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Story Frame

Last week, I recirculated an older post about A versus B story. While working on the new genre workbooks, I have expanded on that idea. There is a difference between a layered story and a multi-structured story. I have broken them into frames.

In addition to the four layers of conflict, you must decide how many story frames you need to tell the story you have in mind. There are several options to choose from.

The majority of stories have one frame. They are easy to follow and keep your reader submerged from page one to the end.

1. Single Frame: A single story block has four layers of conflict and follows one cast and one overall story problem. The verbal camera can pan stage right and left to follow the antagonist, love interest, friends, and foes who have their own goals and stakes. These can constitute subplots, but there is one main stage. The story can have labyrinthine twists and turns and a killer surprise ending within a single block. Single stories are quite satisfying. A reader is easily immersed until the final page. You don’t have to have a second story frame. Unless both frames are intriguing and relate in a coherent way, you lose your audience. If they have to flip past boring bits to get back to the good bits, you will earn a bad review whether they finish reading the book or not. The same is true of boring subplots.

2.  Multiple Frames: Sometimes a story requires multiple frames. A multiple frame structure contains two or more story blocks that have access to each other. This is different from a subplot. Your verbal camera cuts between separate casts and stages. It successfully focuses on past versus present, two lives intersecting, or two worlds colliding. You develop four layers for each frame. The second frame should intersect the first frame. Otherwise, it is a distraction. Each story block could be taken apart and stacked in inventive ways as long as you don’t make it too confusing.

 In the hands of a master story weaver, you could have a three, four, or five frame structure. For anyone less than a master, you have a mess. If readers have to stop reading to take notes, they give up.

3. Sequential Frames: You may choose a series of sequential frames, each with their own cast, setting, and conflict layers. They follow multiple generations of a family or multiple protagonists in different times or places. Each segment has its own cast and conflicts. You develop four layers for each story block. These should transition in a satisfying way. Each segment must carry its own weight to avoid losing the reader’s interest.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and check out the free tools and information about the series on my website. In the coming months, I will be releasing workbooks for each of the fourteen genres covered in the series.

Do You Need A B Story?

When I first studied the craft of fiction writing, I was bemused by the term subplot, aka B-story, which is defined as: A plot subordinate to the main plot of a literary work or film.

I examined the story I wanted to write and could not come up with a subordinate plot. I was not plotting a past versus present story. I was not following a secondary character's trajectory. I was not braiding two or more story threads together.

I went back and dissected some of my favorite stories and realized the majority were linear, focusing on one main set of characters going about one specific story goal. I set aside the term subplot and spent more time dissecting stories.

Hunger Games is a linear story. 

Agatha Christie mysteries are linear stories.

The Harry Potter books are linear stories.

A linear story starts at point A and winds its way to the end. There can be twists and turns, but you essentially follow the protagonist, perhaps with a few detours to follow secondary characters or the antagonist. There is a central problem with layers of conflict along the way: internal, external, interpersonal, and antagonist. Linear stories are quite satisfying. Your camera stays focused on the main stage. The camera can travel to view secondary characters interacting with each other and the antagonist to create obstacles.

A B-story is a side plot that runs along and intersects the A-story. Your camera moves between two casts and two stages. It should inform and complicate the A-story, otherwise it is a distraction. A satisfying B-story braids two separate threads together: past versus present mystery, two lives intersecting, or two worlds colliding. It should not be confused with consecutive timeline stories that follow generations of a family, etc. Those are a string of A-story pearls.

In the hands of a story master, you could have an A-, B-, and C-story.

You don’t have to have a B story. In fact, it can sometimes interfere with your readers’ enjoyment.

I recently watched a television series called The Bridge. The A-story was a riveting, multiple murder mystery concerning the border between Texas and Mexico. It shined a light on the dark world of border crossing criminal activity. The B-story involved a rancher who owned a tunnel running under the border. The rancher was murdered, which is the tie in to the A story. They kept up with the rancher's wife in the B-story throughout. The problem was, the B-story wasn’t interesting. The characters were unlikable and the subplot did not add tension to the A story. I fast-forwarded past those segments.

Readers hate distractions. Every distraction you offer gives them a reason to stop reading. If you choose to have a B-story, make sure it complicates the main story in some way instead of running alongside it as a distraction. If it is organic to your story, include it. But don't come up with one to shore up a weak middle.

It is far better to have a strong, well-developed linear story than attempting to stuff in a B-story to pad your plot.

A weak middle can be remedied by layering conflict. Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict explains how.

Shifting the Narrative

I responded to a Facebook post by Donald Maass, of Donald Maass Literary Agency, with this observation: "My hobby horse is that writers, and other entertainers, are responsible for the messages we send and the mental viruses we perpetuate. A little exposure to toxicity isn't fatal, but a steady diet would explain why we are where we are."

He asked me to elaborate. I could not do that in a short post, so I am answering here with a slightly longish answer.

In my five-plus decades on the planet, I have seen the narrative in entertainment shift dramatically. From the lovable Sherriff Andy Taylor in Mayberry to every cop is crooked in Chicago Blue. Gang bangers went from being the bad guys to being the misunderstood hero. Entertainment tells us there is so much gang violence we can't stop it. Body counts in movies and television have risen to ridiculous numbers and there are never any consequences shown. So apathy sets in. We hide in our homes and stream and let the wars run amok on our city streets. Cops are being shot daily and citizens are being mishandled weekly. Children are victims of drive-by shootings. This is a reality, but we rarely see the other 98% of people behaving with civility. It skews perception to the point where the focus feeds the problem.

We have gone from the racist and hateful Archie Bunker illuminating our biases to dysfunctional friends and families normalizing name calling, emotional, verbal, even physical abuse all in service of a good laugh, especially in "reality TV." We dig under rocks to find the most bizarre and damaged and hold them up for ridicule so we can feel better about our lives instead of getting them psychological care. We push them to act worse to get better ratings, damn the real-world consequences. We crow with outrage when they prove to be worse than we originally intended. But still thousands tune in to The Kardashians and Real Housewives to watch rich bitches muck wrestle.

We raise arrogant, entitled, narcissistic people to celebrity status and reward them for notorious behavior to the point where we now have kids fighting, making bomb threats at school, taking weapons to school, and shooting up schools to get attention. Again, as long as it makes You Tube or the nightly news so that everyone knows their name.

We have normalized stranger danger and violent sex scenes to ramp up the ratings. I mean, we all trash rooms, tear up clothes, and stop elevators to express our passion, right?  And then we have The Bachelor and Bachelorette franchise to further lower the tone. Then we wonder why our children are searching for love on telephone apps.

College life is depicted as a series of drunken bacchanals that would rival actual rites of Bacchus in too many to count motion pictures. And if a girl passes out and they photograph it while manhandling and raping her or a boy gets sodomized in the back of a school bus, it's just boys being boys or Animal House locker room talk. We give them a little slap on the wrist and move on. Men have always been that way, right? Wrong. That is an insult to all the good men out there and poor role modeling for our sons, but hey, as long it trends on social media. This is a perfect example of writing about something that needs to change instead of glorifying it.

Second place has become the first loser. Everything is a "battle" or "war" now and winning is the ultimate objective. Greed is good and everyone is corrupt from corporation heads, to our government officials, to the president, so why try to fight it? Once more, apathy sets in and we stay in our homes and pop popcorn and enjoy streaming House of Cards and Scandal.

There are rational people who see this stuff for what it is, sure. But there are masses of people fed this steady diet of garbage that never "read healthy." For every person who reads The New Yorker or Discover or National Geographic, there are thousands that read check-out tabloids. Therein lies the demise of our culture and the danger of encouraging apathy.

So, yes, I believe that writers and entertainers are responsible for the messages and mental viruses we perpetuate in our books, magazines, newspapers, movies, screenplays, and scripts. When we look at our content, we should consider the theme, tone, and message we wish to convey. Just because you can, should you?

I am not saying we shouldn't write about what is real or call attention to the problems in our society that need fixing. I would say that is our highest calling. However, you can write about something that is without suggesting that it should be.

I am not saying everything should be superficially happy happy joy joy. Rather, it is time to shift the narrative to reward and focus on people working toward being their best self and modeling healthy behavior in support of the betterment of our species. They need more screen time. Shows like Blue Bloods portray characters with character. You can add enough dramatic tension to good stories with admirable heroes to make them entertaining without drowning your audience in treacle.

I could write a thesis on this topic, but I will let this post stand as my "short" answer to a deep question.

I explored the topic in previous blog posts:

Toxic Messages Part 1

Toxic Messages Part 2

Subliminal Messages in Romance

Bad Romance

Next week, we will return to our regularly scheduled exploration of genres.

Love or Money?

This week, I am over at the Blood Red Pencil discussing whether it is worth writing even if you are not raking in the cash.

What is Tone?

Whatever genre you choose, you have to choose the tone you wish to set.

What does that mean?

Tone is closely connected to theme. Theme is the message you wish your reader to take away from your story. You can explore the people, the place, the time, the rules, the behaviors, etc. You suggest whether something is good or bad. You can also present multiple sides to a thematic argument and let your audience decide whether something is good, bad, or morally ambiguous.

There can be light and dark scenes, up and down scenes, but what is your intention for the story overall? How do you want your reader to feel about the central theme?

Tone is revealed through setting, descriptions, actions, and dialogue. Tone is delivered via word choice and reflects the bias of your narrator.

Let's examine examples of tone. 

1. Caustic: the goal is to emphasize the ugly truth of the theme in a cutting way.

2. Comedic: the goal is to make your audience laugh with delight about the central theme.

3. Light-hearted: the goal is to entertain without getting too deep into the theme.

4. Ominous: the goal is to emphasize the seriousness and potential danger of the theme.

5. Sarcastic: the goal is to treat the central theme with contempt.

6. Serious: the goal is to treat the central theme with sober reflection despite the levity of the tale.

7. Suspenseful: the goal is to suggest the central theme has critical stakes.

8. Terrifying: the goal is frighten the reader by infusing the central theme with life and death consequences.

9. Thought Provoking: the goal is to leave the reader pondering the central theme long after the last page has been turned.

10. Tragic: the goal is to reveal a heart-breaking truth.

11. Wistful: the goal is to make the reader long for a past or a future that could have been.

It is important to consider the tone you wish to take with your overall story. When your tone is inconsistent, the reader will feel something is off even if she can't put her finger on it.

Continue reading about tone here.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and check out the free tools and information about the series on my website.

Genre and the Overall Story Problem

Last week, we talked about the importance of selecting a genre story skeleton.

This week, we will look at the broad skeletons explored in Story Building Blocks that make up popular fiction. It is easy to choose a broad category for your story skeleton by looking at the overall story problem.

1) Romance: the overall story problem focuses on a relationship.

2) Mystery: the overall story problem focuses on a crime or puzzle that needs to be solved.

3) Thriller & Suspense: the overall story problem focuses on catastrophic danger to one or many that must be averted.

4) Con, Heist & Prison Break: in which the overall story problem focuses on a person or group that wishes to escape from somewhere, steal something, or set someone up to fail. A vendetta is enacted or an injustice needs to be righted.

5) Gothic: the overall story problem focuses on a secret that lies buried and must be unearthed or a puzzle that needs to be solved. Suspense and setting are crucial.

6) Horror: the overall story problem focuses on a mortal threat to an individual or group.

7) Science Fiction: the overall story problem focuses on good versus cosmic evil.

8) Fantasy: the overall story problem focuses on good versus paranormal evil.

9) Western: the overall story problem focuses on man fighting against self, other men, or nature to survive in an unsettled land. The conflicts weigh the morality and challenges of survival.

10) Historical: the overall story problem focuses on an event from the past. It can involve historical characters in a historical situation, historical characters in fictional situations, or fictional characters in historical situations. There can be elements of Thriller & Suspense, Con, Romance, or Mystery, but the focus is the historical situation.

11) Team Victory: the overall story problem focuses on an underdog who needs to win.

12) The Road Trip: the overall story problem focuses on a lesson that needs to be learned or a secret that needs to be revealed. Two or more people are forced to travel together. The friction between the characters and the obstacles they encounter lead to the lesson learned or truth revealed.

13) The Comedy makes your reader laugh while subtly focusing on ideas, ethnicity, relationships, prejudices, social practices, politics, religion, or manners. It uses humor to explore topics without having to be “politically correct.” A Comedy can range from mindless farce to dark satire. It can follow the pattern of other genres as long as it is funny.

14) Literary in which the overall story problem focuses on a wrenching, life altering, personal decision or life event. Literary can have a specific plot or be a slice of life vignette.
I realize some are insulted by suggesting "literary" is a genre. All I mean by this is that the heavy focus is on character, mood, and theme rather than a genre-specific set of expectations. I am not defining "literature" this way. That is an entirely different thematic argument.

In the upcoming months, we will explore each genre in detail.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and check out the free tools and information about the series on my website.

Why Pick Genre First?

There are many books, websites, and articles that define genre, subgenres, and mixed genres. You can write a  Paranormal Mystery or Historical Romance.

In order to sell the story and make a promise to your reader about what kind of story they are settling into, one of the layers must take ascendance.

If you are writing a Historical Romance and the focus is on the historical event that romantic partners are caught up in, it will sit on the Historical shelf. If the focus is on the romance between the two characters, the historical setting is the backdrop and the story ends happily, it will sit on the Romance shelf.

If you are writing a Paranormal Mystery and you want it to end up on the Mystery shelf, you have to fulfill the expectations of the Mystery genre. If you are writing a lyrical “present mystery solves past mystery” and it doesn’t follow the “sleuth solving a crime” formula, it may end up on the Literature shelf rather than the Mystery shelf.

An easy way to get a feel for genre is to look at the “log lines” on your television or cable guide movie section or read book synopses. The log line/synopsis states a protagonist is confronted by an inciting event and has to do something to solve the problem it creates. Most people choose whether to see a movie or read a book based on that sentence or paragraph. Jot down notes about the ones that appeal to you and the ones that don’t. Most of us do this every time we consult the cable guide without thinking about it. We flip until we find something that looks intriguing. We may have passed by ten well-constructed stories, but the premise or the promise didn’t appeal.

You may write a story without a clear idea of genre and it comes to you in the middle or at the end, but it saves a whole lot of time if you know it up front. You may change your mind half-way through because the love story takes over from the meteor hitting the earth story, which is okay. The important thing is to have an idea to work with. If you still can’t answer this question at the end of the draft, you have a lot of revising to do.

There are basic commercial categories of fiction, though stories written in each genre and subgenre differ greatly. Go to a book store and look at the different sections. Romance, Mystery, History, and Science Fiction typically have their own aisles. Then there is the much larger Literature section. There is a Young Adult section which encompasses all genres with a teen focus.

True fans of a genre have certain expectations and are disappointed if you don’t meet them or if you give them information they don’t want. People who are settling down with a breezy Romance don’t want gruesome forensic details. Others who are looking for a good spy Thriller will be bored with the slow pace of literary wording.

The genre provides the overall story problem that needs to be corrected by the end of the story. It serves as the foundation for your story. That doesn’t mean you can’t bend, twist, and contort the structure. Not all buildings are square. Some are pyramids, circles, and triangles. However, at the core of every structure is a solid framework that supports the integrity of the whole. A person renting a four-star hotel room does not want to find themselves in someone’s leaking fishing shack.

A question to ask at the beginning of your planning process (or at the end of your first draft) is: Where would you like your book to be displayed in the book store: the Literature, Romance, or Mystery section? If your story was made into a movie and broadcast on television, would you prefer it to be on the SyFy, Lifetime, or Hallmark channel?

Most writers would prefer that their book be at the very front of the bookstore, prominently displayed on a table as you walk in. However, publishers pay extra for that. Even if they choose your book for that honor, it won’t stay there long. It will eventually have to go “somewhere.” Those are the realities of the traditional publishing game.

With electronic publishing, some of this may change. The lines are blurring. People searching for your book on Amazon will look up Fantasy or Romance or History. If they frequently purchase Romance novels, algorithms will recommend more Romance novels. 

E-Books and online bookstores have the advantage of adding “tags” to describe your book that step outside the rigid framework of genre. A Romance set in Scotland might be recommended to someone who buys a different book that is set in Scotland or is about Scotland. With E-publishing you can sometimes choose more than one BISAC code, the numeric code that tells librarians and book stores what category your book fits into.

As of this writing, the lines are still pretty firmly drawn in traditional publishing. If your book bucks all trends, be prepared to publish it yourself, because getting past the query stage will be very difficult, if not impossible. Agents and editors are overworked and underpaid and only have so many hours in the day. 
They may truly love a story but not be able to place it.

The book market is a fey and fickle gorgon. She accepts inferior offerings and turns a cold shoulder to superior offerings. There is no predicting what she will devour on a particular day. She isn’t fair and she isn’t just. She simply is the beast that she is. It can be disheartening. 

In the end it comes down to what you wish to achieve, whether you wish to write the best book you can write or whether you attempt to placate an inconsistent, ungrateful gorgon. If you wish to produce the best work you are capable of, the Story Building Block method can help you achieve that. It won’t necessarily help you feed the gorgon.

For the next few months we will be exploring the different genres and subgenres and how you can use the Story Building Blocks to craft them.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and check out the free tools and information about the series on my website.