We have so much time and so little to do! Strike that. Reverse it!
Sometimes I feel like Willy Wonka, in an overwhelming (and sometimes perilous) factory of stuff to learn and see and do and read.
When it comes to learning our craft, it always feels like the reverse: Read in your genre. Write with good grammar. Understand structure, pacing, voice, diction, plot points, pinch points, characterization, character arcs. Join a critique group and read other writers’ work….yikes! How do we make time for all this on top of all those pesky ordinary things like vacuuming and dishes and bills?
You gotta make like a Momma and multi-task, Baby.
Here are a few simple questions you can ask yourself while you read a book just for fun to yourself or your kids or grandkids. They won’t detract from the magic or enjoyment of being immersed in Book World (which is a big deal for me!) But they will make you a better writer. And here’s a handy little tip….these questions can be applied to movies, too! So whether you’re out on date night with your sweetie or peeling your shoes off the floor of the movie theater with your kids, you can still think writerly thoughts. You don’t have to be alone to think writerly–you can even involve your lovelies in the discussion.
So, try asking yourself….
- Can I find the 3 major plot points? These are the major turning points in the story. In a well-paced story, these should come roughly at the 1/4 mark, the 1/2 mark, and the 3/4 mark. So, let’s say you’re reading a 300-page novel. Expect a major turning point around page 75, then another right around 150, and that last one at 225ish. If you’re watching a 2-hour movie (120 minutes) expect Plot Point One to come around the 30 minute mark. You’ll probably see another major turning point at the 60 minute mark, and the final plot point right around 90 minutes. If you think of a story as a chain of dominoes, these plot points are when the dominoes change direction and jag to the left or the right. Practice IDing them when you read or watch, and it will be easier to write them into your own work.
- What questions am I subconsciously asking right now? As we read or watch, we have questions that propel us forward, and if the story is good, we don’t even think about them. Without these clear and driving questions, we get bored. We stop caring. We ditch the book or turn off the movie. So, periodically think about what you know, and what you want to know. As you think about your own questions, you’ll be able to better craft your story around the questions you want your readers to ask–questions that will keep them turning the page.
- At the end, did the author answer my big question(s)? If so, then you’ve got a satisfying and complete ending. (May I interrupt myself to just say that this is why I still can’t think about the finale of LOST without my ears turning red?! So. Many. Unanswered. Questions!!)
- A week later, what am I still thinking about? Did a beautiful phrase, a dramatic moment, a tear-jerking scene, or a goose-bump-worthy-fright stick in your mind? Go back later and re-read or re-watch this scene and think about why it worked. Or just re-hash it in your mind while you fold towels. It all counts.
One of the most helpful resources I’ve come across for a basic foundation in structure is K.M. Weiland’s STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL. She uses easy-to-understand examples of both books and film, making it an enjoyable read. Great for a refresher course, too!