How to Create a Traitor

Tuesday, August 31

Traitor : A person who betrays another, a cause, or any trust. (Webster’s College Dictionary)

Betrayals are one of the most delightful plot twists. Not only does the traitor plunge everything into chaos, but can emotionally scar trusts and friendships.

True or False
The author knows thing that characters don’t. Is the traitor truly betraying their own side, or are they leading the enemy into a trap?

True Traitor
A cut-and-dry case; a traitor offers something of value to the enemy for selfish reasons.

False Traitor
Here’s where things get tricky. The “traitor” has not truly defected, but is trying to trick the enemy.
Back in 480 BC, the Persians attacked Greece. The Greeks had about 200 ships while the Persians had 700. A Greek general named Themistocles knew that unless they created a concentrated attack, the Persians would wipe them out. So he sent a trusted servant to the Persians. The servant played the role of a traitor, and he told the Persians that the Greeks were in disorder. He claimed that if the Persians attacked the Greek’s beachside camp by morning, they could take the Greeks by surprise. The Persians rushed to do battle and were ambushed by waiting Greeks.

The Offering
What is the traitor giving the enemy?
Knowledge is the first thing that comes to mind. The traitor often carries secrets to the enemy, such as locations or weaknesses. Let’s take World War II. Traitors provided information such as the whereabouts of Jews, the construction of new war technology, or the names of underground leaders.
Traitors can also provide prisoners. Oftentimes a traitor arranges to lead those who trust him into a trap. Then the enemy can swoop down and pick up his prisoners.

A character always has to have a reason for their actions. What motivates someone to commit treason?
Greed-They are basically bribed by the enemy. They are promised wealth or a high position of power. Sometimes they are threatened with death, or the deaths of those they love, so they concede.
Victory-They want to be on the winning side.
Revenge- They have a personal vendetta. In exchange for their betrayal, they ask for permission to kill so-and-so, to have what’s-his-face’s property, or to enslave that-one-guy.

Information given to the enemy can mean death for numerous people.
The traitor’s personal life is marred. Relationships are broken, their family can be torn apart, and most of the times the traitor is stabbed in the back by those he helped.
People who trusted the traitor can become bitter and angry. Some develop grudges while others only become deeply wounded and fall into depression. Those led into traps may find it hard to trust anyone ever again.


Boring Book Syndrome: Tough Love

Saturday, August 28

This post is an expansion of tuesday's Tough Love section.

This seems to be a major issue for people; what to do when you love part of your story but hate the rest. 

One of my earliest stories suffered from this love/hate controversy. I loved the world I created and spent hours working out its mechanics. The events played out like actual history, and the villain was one of the most chilling antagonists I’d ever created.
One problem though; I absolutely hated the main character. The solution seemed simple. If you don’t like your main character, change him.
He went from slave, to thief, to soldier, to mythical creature. He became a She and flip-flopped back into a He. I hated every single one.
I figured I’d change it from character-driven to event-driven. But I couldn’t find the proper opening. All the doors that led into my richly imagined world seemed like they could only be opened through a character.
I gave up. I sadly stuck all related writings and drawings in the back of my file cabinet and forgot them for years.
A few months ago I stumbled across my old rough draft. I noticed that one character appeared in almost every scene and lit up the otherwise bland novel; the antagonist.
That couldn’t be right. The antagonist couldn’t be the main character!
But I noticed something. The antagonist had goals, the antagonist had enemies. True, he wasn’t a very nice main character, but he fit the description. The key to the story was right under my very nose.

So what do you do when you struggle to write something you love?

Step 1: Identify what you hate.
What’s holding you back? Is it your setting, your characters, your idea, or your writing technique?

Step 2: Change what you hate.

Setting: is there a way to write the same story somewhere else? Does it have to be a magical world? If it’s set in your basic medieval forest, is it possible to tell your story in a lush ancient jungle or vice-versa. Don’t let setting get in the way. The place you feel the most enthusiasm for is where you should be.

Characters: What character do you hate? Can you erase him? Can you change him? If it’s the main character, can you write the story without him? Can you put someone you love in his place?

Idea: Why do you hate it? Is it because it’s unoriginal and based off a movie you love? Don’t worry about being original. Half my books start out sounding exactly like the movie/book that inspired them. With each new draft you veer away from that plotline until someday it’s entirely yours.

Writing Technique: Don’t worry about what your rough draft sounds like. Every rough draft sucks. However, if you’re so frustrated with the way it sounds that you can’t go on, try experimenting with the style. Should it be more serious? More whimsical? Should you change the point of view? Let’s say you’re writing a horror story. You’ll probably not want to sound like Junie B. Jones or Spock. It’d be hard to raise suspense through the perspective of a kindergartener or an alien who can’t feel fear.

Step 3: Replace
If Step 2 doesn’t work out for you, try replacing what you hate with what you love. Go through your draft and pinpoint things that you felt excited to write. Give the things you love center stage.


Boring Book Syndrome

Tuesday, August 24

Most of us (if not all) have had a rough draft that petered out and died. This is a separate form of writer's block. This is the Boring Book Syndrome. Symptoms include:

We've gotten bored with it,
We can't figure out what happens next, or
We're so in love with the idea and character that we refuse to let it go.

The idea may be interesting enough but even those can fall flat. If the writer isn't passionate about the idea, the book will come to a standstill.
Bestselling books don't always sound the greatest (Twilight: Girl falls in love with vampire. Harry Potter: Boy goes to wizard school.) And ideas that sound cool may never make a good book. (Black Powder: Boy goes back in time to stop the invention of gunpowder so his friend won't die. Have you ever heard of it? Probably not.)
The point is,if you as the writer aren't totally into your story, maybe it's not the one you should be writing (yet). Don't trash the idea completely; set it off to the side until you're ready to give it another shot.

What Next?
Don't freak out if you don't know for sure what happens next. Write whatever you're struggling with on a post-it-note and slap on your bedroom door. Then don't worry about it; you're subconscious will take care of the problem and one day the answer will come to you.
And if that doesn't work, rewind your plot back to the last point you felt the most energy. Un-write whatever comes after that.

Tough Love
Sometimes you love the characters and world you've created so much that you don't want to give up. But you can't go any farther and your plot is lacking the finer points of credibility.
Write it anyway. Fix it as you go along; revise. Some people say 'don't write it if it isn't a spectacular idea.' That really depends on the writer. Some of us are character-driven. Some of us live for plot. Don't dump it just because it isn't perfect. Rough drafts are never perfect.
If there's any reason for a story to be loved, that's a good enough reason.


How to Write a Short Story

Friday, August 20

The term "short" is relative. Some short stories are 3 pages, others are 100. But no matter the length or genre, short stories share a few key elements.

Step One: Problem
Notice that the word 'problem' is singular. That's right; there's only one conflict.
Define your problem. For those who write by the seat of their pants, just keep one problem in mind as you go.

Secondary Problems
It's okay to add a smaller, second problem.
Let's say the main conflict is a teacher who attacks a particular college student's beliefs. If, as a side note, the student is poor, that's fine. But their poverty shouldn't be focused on too much.
You can even use the side conflict to strengthen the main one.
This poor college student might have to move because she can't afford the rent. She gets an apartment farther from campus and must ride the city bus every day to get to school. But, horror of horrors, the teacher she hates rides the same bus every morning. She must endure his rants before she even gets to class.

Step Two: Action or Event
Characters either act to fix their problem, or an event occurs.
In Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator is driven crazy by an old man and his "vulture eye". He takes action by killing the old man.
In Poe's The Cask of Amontillado the narrator is given the opportunity to lead an enemy into a trap.
Does your character take action? If so, how?
Does an event occur? How does it affect the character's life?

Step Three: Wrap it up
Every story, short or not, has a different way of drawing to a close. In most short stories, there is no ending. Questions remain unanswered, life goes on long after the last sentence.

A few questions to get your creative juices flowing;
How is the problem resolved? Is it resolved?
What happens to Main character? To their family? To their ideals?
What does the character learn?
Does it end without really ending? If so, is it a frustrating or a mysterious ending? (Frustrating a reader is always bad, no matter what the reading material.)


Made to Stick for Writers: Epilogue

Tuesday, August 17

So if being sticky is so easy, how come people aren't just automatically programmed to think and act in those terms? What's in our way?

The Brothers Heath refer to this obstruction as the Curse of Knowledge.
An excerpt from the book:

"In 1990, Elizabeth Newton earned a Ph.D. in studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one o two roles: 'tappers' or 'listeners'. Tappers receive a list of twenty-five well-known songs such as 'Happy Birthday' and 'The Star-Spangled Banner'. Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on the table). The listener's job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped...
"The listener's job in this game is difficult...The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. Why?
"When a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head...Meanwhile the listeners can't hear the tune-all they can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps...
"It's hard to be a tapper. The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it's like to lack that knowledge. When they're tapping they can't imagine what it's like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has 'cursed' us."

Writers are the tappers in this equation. We hear the story in our head. We know the characters by heart. We see every detail, even the unwritten ones. The key is to getting that story across the gap to the reader. Write the book you most want to read, because you are the only one can tell it.

Part 1: Simple
Part 2: Unexpected
Part 3: Concrete
Part 4: Credible
Part 5: Emotional
Part 6: Story
Part 7: Epilogue (You are here)

These posts are nothing more or less then the principles I've learned and applied after reading Made to Stick. I encourage you to read the book yourself. It might come in handy on the road to being published.


Made to Stick for Writers: Story

Friday, August 13

Finally, something both readers and writers understand; story.

People have tried for years to classify stories by their plot. Aristotle claimed that there exist only four; simple tragic, simple fortunate, complex tragic, and complex fortunate.
Christopher Booker insists there are seven (overcoming the monster, rags to riches, quest, voyage and return, tragedy, comedy, and rebirth) while Robert McKee argues that there are twenty-five.

According to the authors of Made to Stick, successful and sticky stories can be categorized into three basic plots.

The Challenge Plot
The most basic of the Basic Plots. Character faces insurmountable odds and succeeds.
This includes most of Booker's plots such as overcoming the monster, rags to riches, and the quest.
The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, Dracula, and Cinderella are all Challenge plots.

The Connection Plot
Two people (or groups of people) from radically different backgrounds come together. The tension in these types of plot can range from the consequences of being found out or the struggle to understand each other.
This is where you find your Romeo and Juliet, Twilight, and Titanic movie.

The Creativity Plot
The character has a mental breakthrough that allows them to deal with problems.
Stories such as Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone or Galileo's analysis of the Solar System.
But not all Creative Plots are about changing the world.
When Ernest Shakleton and his crew were stranded, members threatened to mutiny; an act that could mean death for everyone. So Shackleton assigned the whiners to sleep in the same tent as himself. His presence toned down their negativity so that it didn't spread to others.

Part 1: Simple
Part 2: Unexpected
Part 3: Concrete
Part 4: Credible
Part 5: Emotional
Part 6: Story (You are here)
Part 7: Epilogue


Made to Stick for Writers: Emotional

Tuesday, August 10

We've found our core message, we've hooked the reader, dragged them in with a few concrete details, and kept the tone with credibility. Now one of the most important questions; How do we make them care?
Why should the reader care about the main character? Sure they're going through difficulties, but so is everyone else in the world.
We think we can present a huge, insurmountable tragedy and the reader will care. But people don't care about problems, they care about other people. It's so much easier to feel for someone instead of something.
So before you dish out the blows, introduce your character.

By introducing, I don't mean a flat-out description. So she has brown hair and brown eyes, huh? So what?
To get someone to care about the character, show what the character cares about. What are their personal goals? What keeps them awake at night?
If you plan on killing a character right off the bat, first spend a little time humanizing them. It will be so much more painful if a character you've grown to love dies, rather than a character you don't even know.

This is where Showing Not Telling comes in. Show whatever it is they care about.
If it's another character they care about, show them becoming more gentle, more gruff, or more shy around that character (depending on their personality).
If it's revenge or justice, something abstract, show them taking steps to reach that.
If it's something material, show why they want it so bad and what they're willing to do to get it.
And if all they're trying to accomplish is surviving from day to day, then you should probably throw another motive in the mix.

Your main character's desires should drive the book, rather than plot goals.

Part 1: Simple
Part 2: Unexpected
Part 3: Concrete
Part 4: Credible
Part 5: Emotional (You are here)
Part 6: Story
Part 7: Epilogue


Made to Stick for Writers: Credible

Friday, August 6

For a fiction writer, trying to make your book believable can sound stupid. Of course fantasy books aren’t credible. Who’s going to believe that there’s a magical school called Hogwarts, or that people fly on broomsticks, and people talk to snakes?
Well, my sister did. When she was little, she waited patiently by the mailbox for her Hogwarts acceptance letter and asked Santa Claus for a “Harry Potter” broomstick.
But most readers aren’t five-years-olds who will soak up every tooth-fairy lie you tell them.

To write a credible book, you don’t have to utterly convince the readers that the story is true. You just have to make it believable enough that they will pause and remember that, “Oh yeah, these characters don’t exist.”

The book has to make sense. I cannot stress that point enough. You have to fill in plot holes and, above all, your character needs to act realistically. They should weep for the death of loved ones, they should have weaknesses and fears, and they shouldn’t escape their problems totally unscathed.

Use convincing details to add credibility. If I can visualize it, I can believe it. (You’ll note that this ties in with Concrete.)

If you lose your credibility, you can’t get it back. The minute the reader spots a mistake like, “Hang on…wasn’t that character severely injured the day before?” or “How did the poor village boy suddenly learn to fight?” or “I thought she left her sweater at home, how is she wearing it now?” the believability of the book goes down the drain.

For more on this subject, see Believable Part 1 and Believable Part 2

Part 1: Simple
Part 2: Unexpected
Part 3: Concrete
Part 4: Credible (You are here)
Part 5: Emotional
Part 6: Story
Part 7: Epilogue


Made to Stick for Writers: Concrete

Monday, August 2

When I was first learning French, I would pore over my notes, struggling to hit it home that “chien” meant “dog” and “pomme” meant “apple.” But it never seemed to stick. It was hard to see one word as a literal translation of another.
Then one day my teacher shows up lugging a bag of pretend food. She held up the plastic apple and declared “pomme.”
Everything clicked. “Pomme” was the firm fruit whose taste, texture, and smell were familiar to me. She gave me something visual. She gave me a concrete definition.

That’s what a concrete story does; it latches onto the reader’s memories and triggers the five senses. The reader feels like they’re watching alongside the characters.

Studies of the human memory show that we’re better at remembering concrete nouns versus abstract ones. It’s easier to remember something you can visualize (grapefruit, train) rather than something abstract (equality, hope).

Writers constantly present the abstracted form of the noun “Pain”. To say “he cried in pain” is not enough. Don’t tell me that he’s in pain, show me.
Lois Lowry provides an excellent example in her book The Giver as she describes a broken leg;

Then, the first wave of pain. He gasped. It was as if a hatchet lay lodged in his leg, slicing through each nerve with a hot blade. In his agony he perceived the word “fire” and felt flames licking at the torn bone and flesh. He tried to move, and could not…

The description uses several concrete nouns; “hatchet”, “hot blade”, “fire”, “torn bone and flesh”. The agony feels almost real, as if we too are experiencing it.

To make your story concrete, use concrete details. Through the five senses, describe what is happening to your character. What do they see, smell, hear, taste, and feel?
Don’t tell me the house was old. Show me the bald patches of roof tile, the door with a zigzag crack running down the middle, the sooty window panes broken into jagged teeth, the stench of mildew, the creak of an old shutter in the wind, the splintered wood, the dusty air you choke down every time you breathe.

Put the reader in the story.

Part 1: Simple
Part 2: Unexpected
Part 3: Concrete (You are here)
Part 4: Credible
Part 5: Emotional
Part 6: Story
Part 7: Epilogue

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