Saturday, September 19, 2009

Secrets of Bestseller Premises Part 2

In the first part of this topic, Secrets of Bestseller Premises Part 1, I wrote about culling the world around you for blockbuster story ideas. This time I want to deepen the conversation.

To truly craft an unforgettable premise, it's often necessary to discover new and surprising conflicts. In other words, unique ways for characters to interact, relate and fight each other.

Begin by listing the most common plot devices in your genre. What has been done before? How has it been done? Where has it been done? When (historical novels, etc)?

Then brainstorm all the possible changes to those old, worn ideas. What if the main character was a female instead of a male? The desert instead of the city, the jungle instead of the country, underwater instead of space? What if the conflict erupted between two doctors rather than two cowboys, two brothers instead of two strangers, two kids instead of two adults? What if it happened in the future instead of the past?

You can change just about anything in an old idea and come up with a brand new idea that you can use to rouse readers.

In romances, you can change the way the couple meets and the challenges that keep them apart until the end. With mysteries, the villain and murder weapon often change, sometimes the expertise of the detective changes, too.

How can you take an old idea and turn it on it's head? How can you combine plot ideas in new, surprising ways?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Bestseller Writing Secrets From "District 9"

A second secret writing tactic from the movie, District 9, happens late in the film, when the main character, the protagonist, is faced with a difficult ethical dilemma. He is forced to decide between what he wants (to reverse the process of his body transforming into an alien) and helping an alien friend and his alien child flee to their spaceship to save the alien race.

Facing such a tough decision in itself is an often-used plot device in bestselling novels. You would be wise to write a scene or two in your stories where your hero must choose between what he wants most and something, anything else of value. The tougher the choice (the more valuable both options) the more reader interest.

But it is the choice the hero makes that propels middle-grade fiction to blockbuster status. In District 9 the main character decides to help the alien and his alien son escape, thus putting another before himself. It is an act of courage, sacrifice and heroism that moves audiences.

Therein lies the second secret: Allow your hero to make the tough choice, and let that choice show courage, sacrifice and humility. Do it. Readers will fall in love with your characters.

Take these practical steps to apply this secret to your story immediately:

  1. List each main character in your story (each point of view character).
  2. Circle the dominant point of view character (the main main character).
  3. Answer the questions, "What does this character want more than anything? What else do they want?"
  4. Answer the questions, "What would be a difficult choice for this character to make? What two things would the character hate to have to choose between?"
  5. Brainstorm ways for one of the choices to include an act of bravery or self-sacrifice.
  6. Write a scene or scenes where the character must chose between the two choices.
  7. Try to give several other characters in your story hard choices to make during the course of the story. See how it enhances reader interest and suspense.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Bestselling Writing Secrets of District 9

Fair warning: the first half of District 9 stutters along like a broken shopping cart. It's in the much better second half of the movie from which I will pluck a few secret writing tactics (Note: I don't recommend you see the movie, but if you do, this blog may very well ruin it for you).

Once the main character begins his alien-transformation, the story kicks into high gear. Slowly and with delicious pacing through the second half of the movie, the hero becomes one of the aliens. First, an arm. Then he starts losing fingernails and teeth. You get the picture. Each small transformation glues the audience's eyes to the screen. Everyone is thinking: "What will happen next?" The transformation severs as a kind of ticking time bomb, raising the tension-inducing question, "Will the hero stop the transformation before he completely changes?" This, my writer friend, is the first secret.

Is there a slow transformation you can show in your story? Maybe it is a character who slowly turns to the dark side (think, Star Wars). Perhaps a couple who slowly, but surely, fall in love. Then again, you don't have to limit yourself to morphing fictional people. You can show a setting change, perception change, attitude change, or belief change. Be creative. Come up with your own unique way to give your readers the juicy tension of story-long change.

Let's recap. Showing a slow, piece by piece, change can ratchet up the suspense in your story. Bestselling novels show change. Lots of change. Characters change, settings change, perceptions and attitudes change.

Stop for a moment and ask the following questions of your current story.

  1. How can one of my characters change throughout the story?
  2. Is there a physical change I can show?
  3. How is the change connected to the plot?
  4. How many characters (main and minor) change in my story?
  5. Do they all change in the same way? If not, how does each one change?
  6. How are all the changes connected the plot and theme(s) of the story?
  7. Are there other changes I might create in my story? (Setting, for example)

Change, especially slow change throughout the story, creates suspense-- page-flipping, nail-biting, edge of your seat suspense.