Sunday, December 13, 2009

Break Out Of Beginning Tizzy

I have written a number of posts about outlining and various other writing craft posts that don't seem to be about procrastination but can get you over the hump of the dreaded beginning.

On this co-blog 
I post on Tuesdays.

You can start with these posts and follow the links in the post back along this discussion subject and forward with each Tuesday.

Or here:

Or here:

There are writers who "should" not "outline". 

Academic training can ruin your native ability to "outline" for the purposes of fiction because the process and the resulting document called an "outline" for a novel are totally different from the necessary "outline" for a paper.

To break out of the Beginning Tizzy, I would suggest the following.

1) name your protagonist
2) name your antagonist
3) do NOT write character sketches or biographies for them; make it up as you go along, and conform it in rewrite so it makes logical sense.  Do not attempt logical sense in outline level.
4) Find the moment when the protagonist and antagonist first come into conflict.  That is parag 1 of your novel.
5) Determine the "ending" (just determine success or failure -- NOT in detail about what happens and how).  Just determine who wins in the end, who prevails.  The rest you can make up as you go along.  The one who prevails is the protag.
6) Determine the Middle.  If the ending is success, winning, Happily Ever After, the middle is the low-point of the protag's life, the worst thing that can possibly happen to that person.  If the ending is failure, the middle is the best moment of the protag's life.
7) With those guideposts in place, start drafting, and just TELL THE  STORY, and nevermind everything else because you'll do that on second draft.

Knowing and doing aren't the same thing.  If you are one of those few writers who should not outline, and that is evident because you crash and burn on even beginning an outline, then do try this method by using the following procedure.

OUTLINE is done in your head -- very little writing it down because it's not for anyone but you.  Do not go get a notebook, do not use pieces of paper, do not organize your ideas under headings.  Once you've broken the barrier of The Beginning, you may want to use 3X5 cards, or screenwriting software with "cards view" open, but if you are crashing on the beginning, you probably should avoid even cards. 

The best way for these special writers to do it is to open and name a word processor file, write the title and byline at the top.

Then paste in those 7 steps I listed above into the file.  Space down under each point and type what goes there.  Now go back up to the top and insert your opening line.

You concoct the opening line from the conflict that will be resolved between the two opposing forces, or conflicting forces.

E.G. "I told you already!  When the bullet smacked into the wall beside my head, I knew my number was up!"

Once you have that opening line, you won't be able to stop typing.  When you run out of what comes next, scroll down into your "outline" delete the parts you've done, and look at the next signpost in the plot.  That will tell you what comes next.

You can skip whole scenes and event threads to leap to the next signpost, and as you're writing that point, you can fill in the "outline" as you think of things that come in the blank spot you skipped over.  Then tomorrow go craft that bridge scene (as per my blog post on scenes).

Remember, write it wrong on purpose, then go back and fix it once you've written THE END.

If this method doesn't work for you, it means you've gotten the opening line wrong.  If you get it right, you can't stop writing.

You may be interested in my Sime~Gen Universe in which I sometimes collaborate with Professor Jean Lorrah.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg (for current available)   (for complete bio-biblio)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Holiday sales could launch e-book readers as mass-market must-haves -

I've been in a lengthy and detailed discussion in the Romance Community boards at Amazon on the future of copyright

Where I alerted them to the following from the Washington Post

Holiday sales could launch e-book readers as mass-market must-haves -

Which is all of direct and immediate interest to me because my Dushau Trilogy is now available on Kindle, and Molt Brother and its direct sequel City of a Million Legends is on as multi-format ebook, and my Vampire Romances Those of My Blood and Dreamspy are in POD available on Amazon.

There's a publisher and a few writers on this Romance Community thread interacting with readers. As I've been saying on the Alien Romance blog,
there is an intimate relationship between the writer, art, and the reader. The writer must choose which of all the stories in her head that she must write.

Writers have more stories than they can write in a lifetime. They must choose, and market is an important element in that choice.

The Washington Post story on ebook readers and the growth of that market is something all writers must take into account.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Thursday, October 22, 2009

E-Reads: August '09 eBook Sales Triple Previous August

E-Reads: August '09 eBook Sales Triple Previous August

If you're behind the curve getting into ebooks, you may find Kindle just what you want.

It's designed for people who don't want to mess with a computer or know anything about how it works.

It has a readable screen that looks like paper and feels like you're reading on paper.

And it came out just about at the point where the graph of ebook sales started to go parabolic.

The world is changing whether we want it to or not, so reach up for a handhold on the future.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Toba supervolcano caused genetic bottleneck


Toba super-volcano caused genetic bottleneck

This is a WORLDBUILDING item I ran into while reading a novel (free copy) Death of a Cure by Steven H. Jackson.

This novel is fraught with expository lumps (some disguised as action).

The opening action sequence presupposes the reader is interested in the detailed mechanics of how a Marine doctor could be delivered to a submerged submarine via parachute.

The opening sequence is very like the opening of a James Bond movie, because then it breaks sharply into a mystery about the death of the Marine's brother who was a genetic researcher close to a big cure.

No sooner do you get involved in the characters and the relationship of the Marine (man) with an FBI agent (woman), than suddenly you're reading a primer on evolutionary theory.

It was in that expository lump that I found this one item of theory that I either didn't know or had forgotten totally about.

I became interested in super-volcanos through Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's St. Germain novels, one where he nearly witnesses a super-eruption.

I didn't know (or hadn't digested) the implications of this Indonesian eruption on human genetics, but apparently it's quite a bit more famous than the expository lump would indicate.

On this same website is a reference to a book by the same author I think about how during a magnetic pole reversal the Earth's magnetic field doesn't protect us from solar radiation and the result is rapid genetic mutation, ultimately indicated by the sudden rise of totally new species.

Interesting theory.

But I have yet to find anyone discussing the period during which the Earth's magnetic field goes to 0 as it reverses. ALL our electricity (regardless of energy source) depends on turning an armature in the earth's magnetic field. During 0, no electricity. How long would 0 last? I've never seen this discussed.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Why science fiction authors just can't win - SFFMedia

Ordinarily I post exercises and writing challenges here, but this is an article I think you should not miss if you're incubating a story in any genre.

Why science fiction authors just can't win - SFFMedia

The genre definitions and rules are changing almost daily and this article shows one of the effects of this change.

See this post and follow links back to the earlier genre discussion.

Kurt Vonnegut was offended by being classed as an SF writer just as Atwood apparently is.

Today SF elements are accepted as mainstream in mainstream and otherwise mundane fiction.

In fact, the cell phone is an SF element now common in daily life. They've found water on the moon and Mars. They're firing a rocket into the moon's surface to kick up enough dust to analyze for water. Find it, and they plan to build a habitat on the moon. OK?

The only thing left for SF writers to explore is relationships with non-humans. That's what SFR and Paranormal Romance does.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Plot vs. Story

Plot vs. Story

The moving parts of a piece of fiction are well known to every writer who has been able to sell work consistently to the larger publishers.

Every workshop I've taught in where I've watched other writers analyze student work has shown me clearly that every single writer who has perfected a system (any system -- everyone invents their own working system) for producing completed works of fiction knows these moving parts.

And most really successful writers are self-taught so they have invented terminology for what they perceive and need to manipulate in order to produce salable work.

I've seen the words Plot and Story used interchangeably, with some other word used to designate the Plot when the word "Plot" is used to designate the "story."

It can be terribly confusing for beginners, and I suspect that's why writers are mostly self-taught.

Learning to write is a process of discovery.

Recently, on LinkedIn, I answered a question about whether you write for love or for money, and I said LOVE.

You can only write for love, really, because getting money for your writing is more a gamble, like venture capital. Venture capitalists love what they're doing enough to gamble on it.

BUT -- having love igniting your need to write, your true personality shows through and you land somewhere on a spectrum from utter carelessness of maybe "well writing is an unskilled profession anyone can do" or egotistical "I can do anything without half-trying" all the way down to a choked-up, self-defeating "I don't know HOW because nobody ever taught me, and everything I produce is embarrassing trash."

Well, nobody ever will teach you. But you don't already know how to write if you haven't put in the necessary effort to teach yourself.

And if you truly love what you need to write, and truly need to have that message reach someone you don't even know, then you will be greatly moved to learn the craft of writing, and maybe even delve deeply into the art behind the craft.

Again, your true personality will show through, along with your absorbed values, in the manner in which you approach this task.

You may go to amazon and buy a lot of expensive books on the theory that they will "teach" you. (personally, I'd hit the free local library first) Or more likely today you'll Google up some instructions.

So learning "to write" is a process, and the first step in the process is learning that you don't know "how" to do it. You know how to read a novel, but you don't know how to reverse that process into writing a novel until you've really taught yourself and then practiced what you've learned.

Reading is the first step in learning to write, but it's reading that is very different from the reading that readers do. A writer reads to reverse-engineer the fiction into its moving parts, it's necessary components.

You already know all the unnecessary components of your own story that you must write for love. The unnecessary parts are the really interesting parts for a reader, and it's the payload the writer must deliver.

But the second step in learning to read like a writer is learning to be interested in the VEHICLE that delivers the payload. That vehicle has a chassis composed of these moving parts we've been discussing individually. The same chassis can carry a large number of different genre-vehicles.

Now, in response to questions asked in the comments section of these blog posts, we are going to look at how to connect the moving parts we've examined into a chassis strong enough to carry that payload which you are creating out of love of it.

Writers who muddle their way into the craft and teach themselves to get to consistent, professional (make a living at it) word production eventually discover the nature of these mechanical parts of the composition and discover how the writer manipulates these parts to produce that final, polished work.

But being self-taught, or taught by someone who was self-taught, they use different terms to refer to the parts of the chassis and the connecting links.

So, like everyone else, I've adopted some terms from my teacher, and I've sorted out the moving parts of the composition, and given them names and learned how to mold them into place.

Maybe my terminology will illuminate these interior (necessarily invisible in the finished product) moving parts for you.

So let's see if we can walk and chew gum, juggle a few plates, and spin a lug-wrench at the same time.

On which is for learning exercises for writers, back in March 2009 Ozambersand raised a question which I answered at length in the comments section of one of my posts.

In July, I posted two explorations of Scene Structure on this Alien Romance blog which now contains over 800 posts, so here is one of the URLs

That's Part 2, and you'll find the link to Part 1 in there.

In the comments from Part 1 and Part 2 on Scene Structure, one of Linnea Sinclair's writing students, Kathleen McGiver and a new commenter here Sharon, asked about the difference between Plot and Story. ozambersand kindly searched out that bit that I had written in a comment, and here it is for the record excerpted from the comments on worldbuilding-trunk-ated.


PLOT is the sequence of things that happen, EVENTS. Events must be displayed in a because-chain to make a plot.


Because Obama was elected President, Stem Cell Research will be revived, and because of the research Somebody will be cured of paralysis, and then be elected President. PLOT. EVENTS. BECAUSE.

STORY is what those events mean to the characters emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, or in life.

Story is also linked to Because and is the result or cause (motive) behind (BEHIND) Events in the Plot.

Because Obama fulfilled his lifelong dream to be President, he has discovered that he doesn't know everything and can't do everything at once. Now, he doesn't know why he can't seem to hire enough of the right people to fully staff his administration. "Oh, why are the people I admire tax cheats?" The Events leading to his discovery of the answer to that question is his STORY. The Events themselves are the PLOT.

The BACKGROUND is President and White House and Recession and Bank Crisis and Middle East. Everyone reading the story knows all that.

The FOREGROUND is winning election, choosing and hiring people, admiring people, being admired, spending political capital, making risky choices, living with the HUGE consequences.

Look at a painting, say a portrait -- Mona Lisa. The chair, the blurry sketch of buildings and hills, sky, even her dress is BACKGROUND. The FOREGROUND is her face and hands.

Take a genre - Urban Fantasy - the URBAN part is background, the FANTASY is foreground because you have to explain the laws of magic etc in that universe and to be worth explaining they have to generate plot.

STORY is the character's personal experience and responses to the things that happen - the psychological and spiritual lessons learned.

The story of a man who falls in love with a thief only to discover the folly of attempting to reform her and decides to learn her craft and join her.

The BACKSTORY is all that went on before the plot begins, the things that happened that made them what they are.

BACKSTORY - The son of an ex-Nun and a seminary student who married for Love, falls in love with a thief and learns the folly - etc.

Who his parents were is backstory -- they never appear overtly in the novel, but their presence is in every word he utters, every decision he makes whether he knows it or not. You don't have to tell the reader the BACKSTORY (often it's better if you don't -- that's why you need all these other tools, so you'll have other ways to convey the information where necessary).

But you have to know the backstory to keep everything in the novel consistent and believable.

The B-story is the story arc of a character who is a confidant or intimate-enemy of the A-story's main character.

As I pointed out previously, the B-story character is often the last invented and is a sub-set or factor of the A-story main character -- someone he/she confides in and spills his guts to. In a film, the B-story carries your THEME.

The A Story main character pours out their heart (in a few choice lines) to the B-story character, thus informing the audience what's inside the A-story character that maybe even the A-story character does not know.

The glue that holds plot and story together is the THEME. I've done a number of posts on theme here, especially in the posts on Worldbuilding.

When the THEME does not glue the Plot to the Story, or bolt it on firmly with lots of grease so it moves nicely, or weld it so it can't move, when the THEME doesn't connect the plot to the story, then the EVENTS in the plot happen, but they don't happen TO ANYONE. The events become meaningless and readers get bored.

When the STORY doesn't change the characters actions, then the EVENTS don't proceed from the story through the theme, and again readers get bored reading about a single character's angst without events that illuminate and change that angst.

A well written composition will have the plot and the story so tightly welded or so perfectly articulated and well greased, that the reader can't tell the difference between plot and story. Each event and each reaction will be both at once.

But to create that effect, the writer has to know the difference.

In addition to doing all that, the World you build to cradle your plot and story has to explicate your theme. It's rooted in your theme. And the fastest, most efficient way to build the right world for this plot and story is to build the world from the theme.

Remember, art is a selective recreation of reality, not reality itself. It's what you select to leave out that makes it art, and that communicates your theme.

Theme is a game you play with your readers.

No two writers do this process of inventing moving parts of a story the same way.

Even a given writer will invent stuff in different orders for different projects. That's called creativity. It isn't a science. It isn't reproducible by other people. It's "magic" -- and its procedures depend more on who you are at that moment than on what you're trying to accomplish.

In other words, how you go about inventing the moving parts that will form the chassis that will carry your payload to your reader depends on where you are on that spectrum I mentioned above. Remember too that you as an individual can move along that spectrum from too timid to too confident, and may in fact rattle back and forth between the extremes during the writing of a particular work. Rattling back and forth may be a sign that the writing is going well!

Yet there are rules. Creating a work of fiction is not random or chaotic. It has a system behind it. Your system. Not anyone else's. (Rattling might be part of your system, but I don't advise teaching that part.)

When your work of fiction is all done, it can be reverse engineered to expose the moving parts and their relationship to each other (glued, bolted, welded).

In fact, most of the enjoyment that a reader gets out of a novel comes from their "kitten-and-ball-of-twine" unraveling of the beautiful, polished composition you've presented to them. But keep in mind, the reader who is not a writer doesn't really want or need to win that game with the writer.

Take Mystery Writing, for example. Readers want to joust with the writer to solve the mystery before the writer reveals all. But if it's too easy, the reader doesn't enjoy the game and won't read that writer's stuff again. If it's too hard, the reader who is not a writer likewise won't enjoy the game and won't read that writer again.

Getting it just right, hiding the moving parts of your composition, is an artform, and a game you play with the readers. It has to be fun or it isn't worth it.

Reverse engineering fiction to understand the story gives one the illusion that one understands the everyday world better. And since it's magic, the illusion can become reality. Magic is done via imagination and emotion, both of which are best delivered via fiction.

The theme is what communicates most loudly to readers, the handle by which they remember the novel and your byline. That's why the title has to be the theme, so they can remember it and recommend it. A theme portrays the world as the artist's eye sees it. A theme can say the world has meaningfulness, or that life has a meaning, or that life is meaningless and futile, or that the world is merely a figment of your imagination.

Fiction that bespeaks a theme that explains a reader's reality with verisimilitude can change the way the reader sees their world, and thus change the story of their life, and thus change the plot of their life as they make choices based on this thematic insight.

Or a work of fiction can just be loads of fun to read and not affect the reader much if at all.

Which way a work affects a reader is not the writer's choice. But it is a sobering consideration when tossing off a trash novel under a pseudonym or as a work-for-hire.

So the writer has to work at inventing and arranging the moving parts and putting them together to make a picture so that the reader can take the picture apart and understand it as pieces.

How can writer and reader work together to have the most possible fun?


That's the answer to almost everything about writing craft.

Theme is the organizing principle, and it is the subject about which writer and reader are communicating.

So no matter what the sequential order in which the writer invents the moving parts of a work of fiction, at some point before finishing the composition, the writer has to step back from creativity and take a long, jaundiced look at what has been created and exercise that artistic selectivity.

Which pieces to use, which to showcase, which to emphasize, which to show and which to tell can all be determined by reference to the theme.

To find the theme of this particular piece, ask yourself "What am I trying to say, here?" What's the take-away these readers should hold onto?

Do I want to say, "The business cycle can not and SHOULD NOT be eliminated?" Or do I want to say "Recessions and Depressions are a natural part of human commerce and we just have to live with them or commerce will stop."

Either statement could become an "in your face" approach to some non-human culture that arrives in Earth Orbit ready to trade for primitive artifacts like iPods, bound books and quaint little discs called Blu-Ray. (Argsel! You won't believe this! The pictures are all flat! It's abstract primitive art! We'll make a fortune!!!)

A novel, or a series of novels set in a well built world, has to take a stand on some philosophical point, and ask and answer (even if tentatively) a set of questions about that point. A set of questions. Set. They have to go together in a chain like a movie Detective interrogates a prisoner.

So if the plot is a Romance, then the core theme has to be something akin to LOVE CONQUERS ALL. But a specific Romance could say it's a good thing or a bad thing that love conquers all.

Whether it's good or bad depends on, well, for example, if you're the King who needs his Heir to marry fellow royalty for the alliance, but love conquers your plan and the Heir runs away with a peasant, then "love conquers all" is a real bad thing.

The social and economic problems that proceed from that runaway Heir and his heirs could make for a wildly successful series of Action Romance novels. Drop a comment with series that follow this pattern if you can think of any. There are quite a few.

So in the case of the Runaway Heir and his 10 kids raised on a farm, the STORY is that the Heir tussles with his responsibility to the throne and in his final epiphany (in the first novel) wrenchingly decides that his personal revulsion for being King overrides the Kingdom's need for him to be King. And he escapes (from some trap the King created) and goes running off to rescue his Beloved.

That's the story.

Here's the Heir's Character Arc, his story. "I have to become King. I love this Peasant. I have to marry this Princess-Shrew (who's a great manager and ought to be a Queen). I don't want to become King. I would make a terrible King and probably murder that Princess-Shrew. I refuse to marry Shrew. I love Peasant Woman. I WILL NOT ACCEPT MY FATE." That's the story arc, from accepting the fate of becoming King after his father, to rejecting it.

The PLOT is the sequence of events that TELLS THAT STORY.

Now if the story is the arc from accepting fate to rejecting fate, then the THEME (underneath the Love Conquers All theme) has to be something like "Birth is not Destiny" or "I am a person who can make my own decisions" or "Fate is not decreed by God." Or maybe "God Makes Mistakes and I'm One Of Them".

Pick a theme that EXPLAINS WHY the character goes from Accept to Reject to Action.

Using that theme create the PLOT. And don't forget that all this is cast in SCENES.

But before you break the narrative into scenes, you need the 4 cardinal points of the plot structure (unless you are a pantser today).

Say, for example:

Open - a huge gala PALACE BALL introducing Heir to Princess-Shrew, Peasant serving in the kitchen?

1/4 - Heir causes the Princess to reveal her nasty personality and hatred for the Heir's kingdom and contempt for the kingdom's King.

1/2 - Heir compares the two and chooses Peasant as the better person, tries to get Peasant qualified to become his Queen. FAILS (1/2 to a HEA ending is the FAILURE part)

3/4 - Heir arrives at his long foreshadowed epiphany about his destiny and rejects the Kingdom and his father. Princess-Shrew was right not to respect the King. 3/4 result is that Peasant is imprisoned by King to prevent contact with Heir to force or blackmail Heir into marrying Princess.

END - Heir breaks Peasant out of prison, does something definitive to thwart the ambitions of Princess-Shrew, and Heir and Peasant take a powder, riding off into the sunset to an HEA.

OPENING OF FIRST SEQUEL - the King dies, throwing the Kingdom into political chaos. Nobody knows where the Heir went. He's probably dead. The Bells Toll.

I can already plot out 3 sequels, a multigeneration series, with the original Heir dying at 95 and telling his 30 year old grandson that the grandson is actually the King of Whatever and that's why the grandson has fallen in love with the Queen of Whichever (Whatever and Whichever are your Worldbuilding elements). Royalty is best off marrying Royalty and there's no hiding the fact of Royalty. (That is, the Heir's character arc has continued full circle back to his childhood acceptance of his role in the world).

Note how the STORY is all about "I" and how I feel about things and what I want and what I reject.

Note how the PLOT is "Heir" + ACTIVE VERB

In this plot, "Heir" is the main POV character. "It" is his "story." The story arc is all about what's going on inside Heir, therefore it is his story, therefore he's the main POV character, gets the most lines of dialogue and the most face-time.

Because it's his story, it is his PLOT. The important EVENTS that change the SITUATION are all generated by his ACTION. Every other character's arc and story and plot-moves all support the Heir's story and plot.

The cast of characters has to be organized like that, in heirarchy, to create a neat composition for the reader to reverse engineer. It's easy to organize the characters once you have the themes organized as I showed you in

Note how both the story and the plot illustrate the THEME. Maybe the theme of the first novel in this Heir And Princess series is "I won't take it any more."

If the Heir's story arcs back (at age 95) to acceptance of his Royalty, then the theme the writer is displaying to the reader, the bit of "reality" the reader "takes away" says things like there is an inherent difference between people because of their genes or the status of their birth parents. Or perhaps it says, the old Greek Myth lesson that you can't escape your destiny, all is foretold at birth. Some of us aren't people, but rather objects on the chessboard. There can be no HEA if you resist your destiny.

How the arc develops and ends bespeaks the theme.

The moving parts of any work of fiction aimed at a wide audience will always have this kind of mechanism. The best writers hide that mechanism beneath layers of flesh and blood.

The exact same mechanism can support literally thousands of tales, none of which even remotely resemble the others, but all of which will delight pretty much the same audience.


Here are 3 posts I did on THEME

Now everybody run quick and post a comment THANKING OZAMBERSAND for finding this tidbit on plot and story that I had lost.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Friday, September 4, 2009

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent - Post a Comment

Rachelle Gardner is planning to post a Guest Post on Thursdays until the end of the year 2009.

She invited people to pitch to her on the comments section linked below.

As an exercise in pitching, look at the list of pitches, go right down the list looking as if looking for one you'd want on your blog.

I found only ONE definite in the list, and I'm interested to find out if Rachelle Gardner agrees with me about that choice. And which other pitches she'll accept.

Notice by the end of the list of pitches how "jaded" your eyes get, how you skip blocks of type, how no subject however intrinsically interesting grabs your attention. You can't learn this without doing it - so go do it. Just read the list of pitches, if you don't have time, but if you do then read Rachelle Gardner's invitation post for what she wants and why, and how to present it.

It's a lesson in what you're up against in any market, not just for selling words, but selling any product.

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent - Post a Comment

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Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Thursday, August 6, 2009

R.I.P. notices

Blake Snyder our prime writing teacher with SAVE THE CAT! & Charlie Davis, EVP at CBS Films, passed Aug 4 & Aug 6, we also lost Director John Hughes.

On the Waterfront' screenwriter Budd Schulberg dies in NY at 95

That article says of Schulberg:
"On the Waterfront," directed by Elia Kazan and filmed in Hoboken, N.J., was released in 1954 to great acclaim and won eight Academy Awards. It included one of cinema's most famous lines, uttered by Marlon Brando as the failed boxer Terry Malloy: "I coulda been a contender."

Schulberg never again approached the success of "On the Waterfront," but he continued to write books, teleplays and screenplays — including the Kazan-directed "A Face in the Crowd" — and scores of articles. Spike Lee was an admirer, dedicating the entertainment satire "Bamboozled" to Schulberg and working with him on a film about boxer Joe Louis.

We lost Charlie Brown, founder and editor of Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction field a couple weeks ago, and just got the first LOCUS issue in the mail after his death today. Joan Winston, my co-author on Star Trek Lives! passed away last year.

I'm not taking this well.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

6 Tricks of Scene Structure

This post is reposted from

There is a PART TWO to this post now available, delving deeper into the definition of the concept "Scene." It is available at

But here on Editing Circle, you may create a scene and post it as a comment to get direct input on whether you've assimilated the techniques discussed here.

The material you post here should NOT be from anything you might ever want to sell. Just offhandedly, freehand, and without thinking much, invent a scene and nestle it into a universe broadly sketched (like a Japanese Brush Painting). This is part of your "million words for the garbage can" -- it's just playing scales on the piano when warming up to practice for a concert.

A musician's fingers do scales absently, an artist doodles, and a writer creates scenes, outlines, and more words. Practice-practice-practice.


The "scene" is, once complete and wholly integrated into the story, an invisible unit, with nicely blurred edges. You can't learn scene structure just by reading completed stories, novels or screenplays.

It is especially hard to learn scene structure from very well written stories. The scene "edge" is not always or only where the camera cuts to a different location.

This was brought to my attention recently when I read a very good story that had major scene-structure problems. This novel would be a candidate for mass market paperback distribution if that scene structure problem were solved. As it is, it's winning prizes in self-publishing, indie, and small press venues.

But I don't know what to say to this author. There's so much RIGHT with this novel, but the scenes FAIL.

I've been trying to remember (with little success) when and where I learned scene structure, how to fix a failed scene, how to avoid failing to begin with, and how to teach these skills.

Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! and SAVE THE CAT! GOES TO THE MOVIES provide serious clues about "Primal" storytelling and accessibility that would make sense even to a "caveman" (no offense). Follow Blake's blog at

Here's how I put the whole "what's a scene" problem together after reading Blake's books on screenwriting.

Let's start with an analog of the story constructing process.

The hot desert sun of July edges the distant horizon, rising steadily into a cloudless sky. Night puddles behind bright outlines etched against the desert.

A pile of cinder blocks in an empty lot with a tarp casually thrown over the top grows a long shadow.

An old truck full of workmen with dirty, hard-used tools in the back drifts to a lazy stop before the pile of blocks. One guy gets out and unrolls a huge paper onto the hood of the truck, squints at the blocks, at his paper, and nods.

Then a cement truck pulls up.

Before sundown, low walls have grown up in the desert outlining a building where there had been nothing.

Now, weeks later, there's a whole building with an inside and outside, windows and doors, even a roof. But the cinder block walls are bare, the mortar outlining the cracks, starkly visible.

Go into the living room. Bare cinder block walls, raw cement floor.

It's going to be a place where characters live. But right now you can see every structural element including the plumbing, electric conduits, fiberoptic cables, telephone lines, even rebar hanging out in spots.

It's easy to see what this thing is and how it was created.

Now along comes the plasterer and puts up chicken wire, insulation, then smears gooey stuff all over, then comes the guy with the textured towel and makes ridges and bumps in a low-relief pattern, and then the painter with lovely colors.

Then comes the inhabitants of the house to make it a home, and they add light fixtures, drapes and curtains, pictures, and macrame hangings, carpets and deep chairs, mirrors, TV-game console, magazine rack, umbrella stand.

That completed room is a novel or screenplay. It contains the characters.

You watch the characters go through the antics of their lives, but you aren't aware of the CINDER BLOCKS hidden inside the WALLS.

Without those cinder blocks, there would be no antics.

Those cinder blocks are the SCENES.

A good, well structured scene is held to other scenes by "rebar" -- the metal rods that hold cinder-block construction together (in earthquake prone areas rebar is code because without it the wall will fall down if shaken).

You can hammer away at a well constructed story and never find the scene seams.

To understand how the building that showcases your characters is made, you need to see it "under construction."

And that's why it is so very helpful to read books or manuscripts that just don't quite measure up -- that have something "wrong" with them. You can see the raw construction hanging out.

This is a hard point for many writers to grasp.

Every scene in your novel or screenplay HAS THE SAME IDENTICAL STRUCTURE.

There is a thing called 'THE SCENE' -- and that's all it is, a cinder block.

It's virtue and usefulness lies in the fact that it is identical to all other scenes.

Now, we know how a standard cinder block is constructed, with holes in a nice rectangle. (yes, they come thin, with patterns, and so on, but those are other things made out of the same material, not what you build walls out of).

We also know that from these rectangles, you can build a huge variety of shapes and sizes of buildings or architectural elements like garden walls.

They're all the same, but you can make a thousand different shapes out of them.

That's the quality of a well structured scene.

So what is the standard "scene" shape?

1. Like an entire story, it has a BEGINNING, a MIDDLE, and an END. Each of these points has a clear, defining formula for what it must contain.

2. Like an entire story, it clearly demonstrates the characters ARCing, or changing in a way that can be identified and verbalized. In screenwriting, this is designated by a + or - sign for the increase or decrease in emotional TENSION that the scene produces.

3. Like an entire story, the scene must ADVANCE THE PLOT. At least ONE PLOT MOVING EVENT must transpire. One of the classic 6-things-that-have-to-be-fixed must move toward being fixed.

4. Like an entire story, the scene must ADVANCE THE STORY. Something has to happen (be learned, be said, be extracted from evidence or testified to) that changes what life means to the main character in the scene.


6. We'll get to this last item at the end because you really won't like it and I want to run for cover before you throw this all back at me.

I've never seen that list anywhere that I can remember. I just made it up from bits and pieces I've learned here and there, so I may have left out something really important.

But for sure, count on it, every item on that list is absolutely essential in order to have a "scene" at all.

When I see a scene that violates one of those essential parameters, I generally don't bother to finish the book (there are exceptions).

In art, there are always exceptions. In highly commercial art exceptions are extremely rare and if successful usually start whole new genres. (Urban Fantasy; Cyberpunk; Acid Rock -- all started as "exceptions." But remember that the BEETLES had a grounding in classical music and that was their key to success.)

Also note that each of these 5 essential elements of a scene is not at all specific to any genre, story format, delivery medium, style, or historical period.

All cinder blocks are identical, and that's the property that makes them useful.


So to analysis.

Every scene must start with a Narrative Hook (just like any novel must)

The Mid-Point of the scene must (in Blake Snyder's words) RAISE THE STAKES, just as the mid-point of a screenplay or novel must.

The middle point of the scene must be as pivotal as the mid-point of the whole story. The EXACT MIDDLE (by word-count) must be the point where SOMETHING CHANGES.

The END of a Scene must be a cliff-hanger matching the Narrative Hook that started it and planting a set-up or foreshadowing of what will happen at the beginning of the next scene.


Like as if I were artificially forcing this exact and unvarying structure upon all hapless beginners.

No, far from it.

These are not artificial rules imposed on story structure by some all-powerful gatekeeper publisher.

These rules have been discovered by trial and error since the first caveman tried to hold the attention of his terrified kids and tribesmen during a thunder storm. HOLD THE ATTENTION -- that's the key, and it is (as Blake Snyder keeps saying) PRIMAL.

This BEGINNING - MIDDLE - END structure of a scene is like the square corners of building blocks. It has to be that way to be able to join together with the other scenes and hold the whole structure up.

2. ARC -- characters must somehow act, interact with each other or the environment, and react during a scene. The character's attention focus, emotional pitch (from complacency to terror is one example) or maybe relationship to other characters must CHANGE. That change must be CAUSED BY CONFLICT TUMBLING TOWARD A RESOLUTION.

Characters don't just jump up and fulminate for no reason. As in the whole story's structure, characters have internal conflicts that they project into their external environment (just like real people).

3. The plot is the sequence of events that happen in the story. The first event happens. The next thing happens because the first thing happened. And onwards to the last thing that happens, which happens because the first thing happened in an unbroken line of consequences.

In really sophisticated fiction, it can sometimes be hard to see the connecting links between events. The harder it is to see the connections, the smaller the potential audience and the less those people will actually talk about and recommend this story.

Each scene must contain a PLOT EVENT that connects the beginning scene to the ending scene.

It doesn't have to be a straight line, but the straighter the line of cause and effect the bigger the audience.

4. EACH SCENE starts with a narrative hook that pulls the reader/viewer into a CONFLICT, a sub-sub-conflict of the over-arching conflict the story is hurtling on to resolve. WITHIN THE SCENE the conflict of the whole story must advance THROUGH the mini-conflict of this scene.

The END OF the scene resolves the scene's conflict and hands the momentum on to the next scene.

The "cliffhanger" is a good model, though not as widely known as it was in the days when every feature film in a theater was accompanied by two or more "serials" -- Buck Rogers comes to mind. Each serial installment would end with a (sometimes literal) cliff hanger.

The new STAR TREK movie played on that motif graphically with people falling off the edges of things and hanging by one arm for a while.

Living On The Edge might have been the theme of that new STAR TREK MOVIE.

The NEXT SCENE starts with the character inching back up off the edge of the cliff and going on with the story.

It is that gasping TENSION the pure anticipation of disaster, or of the mere fact that SOMETHING must "happen next" that makes the final line or image of a scene.

The END of a scene must IMPLY action, not deliver it.

The Narrative Hook has to promise that something will happen. The Ending has to have it actually happen (fall off the cliff), but promise that SOMETHING ELSE will "happen next" -- i.e. either fall all the way or get pulled back by a friend, or muscle back up, or "with a mighty leap" solve the problem.

When there's nothing that can "happen next" that originated in the beginning of the story -- then you're at the end and you better stop writing scenes.


That's the biggie and the one that divides the professional from the amateur.

This is where the size of the potential market for a story is determined.

You can "get away with" including whole scenes that do nothing but convey exposition, set the atmosphere, characterize the characters, fill in back story, lend artistic resonance, or describe the location.

But every time you do that, you narrow your potential audience, and you shed readers you did hook because they get bored.

You will be left only with readers who already are interested in your characters, backstory, history, artistic lyricism, gorgeous flowing prose.

If that reader happens to be an editor with money to invest, you could sell this thing. But will the reviewers be able to get through it?

That's not to say that this shapeless fluff of exposition, backstory, character depth, words for the sake of pure art, or location for the sake of strange-places is not the SUM AND SUBSTANCE of what you have to sell.

Atmosphere, style, ambiance, rich detail -- all that is what readers actually read FOR.

But all those nebulous things are the cement and gravel out of which your cinder blocks are made, and sometimes ingredients in the mortar that holds the whole story-structure together.

They are ingredients, shapeless in themselves and useless for story telling until you add that personal element (like water for the cinder blocks) and bake them to structural hardness just like cinder blocks. Mix and pour your ingredients into a mold, bake them good and hard, and you will have a scene.

The 5 item list I've sketched here describe the shape of that mold.

That mold is the same shape for every scene. The ingredients sometimes differ a little, just as some cinder blocks have a higher quality than others, some tend to crumble around the corners, some have a rougher texture than others.

And like cinderblocks, some have a Lacy pattern and are thin, just for decorative purposes (poems, epigraphs, vignettes, episodes, even COMMERCIALS).

Your completed story is like the wall of that room we started with. Once you get done painting the texturized plaster, nobody but another writer will know that the wall stands up so nice and vertical because it's made of many identical blocks.

So, now you're ready to write an actual scene, to practice putting those 5 requirements together all in one scene. You think walking and chewing gum is hard, just wait until you try writing a scene that fits all these requirements. Pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time while skipping rope!

But you're ready to try it now -- so the first thing you will think to ask yourself (if you're a professional writer) is, "Well, how LONG does this have to be?"

So we come to that dreaded #6 on this list of parameters that govern scene structure.

Every fiction market has a specific preferred length for the whole story.

6. Scene Size
That length is governed by the parameters of the marketing process. The length of books is governed by the cost of a signature. A signature is that folded sheaf of papers they glue together at the binding to make a book. If you go ONE WORD over the end of the final signature, it costs the price of an ENTIRE SIGNATURE to include that one word.

Hence writers learn the discipline of "right sizing" their work.

I discussed the practical marketing problems for fiction in several posts including this one:

Words are elastic. You can say the same thing in less space by choosing synonyms that are shorter (Anglo-Saxon origin rather than Latin), by restructuring sentences with fewer modals, and there are myriad tricks for shortening (or lengthening) text to fit the signatures.

Another sizing trick is to choose shorter names for characters you mention a lot -- or nickname them. Saves tons of trees if you're in print media.

E-books don't have that problem, but there is a "handy" number of K's for an e-book that sells better than longer ones or shorter ones.

So if your genre dictates a total, overall length to aim for, what size should your scenes be? All the genres are different lengths, right? So the scenes should be different lengths, too?

Think hard about this.

What is the main purpose of a scene?

I don't mean "to advance the plot" -- though that is a purpose every scene must achieve.

But why must a scene advance the plot? What's the purpose of an ironclad requirement to include a plot-advance in every scene?

A scene does not have to fill backstory, create atmosphere, explain character motives, or lay clues to the mystery. You don't have to include exposition in every scene, explaining the politics the characters are embedded within. But you MAY do any or all of those in any given scene.

What is the purpose of having SCENES? Why not one long flowing narrative?

And what has that purpose to do with figuring out the length a scene has to be, the size of your cinder blocks?

Look at that wall again. Do different walls of different heights and lengths have different size cinder blocks in them? How versatile that one common size structural element, the cinder block!!!

We know the purpose of the cinder block. It's rectangular because that makes it strong. It's actually 2 squares stuck together. It has holes to make it light. The holes are all in the same place in each block so you can thread the blocks onto rebar, then pour cement down and solidify that wall so it won't fall on you if the earth quakes.

The purpose of a cinder block is clear from it's STRUCTURE.

So what's the purpose of breaking your narrative into scenes?

Here's a clue. The purpose of a scene is the same as the purpose of a commercial on TV.

That's right: a) grab attention, b) hold attention, c) deliver a message, d) make the viewer remember that message (only the part you want them to remember).

Look at our list of 5 essential ingredients in a scene again.

Narrative Hook (grabber), Character Arc (holder), Advance Plot and Story (deliver message), cliff hanger ending (seat that message good and hard - make them want the next message).

The purpose of having scenes at all is to a) GRAB ATTENTION and b) HOLD ATTENTION, then TEACH SOMETHING, and MAKE THEM REMEMBER IT AND WANT MORE.

Who is "them?"

Human beings.

So scene length has a purpose founded in the essence of human behavior.

There are parameters that describe the fundamental essence of human attention in terms of the nervous system, and the brain.

If your fiction is to "entertain" (i.e. grab attention of) human beings you must work within the parameters of the human attention span.

And that's pretty elastic, actually. It's different for different people at different ages and from different cultures, or in different nervous states (a person about to get married isn't going to sit still for tedium).

So, since caveman days, we have developed a kind of average or median, an artistic estimation of attention span.

Lately, that has been encoded into some very commercial ventures (Sesame Street comes to mind - founded on the idea that you'll get more information across to children if you use the attention span of the child at the age when they want to learn this particular fact.)

The film industry invests millions upon millions to make a film. Making their money back plus a profit depends on holding audience attention. Major amounts of scientific research (but also mostly trial and error) has gone into determining how long a scene should be in order not to lose the audience's attention.

Lose attention in scene 3 and scene 5 won't impress this audience. Lose my attention in scene 3 and you aren't going to get a review from me. Lose your editor's (or producer's) attention in scene 3 and you did all that work for nothing.

Likewise, way back in the 1940's, as films were really taking off as a preferred entertainment vehicle, WRITERS figured out how to emulate that scene length that is most likely to hold the attention of the most people.

What is that secret scene length?

Oh, you are going to hate me. Boy are you gonna hate me for this one.

You see, all 5 of the ingredients I've mentioned above are actually pretty easy to do -- but they are nigh to impossible to accomplish within this attention-span determined limit.

And since your attention span (being as how you are either a writer or an inveterate and eclectic reader or I would have lost your attention before this) is likely much longer than the average person's, you won't believe me either.

And if it's not true, why do it -- because it's hard.


But how short must a scene be?

This is what I learned directly from A. E. Van Vogt

when I was in (on paper) correspondence with him (and I've since lost those historic letters).

A narrative scene must be NO MORE THAN 750 words.

That's about 3 manuscript pages.

A screenplay scene must be NO MORE THAN 3 pages.

Isn't that an odd coincidence?

The narrative scene is "3 pages" because when you create manuscript for a publisher, the "page" should be set up with margins and line spacing so that it has a 60 character line and 25 lines per page, which gives you a "page" of 250 "words." And it supplies enough room for editing and copyediting and book designing squiggles in the margins and between lines. Your WORDS aren't all that will ultimately be on your "page."

OK, today, with electronic files, it's not quite like that, but that's where the 3-page limit on a scene came FROM.

Also remember that way back, publishing only used the "fixed font" because that's all a typewriter could do - but also because the spaces between the letters has to be FIXED in order for length to be determined by the book designer. (figuring the printed length is called doing a "cast off.")

Screenplays must even today be submitted in COURIER, a fixed-font, for exactly that reason. RUN TIME can be determined as 1 minute per page if the page is in FIXED FONT.

So why 3 pages of narrative = 3 pages of script that is mostly white space?

A "word" in publishing isn't a grammatical unit. The word "a" is a single character plus the space after it (right, spaces count as characters).

But if you have a 100,000 word manuscript, in English, on average your words are "6 characters" -- or a printer's word, not a grammatical unit.

The purpose of all this old typewriter driven calculation is simple.

The editor has to be able to look at the final page number of the manuscript and KNOW instantly what the cover price has to be if they buy this manuscript. Then reading the first page, the middle page, and the final page, the experienced editor can tell whether the company can make a profit selling this book by estimating the size of the book's potential market.

It all has to do with "signatures" as noted above. If the editor knows they are dealing with a seasoned professional writer, and the MS seems too long for current pricing -- they KNOW they can depend on that writer to shrink the manuscript to the "right size" in a jiffy and without argument by subtracting SCENES.

Likewise if the manuscript is too short. A professional writer can "right size" it up without "padding" by adding SCENES.

Because the manuscript was constructed of SCENES, the writer who knows which holes the rebar went through can pull out a scene and move essential information to another scene, or pull out information from a scene and create another scene to convey that information.

An amateur writing on pure inspiration would be stumped by this rewrite order and it would take more than a weekend to achieve the adjustment. And then the result would introduce incoherencies into the story line.

Your reputation and your next contract depend on being able to do these things FAST.

You achieve that by making your original construction out of well constructed scenes.

So why do 3 pages of narrative = 3 pages of script?


That's what they have in common.

An average reader will cover about 250 words a minute (1 page) overall when fully engaged.

Fast readers can top 800, and slow ones might be more like 100 words a minute. But a real person reading VARIES speed according to the kind of material -- so on average over a 450 page novel, it'll come out to about 250 words a minute (maybe including interruptions like phone calls and the baby crying).

A good director will bring in a film at about 3 minutes per scene -- some a little longer to fondle a beautiful moment, some a little shorter to "get on with it." But about 1 minute per manuscript page is the average over a 110 page screenplay.

Commercials have shrunk to 15 seconds. Twitter is 140 characters (which most readers can grab without actually "reading" each word).

Multi-tasking is the core training of our 3 year olds.


If your writing can hold attention for 3 whole minutes to convey a scene, you are really REALLY good!

So now I'll duck and run for cover. 5 elements in 3 minutes -- that's miraculous! But you gotta do it.

So go concoct a scene from those 5 elements, any old scene, and trim it to 3 minutes or 750 words and post it (may take 2 posts to fit in the little comment box). You may want to do 2 or 3 scenes until you get one you think is perfect and post that. I'll see if I can find any holes in it.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Writer's Eye Finds Symmetry

We had an interesting discussion on Spoilers recently in which I held that any story worth reading or viewing couldn't be "spoiled" by knowing the ending, or any particular scene, plot development or bit of dialogue.

In other words, I held that there is no such thing as a "spoiler."

If knowing what happens "spoils" it for you, then it wasn't well written enough to be worth your time and money anyway.

But in fact, there is such a thing as a spoiler!!!

What "spoils" fiction for readers and viewers is not knowing what happens, but knowing the trick behind the fictional facade.

The trick that's jerking your emotions around, that takes an event or line of dialogue and carries it straight through your conscious defenses into your subconscious and hits your deepest, most buried buttons, works just as well whether you've heard the plot in advance or not.

But once you know the trick being used against you, you don't react to it any more.

As stage magicians loathe letting anyone know their "secrets" (even other magicians), so also writers (who are prestidigitators of the emotions) should guard their proprietary secrets. Some writers go so far as to not-teach new writers because newbies are 'the competition.'

There is a process which trainee writers undergo as they pass from audience to stage-magician that is extremely wrenching. As you learn the secrets that writers have been using to jerk your emotions around, to make you laugh or cry over a scene, to deliver a GASP!, or a whoop of triumph, you find that your favorite fiction is "spoiled" -- you just don't enjoy it anymore, the way you used to as a mere reader.

You've found the keywords that trigger your emotional responses, even when used 200 pages before the impact hits you. You've found how you fall for the hero's kryptonite weakness, or root for heroes who have no such weakness. You've read a lot of these articles on how to write, and you've attended panels at conventions where writers reveal their secrets. Perhaps you've even done some writing yourself, and realize that these stories that always seemed so real, so important, so filled with higher truth, spiritual insights, or personal affirmation of your view of the world -- all this stuff you always adored suddenly seems as flimsy and false as the Western town main street consisting of plywood fronts for stores with catwalks on the back for cameras.

And it's all bland and pointless, except there's money to be made writing! So you set out to write, and that just makes the apathy for reading or viewing any fiction worse.

This state of apathy for fiction can persist for years once fiction has been "spoiled" for you by glimpsing behind the scenes. Or it might persist only for a few months, depending on how fast the stage of mastering the craft lasts. And the length of that interval depends on how hard you work at mastering the tricks yourself, and how much of yourself you put into it, and on how good you are at learning abstract things then applying them in the practical world.

Some people actually reach a version of this stage of apathy just while watching television, never thinking to become writers. They grasp the underlying formula for a TV series, find it predictable, and then find it boring because it's predictable.

Some will then segue into an "I can write better than that!" attitude and proceed to do so (with varied results), but still not find their enjoyment of commercial fiction returning.

So let's talk a little about how writing students bootstrap themselves up to the level of professional writers, and begin enjoying fiction for totally different reasons than they had ever been able to imagine before. This sheds light on why the same novel rarely wins both the Hugo (voted by fans) and the Nebula (voted only by professional writers.)

What does the writer's eye see that the reader's eye misses?

What do writers see in each others' work to send them into paroxysms of joy, of admiration, or even (*gasp*) into becoming a FAN of another writer's work?

It's all in the writer's TRAINED EYE. The writer's inner eye "sees" patterns that escape the casual reader. Having attempted to capture such a pattern and display it in a fictional universe, a world they have built themselves, the writer is aware of how difficult it is to put such an abstract vision into a piece of fiction and have the fiction still work as a story comprehensible to other people.

Only the writer who has studied the craft, then attempted (and perhaps even sold) stories has full appreciation of what an achievement capturing a real-world pattern in a bit of fiction can be.

If the pattern is put into the foreground of the fiction, the fiction fails to reach the reader/viewer's subconscious. If it's in the background or too buried in symbology or assumptions, the fiction doesn't communicate the pattern to a commercial size audience. If it's too hidden in the THEME, the fiction fails. Too blatant or too hidden -- either one is easy to write. But getting the pattern to be visible, clear and well stated, but still open to personal interpretation, and thus able to engage the audience's subconscious, now that's hard.

A writer can have a blazing epiphany, become filled to the brim with the urgency of showing the world an important bit of wisdom, and write their heart into a story -- only to have it sneered at or rejected.

After such a failure, a writer is set up to break through the apathy barrier, to become a FAN of other writers, to appreciate writing as craft and art welded into a thing of beauty.

What does a writer learn in that moment of breaking through the apathy barrier? What breaks that barrier and restores enjoyment to fiction? Finding a pattern you recognize properly used in a bit of fiction, understanding the craft elements that construct and convey the pattern, and knowing "This is what I was trying to do!" Recognizing another writer's success at something difficult restores a writer's zest for reading/viewing other writer's fiction.

All that is very abstract. Here's a concrete example.

Let's take the film MR. AND MRS. SMITH, the 2005 movie version where a husband and wife are in marriage counselling, and discover that each one has been keeping a secret from the other.

They are both assassins working for secret agencies. And they've been assigned to kill each other, and in fact the situation which pits them against each other was rigged by their superiors simply because they were living together. (um, yeah, it's a romance, and has all the elements of an alien romance, since each is "the unknown" to the other)

I've seen this film several times, and once again just recently.

But this last time was the ONLY time I saw what it was that speaks to me in this film.

Previously, it had been years since I'd written a screenplay. Recently I've done three (none yet to my own satisfaction!). Now I'm seeing movies differently, and really enjoying things I did not enjoy before. Apparently I stopped writing screenplays before I broke this barrier.

So in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, I found the PATTERN that (when I couldn't see it) was jerking me around. Now it is very likely you saw this pattern the first time you saw the movie, and you won't understand why I didn't see it.

And I like this movie even better now that I've seen clearly what was only hazy before.

I hope you've re-read my post
because in that post I did mention that if you have a prologue, you also need an epilogue. That's a technique of structure often called "bookends." Mr. & Mrs. Smith has "bookends" in the structure, and I never missed that point.

The film starts with the husband and wife sitting in office visitor chairs before a desk you don't see. It's a marriage counselling session. They haven't had sex in a while (with each other, that is) and can't agree on how long that's been, nor on how long it's been since they met. We see how they met, pretending to be a couple even though they didn't know each other, evading a police search for an assassin who was an American traveling alone. Total strangers, they provided cover for each other.

We see each of them in their ordinary workday persona, in wild "James Bond" action, battling, killing, almost being killed, arriving home in very "James Bond" unruffled fashion, being the perfect suburban couple. They argue or go stone-silent over trivial household matters. Clearly something abnormal there.

Then they're pitted against each other (we don't know why at first) and each wrestles with whether to kill the other (almost does it), and finally they begin actually TALKING about the issues between them ("What did you think the first time you saw me?" asking frank and embarrassing questions and answering honestly.) As they clear the air, they decide they won't kill each other, and they team up as allies against the conspiracy of their superiors to make them kill each other because they're living together (and therefore the "other" is a spy.)

The battle scenes get wilder and wilder until they shoot up a store, blow things up, (even their own house gets turned into a pile of kindling) then there's a stunt-doubled car chase to make Indiana Jones pale.

And after one wild-WILD action fight sequence, they blow off the rest of their aggressions in sex, wild passionate sex like they haven't had in years.

They settle the problem with their superiors, and they're back at the marriage counsellor. Mr. Smith prompts the marriage counsellor to ask the sex question again. They admit they redecorated the house (one of the issues they were spatting over was the color of the curtains).

Of course, the way I've outlined the story here, the pattern is obvious because I see it now.

The VIOLENT ACTS we see as they do their day-job, the violence in joining in combat at a job (that was a setup) where one tries to steal the "package" from the other, all the way through forming an alliance and shooting up and destroying a SUBURBAN HOUSEWARES STORE (with all kinds of nasty hunting weapons) (and they turn out to be wearing kevlar vests! I tell you the SYMBOLISM is perfect for penetrating subconsciouses), even the explosion that destroys their house -- all that violence and destruction is the SHOW DON'T TELL illustration, an exact replica or reflection, of the usual ho-hum marital-spat screaming fights most couples have. When a marriage is in real trouble, those spats become symbolic of the real problems in exactly the way the violence and truth-in-marriage issues do in this film.

The violence in this film acts as a SYMBOL for the marital issues that are screamed over and around but never actually stated in ordinary marriages (such as viewers of the movie might be living through). As the violence escalates, their COMMUNICATION over the real issues escalates (as rarely happens in real life -- I said this is a romance.)

The marriage counsel session dialogue is easily recognizable as marital issues. Just read some self-help books and you can't miss it. Textbook stuff. The marriage counsellor doesn't know they're both assassins by trade. Would that trade make a difference?

The VIOLENCE appears to be just rollicking good fun needed to sell a movie. Neither is rattled by explosions, wounds, etc. The violence isn't about the violence. It's about conversation, about communicating.


The film doesn't go into great detail about the sex scenes, but the violence is detailed move for move and prolonged for fun, right down to gradually stripping off clothing as it gets ruined by the violence.

We've all discussed the psychological equivalence of sex and violence.

From the writer's point of view, the trick is to define a HIGH CONCEPT, and write that story, delivering on the fun in the concept.

The CONCEPT that husband and wife are (secretly from each other) professional assassins casts the marital "battle of the sexes" into HIGH CONCEPT, and provides the "violence" that producers require to pull in audiences.

But the violence in Mr. And Mrs. Smith (2005 version) is not gratuitous. It's not there to draw audiences. It's not there to display the grandiose physiques of the stars or the director's genius. It's there to FULFILL A PATTERN, to reticulate a pattern, and to discuss the nature of marriage.

Whee! This writer SQUEALS FOR JOY at seeing every bit of this script so clearly etched that every line traces right back to where the concept came from.

Now seeing into the wheels-and-gears behind the illusion does not spoil it for me. It is in fact the reason I imbibe fiction in all media. I take vast joy in well oiled wheels-and-gears.

Seeing into the mechanism is one part of the exercise of creating such a mechanism of your own. Seeing this particular mechanism fitting a typical alien-romance plot into commercial box office parameters makes me ever more hopeful that we can indeed create that blockbuster, runs-for-twenty-years PNR TV series.

Does anybody reading this remember TOPPER? It's not even currently available on DVD, and what's available used is only "highlights" -- it's time to rethink all this PNR stuff.

AMAZON SAYS: "A madcap comedy escapade, The Adventures of Topper is a collection of the funniest episodes from the ""Topper"" television series. The show, based on a novel by Thorne Smith and the book's subsequent spin-off motion pictures, features genteel banker Cosmo Topper who moves into a new house that comes complete with ghosts and all!"

Remember "The Ghost And Mrs. Muir" ???

Each of those two "Concepts" spoke to a particular generation in terms of what was bugging that generation most. Mr. & Mrs. Smith speaks to the issue of truth in marriage. Note how on SMALLVILLE, and even in BUFFY, the truth issue is make-or-break in the Relationships. (Clue: truth in marriage wasn't always iconic in USA society, [rememer I LOVE LUCY?] nor in Victorian or Renaissance English Romances. It's really a very new yardstick for measuring relationships.)

Book, film, TV Show -- there's a link, a trail to follow that connects these forms of entertainment with each other and with the social matrix they address. And today we have to add web-originals, and other graphic novel, TV, and other new distribution channels.

Now think CONCEPT and think SYMMETRY as only the writer's eye can see it.

Think about Mr. And Mrs. Smith and how the violence level of the script mirrored the exact textbook progress of a marriage encounter-group session. See the pattern whole and completely reticulated, in the subconscious and in the conscious. The pattern is not in the foreground, not in the background and not even in the THEME. It's in the ties between the violence and the psychology that exist ONLY IN THE VIEWER'S MIND, and never on screen.

Don't just admire the modern Mr. And Mrs. Smith -- follow the pattern lines back to the originating concept, reverse engineer the script, deconstruct that concept into its components, and delve into how that concept was created.

It's not just a flash of inspiration that creates concepts. It's long, hard days of perspiration -- sometimes watching or reading things you wouldn't ordinarily want to. When that flash of inspiration occurs, it's your subconscious reporting on its month's work.

Writers do most all their work while sleeping, but the IRS doesn't let you deduct the bedroom of your house. Talk about unfair tax practices.

So replicate what they did to create and recognize the High Concept, "A married couple where each is secretly an assassin."

You can't use their concept, but you can use their method of finding that concept.

What other conflicts besides the "battle of the sexes in marriage" do you know of that go on in millions of people's lives every day? That's the question to answer in order to get the effect Hollywood wants: THE SAME.

What kind of well known, familiar conflict is so pervasive people don't even notice it's there, nor consider it worth commenting on? And what are the best self-help books that address subsets of that vast conflict area?

Nail that SAME part, then search for the BUT DIFFERENT part of the formula.

With Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the "different" part is that they're BOTH professional assassins.

Then the grind-the-crank part of the plot leads directly to "assigned to kill each other" - you just have to figure out a reason. The elegant solution is "because they're living together which means each is a spy assigned to waggle our secrets out of our hired assassin."
The twist with Mr. and Mrs. Smith is that the box-office requirement of VIOLENCE is supplied by their day jobs, not by the domestic dispute over keeping secrets.

I'd bet all of you already know all this.

So what are you thinking. Two alien from outer space spies meet on Earth and marry to maintain their cover? But they've each been sent here to search for the other and a) kill him, or b) protect Earth from his faction Out There?

Here are some widespread "conflicts" to explore other than Battle of the Sexes:

1) People Vs. Medical System
2) People Vs. Insidious Advertising Practices (think 0% nothing down mortgages)
3) People Vs. The Boss From Hell
4) People Vs. College grading system
5) People Vs. Traffic congestion
6) People Vs. Post Office Screw Ups
7) Tech Support Slave Vs. Enraged Customers
8) Mom Vs. School System over allowing Bullying

What other pervasive, everybody knows what it is about, conflicts can you think of?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Medium Is The Message

This is a writing lesson in the effect of SETTING on story, plot and character -- i.e. the place of SETTING in storytelling. And this lesson is from a Hollywood producer.

J. Neil Schulman,
the SF writer and producer of the (incredible!!) movie (starring Nichelle Nichols) LADY MAGDELENE'S, sent me an email advertisement with an itinerary for a Cruise titled PSYCHICS AT SEA.

Yes, this is a real ad from a real company, Carnival Cruise.

Schulman's comment on this ad was: Does this sound like a perfect setting for an episode of Monk, Murder She Wrote, Matlock, or what? (for our non-USA residents, these TV shows are cultural icons here. I wish I could give the equivalent in your own culture).

Thus primed, almost salivating, I scrolled down to read the advertisement (I mean, I KNOW Neil and he's really sharp about this stuff) and as I read, INSTANTLY stories began scrolling behind my eyeballs.

This is the effect Blake Snyder (and other screenwriters) label "High Concept." One sentence and you're seeing whole stories. But no two people necessarily see the same stories! It's all ideosyncratic and internal. Novelists must (these days) hit for the highest possible concept for a novel because it's only the high concept novels that get advertising push from publishers! So this is a lesson for all writers.

If you don't have a complete grasp of High Concept, see
and read the comment on Blake's post by Sarah Beach which she posted on Feb 9th (not the earlier comment).

Keep the concept of High Concept firmly in mind while you read about this SETTING and note what stories scroll behind your eyeballs.

Your stories might not be Romance, per se. Neil suggested a number of detective mystery characters who would explode into a plot set here. Your character could be from international intrigue, or the Dirty Dozen, a politician, a Pathologist. The setting could include Grand Opera or retired Western actors or any other group with a common interest thematically related to your main character.

Before you open your imagination and read on to see what I thought of, jot down what you think of as you read about this setting. This is a writing exercise, and it's not "just for fun." You could find yourself with a real, genuine, sellable HIGH CONCEPT. Relax and read this.

Here's the advertisement sans graphics:


Cruise on the Carnival Triumph to Canada
Sept 3-7 Labor Day weekend
Presented by Susan Duval Seminars and Utopia Travel

Thursday, Sept 3: Departure mid-morning by private bus from the Doylestown area to the port in NYC. Refreshments will be provided, compliments of Utopia Travel. Upon boarding, get settled in your cabin (complimentary chocolates and wine for everyone!) and have fun exploring the ship. A Meet and Greet Reception with the Psychics will be held in the early evening. Our group will be seated together for dinner, and our wonderful Guest Psychics will join different tables each night, so that you can get to know them personally.

Friday, Sept 4: Fun Day at Sea. Get a private reading and attend a seminar given by one of our outstanding psychics, and enjoy the camaraderie of new friends with similar interests from our area. In addition, you'll be able to get luxurious spa services, sit outside on the deck, go to an art auction, visit the duty-free shops, see a first class stage show, try your luck at the casino, sing karaoke at the piano bar, play mini-golf, take a yoga class, work out at the gym, soak in the whirlpool, get pampered at the hair salon, dine on fabulous gourmet meals in beautiful settings, and dance the night away. There are tons of activities for children and teenagers as well. Bring the family!

Saturday, Sept 5: Stay on-board and relax, or choose one or more shore excursions in charming St John, New Brunswick. Some of the options are: lobster cookout, kayaking on the St. John River, harbor cruise, Bay of Fundy coastal photography class, golfing at Rockwood Country Club, discover the picturesque fishing village of St Martins, St John River cruise, visit a rural farm, or explore Hopewell Rocks (a designated UNESCO biosphere reserve). You may register for your excursion when full payment is made or while you're on board. Another psychic seminar or gallery will be offered in the evening.

Sunday, Sept 6: Another Fun Day at Sea to relax, enjoy the amenities of the cruise ship, receive private readings, and get to know your new friends. A seminar or gallery will be held during the day.

Monday, Sept 7: disembark at 9:30am and take the bus back to the Doylestown area. You'll be back in time for your neighborhood Labor Day picnics in the afternoon!! Brag about your cruise!!

Schulman is a FILM PRODUCER (and an SF writer). He saw this advertisement and his mind produced stories in PICTURES.

Jot down what pictures you see.

Here's what came to my mind, just instantly off the top of my head, that I wrote back to Schulman.

Oh, yeahhhh. Among the showman psychics is of course a REAL one.

A showman psychic wants to murder the real one for being too good, but the real one strikes first and throws the showman psychic-murderer overboard into the icy water, or better if it's a Monk ep then the real psychic innoculates the showman psychic with whatever virus is killing people aboard ship, but they're stuck at sea because of a storm that tosses the ship around and makes everyone vomit.

I can just see Jessica Fletcher making friends with a real psychic. Jessica would be very protective, but then find she's protecting the murderer -- but then find it was self-defense.

Monk would catch whatever virus is killing people and solve the crime anyway.

Or better yet, let Monk be onboard under cover posing as a psychic. He's good enough to make the showmen think he's the real thing. But the really REAL psychic catches him and thinks Monk is the murderer because he isn't who he says he is.

Oh, the SETTING can become THE STORY. Nice.


And Schulman wrote back:

Practically writes itself, doesn't it? :-)


And yes, stories that arise from a High Concept do indeed "write themselves."

When you find a story you are writing dies in your hands, it's very possible the real problem lies in the Concept itself.

Or possibly in the Setting.

If you change the setting of your story, you might find everything about the story morphing before your eyes into something that could attract serious advertising money.

You can also refresh a story you're writing by changing the SETTING of only one scene. See Blake Snyder's technique he calls POPE IN THE POOL in SAVE THE CAT! ( )

"Pope in the Pool" is the technique of setting an expository lump in a place fraught with suspense and cognitive dissonance due to the setting is a very old trick. In writing for the stage, they teach you to sit your main character in a chair centerstage, a chair with a BOMB planted under it.

Blake Snyder names the technique after a scene where two people in an office in the Vatican dialogue at each other about the exposition while the viewer sees through the window that the Pope is swimming in his private pool. And you can't take your eyes off the Pope because you're wondering what he's wearing, or not wearing and whether someone else will notice. Meanwhile, you learn all this important stuff about the story. A "Pope In The Pool" technique can be worked into almost any story, including narrative.

The bomb and fuse gimmick is the suspense image and it can work if done literally, but stands for any EVENT the viewer will anticipate while watching a clock (fuse) tick off the seconds until the event HITS the characters who will be surprised and have to react.

Notice both the bomb and the pool are SUSPENSE techniques, but they are VISUAL. Even in narrative, go for the VISUAL. Use the reader's imagination to evoke the image by reference to the SETTING. (Pope = Vatican)

What the bomb is and what the fuse is can be derived from the SETTING, either the setting for this whole story, or the setting for this particular scene.

The artistically appropriate suspense mechanism will leap out at you once you've selected the correct SETTING for your story.

Note how Schulman was thinking (not what he thought, but HOW he arrived at the thought).

Here's a setting, PSYCHIC CRUISE. What interesting character do we know who would have an adventure on a Cruise? And he thought of a couple of well known TV "characters" who have done shows on cruise boats (BUT THIS IS A PSYCHIC CRUISE).

But you should think of the characters who've been floating around in your own mind for a while. Characters you know well. Then think of a theme for the Cruise (or Dude Ranch expedition, safari, whatever) that would be the last place on earth you'd ever be able to drag that character (conflict is the essence of story!) Go for high contrast here.

Neither Monk nor Fletcher would normally choose to go on a psychic cruise. So immediately, I thought of what would bring each of these characters to this cruise and added my usual SF twist (the unthinkable is in fact true - lump it - that's SF's prime mechanism).

You know the "formula" of the Monk Episode, and the Murder She Wrote Episode. If you've seen 5 or so episodes of either show, you KNOW that formula. Some of those episodes may be available online.

So given the SETTING, and a CHARACTER, and given a plot-structure, the whole story unreels before your eyes. That's what Concept does.

Now, take that SETTING of the Psychic Cruise, pick a character you've got bouncing around in your head or about whom you've been writing and choose a plot-structure you've mastered.

Put them all together and write an OUTLINE of a story (or 3 stories).

Can anyone provide the URL of the posts where I've discussed outlining?

Now do the exercise again with another specialized group on a Theme Cruise (there was once a Star Trek Cruise with the stars of the show -- pick a theme of your own.) Note you can also do this in space, cruising across the galaxy with various species in confined quarters.

Some scriptwriting books call this a BOTTLE -- you bottle-up the characters, confining them. That creates CONFLICT that must RESOLVE within the bottle, a conflict that wouldn't exist were it not for the bottle.

Then do it again, trying to inject all the potential for VISUALS that Schulman saw in this advertisement for a Psychic Cruise.

Perhaps you want to start by writing the galactic advertisement.

That's the exercise, but it could produce something that's actually sellable. In that case, don't post it anywhere. Develope it yourself. But if you spin off useless material as I did, show us what you produced on in the comments section.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Post Tips On Writing Exercises Here

My sometime collaborator and co-owner of Sime~Gen Inc. Jean Lorrah has a Twitter account posting Tips on Writing.

You may post any writing exercise attempting to use a tip from this Twitter feed, or from the Writing Workshop at .

There is a new workshop lesson at

Be sure what you post on this blog is only an exercise for public domain not anything for publication.

This blog is for writing students to master techniques, not to get critiques on a story in development for publication.

Follow to get the tips, try the technique on just any old thing you can think of, and post your words as a comment to this blog.

You don't have to post here immediately - nor in the sequence the tips are offered.

Be sure to say which tip you're illustrating and evaluate how well you think you succeeded. Note whether you want feedback from Jacqueline Lichtenberg or Jean Lorrah -- or not! Feel free to post here and only get feedback from your friends or other writers.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Friday, April 24, 2009

Wired Magazine For Writers

BUT FIRST: My March and April Book Review columns are now posted at

This blog post is reprinted from and on that blog you will find many more even stranger posts than this one.

NOW: You'd think this would be the last blog in the blogosphere to discuss Wired.

You'd think I'd be the last person in the world to read Wired.

So would I.

Guess what? The totally "random" Force behind the Universe has a different opinion. How novel.

Because I had airline miles expiring, the airline pretty much forced me to take subscriptions instead of a trip -- and the magazines they offered were even less of interest to me than Wired.

So I took a bunch of financial items like Fortune and Barron's -- and Wired. If you want to solve a real-world puzzle, "follow the money." If you want to create a plausible plot - "follow the money."

The website is and they have SOME articles from previous issues posted.

The first issue of Wired arrived before any of the others and guess who the guest editor for the May 2009 issue is? The co-creator of LOST and the director of the new STAR TREK MOVIE, J. J. Abrams. Yes, THE "J. J. Abrams" !!! is the database entry with all his credits. I'm sure you'll recognize more than a few.

Yeah. STAR TREK THE IMAX EXPERIENCE is on that database.

So I read Wired last night. Now I'm not recommending you go buy this issue. It's expensive. But do rush to the newsstand and LOOK at the pages I'm going to discuss -- especially if you're writing SFR or love to read it or find out how writers find these crazy ideas. Or maybe you just find the philosophy of love, romance, and pair-bonding fascinating? Why do people come in pairs? Why is achieving pair-dom an HEA experience?

Rowena Cherry pointed out in her blog post of Sunday April 19, 2009 that there is a declining fertility among humans -- (not mentioning the concerns some scientists have about the fertility of many other species on this planet) -- and her observations actually pertain to this discussion.

As Guest Editor, J. J. Abrams focused the May 2009 issue of Wired (you all know the STAR TREK IMAX movie will be out in May -- we all have to see that!) all around PUZZLES, which is exemplified in everything from video games to the puzzle of declining fertility.

J. J. Abrams avoided doing any articles on the techniques and craft of writing, but this issue is the meat-and-potatoes of the writer's craft.

Writing a story is identical to the act of solving a puzzle. Just as with a jigsaw puzzle, for example, you start with a pile of pieces, maybe some assembled chunks, maybe some pieces that don't belong to THIS puzzle, and try to put a frame around it and fill in the images to make sense.

The writer's task is to communicate a pattern to the story-consumer that makes sense to the consumer (not the writer, necessarily), and delivers a magical emotional whammy, which in Romance is the HEA ending, clinched pair-bond.

And frankly, SOLVING PUZZLES has been a subject I've been puzzling about recently. The whole universe is a puzzle. Each novel that uses "world building" such as Jess Granger mentioned in her guest blog is a puzzle solved, with pieces left over for a sequel or maybe a new series.

Jess says the universe itself is "complicated" and therefore the universes she constructs are also complicated to reflect the real world and seem realistic to the reader. That complicated aspect makes telling a story hard.

As I see it, the universe we live our everyday lives in is COMPLICATED (this is the opposite of the view of most truly High Souls, Gurus, Great Teachers, Prophets, etc. (people who really know the answers to the puzzle).

So as Rowena points out, we have a complex puzzle to solve within the complicated universe we live in (or seem to live in), if we're going to keep living in it.

J. J. Abrams' issue of Wired focuses all the feature articles on and around solving the complex puzzle he calls THE MAGIC OF MYSTERY, and I'm saving the best for last here. This issue is replete with fascinating tidbits about the human interest in puzzles (Romance is obviously more than half mystery, isn't it?) even including stage magic tricks and the formula for WD-40 revealed!

Solving the puzzle of what another person is - that's always a driving force behind every Romance, and even behind human sexuality! Sometimes the urgency of solving the puzzle of the OTHER comes from our own, inner need to solve the puzzle of "who" we are - really. A true mate will reflect your identity. If you don't like yourself, you'll never fall in love by solving the puzzle of another person's being.

So on page 32 of Wired, there's a feature called DEAR MR. KNOW-IT-ALL where a reader asks, "My brother swears that the twin towers were felled by explosives planted there by the FBI. I've presented him with reams of evidence to the contrary, but he hasn't wavered. Will he ever see the light?"

And the psychologist answers, NO. Not only will he never see the light, but it isn't the brother's responsibility to force him to. And the article explains why so many cling so stubbornly to ANY conspiracy theory that comes along. "The human brain has evolved to find patterns, which is useful when avoiding saber-toothed tigers but less so when confronted with opaque and complex events."

We solve puzzles by finding PATTERNS. We're hard-wired pattern-finders.

The next question to the psychologist is by someone who "helped" finish his mother's crossword puzzle -- and a later article revisits this issue, concluding that it isn't HELP when you solve a puzzle FOR someone. Crossword puzzle workers in particular find it distressing when someone "helps" without being asked. Maybe it's like coitus interruptus?

Another article points out how bitterly ungrateful humans would be to aliens who dropped down and GAVE US the answers to the puzzle of the universe. It occurs to me to wonder if maybe that's why G-d didn't give us all the answers at Mount Sinai, but rather just more puzzles.

There is some seriously artistic thematic structuring behind this issue of Wired which consists of apparently random tidbits. If you look it over at the newsstand, prepare to stand there quite a while flipping pages. The index is pretty worthless, and the slick pages are full of huge pictures and ittsy-teensy print you can't read on the glossy paper in a fluorescent light.

On page 122 there's a photo-spread of THE AMERICAN STONEHENGE along with a lot of very small words about the monument. The standing stones were built recently and designed to be a mystery. The builder is kept secret too. It's supposed to contain a clue to how to recreate civilization after everything collapses. It's called THE GEORGIA GUIDESTONES. The first photo shows Hebrew words -- there are many other languages on there, too.

Right before the item on the American Stonehenge is a 3 double-page Star Trek comic book spread where Spock is marooned on a deserted planet and musing on how he got there. It's rather good.

Before the Comic is a spread on solving the puzzle of protein structure. Among the little items on how to do stage magic you'll find an editorial quote of Arthur C. Clark about any sufficiently advanced science appears to be magic.

The whole issue is about magic and mystery, solving the puzzle of how magic is DONE. There are gamers puzzles, and an item on why video game players shun cheating by asking someone who has beaten the game what the trick is. This relates back to the Q&A on solving your Mom's crossword puzzle for her, and to the theme that humans are puzzle-solvers, and that the magic is in the mystery.

The conclusion editorial points out that it isn't HAVING the solution that's important -- it's the experience of solving the puzzle - of living through it all step by step, of doing the conquering yourself. It is the PROCESS that is fascinating to humans -- the process of discovering or assembling or imposing an order on what we perceive. It might almost serve as an answer to the riddle of "what is the purpose of life?" -- to solve puzzles, to revel in mystery.

That's why writers work so hard to arrange a plot into a pattern that will induce the reader to walk through the protagonist's experience, step by step, a mile in their moccasins. That's why "spoilers" don't spoil a novel. That's why some readers read the ENDING first. HEA, Happily Ever After, isn't what the story is about. The story is about the process of getting there.

LIFE IS PROCESS, and the process is apperceiving PATTERNS. Even if the pattern actually does not exist! (as with the conspiracy theorists -- but just because they might be wrong about the pattern doesn't mean they're wrong in their conclusion!)

So LIFE IS PROCESS -- this May 2009 issue of Wired is full of very concrete items, lots of photographs, very visual and very concrete things -- all showing not telling the huge, deep, vast complexity of the universe we live in. The articles are short and single-pointed, not the rambling musings I post here.

Reading the May 2009 Wired is in itself a PROCESS. As with all SHOW DON'T TELL successes, it delivers the reader to a process which lets the reader figure out the puzzle of what the magazine is about. Having arrived at the conclusion themselves, the readers then learn something for themselves, a far more powerful and life-affirming way of acquiring a lesson than merely being told.

But now turn to page 82 (it doesn't have a number - count from page 79) for the one item that might be worth the price of the magazine to you if they don't post this graphic to the web.

The magazine has posted the image to the web here:

It's a double-page spread of 10 circles with words on spokes around them (like sunshine rays), an image inside each circle, and a label on the circle. Lines of words connect all the circles to each other in a crisscrossing pattern.

There is a row of three circles across the top of the double page, a row of 4 circles across the middle of the page, and a row of three circles across the bottom. It's dazzling and dizzying with all the tiny words on the shiny paper.

The title of the article (and this one graphic 2 page spread is the whole article) is THE ENIGMATRIX, "In the universe of puzzles, codes, and games, everything is connected. Here's how." The article is by Steven Lockart, and I wish I knew him! Though he's got me out-classed by a parsec or three. I'm certain Jess Granger would appreciate this complicated diagram!

In Lockart's diagram, the circle on the far left of the middle row is labeled MATH. The circle on the far right of the middle row is labeled MAGIC. It lays out like this (with large numbers of tiny words spread all around).


MATH ----- GAMES ----- PUZZLES ---------------------MAGIC


Now take that array and turn it 90 degrees counter clockwise.

And what do you see?


And the connecting Pathways of Lockart's diagram contain labels pertaining to real-life processes very closely expressing the essences of the Major Arcana that are usually laid along those pathways -- and it all makes sense if you stare at it long enough.

For a simple example the Path from MYSTERIES down to PLOT says DETECTIVE.

The words are concepts humans have assembled with which we attack the primordial soup and create PATTERNS. Or discern patterns. Or perhaps there is no verb for what we do with patterns. The words represent patterns of smaller concepts that we scoop together into that word -- all very abstract ideas, all graphically presented in SHOW DON'T TELL, the hardest concept a writer must master when assembling the bits of a story idea into a pattern someone else can recognize in their own life.

Perception of PATTERNS is the core of what every "soul-mate" attraction is all about. And in fact, it may be the core of what raw sexual attraction is about -- genes needing other genes to create the whole pattern of a new person.

We "see" another person's genes in their appearance (Astrology reveals these patterns in facial structure, body structure, all associated with personality, too.) And we're attracted to the bits that are missing in ourselves, so we can become "whole." One.

So the genres of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery, and Romance are all based on or contain or pivot around this side-wise TREE OF LIFE diagram connecting MAGIC as the source with MATH as the result, all through puzzles and games, ricocheting off of CODE, GAME THEORY, BOARD GAMES, CARD GAMES, PLOT, AND MYSTERY.

You gotta see this diagram.

Then drop a comment here telling me what you'd like to discuss next. How to choose a protagonist? The Creationist's view of Dinosaurs? Why the HEA ending is such an ironclad requirement of the Romance form and how to deliver that punch? How to make a recognizable pattern out of a story idea when the whole universe builds itself in your mind?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

HOMEWORK: Throw together a universe background (a discard; not a universe you'd ever want to sell a story in) and WRITE (as a comment on this blog entry) the last page of a story that would solve a puzzle and show Life as Process in a universe that is a giant puzzle.

A lot of writers do the ENDING first. If you've never tried it, this is your chance to find out if you work best by working backwards.