Six Sentence Sunday

    I'm trying something new. It's called Six Sentence Sunday. Basically, the Six Sentence project is a bunch of writers who, on Sunday, post six sentences from something they've written. Six sentences aren't much so it's a bit challenging finding six sentences that are sufficient enough to convey something significant.

What I've picked out for my first venture is six sentences from my story of Maddie and Zac,  A Knight in Cowboy Boots (now contracted to Pink Petal Publishing) and it occurs shortly after they meet in a hotel bar in Galveston where Maddie is considering applying for work as a bartender. From the first moment, they flirt heavily.

      His lips brushed hers lightly. 

      “My daddy says sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission.”

      “Does he?” Maddie forced out.

      “Oh, yeah.” His tone was heartfelt. “And I think I may need a passel of forgivin’,” he said just before he kissed her again.

Did I mention this is a romance? (Like you couldn't figure that out.) 

It was interesting, looking for six sentences to post. I kept thinking, "Oh, this is a fun scene. I'll pull something from this," only to realize as I read it that any sample that would interest readers would be considerably longer than six sentences. 

This might be a result of my voice. I like understatement. Once the story progresses enough that the reader knows my characters, I like to have them make subtle gestures that signify emotion. Having read from the start, the reader will know how to interpret the gesture (if I've done my job right). Of necessity, a six sentence sampler doesn't have the advantage of that history. It's like walking in on the middle of a conversation.

I'll try this for a few weeks . . . or until I can't find six sentences that have a hope of giving you a picture of what my writing promises. Or until you tell me it's too painful and ask me to stop.

Other six sentence excerpts of mine can be found here.  

If you want to see more Six Sentence samples, go here for the list of this week's participants.

 If you want to participate in the future, here's a FAQ.

Is Your Heroine Too "Nice"?

In one of his books, Syd Field says that heroes are often the dullest characters in the story. In support of this theory, he points to Luke Skywalker of the Star Wars movies. His example is hard to argue with. Luke is a nice guy. Han is a scoundrel and far more interesting. In comparison, Luke’s bland.

This observation about heroes was a revelation to me. Not a revelation as in it had never occurred to me, but a revelation in that I didn’t know it was so common. It was certainly something I’d struggled with in my own writing, and now that it's come to my attention, I wonder if it isn't why I see other writers mentioning that they have secondary characters that enamor them more than their main characters.

Since I write romance and the audience is mainly women, the main characters of my stories are my heroines, which made me consider what qualities a good romance heroine should have. The reader should find her accessible. Someone they can relate to. Someone they’ll root for. Attractive, I thought. Smart. Nice. (Because don't most people think they're nice?) So that’s what I tried to write.

Let me tell you about nice. It’s boring.

“Nice” people tend to not voice strong opinions because they don’t want to offend others. When you’re mean to them, they don’t fight back. They're perky and chipper (two qualities that annoy the hell out of me.) They’re peacemakers and usually have a positive outlook on life. It’s hard as hell to make such characters feel unique. I want the reader to see my characters as one-of-a-kind, which is the one quality all really great characters share.

I couldn't figure out how to have "nice" yet interesting characters who didn't bore the crap out of me.

Then I wrote a story with a “nice” heroine. Or at least she was nice most of the time. Poor girl had a lot going on her life, so when circumstances got extreme, I let her be a little less nice. I figured that was okay. No one could criticize her for being a little bit of a hard ass when her life teetered on the edge, could they? I never imagined that she’d be the first stepping stone on the path to envisioning (and writing) a different sort of heroine.

In the same story, the hero’s sister is a secondary character. She’s not so nice. As the oldest girl in a large family, she tends toward bossiness. She’s also capable of being outright bitchy. She gives my nice heroine a significant amount of grief. I liked her a lot.

And then she got her own story.

I didn’t pull back on the bossiness or the bitchiness. She doesn’t worry about whether people think she’s “nice.” She doesn’t whine; if someone hurts her feelings, she goes into attack mode. She battles the hero for control of their situation, creating lots of lovely conflict. She was SO much fun to write. 

Do I worry about readers liking her? Not really, because underneath that prickly exterior, I buried a softer, more vulnerable side in her. She may not appeal to everyone, but she’s anything but dull.

Because she's got what I call a "strong" personality, I never wondered what she would do in any circumstance I put her in. I always knew. I still feel like I channeled her story. If you've never written a "bitchy" heroine, I recommend it highly. It's incredibly liberating.

So tell me: What kind of heroines do you write? Or what kind do you like to read? Have you ever read a story that featured a heroine who wasn't "nice"?

Mistakes You Don't Want to Make or How to Alienate Fans

      I'm a fan of country music, but I've been on the fence about Taylor Swift.

Taylor SwiftOn one hand, she young and she's cute and it's kind of fun watching her live the dream. She wasn't even 20 when she hit the big time, and if the lyrics of the songs she writes reflect her age, you can forgive that because she is, well, young. In spite of her age, her achievements rival artists who've been in the industry for decades. At 20, she was named Artist of the Year and recently it was announced that she's sold over 20 million albums. If that's not living the dream, I don't know what is.

So while I'm not her biggest fan, I was willing to sit back and cheer her on as she matured. That all changed with her newest release called Mean. The song is a rant about how some people are just, well, mean. The verse that really chokes me is:

And I can see you years from now in a bar, talking over a football game
With that same big loud opinion but nobody's listening
Washed up and ranting about the same old bitter things
Drunk and grumbling on about how I can't sing.

The first time I heard those lyrics, my emotional response was the equivalent of  my mouth dropping open in shock and I thought, "What? Artist of the Year isn't enough for you? You're not satisfied that every last person on the planet isn't groveling at your feet?"

Swift admits that her songs are autobiographical and my understanding is that she was a bit of an outsider in school, so I can understand where the song comes from, and if it weren't for the line criticizing her singing, I'd think it was a good song to encourage kids who are subject to bullies, but that one line makes it personal and changes the tone of the song for me. As a writer, I know that all writing is personal, but you have to be careful to make it not look like it's all about you.

Here's the facts, Taylor. You're a very talented song writer, but as a singer, you're at best so-so. Deal with it. If you can't learn to shake it off when someone thinks you're not the best thing since sliced bread, you're never going to be happy. A thick skin is a requirement for survival in any artistic field because there will always be someone who thinks you're not the sun, moon, and stars all rolled into one.

RevolutionSo now I'm going to put on my Miranda Lambert CDs and listen to someone who writes mature lyrics and who can actually sing.

Have you ever run across something from an artist (singer, writer, actor) that seriously alienated you?

Star Wars Deconstruction

If you’ve visited here before, you’ve probably picked up that I’m obsessed with learning story structure. My “bible” of choice for this mission are the Save the Cat! books. (You can find an overview of what these books have to offer here and here.)

I’ve been watching movies, trying to get a handle on what the story beats look like in different kinds of stories. Sometimes I can nail the movie, sometimes I get lost trying to figure out if a scene fits this beat or that beat (my short-coming undoubtedly—this ain’t always as easy as Blake made it look.)

I’ve had some successes that make me feel like maybe I’m getting it figured out, so I thought I’d share one or two.

Star Wars TrilogyI decided to deconstruct Star Wars because it has such a classic theme of good and evil and because I’ve seen it so many times that I can track the high points without even watching the movie.

For instance, the first plot point (aka Break into 2) clearly happens after Luke finds his aunt and uncle dead. This is the moment the story changes direction with Luke stepping out of the world he’s always known to something new—the antithesis world. And when they reach the Alderan system to find the world destroyed and they’re caught in the death star’s tractor beam the stakes are raised and the story changes direction again—that’s the midpoint. The whiff of death at the All is Lost Moment is hard to miss, especially since I’ve seen it flat-out stated that this is where the mentor dies. (Can’t get any more obvious than that, can you?) And the moment they head for the rebel base is clearly the beginning of the Finale. So yes, I knew I’d have checkpoints for the entire movie that would keep me on track.

The numbers before the beats indicate the order they’re normally found in. The number after in parenthesis indicates how many minutes into the movie the beat is usually found at. The version I have is the "enhanced" version with added scenes, so the times noted are slightly different that what they'd be in the theatrical version.

So let’s deconstruct 

1. Opening Image (1): 
As their space ship is being boarded by storm troopers, two droids, surrounded by fighting, seek a safe place. Momentarily separated, C3PO glimpses Princess Leia with the R2D2. Princess Leia is captured, and the droids escape in an escape pod. R2 is already talking about his "mission" which C3PO discounts. We get our first glimpse of Darth Vader who wants the plans the ship intercepted. And so the audience has some dramatic clues about what's at stake.

3. Set-up (1-10):  
On the planet's surface, the droids split up. C3PO flags down a transport; R2 is attacked and bought by the same transport that now has C3PO and a collection of other droids.

Not having found what they were looking for on the ship, storm troopers track the escape pod to the planet and start looking for the droids.

At minute 17, Luke’s uncle buys the two droids for the farm. The set-up is supposed to only take the first ten minutes with the catalyst coming at minute 12 (assuming a 2 hour movie) so we’re running a bit late here, but there’s just no other way to distill this and we run late through the entire first half of the movie.

The first act runs longer than is ideal, but an extended setup may be expected in Science Fiction, or indeed, in any movie where the world is unfamiliar to the audience.

4. Catalyst (12) aka Inciting Incident:
5. Debate (12-25):

I’ll happily admit that I had help defining the Catalyst here because in one of the STC! books, Blake Snyder uses Star Wars to illustrate that a Catalyst can have a double beat—a setup and payoff. In Star Wars, the setup beat comes at minute 20, when Luke triggers a partial message from Princess Leia to Obi Wan Kenobi, and so we step into the Inciting Incident several minutes late.

Because of the double beat, the Catalyst and the Debate beats are heavily intertwined. Each Call to Action (as the Catalyst is sometimes called) is followed with Luke either declining or accepting the Call. Each time he declines, it’s marked by a Debate beat.

The setup beat with the debate (refusal to answer the call):
The setup beat comes when Luke stumbles across the video message in the R2 unit. Intrigued by the droid’s claim that he belongs to Obi Wan Kenobi, Luke mentions the name to his aunt and uncle, only to be brushed off with what we all know is their attempts to avoid the issue. The debate scene also includes Luke expressing his desire to transfer to university this year instead of next with his uncle’s statement that he needs Luke on the farm which sends Luke outside to contemplate the future that appears to be going nowhere in the impatient eyes of youth (more debate.) This also sets up Luke’s second refusal to Answer the Call.

The second Call to Action?
At minute 26, Luke discovers the R2 unit has gone, forcing him into action he doesn’t want to take. In the morning, Luke and C3PO go after R2. When sand people attack, the hermit Old Ben saves them. Luke asks him if he knows Obi Wan. Ben admits that Obi Wan is a name he used to go by. He also tells Luke that his father was a Jedi and him his father's light saber. They see Princess Leia's full message, which gives them the mission to Alderan. This actually looks like another Call to Action to me, which would mean-I think—that there’s a triple Catalyst beat here, but since Blake Snyder didn’t define it as such and I’m not confident enough to challenge the Master, I’m merely going to point out that this is how I see it. But . . . It follows the same call-refusal pattern when Luke declines to answer this call (min 36), using his Uncle’s need for him on the farm as his excuse. (Ironic, since he argued against this need when he wanted to transfer to the university with his friends.)

The payoff Catalyst beat:
This time, when Luke finds his aunt and uncle dead, he answers the call, which leads them to step into the Unknown World (aka Act 2)

6. Break into 2 (25)

In Los Eisley (at minute 43), they hire a ship (minute 48) and pilot, Han Solo, to take them to Alderan. Han has complications, since he has a price on his head (minute 50).

7. B Story (30):

Sometimes there’s more than one B story (Blake Snyder makes this point in STC! Goes to the Movies with his analysis of Titanic.) The B story carries the theme. Since the theme of Star Wars is good vs. evil, I believe any scene with Darth Vader is the B story. Vader is, of course, the personification of the evil Empire. All through the first act, there have been scenes that focus on the B story.

(minute 37) on board the Death Star, Vader demonstrates the power of the dark side. The information that the stolen plans may reveal a weakness in the death star. 

(minute 41) when Vader tries to get the location of the rebel base from Princess Leia with a mind probe.

(min 51) The commander of the death star decides to use the station to convince Leia to tell them where the rebel base is. They set course for Alderan.

8. Fun and Games (30-55):

(min 55) They blast out of Mos Eisley with storm troopers on their tail. Han jumps to light speed and into hyperspace.

(min 57) On the Death Star, under threat of the destruction of her home world, Leia revels that the rebel base is on a moon at Dantooine. They still destroy Alderan.

(min 59) On the Milineum Falcon, Obi Wan senses the destruction of the planet. Luke practices with the light saber. R2 plays "chess" with Chewbacca (the Wookie is Han's second.) Han denies any belief in the force. Obi gets Luke to fight blind, relying on the force. This scene is where Obi Wan describes what the force is which leads to:

(min 1:03) Vader discovers that the princess lied. There's nothing at Dantooine.

9. Midpoint (55): (1:03) The A & B story cross at the midpoint, just as they’re supposed to, when Luke and company arrive where Alderan used to be. They get caught in the Death Star's tractor beam and jettison escape pods, hiding in the bins Han uses for smuggling.

Vader orders the ship scanned. They take out a couple of storm troopers and dress in their uniforms. With Chewie's help, the take over the port HQ, Plugged into the computer, R2 ID's the tractor beam control. Obi Wan goes to fix them. 2. Theme Stated (5): (minute 1:09) May the force be with you. (Theme = Good vs. evil) The movie is so obvious in its theme that the “bad guys” (Vader) wears black and through most of the movie, Luke (the hero) wears white. This is really basic stuff.

10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75):

(1:11) R2 also finds the princess on the detention level, scheduled to be terminated. Luke bribes Han into going with him to rescue Leia. (1:14) In the detention ward, the rescue doesn't go well and they end up in the garbage chute. The droids who've had their own problems have to rescue them. Obi Wan shuts down the tractor. Storm troopers, aware of their presence, pursue Luke and the others through the station. They’re definitely worse off than they were before.

11. All Is Lost (75):

Obi Wan faces Darth Vader (1:30) which draws off the ship's guards. Luke and company head for the Falcon. Obi Wan is defeated (the whiff of death where the mentor dies—right on cue.)

12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85):

Luke is miserable over Obi Wan's death, but this is a George Lucas movie, so to cheer him up Han invites him to play video games where they shoot down the Empires fighter ships. (Boys and their toys. No, that’s not a beat. That’s a snide observation.)

Darth Vader has placed a homing beacon on their ship. Leia figures it out. Han makes it clear that he's in it for the money. To jerk Luke's chain, Han expresses interest in Leia.

13. Break into 3 (85): At 1:38, They reach the rebel base with the Death Star approaching behind them.

14. Finale (85-110):

The Five Point Finale (Storming the Castle): 
Gathering the Team: After identifying a weakness, the rebel leaders brief their pilots.
Executing the plan: In spite of Han's defection, the pilots easily reach the approach to the target because the Death Star’s designers didn't see small fighters as a threat; the target is small, but Luke has targeted womp rats back home which aren’t much bigger.
The High Tower Surprise: Enemy fighters (including Vader) come out to fight them. The rebels start to lose pilots, taking heavy losses. The death star is coming into range of the rebel base.
"Dig Deep Down": On their first pass, in spite of a computer-guided targeting," it doesn't work. It's Luke's turn. Vader takes out his wingmen. He senses that the force is strong with this one, but he's got him in his sights.
The execution of the new plan:  Hearing Obi Wan's voice in his head, Luke turns off his computer. R2 takes a hit. Vader has Luke in his sights, but Han comes up behind him and bounces Vader's fighter away. Letting the force guide him, Luke hits his target, setting of the chair reaction that destroys the Death Star. 

15. Final Image (110):  
(2:00) In front of the gathered rebel forces, Princess Leia awards medals to Han and Luke are awarded medals (Princess Leia officiating.) Emotionally this scene is very different from the opening scene. We started with a battle in progress, now we have victory celebration. 

I hope this give everyone some food for thought. I know I'll be looking at other movies as I hone my eye for story structure. Maybe I'll share some of those as well.