write. 🙂

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