08 December 2008

The Sentence

So, two weeks ago I did a post on outlining, and how it works for me. We had a lovely discussion in the comments about the pros and cons of outlining, and the lovely Liana (Just_Me) made this comment:

"My other problem with plotting is that I move to the logical next step. Which doesn't always have tension. It's just the step that makes sense."

This is precisely one of the reasons why I love the line-for-scene method of outlining: you can see at a glance where the tension is lacking, and fix it before you write the thousands of words that said scene entails. The techniques I'm about to divulge come to you directly from the Think Sideways course that I love so much :o), specifically lessons 4 (How to Recognise and Build On Good Ideas) and 8 (How to Plan Your Project Without Killing Your Story).

See, the line-for-scene (hereafer L4S) method of outlining uses one very special tool: The Sentence. Not, 'the sentence', which is just a collect of words in approximately the order subject-verb-object, but 'The Sentence', capital letters. The Sentence is a powerful tool at all levels of storying: it makes a killer of an opening to a query letter, and by using The Sentence, you can tell immediately if your story or scene has the necessary ingredients for 'Good'.

So, what are these necessary ingredients?

In the words of Holly Lisle, "a protagonist with a compelling need, set against an antagonist with a compelling need, doing interesting things in interesting places, with something slightly askew."

For a good story, the necessary elements are:

* A protagonist with a need. If there is no protagonist, there is no one for the reader to care about, and if there is no one for the reader to care about, there is no reason for them to read the story. If the protagonist doesn't have a driving need, something that compels their actions, they are likely to be flat, boring, unrealistic, or all of the above. Protagonists do not have to be human, they do not have to be people, and they do not even have to be sentient. Inanimate objects can and do work. Needs to not have to be big, or emotional: a character who is driven by the need to observe can, done correctly, be just as interesting as a character driven by the need for revenge.

* An antagonist with a need. This one gets even more loose in terms of definition: antagonists can be situations, events, catastrophes like a hurricane or a battle. Any object that stands in the way of the protagonist's goal is an antagonist. This means you can be a bit creative with the whole 'need' thing: a storm's 'need' is to be a storm, a battle's 'need' is to be fought and won, etc. The essential thing to remember here is conflict: whatever the antagonists is, and whatever their 'need', it must be in conflict with the protagonist and their need.

* Interesting things in interesting places. Yes, the setting can be contemporary, here and now; in this case the onus falls on the 'things' (the conflict) to bear the weight of the interest. Yes, the conflict can be small, quiet, and seemingly unimportant - if the setting is able to take the weight of interest.

* Something askew, aka a twist. Something in your sentence, your story, your scene, needs to be not quite would the average person would have expected: if nothing happens that the reader did not expect, what's the point of reading?

By using this method of outlining (whether you choose to outline at the outset, part way through, or for revision, and whether you outline all the scenes, most of the scenes, or just a few of the high points) and subsequently dissecting your Sentences, it's dead easy to see where your conflict is - and where it isn't. And for the places where it isn't, The Sentence can be a great tool to help you introduce some.

Some examples, noting that when doing this for scenes you don't need to be quite as intensive as when you're doing it for a story - Holly calls it 'The Sentence Lite' :) The following are sentences I used in outlining The Project.

1) Heather and Andrew search the canyon for people, and can't find anything except a strange flickering movement that only Heather can see.

Protag: check. Heather and Andrew. It's not stated explicitly here, but their need is to find the People.

Antag: mm, iffy. Maybe the canyon, the setting - the fact that it's preventing them from finding the people.

Interesting things, interesting places: and here's where it falls down. What are they doing? Uh, wandering around looking for something. Wow. Great conflict there. Where is it? Well, to be fair, the canyon in slightly interesting, since it's known that something weird it up with it, but as it comes across here - buh-bow. Fail.

Twist: eh, sort of. The fact that only Heather can see this strange flickering movement is a bit twisty, but not brilliant.

2) They break into Angela's office and Heather recognises the fish by the door as her father's electronic fish.

Protag: Heather & co. At this point, following on from the previous scene in the book, her need is to find out who's torturing the People.

Antag: negative. I know that it's both the building they're in (trying to break in whilst avoiding capture, etc is a big barrier) and the person that's responsible for the torture, but an antagonist is completely absent from this sentence.

Interesting things/places: breaking in is pretty interesting. Recognising the electronic fish, in the context of the story, is VERY interesting. So this isn't too bad. It could have a better sense of setting, but it is only Sentence Lite after all.

Twist: this chapter is called 'It's All In The Fish' for a reason: the fish are a very major twist.

I could continue - and, if I were planning to continue with The Project, I would, because it's a very valuable exercise - but for now, how about The Sentence for a full story? A friend of mine was kind enough to donate a sentence she's working on for me to dissect.

A double-crossed CIA agent fights to save himself from terrorists and his own untrusting heart.

Okay. We have a protag: the CIA agent. We have a hint at his needs: he's been double-crossed, and needs to save himself. So far, so good.

We have an antag: the terrorists. There's not really any hint of their needs, apart from the implied assumption that they're after the CIA agent, and that they're terrorists. Not terrible, though.

Interesting things/places: well, it's a CIA agent and a bunch of terrorists :o) Interesting things are bound to happen. There's not really any sense of place, though, other than the fact that we can assume it's a reasonably contemporary world.

Twist: assumedly the fact that what the CIA agent must really save himself from is "his own untrusting heart".

This is a solid basis for The Sentence, but it could be tightened, I feel, in the areas of place and twist - and a sense of the terrorists' motives would be good, too. It's a lot to pack in to one, less-than-30-word sentence, I know - but that's the point. This sentence, as it stands, is fine. You can settle for fine.

But you can also shoot for brilliance.

Here are a couple of my own (not necessarily brilliant!) suggestions to close. Bear in mind I've only read the first few chapters, so I may be way off base :D Please feel free to leave your opinions and suggestions in the comments :)

Deep in the South American jungle, a double-crossed CIA agent fights terrorists for his life - and his mistrust for another chance at love.

Fighting for his life against terrorists in the South American jungle, a double-crossed CIA agent is drawn into a bigger battle: the one for his heart.

His (own) untrusting heart proves a bigger obstacle to a double-crossed CIA agent, fighting for his life in the steamy South American jungle.

Even with terrorists hot on his trail through the South Amercian jungle, a double-crossed CIA agent fights a more important battle against his own mistrusts and (something).


Merc said...

Well, technically most of the book (so far) isn't set in Brazil, so... ;) Aside from that, interesting suggestions. Sorry I can't comment more coherently. :S My brain is MIA... probably KIA. *sigh*

Great post though. :D I so need to do this a bit more with Riven as I work on it, b/c I need to sort some structural issues and fix scenes and such... The Sentence method should be helpful. Thanks, Inky one!

Inkblot said...

No prob, Merkety. Let me know if you find it useful! :)

Re South America: heh, oh well O:) I claim ignorance, since I've only read the first 3 chapters :D

Merc said...

Yup, no worries re: the setting. ;)

And the post was useful, yes. :D I shall re-read when I'm more here.

Inkblot said...

lol, I meant let me know if the technique proved useful for Riven :D But I'm glad the post was useful ;)

*offers brain cookies*


Ones that ENERGISE brains. Not cookies MADE FROM brains. O:)

Merc said...

Hahaha! Ah, makes much more sense. ;) Yes, I shall let you know. :P

*wouldn't mind brain cookies, the zombies need some holiday cheer too*

Chelle said...

Here's one, Inky:

In a desperate attempt to be normal, Diane wants to bury her past and start fresh but a jealous foster sister, a do-good foster mother, and overzealous reporter all force her relive the worse night of her life.

I really needed this today. Thanks

Lady Glamis said...

Inky, you are so great to put this post up! Thank you! And *HUGS*

Here's my revised sentence for Monarch:

Fighting for his life from terrorists in the South American jungle, a double-crossed CIA officer finds himself in the mountains of West Virginia, prey to an even larger battle: the one for his heart.

Work? Not work?

Lady Glamis said...

Few changes:

Fighting for his life from terrorists in the South American jungle, a double-crossed CIA officer heads to the mountains of West Virginia, prey to an even larger battle: the one for his heart.

Question: Sarah is concerned about my using "officer" instead of "agent" - but officer is the correct term

Go here to see the difference between a CIA officer and a CIA agent: http://www.videojug.com/expertanswer/all-about-the-cia-2/what-is-the-difference-between-a-cia-agent-and-a-cia-officer

But Hollywood and most fiction always gets it wrong because it's what people are used to hearing: Agent. Which one should I use?

Captain Hook said...

Interesting method, Inks. Will have to (attempt to ) try it out.

Inkblot said...

Glam - correct terminology. At least that way, even if confusion reigns, you're in the right ;)

Chelle, Glam - I'll do another post to review your sentences, if that's okay with you both :)

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